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Housing, Communities and Local Government

Volume 669: debated on Monday 13 January 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Local Government Finance

1. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of Government funding for local authorities in England. (900100)

13. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of Government funding for local authorities in England. (900113)

Next year’s settlement for local government responds to the pressures facing councils by providing access to the largest year-on-year increase in spending power for a decade. Core spending power is expected to rise from £46.2 billion to £49.1 billion in 2020-21—an estimated 4.4% real-terms increase.

Big-city authorities such as Manchester have been hit hardest by the cuts at the same time as they have had to deal with the extra costs of deprivation, such as high demand on social care budgets, poor health, and homelessness, with big cities being magnets for homeless people from the wider region. What guarantees can the Minister give that those pressures will be reflected properly in the new funding formula?

Manchester City Council will receive a £30.9 million increase in the provisional settlement—a 7% rise that includes 17.6% in additional adult social care grant. Decisions on the future funding formula are to be taken in the weeks ahead, but we will release some provisional figures in the coming weeks for working groups to look at.

If the Government are to deliver on their commitment to the north, combined authorities must receive fair funding. The Government have promised to level up throughout the country, so will the Minister confirm that in any new devolution deal funding for West Yorkshire Combined Authority will match that of any other combined authority, such as Greater Manchester, on a per-head basis?

Negotiations on the deal are ongoing, but we are optimistic. We can confirm that Bradford Council will receive an increase of £25.6 million in the settlement—a 6.4% real-terms rise in core spending power on last year.

One local government problem that is becoming more expensive is the repair and reopening of Hammersmith bridge. On that and the reopening of Harwood Terrace, will my hon. Friend tell the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham to get on with it so that we can get traffic moving again in west London? Will my hon. Friend or the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss the matter?

My right hon. Friend has been working hard on this issue on behalf of his constituents, and I am happy to meet him to discuss it in the weeks ahead.

May I welcome the real-terms increase for local authorities over the next two years, which is the result of our balanced approach to the economy? Will my hon. Friend update the House on the steps his Department is taking to make councils more efficient?

May I welcome my hon. Friend to his place in the House? He is already looking to be a champion for his community. We are of course working with local authorities to make sure that they can become more efficient, especially in respect of digital transformation. My hon. Friend’s local authority and those throughout the country will have access in the coming year to the 4.4% real-terms rise in core spending power.

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker.

It is 173 days—almost 25 weeks or almost six months—since the Secretary of State was appointed, so it is nice that we finally have local government questions. With local government in crisis, children’s services, which are included in that, are also in crisis. According to the Tory-led Local Government Association, the number of children in care is up 28%, child protection plans are up 53%, and there has been a staggering 139% increase in serious cases. With the funding gap growing to £3.1 billion by 2025, sticking plasters will not do, so will the Minister now commit finally to fix this crisis and ensure that his Chancellor fully funds children’s services in future?

This is the best provisional local government settlement for almost 10 years: a 4.4% rise in real-terms funding and a £2.9 billion increase in local government spending. We propose to allow local authorities to set council tax increases of up to 2%, and another 2% for adult social care. It is a positive settlement and I hope the hon. Gentleman will support it in the weeks ahead.

Building Better, Building Beautiful

2. What steps he is taking to simplify the planning system and implement the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful initiative. (900101)

We want a planning system that encourages beautiful development, guards against ugliness and is based on stewardship and place- making. That is why we convened the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which submitted its report to me in December.

May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the commission’s co-chair, Sir Roger Scruton, who died yesterday? Sir Roger was an intellectual giant, a brilliant writer and a fearless fighter for freedom, not least in eastern Europe, and he made a unique contribution to public life.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I associate myself with his remarks about Sir Roger Scruton.

Will the Secretary of State confirm whether he will implement the Letwin review and whether his Department plans to capture development value to fund infrastructure as well as encourage sustainable building with very high-quality design? Will he meet me and a delegation from the Academy of Urbanism to discuss these ideas?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We are currently reviewing the recommendations of the commission and I shall respond in due course. I would be very happy to meet her and representatives from the Academy for Urbanism.

As regards capturing uplifts in land value, local planning authorities already use section 106 and the community infrastructure levy to pay for crucial affordable housing and infrastructure, and, as a result of changes we have made recently, there will shortly be greater transparency so that residents can see where this money is going.

I have absolutely no idea whether co-operative housing is likely to benefit from the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful initiative, but by my definition it certainly should. Would the Secretary of State be willing to meet me and a small delegation from the co-op housing movement to see whether there can be a replication here in the UK of the successes that co-ops have had in the US in housing veterans and other people?

I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. The recommendations of the commission that we will publish shortly speak to all forms of housing, including co-operative housing and social housing, where, of course, there have been some fantastic examples of good-quality design, not least the RIBA award-winning new social homes in Norwich.

The question refers to simplifying the planning system, but one of its many complications is that there is no standard methodology for calculating five-year land supply. Will the Government look at this and please address the problem pretty quickly?

We will be giving that further thought. The Government are committed to bringing forward a new White Paper on planning reform. I will work closely with the Chancellor to draw up those proposals, and I would be very happy to speak with my hon. Friend and take his views as we do so.

May I welcome the Secretary of State back? Given the turnover of Housing Ministers, I trust that his first oral questions in the post will not also be his last. The Conservatives’ failure on planning is at the heart of their failure on housing. Their permitted development loophole lets developers sidestep the planning rules and build modern-day slum housing. It has been in place for four years now, so can he say whether the number of new affordable homes being built has gone up or down directly as a result of this planning change?

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks? Permitted development rights are subject to a review, and we have consulted stakeholders. He is right to say that there are some examples of poor practice, and I will carefully consider the information we have received before coming forward with proposals. Those rights have led to a large number of net additions that would not otherwise have been brought forward. That is important, and it is a contributing factor to the fact that, last year, we delivered more homes than any other for 30 years. Therefore, the planning reforms taken forward by my predecessors, which I will take forward with my new White Paper, have contributed to getting the homes built in this country that we desperately need.

For the record, the number of new social rented homes is at a near record low. Rather than the net additions that the Secretary of State talks about, the Conservative-led Local Government Association says that this policy has led directly to 13,500 fewer new affordable homes. It hits at the heart of the Tory failure on housing: the rules are loosened so that big builders profit while renters and buyers on ordinary incomes lose out. Every Conservative MP should know that they have lost the argument on housing. With Ipsos MORI showing a 17 point lead for Labour over the Conservatives on housing, people know the country has a housing crisis and they know the Conservatives are failing to fix it. The Secretary of State had nothing to say on housing at the election, so what will the Government now do differently to win public confidence on housing?

The right hon. Gentleman is on dangerous ground talking about the general election. He managed to take one of Labour’s safest seats to a marginal seat, and his colleague—the other shadow Secretary of State—was the co-ordinator of the Labour party’s general election campaign. The facts speak for themselves: last year we built more homes in this country than in any other year for 30 years; we built 1 million homes in the last Parliament and will build at least 1 million homes in the next Parliament; more affordable homes were built under this Conservative Government than under the last Labour Government; and we built more council houses last year than in the 13 years of the last Labour Government.

New Homes

We have delivered more than 1.5 million new homes since 2010 and last year saw the highest level of delivery in over 30 years, but there is more to do. Later this year I will publish a White Paper on planning reform, an objective of which will be a simpler and faster system for the benefit of everyone, including homeowners, and small and medium-sized builders.

Conservative-led Rugby Borough Council has ambitious plans for social housing in Rugby, replacing unpopular old tower blocks with new, traditional housing. How can the Minister help the council to get on with this as quickly as possible? In particular, what discussions has he had with Treasury colleagues about the interest rate available from the Public Works Loan Board for projects such as this, which provide a very clear social benefit?

We want to build more homes of all types. We have delivered 464,000 new affordable homes since 2010, and we have abolished the housing revenue account cap and established a five-year rent deal. Councils can secure grant funding from the existing affordable homes programme, and I am pleased to say that Rugby Borough Council is benefiting from that. In our manifesto, we said that we would create a successor to the affordable homes programme that is at least as generous. Finance from the Public Works Loan Board plays an important role in these investments. In October the Treasury made an extra £10 billion of lending available, and the interest rate remains very favourable, returning only to 2018 levels.

The housing White Paper provided that developers should start to build within two years of securing planning permission. Will the Minister update the House on what progress has been made to ensure that developers build the homes we need and do not sit on land?

I welcome my hon. Friend to the House. We want to see new homes built as soon as possible once planning permission is granted. She is right to refer to the previous housing White Paper, and this matter will be an important element of the forthcoming planning White Paper. Developers and authorities should be working closely together locally to deliver this, and I will look at whatever is necessary, including amending legislation, to ensure that we build the homes this country needs, and that we do so quickly.

The climate emergency is real and we need to tackle it. Building new homes to a net zero standard must be at the heart of the solution. What action are this new Government going to take?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We have committed to the future homes standard, which means that no new home will be built in this country from 2025 unless it has the highest levels of energy efficiency, and low or zero-carbon heating. We are consulting on that and further proposals will be brought forward shortly, meaning that planning applications will be made very shortly for those homes to be delivered post 2025. This will be a major change in the delivery of homes across the country, and a very welcome one.

Thousands of new homes are due to be built at Maghull in my constituency. The developers are reluctant to build an access road, which means that construction traffic will now have to use totally unsuitable residential and rural roads. The experience in Maghull is all too typical. Does this not just show the problems with the planning system that favour developers over existing communities?

I am happy to look into the instance that the hon. Gentleman raises. These matters are usually dealt with by councils in the planning conditions that they choose to set. The role in this for central Government is ensuring that infrastructure flows first—that was one of our manifesto commitments—so that GP surgeries, roads and schools flow at an appropriate time. We are going to take that forward. In the previous Parliament we created the housing infrastructure fund, which was a huge success and has delivered billions of pounds of infrastructure. We have committed to create a new version of that, which the Chancellor and I will be announcing shortly and will be larger and longer-term than its predecessor.

It is a pleasure to see you in your Chair, Mr Speaker.

I thank the Secretary of State for recently visiting Telford. It was very much appreciated that he came to a new-build development where we have been having some difficult issues. As a new town, Telford experiences a very rapid rate of house building that can be overwhelming for communities and for local services. What steps is his Department taking to ensure good practice by developers and adequate local services for residents?

It was a pleasure to visit Telford—a town that, as my hon. Friend knows, I know well. Telford is one of the fastest-growing towns in the country. While there are many examples of good-quality development —she took me to Lightmoor Village, being built with the Bournville Village Trust—there have been examples, on which she has fought for her constituents, of poor-quality development. Developers need to build high-quality, well-designed and safe homes, and we will take the steps necessary to ensure that they do. One step we are taking forward is the creation of a new homes ombudsman, which has been led in recent months by—now—my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke). We will put that on a statutory footing in due course.

Council Homes

Councils built 26,185 affordable homes between 2010-11 and 2018-19, up from just 2,994 over the previous 13 years under a Labour Administration. We are giving councils the tools to deliver a new generation of council housing. In 2018, we lifted the borrowing caps for councils to deliver 10,000 new homes a year by 2021-22.

But last year 6,287 homes for social rent were built and 10,000 were lost due to right to buy and other conversions. That was a loss of 4,000 social rented homes in our country. Is it not time, first, that the Government used net figures rather than these fantasy “built” figures; and, secondly, that we really reviewed right to buy, allowing councils good conditions and restrictions where there are areas of stress and ensuring that the discount carries on rather than just being pocketed by the individual?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we are consulting on right to buy to see what we can do with the sales receipts. Let me say what this Government have done to support councils in building. We increased to £9 billion the size of the affordable homes programme to which councils can apply. We have reintroduced social rents. We have removed the HRA borrowing caps for local authorities and given £2 billion to housing authorities to help with the ability to increase purchases and build by councils. So this Government are doing far more. Under this Government, social housing has gone up by 79,000, but in the previous 13 years under Labour it fell by 420,000.

There are currently over 20,000 people on the council housing waiting list in Cornwall, yet we are in the ridiculous situation where private pension providers can invest in business development but not in residential development. Will the Secretary of State look at making representations to the Treasury to allow pension providers to invest in social residential housing?

My hon. Friend makes a very good suggestion. That is exactly what the Secretary of State will be looking at—how we get that investment into the housing structure. Under this Government, council housing waiting lists have come down by nearly half a million.

If the Minister is keen to talk about what is happening elsewhere, she will be interested to know that in the last five years, the SNP Government in Scotland have built 80% more affordable housing per head of population than England and twice as much as Wales. When will the British Government catch on to the fact that the housing crisis will not be solved unless they invest adequately in social rented housing?

Obviously, this is a devolved matter, but I want to look at what this Government have done. We have delivered many more affordable homes—nearly 460,000. That is what this Government are all about—ensuring that people have the homes they need when they need them. We are looking to extend all types of home. We are tenure-blind, and we are delivering more homes.

That is all good and well, but there is no point when the Conservative party manifesto commits to promoting and extending the right to buy—one of Margaret Thatcher’s biggest disasters in terms of policy. In Scotland, we ended the right to buy, protecting existing social rented homes and preventing the sale of 15,500 homes over a decade. Why can the Minister not see and understand that it is totally senseless to build new social housing, only to flog it off afterwards?

We believe in home ownership. The right to buy has helped 2 million people get on the housing ladder. Since 2010, nearly 600,000 households have been helped to purchase a home through either right to buy or help to buy, and we are ensuring that the money from the right to buy is helping more homes to be built. In fact, we have sold 119,000 homes, which has helped to build 140,000 more homes. That is what we will continue to do—allow people to own their own homes and support all people at every stage of life in every home they need.

The Minister is completely right that the housing supply jigsaw has many pieces, so we will continue to pump billions of pounds into housing associations such as Walsall Housing Group in my constituency, which has an innovative partnership with Lovell to build 250 mixed tenure houses on the former Caparo engineering works, a brownfield site. Is that the future?

It certainly is. My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, and he has a lot of expertise in this area. As I have said, our party is tenure-blind, and we help people along the steps to ownership, to get the house they need at the time they need it, knowing that most people want to own their own home.

It is the aspiration of every individual in this country to own their own home, but many local authorities that have built council housing have deliberately set up housing companies to frustrate the right to buy. Will my right hon. Friend look at outlawing that practice, so that people who are tenants in their homes get the right to buy and own their own home?

We will look closely at anybody who is frustrating people’s dream and desire to own their own home. We will continue with the right to buy. We will look at how those receipts are being used, so that we can maximise the new homes being built. Under Labour, 170 right-to-buy receipts bought one new home. Now, we are getting more homes built through the right to buy, and having sold 119,000 homes, we have built 140,000 more.

The Conservatives’ deep cuts to new council and social housing are part of the reason why homelessness has risen so rapidly over the last 10 years. Every day, hundreds of us see the increasing number of homeless people and their belongings in Westminster station and outside this building, but their plight is the same as that of thousands of others across the country who find themselves trying to find somewhere dry and safe to sleep. Does the Minister accept that, if the Tories had simply continued building social rented homes at the level left by Labour, there would now be 200,000 more social rented homes for those who need them, including those who are homeless on Parliament’s doorstep?

What we all know is that, for a long period, demand has outstripped supply. That is why this Government are building more homes, with more homes built in the last year than in the last 30 years. We have delivered 1.5 million more homes since 2010, and we will continue to do that. Of course, we have also brought in initiatives for rough sleeping and homeless people. We have to be fully aware of that, and this Conservative Government are doing a lot more to help those people.

Local Government Funding: Crime and Disorder

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on the effect of reductions in funding for local government on levels of crime and disorder. (900105)

This Department has ongoing discussions with the Home Office on multiple issues, including tackling crime. The provisional local government finance settlement confirmed an increase of £2.9 billion in resources for local government this year. This Government are also providing targeted funding support for partnership working between the police, councils and other partners.

The front five pages of the Cambridge News today detail a series of knife crime incidents, drug dealing and general social disorder, which is causing huge concern to my constituents. When I talk to the police about it, they tell me that one of the key reasons is the cuts to all those preventive, early intervention services that have happened over the last few years. Can the Government today please look again at those cuts to local government? They are not cost-effective; they are costing us more and causing huge crime levels and misery.

I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I know that he raises crime in his constituency regularly in the House, including in his Westminster Hall debate late last year. The real-terms increase in the funding settlement for next year does recognise the critical services that councils are delivering, including keeping communities safe. As part of the Government’s drive to recruit 20,000 police officers across the country, 62 are already being recruited in his force area. I am very happy to work with him and discuss it with him in the weeks ahead.

It is with great regret that Humberside’s Labour police and crime commissioner allowed Winterton police station to close. In contrast to that, Conservative-run North Lincolnshire and East Riding of Yorkshire Councils have funded a very innovative safe and sound grant to help elderly residents to stay safe in their home with free security. Is not the real challenge that simply not enough councils and police forces are working closely enough together to share resources, and will the Minister do more to ensure that they do?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He raises a really important point about the need for councils and police forces to work together. I commend the work that his Conservative police and crime commissioner is doing, and I highlight the Government’s commitment to recruit 20,000 police officers across our country, with 6,000 police officers being recruited in the next year.

Leasehold Property

We are committed to reforming the leasehold market so that it is fairer for consumers and the abuses that we have seen in recent years are addressed. To achieve this, we have a comprehensive programme of reform, and we are moving forward with legislation, beginning with the Bill set out in the Queen’s Speech banning new leasehold houses and reducing ground rents on future leases to zero.

The Secretary of State says he is committed to reform. Since 2015, I have come across countless cases of people trapped on iniquitous terms in relation to ground rent, cladding—you name it—and unable to extend without paying through the nose. In that same time, however, the Government have had seven consultations, and there is no concrete legislation about anything they are actually going to do. Can he tell us when he will end this feudal hangover, which is unique to England, once and for all?

The hon. Lady is incorrect. The Queen’s Speech made it clear that we will be bringing forward legislation. We intend to publish a draft Bill shortly, which will take the first steps that I have just described. We are also awaiting the next report of the Law Commission. We have just received one on enfranchisement. It is a very important issue, and I certainly want to take forward its recommendations to ensure a simpler and fairer system. The next report of the Law Commission will be on commonhold. Again, we will be paying close attention to that. At our encouragement, the Competition and Markets Authority is now looking into the mis-selling of leaseholds, which is another important issue. Be under no illusion: we will be taking forward leasehold reform, and soon.

I thank the Secretary of State and his predecessors for the work they have done in commissioning work from the Law Commission that will provide a guide to the way forward. May I put it to the Secretary of State that, as his representatives at the all-party group meeting last week will confirm, there is a whole range of strong issues—the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) mentioned them—and that the Government, the Select Committee and the whole House need to make sure there is action, not just good intentions?

I thank the Father of the House for the work he has done over many years on this issue. I campaigned on this before I became a Minister. I have seen a number of abuses with respect to leasehold properties, and we want to take action. Now is the time for action. We have the first report from the Law Commission. There will be a further one. There will then be the report from the CMA. Together with the evidence, we will take this into careful consideration and move forward to reform leasehold and put it on a more sustainable footing for the future.

As many of us heard at a meeting here on Thursday night and many of us know from our case load, so many people are caught in really difficult circumstances because of the issue of cladding. Those leaseholders are mortgage prisoners or their properties are valued at zero. Will the Secretary of State give them some assurance that the Government are taking this seriously and will act fast, because people’s lives are unable to move on while they await a decision on the second type of cladding?

I appreciate the issue the hon. Lady has raised, and I read about the meeting of the all-party group the other day. This is a very serious challenge; I am aware of a number of leaseholders who are struggling to find the finance required to make the necessary changes to their homes. We are giving this careful consideration. We have already provided £600 million for those living in high-rise buildings with ACM cladding so that that work can now proceed at pace, and I will certainly meet with any of the hon. Lady’s constituents who might wish to discuss what further steps the Government can take to unblock this important issue.

May I press my right hon. Friend: will he reassure leaseholders in North West Leicestershire and across the country that the Government will set up a mechanism for them to seek proper redress for their genuine grievances?

The Secretary of State rightly refers to action, but when? That is the key question my constituents are asking in the Winnington part of Weaver Vale and Sandymoor. We have had consultation upon consultation; when will there be action? We need action now, not careful consideration.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, and the north-west has been particularly badly affected by this. The statistics suggest that new-build homes in the north-west peaked at as high as 71% of all new homes being built in 2017—in the first quarter of that year. That has now fallen very considerably as a result of the actions and the statements of this Government and the general anger across this House and across the country at the abuses; that has now fallen to as low as 8%, but we will be legislating and we will outlaw these practices.

High Streets

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s support for high streets. (900108)

11. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s support for high streets. (900110)

15. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s support for high streets. (900115)

20. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s support for high streets. (900121)

This Government are committed to supporting high streets and local leaders up and down the country, and we are doing that through our £1 billion future high street fund, which is part of our larger £3.6 billion towns fund.

As this is our first questions after the festive season I want to take this opportunity to thank all the shopworkers who worked so hard over the Christmas period to enable us to deliver our Christmas presents—and particularly, if I may, Mr Speaker, the workers in the RSPCA shop on Bank Street who sold me the very natty tie I am wearing for 50p only last Friday.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply—and I think his tie is very blue.

My constituency, Cities of London and Westminster, is home to Oxford Street, often referred to as the nation’s high street. Given that local authorities rely heavily on business rate receipts to help encourage more investment into the high street, what plans do the Government have to give councils greater fiscal powers to invest business rates locally?

What an excellent question; I would like to start by welcoming my hon. Friend to her place, and her question is a sign of the expertise that can be brought into this House when we have people with long experience in local government. She will know that local government can currently retain 50% of business rates revenue growth, and councils are able to work with those retained business rates and see what they can do to improve their local areas. I know that as a new and robust Member of this House my hon. Friend will continue her work with Westminster City Council to make sure that that happens.

Towns like Brierley Hill in Dudley South have struggled to compete with nearby retail parks, and also now increasingly with more shopping moving online. Will my right hon. Friend do everything he can to help towns like Brierley Hill adapt to modern economic challenges and also make those town centres places where people want to be?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited Brierley Hill, I am sure to celebrate the fact that it is one of the first 100 places under our future high street fund to receive £150,000 revenue funding to work on the exciting plans to ensure our high streets are fit for the future. My hon. Friend, who is, I think, still the chairman of the all-party group on beer, will be working very hard to make sure our pubs are protected, and we can have micropubs up and down the land.

In recent years Wolverhampton city centre and, in my constituency, local centres such as Wednesfield high street have struggled. I am delighted that Wolverhampton city centre will benefit from the Government’s stronger towns fund, but will the Minister work with me so that local traders and retail businesses all over Wolverhampton North East, including market traders in Wednesfield high street—

It is a city. Will the Minister work with me so that they feel confident that the Government will support their hard work and further local regeneration?

I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend is looking forward to playing an active role both in her high street and stronger towns fund bid. The idea behind this is to bring together leaders and communities—Members of Parliament, council leaders, business leaders and third sector groups—to come up with a long-term plan for the improvement of their towns. Whichever side of the House Members sit on, that is absolutely something they will want to see for the area they represent. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend as she takes that role forward.

Speaking to traditional retailers during the election campaign, it is clear that future business rates is a massive issue for them. There is, in particular, a sense that there is not a level playing field between them and the increasingly dominant and massive digital retailers. Will the review of business rates, which we promised in our manifesto, be looking at that?

I welcome my hon. Friend back. He has been a redoubtable campaigner in the area of business rates in his time in Parliament. Working with him and through him, the Government have, since 2016, introduced a £13 billion cut in business rates over the next five years. Should we in this Parliament seek to go further and faster? Yes. We are going to review business rates and I am sure my hon. Friend will play an active role in that review.

Leading on from the issue raised by my fellow colleague from Suffolk, Beales has stores in both Lowestoft and Beccles in my constituency. It is clear that the crippling impact of business rates has been a significant contributory factor to the difficulties it is currently facing. I acknowledge the rates relief the Government have provided to smaller businesses, but may I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure, in the review of business rates that is due to take place, that the Government not only consider root and branch reform but the replacement of rates, too?

My hon. Friend, as a chartered surveyor, is an expert in this area and, like our parliamentary colleague, he has campaigned vigorously and continuously. In terms of the review, everything is going to be reviewed. It will be a joint review between my Department and the Treasury. All ideas, from all sides of the House, about how we improve the health of our high streets and our business community more generally, will certainly be taken on board.

I want to return to the question from the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), which I do not think the Minister really answered. In the previous Parliament, a unanimously agreed Select Committee report—I think it was generally well received, apart from the response from the Government which was a bit lukewarm—recommended that we address the fundamental imbalance whereby Amazon pays 0.7% of its turnover in business rates and high street shops pay between 2% and 6%. That unfairness needs to be addressed. Will the Government now commit, as part of their business rate review, to look at that unfairness and at how we can rebalance tax, so that digital sales pay more and high street sales pay less?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will not complain if I just take the opportunity to wish him a happy birthday. What a great question to ask on his birthday. If he listened to the answers I gave, I was absolutely clear that this will be a fundamental and wide-ranging review of business rates. All arguments, including those set out in the report by the Select Committee he chaired in the previous Parliament, will be taken into account. Perhaps, if he gets a spare moment this evening in between blowing out candles, he can read the relevant passage of the Conservative manifesto, which is pretty clear on this point.

I spoke to the previous Secretary of State to ask for Knottingley in my constituency to be included in the towns fund, because the high street is under great pressure and has been heavily hit by public service cuts and Government spending cuts in the last few years. We have lost not only the last bank and local shops, but the sports centre, the library, the Sure Start centre, much policing and local youth services. Knottingley has not been included and, frankly, that means that it is not getting a fair deal. Will the Minister ask the Secretary of State to meet me and see what can be done to make sure that Government investment can go back into Knottingley town centre and that we can get a fair deal for the town?

I remind the Minister that it is not only high streets but our town centres that are under pressure and in decline all over our country, and this is not just about business rates, but about notable buildings. Mr Speaker, you will know about the George hotel, where rugby league was founded 125 years ago—the anniversary is coming up next year. It cannot be renovated and has lain empty and idle for years. Surely the compulsory purchase order system could be improved to give local authorities the ability to take a significant building in any town centre and do something about it.

The planning White Paper will come out after the conclusion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech, and, looking at how CPO works in our town centres and other parts of the country will be part of the consultation. On the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, it would seem to me a crying shame if this issue could not be dealt with, as we head towards the rugby league world cup. If he would like to come to see me, I will certainly make it my job to do so.

Mr Speaker, it was a pleasure to see your journey down here with Patrick the cat and Boris the parrot a couple of days ago—a preening, repetitive, attention-seeking Boris; I am sure he will fit in quite well here.

Our high streets and town centres are in crisis, with more shops closing than opening. The Government keep falling way below what is needed to take real action that will make a difference. When will they take real action to address the fundamental weakness of our business taxation system to give our high streets and town centres a fighting chance? As a practical suggestion, why not look at enterprise-type zones for our town centres with incentives to make sure that they have a future?

In terms of practical action, the £3.6 billion towns fund seems to be a good place to start. When we add to that the £13 billion that we are saving for businesses in business rates, we are certainly making some progress, but I will go away and look at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion about high street enterprise zones.

Topical Questions

From Kensington to Sedgefield, and from Workington to Wrexham, this Government were elected to represent all parts of the country. My Department is focused on repaying that trust by levelling up every community with a renewed focus on those areas that have been overlooked and undervalued for too long. We will ensure that local government is properly supported to deliver the services that we all rely on with the best financial settlement in a decade. We will keep building the homes that this country needs with investment in infrastructure and affordable housing, while making the dream of home ownership a reality for everyone, and we will redouble our efforts to bring about the biggest change in building safety for a generation.

This year, we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the world war two concentration camps. I ask the Secretary of State, in his communities role, what is being done to mark the occasion, and furthermore, what is being done to tackle antisemitism more generally wherever it occurs?

On 23 January, I will accompany His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to the holocaust forum at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, which brought an end to the murder of 6 million Jewish men, women and children, but as we know, did not bring an end to the cancer of antisemitism. The Government have provided an additional £2.2 million for schools to teach lessons from Auschwitz and £1.7 million for visits to Bergen-Belsen, the camp liberated by British troops. I will continue to champion the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, including requiring all councils to adopt it forthwith.

Council funding cuts under this Government have created a shortage of safe accommodation for vulnerable children, and now thousands of at-risk young people are being placed in care homes that are illegal, miles from their school or unregulated. Does the Secretary of State agree that responsibility for this injustice lies at the feet of his Government?

We have recently published, and will be debating shortly, the most generous settlement for local government for a decade. It will provide a 4.4% real- terms increase in funding for local government and will include a £1 billion grant for social care. These are important issues that we need to take forward. I am aware of some issues with supported housing, for example, and the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), is taking that forward, but as a result of the economic renewal that the country is undergoing, after almost a decade of economic growth, we are now able to invest more in local government. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and all Members of the House will support the local government settlement next month.

T2. Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the excellent market town of Marlow for its thriving high street, with local stores such as FourState, which sources eco-friendly, sustainable and ethical products, and what is his Department doing to provide a better deal for towns and high streets that have been overlooked and undervalued by Whitehall for far too long? (900141)

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. I know that she, together with the Centre for Social Justice, has been active in this area for many years, which is why I am delighted to tell her that we have a £3.6 billion towns fund, which will support an initial 100 town deals across England, together with the £1 billion future high streets fund. We are working with local government up and down this land to ensure we fight for the future health of our high streets.

T5. Last week it was reported that the new Minister for Housing was lobbying the Secretary of State for more funding for council house investment as opposed to failed ownership schemes. Does the Secretary of State agree with the case she was making? (900144)

As I have already said in previous answers, the Government want to build more homes of all types. If we are to tackle the housing crisis, we will need to spend more on infrastructure, which we are doing; further reform the planning system, which I intend to do; and invest more in affordable housing, and we have already invested £9 billion through our affordable housing programme and made a manifesto commitment to introduce another one that is even larger. But do I believe that people in this country fundamentally want to own a home of their own? Yes, I do, and we will do all we can to help more people on the housing ladder.

T3. As my right hon. Friend has mentioned, this is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Will he join me in commending the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, which does such brilliant work to enable survivors to inform young people about the horrors of antisemitism and where it ultimately leads? Will he also join me and others in signing the book of commitment in the House of Commons so that we can eradicate racism and antisemitism wherever they rears their ugly head? (900142)

My hon. Friend, who has campaigned on this issue for many years, speaks for the whole House. I will of course be signing the book. I am informed by the Leader of the House that there will be a debate in the House on or around Holocaust Memorial Day in the usual way. We must all continue to fight the cancer of antisemitism, in all its forms, on every occasion, and this Government will always do that.

T6. The Minister will know that when the north prospers the nation prospers, and a recent independent study showed that the One Yorkshire devolution project could bring £30 billion to our region’s economy, so will he finally allow us to bring power home by letting One Yorkshire devolution go ahead? (900145)

I am sure that, like me, the hon. Lady is delighted that one of the first policy commitments of our new Prime Minister before the general election was to say that we should have devolution—mayoral at that—across the whole of the north of England, and I am delighted to report that we are not only proceeding well with negotiations in West Yorkshire but having good discussions with South Yorkshire—[Interruption.] The rest of Yorkshire is in discussions with us as well. [Interruption.] As I do not think the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) knows, given that he represents Brighton—though he is chuntering from a sedentary position about One Yorkshire—proposals have been submitted to the Government, but the area did not meet the requirement to having a coherent economic geography. I am pleased, however, that we are able to forge ahead with all forms of devolution in Yorkshire. What happens in Brighton we will have to wait and see.

T4. My constituency is 93% green belt. My district council has put together a plan that meets 90% of housing need while protecting the green belt. The planning inspector is indicating the plan should not be adopted. Will the Minister urgently look into the conduct of the Planning Inspectorate in this matter? (900143)

I welcome my hon. Friend to these Benches. She will be a terrific addition to this place, and I am delighted that she is dedicated to the green belt and supporting her constituents. That is only right, and the Government, too, are committed to that. Planning inspectors are appointed to independently examine plans. Given my quasi-judicial role in the planning system, it would not be appropriate for me to speak on this matter, but I cheer my hon. Friend on in all she does for her constituency.

The Government’s consultation on closing the loophole that allows second home owners to avoid paying any council tax whatever by pretending to be a small business ended 12 months ago. Will the Government take action to protect communities in south lakes and elsewhere, or have they decided not to bother?

We will absolutely help communities like the hon. Member’s. The Government have removed the requirement to offer council tax discounts on second homes amounting to 75% of the full rate. He is quite right: the consultation closes on 16 January, and then we will make decisions on it. If he would like to discuss his suggestions with me, I will gladly meet him.

T7. There has been a lot of talk about the blue wall of the north; less, however, has been said about the blue doughnut of Nottinghamshire. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the people of Rushcliffe that this one nation Conservative Government will deliver on our promises to support communities and businesses across the east midlands, to truly get the midlands engine revving in top gear? (900146)

I welcome my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour to the House. I think she is the first new Member of Parliament for Rushcliffe for 49 years. She has a lot to live up to, but I look forward to working with her as we power up the midlands engine. I think her constituency was the only Conservative constituency in the county of Nottinghamshire in 1997. Today, all the constituencies are Conservative. One area that we will of course work on together is delivery of the new development co-operation at Ratcliffe power station, which is a brilliant opportunity for the whole country.

Across the country, children’s care is in crisis. The Secretary of State made welcome reference to the funding settlement, which provides some relief, but that is for the next financial year. Can the Minister confirm that the extra funding will be provided in every year of this Parliament? Will the Government also continue to work with councils to ensure that funding settlements reflect the escalating demand for, and cost of, these services?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question; I know how important this issue is in his constituency. I can certainly confirm that the social care grant will continue every year, including the additional £9.2 million for his local authority into the next year. I am very happy to meet him to discuss this further.

T8. I welcome the fact that house building is at a 30-year high under this Conservative Government, but my constituents and I are concerned by the extremely high local house building target. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how new homes in East Surrey will be supported by much needed investment in road, rail and GP provision? (900147)

I welcome another hon. Friend to these Benches. She is quite right: we have to ensure that we have the right infrastructure. We pledged in the manifesto to ensure that infrastructure first, as set out in the Queen’s Speech. We have the £5.5 billion housing infrastructure fund, but we will introduce a bigger, single housing infrastructure fund to provide the infra- structure that she rightly wants for her constituency and that other Members want for theirs.

Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), may I suggest—given that the only difference in the crisis facing many of our constituents is that they have problems with high pressure laminate or other forms of external cladding, as opposed to aluminium composite material—that it would be sensible to extend the coverage of the fund that the Government have established for the private sector to cover those blocks? Otherwise, the residents will face a very bleak future.

I am grateful for the right hon. Member’s comments, and I saw the early-day motion that he laid in the House to that effect, but we must be guided by the evidence. My predecessors chose to provide the £600 million remediation fund in relation to ACM in high-rise buildings because the expert panel which advises us had said that that was the urgent challenge that needed to be addressed. We have commissioned experts from the Building Research Establishment to carry out further tests on a range of materials, including HPL. I will publish the information shortly, and will say more at that time.

T10. I declare an interest, as a member of the Crawley towns fund board.Can my right hon. Friend say a little more about how he envisages the realisation of the £3.6 billion that the Government are investing in our town centres and high streets? (900149)

I too declare an interest, as a member of the Darwen towns fund board.

I think that we shall be hearing a bit more about that as we work with Members of Parliament, local authorities, businesses and community groups, and ask them to come forward with exciting long-term plans for the rejuvenation of not just their high streets but their towns. We must all remember, Mr Speaker, that there is a reason why you no longer have a tallow merchant in the high street in Chorley. High streets and town centres have always been changing, but with our stronger towns fund we can ensure that we are the handmaidens of that dynamic change.