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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 689: debated on Monday 22 February 2021

Housing, Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

High Streets

May I associate myself and all on the Government Benches with the remarks you have just made with respect to Julia, Mr Speaker? We are all very saddened to hear of her death. As you said, service to this House comes in many forms and few have served it as well as she has. We all pass on our deepest condolences to her husband, family and friends.

The Government’s response to the pandemic has seen billions of pounds of support flowing to our high streets through business grants, the furlough scheme and tax deferrals. We look to the future with renewed optimism through the progress of our world-beating vaccination programme, but we know the pandemic has magnified and accelerated market forces and will have a lasting impact on the hight street. The role of high streets has always evolved. I am confident that it will do so again, provided there is the right leadership from local councils to make that happen. We are supporting councils and the pace of change through planning and licensing reform, preserving what is best about the high street at the heart of our local communities but enabling it to move forward with renewed confidence.

I, too, pass on my great sympathies to the family of Julia Clifford. She was indeed a great person and always cheerful.

High streets need to adapt to the changing nature of retail and become places that offer a chance for everyone to work, rest and play as well as shop. Does my right hon. Friend agree that planning policy must adapt, so that councils and businesses can make the changes they need to remain competitive and broaden their appeal to the public?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. We are seeing profound changes to the high street. As it begins to reopen later this year, we will need an extremely flexible planning system so that we can ensure that small businesses and entrepreneurs can adapt and evolve. We will need a mixed economy, ensuring that there are housing, leisure, shops and restaurants in town and city centres. That is what we are seeking to achieve. We have already put in place, at great speed, a number of significant planning reforms: for example, our reform of use class orders; the ability of local councils to hold markets and of pubs to have marquees in their gardens for longer than they would have done in the past; and permitted development rights to enable businesses that are no longer viable to be turned into high-quality homes so that people of all ages can live in the towns in which they work.

The past year has been incredibly difficult for businesses on the high streets across Sevenoaks and Swanley, but while some landlords have shared that burden others have not. What more can the Government do to encourage landlords to adjust rents where businesses have lost significant trade, or indeed have been unable to trade?

My hon. Friend raises an important question. We are experiencing probably the most significant adjustment in commercial property in our lifetimes and the Government are doing a number of things to assist that process. First, we have helped businesses with their cash flow during the pandemic through the business rates holiday and the business grants that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made available. Secondly, we have given businesses peace of mind during the most difficult months by introducing legislation to protect them from eviction, and from forms of insolvency and debt collection if they cannot pay their rent during this period. Finally, we have worked with the sector to publish a code of practice to help to support rent negotiations.

What is required now, if it has not happened already, are very urgent conversations or mediation, if that is necessary, between landlords and their tenants to ensure that where they can pay, they do so—we expect that to happen—and where they cannot pay, sensible, pragmatic arrangements are put in place. It is not in the interests of good landlords to lose viable businesses at this moment and we strongly encourage landlords, if they have not already, to have those productive conversations as quickly as they can.

The town deal funding combined with levelling-up funds and others are potentially transformational for our high street and local economy in Mansfield, but we need some support. It seems likely that we may have to re-submit our bid this spring to try to get the maximum funding, so will the Secretary of State assure me that he will be able to get proper feedback and support for our new bid, and will he look at whether he might be able to give us some security by ensuring that we cannot get a lower amount if we try again?

My hon. Friend has been a doughty champion for Mansfield. I was very pleased that, in the summer of last year, we were able to provide Mansfield District Council with £1 million of accelerated funding to make immediate improvements to the town. He is right to say that, in some places, our experience is—both through the towns fund and the high streets fund—that local proposals have required further support and guidance to ensure that they meet the perfectly understandable value-for-money requirements put in place by my Department and the Treasury. We are going to help Mansfield to prepare its proposals. We have put in place consultancy arrangements to do that and I look forward to working with him.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a significant part of regenerating our high streets needs to be bringing back into use old, historic buildings that have been out of use for far too long? That underlines why the Ipswich town deal bid is such a good bid, because at the heart of it, and the two most popular projects in the consultation, are plans to breathe new life into the Paul’s silo building—£4 million on the waterfront—and the old Post Office building: two iconic buildings for Ipswich that need a breath of new life.

My hon. Friend and I share a personal interest in historic buildings and the culture and heritage of our towns and cities. Ipswich, as the county town of Suffolk, has a particularly rich heritage. We want to see historic buildings restored and regenerated, and that is a significant part of all the funds that we have made available to date and will be of their successors—the levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund. I very much look forward to working with him as he finalises his proposals and ensures that Ipswich gets the regeneration funding that it needs.

I offer my condolences on behalf of the Opposition to the family of Julia Clifford on their very, very sad loss.

High streets need support to help them to recover, so will the Secretary of State guarantee that the funding that all areas receive under the levelling-up fund will be at least as much as they received under their local growth deal?

I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman’s and the Opposition’s new-found enthusiasm for business and supporting the wealth creators in this country. Of course, it was just over a year ago that they were supporting the overthrow of capitalism. The Leader of the Opposition’s relaunch last week was not quite the Beveridge moment that it was billed as, but we will keep on supporting small businesses on the high street. The Chancellor has done that very successfully over the course of this year in difficult circumstances, with the business rates holiday, the cut in VAT and the support for business grants. We are going to be doing more, as the hon. Gentleman said, with the £4 billion levelling-up fund, which builds on the success of the £3.6 billion towns fund. That will ensure that communities across the country—but particularly those that are furthest away from the labour market, have the highest levels of deprivation and have not seen the levels of Government investment that we would wish hitherto—get the funding that they need to move forward into the year.

New Homes

The first word in “Build back better” is, of course, “build”, and one of the key priorities for my Department throughout the pandemic has been to ensure that house building continues and the housing market stays open. This Government have gone to great lengths to keep the housing industry open, in turn sustaining hundreds of thousands of people’s jobs and livelihoods. House building and the whole ecosystem that it supports, from show homes to home maintenance, have been able to continue during the pandemic and to do so safely. This was shown in the third quarter statistics last year, where housing starts were up 111% on the first quarter and completions were up 185%. At the same time, we are seeing the biggest investment in affordable homes for a decade, delivering much needed new homes on brownfield land through our £7.1 billion national home building fund.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State has seen the reports in The Times today showing high levels of interest in new houses with open space. That is certainly the case at Houlton in my constituency, where the master developer of a 6,000-home site, Urban&Civic, has put green space and a sense of community at its heart, and surpassed its target with 513 occupations in the last three months and a further 310 homes currently under construction. Does he agree that the provision of high-quality open space should be a key part of all housing developments, and will he come to Houlton to see the great work that is being done there, as soon as he is able to do so?

I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend in Houlton, and I pay tribute to Urban&Civic, which I know well. It is a developer that has carefully masterplanned large sites and tried, where it can, to weave in trees, public realm and public spaces, which is exactly the right way forward. I was pleased to see that it has now been taken over by the Wellcome Trust, which says something about the sort of projects that it will take forward in the future: high-quality, sustainable communities. I have made it a personal priority to ensure that new developments are well-planned. That is why we brought forward the national model design code, and we are also changing the law so that all new streets that are built in this country will be tree lined.

Covid-19: Local Authority Support

The Government have allocated more than £8 billion directly to councils since the start of the pandemic. In addition, councils will receive more than £3 billion of support in 2021-22 for both additional expenditure and loss of income. That takes the total support committed to councils in England to tackle the impacts of covid-19 to more than £11 billion.

I sincerely thank Ministers for the substantial financial support they have given to local government at this difficult time. May I appeal to them to continue that, not least to enable local authorities to play their part in supporting people to live healthier lives with more exercise and recreation, so that we can generate the broader health recovery that this outbreak tells us we need?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right. This is why it is so vital that we have provided a 4.6% cash-terms increase to local government next year—a real-terms increase. I am delighted that in Barnet that means a 5% increase in core spending power—another £14 million next year to spend on local priorities, just as she mentions. Funding and supporting local government, which has been the backbone of our response to covid-19, remain an absolute priority for this Department.

Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission

What response his Department has made to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s final report. (912373)

People want to live in strong communities where they can see their unique character, heritage and culture reflected and respected in the buildings they pass in their daily lives, so the Government have established the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission to do just that, by championing beauty in the built environment. We have recently published a comprehensive response to the report, and will be implementing the vast majority of its recommendations. That includes embedding the principle of beauty in the planning system for the first time since it was created in the post-war years; publishing a new national model design code so that communities can demand well-designed local buildings; and establishing a fast track for beauty, where individuals and good-quality builders can see high-quality developments proceed at pace.

I am delighted by my right hon. Friend’s response. This is a vital report and it will make a huge difference to future developments in communities such as mine when these proposals are taken forward. We have a number of exciting developments across Furness, from Hartley’s Brewery in Ulverston to Salthouse sands in Barrow, which are actively seeking to celebrate local history. How best can those developers engage with my right hon. Friend’s Department to ensure that they meet the proposed standards?

My hon. Friend represents one of the most beautiful constituencies in the country, one with a very rich heritage, and I understand why he would want to see that preserved and enhanced, as do we. The developer community should now be engaging with our national model design code and his own local councils should now bring forward their own version of that. My Department stands ready, with our new place unit, to support local councils to produce high-quality, compelling and locally popular design codes. We will be piloting that over the course of the year—perhaps his local council might like to be one of the pilot areas.

Regional Inequality: Local Authority Funding

What steps he is taking to help ensure that local authority funding is used to tackle regional inequality. [R] (912375)

What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that local authority funding is used to tackle regional inequality. (912385)

This month, the local government finance settlement passed through this House, delivering a 4.6% rise in core spending power to councils across the country. For England, we are committed to putting funding where there is relative need, irrespective of the location, which is why councils in the most deprived areas of the country receive 16% more in grant funding than the least deprived areas.

Here in South Yorkshire, we used European Union and local growth funds to support our economy, attract investment and create good jobs. Now that they have come to an end, can the Minister guarantee that their replacements—the shared prosperity and levelling-up funds—will give local leaders the flexibility and capacity to invest that money to rebuild our communities?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for the constructive way in which he continues to work with the Government. The levelling-up fund is worth £4 billion. It will be invested in local infrastructure that will have a real and visible impact on our communities, whether that be a new bypass, an upgraded railway station, museums, more libraries, or better high streets and town centres. The fund will be allocated competitively and we will be publishing a prospectus for it soon. We are also providing £220 million of additional UK funding next year to support communities to pilot programmes and new approaches in preparation for the UK shared prosperity fund. We will publish the prospectus for this funding soon. I assure him that this funding will be at the heart of the levelling-up agenda, benefiting communities across the country. As always, I will be happy to discuss the detail with him when those prospectuses are published.

Powys County Council has historically received one of the lowest local government allocations across Wales from the Welsh Government. As a consequence, the local authority is considering closing four rural schools in Brecon and Radnorshire, deepening rural inequality even further. Will the Minister confirm that the Welsh Government have the funding to prevent that and that they could even use the extra funding given to them by the UK Government as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which they have yet to spend?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is right to say that we have given Wales £5.2 billion of guaranteed up-front funding this year, and we have now confirmed an additional £650 million for the Welsh Government to support public services affected by covid-19. Of course, local government is a devolved responsibility, and it is for the Welsh Government to decide how to use the substantial funds the UK Government are providing them with. I encourage them to meet my hon. Friend to discuss how best to protect the vital public services that she has rightly highlighted on behalf of her community.

Few details of the shared prosperity fund have been published. Will the Minister guarantee that the fund will be used to tackle regional inequality, as intended, that no region will lose out and that the Government will not force councils to compete against one another, wasting time and resources when they could be getting on with providing services that local people depend on?

I can certainly assure the hon. Lady that the UK shared prosperity fund will help level up and create opportunity right across our country in the places that need it the most, be they ex-industrial areas, deprived towns or rural communities, and for people who face labour market barriers. It is going to operate UK-wide, using the new financial assistance powers in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. We will ramp up funding so that total domestic UK-wide funding will at least match receipts, reaching about £1.5 billion a year.

Shared Prosperity Fund

We will work both with the devolved Administrations and local communities to ensure that the UK shared prosperity fund supports citizens right across the country. We have demonstrated that commitment by confirming that the devolved Administrations will have a place within the governance structures for the fund.

Mr Speaker, that was a wonderful tribute to Julia and I really appreciate your making it. I associate myself with it and pass on my deepest condolences to her family. She will be sadly missed by the Scottish National party group at Westminster.

Will the Minister please explain when exactly we will learn what the mechanism will be for involving the Scottish Government in decisions about which people, communities and local businesses will receive the funding necessary to enable them to level up? Who will be the final arbiter? How much money will be available? When will the process begin?

The money is well known about, and we published the heads of terms document last year. Investment to replace EU structural funds will increase in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland next year, compared with this financial year, thanks to the funds that the Chancellor is putting in. We will ramp up total domestic UK-wide funding so that it will at least match EU receipts, reaching around £1.5 billion a year. Further details of the operation of the additional funding will be published soon, but in the meantime we will continue to engage with the devolved Administrations on the important additional funds.

I am pleased to hear that the Minister apparently just confirmed that Scotland will not receive a single penny less under the UK shared prosperity funding scheme. I am sure that that news will be welcomed in Scotland. Will he confirm that the priorities for Scotland will continue to be set in Scotland, by the people of Scotland and the democratically elected Government of Scotland?

Of course, the first part of the hon. Lady’s question was confirmed in a manifesto commitment from this Government. I assure her that we have been having engagement events right across the United Kingdom, with 16 such events in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have confirmed that the devolved Administrations will have a place in the oversight of the fund; we have been working closely with them, and I will reach out to them soon to organise discussions about the delivery of the fund directly into Scotland.

Covid-19: Support for Schools

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education on the provision of financial support by local authorities for schools during the covid-19 outbreak. (912378)

We regularly engage with the Department for Education on matters relating to local authorities’ finances. We have provided £4.6 billion of un-ringfenced funds to councils to manage a range of covid-19-related pressures. The DFE has already distributed £102 million for exceptional covid-related costs incurred by schools and will shortly process claims made in December.

Many primary schools in Twickenham are struggling with the double whammy of the costs of making their sites covid secure and the lost income from lettings and fundraising, and the Department for Education has not reimbursed a lot of those costs. The Minister for School Standards has repeatedly told me that schools that have low reserves and face severe financial difficulties should seek support from their local authority, so will the Minister be making funds available to local authorities specifically to support schools in need? If not, will he issue guidance on the use of existing covid funding to local authorities, which is already insufficient to meet their covid costs?

I completely reject the last part of the hon. Lady’s question, in which she said that funding is insufficient. Local authorities are projected to spend £6.9 billion on covid-related pressures this year. We have already provided them with £8 billion of support and we have confirmed a total of £11 billion of support. We have allocated directly to councils £4.6 billion of un-ringfenced funds, of which Richmond has received £12.5 million. That means that Richmond can allocate funding according to local priorities—it is for the council to make decisions on how the funds are best used, including in schools. We recognise that councils are best placed to understand the needs of their populations. I know how important this issue is to the hon. Lady so am always happy to meet her to discuss it in greater depth.

Local Authority Funding: Cumbria

Core spending power in England will rise from £49 billion in this financial year to £51.3 billion in 2021-22, which is a 4.6% cash-terms increase—a real-terms rise. Councils in Cumbria will see their core spending power rise to more than £483 million—a 4.5% increase in cash terms—and they will also receive more than £30 million in un-ringfenced covid support to help them to build back better in the next financial year.

Rural bus services are a lifeline for people in Penrith and The Border. In 2014, Cumbria County Council decided to stop using central Government funds to subsidise commercial bus services, which has had a negative impact on provision, meaning that some communities in Cumbria are no longer served by regular bus routes. Does my hon. Friend agree that the council should change its position and use the available funds to support rural bus routes to allow people to go about their lives, reconnect and help to address the issue of rural isolation?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a champion for the community that he represents. He is certainly right that Cumbria County Council has the flexibility to invest in these bus services, perhaps even using some of the £20 million increase that it will receive through the local government finance settlement. Through the Department for Transport, we are also providing an additional £20 million rural mobility fund to support services in rural and suburban areas, and Cumbria has been successful at phase 1 and has recently submitted a business case for review at phase 2, but he is absolutely right to raise this matter. The council does have the flexibility to make these decisions, which I know is of huge importance to him and to his constituents.

Cladding Removal

What progress he has made on the design of the loan scheme to fund the removal of cladding on buildings under 18 metres in height. (912381)

Hundreds of thousands of leaseholders will be protected from the cost of replacing unsafe cladding. Funding will be targeted at the highest-risk buildings in line with long-standing independent expert advice and evidence, while lower-rise buildings with a lower risk profile will gain new protection from the costs of cladding removal through the long-term, low-interest, Government-backed finance scheme through which leaseholders will pay no more than £50 per month. We will publish more details on how the scheme will work as soon as we are in a position to do so.

I thank the Minister for his answer; I look forward to more details. In the meantime, will he confirm that the loan will be a charge on the freeholder, that there will be no addition to the debt of any individual leaseholder, and that it will not affect the valuation of leasehold properties? On the money that is to be raised from the levy and financial contributions, will that be in addition to the £3.5 billion that the Government have announced, or will it go to offset the amount of the £3.5 billion that the Government will have to find?

I am obliged to the Chairman of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee for his question. We certainly do not wish for any costs to follow the leaseholder through their life, so he is certainly right to assume that the charge will be applied to the building and not to the leaseholder and that, therefore, their credit rating will not be affected by it. He also asked about how the funding mechanism will work. The Chancellor will say more about that at the Budget, so I do not think I should say any more at this point, but we certainly want to ensure that leaseholders are appropriately and properly protected from unforeseen and unfair costs.

I remind the Minister that, 17 times from the Dispatch Box, the Government have made a commitment to leaseholders that they will not pay. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government announced last week that funding for cladding removal would not include buildings under 18 metres and that those in homes below 18 metres would be forced into life-changing debts to pay for a problem that they did not cause. But 18 metres is a “crude” height limit that

“does not reflect the complexity of the challenge at hand.”—[Official Report, 20 January 2020; Vol. 670, c. 24.]

Those are not my words, Mr Speaker, but the words of the Secretary of State last year, so what has changed?

The 18-metre threshold is well established as a reasonable threshold for assessing risk. It has featured in statutory guidance since at least the 1970s. It is used by the National Fire Chiefs Council in its operational guidance; it is used by the Building Research Establishment; it was used by the independent expert panel; and it was used by Dame Judith Hackitt, who, I remind the hon. Lady, said only yesterday in The Sunday Telegraph that our proposals are “sensible”. I hope that, with this advantage, she will read what Dame Judith has said and perhaps reflect on the question that she has asked.

Frankly, I do not think that will be of any comfort to the leaseholders, who were told that they would not be asked to pay and are still living in buildings with flammable cladding and other fire risks. The Housing Minister says that he is taking a risk-based approach, but in the papers today it is alleged that a senior civil servant said in 2018 that the real reason for 18 metres was

“because we haven’t got time to come up with a better number.”

That was two years ago. Whatever the reason, why have the Government not used the time for a proper system of risk prioritisation or even responded to their own call for evidence, which closed a year ago this week?

I am obliged to the hon. Lady. We have looked very closely at the evidence, and have always been guided by safety. Safety is our paramount concern. As I say, the Building Research Establishment, the National Fire Chiefs Council, the independent expert panel and Dame Judith herself all say that 18 metres is an appropriate trigger properly to assess the highest risk. Such buildings are four times more likely to result in injury or fatality if they suffer a fire than lower-rise buildings. We have also introduced—as the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), has rightly identified—a mechanism to ensure that people living in lower-rise buildings are able to take advantage of finance to ensure that their homes are remediated, so that the value is properly reascribed to them and those people can get on with living their lives.

Planning Reform

We are transforming the planning system through recently announced changes and ambitious long-term reports. Our White Paper, published in August last year, proposes a comprehensive reform of the old planning system. We have also recently published changes to the calculation of local housing need, to enable more homes to come forward where we need them most, and the new national model design code, which will help to drive up the quality of new development.

Labour-run Kirklees Council’s local plan keeps seeing unsustainable housing developments being approved on greenfield sites, with shoddy build quality, flooding issues, and the allocated section 106 funding—supposedly for community infrastructure—just not coming through for those communities. What would the Minister say to my constituents, who are totally fed up with the shambolic planning situation under Kirklees Council?

I would simply say this: if my hon. Friend’s constituents are totally fed up with their shambolic council, they should totally get rid of their shambolic council at the local elections. If they want a party and a Government who will ensure that we have the best planning system that the hon. Gentleman wants—one that will ensure we introduce a raft of measures to drive better design and better quality, to minimise flood risk and to provide the real infrastructure that local communities want—they should vote accordingly at the local elections, and I suggest that they vote Conservative.

Thank goodness we are not having a political broadcast, as we now move to the shadow Minister in Yorkshire, Naz Shah.

Cumbria County Council has been hemmed in by the planning system over the application for the west Cumbria coalmine, which it will likely be forced to pass to avoid the threat of legal costs. This is despite the environmental damage and the small number of unsustainable jobs that the mine will create. Leaving aside fixing the flaws in a system that allows for the opening of a polluting coalmine in the year that the UK hosts COP26, will the Secretary of State now do the right thing on this issue of national—if not global—importance, block this application and work with his colleagues in the Cabinet to provide the long-term, secure and green jobs that west Cumbrians deserve instead?

The hon. Lady and the House know full well that our green credentials are second to none. The hon. Lady also knows that I will not and cannot comment on an individual planning application. What I can say is that there is a high bar to be passed for a local decision to be assessed by the Secretary of State. We believe—the law believes—that it is always best to leave local communities to make decisions for themselves, and that is what we have done in this case.

Home Ownership

Central to this Government’s mission is the promise of helping more people to achieve the dream of home ownership. That is why we have introduced a new shared ownership model cutting the minimum stake that someone needs to buy a home of their own to 10% and allowing them to increase in 1% steps. Thousands more people will benefit, as up to 50% of the homes delivered through our new affordable homes programme will be shared ownership, with those in rented homes being given the right to shared ownership. This all comes on top of our new Help to Buy scheme, which specifically targets first-time buyers, our First Homes policy, which discounts new homes by at least 30%, and our landmark leasehold reforms announced earlier in the year.

City of York Council is already the subject of written warnings by the Secretary of State’s Department for its failure to produce its first local plan since the 1950s, and has now again been reprimanded by inspectors for delays and errors in the production of that plan. Will he now step in and have this plan drafted for the council to send a clear message to it, and to any other council, that we will not tolerate those who seek to prevent the delivery of homes for rental and ownership?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that in my quasi-judicial role I cannot comment on York’s plan, other than to say that it is long overdue, as he says. York is one of those communities that have failed to produce a plan for a very long time. We have a plan-based system in this country, and the planning reforms that I am bringing forward place greater emphasis than ever on these local plans. One has to have a local plan in order to make the system succeed. It is not optional. Local areas that take too long or do not produce those plans, including York, will need to face the consequences, and we will have to consider how we need to proceed if they do not bring one forward quickly.

First-time Home Buyers

This Government are making the dream of home ownership a reality, with the number of first-time buyers now at its highest level for 12 years. Over the past decade, our schemes like Help to Buy and Right to Buy have helped nearly 700,000 families to buy a home of their own. Applications for the Help to Buy affordable new-build scheme in Scotland have now been closed and the Scottish first home fund is currently paused, but the people of Scotland need not worry: we are working very closely with the Chancellor on how to increase the options for first-time buyers looking to access mortgages across the United Kingdom, which will, in turn, help more people in Scotland to become homeowners, from Glasgow to Inverness.

It is a fact that second home buyers often price out young first-time buyers in the highlands, and this of course takes me to that dread old spectre of highland depopulation. So on a personal level I would be extremely grateful if the Secretary of State could share his thinking and his methodology with the Scottish Government, and make every encouraging noise that he can to the Scottish Government, to make sure that young local people can buy homes in the highlands and live and work there in the years to come.

The hon. Gentleman and I share the same view that young people in this country should have every right to get on the housing ladder that those of us who were fortunate to do so in previous years had. It is a shame that the Scottish Government have chosen to close the Help to Buy scheme and to pause the first home fund without bringing forward any credible alternatives. Of course many of these issues are devolved, but where the Chancellor and I can take action in Scotland, we certainly will. As I said earlier, we are working very closely with the big banks on a UK-wide basis to see what more we can do to help first-time buyers access high loan to value mortgages and get on the ladder.

Energy-efficient Housebuilding

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, not least because as a proud member of the Chartered Institute of Building I take a keen interest in all things related to energy-efficient house building, so I am personally delighted that from 2025 the future homes standard will ensure that new homes produce at least 75% less carbon dioxide emissions than those built to current standards. These homes will be future-proofed, with low-carbon heating, high levels of energy efficiency, and no further refit work needed to enable them to become zero-carbon over time, alongside the electric energy grid.

British architects such as Bill Dunster are building not only energy-efficient homes but zero bills homes, which are brilliant for the planet as well as helping us relieve poverty. Will the Government commit that we will aim for the very highest standards, not least so that we do not have to retrofit later?

We are indeed aiming for the very highest standards; I do not think anybody could accuse us of being anything other than very ambitious. While some of the sector is already leading the way by building highly efficient, low-carbon buildings, it is important that all parts of the industry are ready to build homes that are fit for a zero-carbon future. The timeline we have set out delivers on our net zero commitments while providing industry with the time it needs to develop the supply chains and skills that will be necessary. I am hoping that I will get to join my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing on his visit to the ZEDfactory in due course.

Topical Questions

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.