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Topical Questions

Volume 702: debated on Monday 25 October 2021

I would like briefly to pay tribute to two of my predecessors. It is an honour to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) in this role. I thank him for his dedicated service, and particularly for the role he played in championing integration and social cohesion in this county, and in ensuring that we recognise how vital beauty is in the built environment. It is also a privilege to follow our departed friend James Brokenshire in this role. There is not enough time now for me to say how much we all owe him, but he was a truly wonderful guy and a great Secretary of State.

I associate myself with the comments made by the Secretary of State. The great benefits that HS2 will bring to the east midlands and Yorkshire will be undermined if we do not get the increased capacity and reliability that new lines would bring, so it was deeply concerning this weekend to hear the Government suggesting that future plans for the eastern leg of HS2 might not involve new lines. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he is an absolute advocate in Parliament and around the Cabinet table for the letter sent to him by the leaders of Leeds City Council and Nottinghamshire County Council, which stated that levelling up would

“fall at the first hurdle”

if we did not get full investment in the eastern leg of HS2, with new lines attached?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but I will not pre-empt anything the Chancellor may say later this week about the commitment we are making on infrastructure.

T2. What better example can there be of potential levelling up than Twycross zoo’s bid, under Bosworth, for a national education and conservation centre? It would not only drive tourism but teach the next conservationists of the year. Would the Secretary of State care to come to Twycross and see it for himself? Failing that, could he give a date for when we can find out the result of the first bids? (903805)

Having been in this House for 16 and a half years, I am familiar with what zoos look like, but it would be an absolute pleasure to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. He makes an important point about the importance of linking environmental awareness and levelling up in the drive to unite and level up the country, and ensure that we address our broader environmental concerns.

May I associate myself with the comments made about the former Members for Southend West, and for Old Bexley and Sidcup, who are both immensely missed by the whole House?

It is a pleasure to welcome the Secretary of State and the new Ministers to their place, and to see older Ministers as well—why not?

It has been four months since the deadline for community renewal fund bids. The mid-point reviews are due to start next week, but many areas still have no idea whether their bids have been successful. Some tell me that the Government’s delays mean that their projects may collapse. There is no point in the Government trumpeting funding that never turns up, so will the Secretary of State commit to letting every area know the outcome of its bid before the end of this month? Can he guarantee that the Department’s delays so far will not jeopardise jobs or investment linked to any of those projects?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The UK community renewal fund and its successor, the UK shared prosperity fund, are both examples of how we can have more effective control of the money that needs to be spent to support communities in improving productivity now that we have left the European Union. He is right that it is a cause of regret that we have not been able to respond as quickly as we might have wanted, but there will be more news later this week.

T4. Given the excellent track record of councils, including the London Borough of Hillingdon, on delivering infrastructure improvements in a variety of local services, including homes, sports centres, libraries and schools, what role does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State envisage councils playing in ensuring that our green investment projects are fulfilled locally? (903807)

Local authorities are vital delivery partners for the Government’s grant-funding initiatives to decarbonise homes. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have been delighted to hear that the heat and buildings strategy, which was published last week, committed further funding to those initiatives, with £950 million for the home upgrade grant and £800 million for the social housing decarbonisation fund between 2022 and 2025. The strategy also committed to investing £1.4 billion in our public sector decarbonisation scheme to reduce emissions from public buildings.

I welcome the new Ministers to their place. In 2019-20, the Government oversaw a net loss of 17,476 social homes. House building fell short of its national target by 90,000 homes. That caps more than a decade of house building failure. Every year, the Government do not meet their housing targets and do not build enough genuinely affordable homes. Will the Secretary of State grab the bull by the horns and build a new generation of green homes for social rent at scale?

T7.   Operational carbon emissions continue to fall, but as the Secretary of State will know, 38% of our global emissions still come from our buildings. Will he consider regulating embodied carbon in our built environment, as a way to promote more sustainable building and the use of more natural materials? (903810)

The Government’s net zero strategy sets out our ambitions to help the construction sector improve its reporting on embodied carbon in buildings. We are also exploring the potential for a maximum embodied carbon level for new buildings in future, while encouraging the sector to reuse materials and make full use of existing buildings. In championing low-carbon materials, increased energy efficiency and enhanced product design, we are supporting the sector to deliver cleaner, greener buildings for tomorrow.

T5. May I press the Secretary of State on a point about the Llanhilleth Miners Institute, which does fantastic work? It was a safe haven for my community during the floods last year. It applied to the UK community renewal fund in May and got council support but, like others, it has heard nothing since. Will he please consider an extension to the time that the Llanhilleth Miners Institute will have in which to spend any grant, should it be successful? (903808)

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We want to make sure that the money is out of the door as quickly as possible, but we will, of course, look at every project, and will look to work with Llanhilleth to see what we can do to deliver effectively.

T8. I support the right of councils to build homes, but there is an obvious conflict of interests when councils acting as developers award themselves planning permission. The Secretary of State will know that I presented a Bill on this issue during the last Session. Will he agree to meet me to discuss how we can take this proposal forward, so that councils are subject to the same checks and balances as private developers? (903812)

T6.   I congratulate the Secretary of State on retaining the portfolio responsibility for democracy in his new Department. When he cheered for the Brexit campaign, he used to rail against unelected elites making decisions. With that in mind, can he tell us how Lord Frost managed to become a peer and a member of the Cabinet, and how Malcolm Offord has managed to become a peer and a member of the Scotland Office? Was it anything to do with the £150,000 that he donated to the Scottish Tories? (903809)

T9. Will the Minister take action to stop the Mayor of London building over suburban station car parks in places such as High Barnet and Cockfosters, given the damage that it will do to public access to public transport, particularly for people with impaired mobility? (903813)

My right hon. Friend campaigns assiduously for her constituents in this regard. She and the House will know that the national planning policy framework makes it very clear that houses and other properties should be built in a sustainable way in sensible places, but she will also know—partly because of the campaigning that she brought to bear in this regard—that we have told the Mayor of London to amend his policy to allow for a tall buildings provision in local planning, enabling local authorities to say where they want tall buildings and where they do not. That will afford local communities much greater protection as to where tall buildings should or should not be built, thanks partly to my right hon. Friend.

The bulk of the affordable homes programme funding goes on homes that are out of reach of even families on average incomes, and analysis from Shelter shows that the richest 28% of private renters are the only ones who earn enough to access the Government’s new first homes scheme. If the Minister is so committed to levelling up, does he agree that it must involve building homes that people on low incomes can actually afford to buy?

I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question. Yes, we want to make sure that people are able to buy homes that are affordable. That is why we have introduced the first homes scheme, which allows for a discount of at least 30%, and up to 50% in areas of high unaffordability. It is why we have changed the affordable homes programme to allow people to buy a smaller share of their property and then “staircase” at lower amounts. It is why we have the Help to Buy scheme, and why we have the guaranteed 95% mortgage scheme. The Government are absolutely determined to ensure that people can get on to the property ladder, in a way that the Opposition never have and never will.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to his post. In doing so, I cannot miss the opportunity to request a meeting with him so that I can convey the real concerns of local residents to the west of my constituency boundary, in the parish of Ifield, at proposals for 10,000 houses on greenfield sites.

Of course I cannot comment on any individual planning application, but I know what a brilliant job my hon. Friend does in representing his constituents, so I look forward to meeting him to listen to the case he is making, or to a member of my ministerial team doing so.

Despite Bristol University students being housed in Bath because there were not enough students from Bath University, a planning inspector ruled this year that more purpose-built student housing was needed. What does the Secretary of State suggest a local authority should do when it is overruled in this way?

The planning inspector is, of course, there to ensure that there is effective compliance with the housing requirements on the part of local authorities. However, one thing that I would say for any planning inspector is that they depend on consistency, and there has been consistency in the way in which the Government have approached these issues. Where there has been inconsistency is in the position of the Liberal Democrats, who campaign in seats such as Chesham and Amersham on the basis that they are wholly opposed to new housing and development, and then, at a national policy level, call for even more houses to be built than this Government. Were it not for the fact that the phrase “hypocrisy” would be unparliamentary, that, I am afraid, would be the best description of the multi-faceted bottom-feeding perversion of consistency that is Liberal Democrat housing and planning policy. To describe it as hydra-headed would be an understatement, when it comes to the many contorted positions that the Liberal Democrats occupy on this issue.