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Topical Questions

Volume 689: debated on Monday 22 February 2021

On Saturday, I was delighted to announce that the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government will be opening a new dual headquarters in the great city of Wolverhampton, taking Ministers, senior civil servants and decision makers to the west midlands. We are leading efforts to level up all parts of the country, so it is only right that MHCLG brings decision makers to the communities that we seek to serve. This is about more than just the hundreds of jobs that we will bring to the region, with 800 MHCLG staff outside London by 2030—it is about pride, prestige, proximity to power, ensuring that more local voices are reflected in the creation of Government policy and playing our part in raising the stature of smaller cities such as Wolverhampton, which have been undervalued by Governments hitherto.

Earlier today, I was pleased to meet representatives from Wolverhampton, who included—you will be pleased to know, Mr Speaker, as a supporter of Chorley FC— the mighty Wolverhampton Wanderers football club. All at the Ministry look forward to being an integral part of the great city of Wolverhampton and the wider west midlands.

Can the Secretary of State tell me what projections have been made of the impact on homelessness of the ending of the protection for renters at the end of next month? What provision will be made to assist local authorities in supporting those who find themselves evicted?

My right hon Friend the Lord Chancellor and I are working to consider what further steps are necessary. We will hear in a few moments’ time the Prime Minister’s statement, which will set out the road map for the reopening of our economy, but it is important that we keep in place measures that protect the most vulnerable in society, including those who are renting. That is exactly what we have done since the beginning of the pandemic, and I intend to keep doing so for as long as is necessary.

The hon. Lady will also be aware that we have spent more than £700 million protecting rough sleepers in her part of the country and across the whole of England. We have helped more than 34,000 of the most vulnerable people in society into safe and secure accommodation, and we intend to build on that over the course of the year as we move forward with our pledge to end rough sleeping.

With Prestatyn facing the imminent closure of TSB, Barclays and HSBC, and following on from the loss of NatWest and the Royal Bank of Scotland in recent years, the town’s high street will be left without a single bank or cash machine, despite being a major regional shopping centre. Can my right hon. Friend outline what conversations he is holding with major banks to ensure an adequate and fair distribution of banking facilities in high streets across the UK? (912325)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We went into the pandemic as one of the leading countries in the world in terms of having a cashless society. The chief executive of the Royal Mint, based in Llantrisant in Wales, has suggested recently that coin use may have dropped by as much as a fifth over the course of the pandemic, and much of that will not be restored afterwards, so it is important that we protect access to cash for the most vulnerable in society, including those in smaller towns, villages and rural areas. My right hon Friend the Chancellor has committed to doing just that and ensuring that the infrastructure that supports cash is sustainable in the long term, including proposals that would see cashback offered at shops without consumers having to make a purchase.

The Resolution Foundation has found that 450,000 households have fallen into rent arrears since last January due to the covid pandemic. Does the Secretary of State think the Government’s decision to freeze local housing allowance will improve that situation or make it worse, and what objections has he raised in Cabinet about this freeze?

I am proud of the response that this Government have made to the pandemic. At every turn, we have tried to protect the most vulnerable people in society. My Department has protected renters through bringing forward the moratorium on evictions. We raised the local housing allowance to the 30th percentile, ensuring that there is more support for those people who need it. In England, we have supported rough sleepers, those shielding and many of the most vulnerable people; that is absolutely right. Our record stands up very well compared with that of the Scottish Government. In fact, the courts in Scotland opened long before those in England, ensuring that people in England were protected from eviction while those in Scotland were being evicted.

Hull and East Riding of Yorkshire Council submitted their bid for East Yorkshire devolution some months ago. That included a request for full allocation for the Goole town deal bid, but I digress. Can the Minister tell me where we are with regard to opening up negotiations with Hull and East Riding of Yorkshire Council, to get East Yorkshire devolution moving forwards? (912326)

We have a clear commitment to give more power to local communities, providing opportunity across the country. We want to build on the more than 50% of the north now covered by our devolution deals, with a new deal in West Yorkshire signed in Parliament just last month. We welcomed the devolution proposal from Hull and East Yorkshire, and my Department will respond shortly, with a view to further formal engagement with councils following the local government elections. I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about this in greater depth.

Last week, The Sunday Times revealed that property developers who have built flats covered in dangerous cladding have donated £2.5 million to the Conservative party since 2017. This comes after the 10 biggest house builders have made £15 billion in profit since the Grenfell Tower disaster, and of course, they have made a tidy sum during the covid-19 pandemic from a market boom fuelled by the stamp duty holiday. The Housing Secretary said he believes in the polluter pays principle. Why, then, are leaseholders still footing the bill for the building safety crisis?

The hon. Gentleman may have missed my statement to the House the other day in which I announced on behalf of the Chancellor that we will be bringing forward levies and taxes on the property development industry. [Interruption.] He suggests that they are too low, but he does not know what the scale of them is, and he will have to wait until my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announces them in due course. We will ensure that those who created this situation pay for it. I would add that many of these buildings—in fact, the lion’s share of them—were built under the last Labour Government, who did nothing to tackle this issue. We are clearing up the mess. We are bringing forward an entirely new building safety regime, which will be world class and ensure that people can always be safe and feel safe in their homes.

Time and again, constituents raise with me their worries about the state of the town centre. The UK Government’s £3.6 billion towns fund in England is a fantastic initiative. Could my right hon. Friend confirm that the full Barnett consequential from that has been passed to the Welsh Government, so that my constituents can benefit, should Cardiff bay choose to make towns a priority, as this Government are doing? (912327)

As my hon. Friend notes, the £3.6 billion towns fund is being delivered in England with great success. There is, however, nothing to prevent the Welsh Government from investing in the same way in towns such as the one that he represents across Wales. At the latest spending review, the Welsh Government received an additional £1.3 billion for the next financial year through the Barnett formula and £12 million through changes in my Department’s overall settlement. I strongly encourage him to hold the Welsh Government to account and ensure that they invest more in communities such as the one that he serves.

The strong message I have received from businesses in Ilford town centre and on high streets across my constituency is that action on business rates is needed to help high street businesses. Can the Secretary of State have a word with the Chancellor to make sure that that support is in place, so that when people return to their high streets, there are still some shops there to serve them? (912332)

I do not think my right hon. Friend needs any reminding; he of course was the Chancellor who gave us the business rates holiday that has supported hundreds of thousands of businesses on every high street across the country. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait till the Budget next week, where the Chancellor will be setting out how he intends to continue supporting businesses and jobs in all parts of the United Kingdom over the course of the year.

Will the Secretary of State condemn the astonishing decision by the Mayor of London to spend thousands of pounds on a committee to take down statues and rename streets? Is this not a good reason to vote for Shaun Bailey as the new Conservative Mayor of London? (912328)

I agree wholeheartedly with my right hon. Friend. It does speak to the priorities of the current Mayor of London that he would devote so much time to statues and street names, rather than to the things that really matter to people in London, which are tackling crime, ensuring they do not have to pay his 10% mayoral precept on their council tax and ensuring that good-quality affordable homes are built in the places people want to see them.

We all know that, despite the Prime Minister’s experience as a Mayor, he has called the devolution settlement a “disaster” and a “mistake”. Is that loathing of Scotland’s Parliament perhaps the real reason why the Government are ripping up the devolution settlement, grabbing back our powers and imposing a shared prosperity fund that bypasses the democratically elected Members of the Scottish Parliament and bears very little resemblance to the needs or wants of the Scottish electorate? (912335)

This Government were elected on a clear manifesto pledge to ensure that we level up all parts of this United Kingdom, including the communities that the hon. Member serves in Scotland, and that is exactly what we intend to do. The UK shared prosperity fund will ensure that at least as much, if not more, funding goes to communities in Scotland than would have been received if we had stayed within the European Union. He seems to have a strange aversion to localism and to ensuring that local authorities in Scotland—democratically elected councillors in his constituency and others—have a say over the future of their areas.

Since I was elected, I have been speaking up for Exmouth and East Devon in Parliament, and working hard to secure support for our hospitality industry, Exeter airport and the mighty Exeter Chiefs. Exmouth continues to grow, and I want to work with East Devon District Council to help the town stay a great place to live and work. Could the Secretary of State provide an update on when the next round of funding to improve towns, transport and high streets will be made available? (912329)

I very much enjoyed visiting East Devon during the general election campaign, and I look forward to seeing Exmouth’s application in due course. As I said then, Exmouth is exactly the sort of town that we want to benefit from the town regeneration funds that we have made available. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we are driving forward our plans to boost town centre regeneration in every corner of the country. The levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund will build on the work of the future high streets fund and the towns fund, and the prospectuses for those will be published very soon. I hope East Devon District Council will work with him to grasp this opportunity and put in good proposals that we can consider carefully.

Census 2021 is due in just a few weeks’ time, at a time when cities such as Cambridge would normally be packed with students, researchers and visitors. In the middle of a pandemic, does the Secretary of State really think we will get accurate figures? Remember that these figures are going to be used for the next 10 years. (912342)

Of course, we are working closely with the Cabinet Office on the delivery of the elections and the census. We have provided extra funds to make sure they can be delivered safely, and we have published guidance alongside that as well. We have also committed, for the coming year, £11 billion directly to councils since the start of the pandemic, of which Cambridge City Council has so far received more than £5.4 million. On top of that, it will have the additional funding to help it deliver elections, and its share of the £1.55 billion that we have announced to help with covid-related pressures next year, including election pressures.

I welcome the upcoming leasehold reform legislation, but I do worry that the provisions may not apply for the benefit of my constituents in Delyn and across Wales. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what discussions he has had with the Welsh Government to assist them in ensuring that my constituents are not left behind by Labour once again? (912330)

My hon. Friend is right to welcome the landmark reforms that we announced earlier in the year, which will be the biggest changes to English property law for over 40 years. Of course, I would like to see them apply in Wales as well, and we have had conversations with colleagues in the Welsh Government. I strongly encourage them to take the same approach as us, which is to ensure there is always fairness for leaseholders, and that those reforms come into place across the whole of England and Wales.

Given the scale of need for help with home adaptations for the rising number of older people with disabilities, dementia and now the impacts of long covid, will the Secretary of State commit to increasing disabled facilities grant funding so that local authorities like Bedford Borough Council can stand a chance of meeting local need? (912345)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and we are actively considering it. We have responded to a consultation on how we can improve access to public buildings and to homes for disabled people, and if there is more we can do, we should do it.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the support given to councils over the past 12 months, but as we move into what will hopefully be a busy summer for tourism in areas such as North Devon, based on the experience of last summer, some smaller district and parish councils that operate car parks, toilets, and waste and dog bin collections struggle to finance and maintain them effectively to the understandably higher standards that are needed, so can he advise what support is being given to ensure that councils with tourism hotspots are prepared for the likely influx of visitors this summer? (912331)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We are hugely grateful to parish and town councils, which have been on the frontline in responding to this pandemic. That is why the Secretary of State wrote to them earlier this year to encourage principal councils to work with them to discuss funding. Councils in Devon will receive a further £31 million in un-ringfenced covid funding next year, which will help to ensure that their facilities are maintained and ready for the summer. Finally, I am delighted that my hon. Friend’s constituency has received an offer of £6.5 million from our future high streets fund, which I understand will go towards refurbishment of the historic market quarter.

Considering local government reform, the five boroughs and districts of Warwickshire have spent over £100,000 on a report by Deloitte, and I understand that Warwickshire County Council has spent over £50,000 with PricewaterhouseCoopers. Deloitte found that it would be favourable for one sort of authority, while PricewaterhouseCoopers decided that county councils should remain as is. Is that a good use of public money? (912352)

Those individual decisions are decisions for local authorities. I can certainly inform the hon. Gentleman that Warwick has received over £3.7 million this year in covid funding, and is receiving a 4.8% real-terms rise in core spending power this current financial year, but the individual decision to which he has referred is for the council to make.

The Minister will be aware of plans by Lib Dem Eastleigh Borough Council to build and develop 2,500 houses in the village of Horton Heath. I know that the Minister cannot comment on specific planning applications, but what general advice can he give my constituents, who are concerned about the council acting as both the developer and the planning authority while seemingly ignoring statutory bodies such as the Environment Agency? (912333)

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns regarding the new development at Horton Heath. As he says, I cannot comment on individual planning cases, but he is right that where a local council acts as the developer and master planner of a particular site it is incumbent upon it to ensure that it takes account of the views of statutory consultees such as the Environment Agency, of the local community and, indeed, of strong local Members of Parliament like him.

I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.