Skip to main content

Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

Volume 702: debated on Monday 25 October 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

We come now to the newly named Department. We have questions for the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communications—[Interruption.] I mean Communities, not communications! I hope that there will be communications, because otherwise we will be in trouble.

Planning Rules

1. When his Department will publish its response to the consultation on the planning for the future White Paper. (903779)

The response to last year’s consultation on the planning White Paper generated significant interest. I am considering all those responses and will make an announcement on next steps in due course.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his role.

The Gosport peninsula is more than 80% built on, and a further 12% of it is conservation area. There is simply nowhere to build the wildly unrealistic 2014 housing numbers without decimating any remaining green areas and, of course, the vital strategic gap. Worse, the 2018 Office for National Statistics population data reveal that our actual housing need is 3,000 fewer homes. I really understand that the nation needs houses, but this Government champion localism. Will he please give me hope that they will not be imposing unrealistic, outdated housing numbers on us?

It is still something of a surprise to me, Mr Speaker. I do not know what it is like for you.

I completely understand the unique issues faced by my hon. Friend’s constituents. The unique geography of the peninsula and the communities she represents poses particular challenges when it comes not just to meeting local housing need, but to respecting the environment and, indeed, the nature of the communities and their special cherishable character. As we take forward our proposals for planning reform, we will be balancing the need for new housing with environmental concerns and also the vital importance of listening to local people.

The Harlow and Gilston garden town development is the largest release of green-belt land for our housing for generations. The scale of the challenge for magnificent community groups such as the Hunsdon, Eastwick and Gilston neighbourhood plan group to get their voices heard is a David and Goliath challenge. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to listen to and trust local people, and will he meet me to discuss this project and how it can provide a live case study for the design of future planning reform?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is thanks to the work of organisations such as the Hunsdon, Eastwick and Gilston neighbourhood plan group that we involve local communities in making these uniquely sensitive decisions. As we consider our plans for the future, one thing we want to do is to make sure that the voice of local people is integrated more effectively into planning decisions.

The two district councils that Wantage and Didcot cover are in the top 10 areas of England for houses built, but in the bottom third for infrastructure. People would be less unhappy with the house building if it came with more GP surgeries, the reopening of Grove station and better roads. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, as he reforms planning, there will be a greater emphasis on improving infrastructure to support the population that the houses come with?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Across the country, many people would welcome new housing development enthusiastically if they had the assurance of knowing that there was sufficient investment in infrastructure to ensure that public services and other utilities were there for them so that additional pressure was not applied unequally. His argument is correct, and it has been incorporated into our thinking about the future of planning reform.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role and look forward to seeing him at the Select Committee next week. I do not know whether he has had the chance to read yet the Select Committee’s review of the planning reforms. May I suggest that local plans need to be at the heart of a plan-led system, indicating where development is likely to happen? To do that, local plans need to be simpler, easier to understand and get more people involved in the process so that there is real community buy-in to them. Finally, even when local plans are in place, there still needs to be an opportunity for local people to be able to comment on, object to, and, where necessary, influence the outcomes of individual planning applications.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is a very distinguished Select Committee Chair. At the danger of establishing a treacly consensus right from the very beginning, may I say that I entirely agreed with the first part of his question? As for the second part, I certainly welcome that direction of travel.

Today, York has been voted Britain’s most popular city. However, if we get planning wrong, we will embed inequality into our city. The governance structures over projects such as York Central are currently in the wrong place, so they will not deliver for the people in my city. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss York Central, as I have met many of his Ministers, so that we get the governance structures right for the future?

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady. It is important to recognise that we want to work with York to ensure that there is a local plan in place, but it is also the case, as she knows, that this Government are investing in York, deploying more resource and bringing more civil servants to the beautiful city that she represents. I hope that we can continue, in that consensual manner, to deliver for the people of York.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to his role. I also welcome his replies to hon. Members, as he said that, effectively, the Government’s developers charter is being reviewed. I have not seen the right hon. Gentleman torpedo something so effectively since he sunk the Prime Minister’s leadership bid in 2016. But we know that, like Lazarus, the Prime Minister came back. Will the Secretary of State therefore take this opportunity to confirm that the Government’s wholly unpopular and disastrous planning reforms will never return?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for taking me back to the halcyon days of 2016; it was not so much a torpedo being launched as an unexploded bomb going off in my own hands. As the former Member for Kensington and Chelsea, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, pointed out, one of the things about committing political suicide is that you always live to regret it.

On the hon. Lady’s broader point, it is only fair to say that the planning White Paper was mischaracterised by many. There is so much that is good in it, but it is important that we listen to concerns that were expressed in order to ensure that an already powerful and compelling suite of proposals is even more effective.

Domestic Abuse Victims: Safe Accommodation

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Justice on increasing the supply of safe accommodation for domestic abuse victims. (903780)

My Department works with others across the Government to tackle this serious issue. I am pleased that on 1 October the new duties in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 came into force to require local authorities to provide support for all victims who need safe accommodation. We are supporting councils with £125 million this year to help them to deliver on those duties.

One of the really important parts of breaking the domestic abuse cycle is providing safe spaces for the women who need them to go to. I welcome the millions of pounds that the Government have invested in this area, but in East Surrey we have created an innovative local financing model, with the work of Surrey County Council and Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid. Will the Minister meet us in order that we can explain how we have created this model, so that it could be recreated elsewhere?

I am huge admirer of the work of Women’s Aid across the country. During the summer, I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid to see the excellent work that it does. Of course, I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend in a visit to Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid to see the innovative work that it is doing to provide more accommodation.

Building Safety

The Government’s landmark Building Safety Bill will drive the most significant regulatory, cultural and behavioural improvements to building safety in a generation. In addition, as the House will know, we are investing £5.1 billion of taxpayers’ money to remove unsafe cladding from high-rise buildings, with a new tax and levy on industry. We will offer further support to leaseholders in buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres high.

I welcome the action taken so far, but it is not fast enough or far enough for the thousands of leaseholders in Putney who are trapped in a perfect storm, with some living in unsafe buildings and many more caught up in a crisis of confidence in building safety. They cannot sell their homes, yet through no fault of their own, they are forced to pay thousands in ongoing costs for waking watch—or sleeping watch, as they call it—and insurance, before we even get to the costs of remediation works. They need Ministers to get a faster grip of the situation and solve the crisis. Will the Minister agree to Labour’s plan for a building works agency to find, then to fix, fund and, crucially, certify these buildings as safe; and then pursue those who are responsible for the costs, not the leaseholders?

The hon. Lady will know that through the building safety fund we have now distributed £734 million for 689 identified buildings—identified by local councils and communities, which are best placed to do this—with the result that 65,000 homes are now in the process of being remediated. Ninety-seven per cent. of buildings with unsafe aluminium composite material cladding have been remediated or are in the process of so being. Of course we want to speed up the process and of course we will work with developers, local authorities and fire and rescue services to make sure that the work is being done. It is being done, it shall be done: she can be assured of that.

The building safety charge is a charge to ensure that the building safety regulator—the most important and powerful regulator of building safety in the world—will be responsible for ensuring that through the life cycle of the development of a building, from design to construction through to its operation, it will be safe. We will be ensuring that there are accountable persons for those buildings who will be responsible for them. We will make sure that the cost that falls on individual leaseholders will be sensible and as limited as possible. My hon. Friend can be assured that that cost will be transparent so that they can see exactly what they are paying for.

First, let me pay my respects to Sir David Amess. He was a tireless campaigner for building and fire safety, chairing the exceptional all-party parliamentary group on the subject. I last met him only a few weeks ago to discuss the omissions in the Building Safety Bill. His loss will be greatly felt in these crunch weeks of the Bill’s passage.

I also welcome the new Secretary of State to his role. He has been brought in by the Prime Minister he tried to torpedo to sort out the building safety crisis. Given his reputation for getting things done, expectations really are very high.

In the spirit of David Amess, I offer my commitment to help to resolve this crisis, because it is now urgent and getting worse. Every day, more innocent homeowners receive new and enormous bills for remediation, their insurance costs soar, and lenders will not lend. Does the Minister agree that we face an important, and closing, window to bring forward any necessary legislation? Will he work with us and campaigners to put into law the protection of leaseholders from any remediation costs and bring forward a comprehensive plan to resolve this?

I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question and the spirit in which it was asked. I certainly associate myself with her remarks about our late friend Sir David Amess.

During the passage of the Building Safety Bill, which is currently in Committee, a number of amendments have been tabled. Nine amendments tabled by the Opposition and have been withdrawn, and only one has been divided on. That is an example of the collegiality that we have managed to establish as this very important Bill progresses through Parliament. Of course we want to make sure that leaseholders are not exposed to unfair costs. That is what we have been working towards since the Grenfell disaster, and we shall continue so to do. The hon. Lady’s support in helping that endeavour will be gratefully received.

It is good to hear that that is what we are working towards, but it has been some time now and this does need enacting in law as the only way to ensure protection.

Can I give the Minister, in the same spirit, some gentle advice as someone who has been dealing with these issues for many years? He will not get resolution on this issue by rehashing some of the previous failed approaches like naming and shaming of developers, nor will it be dealt with by just looking at the symptoms of the problems such as insurance, as pressing as that is. Does he accept that he must tackle the problems at their root: namely, I repeat, by protecting leaseholders in law, as the Government promised; and bringing forward a comprehensive plan to assess, fix, fund and certify all tall buildings by overseeing risk assessment and removing the 2020 consolidated advice? We have the fund, but it simply will not work without dealing with those two fundamental issues, so will he do all this before the window closes firmly?

I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question and how she couched it. She will know that we have committed to raise a significant amount of funds through a residential developers property tax and a tall building levy, which will ensure that buildings that need to be remediated are remediated, so avoiding costs falling on leaseholders. In the Building Safety Bill, we have made it absolutely clear that we expect building owners to pursue every route to find funding before passing on any cost to leaseholders. If building owners do not do that, the costs they may impose can be challenged in the tribunal. We are looking at further evidence we have received on the prevalence of cladding in the 11 metre to 18 metre building cohort. That will help us finalise our decisions, and we shall bring them forward in due course.

The Minister has been very accessible, and I have had conversations with him over this issue, but I am still not clear what people can do if they have already been stung with costs in respect of remediation. To go to a tribunal is a gamble, because legal costs may be incurred. Can he give further thought in his approach to this matter to how to get money back for people who have wrongly been charged when they are merely innocent leaseholders?

I am obliged, as ever, to my right hon. Friend. He is right. We have met on a number of occasions to discuss these issues. I will not labour the point about the public funds we have already expended on remediation or the plans we have to bring forward further support for those who find themselves in this very difficult and distressing situation. I will always talk to him and consider the thoughts and ideas he presents.

Supported Accommodation: Care Standards

4. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the regulation of standards of care in exempt supported accommodation. (903782)

Supported housing plays a vital role in delivering better outcomes for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. My Department has been working with local authorities on several pilots focused on improving the quality of accommodation and support for people in exempt accommodation. We have given more than £5 million to five councils, including almost £2 million to Birmingham City Council. The pilots concluded in September, and we are assessing the findings to decide our next steps.

I am aware of the pilots, but the Minister must know that in more than 150,000 exempt accommodation premises across the country, vulnerable people are living in the most appalling circumstances. The regulator recently judged that the largest provider in Birmingham was non-compliant, while it is costing the taxpayer £110 million in Birmingham alone. For how much longer does he think the Government will be able to tolerate this state of affairs?

It is important that we consider the fact that there are some excellent providers of supported housing across the country, and I say that with a vested interest, because I worked for one of them in Birmingham before I came to Parliament. Although I fully appreciate that the number of units of supported accommodation in Birmingham has doubled from approximately 11,000 to 22,000, it only takes a small percentage of rogue landlords to create a significant problem. As I said, we will continue to work closely with the council and Sharon Thompson, the councillor responsible there, to ensure we come up with a solution. I respect the hon. Gentleman tremendously, and I look forward to working with him on this issue.

Devolution Across the UK

This Government plan to expand, augment and increase devolution across the United Kingdom, and we have already begun discussions with areas interested in county deals, and we will be setting out next steps in the levelling up White Paper.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. In the east midlands, we look with some envy at neighbouring regions that have elected mayors and have successfully attracted more investment. I urge him to make progress on an east midlands elected mayor. In the meantime, if he cannot do that, Derbyshire stands ready for a county deal and would appreciate being a pathfinder.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Expanding the model of combined authority mayors and a greater level of devolution are at the heart of making sure that local communities have strong leaders who can make a decisive difference, not least in the economic sphere. I know that Derbyshire County Council is now under exemplary Conservative leadership and we hope to be able to build on that.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his place. The United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 fundamentally undermined the devolution settlement and was explicitly rejected in Holyrood and the Senedd. He claimed again today that he seeks to augment devolution, so can he explain how riding roughshod over democratically devolved Parliaments does that?

We never ride, roughshod or otherwise, over the devolution settlement. I have two things to say: first, I hope that we will shortly receive news from the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the allocation of funds under the Act’s financial assistance power through the levelling-up fund. I am pleased to say that a number of SNP MPs—the hon. Lady’s parliamentary colleagues —as well as SNP councils, have backed bids to that fund. It is great to have locally elected representatives on the ground supporting the financial assistance power of the Act and the vital importance of working together. Secondly, although of course I will not interfere in the devolution settlement, there is a contrast between our approach, where we devolve more power to local government in England, and that of the current Scottish Government, which takes power away from Scottish councils.

Across Lancashire, we are ambitious about having a county deal—with a mayor, I hope—but levelling-up bids must come first. Can the Secretary of State give some clarity about the timing of the second round of those bids? In Rossendale, where we are working with our levelling-up board on a plan, we need to know the timeframe.

My right hon. Friend is right: east Lancashire is one area that we will focus on in the coming months. Much more needs to be done, and he has been at the forefront of ensuring that the voice of the whole of the north of England—not just that of east Lancashire—is heard clearly in Whitehall. The Chancellor of the Exchequer will be in a position to share details of the next round with the House a wee bit later.

UK Community Renewal Fund

6. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the UK community renewal fund on communities with high levels of deprivation. (903784)

We are committed to ensuring that the community renewal fund reaches those most in need. To achieve that, we identified 100 priority places across Great Britain based on an index of economic resilience measuring productivity, household income, unemployment, skills and population density. Other places were also able to bid and the assessment process considered both the strategic fit and the deliverability of bids.

Could the Minister tell us, when the pilots have concluded, how the shared prosperity and community renewal funds will interact with levelling-up bids? In future, will there be an overlap? Will it be possible to bid for both? On the levelling-up process, will he meet me to discuss Ellesmere Port’s excellent and ambitious levelling-up fund bid?

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, the community renewal fund is intended to act as an innovative source of funding to try new ways of doing things as we move on from EU structural funds, and to enable us to start working on new ideas ahead of the levelling-up fund.

Support for Towns

The Department is investing billions in regeneration across the whole UK as part of the Government’s central priority to level up and unite our country. Programmes such as the £3.6 billion towns fund and the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will help to achieve that by supporting the renewal of our towns and cities, including in my right hon. Friend’s constituency of Harlow, which has been awarded a £23.7 million town deal.

I am pleased to report to the House that almost 8,000 new apprentices have been taken on in Harlow since 2010. Does my hon. Friend agree that the best example of levelling up is providing young people with the skills they need to climb the educational ladder of opportunity? To that purpose, will she, my constituency neighbour, support our bid of £20 million to the levelling-up fund to provide vital regeneration for Harlow to help our town to grow and evolve?

As a fellow Essex MP, I am delighted that so many apprentices have taken their step towards a career in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. I know many of them will have come from my own constituency next door in Saffron Walden. It is fair to say that we both agree that equipping the next generation with the skills to compete and succeed is integral to levelling up. Having said that, I cannot comment on individual bids to our levelling-up fund—I suspect I will be saying that quite a lot during this afternoon’s session—but I will say to him that we are determined to help Harlow transform local skills and infrastructure, capitalising on his brand-new hospital, science park and, of course, the £23.7 million town deal.

If the ministerial team are serious about levelling up, they must look at towns and their sustainability. As the Minister is travelling around, will she bring her team to visit Huddersfield, where we have committed to being a sustainable town with health and wellbeing at its heart, using the United Nations sustainable development goals to deliver in a meaningful way?

I think the hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement about the importance of sustainability. I would be delighted to find out more about what is happening in Huddersfield. I will have my officials check my diary to see when time will be available.

Shipley was delighted to receive £25 million from the towns fund, and Bingley in my constituency is another town in urgent need of support. The Secretary of State talked about the timing of the levelling-up fund. Will the Minister confirm whether the criteria for the next round of bidding to the levelling-up fund will be the same as for the first round of bidding, and will she look favourably upon a bid from Bingley to the levelling-up fund?

At the moment, we are reviewing the first tranche of the levelling-up fund, so the criteria for the second and future tranches will be decided in due course, but I can tell my hon. Friend that we have heard his plea. We shall be looking, as we will across the House, at all the pleas from people who would like to see more from the levelling-up fund.

I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the bold and ambitious plans to transform our town centres in St Helens borough—in St Helens, Newton-le-Willows and Earlestown. We have reached an innovative partnership with the English cities fund and the private sector. The missing part of the jigsaw are the Government. We want a hand up, not a handout, so will she guarantee that the levelling-up fund will be based on need and on the merit of the proposal?

I think that goes without saying. Yes, of course, we recognise that many places would like to see additional funds from the levelling-up fund, but we will evaluate the strength of the bid from the hon. Member’s constituency. That will be taken across with everybody else’s bid, and those most in need shall get what they require.

You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that the city of Stoke-on-Trent was born out of the five towns—or the six towns, depending on whose course of history you took—but unfortunately Burslem and Tunstall, the two towns I am pleased to represent, have vanity projects such as Ceramica and an out-of-town retail park right next to the high street—both built under former Labour administrations—with both high streets suffering as a result. Does my hon. Friend agree that the £3.5 million levelling-up fund bid for Tunstall, which will go a long way to regenerating our high street, Tunstall town and the baths, plus the high streets task force, will help us bring these towns back to life?

Houses in Multiple Occupation: Local Authority Powers

8. What plans his Department has to strengthen local authority powers on regulating houses in multiple occupation. (903786)

I hate to interrupt private conversations, but we have equipped local authorities with robust powers to regulate both the standards and the management of houses in multiple occupation, or HMOs. These include mandatory and additional HMO licensing, civil penalties of up to £30,000, rent repayment orders and, for the worst offenders, banning orders. Local authorities also have planning powers to limit the proliferation of small HMOs within their area, and of course we will continue to monitor closely this part of the housing sector.

I recently held a public meeting arising from the many concerns expressed by local residents regarding HMOs that have been developed, and more HMOs that are being developed, in a particular area. The issues they were very much concerned about were antisocial behaviour and poorly developed conversions of houses into HMOs. I am aware of a young person paying £1,000 to rent a single room in one of those HMOs. The councils can put in place article 4, but that takes 12 to 18 months, on the basis of the Government’s agreeing to it. My residents want to know: what more can the Government do to support them, and to give local authorities the regulation they need to act earlier?

I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question, and she is right that in Bellingham, Downham, Grove Park and Whitefoot, article 4 restrictions are in place. We have provided more than 180 authorities with further funding for enforcement powers, and she will know that her council can bring to bear a range of powers to ensure that HMOs are properly maintained. The conditions that can be imposed on mandatory licences include that gas safety is properly recognised and electrical appliances are in order, that fire and smoke alarms are properly installed and maintained, and that the property ought to be improved. Her local authority has all the tools it needs, and we will keep the issue under review. I am always happy to talk to her and other colleagues about this matter.

First-time Home Buyers

The Government are committed to helping more people own their own home. We offer several schemes to support first-time buyers, including our recently launched First Homes programme, which provides discounts of at least 30% on first homes. Our Help to Buy and shared ownership schemes also offer affordable routes into home ownership.

Greater Cambridgeshire, the city and South Cambridgeshire combined, is planning to build 49,000 new houses and flats over the next 20 years, which is as many as already exist in the city of Cambridge. In South Cambridgeshire district that amounts to 53% more house building than the Government assess is needed, and it will double the amount of house building over the next 20 years. Will the Minister confirm that that unprecedented house building bonanza is not being imposed on South Cambridgeshire by the national Government, but that it is an active decision of the local planning authority, South Cambridgeshire District Council?

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner on behalf of his constituents. Of course we need more homes to be built in the right places, and there are parts of our country where the cost of buying or renting a home is many multiples of local household income. However, he is right: local housing need is not a binding target, and local authorities have responsibility for working out what their local target should be, and agreeing that with the Planning Inspectorate. Although we welcome ambitious local authorities, they have an absolute responsibility to set their own housing targets.

I appreciate the Minister’s response to the question. We all recognise that we need a mix of housing provisions for the market to thrive, but does he agree that home ownership remains a huge aspiration for many of our constituents across the country, and that schemes such as Help to Buy have been a vital tool in supporting thousands of first-time buyers on to the property market?

My right hon. Friend is right. Every time we poll people, more than 80% say that they want the opportunity, the right, and the dream of owning their own home and having a stake in their community and country. That is why the Help to Buy scheme has been so important. Just a few weeks ago we announced the 300,000th Help to Buyer, Sam Legg and his partner Megan, who live in Asfordby in Leicestershire. They said that without Help to Buy they would not have been able to get on the property ladder. We want more Sams, and we want more Megans.

Many first-time buyers thought that they had bought the home of their dreams, only to discover that it was rendered worthless because they are caught up in the cladding scandal. Earlier this month, one of my constituents received a service charge bill for £103,000 to fix cladding for which they are not responsible, and requesting sums of money that they do not possess. It is reported that the Secretary of State, who I welcome to his post, has been told by the Prime Minister to “sort out” the problem. It is evident to all our constituents affected that the measures that the Government have announced thus far, which I support, are insufficient to bring this nightmare to an end. When will we see a comprehensive plan to help those leaseholders?

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right: there are many people caught up in a terrible situation. That is why we have already spent more than £5 billion of public money on remediating the highest-rise buildings, and we will be bringing forward further proposals to deal with some of the other issues that he identifies. Fundamentally, this issue needs to be brought back into proportion. If we look at what Ken Knight and Judith Hackitt have said, there are far too many lenders and insurers that have been risk averse and have been ascribing zero values to property where no EWS1 form and no remediation, or very little remediation, is necessary. We are working with that sector to make sure that we fix it, and we will.

Devolved Administrations: Relations with UK Government

10. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s relations with the devolved Administrations. (903788)

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I tend to disagree, but I will accept it anyway.

The chief of staff to the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), said recently that the democratic mandate for a second Scottish independence referendum was “clear” and apparent. He also said that support for Scottish independence rose from the very moment the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) became Prime Minister. That is being driven mainly by opposition to the Government’s Brexit policy and the perceived relative handling of the covid-19 pandemic by the UK and Scottish Governments. Would the Secretary of State care to tell the House and the people of Scotland why he thinks continuing to dismiss Scotland’s democratic rights will strengthen the Union?

Scotland’s democratic destiny was asserted in the 2014 referendum, when a majority of people voted to remain in the United Kingdom. The strength of the United Kingdom is visible daily. In just a week’s time, the dear green place that the hon. Gentleman has the honour to represent—Glasgow—will be home to COP26. One of the things about COP26 is that we would not have that global climate change conference in Glasgow if Scotland were not in the United Kingdom. We would not have a billion-pound-a-year Union dividend if Scotland were not in the United Kingdom, and indeed we would not have the hon. Gentleman’s mellifluous tones gracing this House if Scotland were not in the United Kingdom.

This Government are committed to at least one new freeport in Wales. I chair the Anglesey freeport bidding consortium. Can the Secretary of State reassure my Ynys Môn constituents that he is working with the Welsh Government to ensure that there is at least one new freeport in Wales?

Freeports are one of the many advantages that all the nations of the United Kingdom can enjoy as a result of our departure from the European Union. Freeports will allow investment in every part of the United Kingdom, and I am looking forward to working with partners in Wales, and indeed in Scotland and Northern Ireland, to make sure that we can seize the opportunities that Brexit provides for our coastal communities.

I feel I should doff my cap at the munificence of this Parliament towards Scotland.

Devolved Governments are not involved, consulted or considered in trade deals; Scotland is shut out of carbon capture and storage, despite the hot air of Better Together promises; and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 undermines the last two decades of the devolution settlement. In what ways does the Secretary of State think that bypassing the democratically elected devolved Parliaments shows that this Union is indeed a partnership of equals?

I meet weekly with First Ministers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. If the hon. Lady were privileged enough to be able to observe those meetings, she would see that they are like a nest of singing birds. They are festivals of cordiality. I recognise that the SNP needs to keep its activist base happy with the recitation of these grievances, but the reality is that those who serve in the Scottish Government know that we in the UK Government are their friends and partners, and Scotland has no better friends than the other citizens of the United Kingdom.

Regeneration in Towns and Cities

The Department is investing billions in local growth funds—including the towns fund and the levelling-up fund, which I mentioned earlier—to deliver regeneration across the UK as we level up across all parts of the country. Our high streets strategy, published earlier this year, outlined our vision for supporting thriving places. We have an ambitious agenda for improving opportunity, living standards and public services, and for renewing pride for the whole of the UK. That will be set out in our upcoming levelling-up paper.

I thank the Minister for that response. Supporting cities such as Stoke-on-Trent, so that we level up opportunity and get the investment we need, is vital. Will my hon. Friend have a chat with the Chancellor and the Secretary of State about supporting our levelling-up bids through this week’s Budget, so that we get the investment we need in Stoke-on-Trent?

I recognise that hon. Members from Stoke-on-Trent are very keen and have thrown their full support behind the levelling-up bids that have been submitted. The bids are being assessed in line with the published assessment process. The outcomes of the first round will be announced this autumn, as we have said, but I cannot comment specifically on his bid.

Does my hon. Friend agree that initiatives such as Conservative-run North Lincolnshire Council’s policy of two hours’ free parking are incredibly important for supporting our high streets and town centres? I extend an invitation to her: if she wishes to make use of one of those free parking spaces, we would be very glad to show her our ambitious levelling-up plans.

I agree with my hon. Friend: parking policies are important in supporting high streets to thrive. That is one of the reasons why, in the build back better high streets strategy, we announced a package of measures to make parking more accessible. I thank her for the strong support she has shown for North Lincolnshire’s levelling-up fund bids. She will know that we expect to announce the outcomes later.

The Government’s levelling-up agenda will finally bring much-needed investment to the east midlands, and the town of Kimberley in my constituency may gain hugely from it. Kimberley has some fantastic ideas, such as moving its cricket pitch and building a new community hub. However, there is concern among local community leaders that if the money is committed for a three-year time span but is not spent on time, it will no longer be available for use on the new hub. Can I have a commitment from the Minister that that is not the case?

We are looking to empower local communities such as Kimberley as part of our levelling-up agenda, but I must stress that any project that wishes to gain Government funding must have a fully developed plan before bidding. Places should have confidence in their capacity to deliver to agreed timescales.

Falmouth has huge potential. It is the third-deepest natural harbour in the world and is the gateway to the Atlantic. However, it is crying out for investment, and often gets overlooked because of how well the town does with very little. I stand ready to make the case for Falmouth in the next tranche of the levelling-up fund. Will the Minister confirm that the next tranche will be forthcoming? The Secretary of State said that we would have it in a wee while. Could the Minister perhaps expand on that? Will she, or the Secretary of State, join me for a tour of Falmouth to see how it could unleash its potential?

First of all, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the Truro town deal in her constituency and welcome her continued work as a champion of the area. I encourage her and local partners to continue to work with us on our shared ambition to level up Falmouth and towns throughout Cornwall as future opportunities emerge. She will know that as part of this work, £88.7 million of towns fund investment is driving regeneration and growth in Camborne, Penzance, St Ives and Truro, and there are real economic benefits for Falmouth, too. I am sure she and I can discuss a potential visit in due course.

Levelling up has sometimes been mis-described as a transfer of resources from the south to the north, but is it not a better analysis to say that it spreads the opportunities often seen in cities to the towns and villages of our communities, as part of the wider social covenant? If so, what plans does the Minister have to support towns in Broadland, including Fakenham, Acle and Aylsham?

I should start by saying that the levelling-up agenda is not transferring resources from cities to towns, or from south to north. Levelling up is about empowering local leaders and communities to drive real change, and restoring local pride across the UK, so I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question. The Government are investing over £17 million in Norfolk’s towns, with ambitious town deals already delivered in Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. The UK shared prosperity fund will help to ensure levelling up for people in places across the UK. It will increase and spread opportunity for people no matter where they live, including in places like Fakenham.

The town deal is incredibly important to us in Staveley, and we welcome the fact that the Government are supporting the plans for the town centre. Will the Minister stress to her colleagues that the cut to universal credit will fatally undermine retail in Staveley, and that these plans would benefit from universal credit not being cut?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are doing everything they can to support communities such as his. He knows the official Government policy on universal credit. We are putting other resources in place to support those people in his community who need them the most.

With Question 16 in mind, which we may not fit in today, may I ask what urgent action the Department will take, with COP26 around the corner, to ensure that local authorities have a proper grip on flood defences and the environmental issues that councils face day by day?

I apologise to the hon. Lady, but I am not sure, given her reference to COP26, what sort of answer she is expecting. I can ensure that she gets a letter providing further information.

Even if we add up all the piecemeal pots of regeneration funding that the Government like to mention in their press releases, they still come to nowhere near the £15 billion that has been cut from local councils under the Tories. The Government have failed to deliver on promises to reimburse covid costs, and the Tory-led Local Government Association says that there is now £2.6 billion in non-covid cost pressures on councils. On Wednesday, the Chancellor has the chance to tackle the council funding crisis that the Government have created, so what demands have Ministers in this team made to get the Budget settlement that all our towns and cities need?

I cannot comment specifically on what will be announced in the Budget this Wednesday, but I will tell the hon. Gentleman what, for instance, we did in the most recent local government finance settlement. In this year’s settlement, we made available an increase in core spending power in England; it will go from £49 billion this year to £51.3 billion in 2021-22—a 4.6% increase in cash terms. We see ourselves as a supporter of local government across the country; we very much speak up for it in our discussions with the Treasury, and I am sure that will become apparent on Wednesday.

Topical Questions

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.