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Topical Questions

Volume 697: debated on Monday 14 June 2021

One of the greatest divides in our country, and one that has been thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic, is between those who own a home of their own and those who do not. That is why I was delighted to be in Bolsover earlier this month to see the very first site of our new First Homes scheme, which will provide new homes, for the first time, at a 30% discount. I was also delighted to announce sites in a further 30 towns last week, worth over £700 million in total. On Friday, I saw the real difference that this is making to local people in Doncaster, Redcar, Bishop Auckland and Hartlepool, to name a few.

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. I visited the site yesterday. I am sure the whole House will once again join me in paying our respects to the 72 victims, their families, their friends and the wider community in north Kensington who suffered as a result of the tragedy. It exposed serious and systemic failings that we are determined to address through our new building safety Bill, which we will bring forward shortly.

May I also offer my condolences to those involved in Grenfell four years ago—an event that we will never forget?

I welcome the incredible work that this Government have done throughout the pandemic to support more rough sleepers, with a staggering £700 million in extra funding for local authorities. I pay tribute to the local authorities and charities involved in helping rough sleepers off the streets, day in, day out. Now we must learn from the Government’s brilliant Everyone In strategy, which saw an incredible 90% of rough sleepers taken off the streets and offered accommodation. As my right hon. Friend knows, I am campaigning to have the Vagrancy Act 1824 repealed. Does he agree that it is now time to learn from what we did with the Everyone In strategy, especially in terms of the reasons people find themselves on the streets in the first place, which are particularly around mental health and addiction issues? Does he agree that we need to learn those lessons and replace the Vagrancy Act?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to councils and communities across the country, including her own council in Westminster, led very ably by Rachael Robathan. Rachael and I have walked the streets of the west end on many occasions over the past year and seen a tremendous reduction in the number of people sleeping rough. We must build on that and ensure that the progress we have made in the past year is not allowed to slip through our fingers. We will be working across Government to do that because, as my hon. Friend says, homelessness is a housing issue and a health issue. It is about mental health and it is about drug and alcohol addiction, and we need a cross-Government approach to the challenge.

Last week, we witnessed a tragic Islamophobic attack in Ontario, Canada, which sadly killed three generations of a single family. The attack reminded us all of the dangers of allowing Islamophobia to seep into society and the impact it can have on people’s lives and communities. The Conservative Government announced in July 2019 that they would appoint two independent advisers on Islamophobia. Almost two years on, can the Secretary of State even tell us who both those independent advisers are and publish their terms of reference as well as the work they have carried out, or is this Conservative Government remorselessly neglecting to tackle Islamophobia across the UK?

This Government have a zero-tolerance approach to racism and discrimination of any kind. We commissioned Professor Swaran Singh to undertake an independent review of the Conservative party. On the day of its publication, the Prime Minister unilaterally and in full accepted all the recommendations, and we will publish a plan as to how to implement them very soon.

I do think it is wrong of the Labour party to raise this issue quite in the way that the hon. Lady does. It was, after all, the Labour party that was investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It was the Labour party that was found to have breached the Equality Act 2010, and it is those on the Labour party’s Front Bench who almost to a man and a woman who were named in that report and criticised for their conduct. It is also wrong of the Labour party to publish leaflets during the Batley and Spen by-election campaign that suggest that the Conservative party does not take anti-Muslim hatred seriously.

Cornwall is beautiful, but that has meant a massive increase in the demand for second homes, pushing the price beyond what most local hard-working people can afford. What more can be done to help young people get on the housing ladder in Cornwall without concreting over my scenic home area? (901136)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the tremendous vision of Cornwall that has been seen by billions of people around the world in the past few days. The beauty of Cornwall was clear for everyone to see, but I appreciate that it is the very beauty of the place that creates problems for her local people and constituents. That is one of the reasons we have created the First Homes scheme, which offers 30% discounts for local residents, and I encourage her constituents to look on to see the schemes we have available.

Will the Secretary of State meet the co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group for “left behind” neighbourhoods to discuss how we can take forward proposals from the Community Wealth Fund Alliance, which has more than 400 organisations as members, and the work of the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger), and establish a community wealth fund to convert dormant assets into long-term community-led investment for the most disadvantaged communities, such as Orchard Park and Bransholme in my constituency of Hull North? (901137)

I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady, as would my hon. Friends on the Front Bench. We have brought forward the community ownership fund, and we will publish details on that very soon. It will allow community groups to bid in for match funding to buy a village shop, a pub or a sports field—much-valued community assets. We have also announced the right to regenerate, which will enable people to bid in for public sector assets that are currently being neglected and bring them into better use.

Rushcliffe has been let down by the current planning system. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that his reforms will put protecting our countryside at the heart of our planning system and abolish measures such as the duty to co-operate, which has previously enabled councils such as Labour-run Nottingham City Council to push thousands of houses from brownfield sites in the city where they are sorely needed on to Rushcliffe’s greenfield sites in the countryside? (901138)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We want to see cities such as Nottingham have the investment they deserve to build more homes and to tackle the issues they face. We see having good-quality housing stock in cities such as Nottingham as a crucial part of levelling up and spreading prosperity. That is one of the reasons why we changed the local housing need formula to place a much greater emphasis on smaller cities such as Nottingham.

As a result of delays in processing applications to the building safety fund, increasing numbers of eligible developments in my constituency are finding themselves subject to soaring building insurance renewal costs. Will the Government finally accept that they need to step in and resolve this problem with the industry as a matter of urgency? (901139)

As a matter of fact, for ACM buildings within Greenwich and Woolwich, of the 23 that have registered, 21 have completed remediation, one building has been removed and one building has started work. For buildings with applications to the building safety fund, of the 94 registrations made, 31 have been confirmed as eligible, 27 have been assessed and 12 have been withdrawn. So great progress is being made. I am working with the insurance industry, and we should ensure that it brings forward market proposals, not simply have the Exchequer step in and subsidise it.

Some local authorities are treading a fine line between being a planning authority and being a property developer. My local authority, South Cambridgeshire District Council, is buying land with a view to developing it. Whatever the other arguments about that, it raises a fundamental potential conflict of interest in that the local authority has to apply to itself for planning permission—something that is causing great concern among residents. Will my right hon. Friend consider whether there is a need to tighten the examination of this conflict of interest when a local authority applies to itself for planning permission on its own land? (901140)

I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that there are occasions when a local authority may need to apply for permission to build on council-owned land—for example, a new school—but he is right that there needs to be a robust set of safeguards in place, because these applications do generate a great deal of interest and an appearance, on occasion, of unfairness. The applications must be transparently publicised, consulted on and determined in a way that is fair and open.

I have listened to the words this afternoon, but my constituents living in leasehold properties in Bedminster and elsewhere are rightly furious now with the Government for betraying the promises that they would not be responsible for the financial cost of rectifying building safety defects, and the delays in announcing the Government loan scheme have just added insult to injury. So can we have a bit more detail? When does the Secretary of State think he will be providing full details regarding eligibility and timescales for implementation to help these people? (901144)

We have made good progress on the plan that we announced earlier this year. The extra funding is now available through the building safety fund, and we are working through the applications. For lower-rise buildings, we have said that we will bring forward a financing scheme in which no leaseholder will ever need to pay more than £50 a month. There will be long-term low-interest loans for cladding removal and remediation and associated works, and we have said that we will bring forward the details of that shortly.

Lots of High Peak parents have been contacting me concerned about the poor state of repair of many of our local children’s play areas, including at least one that has had to go without a swing for well over a year. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that instead of spending taxpayers’ money and resources on their own pet projects, councils should focus on their core responsibilities such as properly maintaining children’s play areas? (901141)

As a parent of three young children, I spend a long time in playgrounds and appreciate their importance to everybody in society. I think it is really important that councils take parks and playgrounds seriously. They may be a non-statutory duty, but they are a very important one to members of the public. We have now had two years of increases in council funding, which were voted on and supported by both sides of this House, so local councils have the resources, and they should prioritise open spaces as we come out of the pandemic.

My constituents in Lancefield Quay are among many who now cannot afford full insurance due to issues of cladding on their buildings. The Secretary of State mentioned earlier that he was working with the insurance industry. There is not a market solution to this; there is an impending market failure on his watch. What is he going to do about it? (901147)

I disagree with the hon. Lady, because a number of businesses have already brought forward market solutions—Aviva, for example, and I believe that E.ON is also doing so. It is extremely important that we in this House are united in putting pressure on the insurance companies, not simply asking the Exchequer to step in and bail out some of the most affluent and successful companies in the country. That is what we are trying to do, and we are seeing signs of progress.

Major housing developers are very quick to build new homes and take the money, but in Ashfield they are not so quick to finish sites and make them ready for adoption—some of the sites have taken 10 years plus. This is simply not good enough for my residents, who have parted with their hard-earned cash for their dream home, so will my right hon. Friend please give new home buyers in Ashfield some words of reassurance that the Government are taking this seriously? (901142)

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is extremely important that developers, large and small, make good on their promises to local councils and local communities. There are already relevant powers in the planning system, but we are considering how to beef them up as part of our planning reforms, so that where homes have been permissioned, the builder gets on and finishes the job. We will also be legislating for our new homes ombudsman, so that where the standard of those homes falls below what people expect, a route to recourse is available to everyone.