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Topical Questions

Volume 658: debated on Monday 8 April 2019

Last Wednesday, I joined the New Zealand high commissioner and other hon. Members to remember victims of the Christchurch mosque attack, reaffirming our solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters. As in New Zealand, our diverse communities make us stronger. That is why we will always stand up against hatred, bigotry and extremism. It is also why I have reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to the holocaust memorial and learning centre next door to Parliament. I met holocaust survivors last week to set out more details of the plan for that.

On a very different note, the issue of tree netting on development sites and its impact on wild birds has caused concern across the House. That is why I have written to developers today to underline their responsibilities to protect wildlife and to ensure that netting is kept to an absolute minimum.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks about New Zealand? We had a similar remembrance event in Keighley only yesterday.

Will the Secretary of State carefully consider the compromise proposals for Yorkshire devolution, as put forward by the mayor of South Yorkshire, for the period to 2022? Will he also consider the request from the councils in the Leeds city region to extend their devolution deals for that period?

I will look and am looking carefully at the submissions that have been made. I want to see greater devolution across Yorkshire. I recognise Yorkshire’s ambition to have those powers transferred down and I look forward to continuing discussions with the hon. Gentleman and others on how best that can be advanced.

T3. I thank my right hon. Friend for meeting me to discuss permitted development rights, but does he not agree that the policy has not worked? It has allowed landlords to build ghettos and London councillors to socially cleanse their most vulnerable families to places such as Harlow, yet we have not been given the resources to deal with the extra burden. Will he look at that and change the rules? (910287)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for highlighting this issue, which he and I met and discussed directly. He knows that we made a commitment in the recent spring statement to examine permitted development rights in relation to the conversion of office to residential property, but I am content to look more broadly at where the burden lies with some of these transfers, because it is important that we get this right.

First, may I say that my thoughts are with those affected by the Clutha helicopter crash? The fatal accident inquiry is starting in Glasgow today.

The UK Government’s shared prosperity fund is still something of a mystery box. We do not know how much will be in it, who is going to administer it or what its priorities will be. Will the Secretary of State commit today that the Scottish Government will get to control the fund and that Scotland will not get one penny less than we would have received under EU funding?

I certainly agree with the hon. Lady about the need to ensure that the UK shared prosperity fund works for all parts of our United Kingdom, and we will certainly work with the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations on the preparation for that and in advance of the spending review.

T4. New homes need new infrastructure. The housing infrastructure fund bid for Chelmsford’s second railway station and bypass will unlock over 10,000 new homes, so may I urge my right hon. Friend to back the bid? Otherwise I will keep on nagging him until he does. (910288)

We have already invested £10 million in the Chelmer Waterside development in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but she is still insatiable for more Government funding for her fast-growing constituency. As she knows, HIF bids are a competitive process, but I will look carefully at the proposals put in by Chelmsford; and, given her support, let us be hopeful of success.

New figures today show that 40,000 people are still trapped in privately owned blocks wrapped in Grenfell-style aluminium composite material cladding. That is 40,000 lives on hold—weddings cancelled, mental ill-health rife—because people are trapped in properties that cannot be sold. The Prime Minister repeatedly said that she rules nothing out, so when will the Government finally say, “Enough is enough,” set up a loan fund for private blocks and get the job done?

I firmly recognise the stress, strain and anguish that so many people continue to live with as a consequence of ACM cladding on the outside of a number of these blocks. A growing list of companies, such as Barratt, Mace and Legal & General, are doing the right thing and taking responsibility. In addition, warranty providers have accepted claims on a number of buildings. I urge all owners and developers to follow the lead of those companies and step up to make sure this work is done. This is a priority for me; I know the work needs to be advanced more quickly, and I am considering all other options if it is not.

T5.   Mr Speaker, I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. When will the Secretary of State lay the structural changes order for new unitary councils in Northamptonshire? (910289)

I thank my hon. Friend for his engagement with the process of reorganising local government in Northamptonshire. I am pleased to tell him that the Department’s consultation on this matter has now closed. The Secretary of State is considering the responses and he intends to announce his decision to the House as soon as is practical.

T2. What steps will the Secretary of State take to support housing renewal in older industrial areas, particularly coalfields? (910286)

As I hope the hon. Gentleman knows, we are putting enormous emphasis on the regeneration of brownfield land. It should be a first call for all local authorities trying to deliver new homes. As I recall, 56% of all new homes last year were delivered on brownfield land. Through Homes England, we are putting significant money behind remediation required in areas such as coalfields and other sites that might be contaminated. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with details of how his area could access that funding.

T6. May I urge the Government to support local authorities in getting tough on littering and making sure that more fines are levied for this antisocial habit? (910290)

I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend. We very much back the recent Daily Mail campaign to keep our country tidy. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is responsible for increasing fines for fly-tippers. We will do our bit to ensure funding for our parks and green spaces.

New developments have to meet the needs of local people, not developers. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the plans for York Central, which fail on transport, housing and climate credentials?

Having visited the York Central site, I know how key it is in delivering the northern powerhouse. That is why it is with the greatest pleasure that I will meet the hon. Lady.

T7. The south-west has fantastic economic potential and further ambitions for growth. Does the Minister recognise that the great south west is on a par with the northern powerhouse? Will he ensure we receive the same high-profile support from his Department? (910293)

The application from my hon. Friend to be the high-profile supporter of the new south-western powerhouse is now complete. I look forward to working with her to ensure we provide support for her ambitions and those of the people she represents.

Online agent Rightmove continues to allow discrimination against low earners, single parents and the disabled by declaring “No DSS” on its portals. Will the Minister please take action to end this potentially unlawful practice?

First, I thank the hon. Lady for all the hard work she put in when she was on the Opposition Front Bench and for the principled stand she has taken. It has been a pleasure working with her. Secondly, we have declared that we want all sites to take off “No DSS”-type adverts. I have been very encouraged by what has happened with Zoopla and National Westminster bank. This work is ongoing, but I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to see what we can do to spread it further.

T8. Many of our precious historic parks and gardens have been restored with vital grants from the national Heritage Lottery Fund. As a part of that, conservation management plans have had to be prepared. Unfortunately, despite Hestercombe Gardens in my constituency offering to curate the archive, the national Heritage Lottery Fund has apparently just destroyed the entire archive, apart from a few documents it thought it should keep for legal reasons. Does the Minister agree that this is a scandal that should never be allowed to happen again? (910294)

I agree with my hon. Friend that maintaining records of the UK’s landscape heritage is important. I would be delighted to raise her point with colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that in future we can surmount any bureaucratic hurdles and that vital archives are preserved.

Further to earlier answers about the housing ombudsman scheme, there is considerable consumer scepticism that the scheme will not end up being industry-driven and will favour house developers rather than buyers. What assurances can Ministers give us that it will be consumer-led and that consumers will have input into the consultation?

I firmly recognise the consumer interest. That is what motivated me to put an ombudsman in place. I want the ombudsman to first be established in a shadow format, leading into the statutory ombudsman scheme I want to create, so we create some momentum and give a sense of confidence to consumers.

Lack of knowledge of the armed forces covenant and of joined-up working in some cases is one of the key barriers to veterans getting the help that they need. What more can we do to increase joined-up working and awareness?

My hon. Friend will have to excuse me for turning my back—there are not too many daggers in it today. We have been asking councils to nominate a senior councillor in every single council to be a veterans’ champion. I will audit that and ensure that it happens. The Veterans Board—the inter-ministerial Government board—meets regularly; in fact, we have our next meeting in only about three weeks’ time.[Official Report, 14 May 2019, Vol. 660, c. 2MC.]

Do the Government consider it fair and reasonable for devolved local authority areas to charge people living outside those areas more for exactly the same services?

Citizens Advice reports that local authority debt collection practices are a growing factor in those approaching it seeking help on problem debt. What can the Minister do to roll out best practice to local authorities?

I thank my hon. Friend for making me aware of that point and the new advice from Citizens Advice. I have enjoyed my meetings with him, and I am pleased to tell him that we are looking at his proposals and hope to make an announcement when we reasonably can.

The Housing Minister has a make-it-so attitude. Will he therefore meet with me, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the timber industries, and the group to discuss timber’s role in hitting the future carbon target as well as the housing target?

Given the emphasis the Government are putting on new and innovative construction techniques in building the homes that the next generation needs, I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. Notwithstanding the problems we had with timber-framed buildings back in the 1980s, there is significant potential for its use in future house building.

Thank you again, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister consider allowing local authority licensing committees to authorise the use of digital ID for the purchase of alcohol?

We are always keen to embrace whatever technology we can to improve service to our constituents. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and look at his suggestion.

Thank you, Mr Speaker—very ageist, but welcome anyway. One of the worst things for people who have a house is the house next door being empty, derelict and lost. What progress are we making to identify empty, unused houses given there is such great scarcity? Is it compulsory purchases? How can we unlock these houses as a resource?

I hope to reassure the hon. Gentleman. The number of long-term empty homes is down by nearly a third since 2010, but it is important that we take further action. That is why we introduced the empty homes premium in 2013, which gives councils the option to increase the premium from 50% to 100% of nominal council tax, and we are seeing that increase this month. We acknowledge the important point he makes about empty homes.