Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 697: debated on Monday 14 June 2021

Housing, Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Waste Collection Authorities

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the performance of waste collection authorities. (901075)

We have set a national ambition to recycle 65% of municipal waste by 2035. Councils will have a crucial role in meeting that target, and my Department will continue to work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and local authorities across the country to improve recycling rates, reduce emissions and reduce the amount of waste ultimately sent to landfill.

Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to our bin men and women, who worked magnificently throughout the covid crisis, even at the risk of contracting covid during the worst times of the pandemic, to keep us safe, actually collecting a bigger volume than usual? Is he aware that in Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge and Malling, there are growing concerns about the management of the waste contract by the company Urbaser, with collections missed and roadside litter uncollected? What can he do to put pressure on that company to meet the performance standards that it has agreed with the local authorities?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and for the opportunity to pay tribute to our waste collectors and the work that they have done right across the country throughout the pandemic, keeping our communities clean and helping to keep them safe, too. Of course, it is for councils themselves to decide how best to meet their commitments and how to manage the performance of their contractors, but my right hon. Friend’s voice carries significant weight. I am sure that his point has been heard loud and clear. I hope that it is resolved as quickly as possible. I know that these are extremely important issues for his constituents and for residents across the country, and of course I am happy to meet him to discuss the matter in more detail.

Covid-19 Memorial Wall

If he will take steps with Cabinet colleagues to ensure the permanency of the covid-19 memorial wall. (901076)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Like many MPs, I pass the memorial wall daily when I am in Parliament, and I am moved when I see family and friends either laying floral tributes or making an inscription on the wall to commemorate loved ones they have lost. The Department keenly understands that communities across the country will want to find ways to commemorate our collective experience. Therefore, it is critical that all those we have lost are commemorated and that families receive, as the Prime Minister himself has stated, a fitting and permanent memorial. As the Prime Minister announced on 12 May, the Government will establish a UK commission on covid commemoration. We will set out the commission’s membership and terms of reference in due course.

I thank the Minister for that thoughtful response. The covid memorial wall is an iconic, organic work of art created by bereaved families, and it should not be removed or painted over. I hope that the Minister agrees that it should be a permanent memorial and that MPs should visit. I met Fran, whose husband died three weeks after they were married. She lovingly drew 2,000 hearts, and I dedicated one of those hearts to my uncle Buck, who died. I am, however, disappointed that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has yet to visit. I hope that the Minister will encourage all MPs to visit like he has done, and ensure that the memorial wall is permanent and that MPs speak to bereaved families.

I believe that the memorial wall is owned by St Thomas’ Hospital. I am not sure what decision it has come to with regard to its permanency. However, as I said, having seen friends and family visiting, I would keenly encourage MPs from across the House to do that. We need to consider the most impactful and enduring way to remember those we have lost and to commemorate the service of everyone involved in this unprecedented response to the pandemic. As I say, the commission has been set up and we will report on its terms of reference and membership in due course.

Evictions and Homelessness

What assessment he has made of the potential effect of ending the moratorium on evictions on levels of (a) evictions and (b) homelessness. (901077)

What assessment he has made of the potential effect of ending the moratorium on evictions on levels of (a) evictions and (b) homelessness. (901084)

Although the ban on bailiff enforcement has ended, the measures that the Government have introduced mean that fewer cases are progressing to eviction. Landlord possession claims were down by 74% in quarter 1 of this year compared with the same period in 2020, and the number of families in temporary accommodation is at its lowest since 2016. For those who need more support, we are providing councils with £310 million through the homelessness prevention grant—that is an uplift of £47 million on last year—which can be used for financial support for people to find a new home, to work with landlords to prevent evictions, or to provide temporary accommodation and ensure that families have a roof over their head.

Even before the effect of the end of the evictions ban, a quarter of all homeless households in London were being accommodated away from their home areas—away from their schools, their caring responsibilities, their jobs and their support networks. Previous Ministers have condemned that but done nothing to stop it. Will the Minister condemn it and state that homeless households should be accommodated near their support networks? What will he do to ensure that that happens?

It is important that these matters are handled by the councils themselves, because they are much closer to the problem than the Government; that is not something that we should or could legislate for centrally. With regard to the hon. Lady’s own council, we have allocated £5.2 million from the rough sleeping initiative and £6.8 million of homelessness prevention grant funding. The contribution that the Government are making to support local councils is very significant.

I thank the Minister for his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), but one of the key ways to prevent homelessness is to ensure that people are not being evicted. As a result of the end of the evictions ban, many Vauxhall residents now face eviction, with no need for justification and no requirement for adjudication. The Government said in 2019 that they wanted to bring an end to section 21 no-fault evictions, yet two years down the line, tenants in my constituency still face the constant threat of eviction. Will the Minister please tell the House when we can expect to see the long-awaited renters reform Bill?

We remain committed to delivering a better deal for renters, including repealing section 21 of the Housing Act 1988. We will legislate, but it is only right that that legislation considers the impact of the pandemic and is a balanced set of reforms that improves the private rented market. A White Paper detailing our package of reforms to the private rented sector will be brought forward in the autumn.

Today marks four years since the tragedy of Grenfell, where 72 people lost their lives. Recent research published by Shelter shows that 3.2 million private renters are fearful of complaining about unsafe and unhealthy properties for fear of being evicted, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that nearly a million tenants now fear eviction due to the ending of the evictions ban. The Secretary of State promised that no one would lose their home as a result of the covid crisis. How will he honour that promise, and when will no-fault section 21 evictions come to an end?

It is important to acknowledge the amount of funds that this Government have committed to ensuring that renters are supported—over £200 billion through the furlough scheme, for example. If hon. Members want evidence of whether that has been successful, let me point out that over nine out of 10 people are not in rent arrears at all, so that has been of significant help to people. With regard to the Bill that I referred to in my previous answer, I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman, with whom I get on very well, in the coming months to ensure that we deliver renters reform that is appropriate and helpful to all parts of the sector.

Green Spaces

The pandemic has shown how vital our green spaces are for the wellbeing of the nation, from sharing our national parks together to inviting loved ones over to our gardens. That is why it was a priority for me and my Department to reopen our parks at the start of the pandemic—something that has offered a lifeline to many people and families over the past year. As we build back better and greener in our recovery, we will enhance our environment and provide more green spaces through our forthcoming planning reforms. They will build on and embed our already extensive protections for the green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty and our ancient woodlands.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to protecting our green spaces and the broader Government investment in our nature recovery programme. Will he consider looking at a new “wild belt” designation as part of the planning proposals to ensure that we protect those hard-won gains for generations to come?

I would like our planning reforms to create a legacy of enhancing our environment and leaving the natural world in a better state for future generations. We are continuing to consider how best to achieve that through the ongoing detailed design of these reforms, but I am interested in wild belts, as I know my hon. Friend is. We are already bringing forward a raft of changes to support nature’s recovery, including introducing mandatory net gain for biodiversity through the Environment Bill and requiring tree-lined streets in all new developments—something that we are increasingly seeing in new housing across the country.

In Greets Green and Lyng, communities have long been promised a facelift, with quality new housing developments by Sandwell Council, but very little has yet been delivered. Residents in Newhall Street are regularly blighted by crime and antisocial behaviour and have been calling out for help and investment for years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that while these areas go undeveloped, it makes no sense for green spaces in other parts of West Bromwich East, such as Peak House farm, to be at risk of development?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we need local areas to make the most of existing developable land—repurpose it, revitalise unused sites and build the most beautiful homes our communities need. The west midlands, which she represents a part of, is one of the best examples of a place in the country that is meeting housing need and building homes, but is doing so with a very strong emphasis on brownfield sites. The Government are backing that with, for example, a £100 million land fund and £108 million that we provided through our brownfield fund.

There is clearly demand for more housing in the central Lincolnshire local plan area and across communities in my constituency of Lincoln, the east midlands and the country at large, but we are continually seeing local green belt being built on by large developers, and land banking is still rife on the edge of urban areas. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must balance housing developments by big developers with the need to ensure that communities of all shapes and sizes still have the opportunity for smaller and individual housing within the curtilage of those settlements of the type and style that buyers wish to purchase and, crucially, live in?

My hon. Friend makes a number of important points. First, we have been clear that the manifesto commitment that the Government were elected upon was to protect and enhance the green belt, and that is exactly what we intend to do. Secondly, we want a planning system that is based on local plans, where local people and their communities democratically choose sites, and they will be, and should be, a mix of not only larger ones but smaller sites, particularly brownfield sites, which can be developed at pace by small and medium-sized developers. One of the litmus tests for the planning reforms that we intend to bring forward later in the year will be whether they shift the balance from the large developers who can navigate the current convoluted and complex system in favour of small and medium-sized builders, such as the local entrepreneurs that my hon. Friend represents in Lincoln, and ensure that they, too, can prosper and build more homes.

Cladding and Fire Safety Defects

What recent estimate he has made of the number of buildings that will have (a) dangerous cladding and (b) other fire safety defects beyond June 2022. (901079)

We meet on a sombre day—the fourth anniversary of the Grenfell tragedy, when 72 people lost their lives—and across the entire House, I am sure that, whatever one’s political view or stripe, our hearts go out to all those people, their families and their friends who lost so much on that night four years ago.

We continue to see progress with the remediation of unsafe cladding systems. We project that 84% of high-rise residential buildings with unsafe ACM—aluminium composite material—cladding will be completed by the end of 2021. We continue to drive toward 100% and we expect those who have made a full application to the building safety fund to be on-site by the end of September 2021. The building safety Bill will bring about a fundamental change in both the regulatory framework for building safety and the construction industry culture, ensuring that those responsible for buildings make sure that fire and structural safety risks are properly managed.

Four years after the Grenfell Tower fire, survivors and the local community are still waiting for justice, and across the country people are still waiting for an end to unsafe buildings. We know from the Government’s published data that of the 469 buildings over 18 metres identified with aluminium composite material cladding, 107 still have it. However, there is no data on remediation of non-ACM cladding or on buildings below 18 metres. Will the Minister commit to publishing data next month on how many of the 1,890 buildings over 18 metres that are progressing bids with the building safety fund for non-ACM cladding have been remediated, and on how many of the 77,500 blocks between 11 and 18 metres may be unsafe?

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I said, and as he knows, we have made significant progress in the remediation of ACM-clad buildings: 95% have either been made safe or had remediation begun on them. With respect to buildings that have had non-ACM but dangerous cladding put on, I can tell him that some 685 buildings have now been registered for the building safety fund, with £359 million of public funds allotted for their remediation. We are determined to go further and faster to make sure that people’s homes are safe and that this issue is finally and completely put to bed.

New Housing Developments

If his Department will take steps to ensure that new housing developments are conditional on the consent of local people. (901080)

Local plans create the local community’s vision for where essential development such as housing should go. Our planning reforms will give communities the chance to be involved meaningfully at the start when local plans are prepared and will make it easier for local people to understand proposals and express their views. This will bring certainty that housing will come forward in areas best identified for growth by the community, while ensuring that valued countryside remains protected.

Does my hon. Friend share my concerns about the Greater Manchester spatial framework, which has twice been vetoed and has not gone ahead? The absence of that plan causes a great deal of problems with uncontrolled building in the whole of Greater Manchester, but particularly for my constituents in Bolton West. Will he do all he can to support Bolton Council in adopting and implementing its plan if the GMSF’s faults cannot be rectified soon?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he is a doughty champion of his constituents in Bolton West. He will know that rather than allowing suffering from speculative development, local plans give certainty both to developers and to communities in providing the homes that the country needs, and where agreed. It is essential that we get local plans in place to help to put our economy back on track; I am pleased that he recognises that. As he says, Bolton Council, along with eight other Greater Manchester councils, is committed to taking forward the Places for Everyone joint local plan. I will continue to monitor and support the progress of plan making across Greater Manchester to ensure that plan coverage is achieved by the end of 2023 and that my hon. Friend’s constituents in Bolton are best protected.

One year ago, the Secretary of State took an unlawful decision in the Westferry case to help a billionaire Conservative party donor to dodge a £40 million tax bill. Now it seems that they are at it again: The Sunday Times reports that John Bloor, a billionaire property tycoon, gave £150,000 to the Conservative party barely 48 hours after the Housing Minister had overruled the local council to approve a controversial planning application on rural land, raising fresh questions about unlawful lobbying. Will the Minister commit right now to releasing all unpublished documentation relating to the case, so the public can see whether this is indeed yet another case of cash for favours?

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman likes to cast himself at the court of Keir as something of a witchfinder general—a sort of weird amalgam of Lavrentiy Beria and Mary Whitehouse—but I can tell him that there are no witches to be found here today. With respect to the Sandleford Park application, that was recovered by officials, as many applications are, without recourse to Ministers; we have yet to see any advice from officials on that application.

With respect to the Ledbury application, that was a recommendation to proceed made by the independent planning inspector, not least because at the hearing the local authority reversed its position and took the view that the application should go ahead. I took the advice of the planning inspector; I accepted the planning inspector’s recommendation. Process and procedure were followed punctiliously. The hon. Gentleman has to find other witches to burn.

Let us go to the Chair of the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government.

I am sure the Minister has had a busy weekend reading the Select Committee report on the planning system. In it, he will have seen that the Committee was supportive of the Government’s proposals to improve and enhance the local plan system, particularly through getting more public involvement by making the plans digital. That is to be welcomed. However, many people in our evidence-taking were concerned that once a local plan has been agreed, local people will lose their right to have any meaningful say in individual planning applications. That was a real concern that was expressed to us, so when the Government respond to the report and to its wider consultation, will they look again at how they can ensure that local people have a meaningful voice on individual applications, particularly those in the renewal areas, which are often very contentious?

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for his report. We will consider it carefully, as we always do, and I am pleased that he has, with some caveats, been so very supportive of our proposals. He asks about the way in which we can better democratise our planning system. The fact is that 3% of all planning applications are engaged with by the local community, yet 90% of planning applications go through, so only a small number of people are engaging with the planning process and the overwhelming number of plans go through anyway. I do not think that that is particularly engaged or democratic, and we are seeking to bring forward the democratic element of plan making so that local people can have a real and meaningful place and decision-making role in what happens in their communities.

Environmental Protections: Development

If he will publish the Government’s plans for environmental protections in the development process. (901081)

The planning for the future consultation closed in October 2020, and it generated an enormous amount of interest, with 44,000 responses. We are analysing those responses and will respond to the consultation in due course. We are committed to planning reforms that are intended to provide better protection for environmental assets. I have worked closely with my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary as well as with my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) on the measures in the Environment Bill, and the planning reforms complement and reflect these.

The Government will shortly be bringing forward their planning Bill, which I recognise is needed to bring forward much needed new housing and infrastructure. My Orpington constituency is two-thirds rural, so what guarantees can my right hon. Friend give me and my constituents that green-belt and greenfield land will be protected from inappropriate development?

We are committed not only to protecting the green belt but to enhancing it, and those protections will remain in force when we bring in planning reforms. I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that we will not be taking the advice of the Select Committee, which suggested that we should undertake a wholesale reform of the green belt. We have committed to protect it, and so we shall, because only in exceptional circumstances may a local authority alter a green-belt boundary, using its local plan and consulting local people on where essential new housing should go, and it needs to show real evidence that it has examined all other reasonable options before proposing to release the green belt. We are committed to the green belt, and we will fight for it.

The planning system is integral to addressing the climate crisis and to protecting and enhancing our environment. However, many people rightly questioned the Government’s green credentials when the Secretary of State refused to block the proposed coalmine in Cumbria. Will the Minister therefore take the opportunity to show that the Government take our environment and the climate crisis seriously, and commit to the full suite of clear and measurable environmental targets in the forthcoming planning Bill?

First, may I welcome the hon. Lady to her place as the shadow planning Minister? I think we all share a commitment to protect the environment, which is why this Government were the first Government to commit to net zero. It is why, as housing and planning Minister, I am committed to the future homes standard, to ensure that we decarbonise future homes by at least 75%, and it is why the Environment Bill will ensure a biodiversity net gain of 10%. We will bake those environmental proposals into our planning reforms to make sure that we have a planning Bill to be proud of and that we protect our environment.

Community Renewal and Levelling-up Funds

What steps he is taking to measure the effectiveness of the (a) community renewal fund and (b) levelling-up fund. (901082)

Through the levelling-up fund and community renewal fund, we are investing more than £5 billion in people, infrastructure, the regeneration of town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport, and investing in cultural and heritage assets. These funds will include high-quality evaluation, which is crucial to understanding the types of intervention that best support places to level up, right across the country.

I have tabled written parliamentary questions on this, which the Minister is yet to answer, but he also knows that I support the levelling-up fund, in that it is the only available funding on the table. Therefore, I want to work with the two local authorities in my constituency to ensure that we put forward the best bids for Ogmore constituents. Will he set out when the second and third funding round deadlines will be announced by him, or by the Secretary of State, so that local authorities can plan and ensure that they put the best possible bids forward for communities, because for many local authorities the 18 June deadline is simply too tight? I want to work with the Minister, and I would really welcome some constructive engagement to ensure that we get the very best for my constituents.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has asked his question. There will be further opportunities for local authorities to submit bids into the fund through subsequent rounds, and we are publishing more details about how the levelling-up fund will operate from next year later in this year. I was pleased to understand that his local authority, which I believe is in category 1, will be submitting a bid by 18 June. I hope it will be making good use of the £125,000 capacity funding that we are providing it with, which I know will help it to work closely with us and build that strong relationship with the UK Government. I look forward to receiving its bid, and I am always happy to meet him to discuss it in more detail.

It is now nearly two years since the Prime Minister announced the towns fund, yet 30 towns have only just received confirmation of what funding they will receive, 26 towns still have not received any response to their bid, and precious few projects that have been bid for have been completed. So will the Minister commit to publishing a report on which areas are receiving funding from the towns fund, the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund, which have missed out, and the impact of any projects that have actually been delivered?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and welcome him to his place; representing local government on these Benches is the greatest privilege that any of us could ask for, and I look forward to working with him constructively. On the towns fund, the details are already in the public domain on all the towns we have supported and announced town deals for. He rightly says that a number are still awaiting the outcome of their deal, and their details are also in the public domain. We are still in the application process for the levelling-up fund and for the community renewal fund, so we have not got a definitive list of bids that are in, but I very much look forward to working with him. The levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund are important opportunities for our constituencies, right across the country, to invest in upgrading the critical infrastructure that is so important to our constituents.

Home ownership

This Government are making the dream of home ownership a reality for people across England, taking generation rent and turning it into generation buy. I am delighted that earlier this month we launched our First Homes scheme, with the first properties ready for sale in Bolsover, providing homes discounted by at least 30% for first-time buyers, priority local people and key workers. Our new 95% mortgage guarantee has already given lenders the confidence to help families and young people get on to the property ladder, without the burden of a large deposit.

I am in my first home—I moved in only in May—and I want to see more of my constituents in exactly the same position. Will the Secretary of State outline what support North West Durham constituents in particular can access through the new schemes—particularly the First Homes scheme, in which so many of my constituents are interested in getting involved—and when they will be fully available and rolled out throughout the country?

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to making sure that young people have the opportunities that they need to live and work in their local community, both in North West Durham and right throughout the country. I encourage my hon. Friend’s constituents to go to the Government’s website to check out the brilliant schemes that are available. I am also glad to let him know that later this month we will launch the first set of first homes in County Durham.

Today, on the fourth anniversary of the terrible fire at Grenfell, we first and foremost remember the 72 people who lost their lives. Our thoughts are with the bereaved, as well as the survivors of that terrible night.

The Grenfell community has steadfastly campaigned for justice and for change, but it has come too slowly. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in buildings that we now know to be unsafe, with some even still wrapped in the same flammable cladding as Grenfell. Many of those people are first-time buyers who have watched their dream of home ownership become a living nightmare, in unsellable, worthless homes.

I welcome the building safety fund, but funds alone are not enough, not least because of the extremely slow progress in allocating them. We need active intervention and leadership, so will the Secretary of State commit that all buildings will be made safe—and not just in respect of aluminium composite material cladding—or at least be in the process of being made so, by this time next year? Will he free homeowners from the burden of the costs and anxieties of being trapped in unmortgageable, unsafe homes?

I join the hon. Lady in giving my sympathies, thoughts and prayers to the survivors, the bereaved and the community of north Kensington. We all want to support them to ensure that their quest for justice continues and reaches its conclusion, as a result of the public inquiry and the police investigations. Of course, we will do everything in our power to ensure that it never happens again.

Earlier this year, I set out the next steps in our plan to ensure that homes in this country are safe. We are providing £5.1 billion to ensure that unsafe materials, such as cladding, are removed from people’s homes as quickly as possible. Some 95% of those high-rise flats that have the same ACM cladding as was on Grenfell Tower have either now been remediated or have workers on site as we speak, and the work on 65% of them has been completed. I want to see that work finished by the end of this year and we will do everything we can to ensure that that happens.

We are also working with lenders, insurers and surveyors to ensure that they also play their part and we have a proportionate, sensible approach to risk, so that those who do not need to be trapped because of this issue are not unduly trapped and those who created this situation in the first place—the builders and the developers—pay their fair share. We are currently consulting on an industry levy and we will encourage, as we have done throughout this process, those developers that have not already stepped up to do so, because it is unconscionable that leaseholders are having to pay for the faults of an industry that has profited at their expense.

Levelling-up and Shared Prosperity Funds

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the (a) levelling-up fund and (b) UK shared prosperity fund. (901085)

The levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund are core parts of our levelling-up agenda. I regularly speak to my ministerial colleagues about both funds, and those discussions will inform our levelling-up White Paper and the UK shared prosperity fund investment framework, which we plan to publish later this year.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Like many other Members, I have been involved in discussions with my local authority regarding the levelling-up fund; however, it occurred to me last week that there was something of a democratic deficit in the process. Given that the fund can be used in a number of policy areas that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, why is there no mechanism for councils to formally consult their Scottish Parliament representatives on the issues? Will the Minister advise what his Government are doing to ensure that projects associated with the fund are realised with as much collaboration as possible with the democratically elected Government of the people of Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman is clearly working hard on his bid for the levelling-up fund. There is absolutely nothing at all to stop his council consulting with or speaking to the Scottish Government before it submits its bid; it is absolutely welcome to do that. At the heart of these funds is localism. It is about local authorities and communities working directly with the UK Government and building that strong relationship with communities in Scotland, which we think is a key part of this process. We are investing billions of pounds and want to work closely with his community. I absolutely encourage his council to engage with the relevant Government.

While the Minister claps himself on the back at the munificence of these various funds that he is talking about, he may wish to reflect on the fact that there is not one new penny of money available, so let us not pretend.

The EU structural funding allocations in the devolved nations and the spending in the areas covered by the levelling-up funding and the strategic priorities fund previously had the direct involvement of Ministers from the devolved nations. How can the Minister now justify cynically insisting on a centralised Whitehall-led approach, cutting out the directly elected Governments of the devolved nations from spending decisions in their own countries in devolved areas of responsibility?

I must point out this continued factual inaccuracy. There is new money going in this year through the UK community renewal fund. Some £220 million is being invested to trial new priorities and projects ahead of the introduction of the UKSPF. As I just said to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), the local authorities in Scotland are absolutely able to consult with the devolved Administrations. We will be speaking to the devolved Administrations at the shortlisting stage of the bids to seek their advice and to see whether the bids conflict with anything that they are delivering, or with any of their policies. We are investing billions of pounds in these projects: in infrastructure; in community renewal; in transport; in regeneration; and in high-street refurbishments. This is something that the nationalists should be welcoming, rather than trying to find unfair grievances.

The Public Accounts Committee delivered a damning verdict on the towns fund, saying that the Minister’s Department had

“not been open about the process it followed and would not disclose the reasoning for selecting or excluding towns”—

for funding. In view of that, what specific measures will the Minister announce today to ensure that the distribution of the levelling-up fund and shared prosperity fund will be both transparent and free from political bias, unlike the towns fund?

The answer to that is that it is all published on and it has been for months now. Clearly, the nationalists cannot reconcile themselves to the fact that this Conservative Government are supporting communities in Scotland that they have let down for so many years. We are investing billions of pounds in people, infrastructure, regeneration, transport, and high street refurbishments. We are delivering on the ground, building new relationships and binding together our precious Union.

Covid-19: High Street Recovery

What recent guidance the Government has provided to local authorities on opening up the high street in the context of the covid-19 outbreak. (901094)

As we embark on what we all hope will be a great British summer, this Government have announced a vital package of support for our high streets, from planning easements to funding support. Taken together, we are seeing more than £385 billion of support for our businesses and high streets. With our planning reforms, we will allow our high streets to adapt and thrive, see outdoor markets spring up, and al fresco dining flourish. I am confident that, despite all the challenges, people across this country will rediscover the delights of their local high street this summer.

Cheshire East Council continues to keep unnecessary barriers in place on the high street in Knutsford, blocking off the car parking spaces and damaging local businesses. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Cheshire East Council should be helping local businesses and not literally putting barriers in their way?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that bringing back people to their towns and high streets is vital, including to the one that I know well in Knutsford. Local authorities should be doing everything they can to make those high streets as welcoming as possible. Covid-19 guidance and our al fresco dining revolution should not come at the cost of despoiling otherwise beautiful high streets such as that in Knutsford. With just a little imagination and creativity, it is perfectly possible for barriers to be made beautiful, even if they do need to be there. We want to see council officers apply thought and judgment, rather than being over-zealous. Put simply, if they will not take them down, they should build barriers better.

First, I thank the Secretary of State for recently visiting Accrington to discuss what a difference the levelling-up fund could make to my constituency. We know that it is important to build more houses, but on that visit we also spoke about our dilapidated housing stock both in the town centre and across Hyndburn and Haslingden. Will he agree to meet me to discuss the VAT placed on renovation and repairs for old housing stock and look at the potential for removing this as a trial in certain areas to encourage builders to rejuvenate old housing stock?

My hon. Friend will know that such decisions are for the Chancellor to make. We have in place a reduced rate of VAT at 5% for certain residential renovations to encourage development and incentivise regeneration. However, she makes an important point that of course I would be happy to discuss with her. I thank her for hosting me in April, when it was great to see the town back open for business and still producing some of the best pies in Lancashire. She will know that I got into some trouble for saying that a particular shop in her constituency produced the best pies in the county, so all I will say on this occasion is that they are all pie-oneers and there is a slice for everyone if they visit Accrington.

Our splendid market towns in fabulous Somerton and Frome are driven by their high streets. They are the engine room of the local economy and the hub of the community, as I am sure everybody saw at the fabulous eat:Castle Cary festival last month. However, the past year has obviously been extraordinarily difficult, so does my right hon. Friend agree that support for high street businesses is essential both to keep our communities strong and to achieve a swift economic recovery?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I urge all his constituents to get back to their local high streets to support the shops and hospitality businesses that he mentions and make the most of the sunshine in Somerset. We have seen some positive signs, with Springboard data reporting an increase of over 17% in people shopping on their high streets in the recent half-term break. He mentions the eat:Castle Cary festival. That is exactly the kind of thing we want to see across the country this summer. Outdoors is safer than indoor venues. My Department, for its part, is ensuring that through planning easement it is much easier and simpler for local communities to hold outdoor events such as markets without needing to obtain planning permission.

Topical Questions

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.