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Housing, communities and local government

Volume 699: debated on Monday 19 July 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Rough Sleeping

With reference to the Government’s commitment to end rough sleeping by 2024, whether he has plans to update the rough sleeping strategy to set out how that commitment will be met. (902850)

Our focus in the last year has rightly been on managing the response to the pandemic and supporting tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people across our society. During the pandemic, we took unprecedented action to protect people sleeping rough or at risk of doing so. This saved lives and achieved huge reductions in the number of people sleeping rough: a 37% decrease in the latest statistics. Our ambition to end rough sleeping within this Parliament still stands. We are taking into account the lessons learned from our ongoing pandemic response, including Everyone In and the Protect programme, to inform our long-term plans.

The Everyone In scheme has undoubtedly been a success and led to incredible stories of lives being turned around in a housing-first approach that has support from all sides of the House. However, several councils have reported that the Government have instructed them, through the terms of the rough sleeping initiative funding allocations, to end the use of emergency accommodation for those sleeping rough, so signalling the end of the Everyone In scheme. To make matters worse, the rough sleeping strategy is still in need of updating following the pandemic. Were local authorities instructed to end Everyone In? If so, have charitable and third-sector groups been made aware so that they can fill in the gaps? When can we expect to see the updated rough sleeping strategy and, indeed, the promised review of the Vagrancy Act 1824?

As is so often the case, the Lib Dems are more focused on two things: making plans—rather than taking action—and scaremongering. It is categorically not the case that either charities or local councils have been instructed as the hon. Member suggested. Indeed, funding through the rough sleeping initiative continues to fund people in emergency accommodation. More importantly, we should note that that is a temporary form of accommodation and it is incredibly important that we get people moved on to more permanent forms of accommodation. That should be the objective of all of us.

Somerset: Unitary Local Government

How many people who responded to the Government’s consultation on unitary local government in Somerset supported (a) One Somerset and (b) Stronger Somerset. (902851)

The Secretary of State expects to announce his decisions on the unitary proposals before the summer recess. Alongside those decisions, he will publish a summary of the consultation responses. I assure my hon. Friend that that will include all the detail he seeks and much more alongside it.

That is the most pathetic answer I think I have heard in 20 years. The Government’s consultation for the unitary was finished months ago. I have asked parliamentary questions and written to the Minister—I have tried everything. If on 13 December 2019 the returning officer in Thornbury and Yate had stood up to announce that a total of 52,000 votes had been cast but refused to declare the winner, there would have been outrage. Why will the Government not come clean over this? Why are they holding it back? Why on earth has this become an issue? Let us just hear who won the Government’s consultation. Please tell us now and tell the House.

Let me remind the Member that I am not responsible for the answer, and I am certainly not taking the blame for Bridgwater and Somerset. Minister, please pick that one up.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There is no broken commitment. We always said that we would publish the outcome before the summer recess, and we are absolutely on track to do that. We received more than 5,500 responses to the consultation on local government reorganisation in Somerset and, when we publish the information, which will be on schedule, as promised, we will show the proportion of respondents who supported the different proposals, together with a summary of their expressed views. I assure him that we are on track to publish before the summer recess.

Rough Sleeping

I am proud that my Department is leading a cross-Government drive to eliminate rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. We are spending £750 million over the next year to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. That includes the largest ever investment in long-term move-on accommodation, with 6,000 homes pledged in this Parliament. Our efforts are paying off: recent data shows that rough sleeping has fallen by 43% under this Administration, with a 37% fall in the last year alone.

And now for something completely different: Southend. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Southend on reducing the level of rough sleeping by nearly 90% since November 2017, which is well above the national average? Local organisations such as HARP and Off the Streets have done a magnificent job under really difficult circumstances, so I urge him and his Department to continue to support local charities with this important and valuable work.

I am delighted to commend my hon. Friend and the local teams and providers who have worked incredibly hard in Southend to achieve the figures that he described. They have worked tirelessly to achieve such a brilliant result and continue to work towards seeing an end to rough sleeping in his area. It is particularly heartening to hear him championing the cause of organisations such as HARP and Off the Streets, which have redoubled their efforts to support local people—vulnerable people—during the pandemic.

HGV Driver Shortages: Waste Collections

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect on local authority waste collections of HGV driver shortages. (902853)

We are working across Government and with the waste sector to better understand the issues facing waste-collection vehicle staffing levels. We are working with the industry and have already taken action on HGV driver shortages, including by ramping up vocational test capacity and funding apprenticeships.

The Minister was good enough to meet me to discuss the poor performance of Urbaser, the company that has the contract for waste with Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge and Malling. Will he update my constituents on what action he has taken since our meeting so that we can see a rapid improvement to their service?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising his concerns again about the performance of Urbaser and for taking the time to meet me to explain in detail the concerning situation that his constituents face. It is something that we take extremely seriously. Following our meeting, I have written to Urbaser to ask how it intends to address the concerns that he has relayed. I certainly urge it to use every tool at its disposal to meet its contractual commitments and I look forward to working with him to continue to monitor this important situation.

Planning System Modernisation

We will modernise the planning system, ensuring a simpler, faster and more predictable system that delivers more homes, more infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, and honours our commitment to net zero and the environment. Our reforms will also make the planning system more accessible through digital plan making, ensuring more local people—more than the 1% who currently engage with the planning system—can get involved. We are taking power out of the hands of the big developers and giving it back to local communities and small builders so that, together, we can build back better.

I thank my right hon. Friend and Ministers for their engagement and correspondence over the last year. As he will know, I have asked what mechanisms exist to challenge the housing targets for my constituency. As such, will he confirm my new understanding that the local authority housing needs target is not set in stone and is a starting point for negotiation, and that it is the local authority’s responsibility to challenge the housing target as part of its local plan?

My hon. Friend and I have spoken about that on a number of occasions—as have I with you, Mr Speaker. He will appreciate that I am unable to comment on the specific local plans because of my quasi-judicial role. However, he is right to say that housing targets are only a starting point. All local plans are subject to an independent examination. Following consultation with the local community, anyone who wants to make representations to change a plan must be heard by the inspector. That process will take into account local land constraints such as the green belt, sites of special scientific interest, national parks and so on in coming to a sensible and credible way forward.

My right hon. Friend is right that planning reform is overdue, but in Buckinghamshire there are serious concerns that the voices of local people will not be heard. For example, we know that in Aylesbury many thousands more houses will be built in the coming years, but the town is already merging into nearby villages and infrastructure is at breaking point. What reassurance can he provide that when residents raise legitimate concerns, they will be listened to?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and he is right to say that significant housing delivery is occurring at the moment in Aylesbury. There are two principal things that the Government seek to do to support his constituents. The first is to ensure that more infrastructure accompanies that housing; we will do that principally through our infrastructure levy, which will capture more of the land value uplift and put more money at the service of his excellent local council in Buckinghamshire. Secondly, we will ensure that more local people can be involved in the planning system by digitising it so that, at the touch of a smartphone, people can access and understand a plan and comment on or even object to a planning application. By doing so, we expect that we can boost the number of people who engage in our system and drive a truly localist approach.

There is a great deal of concern in my Heywood and Middleton constituency and across Greater Manchester about the amount of green belt approved for release by the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, as part of his Greater Manchester spatial framework. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me about protection of the green belt as part of his Department’s new planning reforms?

This Government made a manifesto commitment not just to protect the green belt, but to enhance it. At the moment, planning policy is clear that building on the green belt should be contemplated only in the most exceptional circumstances, and we intend to continue that through our modernised planning system. I appreciate the pressure that my hon. Friend and his constituents are under as a result of the proposed Greater Manchester spatial framework, which does not seem to accord with the wishes of local residents. I hope that as we come out of the pandemic, Manchester City Council and others with a good record of house building and regeneration will find opportunities for imaginative building on brownfield sites and around the city centre.

I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend’s earlier answer, but does he agree that in any future planning reforms we must increase protection for our green belt? In Sevenoaks and Swanley, we are 93% green belt, yet we are constantly inundated by speculative planning applications such as that at Broke Hill, which worry the local community. The message should be clear: if it is green belt, it is protected, and if a planning application is put in for the green belt, the answer will be no.

The point that my hon. Friend touches on is that the current planning system is not well regarded and is not producing the kinds of outcomes that we want; that is precisely why we want to reform and modernise it. We want to ensure that protections such as the green belt have the weight that they deserve in the planning system and that we can cut out speculative development unless it is approved by democratically elected local councillors at their sole discretion. The system that we are bringing forward does exactly that. Local authorities will need to have a plan; if they have a plan that is allocated land, there will be no need for issues such as speculative development and the five-year land supply.

The anti-corruption campaign Transparency International says that the Conservative party has become overly dependent on donations from developers. It is particularly concerned that Ministers failed to report the details of what they talked about to developers in over 300 meetings about which they simply disclosed generalisations such as “housing” or “planning”; it fears that that could amount to what it calls aggregate corruption. Will the Secretary of State now publish the full minutes of all those meetings so that the public can see exactly what Ministers agreed to do for their developer paymasters?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, all meetings that Ministers have are correctly identified on the register of interests, but I have to say that he has been on quite a journey. One adviser who worked with him as leader of Lambeth Council has been left bemused: is this the same Champagne Steve he remembers meeting with developers? It is not just him who has invited charges of shameless hypocrisy; the Leader of the Opposition has received thousands of pounds of donations from developers, and the deputy leader of the Labour party caused a splash in the papers the other day for accepting £10,000 from developers for her leadership campaign.

Order. Could the right hon. Gentleman withdraw the word “hypocrisy”? Hon. Members would never be hypocritical.

I will certainly withdraw that, at your request, Mr Speaker. We can only imagine how much the deputy leader of the Labour party will be asking for when it comes to her impending leadership campaign.

It is not surprising that the Secretary of State is refusing to be transparent, because we all know who benefits the most from their developers’ charter. Just weeks ago, this House passed Labour’s motion to guarantee residents’ right to a say over local planning applications in their own neighbourhoods. This week, councillors of all parties—including the right hon. Gentleman’s—in Medway and Richmond passed similar motions. How many more councils will need to do the same before he ditches the developers’ charter and his plan to pay back developers by selling out communities?

I am sure that Conservative councillors the length and breadth of the country were over the moon to receive the hon. Gentleman’s letter. I can see the scene now over the summer recess, when the gate rattles or there is a knock at the door and he rushes to check what the post has brought in, but like a jilted lover or a pen pal who assumes his letters got lost in the mail, he finds nothing there except just another letter from Croydon Council telling him that the bills are going up as a result of the terrible mistakes and mismanagement that his friends and cronies are making over at Croydon. He has taken an avowedly anti-house building approach. This is a far cry from the Labour party of Attlee and Bevan, who said that this was a social service and a moral mission. This Government are going to keep on building houses, but we will build them sensitively. We will build beautiful homes, we will protect the environment and we will help young people and those on lower incomes to enjoy all the security and prosperity that comes with owning a home of their own.

I hope that the Secretary of State has seen the Select Committee’s report into the planning reforms. We were supportive of a number of aspects, including the need to strengthen local plans and how they are drawn up. Could I ask him two things in relation to our recommendations? We need to recognise the serious change in moving to a zonal system and the importance of getting the details right, and I wonder if he might consider the recommendation to move, at the next stage, to a draft Bill, so that we could give it serious pre-legislative scrutiny as to what it would mean in practice. Secondly, will he have another look at the distribution of housing under his latest proposals? Under the proposals, large areas of the north outside the major cities will see their housing numbers fall, which seems to be in contradiction to the Government’s levelling-up agenda.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and the members of the Select Committee for their interesting report, which we have considered carefully as part of the broader work that we have done to listen to the views of colleagues here in Parliament on both sides of the House and in the country before preparing our response to the White Paper in the autumn. I will of course bear in mind his suggestion about pre-legislative scrutiny, which may be a good way forward. On his second point, I must respectfully disagree, because I think levelling up involves ensuring that our big cities of the midlands and the north build more homes. That is the way we will ensure a brownfield-first approach. That is also the way we will ensure inspired regeneration and get aspirational middle-class families back into some of those great cities, and ensure that councils have the revenues they need to invest and to prosper; and of course it is the way to protect the countryside from unnecessary development.

Social Housing

What progress he has made on the Government’s new deal for social housing since the publication of the social housing Green Paper in 2018. (902855)

What progress he has made on the Government’s new deal for social housing since the publication of the social housing Green Paper in 2018. (902863)

We listened to thousands of residents in 2018 and acted decisively, publishing the social housing White Paper last November. We have strengthened the housing ombudsman service, run a complaints awareness campaign and taken important steps to improve safety and decency, including launching the review of the decent homes standard, reviewing electrical safety and consulting on smoke alarms and carbon monoxide measures. We are putting residents first and ensuring that they live in safe, decent homes and are treated with respect and courtesy.

Every day, millions of people across the country grapple with the realities of the housing crisis, from overcrowded and unsanitary housing, to rip-off rents and negligent landlords. Our country is calling out for a new generation of high-quality, sustainable social housing, but the much-delayed social housing White Paper has failed to deliver on promises made by the then Housing Secretary in 2017, while the Government’s planning reforms could remove the main remaining route to social house building by abolishing section 106. So will the Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to build the social housing that people up and down the country so desperately need?

First, and perhaps most importantly, it might be helpful if Labour-run councils such as Croydon were providing high-quality social housing—that would be incredibly helpful. We do not need Government legislation for them to be able to do that. We do not need to wait for Government legislation; I have already convened a meeting of the social housing White Paper challenge panel, with representatives from across the sector and, more importantly, tenants’ representatives, to hear what they need. As we have heard earlier, this Government are also investing £11.5 billion in building new affordable homes, so we are increasing the number of properties that are available and we are also working with the sector to ensure that the housing we have at the moment is all of an acceptable standard.

Too many families spent lockdown in overcrowded homes. Housing and health go hand in hand, as we know; overcrowding not only increases the risk of catching covid-19, but puts a strain on mental health. Building back better must mean building good-quality, affordable housing. What plans does the Minister have to reverse the trend whereby we are losing more social homes than we are building?

I think the simple answer to that is that since 2010 we have delivered 365,800 affordable homes for rent, of which 148,000 are for social rent.

Local Government Finance Settlement

The local government finance settlement this year was another excellent outcome for councils. We made available an increase in core spending power from £49 billion last year to £51.3 billion this year—an increase in cash terms of 4.6%. There are no plans to review this positive outcome for councils, which was unopposed by this House.

The prevailing problem for local councils is, of course, the massive cuts from central Government funding, but may I ask the Minister to reflect on another issue—the patchwork of funding and the short-term basis of that funding? Would it be possible to have a settlement, of perhaps three years, that gave councils more time to plan with the less money that they have?

First, I would not accept that there are cuts for local government spending in the finance settlement; there was a huge increase this year. If the hon. Gentleman felt it was an unacceptable settlement, he had the chance to oppose it. His local council saw a 4.1% increase in funding this year and it has £150 million sat in reserves, so I do not accept that argument at all. On biddable pots of funding, that is exactly why we have provided capacity funding to councils in the top priority status for the levelling-up fund and community renewal fund, to help them with that work to build good business cases and bids, and submit them to central Government—and to build strong relationships with us as well. I do not accept his overall point about funding, but we are absolutely supporting councils with the capacity funding that they need, and helping them to build that through the support we provide through the Local Government Association as well.

Health Inequalities: Levelling-up Fund

What discussions he has had with the (a) Chancellor of the Exchequer and (b) Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on tackling health inequalities through the levelling-up fund. (902857)

The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will invest in infrastructure that improves everyday life in our country. It is a core part of our levelling-up agenda, and I regularly speak to my ministerial colleagues about the fund. These discussions will inform our levelling-up White Paper, which we intend to publish later this year.

Health inequalities are a clear and persistent indicator of the growing gap between and within regions. Swim England forecasts that, because of the impact of the pandemic, by 2026 just 35% of children in the most deprived areas will meet the required national swimming standard when they leave primary school, compared with 77% in the most affluent areas. More than 400 leisure centres—including West Denton swimming pool in my constituency—have already closed and many more are under threat. Will the Minister give assurances that he and the Chancellor will use the levelling-up fund to address such glaring inequalities? They could make a great start by backing Newcastle’s levelling-up fund bid to develop a new swimming and leisure development in the outer west of Newcastle.

I know that the hon. Lady is hugely passionate about this project in her constituency and has raised it with the Prime Minister directly. We certainly welcome her enthusiasm for the fund and the bid, which is exactly why we are providing councils such as hers with the £125,000 of capacity funding that I have mentioned previously. I am sure she will appreciate that I cannot comment on the specific nature of the bid, but we are supporting projects throughout the country, through mechanisms such as the towns fund, to support positive health and wellbeing implications. I will keep the hon. Lady updated as we move through the process. We expect to announce the outcome of the competition in the autumn this year.

Leaseholders: Protection from Unfair Practices

Unfair practices have no place in our housing market and the Government are committed to ending them. In January, we announced a package of reforms that will result in substantial savings to leaseholders, and we are currently legislating to restrict ground rents to zero for future leases. The legislation is currently with their lordships and will come to this House in the autumn.

We have asked the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate potential mis-selling in the leaseholder sector. In September last year, the CMA began enforcement action against a number of developers and investors. I was particularly pleased to hear that both Persimmon and Aviva have already agreed to amend their practices as a result.

This is my first time shooting the breeze with the Minister in his new role—I offer him big congratulations. Will he clarify whether the Building Safety Bill will protect leaseholders in cases in which the property developer has failed to complete its work diligently, even if the company in question becomes insolvent because of its own malpractice?

It is a pleasure to shoot the breeze with my hon. Friend. It is fundamental that industry contributes for having compromised public safety, which is why the Building Safety Bill introduces a new levy on high-rise residential buildings. Clause 124 of the Bill also provides legal requirements for building owners to explore alternative ways to meet remediation costs and provide evidence. If that does not happen, leaseholders will be able to challenge costs in court. In addition, we have announced more than £5 billion towards remediation work on buildings of 18 metres and above and a generous finance scheme for remediation work on buildings of 11 to 18 metres.

There is, finally, much in the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill for many people to welcome going forward, but people like Tracy in my constituency, and many millions of existing leaseholders, remain trapped, with unjust and feudal charges. Will the Minister commit to supporting Labour’s amendment, which is to be considered in the other place tomorrow, to extend the ban to the many leaseholders and not just the new?

It is important that we take the opportunity to be proportionate about the situation we are in: 96% of the high-rise buildings with unsafe aluminium composite material cladding identified at the start of last year are now remediated or have work under way. The Government are already taking action to help people who are in a difficult position. As I said, the new Building Safety Bill will provide legal requirements for building owners to explore alternative ways to meet future remediation costs.

Planning System Reform

We are transforming the planning system through not only the recently announced changes but our proposals for ambitious long-term reforms. The planning Bill announced in the Gracious Speech will modernise our planning system, with simpler processes and a digital transformation. We have also published changes to the way local housing need is calculated, to enable more homes to come forward in our largest cities, where we need them most, and a national model design code, which will drive up the quality of new development.

I have just heard the Secretary of State talk about building beautiful homes. However, the Government’s new permitted development rights will see more commercial buildings converted into small cramped flats in inappropriate locations, such as Unity House in Luton South, which, although sited on a four-lane ring road, bypassed important air quality regulations as it was converted under PDR. The Government must wake up to the reality that they are creating the slums of the future. Will the Minister adopt measures set out in my ten-minute rule Bill last week that would allow local planning authorities to impose design standards on PDR applications to protect communities’ health and wellbeing?

I am obliged to the hon. Lady, but design codes will apply, including to PDRs. She might note that 72,000 additional homes have been created in the past several years thanks to PDR. That is about double the number of homes that the Mayor of London has managed to build in an equivalent time. We have stipulated that those homes going forward must be of a good design quality, must be of a reasonable space standard and must have light in all habitable rooms. We are building homes for people who need them on the brownfield sites where they need to be built, and she should support our reforms, not oppose them

Councillor Martin Tett, the Conservative leader of Buckinghamshire County Council, said that planned changes to permitted development will create

“open season for developers to break up”—

the high street. He has said that article 4 directions are vital in enabling local planning authorities to protect town centres such as the medieval streets of High Wycombe and that councils need time to implement article 4 directions to protect their high streets. Therefore, will the Minister agree to Councillor Tett’s request to pause these changes? What does he have to say to Councillor Tett and any other council leaders of all parties who oppose these highly unpopular planning reforms?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady is a little behind the times, because we have already announced our proposals for article 4 directions. We are keeping article 4s as a tool in the armoury of local authorities should they wish to use them. We have also made it very clear that, with permitted development rights, there must be prior approvals in place that local authorities can use to determine whether a planning application should go forward with a PDR, looking, for example, at the height of a building, the aspect of it, and whether there is an aerodrome within 2 kms of a taller-rise building. We made appropriate changes to ensure that we can build brownfield development where it needs to be developed in order to bring forward the homes of the future that people need.

Regeneration of Towns and High Streets

As we build back better from the pandemic, we are transforming our high streets into the kind of places that people want to call home for generations to come. Last week, the Prime Minister announced the last 15 of our 101 town deals worth £2.4 billion, alongside launching our £150 million community ownership fund and our high streets strategy. That set out a vision for cleaner and more vibrant high streets where entrepreneurs can thrive and local businesses are supported, with permanent al fresco dining and where derelict eyesores are transformed into quality homes.

Now then, Ashfield has benefited from more than £70 million from the towns fund and the future high streets fund, which is welcome news to our struggling high streets, but the independent traders in Kirby-in-Ashfield are up in arms at Ashfield District Council’s decision to double car parking charges on a four-hour stay. This is after it has increased its own allowances by £55,000 a year. Will my right hon. Friend please remind the politicians at Ashfield District Council that, while they are taking Government cash to help regenerate our high streets, they, too, could help by not doubling car parking charges, which hurt our shoppers, our shopworkers and our high streets?

I am delighted that my hon. Friend’s constituency has received that £70 million to deliver exciting regeneration projects across his local area. He is right to say that it would be perverse if the Government are doing so much, with his help, to support the people of Ashfield for his council not to play its part as well. We want high streets to be as accessible as possible, whether that is by car, walking or cycling, and to be attractive places for local people to visit, to live in and to shop.

I thank the Secretary of State for coming to visit me in Newcastle-under-Lyme earlier this month. Newcastle-under-Lyme is benefiting from more than £34 million of investment through the towns deal and the future high streets fund. He knows the town very well and will know that the Ryecroft site, in particular, has been an eyesore for a long time, along with the derelict former Sainsburys site and the former civic offices. Does he therefore welcome, as I do, the fact that we now have a Conservative council under the leadership of Simon Tagg that has a proposal for the site, with the demolition of the old offices, and that with our future high streets funding we will see that developed in the next couple of years?

It was a pleasure to visit Newcastle-under-Lyme once again with my hon. Friend—a town that I have known for more than a decade. It was heartening to see that a good Conservative council very ably led by Simon Tagg has a real 10 or 20-year plan for the town centre backed by tens of millions of pounds of Government investment. That is exactly what we want to see replicated on high streets across the country.

I am backing an exciting multi-million-pound bid put forward by Devon County Council and East Devon District Council to help regenerate east Devon’s largest town, Exmouth. If the bid is successful, the planned Dinan Way extension will improve journeys into Exmouth and cut congestion, and will also see the town centre spruced up around the train station. What steps will my right hon. Friend take to make sure that every corner of the country, including the south-west, sees the full benefits of levelling up?

We have already committed over £430 million of investment in the south-west alone through the getting building fund, the future high streets fund and the towns fund. My hon. Friend and I have spoken many times about Exmouth and I visited the town with him a year or so ago. It is exactly the kind of place that these funds were designed to support. I very much look forward to reviewing the advice from my officials with regard to the bid for the levelling up fund, and, if it is a successful bid, to seeing positive change for his constituents in the months and years ahead.

It is great to be able to announce that after a long campaign through my parliamentary petition and an Adjournment debate in this House, a bid for the levelling-up fund has been submitted by Rotherham Council to improve Dinnington high street. However, I am greatly disappointed that Rotherham Council has not submitted a bid for other high streets across Rother Valley such as Maltby, Thurcroft and Swallownest. What can this Government do to ensure that Rotherham Council has plans for and improves all our high streets across Rother Valley?

I wish my hon. Friend a happy birthday. I am delighted that the council put in a bid for Dinnington high street, where he and I met for the first time in 2019. He asks a very important question about what the Government will do for smaller towns across the country, particularly those in ex-mining and ex-steel communities—places that I know well in north Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire. That is one reason that we brought forward the levelling-up fund, which I hope his constituency will benefit from. It does require councils such as Rotherham to step up and develop with their local Member of Parliament high-quality bids, so I hope it will do so in the years ahead for the other towns in his constituency.

Levelling-up Agenda

What recent discussions he has had with devolved Administrations on delivering the Government’s levelling-up agenda. (902862)

What recent discussions he has had with devolved Administrations on delivering the Government’s levelling-up agenda. (902880)

Levelling up all areas of the country remains at the centre of our agenda, empowering our regions by devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster. In March the Secretary of State and I met Ministers from each of the devolved Administrations to discuss UK-wide funding programmes. My officials will continue to hold discussions with their counterparts in the devolved Administrations as we continue to develop this important investment.

The Prime Minister has previously said that a pound spent in Croydon is of much more value than a pound spent in Strathclyde. How can anyone in Scotland, or even anyone outside London, really trust the Prime Minister on his levelling-up agenda, which his own MPs seem somewhat uncertain of the meaning of, given his clear record of supporting investment in London ahead of investment in the rest of the UK?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s question overlooks the facts. We are prioritising funding in the devolved Administrations by delivering £125,000 capacity funding for every single council in Scotland to help them work up strong bids for the UK community renewal fund, and to build a strong, lasting relationship with central Government so that we bond our precious Union together and help deliver the kind of infrastructure in Scotland that people want to see in every area. We are putting our money where our mouth is and putting that investment straight with the Scottish councils.

Communities such as Wester Hailes in my constituency are best placed to identify their priorities for improving their quality of life, and they have been doing that through a number of grassroots projects, so can the Minister tell me why UK Government Ministers with no remit for devolved matters, such as housing, communities and local government, should get to dictate the support that my constituents receive? Why do they not leave it to the Scottish Parliament and City of Edinburgh Council, who were elected to do so in terms of the devolved settlement? If there is extra funding to be allocated, why not do so through the proper channels?

The point of delivering the funding in the way we are is that it is localism in its truest form. We are asking local areas to come up with solutions to the problems that they are telling us they face. We certainly do not believe that the Scottish Government have a monopoly on good ideas for improving Scottish communities. That is why we have asked them to come forward with us, and of course we want to work closely with communities in Scotland and build that long-lasting, strong relationship so that we can bind together our precious Union for many, many years to come.

In his speech last week on levelling up, the Prime Minister made a plea to the public to email him with ideas for how to flesh out his so far very vague concept of levelling up. Can the Minister tell us how many emails the Prime Minister has received so far and whether any of them contained a plan with any more substance than the Government’s?

Considering the lack of ideas from the Labour party in opposition, I am loth to suggest that that question was ultimately predictable. If Members look at the work we are already doing on levelling up, they will see the £4.8 billion levelling up fund for regenerating town centres and high streets and upgrading local transport networks. They will see the UK shared prosperity fund, which will start from next year. They will see the £220 million of new investment through the UK community renewal fund. They will see the 101 town deals that the Prime Minister announced last week. They will see us progressing towards delivering 300,000 new homes a year by the middle of the decade. They will see the £3 billion we are investing in the city and growth deals, the devolution programme and the freeports we are delivering. In contrast, we see a Labour party with no ideas for levelling up anywhere in the country. All it has is a struggle to reconcile itself to the fact that it is this Conservative Government who are spending money to support the communities that it neglected for so many years.

If each local authority in the UK submits only one bid for the maximum of £20 million of levelling up funding, that will amount to £7.4 billion, which far exceeds the current fund. Given that 300 applications have already been received in the first round, how will the UK Government ensure that sufficient funding is available for later rounds?

First, Members have to look at the volume of funds that we are delivering over the course of the Parliament that are designed to address the different challenges that communities face. We will also ensure that we have attached priority rankings to councils that need that extra support to invest in their communities, whether that is to regenerate high streets or town centres, to upgrade transport infrastructure, or to support cultural and heritage assets. Scotland has a disproportionately high number of those communities, so the hon. Member should be welcoming the fact that we are ensuring that the funding will be targeted at the communities that need it most. Again, we are providing every local authority in Scotland with the capacity funding to ensure that they can put in strong bids to make sure they can level up and build these new relationships with central Government.

Topical Questions

As the Prime Minister said last Thursday in his speech on levelling up, the Government’s vital mission is about raising living standards, spreading opportunity, improving our public services and restoring people’s sense of pride in their community. That is why I was delighted to launch last week the Government’s new high streets strategy. It is why I was pleased to launch our £150 million community ownership fund and the final details of our multibillion-pound towns fund. Last year, my Department introduced changes to make it quicker, easier and cheaper for restaurants, pubs and cafés to set up outdoor sitting and street stalls to serve food and drink, sparking, for the first time in my lifetime, a real pavement café culture. I am delighted that the Government have announced that we are making these changes permanent—something I think we can all drink to as we enjoy a truly great British summer.

Good afternoon from West Dorset, Mr Speaker. Dorset Council has done a huge amount of effective work to protect vulnerable people by tackling domestic violence, and there is no doubt in my mind that the extra funding given by my right hon. Friend’s Department will help substantially. However, this funding is ring-fenced for reactive responses to domestic violence. Can I ask my right hon. Friend to look at providing non-ringfenced funding for new burdens under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, so that Dorset Council can continue its vital work in preventing domestic abuse, not just reacting to it when it happens?

Domestic abuse is a terrible crime, and I, like Members on both sides of the House, was pleased that we passed the landmark Domestic Abuse Act earlier this year, and that the Government are fully funding the duties on local authorities with £125 million. I have written to all local authorities in England, asking them to use that money for its intended purpose, and to ensure that money goes to refuges, which are not the only thing we should be supporting but are a very important part of the answer in protecting victims of domestic abuse. I will take his comments with respect to Dorset Council seriously. I have heard that it is taking a number of important steps, including, for example, spending £650,000 to tackle this issue.

Will the Secretary of State lobby the Chancellor to ensure that any legislation introduced after the current consultation on access to cash will include a statutory obligation on banks to provide adequate access to cash withdrawals free at the point of use and that meet the needs of our high streets and our communities?

The hon. Lady raises an important point, particularly for rural communities and those that are harder to serve. The pandemic has had a profound impact on access to cash, with many stores—perhaps the vast majority—moving to a cashless society, but we must not forget those people who are left behind by that, so I will take her comments back to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor as he prepares to respond.

My constituency has seen massive housing development over the past couple of decades, and that growth has put enormous pressure on our local infrastructure and resulted in a shortage of school places, increased traffic congestion and one of the highest patient-to-doctor ratios in the country. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is put in place to solve those problems, and what will he do to ensure that no further housing developments take place in my constituency unless and until the correct infrastructure is put in place first? (902911)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that it is vitally important that new housing development is supported by commensurate infrastructure —both physical and social infrastructure—and affordable housing. Of course, it is also true that the majority of that infrastructure today is funded by developer contributions from new housing, but we need to ensure that developers pay their fair share. That is the idea behind the infrastructure levy, whereby local areas can themselves set the rate of taxation they require to capture more land value to put at the service of local communities. I think that if we can secure that passage—I hope we will get cross-party support for this—it will make a big difference, particularly in those parts of the country where planning is particularly challenging at the moment.

It is good to see the Secretary of State here, having survived yet another thankless broadcast stint on behalf of those in No. 10—sent out to defend the indefensible, only for them to U-turn as soon as he finished on air.

The Big Issue warned this week:

“More people are at risk of homelessness now than at any time in living memory.”

So can the Secretary of State tell us what assessment he has made of the number of evictions that will happen as a result of covid, and how much will the resultant homelessness cost local councils in temporary accommodation? In March 2020 he said that

“nobody should lose their home”

as a result of the pandemic. Can he confirm that this promise has now been abandoned, and if not, how is he fulfilling it?

This Government took exceptional steps early in the pandemic, with cross-party support, and they were the right things to do. We legislated and, for example, we increased the notice periods for people with tenancies under section 21. That protected many thousands of people in a very difficult period for this country. They were also a product of a time when the housing market was closed as a matter of law, so it was impossible to move house. The position today is different— people are able to move house and the housing market is very open and active—but we still want to protect the most vulnerable people in society. We are doing that with longer notice periods and further support through the benefits system and local housing need, and of course we will keep this under review. However, I pay tribute to councils across the country for the phenomenal achievement of our Everyone In programme, which has seen rates of people sleeping rough on our streets reduced by almost 40%, and we must keep that going.

In Wolverhampton, green space has been put forward for housing development by the city council. I am sure that the council would welcome reassurance from the Secretary of State that there can be discussions with his Department about the accuracy and reasonableness of those numbers going forward. Does he agree that city centre living is key, and that councils must be imaginative when incorporating housing into retail and leisure developments? I am thinking specifically of the Westside development in Wolverhampton, which could be reviewed. That is key to supporting a city centre economy— (902913)

As a son of Wolverhampton, I know the city well and I wish it well. It is absolutely right that we need to build more homes in our town and city centres, and that is what the Government are doing. That is why we brought forward changes to permitted development, why we created the right to demolish and rebuild a building, and why we are bringing forward reforms to modernise the planning system. That is the way we protect the green belt for future generations. From Wolverhampton and the Black Country, one has to drive only a few miles into the most beautiful countryside of Shropshire and south Staffordshire. I want to preserve that, which is exactly what our planning reforms will do.

I was enthused to hear recently that a positive discussion is ongoing with the Welsh Government about a freeport in Wales. Does the Secretary of State agree that a freeport would be massively beneficial, particularly if it spreads the entire length of north Wales, taking into account its borders at the port of Holyhead, as well as manufacturing centres in Wrexham, Deeside and Delyn, to drive forward economic benefits for our entire region? (902912)

Yes, we want to establish at least one freeport in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as soon as possible, and negotiations with the devolved Administrations are ongoing. Freeports will benefit and regenerate communities across the country. They act as national hubs for international trade, innovation and commerce, bringing together ports, local authorities, businesses, stakeholders and the community, to boost prosperity and opportunity for the region. We want to see progress, and it is in the interests of Welsh businesses and communities to benefit from that policy as quickly as possible.

Local post offices play a vital part in keeping our high streets vibrant and our communities thriving. That is why I am deeply disappointed that, without undertaking a prior consultation, the Post Office served notice on Mr Ahmed, who runs Haworth post office in my constituency. Will the Minister meet me, alongside ministerial colleagues from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, urgently to review the Post Office’s intention, and aim to save our Haworth post office? (902915)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the role that post offices play across our country. They have a vital role in supporting high streets, and keeping them a social and vibrant place in which to live, shop and work, and I thank him for bringing that case to my attention. The management of the post office is the responsibility of Post Office Ltd. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and colleagues from BEIS, raise the issue with the Post Office directly, and discuss the matter in more detail.

Many of the buildings in my constituency that have been found to have cladding defects, including Norfolk House, St Peters Gardens and Leeward Court, are under 18 metres and therefore ineligible for the building safety fund. The only offer made to impacted leaseholders is a loan scheme, with no clarity about how it will work and when it will be made available. When will the Secretary of State’s Department finally step up and extend funding to those blocks under 18 metres that are in need of remediation? (902914)

In terms of buildings with the most dangerous form of cladding, there are five that I am aware of in Lewisham. One has completed work and is awaiting building control sign-off, three have had their unsafe aluminium composite material cladding removed altogether, and the other one has works under way, so we are making good progress there, as we are elsewhere in the country. On buildings below 18 metres, we need to take a more proportionate approach. There are leaseholders who are being asked to pay bills for those buildings that are unconscionable and likely to be unnecessary. I am working intensively with lenders, insurers and building safety experts to change that, because we have to adopt a more proportionate and sensible regime than the one we are experiencing right now.

Darlington Borough Council has provided 169 authorised pitches for members of the Gypsy, Romany, Traveller community, and planning for a further 25 is currently being assessed. That is a leading example of how local authorities should be providing for their Gypsy, Romany, Traveller communities. Will my right hon. Friend outline what steps his Department is taking to encourage other local authorities to provide sufficient and adequate legal sites? (902919)

I praise Darlington for its work in supporting the Gypsy, Romany, Traveller community. The Government consider that local councils are best placed to make decisions about the number and location of sites locally, as they know their local area best. We encourage local authorities with social housing providers to bid for funding through the £11.5 billion affordable homes programme, which includes funding for permanent Traveller and transit sites. However, I appreciate that the present system is not working as well as it should. We often see corrosive cases of retrospective planning permission. My Department is actively considering options to increase local council enforcement powers through the planning Bill, and we will announce steps in due course.

The last year saw a record rise in council tax arrears of £1.5 billion, as families struggled under the weight of the pandemic. With tens of thousands more people likely to receive a call or a knock on the door from a bailiff in the months and years ahead, will the Secretary of State look at proposals from the Centre for Social Justice for an enforcement conduct authority, developed through a historic coming-together of bailiffs and the debt advice sector? (902916)

I would be happy to look at those proposals. I have already seen them, but perhaps the hon. Lady and I can meet to discuss them in further detail.

As my right hon. Friend knows, there are building safety issues other than cladding, including missing firebreaks. Will he therefore tell me what advice I can give to my constituents who are currently unable to sell or let properties that they bought in good faith a matter of only a few years ago? (902920)

Shoddy workmanship of that kind is disgraceful, and developers should step up and pay for any works that are required. We are changing the law through the Building Safety Bill to give homeowners a longer period of redress to take action against developers and builders who build poorly. As I said in answer to an earlier question, it is also important that our response is proportionate, because some of the works relating to that kind of non-cladding issue—not all, but some—that leaseholders are being asked to pay for are unnecessary. We will be saying more about that soon.

During the recent by-election campaign in my home constituency of Batley and Spen, fellow residents raised with me their concerns regarding proposals to build a large Amazon warehouse in Scholes. The Government are proposing to shift power away from residents and towards developers, so will the Secretary of State assure me that the rights of local people to be fully informed and have their objections taken seriously will always be respected? (902918)

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place in this House. As a former by-election winner, I know what it is like to enter in a class of one. I am sure she will thrive, as others have done, including several members of the Opposition Front Bench.

We are seeing an increase in the number of applications across the country for logistics sites, born of the pandemic experience of increased online shopping. It is an issue that other local authorities are experiencing and we are alive to it. Of course, any reforms we make to the planning system will continue to have the hon. Lady’s constituents at their heart. They will continue to be able to allocate sites in the plan making process, including commercial sites, and to object to planning applications if they wish.

Although I would have loved Hyndburn and Haslingden to be a beneficiary of the towns deal, my understanding is that those decisions were made in October 2019, before I was elected, and I wish that those in charge in Hyndburn and Haslingden had done more to secure one. However, we are now in a position to bid for the levelling-up fund, so will my right hon. Friend confirm that an announcement will be made soon on the second round so that we can put forward our case for the well-deserved investment? (902926)

It is disappointing that proposals have not been brought forward so far, but we want to work with my hon. Friend and her local council. I saw from Accrington when she and I visited just how much potential it has. It is a very beautiful town centre, but in need of investment. We will bring forward proposals shortly for the second round and I or my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will set that out later in the year.

Rather than create a developer’s opportunity to provide slum living accommodation through the relaxation of permitted development rights, why does the Secretary of State not force developers who have planning permission for 1.1 million homes, according to the Local Government Association, to bring forward those plans and also the planning applications for the 1 million homes that can be built on the sites that have been designated for housing? (902921)

The good news for the hon. Gentleman is that that is exactly what we are going to do, so I hope he will be an enthusiastic champion of the planning Bill when it reaches the House. He is right to say that there is an issue with developers not building the homes they have got permission for. Successive studies suggest that it is overstated, but none the less, it is an important issue, its time has come and we as a Parliament should tackle it. The planning Bill will include such proposals and I hope that we can work on a cross-party basis to achieve them.

I listened to the Secretary of State’s earlier answers and it seems to me that the dream of home ownership is something that this party still supports and has always supported. The fact that young people have not been able to buy houses at the same rate as in the past is a matter of intergenerational unfairness. May I therefore welcome the Government’s proposals, the consultation they will conduct and the fact that we are doing something about it while the Opposition do not appear to have any policies on the matter? (902928)

The Conservative party has always been the party of home ownership, which is a fundamental tenet of what we seek to achieve. We want to extend opportunity to all. We are bringing forward the Bill to help the next generation of young people on to the ladder. Of course, we are also doing brilliant things such as First Homes, whereby we offer discounts of up to 30% to 50% to local first-time buyers throughout the country. I was pleased to unveil the next site for those near my hon. Friend’s constituency in Cannock the other day.

I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.

Nomination of a Temporary Deputy Speaker

I need to advise the House that Dame Rosie Winterton has been contacted by the NHS covid-19 app and advised to self-isolate. It is therefore necessary to appoint a temporary Deputy Speaker to serve for the remainder of this week. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) for being prepared to take on this role at short notice.


That Judith Cummins shall act as Deputy Speaker to serve in place of Dame Rosie Winterton until the rise of the House on Thursday 22 July; and that she shall exercise all the powers vested in the Chairman of Ways and Means as Deputy Speaker.—(Mr Rees-Mogg.)