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Topical Questions

Volume 678: debated on Monday 20 July 2020

This week, we announced the most significant reforms to building safety legislation in 40 years, delivering new and enhanced regulatory regimes. I welcome the voices of all right hon. and hon. Members, on both sides of the House, as we move this critical legislation forwards.

Earlier this month, we set out our comprehensive financial plan to ensure that local councils can proceed with their crucial work with confidence, including a one-of-a-kind scheme reimbursing councils for lost income, measures to spread tax deficits, and an extra £500 million in un-ring-fenced funding. We are also making sure that as we recover from the pandemic, our communities can bounce back with investment in housing and infrastructure and for our town and city centres. Our announced reform of use classes will help to revitalise high streets and town centres, and the Chancellor’s stamp duty cut will help many to realise their dream of owning a home.

Many councils have had to use emergency accommodation and hotels to house rough sleepers during coronavirus. As we look to winter, it will not be possible to build enough social housing within the timeframe required to ensure that people are able to stay off the streets, and many options will need to be considered: for example, social lettings agencies could be established to deal with private rental procurement for vulnerable people and homeless people to access accommodation. All options require funding, so what measures is my right hon. Friend considering to keep vulnerable people off the streets come winter?

Can I say once again how grateful for and proud I am of the work of local councils and homelessness and rough sleeping charities across the country and the remarkable effort that they have made together to protect rough sleepers during the pandemic? That has undoubtedly saved hundreds, if not thousands, of people’s lives. We saw that in the recent Office for National Statistics figures that were published, showing that 16 rough sleepers had died in this country during the pandemic. Each of those deaths, of course, is a tragedy, but that number is far lower than that of any other major developed country. We are making £105 million of immediate support available for local areas to fund exactly the kind of interventions that my hon. Friend refers to., a digital platform supporting over 1,300 churches, estimates that faith groups are providing more than 10 million meals a month to people up and down our country who would otherwise go hungry. Our faith groups have missed out on weekly donations and opportunities to raise funds, and they are running out of money and are in desperate need of financial assistance. What assessment has the Minister’s Government made of the financial hit to places of worship, and why have the Government not provided ring-fenced support to ensure that they can continue their very much needed work?

I pay tribute to the work of faith groups across the country. I have been regularly meeting with faith leaders from all the major religions through our places of worship taskforce. I am extremely grateful for the hard work of that organisation, which has helped us to reopen places of worship safely. I am aware of the financial impact that the pandemic has had on many places of worship and faith organisations. The schemes created for charities by the Chancellor were open to those from faith organisations and many have taken part in them.

Town and parish councils across mid-Cornwall have done an incredible job of supporting their communities through the pandemic, going out of their way to provide extra services. As a result, they have incurred extra costs, as well as seeing their income drop because of car parks. I know the Government have made money available to Cornwall Council to support these hard-pressed councils, but so far it has declined to pass that on. Will the Minister join me in thanking town and parish councils across the country for all the work they have done in recent months? What more can the Government do to ensure the money they have made available gets to these parish councils? (905010)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There is no question but that we owe an enormous debt to town and parish councils for everything they have done throughout the pandemic. We have encouraged principal authorities to discuss the funding provided with their town and parish councils where they are delivering covid-related services. The grant funding of £3.7 billion is un-ring-fenced, recognising that local authorities need to make appropriate decisions about how to meet major covid-19 service pressures in their local area. I certainly hope that Cornwall Council will give that proper consideration.

Over 820,000 people have already fallen into council tax arrears as a direct result of covid-19. The expiry of the emergency protection on 23 August will make it worse for vulnerable and struggling families, who could face unfair and unsafe bailiff action. Will the Minister consider the introduction of a pre-action protocol to protect them? (905011)

We have, for several weeks now, been in exactly those sorts of conversations with my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, who holds the relationship with the judiciary and the Master of the Rolls. The Lord Chancellor has already set out today some initiatives and I am hopeful that further announcements will be made shortly to provide exactly the kind of protection the hon. Lady asks for.

For a mainly rural large county such as Greater Lincolnshire, the effective management of change for local government reform and devolution is critically important to all businesses and individuals. I am aware of a recent speech by the Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), and wondered if he had anything to add with regard to achieving the best outcome for his parliamentary colleagues and our district and county councils for a right and fair deal for my constituents. (905012)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I had recent constructive discussions with both Lincolnshire MPs and all Greater Lincolnshire council leaders on this subject. It is now for them to develop proposals for local government reform and I am committed to working with them. Levelling up all areas of the country by devolving money, resources and control from Westminster is a priority for the Government. Our devolution and local recovery White Paper, to be published this autumn, will set out our detailed plans, including for restructuring local institutions and establishing more mayors.

There are sections of my community blighted by absentee landlords, substandard housing and a total disregard for the need for tenant vetting. Will the Minister take this opportunity to support the Horden housing masterplan in my constituency to regenerate local housing, which could be replicated in neighbouring areas that face the same housing issues and create much needed jobs in the local economy in construction and the housing industry? (905014)

I would be delighted to discuss with the hon. Gentleman that masterplan and to learn more of its details. It is extremely important to us that we not only build more homes, but tackle substandard homes in all parts of the country. That means making them greener and, in some cases, regenerating parts of towns and cities that desperately need it. That will be a focus both for our planning reforms and future investment.

With the good news that leisure centres can reopen again from this weekend, my local council, Buckinghamshire Council, has identified, over and above the extremely generous and unprecedented level of additional spending for councils, a further £3 million cost pressure from waived management fees, loss of income from social distancing measures and so on. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that council tax payers in Buckinghamshire will not be left in the deep end? (905013)

I am extremely pleased that leisure centres will be able to open shortly, in a safe and socially distanced manner. The income guarantee scheme that we have already announced will reimburse local councils for 75p in the pound for lost income, including for the leisure centres that they own and operate themselves. I appreciate that many leisure centres are not owned and operated by local councils; I am working with my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary to see what further package of support we might be able to bring forward to assist.

Waiting until autumn for details of the shared prosperity fund means huge uncertainty for recipients of structural funds, loss of staff and expertise, and near impossible transition planning. So I ask again: why not just guarantee, as a minimum, existing EU funding allocations for next year—and do it now? (905015)

As my hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government said in his earlier remarks, we made a manifesto commitment to ensure that, at a minimum, each of the nations of the United Kingdom will continue to receive the same amount of funding as they did from within the EU. We intend to keep that commitment.

For many years, I have been working alongside community groups within my constituency at Chidswell, Mirfield and Skelmanthorpe, who all have genuine concerns regarding inappropriate developments on farmland, the green belt and areas susceptible to flooding. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss those concerns? (905016)

I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend, who I know campaigns vigorously on these issues. I reassure Members on both sides of the House that the Government intend to bring forward a review of the planning system and how it interrelates with flood plains, to ensure that homes are not built irresponsibly on parts of the country that routinely flood.

On 20 November, two days after meeting Richard Desmond at a Conservative party fundraising dinner, the Secretary of State’s office instructed departmental officials to speed through the Westferry decision before the date when the new community infrastructure levy came into force. The Secretary of State was informing his officials of that date, so it cannot have been them who told him about it. That begs the question: who did? (905019)

The fact that Tower Hamlets Council was preparing a new local plan that included a CIL schedule attached to it was a matter of public record; anybody knowledgeable about London’s housing issues would have known that. It is a perfectly legitimate planning consideration to ensure that a decision is made prior to a material change like that. That is exactly how my officials rightly advised me.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps he is taking to ensure that dangerous cladding is removed from high-rise residential buildings and that the assistance is targeted to support leaseholders, who face large bills preventing them from being able to sell their homes at the moment? (905017)

We have brought forward the now £1.6 billion fund tackling not just ACM cladding—on which there has been some progress, although far more progress is required—but other types of dangerous cladding such as HPL. I strongly encourage buildings to come forward, apply to the fund and get that money out of the door.

As I said earlier this week, we have also published the building safety Bill in draft form. Once again, I strongly encourage colleagues to participate in ensuring that that Bill meets the challenges and radically improves the standards of building safety regulation in this country.

The Western Gateway project has the potential to mean up to £56 billion for the UK economy, benefiting businesses from Swansea to Swindon. Will Ministers commit to working with the new all-party parliamentary group on the Western Gateway, the Welsh Government and local authorities to realise its potential? (905023)

I am delighted to hear that the hon. Lady is now chairing the APPG. We were pleased to launch the Western Gateway initiative at the end of last year. I think it has huge potential to drive economic growth in that part of the country, to represent the south-west and south Wales on the international stage, and to attract international investment to her constituency and those of her neighbours.

My constituency feels like it is under siege from developers trying to build blocks of flats that local infrastructure just does not have the capacity to cope with. Will the Secretary of State reduce Barnet’s housing target and reform the planning system to end this reckless attempt to urbanise the suburbs? (905018)

We are very sensitive to the issues that my right hon. Friend describes, and I have had a number of conversations with her already. I appreciate that her constituents have particular concerns about high-rise buildings. We do need to build more homes in London, and that is why we are bringing forward some of the reforms that we have already announced to enable gentle densification, building up on top of people’s individual homes or blocks of flats so that homes can be built in a manner that maintains the look and feel of the suburbs.

My local authority faces a deficit in excess of £40 million because of its response to covid. The Government said that councils should spend what it takes, so why are they not assisting local authorities that have spent that sort of money? (905025)

We said at the outset of the crisis that we would ensure that councils have the resources they need, and that is exactly what we are doing. We have now brought forward over £4 billion of funding for covid-related expenditure. We have also created the income guarantee of 75p in the pound for lost income on sales, fees and charges, and I am working with the Chancellor with respect to tax losses so that councils have the confidence to move forwards and end the financial year in good financial health.

The Chancellor announced the other day our £400 million brownfield fund, which will support projects across the country, and our planning reforms that we have already announced, such as the right to demolish a vacant building and turn it into new housing, are exactly designed for brownfield sites.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.