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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 684: debated on Monday 16 November 2020

Housing, Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Domestic Abuse

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on funding for local authorities to ensure that they can provide the support to people experiencing domestic abuse that would be required under the provisions of the Domestic Abuse Bill. (908776)

My Department has engaged extensively across government in taking forward the new duty on local authorities to provide support in safe accommodation, as set out in the Domestic Abuse Bill. As a new burden, it will be appropriately funded—the amount is a matter for the spending review—to ensure that local authorities are ready to provide the right support to victims. Last month, I announced a £6 million fund to support councils to prepare for that duty.

As it stands, the Domestic Abuse Bill places a duty on local authorities, as the Minister said, to support survivors who are in refuges, and of course they must, but with the rise we are seeing in domestic abuse, the majority of survivors do not move into refuges, and they also need support. Will the Minister therefore agree that local authorities must also have that duty and the funding to provide the community-based services and support that survivors need?

I thank the hon. Lady for her point. She is right that any victim of domestic abuse needs that support in place, and the new duty in part 4 of the Bill will ensure that support is available to victims in a wide range of accommodation services and not just refuges. We recognise that more needs to be done to ensure adequate provision in the community is available, and that is why the Domestic Abuse Commissioner is undertaking a review of that provision. That review will enable us as the Government to better understand the needs and develop outcomes for how best to address them.

Only this morning, it was reported that women suffering from domestic abuse were being turned away by up to five separate refuges, even where spaces were available, due to them not speaking English and a lack of specialist services. The provisions in the Domestic Abuse Bill and the statutory duty on councils is one thing, but does the Minister understand that, if the funding for refuges from local authorities is as severely under-resourced as charities such as Refuge and Women’s Aid estimate, the legislative change will be meaningless for those women who are desperately fleeing abuse only to be turned away?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. A home should be a place of safety, and for those in abusive relationships, the situation she outlines is not acceptable. Domestic abuse is a heinous crime, and we are committed as a Government to ensuring that survivors get the support they need. I am monitoring the situation as we move through covid in regard to the demand for places, and that is exactly why the Government announced the £10 million emergency support fund, which has gone to more than 160 charities. That has helped reopen 350 beds and created more than 1,500, but there is absolutely no complacency. I will continue to monitor this, as will Ministers in the Home Office as well. We will take action where required.

Rough Sleepers: Accommodation

As part of our plan to end rough sleeping, earlier this year I announced a £433 million funding package, which will provide 6,000 homes for rough sleepers over the course of this Parliament, the largest ever investment in accommodation of this kind. We are taking immediate action with the funding. Last month, we allocated over £150 million to local partners to deliver 3,300 new homes to rough sleepers across England, and these will be available by the end of March next year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. The brilliant work of the Government, charities and local government in the Everyone In initiative meant that 30,000 people were provided with safe emergency accommodation, which obviously reduced pressure on the NHS and undoubtedly saved lives. I welcome the Protect programme and the announcements he has made on new homes, but the reality is that the announcement of 3,000 new homes will not help and assist the 30,000 people in total who need accommodation right now. What efforts will he make to ensure that safe and secure accommodation is provided to all those threatened with rough sleeping? Also, will he commit to rolling out the Housing First programme, which is so necessary to help those who have been sleeping rough to rebuild their lives?

I can assure my hon. Friend that that is absolutely the priority for my Department. I am proud that, as of September, we have successfully supported over 29,000 vulnerable people through our efforts, with over 10,000 helped into emergency accommodation and nearly 19,000 already provided with settled accommodation or move-on support. Thankfully, very few of those individuals have so far returned to the streets. He mentions Housing First. He will know that we have funded a number of pilots, which he helped to inspire in previous years. We have learnt from that work, and that is very much the impetus behind the rough sleeping accommodation programme, because every individual who goes into one of these 6,000 new homes will be given wraparound care for mental health, addiction, substance abuse and all the other things that they need to begin to rebuild their lives.

The Government’s former rough sleeping tsar has warned that we are heading for a “perfect storm of awfulness” this winter when it comes to homelessness. With many owner-occupiers and renters struggling with bills, rent or mortgages, there is a likelihood that more people will get to a place of desperation. There are already 130,000 children in temporary accommodation, but there is little action from the Government to tackle hidden homelessness. With rough sleeping levels going back to where they were and no repeat of Everyone In, there is real concern. What does the Secretary of State consider to be different about rough sleeping in a winter lockdown, apart from it being colder and more dangerous than in spring?

In a letter to me, the hon. Lady described the Government’s Everyone In programme as “an incredible achievement” that helped to save “hundreds of lives”. She is absolutely right, and I would like to thank all the councils and charities that were part of that. That plan has not stopped; that work continues. We are backing it with £700 million of Government investment. We began planning for the winter in the summer. We have put more money in for housing. We have also asked every local authority in the country to draw up its own individual plan and backed that with £100 million of additional support. The Protect programme now once again asks local authorities to give everyone who is sleeping rough on the streets during this new period of national measures a safe place to stay. We will be working cross-party with councils across the length and breadth of England to make that a success.

Places of Worship: Covid-19

What assessment the Government have made of the transmission rate of covid-19 in places of worship where social distancing restrictions were in place. (908778)

We are grateful to our faith communities for their efforts in ensuring that their places of worship are as covid-secure as possible. However, the view of the scientific community, including the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, is that there is a greater risk of the virus spreading indoors and where people gather. Regrettably, this means that places of worship are currently closed for communal prayer but remain open for individual prayer.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Given the serious implications of criminalising worship and the hardship it has caused churches and religious communities, will the Government commit to publishing their evidence base and to consulting fully and widely with faith groups before any future decisions on applying restrictions to worship are made?

I do not underestimate the concern that this has caused for our religious communities, but the evidence from the scientific community, including SAGE, shows that the virus spreads quicker indoors and where people gather and interact. We are incredibly grateful to those who have taken part in the places of worship taskforce for their support and advice. We continue to call on their expertise and that of all major faith groups ahead of the regulations ending on 2 December, and we will continue to have those conversations over the next two weeks.

The Government created a places of worship taskforce in May, but the taskforce has been ignored and has repeatedly not been consulted on these very consequential decisions during the pandemic. Does the Minister agree that our people of faith do not deserve to be an afterthought for the Government but must instead be respected, and will she commit to the Government meeting weekly with the taskforce to avoid this problem being repeated?

I have to disagree strongly with the hon. Lady’s assertion that the taskforce has not been consulted. It has been led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. We have listened to the views of the community leaders and individuals around the table, and evidence has been shared. I can agree to her call for a weekly meeting, because the taskforce already meets weekly.

Buckinghamshire Council: Devolution Proposals

We are committed to levelling up through further devolution, but our focus must be on tackling covid-19. I know that Buckinghamshire Council has worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic to support its community, helped by £32 million in additional covid funding. We intend to bring forward the devolution and local recovery White Paper in due course, detailing how the UK Government will partner with places across the country to build a sustainable economic recovery.

I thank the Minister for his answer, and I join him in his praise for Buckinghamshire Council, which has worked tirelessly through this pandemic. Does he agree with me that this proposal from the council has all the potential ingredients for success, because it is place based and it has support from the local enterprise partnership, health partners, universities, and the voluntary and community sector? Will he therefore urge his officials to engage in conversations with the council as soon as is practically possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is right to raise this hugely important issue, and I was pleased to meet him and other colleagues from Buckinghamshire just the week before last. We are extremely grateful to the council for submitting its proposal, and I know my officials are looking at it closely. As I have said, we will set out details about our approach to devolution in the White Paper. I absolutely agree that our officials should meet as soon as possible to discuss this proposal in greater depth.

I thank the Minister for his answers, and particularly for his praise of Buckinghamshire Council throughout the pandemic. I agree with him entirely that the focus must be on recovery from covid-19, and that is precisely at the nub of the devolution proposals that Buckinghamshire has put together. Therefore, will my hon. Friend agree to meet the Buckinghamshire MPs, Buckinghamshire Council and all of our partners to look at the detail of this proposal, which could put £10 billion extra into the UK economy, both to get the right deal for Buckinghamshire and to help shape the White Paper?

I thank my hon. Friend. It was a pleasure to meet him recently to discuss this and other matters in Buckinghamshire. I would be delighted to have that meeting. As I say, I think our officials should meet to discuss the proposal, and then let us get together with the council very soon to take it further.

Regional Inequality

What steps he is taking to ensure that local authority funding is used to tackle regional inequality. [R] (908780)

Since the start of the pandemic, we have given over £7.2 billion directly to councils. Sheffield city region has received £127 million in un-ringfenced covid emergency funding, on top of an increase in core spending power of over £70 million this year, and it is set to benefit further from the latest round of support for the November lockdown. Households in the most deprived areas in England receive nearly three times as much spending per home as those in the least deprived areas.

I thank the Minister for that response. He will know that since 2015, South Yorkshire has received £363 million from the local growth fund—money that has created 15,000 jobs, funded the revitalisation of town centres and supported investment from companies such as Boeing and McLaren. What plans does his Department have to extend this crucial pipeline of funding beyond next March, so that Mayors and local leaders can rebuild their economies?

I thank the hon Gentleman for his question, and for working so constructively with Government throughout this pandemic. He is right to highlight the importance of local growth funding to places and people up and down this country. The Budget this year did confirm up to £387 million in 2021-22 to provide certainty for local areas, which allows them to continue with existing priority local growth fund projects that require funding past this financial year. We will work closely with LEPs and Mayors to understand the changing need of local economies, and will look at how this funding can be used alongside other resources to support local economic recovery efforts. Further funding decisions will be announced in due course at the spending review.

When a Conservative Chancellor delivered his austerity Budget a decade ago, he said we are “all in this together”, yet the reality has been far from that, with communities in the north seeing a disproportionate impact on council budgets—in Blackburn, cut by over 50%—dramatically reducing our resilience to the covid crisis and our ability to recover and bounce back. Can the Minister assure the country that the Government will not break their promises again, and that his Department will take real action to address the health and economic inequalities in the north?

I disagree with the hon. Lady’s assertions. The council self-reported covid costs through September stand at £3.6 billion. We have provided £7.2 billion on top of our sales fees and charges scheme, which recoups councils with 75% of their lost income past that first 5%. The hon. Lady’s own council has had £87 million in funding, £15 million in additional un-ringfenced covid funding and £1.37 million in test and trace support. The hon. Lady is also wrong to say that we are not targeting the funding where it is needed. In distributing our covid emergency funding, we have taken into account the roles of deprivation and population, and the different cost drivers up and down the country. We are listening to councils, we are working with them and we praise their extraordinary ability to respond to the pressures of this pandemic.

Town Regeneration

We are witnessing a profound reshaping of our towns and high streets as covid-19 continues to have a very significant impact on our communities. Our towns fund is investing £3.6 billion in an initial 100 towns, which will help to renew town centres and high streets across the country. In September, all 101 towns received their share of over £80 million to help deliver immediate improvements, and I was pleased to announce the first seven comprehensive town deals last month, with further deals and the results of the future high streets competition being announced very shortly.

The market town of Uttoxeter in my constituency has been identified as well placed to support housing growth in the local plan. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the potential that the regeneration of Uttoxeter town centre offers and how we can ensure that it meets the needs of those who live and work in the area as the population increases?

My hon. Friend has the privilege of representing a historic market town in Staffordshire that I know well, and she is absolutely right to say that covid-19 presents great opportunities for the repurposing of offices and retail. We need to seize that moment and ensure that we get more housing in our town centres. That is the way that we will drive footfall, and we will turn empty shops into thriving homes. We have already put in place new planning reforms to enable people to do just that, as well as to demolish vacant buildings and turn them into housing, and we will continue to find new flexibilities in the months and years ahead to do just that.

Since my election, I have heard from many constituents who have concerns about the neglect of the high street in Blyth. The town has applied for money from the high streets fund as well as the towns fund. While I realise that there has to be a fair and transparent process for selecting the successful schemes, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will do all he can to help the people of Blyth in the Conservative aim to level up? Let’s build back better.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Blyth is one of the initial places chosen to develop proposals for the towns fund and for the future high streets fund, and we recently provided £750,000 to make immediate improvements to Bowes Street. I was also pleased that, as part of our £900 million getting building fund, two projects in Blyth are seeing investment from the Government, including £2.6 million for the creation of the UK’s first offshore wind centre for robotics. So, from improving one of the town’s historic streets to green jobs for the future, the Government are investing in new opportunities for Blyth.

Over the last four years the average number of visits per person to Bolton town centre has fallen, as has happened in much of the country—indeed, in Bolton’s case it has fallen by 37%—while vacancies and crime have risen. Can my right Friend assure my residents that the Government will make efforts to reverse this trend by encouraging growth in the markets of the future?

I certainly can. We have taken a number of steps throughout the pandemic to help small businesses, particularly in retail and hospitality, so that when, as we hope and expect, the national measures are eased on 2 December, it will be easier for those businesses to move forward. I was pleased last week to announce that I am extending the right that allows pubs, restaurants and cafés to provide takeaway services until March 2022. I have also extended the option for local authorities, such as the council in Bolton, to host outdoor markets and events, and for businesses such as pubs to use their land temporarily without planning permission, for example for marquees in pub gardens.

Given that the likely response to covid will mean that office space is needed much less in the future, and that that is likely to be a long-term trend, does my right hon. Friend agree that that should have a profound impact on the algorithmic distribution of housing numbers anticipated by the planning White Paper?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are seeing the most substantial change to our city centres and town centres since the second world war, and that does give us pause for reflection. We now need to consider what the opportunities will be for the repurposing of offices as residential and for turning retail into mixed use, and that will, I think, lead us to a different approach to distributing housing numbers across the country. The consultation that he refers to has closed; we are considering the responses, and I will make a statement on that in the weeks ahead.

Dangerous Cladding: Leaseholder Support

We are providing £1.6 billion to speed up the removal of unsafe cladding and make homes safer, and to make them safer quicker. Where funding alone has not been enough to increase the pace of remediation, we are providing direct expert support to projects. We will continue to listen to leaseholders to resolve their concerns.

I thank the Minister for his continued engagement on these issues, but, as he knows, the very difficult and serious issues now facing tens of thousands of leaseholders around the country are growing, not declining, and they are taking a serious toll on people’s lives and livelihoods. From buildings unable to get insurance, to the nightmares of acquiring an EWS1 form even for buildings with no cladding and the many now deemed out of scope of the building safety fund, this is becoming a national scandal and a real crisis for leaseholders. Will the Minister meet me and Manchester City Council to discuss an excellent piece of work that it has done on the wider and acute impacts of these issues on a place such as Manchester?

I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question and for the tone of it. Of course I will continue to engage with her and will happily meet her, as I think I did in July, to discuss these matters. She raised the EWS1 form particularly, and I think it would be worthwhile if I said a few words about it.

First, it is worth pointing out that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors EWS1 form is not a Government document; it was devised by RICS and by the industry. Not all lenders require it; some use other tools. Lenders that do require it are working with us to ensure that there are more nuanced tools available to resolve leaseholders’ concerns. I should say, with respect to those lenders that use EWS1 forms for buildings less than 18 metres in height, that that is not something that the Government support. We do not support a blanket approach to the use of EWS1 forms. Lenders should use other tools in order to discuss the safety or otherwise of those sorts of buildings.

Over three years on from the Grenfell tragedy and one year since the Bolton Cube fire, 203 high-rise blocks are still clad with flammable aluminium composite material, and many thousands more are clad with equally flammable high-pressure laminate. Minister, is it not about time to come clean about the serious limitations of the size and scope of the building safety fund? Up to 1.5 million people, such as Paul in Manchester, are desperate, trapped in this nightmare. What bold, urgent action does the Minister intend to take?

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will know, with respect to ACM cladding, that we have made £600 million available to remediate the most dangerous buildings. Something like 97% of buildings with ACM cladding have either completed or started their remediation. As a result of the expert support we have provided to private building owners, we have supported something like 100 ACM projects to remediation. With respect to the £1 billion fund for non-ACM-clad buildings, I can tell him that we have had a very significant number of applications, which have worked through. A very significant number have now been asked to make further information available, so we can advance those applications. We will get the money out of the door as quickly as we can. We will also encourage builders and owners to remediate the buildings themselves, because that is what they are obliged to do. It should not fall on the taxpayer to pay for remediation. It is the responsibility in the first case of building owners, through their warrantee schemes or through the original builders.

Could the Housing Minister clarify the Government’s policy on what costs leaseholders should have to bear for the removal of cladding? On 20 July, the Secretary of State, in a written statement, very helpfully said:

“The Government are clear that it is unacceptable for leaseholders to have to worry about the cost of fixing historic safety defects”.—[Official Report, 20 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 89WS.]

However, by the time we got to 16 October, the Housing Minister himself said we should look for solutions

“that protect leaseholders from unaffordable costs”.

So, not any costs, but unaffordable costs. When the Minister with responsibility for building safety came to the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government, he could only define “affordable” as costs that did not make someone bankrupt. Does the Housing Minister understand the great concern and upset that the change of policy has caused for leaseholders, who thought they would bear no costs but could now be faced with substantial bills? Will he explain the change of policy or, better still, go back to the original policy the Secretary of State identified that the costs should not fall on leaseholders at all?

I am obliged to the Chairman of the Select Committee and I am grateful for the report that the Committee produced on cladding. There has been no change in policy. The Government are quite clear that we do not expect, and we do not want, leaseholders to bear the costs of remediation of unsafe buildings for which they were not responsible. That cost should fall on the owners, through the owners, the builders or any warrantee scheme the owners have.

Questions 20 and 21 have been withdrawn, so could we have the answer to the substantive questions, followed by David Linden from the SNP?

Stronger Towns Fund

The £3.6 billion towns fund is delivered in England only. There are Barnett consequentials for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is the responsibility of the relevant devolved Administrations to decide how that funding is spent.

Quite aside from the Public Accounts Committee findings of Ministers wildly and inappropriately gerrymandering the funding process, I would like to ask the Minister about the Barnettisation of that funding. It is amazing how all the Tory MPs can stand up and say how much money their towns and constituencies are getting, yet it took the Secretary of State four months to confirm to me in writing that the funding would be Barnettised. How much is Scotland due to get and why have we not received it yet?

We will provide further clarity on the Barnett consequentials of the Department’s programme of work following the next spending review.

Building Safety Programme

What recent discussions he has had with (a) firefighter unions and (b) local authorities on the Building Safety Programme. (908786)

My Department is in regular contact with local authorities and the Local Government Association as part of the building safety programme. Local authorities play an important role in advancing remediation. They are routinely invited to meetings with officials and are represented on the early adopters group. Eleven local authorities across London attended the Department’s remediation summit in September.

Difficulty in borrowing on or selling a home may be understandable when it is caused by unexpected natural events, climatic or otherwise. It is entirely unacceptable, though, when it is caused by obvious Government changes, especially to building regulations. The Fire Brigades Union and local authorities know what needs to be done, but it is only the Government who actually have the purse strings and can take the action to put homeowners out of the misery that they find themselves in. When will that be done?

It is being done. We have made available £4 million to local authorities to support a data collection exercise looking at external wall systems. Together with the Home Office, we have made £20 million available to increase the capacity and capability of fire and rescue services in their conduct of fire protection activity. We are backing local authorities. We are backing the fire and rescue service. I only wish the hon. Gentleman knew that.

Disused Coal Tips: Safety and Stability

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on local authorities’ responsibilities for the stability and safety of disused coal tips. (908788)

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury wrote to the hon. Member in October saying that he is expecting to provide £2.5 million needed for tip repairs in Tylorstown. The letter also clarifies that he is waiting to hear further from the Welsh Government on additional requests to access the reserve and is working with the Welsh Government’s Finance Minister on this very matter.

It is all very interesting that the Minister reads out a letter that I have already received, so I have actually read it, but it does not answer the question at all. My question is about how we are going to make sure that all the coal tips across the whole UK—because there is still no register of them in England and Wales—are properly accounted for and properly made stable and safe, so that we do not have another Aberfan disaster. I say this as much for constituencies in England as in Wales, because the real danger is that if we have had to find £12.5 million for a single tip in Tylorstown that fell into the river, imagine what the bill is going to be across the whole of England and Wales. It is time the Government woke up to this, and I really hope the Minister will answer the direct question about who is going to be footing the bill. Local authorities will be bankrupted by this if we are not careful.

I was just checking that the hon. Gentleman had received the letter and that he had read it. He has, and I am pleased and grateful for his further contribution. He will know that Welsh local authorities started the 2020-21 financial year with over £1.4 billion of usable reserves. Of that, £200 million was general and unallocated. As I said to him, the Treasury is in discussion with the Welsh Government regarding the funding on this topic. Welsh authorities should discuss further funding with the Welsh Government and I encourage him to do similarly.

Covid-19 Lockdown: Local Authority Support

What financial support the Government is providing to local authorities during the November 2020 covid-19 lockdown. (908789)

Since the start of the pandemic, we have provided over £7.2 billion directly to councils. We have also confirmed further support for local authorities through the extension of the contain outbreak management fund, and Cornwall will receive an extra £35 million from the additional resources grant and business grants for closed businesses.

I thank the Government for their generous support to councils during this difficult time. I have two very important crossings across the Tamar in my constituency, owned by Cornwall and Plymouth councils, which have run into financial difficulty. How does my right hon. Friend the Minister advise that this situation should be resolved?

I know that this is a hugely important matter for my hon. Friend and her constituents. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have provided Cornwall Council with over £60 million and over £30 million to Plymouth City Council. Local authorities should be able to claim for relevant irrecoverable losses from toll bridges and roads. These losses have a named category in the form through which local authorities make their claims. However, it is for local authorities to be responsible for making sure that the claims that they make under the scheme meet the principles that we set out. We would advise her local authorities to consider these carefully before making any submissions.

Affordable Housing

The Government are investing £12.2 billion in affordable housing over the next five years from next year. That includes £11.5 billion for the affordable homes programme, which we anticipate will provide up to 180,000 new affordable homes, should economic conditions allow. Furthermore, at spring statement 2019 we announced a new £3 billion affordable homes guarantee scheme, which will build on the success of the existing £3.24 billion scheme and support the delivery of new build affordable homes.

I thank the Minister for that very full reply; it is good that so much work is going on. Does he think it might be useful to revisit the definition of affordable homes? In the past, we tended to use the definition of 80% of average market value, which, when prices are high—as they often are—is still not affordable. Will he consider that, please?

I am always happy to consider my hon. Friend’s suggestions. He will know that the affordable homes definition in the national planning policy framework includes:

“Housing for sale or rent, for those whose needs are not met by the market”

and the assumption is that that is at 80% of average cost. Of course, we also have a social rent option that local authorities can leverage, and we have certainly allowed local authorities greater ease in developing their own social homes. I also point him to our first homes programme, which provides discounts of at least 30% on homes in perpetuity so that people can realise the dream of their own home.

Covid-19: Local Authority Support

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of support given to local authorities in areas with high covid-19 infection rates. (908794)

Councils’ self-reported figures suggest that local authorities spent an additional £3.6 billion through September as a result of covid. Since the start of the pandemic, we have provided over £7.2 billion directly to councils and are now providing new funding for national restrictions. I hope the hon. Gentleman will also welcome the additional funding of over £40 million that Wakefield Council has received to support its community so far this year.

Austerity impacted most on the poorer communities right across the north and elsewhere. In Wakefield alone we have lost almost £50 million from local care services, schools, youth support and child services, not to mention the wage freezes for key workers. The impact of covid in damaging community resilience is apparent to all. Is it not time for the Minister to show that he has learned lessons by restoring funding to those communities in difficulty from the cuts and finally giving a rise to the key workers who have done so much to keep our country going?

I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman speak like that about local authority when he supported and voted for the local government finance settlement this year. As I said, since the start of the pandemic we have provided £7.2 billion in funding. Wakefield has received £31 million across four tranches of unring-fenced funding, the last including deprivation, population and cost driver indicators, too. It has also received £2 million for test and trace, £7 million from the infection control fund and more than £40 million in additional grants. As the hon. Gentleman failed to do so, may I use this opportunity again to recognise the incredible work of councils, who have been dynamic and energetic in responding to an incredibly difficult period?

Towns Fund

On 27 October, we announced the first seven town deal offers, worth almost £180 million, for Barrow-in-Furness, Blackpool, Darlington, Norwich, Peterborough, Torquay and Warrington. Of course, we look forward to receiving further town deal proposals, including from Thornaby in my hon. Friend’s constituency, in the coming months. We will also bring forward a competitive element of the fund so that more places can benefit from investment that will improve our towns and high streets and drive long-term economic growth.

I am currently working alongside councillors, businesses and community groups to put together Thornaby’s bid for up to £25 million. We want to get rid of the Eagle hotel and other blights on our town centre as well as improve training and skills opportunities, leisure facilities and cycle routes—and, importantly, we want to make life-changing improvements to housing. Does my hon. Friend agree that local people know their area best? Will he help unblock any bureaucratic barriers that prevent money being spent on local priorities?

Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for all his work. The objective of the towns deals is to drive the economic regeneration of towns, including through improving transport and digital infrastructure, supporting skills development and making the most of the planning powers to create a supportive environment for residents and businesses. The towns fund will support mixed-use redevelopment in towns such as Thornaby, creating thriving places for people to live and work. Each town has its own local priorities and should align its proposed interventions with the towns fund intervention framework, as set out in the further guidance.

Traveller Communities: Planning Policy

The Government’s response to the consultation on powers for dealing with unauthorised development and encampments proposed measures related to Traveller site provision and strengthening planning enforcement powers. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that further changes to planning policy will be considered as part of our reforms to the wider planning system set out in our White Paper, “Planning for the Future”.

In parts of the country, we have the double disaster of settled residents moving away in fear and Traveller children having the worst outcomes of any group of children. Can the Minister reassure me that the review that his Department is undertaking will put an end to the unacceptable situation in which both those groups find themselves

My hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on these issues, as have several others in the House. He will know that the Government’s overarching aim is to ensure fair and equal treatment for Travellers and their children, but we must not be blind to the rights of the settled community as well. The distress that some local communities face due to antisocial behaviour is unacceptable. Local authorities have a wide range of powers at their disposal, including the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, but I can confirm to him that I will happily consider his and other proposals as we work through the contributions to the White Paper consultation, to ensure that our planning reform also encapsulates the concerns he raises.

Topical Questions

I would like to take this opportunity once again to thank our local councils and councillors across the country for their resilience and hard work in this period of new national restrictions. We are providing more than £7 billion of funding directly to councils alongside our sales, fees and charges scheme, which we expect to also be worth well in excess of £1 billion this year. When it comes to the role that councils have played in protecting the most vulnerable in society—rough sleepers—their work has truly been world class. Last week, I announced the launch of the Protect programme, the next phase in our strategy, which has been widely praised as one of the most successful of its kind anywhere in the world. I thank local councillors in advance for the work they will do in the weeks to come. The Prime Minister and I have been clear that, despite the challenges we face, our mission to deliver the housing our country needs continues at pace. We have kept the market open in order to protect house building and ensure that we protect the millions of jobs that depend upon it.

We do not have the leasehold system in Scotland, yet as a result of rules drawn up with the English leasehold system in mind, each individual owner must get their own EWS1 assessment carried out. How does the Secretary of State intend to resolve this costly and bureaucratic system, which is clearly not fit for purpose in Scotland and which is causing such difficulty to my constituents affected by the ongoing cladding scandal? Will he arrange a socially distant meeting with me to discuss this further?

I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady. The noble Lord Greenhalgh, the building safety Minister, and I have been meeting lenders and UK Finance to discuss the EWS1 form and to urge them to take a more proportionate, risk-based approach. The EWS1 form was, as we heard earlier, designed for those buildings over 18 metres with external wall systems. It is now being used for buildings below 18 metres and buildings without any cladding at all. That is causing misery to thousands of people across the country, and it needs to change.

I was glad to hear the Secretary of State recognise the continuing issues with the EWS1 forms, and perhaps we can speak further about that. I also welcome the Housing Minister’s acceptance that leaseholders should not bear the costs of remediating cladding for which they have no responsibility. Does the Secretary of State accept that by the same logic, and out of common decency, neither should leaseholders be expected to bear the costs of items such as a waking watch, which arise directly from the cladding itself having been unsafe, because of regulatory failure? This has cost constituents of mine in Northpoint in excess of half a million pounds. (908836)

My hon. Friend will know that my Department is working closely with the residents of Northpoint to ensure that they have access to funding. They are part of the building safety fund and will benefit from that £1.6 billion. He is right also to draw attention to the waking watch issue, which is increasingly a national scandal in itself; this is a rip-off. We have published research that demonstrates that some operators of these businesses—the contractors—are charging outrageous fees for very little. We will be reporting that to the regulatory authorities and we hope that they will clamp down on these practices as quickly as possible.

There is growing public concern that the Secretary of State may have misused taxpayers’ money from the £3.6 billion towns fund to boost the Conservative party’s general election campaign, but he can easily clear the matter up. Will he publish, in full, the accounting officer’s advice and the full criteria that he and the former Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), used when they blocked funding for towns ranked among the 100 most deprived and instead funnelled millions of pounds to each other’s constituencies ahead of the general election?

The Department has already made it clear that a robust process was established—before I became Secretary of State. It was followed to the letter and we will not apologise for investing in communities that have been under-invested in and undervalued by the Labour party for generations. With respect to the accounting officer’s report, accounting officer assessments are not routinely published. That is a matter for the Department, which I am sure will consider it and reply to the Select Committee in due course. But I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he will not deter us from our mission to level up all parts of the country.

. My right hon. Friend knows that homes alone will not stop homelessness, and that many of the drivers of homelessness, such as mental illness, addiction, debt and low social capital, need tackling in a comprehensive homelessness strategy. Will he confirm that the Protect programme will co-ordinate this wraparound support, which is so needed to help people who are homeless? (908837)

I can do that. My hon. Friend shares my belief that street homelessness is a crisis not just of housing, but of health, mental health and addiction as well. Our approach from the start of the pandemic has been not only to bring people in off the streets into safe and secure accommodation, but to ensure at all times that they have that wraparound support. That was part of the success of Everyone In and it is part of the Protect programme, and it learns from the enormous success of the Housing First pilots that we have initiated in parts of the country.

Last week, I met Mencap, which was extremely concerned about the lack of clarity on the shared prosperity fund. Disabled people have benefited enormously from the European social fund, but mere days out from crashing out of the transition period the Government are woefully silent on the future of this. So will the Secretary of State agree to meet myself and Mencap to outline a way forward for the shared prosperity fund and give disabled people clarity?

I would be happy to have that conversation. My officials have been engaging with officials with the devolved Administrations, from all nations of the United Kingdom. We have said time and again that further details of the shared prosperity fund will be published at the spending review, and the hon. Gentleman does not have long to wait for that.

My right hon. Friend might recall that back in the summer I wrote to him, along with my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), Lord Bird, who founded The Big Issue, and Robin Burgess, the chief executive of the Hope Centre in Northampton, who all wanted to recommend to him covid-safe sleeping pod-style accommodation for those who, despite the Government’s best efforts, will be sleeping rough this winter. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what steps he is putting in place to ensure that those who do end up on our streets are still safe and are not forced to be in night shelters, which for so many are truly terrifying places? (908839)

I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for the concern that she evinces in respect of this matter. I am happy to update her. The Government are providing a £10 million cold weather fund to all local authorities, to help them to bring forward self-contained accommodation this winter. Our new £15 million protect programme is providing dedicated funding to local areas with the highest numbers of rough sleepers. Alongside that there is a £2 million transformation fund to help faith and community centres to move away from night shelters and into more innovative and positive options for shelter guests. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend directed me towards our noble Friend Lord Bird; I am happy to continue to engage with him and her, as is the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst).

Setting aside a general funding gap of about £56 million, and including an as yet unconfirmed £7 million income compensation scheme payment, Cheshire West and Chester Council will still be £1 million in the red because of covid activities. Will the Government refer back to the Chancellor’s promise to do “whatever it takes” and promise to make good on the covid funding gap? Or will they once again leave local governments dangling in the wind? (908835)

I thank the officers and councillors at Cheshire West and Chester Council for the hard work that they have done already and no doubt will do in the weeks ahead. We have provided a great deal of support to the council: total covid-19 additional funding is £25 million, and total funding from across Government is almost £39 million. As the hon. Gentleman says, that will be followed up by further funding from the sales, fees and charges scheme, which contributes 75p in the pound in respect of lost income for councils. I have also committed—I will say more on this at the spending review—to a similar scheme in respect of lost income for council tax and business rates.

My right hon. Friend and this Government have prioritised ending homelessness more than any other Administration. It is widely known that social housing can play a key role in preventing and ending homelessness by providing security of tenure, affordability and a safety net to thousands of individuals and families. This year’s affordable homes programme is welcome, but will my right hon. Friend please update the House on what measures he is taking to increase investment in social housing to help to end homelessness? (908843)

My hon. Friend rightly points out the £11.5 billion that we have made available in the next five years to build 180,000 new affordable homes, a significant proportion of which will be for affordable or social rent. We have already heard about the £700 million or so in total that we are spending to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, and I direct my hon. Friend towards the abolition of the housing revenue account cap, which allows local authorities to build social homes if they wish to. It is a local authority matter and we encourage them to do so.

Tempted as I am to ask a question about tips again, I am going to ask about something completely different: brain injury. Acquired brain injury is a hidden epidemic in this country, and local authorities often have to bear the significant costs when somebody’s neuro-rehabilitation has not been able to be followed through. With covid this year as well, there will be many thousands of families who would dearly love their loved one to be able to live an independent life, but they need local authorities to be able to step up to the mark. Will the Secretary of State meet me and others who are interested in the subject to see whether there is a way to get better co-reliance among all the different agencies that work with people with brain injury, including people who have neuro-cognitive problems from covid? (908838)

The shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed), has repeatedly defended Tony Newman, who was until recently the leader of the now bankrupt Labour-run Croydon Council. Does my right hon. Friend agree that instead of trying to score political points attacking the Government, the shadow Secretary of State should look a little closer to home, as people are being seriously let down by their Labour councils as public funds are being spent inappropriately? I have seen this— (908844)

Order. In fairness to the Secretary of State, questions are meant to be short and punchy—we are getting very stuck. Come on, Secretary of State, I am sure you have an answer.

The situation in Croydon is deeply concerning. There does appear to have been catastrophic financial mismanagement. Ultimately, it is the people of Croydon who will suffer as a result of that failed council. The council has decided to issue a section 114 notice. We will consider the findings of the urgent review, which concludes later this month.

There have been significant reductions in Government funding for children’s social care since 2010, which have led to more children entering care due to false cuts in prevention. Will the Minister ensure that any new funding formula for councils fully recognises the pressures and the associated need, especially in areas with higher deprivation? (908840)

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has said repeatedly today, the funding that we have put into councils since the start of the pandemic —more than £7 billion—has been deployed taking deprivation into consideration to ensure that the councils that need the money the most have the greatest share. As we approach the spending review, I will, of course, be arguing for further funding for local authorities so that they are properly and sustainably financed in the year ahead.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that I brought before the House my Planning (Proper Maintenance of Land) Bill back in September with the support of Historic England. Will he confirm whether he will adopt this in the planning reform Bill, helping my fight to protect and preserve our nation’s heritage at places such as Price & Kensington in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke? (908845)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the Second Reading of his Bill. We are looking to strengthen the powers and sanctions in respect of both heritage and planning enforcement as part of our White Paper reforms of the planning system. I am sure that he will be lobbying us to ensure that that is part of the wider package.

When the Secretary of State ignored his own civil servants’ advice on which areas to support with the towns fund, was that on his own initiative or was he receiving instructions from Downing Street? (908841)

It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman makes party political points without understanding the facts, because no Minister in my Department has ignored the advice of their officials. The Department produced a robust process, which was followed by myself and any other Minister in the Department, so he should be careful before making wild and false accusations.

For years, some water companies and Ofwat have failed to get a grip on repeated sewage and water flooding, including in the historic town of Deal. As a result, planning objections are mounting against the delivery of much-needed and wanted local homes. Will my right hon. Friend consider what more can be done to ensure that additional planned housing delivery can be matched by additional planned capacity in water, electricity and broadband utilities? (908846)

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. She is a doughty campaigner for her constituents in Dover, and particularly, in this case, in Deal. She will know that the national planning policy framework makes it clear that local authorities should make provision for infrastructure, including water supply and energy, through their strategic planning authorities. As to what further we can do, our White Paper on planning reform proposes an infrastructure levy that will get that sort of infrastructure that she refers to in place at the get-go so that communities get not just the housing they need but the infrastructure to go with it.

Ealing Council is facing a funding shortfall of around £30 million even after efficiency savings and delaying investment. That is despite a promise from the Secretary of State that it would have everything that it needed to fight covid-19. Will the Secretary of State stick to his promise and give local authorities what they need, or will he be the one to explain why children’s centres, libraries and sports facilities have to close? (908842)

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are very much sticking to our promise to support local authorities. We have already given local authorities more than £7 billion since the start of the pandemic, with the sales fees and charges and the business rates and council tax schemes. We are approaching £10 billion of additional support for local authorities, and in his case, in Ealing, it is £30 million, so he is quite wrong to say that we are not supporting his constituents.

Under the planning laws, Bath and North East Somerset Council in my constituency negotiated a 64.9%  biodiversity net gain as part of planning consent for a new development. Why does the Secretary of State propose to take that opportunity away from local planning authorities, given that the UK has declared a climate emergency? (908851)

I am happy to look into what the hon. Lady says, but she is mistaken. This party is doing quite the opposite. We are legislating to embed biodiversity net gain as an essential part of the planning system.

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 am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.