Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 692: debated on Monday 19 April 2021

Housing, Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Fire Safety: Buildings under 18 Metres

What support he plans to provide to (a) leaseholders and (b) tenants living in buildings under 18 metres of height with flammable cladding. (914294)

What steps he is taking to support leaseholders living in buildings under 18 metres in height with (a) dangerous cladding and (b) other fire safety defects. (914299)

Buildings below 18 metres in height will not carry the same inherent risk as a building above 18 metres. However, some will need remediation. To give residents in lower-rise buildings peace of mind, we are establishing a generous scheme to ensure that, where required, cladding can be remediated on buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres. Leaseholders will be asked to pay no more than £50 a month, protecting them against these unaffordable costs. We will work at pace to develop the details of the scheme and communicate them to the House as quickly as possible.

No one needs reminding that we are nearly at the four-year anniversary of the Grenfell disaster, yet many of my constituents remain trapped in dangerous homes and, because of this Government’s arbitrary decision to only help those in buildings above 18 metres, they feel hopeless and invisible. Does the Secretary of State agree that no leaseholder should have to pay for fire safety problems that are simply not their fault, and that people should not be required to pay even £50 or less a month, regardless of whether their building is 7 metres, 18 metres or even lower?

The hon. Lady is right; great progress has been made over the last four years to ensure that the remediation of high-rise properties is undertaken, because that is where we have been guided by official advice. I can tell the House that remediation has either been completed or is under way in 95% of aluminium composite material-clad buildings. We are clear that buildings below 18 metres also need help, which is why we have tabled this generous package of support where otherwise there would be no support. It is also clear that developers and building owners are stepping up to the plate and remediating the buildings for which they are responsible, and are providing funds so to do.

Many leaseholders have spent their third lockdown stuck in buildings with serious safety defects and are unsure when the works will be completed. The Minister talks about providing a generous scheme for blocks of 18 metres or less. Can he explain to the House how generous that programme is, how much is being committed and when our constituents can expect the works to be completed—both for blocks under 18 metres and blocks over 18 metres that require remedial works—so that people do not have to continue to live in potential death traps?

With respect to buildings over 18 metres, the hon. Lady will know that we set aside funds of £1 billion using the building safety fund in order to deal with properties with non-ACM dangerous cladding material. Some 106 buildings have already begun that work and we estimate that a further 338 will begin the work by September, which was the date that we set for work using BSF funds to be undertaken. With respect to buildings below 18 metres, we want to ensure that we are prioritising affordability and accelerating remediation where it is required. It is a complex set of challenges, but we are determined to meet them and to get this right, which is why we will bring forward further information as soon as we are able to do so.

Can the Minister explain why three quarters of cladding systems on new medium-rise buildings have used combustible insulation materials despite a proposed Government ban on them? That is 51 out of 66 residential blocks of 11 to 18 metres in height built in 2019 and 2020 that are now liable for the imposition of unwanted Government loans. There is the nightmare of EWS1 forms, inflated insurance premium costs, service charges and much, much more. At what stage are the ministerial team going to get a grip of this chaos?

The hon. Gentleman knows full well the work that the Government have undertaken to ensure that we address this complicated issue, which involves buildings, building owners, warranty providers, insurers and leaseholders themselves. We have brought forward a very generous set of schemes. More than £5.1 billion of public money has already been allocated to remediate taller high-rise buildings. We have proposed a generous scheme to support people living in leasehold properties between 11 and 18 metres. We will announce further details of that scheme shortly so that the people living in them can have peace of mind that they have a way out too.

UK Shared Prosperity Fund

The UK shared prosperity fund will help to level up and create opportunity across the United Kingdom. The spending review 2020 set out the main strategic elements of the UKSPF in the heads of terms, and we will publish a UK-wide investment framework in 2021 and confirm a multi-year funding profile at the next spending review. We are providing an additional £220 million through the UK community renewal fund to help those areas to prepare for the introduction of the UKSPF.

Wales received £375 million a year under the EU structural funds but this Government’s levelling-up fund is giving Wales only £30 million a year, while the community renewal fund’s pilot projects split £220 million across the four nations. Can the Minister see why my constituents are already sceptical that this Government will fulfil their promise that Wales will receive “not a penny less”?

Levels of investment from EU structural funds will be higher across the United Kingdom in ’21-22 than they were in ’20-21. We are also finding additional UK funding to support our communities to pilot programmes and new approaches. The hon. Lady mentions the levelling-up fund. Her local authority will receive £150,000 capacity funding support with that bidding process. As we set out in the spending review, funding for the UKSPF will ramp up so that total domestic UK-wide funding will at least match EU receipts, reaching £1.5 billion a year. These funds will have a real, lasting impact on communities that will make a significant difference to tackling deprivation and inequality, and binding together our precious United Kingdom.

I thank the Minister for recognising when I met him last week that the UK shared prosperity fund will need to be more transparent in a way that the towns fund clearly was not. If he intends to keep this promise of more transparency, when will he consult on the UK shared prosperity fund that his Department committed to three years ago, and will his Department publish how much funding English regions will get?

The point that I made to the hon. Lady last week is that we have published all the details in the technical note that is set out on gov.uk. We thought that was the right thing to do. At the spending review last year, we set out the main strategic elements of the UKSPF in the heads of terms. The funding profile will be set out at the next spending review and we will publish further details in a UK-wide investment framework later this year. In the meantime, the community renewal fund will deliver real, lasting change into communities right across the country. It will tackle inequality and deprivation in some of the communities that need it the most and were neglected for so long by Labour, and of course one of its key aims will be to work to bind together our precious Union.

Housing Market: First-time Buyers

What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of first-time buyers entering the housing market. (914296)

In 2018 and 2019 we saw the highest and the second-highest number of first-time buyers since 2007. With the effect of covid, 2020 saw a 14% decrease from the 2019 total. The Government are now redoubling their efforts to assist first-time buyers. That is why today we launched the mortgage guarantee scheme offering a 95% loan-to-value mortgage, developing first homes and enabling first-time buyers to purchase new-build homes locally with at least a 30% discount—a determined effort to support buyers.

For many first-time buyers, especially in cities, the options are mainly new-build and leasehold properties, but many of them are walking into a new nightmare of costs. Inside Housing is today reporting on purchasers buying properties as safe only to discover almost immediately that the ratings are changing, leaving them with huge bills for waking watch, and unsaleable properties. Does the Minister know how many first-time buyers are affected by this, and why is the only truly blameless party, the purchaser, the one who is still left carrying the can and the risk?

There are a suite of options for first-time buyers. They can purchase a home using the Help to Buy scheme. They can take advantage of our shared ownership scheme, whereby, under the new proposals, failings and defects will be fixed by the developer for the first 10 years. As I said, the mortgage guarantee scheme that we announced today allows first-time buyers and others to purchase homes with as little as 5% deposit.

We are determined to ensure that first-time buyers are able to achieve their dream and get on to the property ladder. That is a world away from the campaign that the hon. Lady chairs—the campaign of Sadiq Khan, who promised to build 116,000 homes in London but has thus far managed to deliver only 28,000. I wonder whether that is why the housing pledge, which was at the top of his campaign in 2016, is now second from bottom in 2021. I think that that says a lot about Labour and its priority for housing.

That was quite staggering. I do not know whether the Minister was listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). He avoided answering her, and he previously avoided answering my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), so I will give him another go. Will the Minister please tell us what on earth the justification is for allowing new buildings to be built with dangerous cladding and other fire safety defects? What will he do to ensure that the number of first-time buyers moving into homes with dangerous cladding is zero?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me a second go. I point out that she has no policies of her own. We are quite prepared to let her borrow some of ours, because we have a lot of them. We are determined to make sure, through the building safety regime that we will introduce, that we have a world-class building safety programme. We have consulted on the challenge of combustible products, which is a very complicated one, and we will make our announcements on those in due course. But make no mistake, Mr Speaker: we are determined to support buyers, we are determined to get more people on to the property ladder and we are determined to build better-quality homes—things that the Labour party talks about, we are doing.

Shared Prosperity Fund/Levelling-up Fund: Devolved Administrations

What recent discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations on the (a) levelling-up fund and (b) UK shared prosperity fund. (914297)

Along with the Secretary of State, I met the Minister for Trade, Innovation and Public Finance in the Scottish Government last month to discuss the levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund. We will continue to engage with the devolved Administrations and, importantly, with local authorities and communities in Scotland directly and wider public and private sector organisations to ensure that funding is used to best effect and to support citizens right across the country.

A joint statement by Ministers from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments criticised the UK Government for using the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 to bypass devolved Administrations. Is it not the case that the UK Government intend to use levelling-up funding to shore up support for the Union and to undermine the very basis of devolution? If not, what are the Minister’s plans to devolve the funding within the framework of the devolution settlement?

I can confirm that we want to do everything possible to enhance and protect our precious Union. We will work with communities directly in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to deliver this important funding. We have already committed to providing capacity funding to local authorities in all the devolved Administrations, to get them started on preparing for these funds. We are excited about working with them, and they are excited about working with us on delivering these funds. We have had huge interest from councils and communities that want to work with us to deliver real and lasting change for their communities, and that is why there is such a high level of enthusiasm and engagement.

Sixty-six per cent. of Scots are deeply concerned about the way that the United Kingdom Internal Market Act seeks to undermine Scotland’s Parliament. Alongside the unilateral decision making of the UK Government regarding the shared prosperity fund and the levelling-up fund, despite what the Minister just said, this is being used to aggressively assert Unionism in Scotland and bypass Scotland’s Parliament. Meanwhile, 33 of the last 41 polls show majority support for independence in Scotland. Does the Minister think that this aggressive and assertive Unionism, trampling all over Scotland’s Parliament, is endearing the people of Scotland to the Union?

I urge the Scottish nationalist party to trust their local councils and local communities, which are so passionately engaging in this project and working with us, using the capacity funding we have committed to them to start this process. They will work with us on delivering these funds, which will tackle deprivation and enhance communities right across Scotland, and we look forward to working with them with determination and enthusiasm in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Net Zero Emissions: National Target

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the role of his Department in meeting the national target of net zero emissions by 2050. (914298)

The simple answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that lots of discussions have been had. This Department works very closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to set us on the path to ensuring that all homes and buildings meet that national net zero target. As no doubt you know, Mr Speaker, this is part of the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan to build back greener post pandemic and ensure we achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Heating the UK’s draughty homes makes up 14% of the country’s carbon emissions. Many of my constituents in Putney wanted to apply for the green homes grant, but cannot because it has been scrapped. The Labour Government set out the original plans for zero-carbon homes in 2006, which set a goal of achieving zero-carbon homes by 2016. Why was this ambition abandoned by this Government in 2016, why was the green homes grant scrapped this month by this Government and what will be replacing it?

The green homes grant is of course a BEIS initiative, but I can tell the hon. Lady that although it was making encouraging progress—with over 96,000 applications, and 39,000 vouchers had been issued via the scheme—given the fact that it was not progressing quickly enough, we have taken stock and decided to reconsider our approach. Last month, the Secretary of State for BEIS announced £300 million of extra funding for green home upgrades through the local authority delivery element of the green homes grant scheme and the social housing decarbonisation fund. This brings the total spending on energy efficiency to £1.3 billion.

Covid-19: Hospitality Venues and High Streets

What steps he is taking to support the re-opening of hospitality venues as the covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (914300)

Last week, we saw friends and families reunited, our favourite shops, pubs and cafés reopened and an injection of sunny optimism into hospitality and our high streets as we move to the next stage on our road map out of the lockdown. To help these measures, my Department has introduced crucial planning easements, including fast-track pavement licences, which are helping to make al fresco dining a reality, enabling communities to hold popular outdoor events such as markets and allowing pubs to set up marquees in their gardens for the whole of the summer—all without the need for costly planning permissions.

In Romsey and the surrounding villages, much use has been made of the planning easements by pubs, cafés and restaurants to install temporary awnings, marquees, gazebos and so on. Please can my right hon. Friend reassure me that plenty of time will be given to pubs and so on before these structures have to be removed? In many cases, they will continue to provide additional capacity even when indoor socialising is allowed, and our hospitality sector has had a very tough year.

I am delighted to hear that my right hon. Friend’s constituents, like millions of others across the country, are making use of these easements to enjoy the summer sunshine and to support local pubs, cafés and restaurants. When the first lockdown began, we inherited a planning rule called the 28-day rule, which enabled a business to set up a marquee or another temporary structure for just one month without seeking planning permission. We doubled that, and now we are bringing forward the legislation to ensure that that will remain in place for at least the whole of the summer, and I hope perhaps significantly longer. That will enable small businesses the length and breadth of the land, like those in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, to put up those marquees and gazebos, and get the full benefit of them.

Our town centres lie at the heart of our communities. They should be a source of pride and be attractive to visitors, but vacant buildings have become a blight in many of them. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he is taking steps to make it easier for vacant buildings to be repurposed or demolished, so that we can make sure our town centres are attractive places that people want to visit?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our high streets have been hit hard by the pandemic, but the market forces have been amplified and magnified. These are very long-standing issues and ones that we have been focused on for some time. We need to make some fundamental changes to ensure that we have a flexible planning regime so that businesses can adapt and evolve, for instance by turning a café into a hairdressers or a yoga studio into an office, all without the need for costly planning permissions, and where businesses and buildings are sat empty and derelict, then to be able do the logical thing and turn them into something else, particularly homes. That is exactly why a few weeks ago we brought forward the planning changes to do that, and I hope that will see hundreds, if not thousands, of homes being created in our town centres and on our high streets over the course of this year.

The Secretary of State’s Department is bringing forward further permitted development rights that will allow gyms, crèches and offices, as well as shops, banks and restaurants, to be converted into homes without going through planning permission. Has the Department conducted an impact assessment of how many cafés, pharmacies and corner shops will be lost from our high streets, never to return?

The hon. Lady will be aware that we have approached this issue with great caution and due consideration. We have consulted on those matters and received thousands of responses, and we have made our proposals on the back of that, so they have been carefully thought out to consider some of the issues she has raised. We made a number of changes, to protect, for example, nurseries and to provide further protections for conservation areas, but the Opposition’s approach, which could be characterised as the ostrich’s head in the sand, is not the one that we have chosen to take. We think that high streets and town centres are undergoing the biggest transformation not just in our lifetime but at least since the second world war and that we need to introduce measures that are proportionate to the scale of the challenge. That is why we are making billions of pounds of investment through our towns and high streets and levelling-up funds, and that is why we are pursuing the planning reforms that the hon. Lady refers to, and I think most reasonable people across the country would agree. I note that in her own constituency Mike Cartwright, who runs the Bradford chamber of commerce, seems to agree. He says:

“Having unused space is bad for the economy,”

and

“buildings remaining empty for years is to no one’s benefit.”

We agree; that is why we are taking action.

Social Housing

What recent estimate he has made of the number of additional council and housing association homes required to meet demand for social housing. (914301)

Planning policy is clear: it is for local authorities to identify the size, type and tenure of the housing needed for different groups in the community, including those who require affordable housing. We are committed to increasing the supply of affordable housing and are investing over £12 billion in the affordable housing programme over the next five years, the largest investment in affordable housing in over a decade.

Many of my constituents cannot afford to buy a house of their own and are finding that private sector landlords are using various devices to block access to that market as well, such as through guarantees and bond requirements, so council housing or social housing is the only option, but demand is outstripping supply, and, according to the Chartered Institute of Housing, outside London only a third of all the social housing needed will actually be built in the next five years. So what does the Minister say to my constituents who find themselves with no housing options at all at the moment?

Over the last 10 years around 150,000 new homes for social rent have been built. We have made it easier for local authorities to build their own council homes by changing the rules around the housing revenue account and by making it easier for them to get cheap loans through the Public Works Loan Board. Our new affordable homes programme, investing £12 billion-plus in new homes over the next five years, will double the number of socially rentable homes built to 32,000. I rather hope the hon. Gentleman’s local authority will take advantage of the reforms that we have undertaken and the powers we have given local authorities, because in 2019-20, before the covid emergency, it built no social houses at all.

Levelling-up Fund

What criteria the Government used to determine the prioritisation of areas for the allocation of levelling-up funding. (914302)

What criteria the Government used to determine the prioritisation of areas for the allocation of levelling-up funding. (914303)

The levelling-up fund will be allocated competitively and is open to all local areas. As we set out in the prospectus published at Budget, the index used for the levelling-up fund places areas in category 1, 2 or 3 based on their need for economic recovery and growth, improved transport connectivity, and regeneration.

If the Minister does not mind my saying so, that index seems to be working in a rather curious way. It has not escaped anyone’s attention that some Tory target areas in England seem to have done extraordinarily well out of this fund, yet areas such as mine in the north-east of Scotland—Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council—are languishing in levels 2 and 3 of the fund, despite being forecast to be hit hardest by Brexit. We know there was a power grab with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. Is not the truth that we are now seeing a corresponding cash grab, because the Conservative Government know that not even all the rhetoric in the world about shared prosperity and precious Unions can spare their party from the hiding it is set to get from Scottish voters on 6 May?

It is hard to see how the £150,000 per local authority that we have already committed to is a cash grab from Scottish communities. We are investing directly in Scottish communities, with £125,000 in capacity funding already. This is a bidding process, and rightly so, but we are providing that capacity funding, and for the first round of funding at least 9% of the UK allocations will be in Scotland. As I said earlier, we are hugely excited about the opportunities we have now to work directly with communities in Scotland. We have already been in touch, of course, with Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council to ensure that they have a good understanding of the levelling-up fund, including, importantly, securing support from Members of Parliament. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will play a full part in that process.

I am afraid that answer simply is not good enough. Not only are the Tories seeking to bypass devolution; they are also seeking to bypass the needs of Aberdeen. One hundred and twenty-three local authorities have been placed in pot 1, yet Aberdeen has been dumped in pot 2. The consequence of that is clear for all to see: it means that we will not have access to the funding that we need at this moment in time. Aberdeen accounts for a third of all job redundancies in Scotland since the start of the pandemic. If that is not a criterion for funding, what is?

It is published fully and frankly on the Government website. The hon. Gentleman can have a look at it; I would advise him to do so. Authorities are already receiving capacity funding, so it is not true in any way to infer that every single Scottish local authority will not receive support through this initiative. We are hugely excited about the opportunities this presents us with. We are going to be investing directly into communities. There is huge support for this funding. I strongly urge the hon. Gentleman both to read the documentation on the website and to get involved in playing a full part in the process.

Energy-efficient House Building

The future homes standard will ensure that new homes produce 75% less carbon than those being built today. Those properties will be future-proofed, with low-carbon heating and high levels of energy efficiency, and they will not need any further retrofit to become net zero in line with the electricity supply. That is what building back greener looks like.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. As he knows, building regulations are one tool we can use to improve the environmental performance of new homes, and I am conscious that the Government are consulting on how those regulations might be reformed. However, as he also knows, the regulations in place at the moment require compliance by developers to a design standard rather than a performance-in-use standard. Is his Department considering whether that should change? In any event, when does he expect revised and improved building regulations to be in place to compel that improved environmental performance?

My right hon. and learned Friend will be delighted to know that we will update the regulations relating to fuel, power and ventilation this year, in advance of the introduction of the future homes standard in 2025. But we are not waiting for 2025; in the short term, our priority will be to implement an interim 2021 part L uplift. That sounds a bit esoteric, but it means that there will be a 31% reduction in carbon production compared with the 2013 standard. With regard to the point that he makes about performance standard versus design standard, I would be delighted to meet him and his constituent to discuss that further.

The SNP plans, during the next Parliament, to put £1.6 billion into decarbonising the way buildings are heated in Scotland. Ambitiously, that equates to one third of homes by 2030. Why are the UK Government failing to match Scotland’s level of ambition to decarbonise our homes?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I am slightly disappointed, though. I thought she was going to rise to congratulate us on the social housing decarbonisation demonstrator fund, which has three excellent projects that are being progressed in Scotland. We on the Government Benches have no shortage of ambition to reach our net zero target by 2050. I look forward to working with Opposition Members to ensure we achieve that.

Local Infrastructure Investment

Infrastructure underpins our economy and improves people’s everyday lives. Over the next five years, the Government plan to deliver over £600 billion in public investment, the highest sustained level since the 1970s as a proportion of GDP. My Department is playing a leading role in that mission by making the biggest changes in the way we support local economic growth in a decade, with around £5 billion of investment through the levelling-up fund and community renewal fund, and our ongoing investment through the £3.6 billion towns fund. At the same time, we are reforming our planning system to build more homes, and ensuring that developers pay their fair share through a simpler, faster and more transparent infrastructure levy.

Aylesbury has seen unprecedented housing growth over the past 25 years and we will see much more in the years to come. Our infrastructure is currently at breaking point, with traffic congestion a real problem for local people. One way of alleviating that would be approval of the Aylesbury spur of East West Rail. What steps can my right hon. Friend take to work across Government, in particular with the Treasury, to secure funding for that vital link to ensure that housing development is matched by the appropriate infrastructure?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the need for transport infrastructure investment in the Milton Keynes-Oxford-Cambridge arc, which is one of the fastest growing and most economically dynamic parts of the country. I understand how important the connection is to his constituents. I know he has met the Chief Secretary of the Treasury and the rail Minister to make the case for connecting Aylesbury to East West Rail, an overall project of which I have been a long-term supporter. He is right that more homes require more infrastructure. That is why we have a £7 billion national homebuilding fund, alongside the new infrastructure levy proposed to capture more of the land value uplift and ensure that when homes are built, they are built with the appropriate infrastructure as well.

It has been a privilege to co-chair the Stocksbridge towns fund board and work with the local community to develop our plans to regenerate the town with £24.1 million of Government investment. However, there are other towns in my constituency, such as Penistone and Chapeltown, that would also benefit from a co-ordinated community-led approach. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to encourage local councils to support communities to develop their own local infrastructure development strategies?

I enjoyed visiting Stocksbridge just over a year ago with my hon. Friend and was delighted to see its £24.1 million town deal announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor at the Budget. I very much look forward to seeing its exciting proposals come to life, including a new visitor centre for a gateway to the Peak district. I recognise the point she makes. She represents many other towns, such as Penistone and Chapeltown. We want to ensure that they, too, can benefit from much needed regeneration funding. That is why bidding is now open for our levelling-up fund, worth £4.8 billion, which will deliver genuine local priorities by putting local support, including that of a Member of Parliament, at the heart of its mission. When I visited Stocksbridge, the birthplace of the modern umbrella, my hon. Friend kindly gave me an umbrella. With the new local town deal and an excellent MP, I am hopeful that the sun will keep shining on her constituency for many years to come.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his earlier answer. Back in 2017, a £200 million funding gap was identified for infrastructure projects in Tendring. As the Secretary of State knows, there is ongoing work to address areas of greatest need, such as roads, hospitals and a personal campaign of mine to upgrade rail services to Clacton and Walton, but our most significant funding gap, as we look to deliver new housing, remains the reported £100 million hole in our adult social care budget. What is my right hon. Friend’s Department doing to address that?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. This year, local councils will have access to an additional £1 billion for social care, on top of continuing all existing social care funding. He is right to raise the point that new housing requires new social infrastructure as much as it does hard infrastructure, in terms of roads and railways. That is why we are bringing forward the infrastructure levy, which will capture more of the land value uplift and ensure that developers pay a fair share. It is also why we are working with local authorities, including Essex County Council, to ensure that they can access the housing infrastructure fund and our new house building fund to get billions of pounds of investment into their communities.

Along with the rest of the Crewe town board, I was very pleased to submit our bid for investment earlier this year to help Crewe to build back better. I campaigned for us to get a town deal and I know what a positive impact it can have. Will the Secretary of State update me on when we can expect to hear what I hope will be positive news for Crewe?

I was delighted to receive Crewe’s town investment plan in January. Having visited my hon. Friend’s constituency many times over the years, I am excited to see the ambitious plans that have been developed for the town centre to welcome visitors and shoppers and creating an integrated High Speed 2 hub station. The plans are very well developed. My officials are currently conducting assessments and I look forward to making an announcement in due course.

Covid-19: Support for Local Authorities

What steps his Department is taking to support local authorities during the covid-19 outbreak. (914308)

We have so far allocated over £9 billion directly to councils since the start of the pandemic and local authorities are expected to receive over £3 billion of additional support in 2021-22, responding both to expenditure pressures and loss of income. This takes the total support that we have committed to councils in England to tackle the impacts of covid-19 to over £12 billion.

On 11 November, I and other representatives from Sheffield met the Minister to express concern that the loss of income to leisure centres in Sheffield was not being refunded to the council because the centres are managed by an arm’s length trust. I understand now from the council that the Government have recognised that the extra expenditure given from the council to the leisure trust to compensate for loss of income has been refunded —at least significantly—by the Government. I thank the Minister for that and for the help that he has given. Unfortunately, locally the Lib Dems have tried to claim that some of this money has gone from the council to the trust not to fund services in Sheffield, but to fund leisure centres in Scarborough. Will the Minister reassure me and residents in Sheffield that the money that he has given to Sheffield City Council has gone properly to fund services in Sheffield and nowhere else, and indeed, as the chair of the trust has confirmed, that all the money given to the trust by Sheffield City Council is funding leisure centres in Sheffield and nowhere else?

I thank the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee for that question. I was grateful to meet him and Julie Dore last year, and I know how important this matter is to the hon. Gentleman and his community in Sheffield. We have provided councils with a range of support for covid pressures on local leisure services, including unring-fenced grants, income compensation and the specific national leisure recovery fund. In all cases, Sheffield will comply with the funding conditions. My expectation would be that all that funding should be used locally to support local services in Sheffield and—he is absolutely right—not be transferred to other areas.

Houses in Multiple Occupation

What assessment his Department has made of the effect of homes of multiple occupants on close-knit communities. (914310)

Houses in multiple occupation are a valuable part of the housing market and play an important role in delivering affordable accommodation, which is often vital in the communities that they serve. Most HMOs provide accommodation that is decent and safe for those living in it. Where HMOs may pose a risk to the wellbeing of their inhabitants or to the local area, we have given local councils robust powers to regulate standards and management of HMOs. If necessary, local planning authorities can also limit the proliferation of HMOs by consulting to remove the national permitted development right.

I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that, while most residents in HMOs are law-abiding individuals, there is no escaping the fact that very often the residents in such premises lead extremely different lifestyles from those of their neighbours. This has been a particular issue in the towns of Rossington and Conisbrough, where residents have complained that the increase in the number of HMOs has caused a spike in antisocial behaviour and a loss of community spirit. Despite this, I have not seen the Government mention the necessity of combating this phenomenon in the planning White Paper. What reassurances can my hon. Friend give my constituents that the Government recognise the issues caused by HMOs in small towns and villages, and what work is his Department doing, in conjunction with local authorities, to ensure that such residents are located in more appropriate areas?

I feel a huge degree of sympathy with the constituents of Rossington and Conisbrough who may have suffered antisocial behaviour as a result of HMOs in their area. I understand that my hon. Friend is working assiduously on behalf of his constituents to tackle this. We have given local authorities robust powers to regulate the standards and management of existing HMOs, including HMO licensing, penalties of up to £30,000 for breaches of the law and, for the worst offenders, banning orders. I urge my hon. Friend to press Doncaster Council to exercise those powers if appropriate.

Topical Questions

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.