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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 687: debated on Monday 11 January 2021

Housing, Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaseholders: Fire Safety Costs

What steps he is taking to support leaseholders with high costs of interim fire safety measures pending permanent remediation. (910654)

In beginning, may I wish you, Mr Speaker, all Members of the House and its staff, and, of course, my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) a very happy new year?

We have announced a new £30 million fund to help end the scandal of excessive waking watch costs. This will fund the installation of alarm systems in buildings with unsafe cladding, reducing or removing the dependence on costly interim measures such as a waking watch. We estimate that that will save residents a combined £3 million each month. Alongside that, we continue to prioritise the removal of unsafe cladding and have committed funds to help make homes safer, faster.

Sleep deprivation is recognised as a form of torture. People living in buildings with unsafe cladding are being tortured: physically, due to a lack of sleep, as they live in fear; financially, as they cannot sell their homes and are forced to pay for waking watches; and mentally, as they live in limbo. When does my right hon. Friend expect that torture to end?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend; she has campaigned long and hard for her constituents, and has raised this issue with me outside the Chamber as well as within it. We all appreciate the terrible challenges and suffering that many people around our country face on this issue. That is why we want the residents of blocks that are enduring a waking watch to get the benefits of our changes as soon as possible. We expect the £30 million fund to be open this month, with the aim of providing funding for the installation of alarms as quickly as possible. I think we all agree that the best way of making buildings safe is to speed up remediation, and that is what our policies intend.

Local Authority Funding

We are increasing funding for councils in 2021-22. Through the local government finance settlement, we are making an extra £2.2 billion available to councils, with an average cash increase of 4.5%—a real-terms increase. We have also announced £3 billion of covid-19 support for next year, taking our total direct support for local government in responding to the pandemic to more than £10 billion.

I am grateful to the Minister for the announcement of the extra cash, particularly the covid cash, in these difficult times. He will know from our many meetings in the year since I was elected about my concern on fairer funding for Leicestershire. If Leicestershire were funded at the same level as London, it would receive an extra £374 per resident. Will he update me on the formula that underpins the structure and whether there will be a review? Is this likely to change? If so, when?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and the way in which he has consistently and constructively raised this issue with me and Ministers in our Department. Leicestershire will see an increase of 5.5% in its core spending power next year and receive more than £11.5 million to deal with covid pressures. The Government certainly agree that we need an updated and fairer method for distributing funds within local government. I hope he understands that this year we have had to focus on supporting councils through the pandemic, but once this is over we will revisit our shared priority of funding reform. In the meantime, we have substantially increased the rural services delivery grant to £85 million, its highest level ever, which will support the delivery of services in places such as Leicestershire. I am, of course, happy to continue meeting him in the weeks ahead.

May I thank the Minister for his covid cash for councils? Will he confirm that the Government will ensure that councils have the financial support they need to respond to covid-19 and support their local communities? In places such as Bucks, particularly, our council is doing a fantastic job but there is a lot of concern about whether it will have the financial support to carry on throughout the pandemic and make sure that care is taken of all the residents.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is right to say that councils have done an incredible job in responding to the pandemic. We have provided an unprecedented package of covid-related support for councils, which is now worth £10 billion over this year and next year. It includes £1 billion of unring-fenced funding, as well as support with lost income from tax, sales, fees and charges. Buckinghamshire will benefit from more than £54 million of covid support this year and £11 million for next year. Councils are the unsung heroes of the response to this pandemic and we are standing squarely behind them.

May I take this opportunity to congratulate Christina McAnea on being elected the general secretary of Unison? It is Britain’s biggest trade union and of course has many members who work in local government.

Let me turn to the Minister. How is it fair to force councils to choose between hiking up council tax for hard-working families during the worst recession in 300 years, or cutting social care for older parents and grandparents during an unprecedented global health pandemic?

It is hard to take lectures from the Labour party about raising council tax when Labour doubled council tax while in office and has trebled council tax in Wales. If the hon. Gentleman wants to speak about raising council tax, he should start by speaking to the Mayor of London, who is proposing a 9.5% increase in council tax for next year. We are ensuring that local government has the resources it needs to emerge stronger from the pandemic. That is why we are putting in an extra £2.2 billion next year. We are also giving councils the flexibility to defer any increases in council tax next year if they believe that is right for their community. If the Opposition Front-Bench team looked at the detail of what we are proposing, they would see that we have provided £670 million to help councils to support people who are least able to pay council tax. There is of course one council that will definitely be raising council tax next year, and that is Croydon, because of its completely disastrous management of its finances.

High Street Regeneration

The Government’s priority throughout the pandemic has been to protect lives and livelihoods, with substantial support flowing to high street businesses through business grants, the paying of people’s wages and tax deferrals. Just last week, the Chancellor announced an additional £4.6 billion in new lockdown grants to support businesses and protect jobs. I was pleased that on Boxing day we allocated £830 million from our future high streets fund to 72 areas to transform underused town centres into the vibrant places to live, work and visit that we all want to see after the pandemic.

Online sellers, global giants and supermarkets have enjoyed a virtual monopoly since the pandemic started, whereas small businesses in Bracknell, Crowthorne, Sandhurst and beyond are often on their knees. What is my hon. Friend going to do to address this growing imbalance?

That idea lies very much behind the comprehensive package of support that the Chancellor has made available, with £200 billion specifically targeted at supporting small businesses on the high street. It is also why we have brought forward the further top-up grants, worth up to £9,000, to help small businesses through this next—and hopefully final—phase of the pandemic. We will of course continue to review the situation. Such concerns lie at the heart of our plans through the towns fund, the high streets fund and now the future levelling-up fund.

Just before Christmas I met businesses on the Oxted high street. Even with the unprecedented Government support that the Secretary of State has laid out, it has been a difficult and anxious year for them, with many going above and beyond for their customers. Surrey County Council and the Surrey economic growth board, on which I serve, are doing important work to revitalise and transform our high streets; will the Secretary of State meet us so that we can share our ideas on how we can best support such hard-working family businesses?

I praise my hon. Friend for her hard work to support Oxted high street in Surrey and the work of her local councils. The truth is that the pandemic has not so much changed things but magnified and accelerated enormous market forces that were evident even before the pandemic. There will now be a very significant role for local councils in bringing forward imaginative plans to bring private and public sector investment back to the high streets over the course of the year, and to make good use of the licensing and planning reforms that we have already brought forward and that we will bring forward more of in future. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to hear her plans for Oxted.

Waterlooville town centre in my constituency was struggling as a shopping centre even before the pandemic, and is now really suffering, with closed shops and a lack of investment. There is a vision for the town centre, but we need money to develop it. Will my right hon. Friend point out a fund of money that I could approach to make this happen?

As I said, I was delighted to announce over the Christmas period the 72 places that have benefited from the future high streets fund, but I appreciate that hundreds of high streets throughout the country will be thinking about their own futures. We will very shortly bring forward the levelling-up fund, from which all parts of the country, including my hon. Friend’s in Hampshire, will have the opportunity to benefit. I also direct my hon. Friend to look at the planning reforms that we have brought forward, because it is not simply about more public investment; we also want to support entrepreneurs, small businesspeople and small builders through the right to regenerate, the changes to the use-class orders and the new licensing arrangements—such as the ability to have markets, keep marquees outside pubs and have more tables and chairs outdoors—that I would like to be put on a permanent footing so that the al fresco dining we saw in the summer can be replicated this year.

As we have been hearing, high streets are struggling like never before. When will the Government level the playing field on business rates between high street retailers and online businesses, so that they can compete on equal terms?

The Chancellor announced earlier in the year an unprecedented business rates holiday, which is benefiting thousands of businesses the length and breadth of the country, and he will be considering what further steps are necessary. I know that he is making a statement later today, and we will bring forward a Budget in March. We all want to support small independent businesses on our high streets, which is precisely why I encourage the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to support the planning reforms that we have already introduced, such as the ability to build upwards, to bring more homes on to the high street and to turn a derelict or empty property in a town centre into something more useful for the future. Those are the ways that we attract private sector investment and enable small builders and entrepreneurs in Croydon, in Newark and in all parts of the country to face the future with confidence.

Private Rented Sector

The Government are committed to enhancing renters’ security by abolishing no-fault evictions. During the covid-19 pandemic, our collective efforts have been focused on protecting people during the outbreak. This has included introducing longer notice periods and preventing evictions at the height of the pandemic on public health grounds. We will introduce a renters’ reform Bill very soon.

I thank the Minister for her response. Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of being evicted when the ban is lifted. The covid crisis has highlighted underlying problems in the private rented sector, including families being forced into expensive and insecure housing. Local organisations in my constituency, including Stockport Tenants Union and ACORN, have long campaigned to end section 21 evictions, but when will the Minister deliver her manifesto commitment to do the same?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are committed to abolishing no-fault evictions under section 21. Obviously, we have already taken some action. Last week, for example, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State increased the ban on evictions for a further six weeks. We have also introduced six months’ notice, which means that people who receive an order now will find that it will not go through the courts until July. We are committed to making sure that we protect anybody who is suffering homelessness. That has been borne out by the level of investment that we have put into the sector during the pandemic. We will keep all these measures under review.

Millions of hard-working people are excluded from every covid scheme—newly self-employed or employed, small business owners, people with mixed employment, even some on maternity or paternity leave who have lost work because of covid but have little or no Government support. The Government’s own stats show that hundreds of thousands have fallen behind on rent. A loophole in the new evictions rules means that anyone with more than six months in arrears is at risk of eviction. When the Secretary of State said that no one should lose their home because of coronavirus, did he or did he not mean that?

I regret that the hon. Lady does not recognise the unprecedented steps that this Government have taken in an unprecedented global pandemic to support renters and people experiencing homelessness and rough sleeping. Our data show that our measures to protect renters are working. We have had a 54% reduction in households owed a homelessness duty to the end of an assured tenancy from April to June compared with January to March. Ministry of Justice stats show no possessions recorded between April and September. We have put a ban on evictions, given a six-month notice period, extended buy-to-let mortgage holidays, provided £700 million to support rough sleepers and those at risk of homelessness, provided 3,300 next steps accommodation, given £6.4 billion to local authorities to deal with the impact of covid, helped 29,000 people with Everyone In, and saw 19,000 move on to settled protection. The list goes on and on. We know that people are experiencing hardship in these times, and this Government will continue to review and take the necessary action to ensure people in this country are protected.

Covid-19: Local Authority Income

What support the Government are providing to help local authorities experiencing a reduction in income as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (910658)

We are providing councils with comprehensive support for income lost due to the pandemic. We are extending the existing compensation scheme for lost sales, fees and charges income into 2021-22, and we have already paid councils £528 million under this scheme. We have introduced a local tax guarantee scheme for this financial year that provides 75% of irrecoverable losses in business rates and council tax, worth an estimated £800 million. We are also allowing councils to phase recovery of collection fund deficits over three years.

I very much welcome the incredible financial support provided to local authorities, particularly through the national leisure recovery fund. Does my hon. Friend agree that supporting council provision of health and leisure centres is vital in helping us to keep healthy and to support our mental wellbeing? Will he look at the situation in my local authorities, Runnymede and Elmbridge borough councils, and their individual leisure operator contracts and according liabilities, where those are in excess of the support provided by the scheme?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Leisure services play a vital role in helping people to be active, supporting physical and mental health, and bringing a wider range of community and wellbeing benefits. I can confirm that Runnymede and Elmbridge have each lodged an expression of interest as the first necessary step in the application process for the national leisure recovery fund; I believe that they will have submitted their completed applications before the deadline of 15 January. It is also worth noting that councils may be eligible for support from the sales, fees and charges scheme, which was recently extended into the first three months of 2021-22, but I am always more than happy to meet him to discuss this matter in more detail.

Leaseholders: Fire Safety Costs

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that leaseholders are not held responsible for the costs of remediating dangerous cladding. (910659)

We expect—and we are right to expect—developers, investors and building owners who have the means to pay to cover remediation costs themselves without passing on costs to leaseholders. In cases where this may not be possible and where there may be wider costs related to historical defects, we are keenly aware that leaseholders can face unforeseen costs. That is why we have introduced funding schemes, providing £1.6 billion to accelerate the pace of work and meet the costs of remediating high-risk and the most expensive defects. We are accelerating the work on a long-term solution, and are working to announce the findings of that as soon as possible.

The Government have always been right to say that leaseholders should not bear the costs of a scandal for which they bore no responsibility. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister confirm that it will be wholly—[Inaudible]—for them to be expected to meet the costs by way of a loan scheme supported by the Government, as is reported in some of the press? That would not be consistent with the Government’s policy or the Government’s word, would it?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he was breaking up a little, but I think we got the gist of his question. We have always been clear that it is unacceptable for leaseholders to have to worry about fixing the costs of historical safety defects in their buildings that they did not cause. I fully understand the anxiety that they must all feel, particularly given the compounding challenges of the pandemic. That is why we are determined to remove the barriers to fixing those historical defects and to identify clear financial solutions to help protect those leaseholders while also, of course, protecting the taxpayer. We will update the House with further measures as soon as possible.

Let us head to the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, in Yorkshire, Clive Betts.

Thank you, Mr Speaker—happy new year to you. I am sure it would be remiss of me if I did not say that your local constituency football team have made rather a good start to this year.

In saying happy new year to the Minister as well, I am sure he would want it to be a happy new year for all leaseholders, but he did not really answer the question from the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). Even if a loan scheme were introduced to cover the costs of these defects, and even if it was a very low-interest scheme, that would still be a capital charge on properties—a capital charge that would be a considerable financial burden on leaseholders, would put many of them into negative equity, and would mean that their properties were unsaleable. Will the Minister accept that a loan scheme that puts an additional debt on leaseholders is not a fair way out of this problem and that he should instead look to the industry and to Government to cover the cost of putting these defects right?

The Chair of the Select Committee is absolutely right—we should look to developers and to building owners to remedy the defects in their buildings. We have made available to owners who are not able to remedy those defects quickly and effectively £1.6 billion in order to remedy those defects. As I said in my earlier answer, we do not want and we do not expect hard-pressed leaseholders to bear unfair costs of defects for which they are not responsible. That is why we are working quickly to bring forward a long-term solution to ensure that costs are met, that defects are remedied, and that the position that leaseholders find themselves in is remedied too.

A belated happy new year to you, Mr Speaker.

Clauses 88 and 89 of the Government’s proposed Building Safety Bill will impose a charge on leaseholders, not developers and not the industry. Ministers now refer to “affordable” cost and a 30-year loan on top of current debts, including for waking watch, which we still have no remedy to. Adding insult to injury, Ministers are trying to gag recipients of the building safety fund from speaking to the media. That is just not going to happen. Have Ministers learned nothing about transparency from the Grenfell inquiry? Is it not about time that Ministers stepped in and made sure that the developer community shoulder their responsibility for this mess?

The Government have stepped in: they have spent £1.6 billion of public money on remediating the most difficult and challenging buildings that require help and support. We have made a further £30 million available for waking watch. The Building Safety Bill to which the hon. Gentleman refers—one of the most significant pieces of legislation in this Parliament —will be brought forward to make sure that building defects such as we have seen are things of the past. In the meantime, we will work at pace to find solutions that resolve the question of building defects such that we do not see hard-pressed leaseholders enduring difficult, unforeseen and unfair taxes. If those leaseholders wish to step forward and make comments themselves, who am I to say that they should not? We live in a free country; let them speak.

Waking Watch Relief Fund

We expect that the £30 million fund will be open this month, as I said earlier, with the aim to start providing funding for the installation of alarms as quickly as possible. We will work with local authorities and fire and rescue services on the delivery of the fund, and we expect to publish a prospectus with further information on the additional eligibility criteria and evidence requirements as soon as possible.

Residents of Royal Quarter, Kingston in my constituency have contacted me to say that their building has been assessed as having dangerous cladding, but they cannot apply to the waking watch fund, as their building is less than 18 metres tall. Leaving leaseholders to pick up the tab for remediating cladding means that many buildings will not be made safe in the near future. Will the Government commit to funding the remediation of cladding on all buildings as soon as possible, to ensure that they can be made safe, and then claim the money back from those responsible?

I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question. In our response to this challenge, we have been guided by Dame Judith Hackitt, who advised that we should focus our attention specifically on buildings that are over 18 metres, and that is what we have done. We believe that the £30 million that we have made available will go a long way to helping with the waking watch challenges of many of those buildings. It still remains the responsibility of developers and owners to make safe the buildings that they own or are responsible for and to resolve the defects in them. That is the point I have made from this Dispatch Box before and which I make again today, and it is the point that the building safety Bill will help to remedy.

Local Government Powers

We are committed to levelling up across the United Kingdom by devolving directly to local areas, which understand the needs in their community and are best placed to take decisions over investments to drive economic growth and deliver services for their communities. From May this year, 41% of people in England will be living in areas with directly elected regional mayors, and we intend to bring forward the devolution and local recovery White Paper in due course.

I welcome the answer from the Minister. It is important that local government has the powers to deliver quality services, but unfortunately in Scotland the SNP Scottish Government have been grabbing powers back from local authorities for years. Does the Minister agree that we need to see Governments of all levels working together to ensure that British people get access to the services they deserve?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that devolution should be about delivering services that work for local people, which is why we are committed to devolution. We will need, at all levels of government across the country, to work together to achieve that and the best possible services for residents. We intend to bring forward the devolution and local recovery White Paper in due course, which will detail how we will partner with places across the UK to build a sustainable recovery. I can absolutely assure him that this Conservative Government will continue to set the pace on devolution.

House Building

The Government care deeply about building more homes and delivered more than 243,000 last year, the highest level for more than 30 years. We have gone to great lengths to keep the whole industry open during the pandemic, sustaining hundreds of thousands of people’s jobs and livelihoods, while continuing to stimulate the market through our stamp duty cut. Covid will impact starts significantly, so we are taking steps to sustain activity, including delivering up to 180,000 homes through our £12 billion investment in affordable homes, the biggest investment of its kind for a decade.

There are about 100 small rural villages in my Gainsborough constituency, and I doubt there has been any building of social housing in any of them over the past 40 years. It is virtually impossible for young couples, who often do precisely the jobs we want in rural areas, to buy into villages. We do not want our English villages filled with people like me; we want young people. [Interruption.] That is the truth. Will the Secretary of State do a massive campaign, like the Macmillan campaign at the beginning of the 1950s, to build social housing and rent to buy in our rural villages in England?

Like my right hon. Friend, I want to see more homes of all kinds built in all parts of the country, and I want to deliver as many social and affordable homes as we possibly can. I was delighted that the Chancellor gave us the funding for the £12 billion affordable homes programme, which as I say is the largest for a decade. It has a target to deliver 10% of those homes in rural areas, so it should support his community in Lincolnshire.

To answer the broader question, rural areas need to consider how they can bring forward more land in the plan-making process in their neighbourhood plans for homes of all kinds. The current planning system permits local communities to choose the type of homes that they want, so when they allocate sites, they can say that they should be affordable homes, through which they can support the next generation. I do not think any village in this country should be deemed to be set in aspic. Organic growth has happened throughout the generations and can and should happen in the future.

My constituents particularly welcome my right hon. Friend’s recent announcements in respect of improving the circumstances of leaseholders and ensuring that overly tall buildings are not permitted to blight local neighbourhoods. When can we expect to see the benefit of those measures being implemented?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he has done in this area, along with a number of his colleagues representing London constituencies. I have corresponded with the Mayor of London, directing him that in the forthcoming London plan there now be a tall buildings policy for London, which will ensure that every borough can determine if and where tall buildings should be built. We have no objection to tall buildings. London needs more housing, and that includes good-quality tall buildings, but it is fair for communities to decide where that should be focused. It may be in areas where there are existing clusters of tall buildings, such as Nine Elms or Canary Wharf, or it might be around transport infrastructure in other parts of the city, but we should be able to protect the character and feel of outer London and those parts of the suburbs that my hon. Friend represents, which deserve that added level of protection.

Hard-working young people saving up for their own home have been let down by successive Tory Governments, and this Government are missing their own target of increasing to 300,000 the number of homes built per year by the mid-2020s. The stamp duty holiday pushed prices out of reach of first-time buyers, and the first homes scheme built literally no homes. So what does the Secretary of State say to the young people whose dream of home ownership he has so badly let down?

Let us remember that the last Labour Government left house building in this country at its lowest ever level in peacetime—the lowest since the 1920s. The statistics that we published at the end of last year show that this Government are building more homes than any Government has built for almost 40 years, and were it not for covid, we would have built more homes than any Government since that in which Harold Macmillan was Housing Secretary many years ago.

We will keep on building more homes. We will keep on investing in homes through the affordable homes programme and more investment in brownfield land, and we will keep on bringing forward ambitious planning reforms to free up the planning system, to support small builders and entrepreneurs and to create and sustain jobs for the brickies, the plumbers and the self-employed people the length and breadth of the country who need a Conservative Government to be on their side. I would respectfully ask the hon. Lady to back us. She and her colleagues have voted against every single one of those measures since the pandemic. People across this country need those measures to get this country building and support jobs.

Housing Development Levies

Contributions from housing developers see around £7 billion a year invested back into communities, building more homes and vital infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, and helping to deliver more than 30,000 affordable homes last year. But, as my hon. Friend has raised with me a number of times, the system is still too long-winded and complex. To fix that, we will introduce a flat rate, non-negotiable single infrastructure levy. As set out in the “Planning for the future” White Paper, that will accelerate house building, aim to raise more revenue than under the current process and deliver at least as many on-site affordable homes. We will publish more details on this soon.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as well as raising more for the infrastructure that is needed to support new housing, more of the cost should be borne by developers rather than taxpayers, and that we should give more power, freedom and flexibility to local councils about how they spend those revenues in line with local priorities?

The current system is not successful. It leads to long-winded wrangling. It places the cards in the hands of big developers, rather than local councils, communities and, in particular, small developers, who find it too costly and complex to navigate. The new infrastructure levy will be simpler and more certain and, as my hon. Friend says, it will do two important things. First, it will raise a larger amount of money, capturing more of the uplift in land values, so that more money can be put at the disposal of local communities. Secondly, it will give greater freedom to local councils to decide how they choose to spend that, so that development can benefit communities in flexible ways.

Housing Need and Planning Reform

What recent discussions he has had with the Office for National Statistics on housing need and planning reforms. (910666)

We regularly engage with the ONS on many issues, including the role of household projections within the local housing need standard method. The hon. Gentleman may also be interested to learn that, alongside the planning reform White Paper, Ministers and officials have hosted and attended a very large number of consultation events. We are always interested in working with stakeholders and experts on proposals, and we welcome the expertise that the ONS brings.

Like communities up and down the country, the people of Warwick and Leamington are extremely concerned about overdevelopment and, in villages such as Bishop’s Tachbrook, urban sprawl. When we look at the numbers from the district plan, we see 932 homes supposed to be built per year and the Government’s figure from their “malgorithm” is 910 homes per year, whereas the ONS estimates 623 properties a year and, likewise, Lichfields 627. There seems to be a huge disparity between the figures from the ONS and Lichfields versus those of the Government. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss and explain the reasons for that because, on the face of it, the figures do not stack up?

I am always happy, of course, to meet the hon. Gentleman, although he may be misinformed in so far as I think the local housing need for his own constituency and local authority is 627 a year, not the 910 that was projected in the Lichfields projections in the middle of last year. However, I am always very happy to meet him, and I am sure at that time he will be very keen also to put on record his great pleasure in receiving £10 million in future high streets funding for Leamington, because his Boxing day tweet, in which he seemed to rubbish this spending, did smack a little of “Bah, humbug!” It seems that Ebenezer Scrooge does not live simply in the mind of Charles Dickens; he is alive and well, and living somewhere in Warwick.

Regeneration: Towns and Cities

While we look to the future with optimism as our vaccine programme continues to make progress, we know that covid-19 has meant an unprecedented challenge for towns and high streets. That is why, last month, I announced a new urban centre recovery taskforce, bringing together local leaders and industry experts to help our cities and towns to adapt and take advantage of the new opportunities that may follow. This builds on our wider planning reforms, giving shop owners the flexibility to change the use of their property and to rebuild vacant properties as homes. All this comes on top of our £3.6 billion towns fund, the £4 billion levelling up fund and the new brownfield funding, all of which will ensure that towns have the investment they need to prosper.

I welcome the recently announced levelling up and brownfield funds. As we did not benefit in Stoke-on-Trent previously from similar funds, will my right hon. Friend do everything possible to ensure that we do not miss out this time on much-needed funding for towns such as Longton and Fenton in my constituency and for our entire city?

We will be publishing very soon the prospectus on the levelling-up fund, and that will give an opportunity for all parts of the country to benefit from this additional funding, including the community that my hon. Friend represents in Stoke-on-Trent. We also, as a result of his assiduous lobbying, have brought forward further funding for the remediation of brownfield land. Stoke-on-Trent has an excellent track record of developing new homes, but it does face significant challenges with the cost of remediation and the viability of those homes, so I hope Stoke-on-Trent will benefit from that funding as well.

Tremendous strides have been made in Aylesbury over the past year with the council and the town centre management team working incredibly hard, despite coronavirus, to make the town a place in which people want to live, work, shop, visit and invest. Proposals for the regeneration of the Market Square and Kingsbury Square will give a much-needed boost to the street scene, so could my right hon. Friend outline how the Government will assist ambitious local authorities such as Buckinghamshire Council to make plans for regeneration in Aylesbury a reality?

I am very pleased to hear that Aylesbury has made such progress with its regeneration plans, which will complement Buckinghamshire’s ambitious garden town project—to which we have already allocated over £172 million—to unlock 10,000 homes. My hon. Friend is right to say that this year a priority postcode for every single council in the country, including his own, must be how they can help their town centre to thrive, not just today but well into the future. That will include ambitious plans to turn underutilised retail into work spaces and homes, and trying to attract private sector investment by making full use of the planning reforms that we have brought forward, with a more flexible, more certain and more responsive system to make regeneration a reality.

I am delighted that high streets across the north-west will benefit from the future high street fund, including Kirkham in my constituency. However, seaside resorts such as St Anne’s that are already in need of regeneration have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, so what plans does the Department have to support the regeneration of this Lancashire coastal gem?

I was very pleased to announce last month that Kirkham will benefit from our future high streets fund, receiving over £6 million, which will go a long way to support its ambitious plans. Not only that, but my hon. Friend’s constituents will no doubt benefit, in part at least, from the £39.5 million that we have awarded to nearby Blackpool, which will help to revitalise the town and fund several projects, including modernising the illuminations, so that they can be brighter than ever later this year. He is right that as a seaside town St Anne’s faces some very significant challenges, which he and I have spoken about in the past. We have provided over £230 million of support to other coastal towns in England through the coastal communities fund, and coastal communities will be very much in our thoughts in the £4 billion levelling-up fund and also as part of the UK shared prosperity fund, both of which we will be publishing prospectuses for very soon.

Topical Questions

Over Christmas the Government announced the 72 recipients of our £830 million future high streets fund competition, enabling the delivery by councils of ambitious plans for regeneration. Councils are once again critical to the covid-19 pandemic, and our focus in the coming weeks will be on ensuring that they play a full and supportive role in the vaccination programme, especially ensuring that the hardest to reach in each of their communities are protected and vaccinated.

The work that communities have done in protecting some of the most vulnerable in society—rough sleepers—has truly been first-class. Last week, I announced the next phase of our strategy, which has been widely praised as one of the most successful of its kind in the world, and which has already committed over £700 million in the past year to supporting rough sleepers and the homeless.

The Prime Minister and I have been clear that central to this Government’s mission is the Conservative party’s promise of home ownership, helping more people to achieve the dream of owning their own home. Our landmark leasehold reforms are the next step in that great tradition. We are putting an end to practices that for far too long have soured the dream of home ownership for millions, and preparing the way for a better system altogether with the active promotion of commonhold.

Notwithstanding what the Secretary of State has just said about our councils being at the frontline of this pandemic, in addition to general grants Bucks council has received £200 million across 25 specific grants as at the end of the last year, but they are subject, I am afraid, to myriad conditions. For example, it has been told that the contain outbreak management fund cannot be used to support local businesses. Surely the Secretary of State can see that it would be better to give our councils the freedom and flexibility to deploy those grants in a way that best meets the needs of their communities, as, after all, they are really facing the danger we all fear?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. Local councils have done a fantastic job, but they have limited capacity and in many cases they are close to the limit of that capacity. We are very aware of that. I am urging my colleagues in Cabinet and across Government to prioritise carefully their asks of local government, to ensure that the schemes they bring forward are as simple as possible to reduce the burden on local councils. My long-standing view is that we should be providing funding in almost every case to local councils on an un-ring-fenced basis. That is certainly the way we have proceeded in general throughout the pandemic. We have provided £54 million of un-ring-fenced funding to her local council on top of, as she said, a whole range of schemes to support local businesses and the care sector.

The Secretary of State has taken the extraordinary decision not to challenge the opening of a new deep coal mine in Cumbria. In the year the UK is hosting COP26, we need to show an example to the rest of the world. The application is of national, even global, importance and demands his intervention. Will he now commit to block this disastrous application? If he will not, will he tell the House how he expects anyone to take the Government seriously ever again on tackling climate change?

I cannot comment on an individual application, other than to say that a decision not to call in an application is not a decision on the merits of a particular case. It is a decision on whether it meets the bar to bring in a case and have it heard on a national scale, or whether, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, it is better left to local democratically elected councillors, in this case in Cumbria. It is those councillors who will now make the decision. The national planning policy framework presents a balanced judgment that they will have to make, balancing our national presumption against new coal with any particular benefits that a project might bring to that community in terms of jobs, skills and economic benefit. That is a decision that in this case will be made by the democratically elected members on Cumbria County Council.

In November, the Secretary of State promised me that more details about the replacement of EU structural funds would be revealed in the spending review. They weren’t. The Scottish Government and councils have been left in the dark about the future of the UK shared prosperity fund. Why did the Secretary of State break his promise in November, and where is the so-called respect agenda for devolved nations?

The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. We said at the spending review that we are bringing forward not just the UK shared prosperity fund but £220 million of additional funding on top of that to support local communities in all parts of the country, including Scotland. We will shortly be publishing the prospectus. I hope he will now take this occasion to welcome the fact that not only will Scottish residents and businesses receive as much funding as they would have received had we stayed in the European Union, but £220 million more than that. We are more than meeting our commitment to his electors in Scotland.

I am glad the Secretary of State has touched on that, because Scotland’s share of the measly £220 million of transition funding to replace structural funds will be £18 million. If Scotland was an independent member of the European Union, it could expect to receive over £121 million at the very least. How can he claim that the shared prosperity fund is replacing lost EU funds when Scotland is receiving less than a sixth of what it would if it had stayed in the European Union?

The hon. Gentleman needs to do his sums again, if he is fully abreast of what is happening. The EU structural funds will continue for the coming year at the level they would have been at had we remained a member. The Chancellor has chosen, in addition to that funding, to add £220 million more. The hon. Gentleman does not know the proportion of that going to Scotland, because we will publish that in the prospectus. The figure he quotes is the one set by the European Union, so his objection is to the way in which the European Union chooses to divide up its structural funds to support local communities, not to the way that this Government can. Fortunately, as a result of leaving the European Union we can make our own decisions in the weeks and months ahead.

The £6.2 million future high streets fund is a welcome boost for Ashfield. Along with the towns fund of up to a third of £50 million for our area, this investment shows a real commitment to level up in red wall seats like mine. However, the forgotten town of Eastwood in my constituency has been left behind for years under successive Labour MPs and Labour councils. Will my right hon. Friend therefore please meet me to discuss once again how Eastwood can be included in the next round of funding? (910716)

My hon. Friend has already secured, as he says, the town deal for Ashfield, and the good news over the Christmas period is that it will also benefit from the high streets fund. We have been supporting Eastwood under this Government. The redevelopment of Mushroom Farm has received £160,000 for new commercial space for small and medium-sized enterprises and entrepreneurs in his constituency, but I would be very happy to meet him and see what more we might be able to do, so that all the investment that we have brought to Ashfield is also spread to Eastwood.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that his new Everyone In policy announced last week includes people with no recourse to public funds, without exceptions or caveats? And will he listen to calls from the Local Government Association and others for no recourse to public funds conditions to be suspended so that everyone who is vulnerable can access help? (910715)

We have been very clear that the further work that we are doing now, building on the hugely successful Everyone In scheme, will be available to all individuals. Councils need to apply the law and that means making an individual assessment, but the unique circumstances of winter and the pandemic will mean that councils will use that to support more people off the streets and, importantly, to view this as a moment not just to support them now, but to get them GP-registered so that, in due course, they can be vaccinated, so we lead the world in supporting this vulnerable group and ensuring that they are fully vaccinated.

Not too long ago, the Secretary of State met me on Dinnington High Street to discuss help for smaller towns, and especially help for Dinnington. The towns fund, which is an excellent initiative that will help to rejuvenate many town centres, does not benefit smaller towns such as those in Rother Valley. What plans does he have to introduce a similar scheme that will benefit the likes of Dinnington, Maltby, Aston and Thurcroft, so that our towns in Rother Valley can also be revived? (910717)

I do remember that visit to Dinnington when my hon. Friend was a candidate, and I was delighted that he was later elected. He has assiduously made the point that we need to think about smaller towns and larger villages in the preparation of our plans, whether that is the levelling-up fund or the UK shared prosperity fund. I appreciate that in places such as south Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, there are small communities, perhaps ex-steel and ex-coalfield communities, where the need is great and where we need to ensure that investment arrives. That will very much be in our minds as we prepare the prospectus for the levelling-up fund.

More than three years after Grenfell, thousands of worried tenants go to sleep every night in buildings clad with flammable material. Will the Minister confirm when he expects all flammable cladding will be removed from residential properties? (910720)

I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question. I know that she campaigns hard for her constituents on this issue. On 21 January—in a little under two weeks’ time—we will be able to release the latest figures on the remediation of aluminium composite material cladding. We believe that, by that time, we should show that around 95% of the buildings identified at the start of last year—having such safety defects—will have had their work either completed or it will be under way. We are absolutely committed to resolving this issue for leaseholders. That is why we are accelerating the work to find a package that will ensure that they are not left disadvantaged.

Despite the best efforts of local authority inclusion officers, there continues to be a crisis in the education of Traveller children, with around a third of Traveller children in my area not getting a proper education. The planning system has to bear some responsibility for that. As the Department reviews this policy, will it look at a more integrated approach where children generally go to school on a regular basis and get a better education? Will that be factored in to future planning policy as the Department reviews this area? (910718)

My hon. Friend is one of the most knowledgeable and thoughtful Members of the House on this subject, which he and I have discussed many times. Fewer than one in five children from a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller background meets the expected standard for English and maths at GCSE. I am firmly committed to delivering a cross-Government strategy to improve life chances in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and, as my hon. Friend says, to encourage greater integration, particularly in education. In the depths of the pandemic, my Department has invested £400,000 in education and training programmes for GRT children, so that they can receive extra tuition and catch up on lost learning.

In November, the Public Accounts Committee published a damning report on the towns fund, stating that the selection process was not impartial and was almost certainly subject to political interference from Ministers. Wyre Council’s strong bid for the future high streets funding for Fleetwood, which I supported, was rejected last month. Was that selection process, which saw Fleetwood’s town centre miss out, also not impartial? (910729)

The hon. Lady misrepresents even what the Public Accounts Committee had to say about the towns fund; I urge her to re-read what it said and not to be so liberal with her language. I can assure her that the high streets fund used a 100% competitive process, and Ministers had no say in choosing the places selected.

If fault lies anywhere, I am afraid it lies with the hon. Lady’s local council, because despite our giving it hundreds of thousands of pounds to produce plans, and despite the no doubt great need in the community, it failed to put forward proposals that met the Treasury’s basic benefit-cost ratio value-for-money standard. That is a great pity. The people of her local community have missed out, but if the blame lies anywhere, it lies with her local council.

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.