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Topical Questions

Volume 663: debated on Monday 22 July 2019

Just over a week ago, I visited the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany where my children’s great grandfather was held by the Nazis after Kristallnacht. He was one of the lucky ones. He was able to leave Germany and be reunited with family, but millions of others were not so fortunate. The visit redoubled my determination to deliver the national holocaust memorial and learning centre.

There is a duty on all of us across the House to stand up against antisemitism, racism and bigotry. Through initiatives such as the communities framework, which we have just published, we must stand up for our shared values of openness, understanding and decency. We reaffirm those values, as we mark the centenary of the Addison Act this month, with plans to end the practice of the segregation of social housing tenants through new guidance on development to prevent people from being denied access to shared facilities such as playgrounds. I will continue to champion the values of fairness that underpin my work as Secretary of State.

What steps is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to ensure there is a co-ordinated cross-Government plan to make sure that areas with very significant housing growth, such as Corby and east Northamptonshire, receive the investment in infrastructure they need?

The £5.5 billion housing infrastructure fund is a cross-Government effort to unlock housing by supporting infrastructure development. With the Department for Transport and the Treasury, we are looking at ways to build capability across Government to make that as effective as possible. My hon. Friend is right. It is about that sense of delivery and consent, and seeing that homes are supported by the infrastructure they need.

On Thursday, it was confirmed that high pressure laminate cladding, exactly like Grenfell-style ACM cladding, is lethal in certain combinations and must be removed from buildings. This could affect up to 1,700 additional blocks. The Secretary of State has known since last October that this cladding failed a fire test. No building should be covered with lethal materials and there are lives at stake, so I ask the Secretary of State: how many buildings are covered in this lethal cladding? What is the deadline for the removal of that cladding? Will the Government fund its removal?

The hon. Lady needs to be careful about the detail of what she has said, because she will equally know that there has been a BS 8414 test in relation to high pressure laminate, with different types of insulation, where the finding was not the description that she has set out. We provided advice in December 2017 and December 2018. We have now reaffirmed further advice to building owners to see that they take appropriate action to make buildings safe. That is what we have taken action to see and secure, and further steps are being taken with local government to test the type of materials that are in buildings. There is certainly no sense on this side of not taking the action that is required to make people safe.

T3. A number of constituents are trapped in unfair leases. What is the Minister doing to ensure that they can buy out their lease from a developer at reasonable cost? (912101)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We have asked the Law Commission to look at making it easier, quicker and more cost-effective for people to buy their freehold or extend their lease. It is also examining the options on reducing the premium that leaseholders must pay to do that. We look forward to its recommendations in the early part of next year.

T6. A damning report from the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government has confirmed that the £200 million set aside to fund the removal of aluminium composite material cladding from private residential buildings will not be sufficient. Will the Secretary of State commit to funding work to ensure that all this potentially life-saving work can be carried out everywhere it is needed? (912104)

We believe that the £200 million, which was an exceptional sum, based on the extreme risk that this ACM cladding has, is sufficient to provide the necessary support to make the necessary remediation, the reason being that commitments are already in place from a number of private sector developers and builders, as well as other insurers, to see that that work is undertaken. It is on that basis that that sum has been ring-fenced.

T4. Under this Government, greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 25% since 2010, which is a considerable achievement. However, there is much more we can do to make our housing stock much more environmentally friendly. The Minister for Housing knows about this issue, because I have spoken to him about it several times in the past few weeks. Will he or the Secretary of State illustrate what we are doing to deal with it? (912102)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. He sets out that need for improving the energy efficiency of new and existing homes—that aim is very much shared by the Housing Minister. We plan to consult this year on uplifting the building regulations’ energy-efficiency requirements for new homes and work to existing buildings. Policies are also in place to improve existing homes, and these include the energy company obligation scheme.

T7. Mr S has been a brilliant private tenant for the past 12 years in his flat, always paying his rent on time, and decorating the flat and repairing it when necessary. He is also a great patriot, as a Royal Navy reservist. But none of this matters: in eight weeks, when his landlady issues him a section 21 notice, he will become homeless through no fault of his own. How is that right or fair? (912105)

We want to get this right in the private rental sector, which is why we have launched the consultation today on section 21 and how we provide that reform. If the hon. Lady wishes to draw the circumstances of this case to my attention, I will be happy to receive the details, because the sense of fairness underpins the action we are taking and is why these reforms are necessary.

T5. The midlands has economic, cultural and historical ties with countries in every part of the world, but few are stronger than those with India. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on developments for a midlands engine partnership with business in India? (912103)

I am pleased to say to my hon. Friend that some further positive steps have been taken since my visit to India last October to forge those relationships between the midlands and Maharashtra in India. I hope to be able to give him some positive news very shortly on signing a memorandum of understanding to really regularise that and underpin how we ensure we have that shared expertise to create jobs, boost trade and take other steps to cement this and create that positive sense of prosperity that I know he strongly advocates.

T8. Why has the Housing Minister not accepted the need for new primary legislation to implement the Letwin review’s call for land value uplift to be properly captured? That would support social housing construction, including in areas such as Oxford. (912106)

We cannot wait for primary legislation; we have to get on with it now. In particular, there are lots of things in the Letwin review that can work with the grain and the weave of current planning policy. For example, we will shortly be issuing guidance on housing diversification, which is one of the key suggestions in the review. We are encouraging local authorities to introduce local plans, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) urged us to do, so that landowners can realise the obligations placed upon them and so that the value of community contributions and affordable housing can be factored into the land price.

Permitted development rights have damaged the economic and social fabric of Harlow, increased crime and placed intolerable burdens on our education and social services. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said he would review them. What has happened to that review and what is the outcome?

I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s question, having recently visited Harlow to discuss this matter with him. In the round, 42,000 homes were delivered in the three years to March 2018 under permitted development rights with a change of use from office to residential. Earlier this year we announced a review of the quality standard of homes provided through permitted development rights for the conversion of buildings to residential use. The review is expected to conclude later this year. Today, I have written to all local authorities to remind them of their responsibilities regarding out-of-borough placements.

T10. Funding for local welfare assistance, which replaced crisis loans, is threadbare. In Sheffield, the council has managed to retain the fund, but it has more than halved since 2014, which has left people in a desperate position and exposed to loan sharks. The Minister will know that simply identifying a notional figure within the revenue support grant is meaningless when local authority funding has been cut so heavily. Will she agree that the budget should be ring-fenced and properly funded by central Government? (912108)

Currently, town and parish councils are not compensated in the council tax formula grant for providing student discounts, which means that parish councils in villages with large student populations, such as Kegworth in my constituency, are providing services used by students for which there is no precept. Will the Minister look into this inequity?

We will take this away and look into it. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. More widely, in our communities framework, we have come forward with a plan for expanding the number of parish councils in this country to ensure they play their full part in delivering for the communities they represent.

The Government are still allowing the use of flammable cladding on school buildings up to 18 metres high, which of course means most school buildings. A disabled child would have great difficulty getting out if there were a fire. Why won’t the Government do what every parent wants and bring in a total ban on flammable cladding on schools?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for flagging this up in the way he has. I took the step to introduce the ban on combustible materials on the surface of walls of high-rise residential buildings and others. We keep this under review. The Department for Education takes the lead on some of these standards, but I will certainly impress upon it the issues he raises, because safety and security are paramount.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Department spends an enormous amount of time and energy promoting Help to Buy to those who are eligible, and the new Help to Buy scheme, which will come in once the current scheme finishes, will be targeted very carefully at first-time buyers. I am more than happy to take any suggestions she may have for how we can focus it more on those on lower incomes.

There is a £3.1 billion gap in funding for children’s services and a £4.3 billion gap in funding for adult social care, but, eight months before the start of the new financial year, local authorities have no idea what their funding settlement will be for the coming financial year or beyond it. What is the Secretary of State doing to address this crisis in local government funding, which is affecting the most vulnerable residents in communities up and down the country every single day? Why is he being so complacent?

Far from being complacent, the Government are working hard to ensure that local authorities receive the support that they need, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen). We know about the importance of children’s services, and the importance of ensuring that all authorities benefit from best practice from places such as Leeds, Hertfordshire and North Yorkshire. We are funding those authorities so that they can spread that best practice throughout the country, transforming the lives of children everywhere.

I do not want to assume that Ministers have seen the letter that was sent to the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and me today by the director general for housing about the chairman of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership and LEASE, the Leasehold Advisory Service. It deals with one issue satisfactorily. May I ask Ministers to see whether the alleged social media comments that pose a difficulty can be sent to the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform to establish whether he can overcome the second difficulty?

Representatives of nearly 50% of children’s services have said that they no longer feel able to keep children safe. Recent research has shown that private fostering, children’s homes and social worker agencies have amassed an estimated annual profit of £220 million, while simultaneously costing local authorities £20 million. At what point will the Government put the needs of vulnerable children before private profit?

It is for local authorities to decide how best to conduct children’s services in their areas, and it would not be right for me to stand at the Dispatch Box and tell them exactly how to contract. I will say this, however. When it comes to protecting the most vulnerable children in our society, the Government have ensured, through the troubled families programme, that hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable families are receiving the targeted, intensive support they need so that their children can be kept out of care and they can stay strong together.

The crisis in adult social care is likely to become worse as it becomes harder to recruit staff from the European economic area to work in that sector post Brexit. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Home Office to ensure that the sector has access to the long-term labour supply that it will need?

I have had discussions with not just the Home Office but the Department of Health and Social Care, and we have pursued the issue with our local government delivery board, which brings together councils from across the country to ensure that such issues are well planned. We keep this issue under careful review, but I believe that councils will rise to the challenge and ensure that the services on which their communities rely will not be disrupted.

Hull is proud of its maritime history, and our relationship with the sea has shaped not only our culture and our economy, but even our character. What support and encouragement can the Minister give Hull City Council in its bid to become an official maritime city?

As someone who was born and bred in the city of Liverpool, I know that the connection between coastal communities and the sea is very strong. What support and encouragement can I give? Well, having visited Hull on many occasions and having had the privilege of experiencing some of the events that took place during its city of culture year, I can say that it seems extremely well placed. I am sure that the hon. Lady, and her colleagues in the constituencies surrounding hers, will let no opportunity pass to bang the drum for Hull, its place in our nation’s story as a maritime city, and its role in driving the future economy of our northern powerhouse.