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Topical Questions

Volume 699: debated on Monday 19 July 2021

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.)