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Topical Questions

Volume 684: debated on Monday 16 November 2020

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.