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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
04 March 2019
Volume 655

Housing, Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Local Authority Services

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1. What recent assessment he has made of the effects of changes in the level of central Government funding for local authorities on the adequacy of services provided by those authorities. [909522]

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The local government financial settlement confirmed that core spending power for councils is forecast to increase to £46.4 billion, a cash increase of 2.8%. This real-terms increase in resources will be key to helping local authorities to deliver local services, support vulnerable residents and build stronger communities.

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Ofsted has said in its latest monitoring report that despite the good work of my council, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, it is still deeply concerned that children risk abuse due to unbearable case loads and a real problem in recruiting staff. Does the Minister think that that might have something to do with the £180 million in funding that the council has lost since 2010, and will he say whether the proposed community fund will fully and adequately restore the appropriate level of funding?

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I recognise that, over some years, Sandwell has had some specific issues in relation to its children’s services. I hope that the hon. Gentleman therefore welcomes the increase in Sandwell’s core spending power to £268.6 million. He will also know that the funding that was set out in the financial settlement underlay additional funding for social care, and children’s social care in particular, but clearly we will keep in contact with the Local Government Association and others in respect of councils’ needs.

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17. On Friday night, my community saw the despicable murder of 17-year-old Jodie Chesney in Harold Hill. If the Government’s serious violence strategy is to work, we need confidence that all parts of the system are adequately resourced, including councils’ children’s services and social services. What assurances can the Secretary of State give me on that front, and what conversations has he had with the Home Office to talk about these most serious of issues? [909538]

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I am sure that the whole House will want to send its condolences to the family of Jodie Chesney, my hon. Friend’s constituents, and equally, to the family of Yousef Makki, who also lost his life over the course of the weekend. My hon. Friend highlights the appalling situation with knife crime, which has claimed too many lives. I assure her that my Department is working closely with the Home Office to look at issues of prevention and, through programmes such as Troubled Families, is seeking to provide preventive services. In the last couple of weeks, I have provided £9.8 million for a fund supporting families against youth crime, to help workers to intervene early to prevent such senseless violence.

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I have previously raised with the Secretary of State the Government’s proposal to remove deprivation as an element from the foundation funding part of the local government allocation. Is he aware of the research done by the University of Liverpool and the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing that although deprivation accounts now for only a 4% difference in spending, if we go back before austerity in 2010, in the early years before the disproportionate cuts in grants to the poorest communities, deprivation accounts for more than 10 times the amount of spending? In the light of that, will he review his decision to remove deprivation as a key element of spending allocations?

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The hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, is obviously aware that there is an ongoing consultation on the formula. He highlights a point in relation to the primary formula and the way in which deprivation plays into that. We will look closely at the evidence that is presented to us and I encourage him to take part in that consultation.

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I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. At its budget last week, the council confirmed that it will achieve a 10-year council tax freeze, and despite cuts in Government spending it has maintained all frontline services and support for the voluntary sector. Is that not an example that other councils should follow?

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I warmly commend Kettering Borough Council for the work that my hon. Friend outlined, and indeed councils for the way in which they have risen to the challenges. I commend all the work of the members and officers in Kettering for being able to deliver good-quality services in an efficient way.

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22. Surely local authorities that willingly step up to the plate as asylum dispersal areas deserve additional long-term central Government funding in recognition of the extra resources required to undertake that valuable work, and surely to goodness the Secretary of State would agree that the Home Office, rather than his Department, should pay for it. [909543]

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I note the hon. Gentleman’s point about asylum dispersal and the costs of that. Obviously, the Home Office leads on how funds are supported in different authorities—indeed, in Scotland as well—and I will certainly pass on his points to the Home Secretary.

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On funding to local communities and the Stronger Towns fund announced earlier today, can I get an idea of how much Crawley constituency will get? It has two of the most deprived wards anywhere in the south-east. I do not want to hear from the Front Bench that we are on the B list where we can bid for funding. This funding is needed now.

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As my hon. Friend will know, there is a statement coming up later this afternoon, so I will save my comments for that, but it is a £1.6 billion fund, with a competitive element, and I would encourage people to bid into that.

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I am sure that the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) will be in his seat for that statement and will leap to his feet to make his point with his customary force and alacrity.

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23. Nine of the 10 most deprived councils in the country have seen cuts almost three times the national average since 2010. Why is deprivation no longer to be a factor under the fair funding review? [909545]

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I remind the hon. Gentleman of my response to the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). That issue is part of our consultation on the review of relative needs and resources, and I encourage the hon. Gentleman to take part. Our view is that a lot of the measures are based on population distribution, but we will reflect on the evidence as we see it.

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I thank the Secretary of State and our excellent local government Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), for the additional moneys given to East Sussex County Council for this year, but rather than additional one-off funds to top up, can we have more certainty in the future so that all local authorities can plan for the future?

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I recognise the desire for long-term local government funding, and we have the local government financial settlement, which the House recently approved. We also have the spending review to come, and I will certainly be making the case for a multi-year settlement.

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The European regional development fund moneys of €476 million and the European social fund moneys of €465 million have had a significant input into local government funding the length and breadth of Scotland. With the removal of this EU cash imminent, can the Secretary of State tell us precisely how much money the Scottish Government and local authorities in Scotland will get after we leave the EU?

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The hon. Lady will know the guarantees in place in relation to structural funds currently provided by the EU, but clearly we want new arrangements in place through the UK shared prosperity fund. We will come forward with the details of that fund, and the spending review will set out the monetary aspects.

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After nine years of this Government’s slash-and-burn approach to deprived areas, the Secretary of State has announced a new fund for our left-behind towns, but since 2010 we have seen a cut to Wigan Council’s spending power—the Government’s preferred measure—of £67 million and a cut of £45 million to Blackpool’s. As a region, the north-west has lost almost £1.5 billion but will receive just £281 million over seven years under this initiative. Does he understand why Members across the House feel disappointed and patronised by his announcement today?

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I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not recognised the additional funding that will be going into local government this coming year. The cash increase I have outlined is a real-terms increase to local government that is focused on supporting issues such as social care. Yes, the Government recognise the hard decisions that councils have had to make, but we are now supporting councils to do the right thing for their communities and ensure the improvement we all want to see.

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It is only an increase for councils because it is predicated on those same councils’ increasing their council tax to mitigate a £1.3 billion Government grant cut. The announcement that the Minister has made today means very little, given that he plans to shift the funding formula away from those very same left-behind towns in future years to favour the wealthy Tory shires. Will he now remove any uncertainty, and ensure that deprivation is factored into any future fair funding review so that it is actually able to live up to its name?

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I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has clearly not been through the consultation, which demonstrates on various issues such as social care where deprivation is firmly relevant. We are ensuring that we provide support for councils—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman keeps saying “baseline”; he seems to have gone into some kind of trance. We are providing £650 million for social care in the settlement for the forthcoming year because we absolutely recognise local authorities’ demands and needs; it is about seeing that local government is well supported for its communities.

New Homes

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2. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the time taken to build new homes. [909523]

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Last year more housing was delivered in England than in all but one of the past 31 years, but there is still much more to do, from reform of the planning system and developer contributions to deploying Homes England as the WD40 of the house building industry, working on the recommendations of the Letwin review, and accelerating decision making in the Department. We are stretching every sinew to build more and better homes across the country, and to build them faster.

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Building homes that people want to live in should be a challenge that we set ourselves as we aim to tackle the housing situation. Modern methods of construction encompass new and innovative building methods, including off-site manufacturing, to produce more homes in less time. During a recent visit to a modular homes factory, I saw how well constructed, well insulated and adaptable homes for life can provide quality housing in weeks rather than months. Does my hon. Friend agree that local authorities should recognise the diverse range of construction methods when developing their local plans to meet housing requirements?

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With her usual accuracy and perception, my hon. Friend has put her finger on one of the most exciting developments that we are currently seeing in house building, which is indeed off-site manufacturing. That technique holds enormous potential, not least because it is deployed to a significant extent in other parts of the world. We have a £450 million fund to support its development, and the first payment was made to Welwyn Hatfield just last week.

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Does the Minister not realise that this Government are not building enough new homes? Even the ones they are building are not in the right places for the right people. Is he not aware of the scandal—a situation my constituents cannot understand—that so much of the money that went to Help to Buy has ended up in the pockets of chief executives of building companies?

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The hon. Gentleman is right, in that Governments of all stripes have failed to build enough homes over the last few decades. Indeed, our efforts to correct that were hampered by the destruction of 50% of the small house building industry in the crash of 2008, when his party was in government. We have tried very hard to correct that, and last year we managed to reach a total of 222,000 homes, but we must push forward to 300,000. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in encouraging civic leaders throughout the country to embrace that ambition, and to build the homes that the next generation needs.

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The hon. Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and, for that matter, for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) could all very legitimately shoehorn their inquiries into this question if they were so minded. That is merely a gentle hint; it is not obligatory.

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rose—

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Oh, very well done, Mr Henderson!

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20. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the main concerns for young people is how to get on to the first rung of the housing ladder, and that using the new affordable Rent to Buy model is one option that should be encouraged? [909541]

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I sincerely agree with my hon. Friend that the Government’s objective should be to create a big, wide menu of tenure options from which young people can choose at different stages in their lives, and depending on their circumstances. We want to ensure that everyone can acquire good-quality homes for themselves and their families, but critically that everyone in the country, at some point in their lives, should have a shot at ownership.

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21. Last month thousands of children marched for a cleaner planet. What support are the Government providing to enable local authorities to bring about a genuine green revolution in new council housing schemes? [909542]

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As I hope the House knows, this Government are extremely ambitious about our environmental targets and want to push further and faster in order to achieve them. The hon. Lady is right that there is enormous potential, particularly in the affordable homes programme and the new generation of council homes that we hope will be built to create higher environmental standards. I saw this for myself on a visit to a factory in Aldridge in the west midlands, where Accord Housing is producing modular homes for social and affordable rent. They said to me that so good are the environmental standards in those homes that they have lower arrears in buildings built that way because they are easier to heat and light.

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Would not the best way to reduce the time taken to build new homes be to support my Housing Reform Bill? Since I have not yet persuaded the Minister for Housing of that, if I bring it back in the next Session with a few tweaks, will he undertake to take another look at it?

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Mr Speaker, it will not surprise you to know that I am in constant conversation with my hon. Friend about his various ideas for the housing market from self-build to the reforms he is outlining, and I hope to continue those conversations. He is a veritable cornucopia of thinking and policy ideas in this sphere, and they are to be welcomed.

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A smörgåsbord, I am sure.

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We need to build new homes but they must be the right homes. In 2017, the then Secretary of State the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) said:

“It’s unacceptable for home buyers to be exploited through unnecessary leaseholds”,

and added that “enough is enough”. He said that real action was needed and announced that the Government were banning the sale of leasehold homes. Last summer the current Secretary of State promised no new Government funding schemes for leasehold homes, yet the Government’s own figures show that Ministers are pouring hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into a state-funded racket by subsidising large house builders for the sale of leasehold homes through Help to Buy—some 17,000 homes over five years, half of which have been sold since the Government promised to ban that. Can the Secretary of State tell us: have the Government forgotten what they said, has he changed his mind, or can he let us know when he will deliver on his promises?

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I enjoyed the hon. Lady’s question, but it would nevertheless have benefited from the generous application of the blue pencil.

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I urge the hon. Lady to take care with her opinion of Help to Buy as a scheme: it is one of the few Government policies for which people actually stop me in the streets to thank me. [Interruption.] Even though it had nothing to do with me, I am quite happy to take the credit for the policy—for the origination of it in any case. Several people have stopped me and thanked me for it, because it gives young people access to homes that otherwise they would not obtain.

The hon. Lady is right, though, that problems have been experienced in the market with leasehold, and we are determined to bring about change. The new Help to Buy scheme will be used to bring about some of that change, and the Secretary of State tells me he has not resiled one ounce from his promises.

Future High Streets Fund

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3. What plans he has to use the future high streets fund to transform town centres. [909524]

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I am delighted to announce that this year will see the return of our Great British High Street awards, in proud partnership with Visa. That is part of this Government’s determination to keep high streets at the heart of our communities, not least supported by our future high streets fund.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Paignton town centre is in need of reshaping and regeneration to create an attractive destination for the future, hence it will be the focus of a bid for support from the future high streets fund. Can the Minister confirm that Paignton is precisely the type of town centre he has in mind that will benefit from this fund?

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My hon. Friend is a redoubtable campaigner for his high street and I have previously met him and local authority leaders to talk about their ambition for their area. It is a competitive fund, but Paignton is indeed well placed to apply for this transformative cash, led I am sure, as always, by my hon. Friend.

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One of the problems the Minister might encounter in improving the high streets could be described as a roadblock, because it is a roadblock: the problem is that our roads are just so poor. I was disappointed that Hull missed out on the transforming cities fund to improve a road that is notorious for being an absolute roadblock: Calvert Lane. Will the Minister therefore look favourably on Hull when it bids for this money again—or alternatively just give us the cash now?

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I suspect that we are going to hear many special pleadings on behalf of hon. Members’ constituencies across the House. This is an ambitious fund that is designed to transform towns, just like the towns fund that we have announced today. I am sure that the hon. Lady and the area that she represents will bid for all the appropriate funds to drive forward her community.

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One of the main findings of the recent Select Committee inquiry into town centres was that strong local civic leadership is crucial. Given that, may I ask the Minister to ensure that, when judging future bids to the fund, strong local leadership is a key criterion?

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My hon. Friend, an expert in this area, rightly points to the excellent Select Committee report on high streets. He will be aware of the recommendation of Sir John Timpson, one of Britain’s best loved and best known retailers, that local leadership should be key to driving forward the future of the high street, and we will certainly be looking at that as part of these fund applications.

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The Government’s plans for a puny 2% digital tax on mega online firms that avoid paying their fair share is an insult to shops on the high street in towns such as Grange, Windermere and Kendal. Will he support higher taxes on tax dodgers, which would raise enough money to slash business rates for our town centres and help to save our high streets?

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The Government have been clear that online taxation in retail needs to be done as part of an international agreement, but we have also been clear that, if we cannot get such an agreement, we will come forward with our own 2% tax on online retail to ensure that we can continue, as we did in the last Budget, to give relief to those retailing on our high streets.[Official Report, 4 March 2019, Vol. 656, c. 8MC.] This year, we have already slashed a third off the business rates of shops with a rateable value of under £51,000.

Homelessness: London

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4. What steps his Department is taking to reduce levels of homelessness among Scottish people in London. [909525]

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I thank my hon. Friend for his interesting question. Preventing and reducing homelessness and rough sleeping are key priorities for this Government. We have implemented the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and allocated more than £1.2 billion in funding through to 2020. Through the rapid rehousing pathway early adopters, we will enable more than 80 navigators to work with up to 1,600 rough sleepers.

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Scots account for 12% of the homeless population in London. Borderline is the only charity that provides support to Scots in London, yet, astonishingly, the Scottish Government stopped its funding last year. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Borderline on the work that it has done and continues to do? What more can this Government do to support homeless Scots in London?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his tenacious work in looking after Scots wherever they might be, north or south. The withdrawal of that funding is, sadly, a matter for the Scottish Government, but we have allocated more than £220 million of funding to London, largely through the flexible homelessness support grant and the Move On fund. Our expert advisers are supporting local authorities to tailor their services according to local need, particularly for our Scottish friends.

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The number of homeless households seeking help in Hounslow—including some from Scotland—has doubled in the past 10 months. Hounslow has an admirable record, including a five-year programme of delivering 3,000 new social rent homes, yet it is losing council stock faster through the right to buy. Will the Government recognise that they have to take responsibility for delivering adequate numbers of social rent housing in order to deal with the homelessness crisis?

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The hon. Lady is quite right to say that ensuring that we have enough affordable homes in London and elsewhere is a high priority for this Government, which is why we changed the rules on housing revenue account funding, and I look forward to the authority building even more houses than it has already.

Adult Social Services

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5. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of funding for adult social services. [909526]

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16. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of funding for adult social services. [909537]

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This Government have recognised the pressures facing adult social services and have provided councils with access to an additional £10 billion of dedicated funding for adult social care for the three years up to 2019-20.

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I thank the Minister for his response. However, 96% of all local authorities told the Local Government Association that there is a major national funding problem in adult social care. Demographics are changing and demand is growing. What are the Government doing to provide long-term sustainable support to local authorities such as Kirklees Council, so that they can deliver vital services to our most vulnerable citizens?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. In the short term, £1 billion of extra funding for social care services was announced in the Budget. In the longer term, the Department of Health and Social Care will soon outline its Green Paper and a longer-term sustainable settlement. However, the answer is not just about the amount of money that we spend. Her council is a fantastic example of providing good outcomes for social care by using taxpayer resources prudently. Just last week, it was named a top 10 council for social care.

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The Princess of Wales Centre dementia day-care facility, which is based in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) but serves the whole of Sunderland, recently announced that it will close in June, partly due to the cut in local government funding. What will the Minister do to help to support my constituents and those of my neighbour before the extra funding becomes available? Will he meet me and my colleagues to discuss the matter?

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I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady and her colleagues or, indeed, her local council. Obviously, as she just heard me say, the Budget announced an extra £1 billion for social care, which her local authority will be able to use on its own priorities, perhaps including the example that she raised.

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I call Bob Blackman.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. Honours were even on Saturday.

I congratulate the Minister on what he has done on adult social care, but one problem is that many people are asset rich but cash poor, and early intervention is required to prevent those people from degrading. What can he do to encourage local authorities to intervene early so that people live a healthier, longer life?

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As ever, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He is right about the importance of early intervention, whether it is with young families and children or people who are older and frail. The Government recently announced an increase in the disabilities facilities grant, which does exactly what he says and helps people proactively to adapt their homes so that they can stay independent for longer. That is an example of the prevention work that he mentions, and he is right that we should focus on that in future.

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Will the Minister join me in commending the excellent work of Conservative-controlled North West Leicestershire District Council? By building the new homes that our country needs and attracting business, investment and jobs, it has managed to freeze council tax since 2010 and it has pledged to freeze council tax for a further four years, if it is successfully re-elected on 2 May.

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I praise North West Leicestershire District Council, which I know well. My hon. Friend is a well-established champion of the council and he is right to highlight its focus on creating a pro-growth culture in its area, using the tools at its disposal to drive economic growth, keep taxes low for its taxpayers and provide high-quality local services.

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Has the Minister read the letter to the Prime Minister—it was sent last week but published over the weekend—from Health for Care, which is a new coalition of organisations that speak passionately about their view that social care is on the “brink of collapse”? Will he meet me to discuss the coalition’s concerns, the report published by the Health and Social Care Committee, which I chair, and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, our findings and the work that we did with the Citizens’ Assembly?

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I praise the work done by both Select Committees in producing some options for the social care Green Paper, and I know that they are being actively considered, as they should be. To the hon. Lady’s broader point, her characterisation is perhaps a little unfair, because good things are happening in social care. The recent publication of the delayed transfer of care statistics showed that they have halved since the peak of a couple of years ago, which shows that good progress is being made.

Public Services: Newcastle

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6. What steps he is taking to help ensure that public services in Newcastle are adequately funded. [909527]

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The most recent local government finance settlement confirmed that core spending power in Newcastle is set to increase by £3.4 million in 2019-20. The North of Tyne devolution deal, for which there will be an election this May, will see £600 million invested in the area and, as part of the 2017 Budget, we announced our support for the £0.5 billion investment programme for the Tyne and Wear metro system.

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Since 2010, successive Conservative Governments have cut funding for children’s social care in Newcastle by 40% and, at the same time, the number of looked-after children has risen by 40%, which is obviously untenable. Instead of talking about strengthening local authority funding when he has halved the amount available to Newcastle City Council, will the Minister instead say whether he agrees with the national charity Action for Children, which has called these cuts “devastating and dangerous”? Will he give us the money to look after our children?

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We have just announced an additional £400 million to tackle exactly that. The hon. Lady and I have met in her city on occasion and talked about the northern powerhouse. I am sure she has heard me say that Charles Parsons, that great Newcastle inventor, is my inspiration for the northern powerhouse. A great danger for continuing growth in the north-east of England is the unfortunate selection of the Momentum, hard-left candidate for the Newcastle and North of Tyne election. I am inspired by the engineers of the north-east; he is inspired by Ken Livingstone and Derek Hatton. My hon. Friend the Housing Minister and I are from Liverpool, and we know where that leads.

Planning Reform: High Streets

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7. What steps his Department is taking to deliver planning reform for high streets. [909528]

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18. What steps his Department is taking to deliver planning reform for high streets. [909539]

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We are determined to support our high streets and we have consulted on a package of proposals. A decision will be made shortly about how best to proceed.

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The announcement that Bedford will lose its Marks & Spencer store after 100 years is a massive blow for our town centre. Will the Minister accept the recommendations of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s report and commit to helping local authorities such as mine that need urgent funding to redevelop our town centres?

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I said in response to an earlier question that I think the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s report is excellent, and we are considering it at the moment. I have sympathy with the local authority in Bedford and the challenge it faces with the closure of M&S, which is why I recommend that the hon. Gentleman, together with his local authority, makes an expression of interest in the Government’s future high streets fund by 22 March. The fund is designed to help areas to ensure that high streets remain at the heart of their community, which is exactly where they should be.

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People who live in Spennymoor, Shildon and Bishop Auckland in my constituency feel that the decline in their high streets symbolises the fact that they are not listened to in general. So cannot the Minister understand that the proposal to bypass the planning rules on permitted development is exactly the wrong way to go? What we want is more involvement and more control for local neighbourhood communities.

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On a recent visit to Bishop Auckland, I had the privilege of visiting the hon. Lady’s high street. I am sure she would agree that the inspirational work taking place at the Bishop Auckland project, where a charity, in partnership with the local authority, is coming forward with an ambitious plan to regenerate the high street, is exactly what the Government should be looking to support as part of their future high streets fund. Although I am sure we are both passionate about Bishop Auckland, I disagree with her, because one way we can ensure that high streets thrive is to ensure that the free market can determine planning and that people are free to open shops in the sectors they see fit at the appropriate time.

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In high-value areas such as St Albans, previous planning reforms have meant that office space has been turned over to residential. Couple that with high business rates and there is a serious danger of losing much of our high streets in many areas similar to mine. What more can be done to help on business rates? The £51,000 limit is welcome, but it has not helped many of my businesses in St Albans.

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The reduction in business rates for shops with a rateable value under £51,000 is, of course, part of a wider package. My hon. Friend, as a campaigner for her high streets, will appreciate that the change from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index, and the other changes to make revaluations more frequent—[Interruption.]

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Order. The hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) must not beetle out of the Chamber in the middle of the exchanges on his question. I know he has asked his question, but there are further questions on the matter. I feel certain that he is interested in not only what he has had to ask, but the views expressed by other Members.

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You never know, Mr Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman might be interested in what I have to say, although I doubt it. [Interruption.]

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The Whip says that the Minister is pushing his luck, but he must not get down on himself. People should be interested in hearing what the Minister has to say. The hon. Member for Bedford has, belatedly, stayed after all and we are pleased about that.

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This is not just about the help the Government have set out on business rates; it is also about ensuring that high streets can remain fit for the future. It is all very well for the Opposition Front-Bench team to scoff against the free market, as they did during my response earlier, but let us not forget that the people who ply their trade and work as retailers on the high street are the embodiment of all that is good about British entrepreneurship.

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Mendip District Council has made some excellent inclusions in our local plan for rejuvenating high streets in the district. Will the Minister commend the council’s work and look favourably on any bids it brings forward to help to fund the transformation of our high streets?

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I absolutely commend Mendip District Council and my hon. Friend for their work on taking forward a bid for their high street. He and his area will be aware, as will all other areas in the country, that they have until 22 March to put in an expression of interest—100% of the boroughs that receive the cash will have applied for it, so I suggest they get on with it.

Homelessness

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8. What steps his Department is taking to reduce homelessness. [909529]

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Tackling home- lessness and rough sleeping is a key priority for this Government. We are spending more than £1.2 billion on homelessness through to 2020, with our rough sleeping initiative delivering more than 1,750 additional beds and 500 support staff. We recently published our delivery plan for the rough sleeping strategy, which will help us see rough sleeping become a thing of the past.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I say to him unequivocally that there are still not enough resources going into rural shire counties such as Shropshire to deal with this issue and many others, but does he agree that the rapid rehousing pathway announcement will be crucial in solving rough sleeping?

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I know that my hon. Friend has been a champion for Shropshire and I commend him for his work on homelessness and on other issues. He rightly highlights the rapid rehousing pathway. That is a key part of our rough sleeping strategy to see that support and care are provided quickly and to see people getting off the street into homes, providing all the assistance they require.

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Home- lessness in Birmingham has increased by nearly 1,000% and almost 100 people have died homeless in the past five years. This is a moral emergency. My interviews with homeless people show that collapsing healthcare services are part of the problem, yet the homeless people in our city have a primary care system rated as “inadequate”. What steps can the Secretary of State take to fix this—not when the service is recommissioned in two years’ time, but now, before more people die?

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I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s passion, and indeed we have spoken about the situation in Birmingham. I hope he will acknowledge the additional funding that will be going to Birmingham in the next financial year through the rough sleeping initiative and the funding that NHS England has committed to health services for rough sleepers. Clearly, I will want to know and be certain that funding is applied to Birmingham and those areas where we have seen an increase in rough sleeping, for the very purpose that he underlines; we can save lives.

Brownfield Sites

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9. What steps his Department is taking to support building on brownfield sites. [909530]

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Our national planning policies are clear about the importance of making full and efficient use of brownfield land, supported by the requirement for every authority to publish and maintain a register of brownfield land suitable for housing. The £4.5 billion home building fund also provides support for new housing, much of it targeted on brownfield land.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that answer and for visiting the old power station site in Poole, one of the largest regeneration sites in the south-west. What more can he do to help to unlock brownfield sites such as that, which will provide the homes that we need and protect our green belt?

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It was a great pleasure to spend some time with the hon. Gentleman and his esteemed neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Sir Robert Syms), at the power station site in Poole. I would recommend it as a place to visit, not least to see the remarkable harbour bridge, which is a feat of British engineering worth visiting in itself. There is much that we can do in terms of applying funding, but the application of Homes England is critical to getting brownfield sites over the line. Homes England is becoming much more entrepreneurial and assertive in its use of the funds and the capacity we have given it to make these sites work. As we speak, it is releasing thousands of homes throughout the country.

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The City of York Council administration has an abysmal house building record, and we have seen a net loss of social housing. We also have the largest brownfield site in the country, ready to be developed. In order to expedite matters, will the Minister say when he plans to announce the Government’s response to the right-to-buy receipts review, so that we can get house building moving?

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I have not been a Minister for long, but I have learned to use a word well honed in government, which is “shortly”. We will respond shortly but, more than that, it would give me enormous pleasure to visit York at some point over the next few months and view what I know is a large site with great potential that Homes England has already talked about in excited terms. Having had a fantastic weekend with my family in York just last year, it would be a great pleasure to repeat the experience.

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Those outside the Chamber observing our proceedings could usefully know that in government the word “shortly” sometimes contains elasticity.

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24. Brownfield sites can bring forward supply, which is good for everybody, but what can the Minister do in particular for students to make the supply of their accommodation more easily available and fairer for renters? [909546]

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That is a remarkably crafty attempt by my hon. Friend to shoehorn in a question about student housing. He is absolutely right that brownfield land offers enormous potential for all sorts of housing throughout the country. In fact, you might be interested to know, Mr Speaker, that in 2016-17 some 56% of all new homes were delivered on brownfield sites, and that will have included student accommodation. In truth, the secret to student accommodation is the same as that for all sorts of other accommodation: supply. The more there is, the cheaper it will be and the more providers will compete on quality.

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Well, I am somewhat better informed, and I thank the Minister for that.

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EU funds have been used to decontaminate brownfield land, making it suitable for development. A prime example of that is at Shawfield in the Clyde Gateway area. The Clyde Gateway has received £6 million of EU funds for decontamination work in the Shawfield area in South Lanarkshire, which borders on Glasgow. Recently, hexavalent chromium contamination from the former J&J White chemical works has seeped into the Polmadie burn, and it will cost tens of millions of pounds to clear up. It would be good to hear from the Minister exactly whether the shared prosperity fund will include any mechanism to cover brownfield land. Otherwise, it will go unremediated in future.

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There will be no intention to leave any sod of brownfield land unturned throughout the country in our quest for space to build the homes that the next generation needs. The hon. Lady makes a serious point and she is right that in the spending review and the consideration of arrangements as we leave the EU, we need to look to reproduce the capacity to deal with all that contaminated land, which is perhaps a relic of our industrial past but now holds enormous potential for the future.

Local Authority Finances

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10. What assessment he has made of the financial sustainability of local authorities. [909531]

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The hon. Lady will be aware that the recent settlement confirmed a real-terms increase in the resources available to local authorities. The Government responded to pressures faced by councils in the autumn Budget and supported financial sustainability with more than £1 billion of additional funding across this year and next.

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Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), we are very short of time so I hint that the hon. Members for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) and for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) could usefully seek to take part in the exchanges on this question, if they were so inclined. It would work perfectly well.

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Since 2010, Sunderland City Council has been forced to make cuts of more than £290 million, yet the announcement today of the so-called stronger towns fund will see only £105 million for the whole of the north-east region put together. Given that our communities will be hit hardest by this Government’s Brexit plan, does the Minister seriously expect us to be grateful for this announcement, and does he expect us to support another decade of Brexit-driven austerity and decline?

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I gently point out to the hon. Lady that the towns fund that she talks about has the highest per capita allocation exactly to her area, and it is something that she should be welcoming for her constituents. Beyond that, the only way sustainably to provide and fund the services that we care about is to drive economic growth, efficiency and innovation. I am glad that her council participated in our digital innovation programme, and that 100 other local authorities are benefiting from our business rates pilots to keep more of their economic growth in their local community.

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11. From the £1.6 billion post-Brexit stronger towns fund, how much can Yorkshire and Humber expect to receive after we leave the EU, and will this money be used to get fair funding in place? [909532]

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I know that the Secretary of State will be making a more detailed statement on the towns fund later when I am sure that he can address my hon. Friend’s specific question. This is a separate process from the fair funding review, which is, I know, something that all colleagues are interested to hear. That process is regarding ongoing spending and that will be done through the spending review later this year.

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Will the Minister say how the financial sustainability of local government is helped by what amounts to negative rates support grants, where councils are paying in more to central Government than they get back?

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Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman was not here for the recent local government settlement. It is exactly because of the threat to sustainability that this Government eliminated negative RSG, which is something that the sector had asked for and we were pleased to meet that concern at the recent settlement.

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14. The historic funding settlement does not reflect the shift in population by many families and older people from city to county areas, increasing the demand in those areas for high-value services. Will my hon. Friend say what more we can do to make the finances of local government in county areas more sustainable? [909535]

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We take funding for county areas extremely seriously, and it is of course important that the new funding formula accurately reflects needs brought about by changing demographics on the ground. I can assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to work with him, the County Councils Network and others to ensure that our new formula is fit for the future.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [909547]

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Today marks 12 months on from the Novichok attack in Salisbury. Our thoughts remain with all those affected by this appalling crime, and we remain determined to see those responsible brought to justice. I pay tribute to the people of Salisbury for the strength and resilience they have shown and for the way that the community has come together at a time of incredible challenge. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in thanking not only those involved in the clean-up operations, but everyone who has worked so hard to support Salisbury’s recovery from this incident.

At a time when we need to show our resolve in standing up against division and hatred, I want to thank hon. and right hon. Members from across the house for their incredibly moving contributions during last week’s antisemitism debate and to everyone who supported yesterday’s “visit my mosque day”. Strong communities will be a key to success post-Brexit, and I will be making a statement to the House on the new stronger towns fund later this afternoon.

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I remind colleagues that topical questions are very brief. A sentence or so is quite sufficient. We do not need a long preamble. Chris Philp, get in there, man.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that promoting and encouraging home ownership is important? Recent figures on first-time buyers are, of course, encouraging, but what more can the Government do to encourage first-time buyers through starter homes and discount market homes and the prioritisation of first-time buyers over foreign speculators?

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My hon. Friend has set out a number of important ideas. I certainly welcome the recent statistic showing the number of first-time buyers at a 12-year annual high. There are further measures through the national planning policy framework, which include an expectation that local authorities secure 10% of new units for affordable home ownership including discount market sales and starter homes.

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No more than two sentences, I am sure—John Healey.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

One year on from the Salisbury poisoning, we stand with the people and the city, and we applaud their resilience. The other message from Labour is also clear: such foreign aggression on our soil will never be tolerated.

Four weeks to Brexit, yet the Secretary of State is part of a Government who still threaten the country with a final collapse in negotiations and a crash-out exit. He may say that a no-deal Brexit is not his preference, but he supports this remaining an option and he is part of a Cabinet preparing for it. How many fewer homes will be built each year in the event of a no-deal Brexit?

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The right hon. Gentleman should be more positive as to the future for our country. Indeed, we look to secure a deal that can command support from this House to ensure that our country—our United Kingdom—can look proudly to the future. Rather than talking things down, we should be talking up what we can do as a country—and, yes, securing a deal that takes us out positively and that ensures that we have that bright, positive future.

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Well, the Secretary of State has either not done the analysis or he refuses to share it. The Bank of England says that house prices could plunge by 30% on a no-deal Brexit—almost double the fall after the global banking crisis. A Labour Government kept Britain in business after that global financial crash with a big stimulus programme and a new low-cost house building programme as its centrepiece. If he still cannot say no to no deal, will he commit to a new stimulus of at least £4 billion for new low-cost homes next year so that, come what may, those who need new homes will not pay the price of this Government’s mess of Brexit?

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That is interesting. The right hon. Gentleman might reflect on the mess that his Government caused in terms of crashing the economy. We have a £9 billion affordable homes programme, and £2 billion beyond that in terms of long-term investment in affordable homes, as well as the new flexibilities and freedoms that councils will have to borrow to build. This is about that focus on building the homes our country needs and the support that this Government are giving to achieve that.

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T3. Does the Minister agree that town councils can help to strengthen the voice of constituencies like mine and that cynical attempts to divide this would weaken Southport’s voice, not strengthen it? [909549]

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I commend my hon. Friend for championing his constituents. I do agree that town councils can empower local communities. Southport electors can petition Sefton Council to be given their own town council through a community governance review, and I know he will lead them in doing exactly that.

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A recent report from Shelter states that permitted development is a totally

“unsuitable method of solving the housing crisis”,

and a Guardian piece at the weekend gave an example of permitted development rights flat conversions that are smaller than tiny hotel rooms and have no natural light and no communal space. The Government are presiding over a new generation of slum development. When are they going to deliver the properly planned, good quality, safe and healthy homes that our country and communities desperately need?

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Permitted development rights have produced 46,000 homes over the past three years. Those homes have to come from somewhere. They are not, as the hon. Lady said, slums. All permitted developments have to comply with building regulations. As she knows, we are currently reviewing building regulations to see what can be required. As part of the work on the social housing Green Paper, we may well also look at the decent home standards that could, in time, apply to the private rented sector.

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T5. When the last bank in town moves out, as is happening in Millom in my constituency, what is being done to ensure that remote and rural communities do not suffer economic and social hardship? [909551]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She is passionate about the high streets in Millom and more widely across her constituency. The loss of the last bank is of concern. That is why we are supporting the Post Office banking framework, which will ensure that 99% of personal banking customers will be able to keep their face-to-face banking at their local post office.

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T2. Last week, the children’s sector told us that funding for children’s services has fallen by 29% in less than a decade, and councils, including my own in Stockton, have been forced to cut spending on non-statutory early interventions in half. Will the Secretary of State commit to press the Chancellor to come up with the desperately needed cash for these vital services? [909548]

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of prevention and early intervention, which is why the Government have funded the troubled families programme by almost £1 billion over this Parliament. It is doing fantastic work, working with some of the most vulnerable children in our society, enabling them to stay out of care and out of harm’s way.

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T6. Last week I launched my “Towns of the future” campaign to help preserve and protect our high streets locally. What steps is the Department taking to minimise the number of empty properties on our high streets and persuade landlords to find new tenants? [909552]

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The people of Morley and Outwood are extremely fortunate to have in my hon. Friend a Member of Parliament who can bring detail to retail, given her lifelong experience in the sector. I absolutely support her “Towns of the future” campaign. I am sure that she is aware of the Government’s “Open Doors” pilot, which is working with landlords and local authorities to help fill empty shops.

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T4. The week before last, the teenager Kamali Gabbidon-Lynck lost his life to multiple stab wounds. The local authority has dug deep to help with community safety, but will the Government consider a special fund for children at risk of school exclusion? [909550]

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I recognise the important point that the hon. Lady makes. Indeed, the specific fund I referenced earlier, through the troubled families initiative, is focused precisely on those steps, to ensure that we can support troubled young people who might be drawn into gang crime, but I am happy to discuss with her further the specific issue she highlights in her constituency.

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T7. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the visit of the Philippine ambassador to Southend this morning to explore investment opportunities and joint partnerships after we leave the European Union, during which he expressed his astonishment that Southend is not already a city? [909553]

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I am not unsympathetic to my hon. Friend’s long-standing campaign to turn Southend into a city, given that it is my birthplace. I therefore welcome any initiatives that see investment in Southend, and I commend the work that he is doing.

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Indeed, Southend will probably judge that it should have its very own ambassador from the Philippines—not merely an ambassador visiting Southend, but an ambassador to Southend.

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indicated assent.

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I am giving the hon. Gentleman ideas, I know.

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T8. Cheshire and Warrington were promised a decision on their devolution growth deal by November 2017. Why the delay? When are we going to get a decision? [909554]

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I met the leader of the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership only last week, and we discussed progress on its growth deal. We remain committed to working with it to see when progress can be made, but it is absolutely vital that the leaders of the three unitary authorities and all the Members of Parliament affected renew their commitment to the deal if we are to make progress.

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T10. I have visited the 60 houseboat owners at Chelsea Reach many times, and all of them are under threat as they do not have the same legal protections as, for example, static caravan tenants. What action could the Government take to improve the legal protection for owners of permanently moored houseboats? [909556]

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that question; he has been fighting for this cause through high seas and low seas, and I congratulate him on all his work. Houseboat owners are protected under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. The consumer rights Green Paper published by the Government last year set out principles to further improve the rights of all consumers, including houseboat owners, and the Government’s response will be published this year.

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T9.   Labour leaders of Burnley and Hyndburn Borough Councils have joined Conservative leaders of Pendle Borough Council and Lancashire County Council to raise their serious concerns about the Government’s proposal to remove deprivation as a factor when determining local authority funding. Will the Minister listen to that cross-party call for fair funding and today announce that he will drop the proposal? [909555]

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As one of the Members of Parliament from east Lancashire covered by the proposal, I can say that we certainly welcome the discussions that are taking place more widely across east Lancashire. The Department has only just received the letter—despite the press release being sent out last week—and is giving it some consideration, but surely we could make more progress if every council in east Lancashire supported it.

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Amber Valley Borough Council is holding a planning meeting tonight on building 2,000 houses on the green belt across a number of sites. Can the Minister confirm that that should be a last resort and that the council has to show exceptional circumstances for each site before it does that?

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My hon. Friend is exactly right. The green belt should only be used in exceptional circumstances, after local authorities have demonstrated that they have exhausted all other options, including the use of brownfield, co-operating with their neighbours and looking at further density in their developments. We strengthened protections for the green belt in the national planning policy framework published in July 2018, and that should be a last resort.

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The permanent secretary recently confirmed at the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that the Government have undertaken no evaluation of the impact of permitted development rights since they were expanded in 2013. While the Minister states that more than 46,000 homes have been delivered under the policy, he can have no accurate idea of the quality of those homes. Amid increasing reports of appalling quality unsafe homes being delivered under permitted development rights, will he pause this policy so that a proper evaluation can be undertaken?

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There is obviously a concerted attack taking place against permitted development rights, which I find distressing, given the sheer number of homes that they have produced for people who are desperate for those homes. As I have said, all homes, whether under permitted development rights or normal planning permission, have to comply with building regulations, and it is down to local authorities to ensure that that is the case.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that we should deliver more affordable homes to purchase in the form of discount market sale, which remain affordable in perpetuity?

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My hon. Friend is indefatigable and has raised that issue at every opportunity when I have been at the Dispatch Box. He is right that, as part of our affordable homes programme, we would like to see more discount market sales, particularly to younger people across the country. I urge local authorities, which we hope are bringing forward authoritative and forward-looking plans, to embrace that type of tenure.

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The number of homeless families in Coventry has more than tripled over the last three years, while the number of homeless children has increased eightfold in the last five years, with more than 600 children spending Christmas in temporary accommodation. Why does the Secretary of State think that the number of homeless families and children has increased so significantly under this Government?

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The factors that lie behind this are complex, but I can assure the hon. Lady of our absolute commitment to deal with the challenges of rough sleeping and homelessness through the £1.2 billion that we have committed, as well as the initiatives announced at the end of last week on opening up the private rental sector to deal with temporary accommodation pressures. I can assure her of our resolution to increase supply, prevent homelessness and deal with some of the challenges we see today.