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Topical Questions

Volume 677: debated on Monday 15 June 2020

Yesterday marked three years since the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. No words will ever be enough, but my thoughts, and I am sure those of the whole House, are with the survivors, the bereaved and the community of north Kensington. Over the weekend I laid a wreath beside the tower on behalf of the Government. We will continue to work to ensure that this tragedy can never happen again.

Once again, I want to thank everybody across local government for their continued and dedicated response to covid-19. We have backed those efforts with £3.2 billion of additional funding, and today I want to reassure councils that I am working closely with Cabinet colleagues on a comprehensive plan to ensure their financial stability for the remainder of this year. I will say more about that shortly. Finally, as many shops reopen their doors to the public this morning and we look to the next phase of our recovery, my Department will be leading efforts to revitalise our local economies with a collective determination to realise Britain’s enormous potential.

In order to get our high streets back up and running, we might need a temporary relaxation of licensing laws—for instance, to get more tables and chairs out on pavements. Clearly we do not want a free-for-all, but what steps is my right hon. Friend considering?

I am very sympathetic to the argument that my hon. Friend has made. I would like to see more outdoor seating and for it to be easier and cheaper for small businesses to get licences. I would also like to see more temporary markets and more pedestrianisation, and for it to be easier to do things such as putting marquees outside pubs for longer this summer. These are all things we need to do to help our economy get going in the summer months, and I will be working with local councils to bring forward our proposals very shortly.

The Secretary of State is caught up in a cash for favours row that now reaches inside No. 10 Downing Street, but last week he did not even have the courage to show up and answer questions in this Chamber, so I hope he will be answering now. Given the gravity of the allegations surrounding his unlawful decision on the Westferry development, will he agree to make a full statement to the House, publish all correspondence and disclose all conversations with other Government Ministers and officials relating to the case, to reassure the public that the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Conservative party fundraising dinners?

Propriety in the planning the system is extremely important and I take my responsibility as Secretary of State very seriously indeed. The application to which the hon. Gentleman refers was highly contentious —all applications that come before the Secretary of State are highly contentious—and had been contested for many years. In fact, it had only come before Ministers in my Department and my predecessor in April because Tower Hamlets Council had itself failed to determine it. I took the decision in good faith and with an open mind. I am confident that all the rules were followed in doing so.

It is not unusual for a Secretary of State to come to a different conclusion from a local authority. It is not unusual for a Secretary of State to come a different conclusion from a planning inspector—no disrespect to the great people who work there—and my predecessors did so on a number of occasions. All the relevant information relating to this matter is with the Cabinet Secretary. I have taken, and will take again, advice from my permanent secretary about what further documentation we might be able to publish. As the hon. Gentleman says, we want to ensure the correct processes of the planning system are followed. That means publishing documents while bearing in mind the legitimate interests of the parties to this case, which remains a live planning application.

Back in March, the Chancellor rightly told the House that event hire companies with business properties would be eligible for rate relief and a corresponding leisure and hospitality grant. However, subsequent guidance from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government excluded those companies. Will the Secretary of State clarify the position—at present, neighbouring local authorities in my part of Hampshire are making different decisions for the same firms—or does he think that the new discretionary grant fund is the way to go? Right now, my local authority will do neither without the Secretary of State telling it that it can. (903225)

My understanding is that the new discretionary fund would allow a business such as the one my hon. Friend raises to benefit from that. I know he has written to me in the past asking for further clarification, but I am happy to come back to him once again and ensure that that business has the clarification it needs to receive the funding it desperately requires at this time.

The Secretary of State has admitted that giving full consent to Richard Desmond’s Westferry development was unlawful because of apparent bias, so why did he not immediately recuse himself from taking the decision instead of unlawfully trying to force it through? (903226)

Let us be clear about the circumstances here: all the parties to this application—that includes the Mayor of London, the applicant and Tower Hamlets Council—agreed to redetermine the case at my suggestion. The court consented to do that and that is now what will happen. If underlying her question is one made in writing by, I think, the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed), as to what the involvement of my Department was in this matter, I am happy to clarify. My Department knew about my attendance at the event before I went to it. It knew about the fact that I had inadvertently sat next to the applicant. I did not know who I was going to be seated by until I sat at the table. I discussed and took advice from my officials within the Department at all times.

In beautiful Hastings and Rye we have seen a noticeable increase in constituents contacting me about being terrified and intimidated, victims of antisocial behaviour from particular neighbours. What measures is my right hon. Friend taking to support social housing landlords in dealing with and reducing the increase in this disturbing behaviour? (903230)

First, let me say that it is completely unacceptable for anyone to feel unsafe or intimidated in their home. Earlier this year, I announced an additional £165 million for the troubled families programme to tackle some of the issues of antisocial behaviour and to help to transform people’s lives. Later this year I will publish our social housing White Paper, which I hope will empower tenants and improve the quality of life in social housing for ever. We have also given landlords, the police and councils a significant range of powers to tackle antisocial behaviour, including criminal behaviour orders and community protection notices.

Did the Secretary of State know, when he signed the planning consent for Westferry, that the next day a new levy would come into effect, which would have cost the developers tens of millions of pounds more? (903227)

That was a matter of public record. It was referred to in the planning inspector’s report that my Department received in November, so all parties would have been aware of that.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the work done with rough sleepers during this crisis presents a unique opportunity? Will he commit to redoubling efforts to bring together the national Government, local government, the voluntary sector and, crucially, employers to make sure that we can build on this platform, so that more rough sleepers can be found sustainable homes and careers and we can work towards the Government’s very laudable aim to end rough sleeping for good? (903233)

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. One of the great successes and few silver linings during the pandemic has been the fact that, working with charities and councils across the country, we have helped to bring in more than 90% of those people who are sleeping rough on our streets. That is something we should all be proud of and has undoubtedly saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives, but that is just the beginning. I am now working with the homelessness Minister—my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall)—and Dame Louise Casey on a long-term plan to give those people the accommodation they need to move on and restart their lives. That begins with working with local councils and bringing forward more than 6,000 new homes.

The Secretary of State’s answers to the hon. Members for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) and for Blaydon (Liz Twist) are entirely unsatisfactory. He accepts that he acted unlawfully in overruling a local authority to grant planning permission to a wealthy Tory donor, helping him to avoid £40 million in tax. Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how he expects the public to have confidence in planning procedures given his actions, and why he thinks it is appropriate for him to remain in post while a police investigation into his behaviour is ongoing? (903228)

I am happy to clarify a number of those points, the vast majority of which were factually incorrect. I understand that a Labour Member of the House of Lords did make an allegation to the police. That was swiftly assessed by members of the Metropolitan police, and they informed me that there were no criminal matters to investigate and they had no intention of taking it further. I would welcome the hon. Gentleman withdrawing that suggestion.

I entirely stand behind the decision that I made. I made it with an open mind, because we want to see more homes built in this country and in particular in our capital city. This development would have led to 1,500 homes and 250 affordable homes. I remind the House that this contentious decision came to my desk as Secretary of State because the local council had failed to determine it in accordance with the law.

Hinckley business improvement district has worked over the past decade to increase footfall and reduce shop vacancies. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), the Secretary of State talked about the vision that may well be in place. Will he expand on where he thinks BIDs should be in the future of driving forward such places as Hinckley post-covid-19? (903234)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which is a very good one. As he rightly says, BIDs have a very important role to play in this regeneration. We see them at the heart of the process of making sure that the high street comes back stronger from this pandemic and that we make good progress in making sure that the high street is genuinely fit for the future. That means meeting the needs of modern consumer habits.

On the Westferry development, the Secretary of State has just told the House that the Department was advised of the conversation with Richard Desmond at the fundraising dinner before he overruled his own planning inspector to approve the Westferry development, but a whistleblower in the Department says that there is no record of the dinner appearing in official documents. That is potentially a serious breach of the ministerial code, especially as the Secretary of State himself has just admitted that it is a highly contentious application. Will he now confirm when and how he advised the Department of the meeting, given the question of bias that this issue raises? (903229)

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Lady with her pre-prepared question, but as she will have heard in my answer a few moments ago, the Department was fully informed of my attendance at the event. I discussed with my officials that the applicant had raised the matter. I advised the applicant that I was not able to discuss it, so I think I have answered her question comprehensively.

My right hon. Friend has ensured throughout the coronavirus pandemic that local authorities have been supported and supported well. My local authority, Sefton Council, has concerns about future funding arrangements. What more can his Department do to help? (903235)

We said at the start of the pandemic that we would give councils, which were responding to covid so brilliantly, the resources they need, and we meant it. We have announced more than £3.2 billion of new grant funding, including more than £17.5 million for Sefton Council. As I said earlier, we are going to keep working with councils, including Sefton, to ensure that they have the resources they need.

May I start by sending, on behalf of all my Liberal Democrat colleagues, our very best wishes to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) for a speedy and full recovery? Who will make the re-decision on the Westferry Printworks development in place of the Secretary of State, and how will they address the concerns about apparent bias expressed by the High Court in its judgment? (903231)

As is usual in cases when planning applications are re-determined, a different Minister in the Department will be chosen and will make the decision, and whenever that case comes forward, he or she will do as I did and approach this matter without any bias, with an open mind and do the right thing.

Sitting suspended.