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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 658: debated on Monday 8 April 2019

Housing, Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU: Local Authority Funding

1. What financial support the Government are allocating to local authorities to help them prepare for the UK leaving the EU. (910260)

We have made £58 million available to support local authorities’ preparations for Brexit, and £20 million has already been distributed to all local authorities in England to undertake preparatory work, with another £20 million to follow. Also, £3.14 million has been allocated to 19 local authorities facing immediate impacts from ports.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the Select Committee report published last week that highlighted that local authorities should have new burdens funded in full. It also highlighted the fact that port authorities such as Portsmouth needed substantially more than the average of £136,000 that is being granted to ports. Portsmouth would need £4 million in the case of a no-deal scenario. Will the Secretary of State undertake to provide that funding and to reimburse any costs that have been spent on no deal that have proved to be unnecessary?

I note the right hon. Gentleman’s approach, and I am interested in the fact that he is perhaps now interested in delivering Brexit, even though everything he has said thus far suggests that his party is trying to stop it. I take on board what he has said. This is why we have made funding available to ports such as Portsmouth, and discussions have taken place between Portsmouth and the Department for Transport. He also raised the broader issue of support for local authorities, and this is why we remain in close contact with local government and why we still have £10 million available for any immediate pressures that may emerge in the forthcoming year.

Councils have been preparing for a range of issues. As we leave the European Union, changes to regulations might be required and training and support might be needed, as well as contingency planning so that we have a smooth transition from where we are today to leaving the European Union.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) is another mentee of the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne).

19. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his colleagues in the Cabinet Office about supporting local authorities that are facing the prospect of running European parliamentary elections? Is it not the case that the best way to avoid all these contingencies is to have as long an extension as possible in order to have a people’s vote and put the deal back to the people? (910280)

I am interested to hear that response from the Scottish National party. I hope that it will be able to guarantee that all moneys that have been given to Scotland are actually being spent on Brexit preparations. As I understand it, no guarantees on funding have been given to councils. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been in contact with the Electoral Commission in relation to those preparations, but I hope that we will be able to avoid holding European elections.

I hear what the Secretary of State says, but when I talk to my local councils, they seem to have an endless stream of directives coming from the centre but very little guidance as to what to do if significant numbers of their staff suddenly decide to go. What contingency preparations are the Government making to support local councils in the care sector, for instance, if those people suddenly are not here next week?

I hope I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance in relation to the regular and detailed contact we have had with local councils through the ministerial delivery board, which I chair, and through representatives of local government. We also have regular contact with the nine chief executives around the country. We are giving clear advice to assure EU workers of their ability to stay and information on the settled status scheme that the Home Office has put together.

Cabinet Secretary Michael Russell MSP has confirmed that moneys allocated to Scotland through Barnett consequentials have been distributed primarily to meet the costs of work already being done by local government in Scotland. The Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has said that the UK Government are not giving sufficient support to local government for Brexit. As the chaos of Brexit unfolds and local government continues to identify need, can the Secretary of State confirm whether Westminster will bring forward new moneys to meet that need, because the £10 million that he has mentioned is but a drop in the ocean? Local government and the Scottish Government should not be left out of pocket by the UK Tory Government’s incompetence.

I am sorry—the hon. Lady has I think set out a request for further funding, but my understanding is only £27 million of the initial £37 million allocated to Scotland was spent, and that none was given to councils. Perhaps she can clarify the priority and intent of the SNP in Scotland to ensure that Scotland is well prepared.

Can the Secretary of State not understand the scepticism about his comments, not just from the Select Committee but from many Members on both sides of the House? After all, it was his Department that left bidding for Brexit contingency funding to the very last minute, it was his Department that diverted council funding away from some of the most deprived communities in England, and it was his botched announcement on the Stronger Towns fund that has left many of those communities feeling left behind. Can he now, without any spin or bluster, confirm to the House whether the most deprived communities in England will see a share of the shared prosperity fund that, pound for pound, is less than, equal to or greater than the share of the European structural development fund it replaces?

Before responding to the hon. Gentleman’s question, may I say how pleased I am to hear that his grandson is now recovering and returning to full health? I am sure that the whole House will cherish and treasure the fact that that young child is back on the road to recovery.

The hon. Gentleman highlights broader issues on preparation. I have already underlined the extensive work that we have done with local government. I look forward to consulting on the UK’s shared prosperity fund in detail. Those allocations will be allocated and set out through the spending review. I hope even now that his community will apply for funding through the Stronger Towns fund so that it gets the support it requires.

Homes for Social Rent

2. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the Government’s target on building homes for social rent. (910261)

Through the affordable homes programme, Homes England will deliver at least 12,500 social rented homes in areas of affordability pressure by March 2022. That is part of our £9 billion affordable homes programme, which will deliver approximately 250,000 additional affordable homes by March 2022.

In Lewisham, 625 families are currently housed in temporary accommodation outside the borough, and many are at breaking point, due to having to travel for hours to get to work or school. Having had its budget cut by 60% since 2010, how does the Secretary of State expect Lewisham Council to build the housing we so desperately need?

By ensuring that the Mayor of London delivers on the £4.8 billion that has been provided to him to build 116,000 affordable homes in London. We have given the Mayor significant funding to deliver on London’s housing agenda. I want to support him and see that happen. Clearly, the responsibility to do so lies with the Mayor.

17. Does the Secretary of State agree that Barnet Council’s plan to deliver 22,000 new homes by regenerating land that has already been developed is a good way of delivering the homes we need without encroaching on the green belt or green spaces? (910278)

I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend. Focusing on land that has already been developed, and indeed on brownfield land, rather than green-belt land, will allow us to cherish our green spaces and the natural environment around us.

The Secretary of State will have noted that the question is specifically about social rented housing. If we are to achieve an overall target of 300,000 homes a year, does he accept that it is imperative that more than 100,000 of those have to be social rented houses, built by housing associations and councils? Lifting the housing revenue account cap is welcome, but does he accept that if we are to deliver that number of homes, the Government will have to give more financial support to councils and housing associations?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the £9 billion affordable homes programme, and equally the extra £2 billion that has been provided on long-term funding. He will have noted in the recent spring statement that we now have £3 billion to enable housing associations to have funding guaranteed for the delivery of those homes. I hope that he also recognises that the flexibility of the affordable homes programme allows more homes for every pound of Government investment. Clearly, I want to see more homes built, and I want to see more council homes built for social rent too.

Three years ago the Mayor of London clearly promised to build 14,000 more low-cost homes every single year, but he has never touched that target. What has gone wrong and what needs to change?

My hon. Friend highlights the need for the Mayor to step up to the mark and ensure that he delivers on the housing agenda in London. I recognise that delivery has increased in recent years, but the latest net additions data for 2017-18 are worrying; London demonstrates a 20% drop, compared with a 2% rise nationwide. I hope that the Mayor will focus broadly on the housing agenda. We are providing support on infrastructure and other aspects to see that London does deliver.

Does not the evidence suggest that the viability assessment system is suppressing social house building and that it is unnecessary given the high profitability in the development sector?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about viability assessments, which we addressed through the national planning policy framework—effectively the high-level planning guidebook —to provide greater certainty for councils and developers. Such assessments can slow the delivery of housing, which is why we took steps within the NPPF.

Two years ago, the Prime Minister at long last admitted that

“we simply have not given enough attention to social housing”.—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 169.]

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, since the Prime Minister’s admission, his Government have recorded the two worst years for social house building in the 74 years since the second world war?

What I can confirm is that we have delivered more affordable homes over the past eight years of this Government when compared with the last eight years of the previous Labour Government. Indeed, 407,000 affordable homes have been delivered since 2010, which is 40,000 more than the comparable period under the previous Labour Government.

What the Secretary of State is doing is not working, which is why we have a housing crisis. One thing that he did not confirm is the hard fact that social house building has hit a record low under this Government’s watch. He told me recently that he has committed to funding only 12,500 new social rented homes over the six years to 2022, which will not even replace the homes lost through sales in the last year alone. This Government are failing on all fronts; we have a crisis with Brexit and a crisis with housing. When will the Government get serious about building the social rented homes that this country needs?

I can say categorically that this Government are serious about building the homes our country needs. Indeed, that is we why we have committed funding to housing associations and given councils the flexibility to borrow to build. I challenge the right hon. Gentleman when he seeks to compare this Government’s ambition with that of the previous Labour Government. This Government have lifted the cap on council borrowing, and the number of local authority dwellings built under eight years of a Conservative-led Government is over four times the number built under the 13 years of the Labour Government.

Council Tax Increases

Local authorities decide council tax levels and are responsible for managing resources to deliver services. The Government set referendum thresholds to protect voters from excessive increases in council taxes without their authorisation. Overall, this year’s settlement gives local authorities access to £46.4 billion.

When will this ministerial team wake up to the fact that we do not all live in Maidenhead or the New Forest? The fact is that the central Government grant has been cut and cut again, and we cannot keep on getting more for less. Only this morning, Shabir Pandor, the leader of Kirklees Council, said, “Why doesn’t this Government see local government as an ally, not the enemy?”

I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the situation. I absolutely see local government as an ally, which is why I have championed its work and what it delivers for local people. I should hope that he notes that Kirklees Council will have access to £302 million in 2019-20. It is also worth highlighting that average spending power per dwelling for the 10% most deprived authorities in 2019-20 will be around 22% more than for the least deprived. It is not right to say that this Government focus on one area over another. We want local government to perform for communities across the country.

I declare an interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. Despite cuts to central Government funding, Kettering council has now frozen its share of council tax all the way through to April 2020—it has been frozen since 2010—while enhancing the delivery of local public services. Does that not show that we do not need to increase council tax to improve the delivery of local public services?

I commend Kettering Borough Council for the work it is doing, and indeed Conservative councils up and down this country. It is worth highlighting that, on average, Labour councils in England impose bigger council tax increases than Conservative councils, reminding us that you always end up paying more under Labour.

Council tax has increased by a whopping 18% over the past five years, hitting families on lower incomes the hardest, taking 8% of their income compared with just 2% for higher earners. As people are asked to pay more and more for less and less, they will quite rightly look at the likes of Google with its £1.5 billion tax gap—which, by the way, is roughly the equivalent of what the current council tax increase will generate. Whose side are this Government on—hard-working families or the very, very few?

The Government are on the side of hard-working families. I remind the hon. Gentleman that under the last Labour Government band D council tax more than doubled. It is also worth highlighting that council tax in England is down 6% in real terms since the last Labour Government.

Conservative-controlled West Oxfordshire District Council has one of the lowest council tax rates in the country and some of the best services due to its innovative cost-saving measures. Does that not show that Conservative councils save money on back-office costs and provide better services for local residents?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend’s message. I am sure that others outside this place will have heard it, too, as we look towards local council elections, with Conservative councils delivering more for their residents and better value for money.

Homes for Social Rent

4. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of new homes for social rent since 2010. (910263)

Since 2010 we have delivered more than 407,000 new affordable homes. That includes more than 293,000 affordable homes for rent, of which 135,000 are for social rent. There is always more to do and I look forward to hearing from the hon. Gentleman what that might be.

Between 2016 and 2017 a total of 138 two- bedroom properties were let in my Warrington South constituency through the social rent scheme, and about 1,100 families bid for them. What is the Minister doing to meet those unsustainable levels of demand in my constituency?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the fact that demand in all parts of the housing market outstrips supply—social, affordable and, indeed, all ownership models that we put out there. We are putting significant resources behind all parts of the country to build the homes that the next generation needs. We have managed to get net output up from 124,000 after the crash, to 222,000. Indicators for next year are looking pretty good, too, but as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, significant resources are being applied to this problem and we will do our best to try to address it.

The Minister will agree that every opportunity should be taken to increase the stock of social houses for rent, so will he acknowledge the great work of Rugby Borough Council, which is currently arranging for the replacement of old high-rise blocks with a greater number of houses on a conventional streetscape?

I applaud any local authority that is putting its shoulder to the wheel of solving the housing crisis. A great sadness of my time as a borough councillor—I was a councillor for eight years—was the fact that the then Labour Government put an end to council house building. We were all induced, effectively, out of that business with decent homes money. We had to get rid of our housing and transfer it to housing associations or other formats. Fortunately, some councils did manage to hang on and I am very pleased that they are now doing their bit.

Some 66,000 council homes have been sold through right to buy since 2012, and just shy of 18,000 have been started—that is one replacement home started for every four sold, and they are not like for like, either. Are the Government ditching their promise for one-to-one replacement, and when are they going to come clean about that?

The hon. Lady is quite right to point out that we have not hit our one-to-one target. That is correct—it would be foolish to deny it—but at the same time those 66,000 homes that have been sold have satisfied a legitimate aspiration among all those people to own their own home, and we are committed to that. The lifting of the housing revenue account cap was specifically designed to set councils free to build a new generation of council houses, so that in time a further generation of council house occupants can also experience home ownership.

Coastal Communities: Funding

On 23 March we announced 70 grants, worth £36 million, from our coastal communities fund and coastal revival fund. This will mean that, by 2020, we will have invested over £200 million in coastal communities across England.

Flooding is a real threat to our coastal communities. Will my hon. Friend ensure that construction of new infrastructure in Looe is fully funded to maintain the town’s economic viability and future prosperity?

First, I take the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on her recent wedding to Bob.

The Government are aware of the impact of tidal flooding in Looe. The Environment Agency and Cornwall Council are working on an integrated flood defence scheme as part of the £20 million wider regeneration of the area.

The recent House of Lords Select Committee report on the funding of coastal communities shows that our coastal towns and communities are hardest hit by austerity. Will the Minister take the report’s recommendations seriously and look at how we can redistribute wealth and power from the centre and into coastal communities, especially those in the far south-west such as Plymouth?

I saw the Select Committee’s report with interest—in fact, I had the privilege of giving evidence to the Select Committee—and it well identifies the fact that coastal communities across the country face shared challenges. That is, of course, why we have our coastal communities fund, which is looking at individual projects that can drive jobs, growth and prosperity in coastal communities, including those of Plymouth.

Cleethorpes is benefiting considerably from the coastal communities fund and has great potential for regeneration through the Greater Grimsby town deal. Can the Minister give my constituents an assurance that he will continue to look generously towards Cleethorpes?

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is a redoubtable campaigner for his constituency. No Question Time passes without him talking about Cleethorpes, and I can say that, when considering investment in our coastal communities, I always have the biggest fish and chip shop in Britain at the forefront of my mind.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is always sunny on the south coast.

May I ask the Minister to consider the fact that, when people retire, they tend to move to coastal communities, which impacts on our social care and council tax bills? Will he consider long-term funding that properly looks at the age range in coastal communities? And will he also look at the radical reform of social care to make sure we have social care insurance, which would bring more money into the system?

I recently visited Bexhill and Battle for a brief jaunt to the seaside with my family, so I know my hon. Friend’s constituency well. We have recently confirmed that we will invest an additional £650 million in support and care in communities such as Bexhill and Battle, and I hope he will also look at the Government’s new stronger towns fund, which may be able to support his area.

Social Housing

On top of our £9 billion affordable homes programme, we have reintroduced social rent, removed the housing revenue account borrowing cap and announced £2 billion of long-term funding, and we are setting a long-term rent deal for councils and housing associations.

There is currently a prohibition on the inclusion of residential properties in personal pensions such as self-invested personal pensions, which leaves potential accommodation over shops empty or unconverted. Will my hon. Friend work with his colleagues in the Treasury to reform these rules, provided that the properties are let out at a social rent?

No one, but no one, works as hard as my hon. Friend on housing policy. There is not a time when I appear at the Dispatch Box that he does not badger me with some new idea. He obviously takes his moral duty to the next generation to build the housing they need very seriously, and I would be more than happy to walk arm in arm with him down Downing Street to No. 11 to propose exactly that idea.

It is disappointing that the Government have scrapped their one-for-one target. My local Labour-run council, Hyndburn Borough Council, wants to build some social houses on the Clayton triangle. What support can the Minister guarantee to make sure that those social homes are built on the Clayton triangle?

Of course, one change we have made is to allow local authorities to bid into the affordable homes programme, specifically to support their house building aspirations. We have lifted the HRA borrowing cap, so the hon. Gentleman’s local authority is free, in a way that it was not before, to borrow that money. I point out to Opposition Members that one of the most debilitating parts of the debate about housing is their inability to accept that this Government and the coalition Government before us were faced with a catastrophic financial framework within which to build the homes that the next generation needs. It has taken time to recover capacity in the house building industry and in local authorities to achieve the kind of aspiration he wants to see.

I congratulate the Government on their ambitious targets, but is the Minister aware that on the Isle of Wight there is deep concern about the housing targets and the lack of affordable housing? Fewer than 100 units were built between 2015 and 2018. I hope that my council will apply for exceptional circumstances to lower its targets in the interests of our tourism economy and quality of life, but to ensure that a much higher proportion of that is built for social housing. Will he meet me to discuss this issue further?

I think a feeling that everybody shares across the House is the desire to address what is undoubtedly a housing crisis. Governments of all stripes over the past 30 or 40 years have failed to build the houses that the country needs. We are applying significant resources to try to correct that problem.

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, in that local authorities also have a duty to put their shoulder to the wheel to deal with the housing problem. Through the national planning policy framework, we have put the power to do so in their hands. It is perfectly possible for his local authority to produce an authoritative and ambitious local plan that both satisfies the aspirations of local residents for the kind of housing they want and sends a signal to the development community about what it should be doing on the Isle of Wight.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has advised the Government that they need to do more to support neighbourhood planning in deprived areas. Does the Minister agree that he should give additional powers to town and parish councils to facilitate that and to ensure that all areas, especially those with acute need, are able to plan for and deliver the homes, including the social housing, that they desperately need, while also improving their wider built and natural environment?

The hon. Lady identifies a significant intention of ours on planning policy, which is to put local communities of all types and in all parts of the country in control of planning. It is the case, unfortunately, that over the past 30 or 40 years many neighbourhoods have felt that they are victims of the planning system rather than its masters. We are keen to promote the use of neighbourhood plans in all sorts of areas—urban, rural or wherever it might be—so that local people are in control of the disposition, size, place and type of housing they want, subject to their joining us in the general mission to satisfy what is undoubtedly a huge desire in the next generation for new homes.

Homeless People: Death Rates

Every death of someone who is homeless is one too many, and we have a moral duty to act. We are committed to ending rough sleeping for good and aim to halve it by 2022. Our strategy, which commits us to £100 million to tackle rough sleeping, is funding more than 1,750 bed spaces and 500 new staff through the rough sleeping initiative.

I thank the Minister for that response. An estimated 120 homeless people in the north-east have died since 2013—a staggering increase of 71%. Those 120 lives mattered and they deserve some recognition. The Government have said that local authorities need to investigate fully the circumstances of such deaths, yet have failed to provide any funding or support to ensure that those investigations happen. Is that because people dying on our streets are not really a priority for this Government?

Obviously, the figures that the hon. Lady reads out are desperate and sad news. We are working with the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that when a homeless person dies, a safeguarding adult review takes place, where appropriate. The safeguarding adult review process was set up not to review every death of an adult considered to require safeguarding but as a process for learning lessons where the safeguarding adults board is of the view that local partners could have done more to prevent a death resulting from abuse or neglect.

21. I thank my hon. Friend for her answers so far. Clearly, to prevent people from dying on our streets because they are homeless, it is far better to provide them with a home, or to prevent them becoming homeless in the first place. Will she update the House on what is being done in the Housing First trials, so that we can see that innovative scheme rolled out across the country and end homelessness for good? (910282)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Housing First pilots are in the Greater Manchester, Greater Birmingham and Greater Liverpool areas, and £38 million has been put aside to assist with them. The Mayor of the Greater Birmingham area, Andy Street, phones me regularly to tell me about the progress on the Housing First pilots in the west midlands. The pilot in Liverpool is going quite well too but, sadly, the one in Manchester is not going as well, but I like a bit of competition between the three Mayors and I am sure they will all step up.[Official Report, 9 April 2019, Vol. 658, c. 2MC.] [Official Report, 11 April 2019, Vol. 658, c. 6MC.]

The Hull Daily Mail reported that in Hull alone 35 homeless people died between 2013 and 2017, part of the 24% increase in rough sleeping deaths across England and Wales in five years. That has happened on the Government’s watch. Why does the Minister think that has happened?

Again, I say that anyone dying is a tragedy. For the hon. Lady to give those numbers is a salutary lesson on how councils need to work very hard. The rough sleeping and homelessness reduction taskforce is driving forward the implementation of our cross-government strategy to achieve our commitment to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and to end it altogether. The latest figures, in 2018, show that the number of people sleeping rough on our streets has fallen for the first time in several years, and that the number sleeping rough in our specialist areas has reduced by 19%.

No one wants to see people sleeping rough on our streets. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the huge teamwork going on in Cornwall across the public and private sectors? That has seen a reduction in rough sleepers by over 40% in the last year.

My hon. Friend is a true champion for her area. The statistics in Cornwall show how this matter can be dealt with successfully when partners come together—a reduction of 40% in rough sleeping in one year alone is a true testament to the reason why we need to tackle this. We will not let it rest.

Leigh: Local Authority Funding

10. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of local authority funding in Leigh constituency. (910270)

The local government finance settlement for 2019-20 confirmed a real-terms increase in resources available to local authorities. I am pleased to say that the hon. Lady’s own local council, Wigan, will see its core spending power increase by £4.6 million in this financial year.

Under this Government, Wigan Council has seen £160 million taken from its budget—that is £160 million less to spend every single year. With children’s services as a top immediate pressure, how do the Government intend to respond to my local authority when it has to deliver services to some of our most vulnerable children without the funding that is so desperately needed?

The recent Budget provided more than £400 million for children’s services but, beyond money, it is important to note that it is quality of leadership that makes the difference in providing for vulnerable children. The hon. Lady’s own council recently won a prestigious award for being the best council in the country, and its leader remarked that

“we are still able to give residents first class care”.

Vulnerable Children: Local Authority Support

11. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education on improving local authority support for vulnerable children. (910272)

I am working closely with colleagues at the Department for Education to ensure that local authorities can properly support vulnerable children. I recently gave evidence to the Communities and Local Government Committee together with the Children’s Minister on that very topic.

As the Minister is aware, the Select Committee is doing an inquiry into children with special needs and disabilities. One of the things that comes back from all the evidence is the fact that support is often based on the resources available and not on the child’s needs. Will the Minister ensure that funding for the high needs block is based on need and not on historical data?

Responsibility for high needs funding rests with the Department for Education, but I would be more than happy to raise that point with my colleagues.

Essex County Council is set to carry a £15 million deficit for special educational needs and vulnerable children. I hear what the Minister says about working with the Department for Education, but what are it and MHCLG doing collectively to ensure that the Treasury looks at the long-term needs of the many children who are currently not funded?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. Her county council is a leader when it comes to dealing with vulnerable children; it is an example for others across the country to follow. I assure her that we are working very closely with the Department for Education. We are jointly undertaking a review to understand the exact drivers of the increased need that she mentioned, and we will make a compelling and evidence-based pitch to the Treasury come the spending review.

I am sure the Minister will agree, as he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Jo Platt), that political leadership is exactly what is needed when we look at children’s services. He will therefore be as upset and aghast as me that Stoke-on-Trent City Council was rated “inadequate” in all four areas of its Ofsted inspection of children’s services. The opening line of the Ofsted report said that children were not being kept safe from risk. A failure of political leadership has meant that children have been put into unnecessarily risky situations. On top of that, the leader of the Conservative group—the deputy leader of the council—has failed to attend any corporate parenting committee meetings in the past two years. Does the Minister agree that it is time for change at Stoke-on-Trent City Council? If they will not change, the electorate will do it for them.

When we talk about vulnerable children, it is important that all councils take the precautions that are required. Of course I will listen very carefully to the findings of that Ofsted report. The Department for Education has recently made available £80 million in innovation funding. All councils can avail themselves of it to improve their practice and ensure that vulnerable children everywhere get the support and care they require.

Will Ministers support vulnerable children through to adulthood by enabling them to access integrated services through the roll-out of family hubs?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. We all recognise the value of strong families, and she champions that cause especially well. I welcome the development of family hubs. I am pleased to tell her that our troubled families programme specifically enables a family-centric approach to supporting those in need. That often involves the use of family hubs, which we encourage.

Parish Councils

We are absolutely committed to giving parish councils the tools they need to shape their communities’ future. Neighbourhood plans are giving them a real say in the future of the areas that they represent. Through the general power of competency, we have made it easier than ever for them to work on behalf of their communities. We are also making it easier for people to petition to create a local parish council if they so desire.

Hankelow parish council in my constituency is facing developers seeking to avoid their responsibility to build affordable homes on the only brownfield site in the village. What powers can be given to parish councils to enable them to ensure that affordable housing development is met?

My hon. Friend is an exceptional champion of the people of Eddisbury and has been extremely active on this very local issue. Local planning authorities must consult parish councils before deciding on an application. Parish councils can offer important insights, and are closely connected with the community. We have revised our approach to viability in national policy to strengthen that position.

I sincerely hope that the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) will have the Minister’s tribute framed and displayed in an appropriate place in her home, for she is not merely a champion but an exceptional champion.

Housing Sector

13. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the (a) build quality, (b) leasehold practices and (c) other elements of the performance of the housing sector. (910274)

I hope that everybody in the House wants to see new build quality improve, and we will soon consult on the details of a new homes ombudsman to make it so. We are also cracking down on unfair leasehold practices. Most recently, on 28 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State unveiled an industry pledge to end the doubling of ground rents, and there have been more than 40 signatures from the sector so far.

But the Minister surely recognises that every week there are continuing reports of shoddy workmanship, long delays in putting them right, extortionate leases, which he mentioned, and unfinished roads, lights and pavements. On top of that, we have seen unaffordable housing and eye-watering profits and bonuses. He should not just hive this off to an ombudsman; we need direct action from his Department. This scandal has been going on for far too long.

As a constituency MP with a large amount of house building in my patch, I regularly deal with exactly the sort of problems that the right hon. Gentleman raises, and I make my views known to the house building industry about its duty to produce a high-quality product for its customers, notwithstanding whatever the Government may do. He is quite right that other tools may well be available to us, and we are looking, for example, at what we could do with the Help to Buy scheme to encourage house builders to produce greater quality. I am pleased to note, however, that the recent Home Builders Federation star rating system has shown a general improvement, particularly among the larger house builders, with three now in the five-star zone.

I chaired the all-party group on excellence in the built environment, which recommended a new homes ombudsman, but it was October when the Government agreed to introduce one. Five months on, can I press the Minister to get a move on before he gets promoted to the Cabinet?

My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that Housing Ministers do not last that long, and I am certainly pushing the envelope at nine months, but I will do my best in the time that remains to me to fulfil his desire, because it is an important one. If we are going to get to building 300,000 homes a year for the next generation—I know this is of particular importance to him given his background—these houses have to be fantastic, of great quality and of brilliant design, so that communities will continue to accept them in significant numbers.

Economic Growth: Midlands Engine

14. What steps the Government are taking to deliver economic growth through the midlands engine. (910275)

We have confirmed up to £2 million to further the delivery of the east midlands HS2 growth strategy around Toton station. To increase business engagement, we are supporting the midlands engine’s campaign to raise the region’s profile nationally and internationally, and to highlight the economic potential of the midlands.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but local authorities in Mansfield are hoping to secure funding through the future high streets fund to help reinvigorate what was once a thriving town centre. That support would be very welcome, as would the opportunity to access the recently announced stronger towns funding. What will the criteria be for that funding, and will my right hon. Friend commit to working with our local council to give Mansfield the best possible chance of accessing it?

My hon. Friend rightly champions Mansfield, and we will look very closely at the expression of interest that has been expressed in relation to the future high streets fund. The stronger towns fund will support towns to grow and prosper, and we will obviously be working with communities. I can certainly give a commitment to work with him and with Mansfield as we continue to shape that, and get the right feedback to ensure that that money delivers what we want it to.

Last time I looked, Taunton Deane was a considerable distance away from the midlands, but I am in a generous mood, so we must hear the hon. Lady.

18.   Thank you for being so generous, Mr Speaker. Although it is not the midlands engine but the great south west, this question is about economic growth. Some £600 million of economic growth could be delivered from the £95 million forward funding, with a bid just submitted by Somerset County Council that represents great value for money in delivering 10,000 houses. Does the Secretary of State agree that this is indeed a good place for the Government to invest their money and will make a great contribution to our housing targets? (910279)

I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s ingenuity in putting her question. Her council has submitted a £14 million bid to the housing infrastructure fund, which we obviously want to see delivering more homes and building the homes our country needs. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will look carefully at this bid. It is a competitive process, but I am encouraged by what she says.

Housing: Newcastle

Since 2010, over 21,850 new homes have been delivered in Tyne and Wear. In March, we announced over £16 million from the housing infrastructure fund, which will help to unlock a further 5,000 homes.

I publish my constituency casework on my website, and every month since I was first elected in 2010, housing has been one of the top three issues constituents bring to me. Does the Minister agree that to deliver choice and affordability for my constituents, the right resources and powers need to be devolved to the region as part of the North of Tyne deal? We know what our housing need is.

Given that Newcastle is one of the two mighty northern cities that made me the person I am, the hon. Lady will understand that I am keen to see that wonderful city, where I spent three fantastic years at university, achieve its aspirations. I know that the local authority has constituted a housing delivery board, and we are doing our best to give it the resources it needs to deliver housing from Ousemouth to Kenton Bank Foot to the Helix development in central Newcastle. I am certainly more than happy to help her in chivvying it on to fulfil the aspirations of the Geordies who need homes.

Homelessness: Former Armed Services Personnel

16. What steps the Government are taking to reduce the number of former armed services personnel who are homeless. (910277)

This Government are committed to ensuring that armed services personnel do not become homeless or end up rough sleeping. We have recently allocated an additional £1 million to support ex-members of the armed forces who are, or are at risk of becoming, homeless. That additional funding goes hand in hand with the £1.2 billion that has been set aside to tackle all forms of homelessness.

The Minister will be aware that too many of our brave veterans, who have served this country, have been failed in post-service life. What discussions has the Department had with the Ministry of Defence, so that clear pathways are set out to prevent homelessness in the first place? Will she give a cast-iron guarantee that the military covenant will be upheld?

My hon. Friend is quite right. A joined-up response is essential to ensuring that veterans can access the prevention and relief services available to them. I am pleased to say that the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which was introduced by our hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), places a statutory duty on the Secretary of State for Defence to refer members of the armed forces to local authority services for tailored support, including a personalised housing plan, to prevent them from becoming homeless. Where veterans are homeless and vulnerable as a result of having served in the armed forces, local authorities have a duty to house them. I sit on the Veterans Board, and it is my pleasure to do so.

In the United States, many former armed services personnel are housed in dedicated veterans communities run as housing co-operatives, giving them control over the cost of the housing provided to them and enabling them to live their lives in the way they want to. Will the Minister undertake to look at the potential for using housing co-operatives to house armed forces personnel here in the UK?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that innovative idea. We have already agreed some money for ports down on the south coast, where there is a predominance of naval people, who have come together to build a number of units as one group. I think this idea has legs—if not sea legs, then Army legs.

Home Ownership

22. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of home ownership among under-45-year-olds since 2010. (910284)

The proportion of under-45-year-olds owning their own home was 50% in 2010-11. That fell to 42% in 2016-17, in the aftermath of the crash, but happily it has since risen to 45% in 2017-18. Supported by Government schemes including Help to Buy and right to buy, the number of first-time buyers rose to more than 370,000 in 2018, an 86% increase since 2010.

Many of my constituents are simply priced out of the housing market. Rental properties and mortgages are out of reach to all but the wealthiest, meaning that families who have lived for generations in villages such as Bridge, Chartham and Sturry, where their parents and grandparents grew up, are now simply unable to afford a property. Will the Minister acknowledge that we urgently need realistically priced affordable homes for the next generation, especially in rural areas?

Topical Questions

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.