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Topical Questions

Volume 704: debated on Monday 29 November 2021

I am very conscious of the additional responsibilities that I bear as Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, which is why I was pleased not only to be able to attend the British-Irish Council just over a week ago as a guest of the Welsh First Minister, but to have the opportunity this weekend, as we all consider how we deal with the shadow of the new omicron variant, to discuss with First Ministers across this United Kingdom how we can co-ordinate all our efforts in order to defeat this new covid threat.

The Secretary of State may know that I have campaigned tirelessly for investment in our town centres across Hyndburn and Haslingden, and those millions of pounds of investment would make a significant difference. Can he confirm that the second round will be confirmed in the White Paper, and will he visit my home of Hyndburn and Haslingden to see at first hand how the money would be spent?

Absolutely, and we will be saying more about how we can ensure that the remaining tranches of the levelling-up fund are allocated fairly. Accrington and Oswaldtwistle speak to me even now as communities that I would love to visit, with my hon. Friend as my guide.

Not only have reforms of permitted development rights led to a new generation of slum housing, but the latest developments pose a huge risk to the beating heart of our high streets. Communities in this position have no voice and no say in these conversions, and councils are powerless to stop them. Will the Government at least give councils and communities some transparency, and release in full the promised regulatory impact assessment of the Department’s changes to permitted development rights?

The hon. Lady is quite wrong in her assertion. Local authorities do have powers to deny permitted development. Prior approvals are required in respect of matters such as aspect, parking and access before the buildings can be constructed. Authorities can also apply for article 4 exemptions for areas in which PDRs will therefore not apply. I can tell the hon. Lady that as a result of our PDR changes, 84,000 new homes have been built which otherwise might not have been built, often on brownfield sites and often in town centres, to the betterment of those people who want to live in them. These are advantages for home dwellers.

T5. The housing targets that are being asked of outer London boroughs such as Barnet are simply too high. Will the Secretary of State lower them so that we can halt urbanisation and save the suburbs? (904432)

My right hon. Friend has spoken frequently and passionately about the importance of a balanced approach to the assessment of housing need across the United Kingdom. It is certainly true that the way in which we assess it needs to be updated. I think it only fair to say that every part of England—indeed, every part of the United Kingdom—will have to share in making sure that we can meet the housing needs of the next generation, but we are seeking to achieve a fairer and more equitable distribution of need across the country.

In contrast to what the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), said in his earlier answer, the Institute for Government has said that, far from reducing bureaucracy, the UK Government have, in the shared prosperity fund, established a system that fails to include devolved Governments to the same degree as previously, and that the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 facilitates the UK Government riding roughshod over devolution. How can the Secretary of State in all honesty work to improve intergovernmental relations when the core thrust of his portfolio is about undermining devolution and overriding devolved Governments?

I share the hon. Lady’s concern for enhancing and improving devolution, which is why we are working with local government in Scotland and, indeed, with Scottish National party Members of this House, to help to ensure that the levelling-up fund, the shared prosperity fund and the community ownership fund meet the needs of individual communities. That is why we are so pleased that the hon. Members for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) and for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn)—SNP MPs—and the SNP councils in Edinburgh and Glasgow were so happy to work with us on these funds. I have to say that I sometimes find it surprising—

Order. Order. Secretary of State, it is not fair to take advantage. I know you enjoy teasing them, but my problem is that questions and answers are meant to be short and succinct—that is why they are called topical questions—and Mr Rosindell is desperate. Come on Andrew!

T6. Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State will be aware that the Tenant Fees Act 2019 banned landlords from asking for pet deposits or pet damage insurance, but AdvoCATs has found that one in five landlords who previously allowed pets no longer do so since the Act was passed. He will be aware of the letter that I have sent him, signed by 41 MPs and peers, asking for this matter to be resolved. Will he please meet me, because this is in the interests of animal welfare and the animals that we love so much? (904433)

Companion animals are a really good thing—cats, dogs or whatever they are—and it is vital that we work with landlords to ensure that people have the right to have the animal that brings so much joy into their lives with them, whatever form of tenure they enjoy.

T3. The Everyone In policy was very successful in taking rough sleepers off the streets at the beginning of the pandemic, but it was abandoned too quickly and last winter thousands of people were back on the streets. With winter storms, bitter weather and worry about a new covid variant, why are the Government not giving priority to restoring a version of Everyone In now? (904430)

I am disappointed by the hon. Lady’s suggestion that it has been abandoned. It certainly has not. The Government are committed to giving all people somewhere safe to sleep. We have the £10 million winter pressure fund and we have the winter transformation fund to help charities and faith groups to deliver single-unit accommodation, so this Government are very much committed to the cause and I would welcome working with the hon. Lady on this in the future.

T7.   As the Secretary of State will be aware, I am working with peers, other Members of this place and charities to secure the repeal of the Vagrancy Act 1824, which criminalises rough sleepers rather than helping them. My constituency is home to the largest number of rough sleepers in the country. The former Secretary of State said in the House in February in answer to a question of mine that he thought that the Act should be “consigned to history”. What does the current Secretary of State think of the Vagrancy Act? (904434)

I think that the Vagrancy Act has to go. We do need appropriate legislation to deal with examples of aggressive begging, but the most important thing to recognise is that the work that Westminster Council and Greater Manchester have done to reduce rough sleeping has been exemplary. In partnership with my Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), the Minister for rough sleeping, we must redouble our efforts, but I want to congratulate Rachael Robathan, the hon. Lady’s successor, and Andy Burnham on their success in dealing with rough sleeping in the hotspots that have suffered most from that phenomenon.

T4.   The Prime Minister is always enthusiastic about sabotaging the career prospects of the Secretary of State, so can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what the time lag was between him getting “levelling up” on his job title and the Prime Minister making it clear that he was abandoning any pretence that this was a levelling-up Government with his recent announcement on northern rail? (904431)

Conspiracy theories are all the rage these days, but I have to say that the hon. Gentleman should be above all that. He has a number of important constituency issues that I long to work with him on. I know that this raillery across the Dispatch Box can entertain others but—I say this in the most generous of spirits—let us concentrate on ensuring that we can work together for the people of Chesterfield, and if we have legitimate disagreements, that is fair enough.

Around 40% of workers who commute from the Charnwood Borough Council area commute into Leicester city. This is due in part to the lack of housing in the city. However, despite there being a derelict doughnut of brownfield land around the city that could be utilised for house building, more and more housing is being built in the Leicestershire countryside. Will my right hon. Friend set out what the Government are doing to encourage development on brownfield land? Will he provide greater incentives to councils to ensure this happens?

We are doing exactly that. The brownfield remediation fund is providing significant moneys to ensure that brownfield is remediated. My hon. Friend will be hearing more about that shortly. We also made it clear when we uplifted the local housing need numbers for the largest cities in our country that we expect them to build within their own geographies and not to try to shunt building outside those geographies. That will be made clear to them time and again until they do so.

T8. Post offices are an essential part of our rural communities and town centres across these islands. As banks leave our high streets, post offices and sub-postmasters are playing a greater role in ensuring access to cash for the most vulnerable, so it is essential this network is protected. What discussions has the Secretary of State, or one of his many Ministers, had with the Chancellor to ensure post office numbers grow over the year? (904435)

I could not agree more with the hon. Lady. The Post Office is a marvellous UK-wide institution, and the universal service obligation ensures that everyone across the United Kingdom benefits in exactly the same way. It is one of the strengths of our Union, and I look forward to working with her and with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure we have a robust network for the future.

The Minister will know I am very concerned about rampant house building in east Berkshire and elsewhere in the south of England. Will he please assure me of what might be forthcoming in the planning Bill to protect assets such as farmland, school playing fields, golf courses, open spaces and the Pinewood Centre in Crowthorne?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for making that important point. He represents a beautiful part of east Berkshire, and it is important that we maintain our protections for areas of environmental importance and areas of aesthetic distinction. We all need to recognise that sustainable additions to the current housing stock are an important part of making sure the next generation also have a chance to own homes, too.

T9.   The 2019 Conservative manifesto promised that Wales will not lose any powers or funding as a result of our exit from the EU. If Wales is to receive £167 million from the levelling-up fund, as opposed to the £375 million a year it received from EU structural funds, from which funding pot can the people of Wales expect to receive the shortfall? (904436)

I would challenge the hon. Gentleman’s arithmetic, but I know time is short. All I will say is that when I visited Merthyr Tydfil and Pontypridd less than a fortnight ago there was jubilation, not on my arrival but on the arrival of the money from the levelling-up fund that is helping fantastic figures in Welsh local government to deliver for their citizens. I hope I have the chance to visit Ceredigion to see how we can support more projects there.

I urge my right hon. Friend to increase protections for the green belt in the forthcoming planning Bill. In Sevenoaks we are 93% green belt, yet we are constantly inundated with speculative planning applications that worry the local community. The answer should be clear: if it is green belt, it is protected; and if it is a speculative planning application, the answer is no.

I would hate to be a developer facing my hon. Friend. When it comes to these speculative and ill-thought-out planning applications, developers had better put on their armour because she fires truth bullets at them from the hip, and repeatedly. Of course it is vital that we protect our green belt. However, the best protection that any local authority can have is to make sure its plan is properly designed and adopted.

T10. Lease-holders in Kingfisher Court, built by Barratt in my constituency, have just been told that, unlike leaseholders in very similar buildings nearby, their application to the building safety fund has been rejected. They do not know why, and they now face bankruptcy. Can the right hon. Gentleman offer any reassurance that I can take when I meet them later this evening? (904437)

Yes. I take this incredibly seriously. The right hon. Gentleman’s office may have already been in touch with the Department, but if it can be in touch with my private office directly, I will see what we can provide by way of additional information before he sees his constituents later. Whatever information we can provide in the meantime, let us try to make sure we can have a proper conversation about how we can resolve this problem in depth.

Will my right hon. Friend meet me and other coastal MPs in Devon and Cornwall who are concerned about the deepening housing crisis, with no private rentals, no affordable homes and public services unable to recruit, as no one can afford to live in what were communities but have become holiday camps by summer and ghost towns by winter?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which emphasises the need for us to make sure that affordable housing is available for those in communities who are the vital workers—the productive workers who are at the heart of successful communities. Although of course it is legitimate for people to have second homes, that also means we need to look at one or two of the loopholes that allow some to not necessarily contribute to the community as much as they might.

Across Durham, social housing in in short supply, while much of the stock that is available is of poor quality, and housing associations, such as Believe Housing, are struggling to meet the needs of residents on repairs and maintenance. Does the Secretary of State share my belief that residents in social housing in places such as Sherburn Hill and Brandon deserve housing that is fit to live in? Will he meet me to discuss the problems?

I do share that view, and our affordable homes programme will be part of making good on our commitment to more and better social housing. I look forward to working with the new administration at Durham County Council in order to achieve just that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that culture can play a central role in levelling up throughout the north of England, and that an excellent example of this would be the proposed purchase and refurbishment of the Co-op theatre in Ramsbottom? May I invite him to visit this cultural gem from the 1870s, which has all its unique features still in place? What support can his Department give to supporting the cultural sector throughout the north of England, which is so important to levelling up?

Culture is absolutely vital to levelling up. One thing I was discussing with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport earlier today was the importance of making sure that more of the Arts Council funding that is currently spent in London and the south-east is spent in the midlands and in the north. Our acting and performing talent is spread equally across this country, but funding and institutions are not. We must do more, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right.

The Secretary of State said earlier that his revised plans to solve the cladding crisis would be published shortly. Will that be before the forthcoming recess? All long-suffering leaseholders in my area want for Christmas is finally to hear that they will not have to pay sums they do not have to fix a problem they are not responsible for.

Yes, I really do have to come back before Christmas with proposals. I cannot promise at this stage that they will relieve the burden on every leaseholder of every obligation, but we will do everything we can to help.

It is. The right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) referred to a priority levelling-up bid for Winnington bridge in my constituency, and too right, as this is much needed. How do I get it on the record that this is a joint bid, Mr Speaker? I am looking for your advice.

The best is answer is: what you have just done. It is on the record, and I think it was more a point of clarification than of order.