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Topical Questions

Volume 662: debated on Monday 17 June 2019

Last week, as communities celebrated Eid, we also reflected on those lives lost in the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. This House and other buildings were rightly illuminated in green light as part of the commemorations. It is also right that we continue to take further steps to support the community of north Kensington and drive a culture change on building safety.

The serious fire at Barking last weekend was a reminder of the need for vigilance. I visited the community on Monday and have maintained contact with the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, and with Bellway, the developer. I have asked the Building Research Establishment to investigate the fire and the independent expert panel to provide recommendations on any steps that may be required.

Finally, we remain very conscious of the impact of flooding in Lincolnshire and those whose homes have been affected. My Department’s resilience and emergencies division remains in close contact with local agencies who are leading the response, as well as with colleagues in Whitehall.

I join the Secretary of State in his comments.

Rough sleeping is the very visible sign of the levels of suffering and failure that we see in our housing and social security systems. According to the Government’s own figures, rough sleeping has increased by 165% since the end of the last Labour Government. Does the Secretary of State accept that this is just not good enough—that we need to do much more? What is he doing to tackle this scourge?

I do recognise the huge issue that the hon. Lady highlights in relation to rough sleeping. While the latest data on rough sleeping—the count last year—showed a small decrease, I know there is more that we need to do. That is why we have our £100 million rough sleeping strategy and work with our rough sleeping initiative in council areas. But her challenge to me is right. That is why I do keep this issue under careful review, and if there are further steps that we need to take, we will take them.

T4. Noting that the right to buy has been abolished in Scotland, what efforts is my hon. Friend making to re-energise home ownership throughout the United Kingdom, particularly for first-time buyers? (911379)

It is very heartening to hear at least someone from Scotland standing up for aspiration and, in particular, home ownership. My hon. Friend is an example himself—a living embodiment—of the social mobility that home ownership can produce, and I congratulate him on his question. He is right that this Government have done quite a lot on home ownership, putting 542,000 people into home ownership who were not there in 2010, and through Help to Buy there is much more that we can do. I urge him to advertise north of the border that help to buy ISAs and lifetime ISAs are available across the whole of the UK, notwithstanding the barriers that are put in the way of home ownership in Scotland.

The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) amply warrants the panegyric that the Minister has just lobbed in his direction, so I hope he will not take offence when I say that at this sensitive time it might also be prudent to bear in mind that he is, in all likelihood, being lobbied.

T2. New research by housing association Habinteg reveals that outside London fewer than a quarter of new homes being built would be suitable for older and disabled people, and only 1% are accessible for wheelchair users. What will the Government do now to raise standards so that all new homes are accessible and adaptable for older and disabled people? (911377)

The hon. Lady makes a very powerful and important point about accessibility. Everyone should be able to access a home that is right for their needs. It is crucial that we understand how the changes to the building regulations on access introduced in 2015 are working on the ground. She refers to the Habinteg report, and we will look at that carefully as part of a review of those requirements. I am grateful to her for highlighting it to me.

T6. Residents in my constituency village of Burwash have raised concerns about the transparency of the planning appeal process—namely, that the developer seems to have access to information that perhaps residents do not. Does our excellent Housing Minister have any plans to reform the planning appeal process so that my constituents have more comfort and can be more involved in the process? (911381)

Forgive the love-in, Mr Speaker, but my hon. Friend is a constant and persistent champion for his constituents in the many beautiful villages that he represents. He is quite right to identify an issue that a number of people have raised with me across the country—namely, the transparency of the Planning Inspectorate. That organisation is in the process of implementing the measures outlined in the Rosewell review in order for planning inquiries to provide more transparency. We are, at the moment, procuring a new online IT system—dread words in Government, I know, but nevertheless we are—that will allow progress of appeals to be tracked, providing exactly the sort of transparency that he is looking for.

T3. Since doing a constituency survey on leaseholds, I have been continually shocked by case after case of unfair charges and rises, such as sinking fund costs going from zero to £250 without any warning. I therefore welcome the Competition and Markets Authority’s investigation into leaseholds, but what assurances can the Minister give to current leaseholders who face increasing costs? Will he put a moratorium on new leaseholds while the CMA does its work, to ensure that there are fewer victims? (911378)

The hon. Lady might be interested to know that there are fewer houses being built as leaseholds in England since the mid-1990s. The numbers have come right down, but she is right to highlight the work of the Competition and Markets Authority. As she knows, I called for the CMA to look into these abuses. There have been appalling examples, and she highlights some. We are determined to bear down on this. We have the new industry pledge, but I keep this under close review, given the issues that have been raised.

I commend my hon. Friend for highlighting Cornwall, which I have a close affinity to, given that my family all come from there and my son was born there. I am very keen to see support for Cornish heritage, culture and language. We committed £100,000 to Cornwall Council over two years and continue to work with it to encourage the promotion of Cornish culture, which I know he will continue to champion, and I am pleased to support it on his behalf.

T5. Council tax arrears are a growing problem. In 2018, an estimated 2.2 million households were in arrears, and in 2016-17, people paid an estimated £129 million in bailiff fees and court costs on top of the arrears. As part of the review into council tax collection, will the Minister commit to reviewing the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992, to encourage councils to stop using liability orders and bailiffs? (911380)

I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting our review. I am happy to look at all things as part of that review, but she is right to highlight that issue. We are keen to see what we can do to improve the collection process, while maintaining high collection rates to fund the public services that we rely on

I call Marcus Fysh. Where is the chappie? He was here earlier. He has beetled out of the Chamber prematurely, but he could have had another go.

T10. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what he and his Department are doing to ensure that every council is meeting its commitment to and obligations under the armed forces covenant? (911385)

My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point. I commend her for the work she has done to champion the military covenant, which every local authority has signed. The Minister for Defence People and Veterans and my Department have just written to councils, to encourage them to have a covenant champion. It is through such practical measures that we want to ensure that the covenant pledges are upheld.

T7. Given that waiting for the social care Green Paper makes Godot seem prompt, will the Minister agree to meet representatives of the Opposition parties, as well as leaders of the all-party Local Government Association, to use the LGA’s excellent Green Paper as a starting point for fixing our broken social care system? (911382)

I continue to have discussions with the LGA and others to underline and champion the importance of sustainable local government finance and delivering good-quality social care. We also have discussions with the Department of Health and Social Care. It is right that we reform and challenge, and I will be taking that forward in terms of the spending review.

North Lincolnshire Council recently refused a planning application for a housing development in the village of Goxhill, and North East Lincolnshire Council subsequently refused an application in the village of Waltham. Both were overturned on appeal. The reason for the councils’ refusal was based on a lack of infrastructure, access to public services and the like. Will the Minister consider giving better guidance to inspectors, so that they take more notice of local opinion?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. He will understand that I cannot comment on specific planning applications, but he is right to identify that local communities often feel excluded from the planning process. The solution is for them to put in place a neighbourhood plan. The Government have pledged—and I have pledged, for however long I remain in this job—to strengthen neighbourhood plans, so that local people do not feel like victims of the planning system, but its master.

The Chair must always encourage new, young Members who are trying to develop their craft. I call Jack Dromey.

In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Government promised “Never again”. Two years on, not one penny has been forthcoming to help Birmingham City Council make safe 215 tower blocks, with 10,000 households. The Secretary of State quite rightly met private leaseholders before his recent announcement of the £200 million fund. Will he now meet council tenants from Birmingham? Birmingham MPs have asked that he do precisely that. It would be wrong not to hear their concerns, and they would regard it as a snub.

I recognise the points the hon. Gentleman has made on a number of issues in relation to Birmingham. We continue our discussions with Birmingham, at a whole host of different levels, on the services it is providing and some of the challenges it is dealing with. I will certainly continue to meet MPs from Birmingham and the west midlands, who have been convened in the past on some of these issues. I would be happy to discuss these issues further with them, and also in relation to the council tenants he refers to.

It is one of the purposes of this Conservative and Unionist Government to strengthen the Union. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what his Department is doing to strengthen the Union?

My hon. Friend makes a really powerful and important point on the issue of the Union, which I believe in hugely and passionately, and how we strengthen it and act on that. Through the UK shared prosperity fund, but also through the stronger towns fund, we do have the opportunity to ensure that all parts of our proud Union are playing their role in this country’s prosperity and future, and that is something I and my Department are proud to challenge.

The Government have provided some funding for the removal of aluminium composite material cladding, and they are testing non-ACM cladding on hundreds of buildings. The Minister for Housing has accepted that, if that cladding proves to be as dangerous as ACM cladding, it will have to be taken off. In that case, will the Government also agree to provide funding for the removal of non-ACM cladding?

I recognise the important point the hon. Gentleman the Chair of the Select Committee has highlighted on building safety. It is why I took the exceptional step of making £200 million available for remediation. It required a ministerial direction to be able to do so, because of its significance. Clearly, we have the ongoing testing of non-ACM materials. I will be advised by my team—the expert panel—in relation to the next steps, and I am clearly keeping the situation under careful review.

There is no point building thousands of new houses in greenfield areas unless we have the requisite infrastructure to go with them. A recent report shows that North Northamptonshire faces an infrastructure deficit of over £300 million in delivering the houses requested by central Government. What can the Department do to ensure that the infrastructure comes to North Northamptonshire?

My hon. Friend is quite right: one of the problems with housing development in the past in this country is that we have tended to build the houses first and cope with the infrastructure last. We have attempted to reverse that equation, and we now have £5.5 billion dedicated to housing infrastructure, which is specifically designed to release land to build the houses the next generation needs. I would be more than happy to meet him to discuss the possibility of a North Northamptonshire bid to the housing infrastructure fund either now or in the future.

When the Secretary of State meets the Chancellor to do the spending review, will he stress to the Chancellor that while a lot of money has been put into local government, it is inadequate to prevent the closure of libraries, or to cover issues such as social services and particularly youth clubs? Will he ensure that the Chancellor has a look at that and, more importantly, at social care in the community?

Through the last local government financial settlement, we increased the funding available to local councils for dealing with some of the issues of social care. If the hon. Gentleman is asking me to champion the needs of local government and to recognise the quality services it delivers, with the amazing work delivered by our councils up and down the country, I can assure him that I will absolutely be doing that.

The Department recently consulted on extra powers for local authorities and the police to deal with unauthorised encampments, a series of which we have had recently in Newport. Can Ministers update us on the progress being made so that our authorities have the powers they need?

As the hon. Lady will know, a number of those enforcement powers are led by the Home Office, and co-ordination between councils and the police is imperative. She will know that I laid a written statement on that a while back. Discussions continue with my ministerial colleagues, because I recognise the pressures. If there are specific examples that the hon. Lady would like to draw to my attention, I would be pleased to receive them.

Further to my last, if a decision could be expedited, the developer is now on the site, so any compensation will escalate.

Many will have been surprised by the Secretary of State’s complacent comments earlier about Sure Start centres. He will have seen the Action for Children report, which shows a 20% fall in usage, hitting the most vulnerable hardest. Does he understand that not only is that reprehensible, but that it costs us more in the long run?

The hon. Gentleman will have noted the figures I gave regarding the improved quality of a number of providers and, indeed, of children leaving reception with good levels of development. Obviously, local councils determine how they prioritise their resources, but it is important to look at the evidence.