Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 692: debated on Monday 19 April 2021

One of the biggest divides in our country has been between those who can afford their own home and those who cannot, and that is why I am pleased today to see the Government launch our new mortgage guarantee scheme as we strengthen our commitment to build back better from this pandemic. Today’s 95% mortgages will help families and young people to get on to the property ladder without the excessive burden of a large deposit, helping to turn generation rent into generation buy.

As we cautiously reopen the economy and return to a semblance of normality, we are ready to grasp the economic lifeline that comes from getting out and supporting local businesses, returning to pubs, restaurants and cafés and providing our local economies with the love and support that they need as we continue down the recovery road map. As we seize this economic boost, we will ensure that prosperity is shared across all the UK’s nations and regions, having announced the details of our landmark new levelling-up fund, the community ownership fund and the community renewal fund at Budget.

Can the Secretary of State explain why local people in Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire were not trusted to be asked about what they wanted devolution to look like locally and to help to shape those plans, rather than just being told by Whitehall what they must have, with permanent changes to local government in return for vague and, to date, unspecified promises of regeneration?

I am not sure what the right hon. Lady is referring to there. When we approach the local government reorganisation, we do so only in circumstances where there is a good deal of local support. We have taken forward a small number of proposals this year, including in North Yorkshire. Those are then subject to a consultation exercise where we notify stakeholders and take great care to take note of the opinions of the local population. It then comes to a Minister under the Act for the ultimate decision. Were local government reorganisation or a devolution deal to be negotiated in the right hon. Lady’s part of the world—I know that there is some local interest—we would of course follow all those legal requirements.

We are all making the most of our parks at the moment, but we have also seen a surge in littering. Will the Minister join me in thanking groups including the Crewe Clean Team, the Shavington Clean Team, Nantwich Litter Action and the Great British Spring Clean’s million mile mission campaign for playing their part in battling this blight? Will he also remind councils of the need to use their powers? InYourArea has found that the number of fines issued in Cheshire East dropped last year for the third year in a row. (914408)

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in thanking all the volunteers he mentions for their hard work. As lockdown lifts, we want the countryside to look its glorious best this spring and summer, and he is absolutely right to say that councils should be using the powers that are available to them. Littering not only blights local communities but is ultimately a criminal offence. We have raised the maximum penalty for littering to £150, and we have published guidance for local authorities on the use of their powers.

There has been a 400% increase in donations to the Conservative party from developers under the current Prime Minister. In the interests of transparency, and to allay growing concerns about sleaze at the heart of government, will the Secretary of State publish notes of all the meetings that he, his advisers or representatives of No. 10 have held with any of those developers about changing the planning system and what they asked for?

All ministerial engagements are already published through our regular official engagement notifications and all donations to political parties, whether that be the Labour party or the Conservative party, over the statutory amount are also published. Of course planning decisions and the production of Government policy have nothing to do with donations made to political parties and there is a complete separation of the two.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England, the National Trust, the Town and Country Planning Association, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Royal Town Planning Institute and others have all condemned the Secretary of State’s planning reforms for handing too much control to developers and blocking communities from objecting to individual applications in areas zoned for growth or for renewal. Given their increased donations to the Conservative party, is he paying back developers by selling out communities?

Once again, the hon. Gentleman makes a low point. What we are doing is getting people on to the housing ladder. Once, the Labour party cared about young people, people on low incomes and people on social housing waiting lists, but those days are long gone. The Conservative party is the party of home ownership. This is the party standing up for the millions of people whose jobs depend on housing and construction. This is the party supporting the brickies and the electricians—the people out there trying to earn a good day’s living. The hon. Gentleman needs to get his priorities straight and support people who are working hard, trying to get on the housing ladder and trying to get this country going again after the pandemic.

Like many, I was glad to see our high streets begin to reopen last week, with retail restarting and outdoor seating enabled for hospitality venues such as those on Coniscliffe Road in Darlington, including the Hash bar, the ORB micropub and Number Twenty2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in order to support our high streets in the long term and build on the success of the towns fund, we need to reform planning restrictions to help revitalise our town centres? (914409)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The changes being seen on our high streets up and down the country are seismic. They require fundamental reforms to our planning system and that is exactly what this Government are doing. What a contrast that is with what the Labour party is doing. As far as I can tell, its only policy is to create a review led by somebody whom we asked to do a review 11 years ago. I have a great deal of respect for Mary Portas and I enjoy listening to her views, but we have already taken forward most of her recommendations. We are taking action. The Labour party is doing nothing and is letting the towns and cities across this country go into neglect.

Last month, the Secretary of State appointed two news members of his departmental board. Dame Alison Nimmo is a director at Berkeley Group—accused of endangering the health of thousands in my constituency with the Southall gasworks development. How can I, or my constituents, have confidence in his Department’s ability to regulate the Berkeley Group when, in the words of the Cabinet Office, one of its own advisers leads that Department? (914405)

I am disappointed to hear those remarks from the hon. Gentleman. Casting aspersions about the integrity of Dame Alison Nimmo is a new low for the Opposition. Alison is one of the most respected women in business today. She led The Crown Estate impeccably for many years, and now we are fortunate to benefit from her experience, commitment and public service. I think it is completely wrong that the hon. Gentleman—no doubt handed a question by the Labour Whips that he does not know anything of—

None the less, it is very poor that the hon. Gentleman would cast aspersions on a great public servant, whom I am proud to have working with me at the Department.

I do not think the Secretary of State needs to cast aspersions on where the hon. Gentleman got his question from; I think it relates to his own constituency.

Councillor Anne Handley, other members of the town deal board and I have submitted what we feel is a very strong bid for Goole, which will include multimillion-pound regeneration of the town centre and a leisure centre, and bring gigabit-fast broadband to old Goole. We are keen to get on and get the projects delivered. Can the Secretary of State provide any details of when Goole will know exactly how much it is getting from the Government in response to our bid? (914410)

I was pleased to receive Goole’s town investment plan in January. It includes ambitious plans to diversify, to repurpose the town centre and to revitalise Goole’s economy. My officials are conducting their assessment in the usual way and I look forward to making an announcement in due course, which, if it is a positive one, will build on the excellent news we had at the Budget of a freeport in the Humber, bringing jobs and regeneration to the whole region.

Homelessness is a big factor in ex-prisoners, particularly women, reoffending. In January, the Ministry of Justice announced £20 million for five pilot schemes of temporary accommodation; over three months on, there is still no evidence of how the service will account for the complex and specific needs of vulnerable women leaving prison. How will the Department work with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that support services for women in impermanent accommodation on their release last more than 12 weeks? (914406)

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point, as 53% of people sleeping rough on our streets are ex-offenders, so a crucial component of our strategy to end rough sleeping must be ensuring that more offenders, whether male or female, leave prisons to good-quality, secure accommodation, whether it is in the private rental sector or in social housing. I am working very closely with my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor; we put in a bid together to the spending review, to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I will be able to update him on those plans in due course. The Ministry of Justice will be an integral part of our strategy.

According to the Woodland Trust’s “State of the UK’s Woods and Trees” report, 1,225 ancient woods across the UK are under threat from development, and the number of ancient woods being damaged by development continues to increase. How will the MHCLG strengthen planning policy further to properly protect this irreplaceable habitat? (914416)

I was pleased to read of the Woodland Trust’s recent campaign. My Department received over 10,000 postcards from supporters of the trust, which I have had the pleasure of looking over in recent months. We have proposed changes to the national planning policy framework to set an expectation that all new residential streets will be lined with trees. This builds on previous changes to the framework whereby we strengthened protections for ancient woods and trees. My right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary will shortly publish further details of our wider cross-Government commitment.

The eviction ban instituted by my right hon. Friend last year and due to end in May has undoubtedly saved untold misery. Now, covid-related rent arrears, built over successive lockdowns, are a very real danger. Will my right hon. Friend outline how measures will evolve to support individuals, families and landlords to sustain viable tenancies as we move into recovery? (914418)

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for her constituency. If I heard her question correctly, she asks about the support we provided for renters during the pandemic. We wanted to strike the right balance between helping tenants in need—that is why we increased the welfare provision, increased discretionary housing payments and increased the local housing allowance to 30% of local market costs—and ensuring that landlords have access to justice. As we transition out of the road map to recovery, we will be providing some further details on the next steps that we envisage to protect renters and ensure landlords get the best service and the help they need.

In March, the Secretary of State told the House that he would reach out to the devolved Government to help get more clarity on the organisation and delivery of the shared prosperity fund in Scotland. On this issue, when did he last meet with Scottish Ministers? What specific Scottish Government policy objectives will be met by the shared prosperity fund? (914411)

I warmly welcome the recently announced package of support for those arriving from Hong Kong on British national overseas status. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that all corners of the United Kingdom will receive support to enable those who arrive to settle where they wish and contribute to our economy through, for example, setting up a business? (914420)

As champions of freedom and democracy, we are living up to our historical responsibilities to the people of Hong Kong. I have made it the mission of my Department to ensure that all BNO status holders and their families have the very best start as soon as they arrive here. That includes an additional £43 million package across all UK nations to provide targeted support for new arrivals, including English language tuition where necessary and help with housing costs for those who need it. We are creating 12 welcome hubs across the UK to give practical support for everything from applying for a school place and registering with a GP to setting up a business. This month, I met four Hong Kong families who have recently arrived in the UK, and their profound sense of optimism about the future reaffirmed my belief that this programme will enrich our country for generations to come.

I am sorry to the Members who did not get in, but unfortunately the questions seem to have taken a long time to answer. I am now suspending the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business.

Sitting suspended.