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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 704: debated on Monday 29 November 2021

Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

The Secretary of State was asked—

Fire Safety Remediation: Protection for Leaseholders

I have enormous sympathy with leaseholders who are being landed with bills for faults for which they were not responsible and for which the responsibility for remediation truly lies elsewhere. I and my Department are looking at every available means to ensure that the burden is lifted from leaseholders’ shoulders and placed where it truly belongs.

I am glad to hear that response. Hundreds of Putney leaseholders are facing agonising waits to get funding through the building safety fund. People in the Radial development have been waiting for 16 months, people in Hardwicks Square have been waiting for 17 months and those in the Swish building have been stuck at stage 2 for 11 months. Meanwhile, one constituent is paying more than £4,000 in insurance for a two-bedroom flat following a 500% hike, which is not unusual. What is the Minister doing urgently to speed up and simplify the building safety fund application process and also to prevent insurers from cashing in?

As the hon. Lady rightly points out, leaseholders find themselves caught in an invidious vice, whereby they are not only having to pay remediation costs, but also find that insurance costs and the capacity to sell on their flat are compromised by the situation in which we find ourselves. Making sure that individuals are in safe buildings is our first responsibility, and to do that we must make sure that the building safety fund pays out and that we get support for remediation from those in the private sector, who also have a share of responsibility. I hope to update the House on our plans shortly.

Leaseholders in Battersea should not be held responsible for paying for remediation works when their homes were sold to them with the assurance that they were safe. Due to the poorly regulated EWS1 assessments, there have been cases where homes were being awarded a B2 classification—the lowest category—leaving leaseholders expected to pay for the repairs. In one case, leaseholders in Battersea challenged that, providing evidence proving that the building was of A2 classification. What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that leaseholders are protected from erroneous EWS1 assessment outcomes and that the process is not a barrier to selling or remortgaging, including properties below 18 metres?

The hon. Lady’s question emphasises the complexity of the issue, but that is no reason not to take action to help her constituents and others. One of the principal concerns that I know many leaseholders have is that lenders will require the EWS1 form. The EWS1 form is a consequence of previous Government acts and decisions made by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and others. We need to ensure co-ordinated action across the piece to ensure we are in a stronger position to free people from the position in which they currently find themselves.

A number of my constituents are facing terrifying bills for remedial works. One couple made redundant due to covid need to sell their apartment urgently, but are trapped because of the safety issues. They have since heard that the developers have gone bust. I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State recognise how unfair it is to expect leaseholders to pay remediation costs, but they are expected to, and people are desperate. The Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill is a wasted opportunity to help them. When will this unjust mess finally be sorted out?

Again, the hon. Gentleman reminds us in the case of his constituents how widespread this challenge is. The leasehold reform Bill can play a significant part in ensuring that the position of those in the future can be safeguarded, but we need to take action even before that legislation comes forward, and I hope to update the House shortly on a series of measures that I hope will help bring some relief to his constituents and others.

I have a constituent in my constituency who has been severely affected by the lack of progress on building safety fund funding. He is an example of the complexity and the “invidious vice” that the Secretary of State mentions from the Dispatch Box. Will he agree to meet me to discuss the particular complexities of this situation?

My hon. Friend has been campaigning incredibly assiduously behind the scenes on behalf of those who have been caught in this vice. It is the case that 700 or so disbursements have been made from the building safety fund so far, but we realise that we need to take a number of measures to address this situation. He is right that we need to do so with a sense of urgency, but we also need to ensure that those measures are appropriately co-ordinated to have the beneficial impact we would all like to see.

I very much welcome the fact that a number of properties in Ipswich have been successful on building safety funding, but I am concerned about the conditions that many people renting flats are having to live through as the work is carried out. Yes, the work must be carried out quickly, but in one case residents are expected to live for 12 months behind shrink wrap with no natural light whatsoever. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must balance the need to do the work quickly and make buildings safe with the mental health and wellbeing of residents who are expected to live in properties while that work takes place?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I do not know whether the constituents to whom he refers are in private rented sector accommodation or social tenants. In the latter case, some of the changes that we hope to make with our forthcoming social housing Bill will help to ensure that tenants are treated as they should be by all registered social landlords. We are also looking at appropriate re-regulation of the private rented sector.

Residents at The Wharf, a building of below 18 metres, are being asked by the management company to foot large bills for works to their building next year. Will my right hon. Friend outline how he will support those residents? Time is of the essence, and some residents will simply not be able to pay.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is vital that we proceed as quickly as possible on 18 metre-plus buildings rendered unsafe because of aluminium composite material or other forms of cladding whose unsuitability the Grenfell tragedy laid bare, to make them safe. For some buildings of between 11 metres and 18 metres, it is important that we take a proportionate approach to safety and cost. Safety must come first, but for a number of buildings between 11 and 18 metres, the action needed can be taken quickly and may not be at the level or intensity—or certainly the cost—of action required in other buildings.

If I include the Secretary of State, Housing Ministers have promised 19 times to protect leaseholders from historical remediation costs, yet as we speak we know of thousands of people receiving invoices for astronomical remediation costs. Thirty-three such residents are in Oyster Court in London, and they could face bills of up to £80,000 each following an assessment using the Government’s new PAS 9980 form. We will hear a lot more about that in the media. Have the Government added yet another toxic layer to the mess? What will the Secretary of State do about it?

I do not believe that the Government have added anything that is toxic to this mess. We need to ensure that we are in a position to reassure lenders, leaseholders and everyone in the market that buildings are safe. We also need to ensure, exactly as the hon. Gentleman indicates, that leaseholders are not paying and not shouldering an unfair burden for the remediation required. As I mentioned earlier, I hope to say more about that in due course.

The Secretary of State, like me, has been in the House a long time. Does he agree that this scandal measures up to some of the worst that we have seen, whether it be contaminated blood or the wrongful jailing of innocent postmasters? While I welcome his change of tone, does he agree that people are constantly paying out colossal sums for things such as waking watch, and that this must be remedied?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In arriving in this role, I was struck by two things. The first was the combination of circumstances that come so unfairly on to the shoulders of people who bought their properties in good faith and now find themselves landed with wholly disproportionate and unfair bills. In fairness, to respond to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), I also realised that my predecessors had worked hard to deal with a situation that is intrinsically complex. That is not to take away from the urgent need to tackle it, but good people both in government and outside have been attempting to deal with an interconnected set of issues. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that they must be tackled, but, for a host of reasons, that requires not just Government but others to fulfil their responsibilities.

Homes: Climate Standards

I welcome the hon. Members’ attention to this important issue. Homes are among our biggest sources of emissions, and we are committed to reducing the carbon they generate. The recently published heat and buildings strategy sets out the steps required to improve the energy performance of our homes, and through the future homes standard, from 2025 we will deliver a 75% reduction in CO2 emissions compared with homes built to the current standard. However, we are not waiting until 2025 to take action: as a carbon-saving step along the way, we will introduce an interim uplift to the current standard before the end of this year—and there is not a lot of time left, as you will have spotted, Mr Speaker.

The cost of living crisis is hitting families in Luton South and across the UK hard, and it is set to get worse this winter. With rising energy bills, taxes and food costs, we have never needed a retrofit programme more than now, but the Government’s heat and buildings strategy is inadequate and unambitious. In advance of Fuel Poverty Awareness Day on Friday, will the Minister commit to Labour’s 10-year plan to invest £6 billion a year in home insulation and zero-carbon heating, which will improve our energy security, create jobs and reduce carbon emissions, while also helping to cut bills by £400 a year?

Mr Speaker, I do not know about you, but I spent the weekend reading “My climate action plan: Becoming a carbon neutral borough by 2040”, by the hon. Lady’s local council, and I understand the effort the local council is putting into ensuring that all homes are going to be net zero. Obviously, the Government are committed to that. I am disappointed to hear her say we are unambitious given that we have committed £3.9 billion to the social housing decarbonisation fund and a further £450 million to the boiler upgrade scheme to ensure that people can claim £5,000 per property to replace their boilers with carbon-efficient alternatives.

There is a significant funding gap to meet the housing investment requirements of the Government’s energy performance targets. I am informed that housing organisations will be expected to fund the majority of this investment over a 10-year period. In my constituency of Jarrow and across the UK, local authorities have had more than half their funding cut over the last 10 years. How are local authorities expected to meet this required investment despite the obvious financial challenges that they are currently facing?

I would say that many local authorities are already making considerable progress along these lines. I am delighted to see that the hon. Lady’s local council has joined the ambitious UK100 network—a network of councils committed to achieving net zero as soon as possible—and I understand that it has committed to being carbon neutral by 2030, so it feels to me as though councils are getting the funding that they need.

There is very clear evidence that people who commission their own houses do so to much higher environmental standards, thus doing their own bit to protect against climate change. What plans do Ministers have to make it easier for ordinary people on normal incomes to get a serviced plot of land so that they can commission their own, much greener houses?

My hon. Friend is a frequent champion of his cause in this Chamber, and I think the simple answer to his question is the funding that we are providing through the help to build scheme, but I look forward to further conversations with him in the future to see what else we can do to assist him.

Stroud residents are pleased and relieved about the potential reforms in place to build new net-zero homes and protect rural areas from overdevelopment, but we have a local plan going through now and there is a lot of unrest about the consultation process, net-zero homes not being built and mass development in places such as Sharpness. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss the areas where local plans are going through now to see how we may benefit from some of the fantastic work going on for the future?

My hon. Friend is a doughty champion off all issues environmental and net zero. I am not sure I am the correct Minister to meet her, but if I am, I will, and if I am not, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing to do so instead.

With energy costs rising exponentially and the Government having scrapped Labour’s zero carbon homes policy months before it was due to come in, abandoned the green homes grant and delayed the future homes standard, is it not the case that families and taxpayers pay the cost for the Government’s failures to make our homes more sustainable? This is an obvious case of false economy, with all of us paying more in the long run for higher bills and future retrofitting costs. The Minister has already been asked this question, but will he answer it this time: will he adopt Labour’s plans for a national mission to retrofit every home that needs it and bring forward all aspects of the future homes standard without delay?

The simple answer is that this Government already have a pretty good plan, so we do not need to look to others and adopt their plans instead. It is unfortunate that the hon. Lady wrote her questions in advance of my previous answers, in which I mentioned, for instance, the £450 million that we have committed to the boiler upgrade. So there is significant investment in this area, we have a strong and sound plan, and progress is moving at pace.

Has my hon. Friend examined the advantages of ground and air heat pumps? I know it is difficult in smaller buildings to have ground pumps because of the large infrastructure required, but air pumps are a little more possible, so what encouragement can the Government give to retrofit such pumps to existing homes?

In the summer I was fortunate to visit the Grey Mare Lane estate in Beswick and see the work going on through the social housing decarbonisation fund demonstrator. Heat pumps are being fitted, and we will have the opportunity very soon to see how people benefit from the experience of having those measures introduced.

Children in Temporary Accommodation

It is certainly not ideal, but time spent in temporary accommodation does that mean people are getting help and ensures families have a roof over their heads. We are committed to reducing the need for temporary accommodation by preventing homelessness before it occurs, which is why we are investing £375 million this year to support local authorities to prevent homelessness, an increase of £112 million on the sum last year. However, on 30 June this year 124,290 dependent children were living in temporary accommodation, although that is down 2.3% on the same quarter last year.

Some 124,190 children will spend this Christmas in temporary accommodation, without a place to call home. They will wake up in hostels, bed and breakfasts and working industrial estates, often far away from their schools and friends. Homeless families in the UK are moved the equivalent of 400,000 miles around the globe each year, at a staggering cost of over £1 billion. Given that there have been over 100,000 children in temporary accommodation since 2015, what hope can the Minister give this House, and more importantly those children, that they will at some point have a place to call home?

I completely sympathise with the cause trumpeted by the hon. Lady and would say two things. First, some councils are doing innovative work in this area: I understand Barnet Council is working with Opendoor Homes to purchase properties itself to use for temporary accommodation, as in that way it can at least control the quality and associated cost. But my personal preference is the work we are doing through Capital Letters, which has been very successful so far in helping London boroughs secure properties for use for temporary accommodation.

New Housing Developments: Community Consultation

5. What steps he is taking to help ensure that local communities are consulted effectively in the planning process for new housing developments. (904407)

As we know, local communities help to shape the identity of local places, and it is right that they should be at the heart of our planning reforms. I can tell my hon. Friend that public engagement through consultations is already required for new housing developments and in any preparation for local plans by councils. We consider plans for the future as a priority to ensure local people have a voice that is integrated much more effectively into the planning process.

I welcome the Minister’s response on how we are making the system more responsive to local residents, but what steps will he take to ensure that residents have more of a say over the influence of developer contributions to local communities such as mine in Wolverhampton?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Developer contributions, provided by developers to local authorities in order to undertake important infrastructure works, can often be slow to arrive, if they arrive at all, and they are often not what was expected in the first place. We want to put more power in the hands of local authorities and local communities, and not developers. That is one of the reasons why our infrastructure levy, which is under development, will provide greater transparency and greater certainty for communities about the important infrastructure that they will get.

I think there is a desire across the House for a planning system that gets homes built but also recognises the democratic rights of local residents. Looking at the Minister’s planning reforms, may I suggest that he drops his zonal proposals, which are really quite bureaucratic and time consuming, and looks instead to simplify the local plan system, allows for more residents to contribute and be involved in it, and brings in his digital proposals, which have been generally accepted? Once a local plan is in place and an individual application comes in, should there not be a presumption that that application will be accepted where it is in agreement with the local plan, subject to any remaining concerns from residents being taken into account and listened to as part of the consideration of the application?

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, who makes some important and powerful points. He is right that we need to have more people engaged in the planning system. He will know that presently, about 1% of the local community engages in local plan making; that is, as near as damn it, local planners and their blood relations. That rises to as much as 2% or 3% of the local community engaging in individual local planning applications. We want to make sure that we have an engaging process and that we use digitisation to help us with that, and we will consider his proposals as we move forward with our important planning reforms.

Transport Infrastructure: Cheshire

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the potential contribution of transport infrastructure to levelling up in Cheshire. (904408)

Levelling up is an ambition that runs right across the Government. Ahead of the White Paper, the Transport Secretary and the Levelling Up Secretary met in recent weeks to discuss the critical contribution of transport to levelling up.

Winnington bridge provides vital access to thousands of homes and businesses in Cheshire. It needs completely rebuilding to cope with the current demands and the increased housing scheduled for the area. May I urge the Government to provide funding for that as part of their levelling-up agenda?

I know that this is something that my right hon. Friend has been campaigning very hard for. The next round of the levelling-up fund will be open in spring next year, and I am sure that, with her help, her local councils will be able to develop a strong bid for that important bridge.

Integrated Rail Plan

7. What assessment he has made of the implications for his polices on levelling up of the integrated rail plan. (904409)

As the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), pointed out in response to the previous question, levelling up involves every Department working in a co-ordinated fashion to advance a series of policies that spread prosperity more equally across the country. The £96 billion integrated rail plan was the single largest rail investment ever made by a UK Government.

There was broad agreement around Lord Heseltine’s 2012 report that investment in rail infrastructure is central to a levelling-up agenda. The integrated rail plan really only delivers an upgrade to the existing lines, axing the eastern leg of High Speed 2 and the new high-speed Northern Powerhouse Rail line. How can the Secretary of State do his job now that the integrated rail plan has derailed progress in the north? With less than three weeks of parliamentary time left in 2021, when will he publish his long-promised levelling-up White Paper, which is due this year?

The hon. Lady makes two very good points. On the first, if we look at the integrated rail plan, we can see that there are significant benefits for communities across the north of England. Indeed, travel time between Leeds and Bradford is reduced from, in some cases, just over 20 minutes to 12 minutes. That is a real, material benefit for citizens of both great cities. It is also the case that the potential for further work in making sure that we can have a more effective mass transit system in West Yorkshire is inherent in the approach that was outlined by my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary. More broadly, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her anxiety to see the broader set of plans that we are keen to bring forward shared with the House, and we will do so at the earliest possible opportunity.

What my constituents in Rossendale and Darwen would have liked to have seen in the integrated rail plan was a rail line from Manchester to Rawtenstall, but they did not see it. With that in mind and with our shared ambition to level up Rossendale and east Lancashire, will my right hon. Friend look favourably on our levelling-up bid, which will have transport and other schemes in it, when it comes forward?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. East Lancashire and its success must be at the heart of a successful approach towards levelling up. Whether it is Rawtenstall, Bacup, Blackburn or Burnley, we need to ensure that all communities in east Lancashire feel they have the right investment not just in transport, but in skills, schools, and ensuring that streets are safe and communities can take back control.

HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail were never just about train lines and journey speeds; they are about regeneration opportunities. In the case of the cancelled eastern leg, 38,000 homes were planned on the back of that line, which now will not happen. Some £38 billion of economic growth in Bradford, reliant on Northern Powerhouse Rail, has been cancelled. Local government leaders in the north are united in their opposition to the £18 billion reduction in rail investment plans. Is the north not once again being let down rather than levelled up?

I would contest that. Although the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the integrated rail plan creates opportunities for broader regeneration, it is important to recognise that transport is not the only tool that can promote regeneration across the midlands and the north of England. The work that Homes England does in making sure we can unlock the potential of brownfield sites for regeneration is critically important. I appreciate the disappointment felt by communities in Bradford and elsewhere, but there is more to come, both in transport and other investment, that will ensure that we meet our shared objectives to spread opportunity more equally across the geography of England.

What conversations is my right hon. Friend having with the Department for Transport with regard to restoring your railway funding, in particular for the reopening of the Ivanhoe line in North West Leicestershire, where we currently have no railway stations at all?

I was unaware that there were no railway stations in North West Leicestershire. For the citizens of Ashby de la Zouch and other communities, transport connectivity is as important as it is for citizens elsewhere. I will look at whether the Ivanhoe line can secure the investment it needs. I know my hon. Friend is a white knight for rail investment. North West Leicestershire could have no surer champion in the jousting required to secure the investment needed. [Hon. Members: “Groan.”]

EWS1 Forms

9. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ guidance on EWS1 forms is not a barrier to people selling their homes. (904411)

The Government agree with the independent review of fire safety that EWS1 forms should not be required on buildings under the height of 18 metres. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has issued guidance to professionals, as the hon. Lady will know, on when EWS1 forms are required. That is being reviewed following the independent expert group’s statement.

In February, the former Housing Secretary announced his five-point plan to bring confidence to the housing market, committing to a state-backed professional indemnity insurance scheme for professionals. We still have not seen the scheme materialise, so will the Minister provide an update today on when that scheme will become available?

The hon. Lady is quite right. We made that commitment and we adhere to it in the narrow circumstances that are required to give fire risk assessment assurers confidence that PII ought to apply. We believe that, collectively, the associated facts of the Fire Safety Act 2021 and the fire safety order, the withdrawal of consolidated advice note PAS9980, and the introduction of British Standards Institution standards, will ensure a much clearer approach to the sorts of challenges that she outlines.

Community Funding: Scottish Borders

10. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the community renewal fund on local communities’ preparedness for the introduction of the UK shared prosperity fund in the Scottish Borders. (904413)

The UK community renewal fund and its successor, the UK shared prosperity fund, are examples of how we will have more flexibility to support communities now that we have left the EU. The CRF is funding eight projects in the Borders including on employment support, skills development and environmental sustainability. That will help to pilot new approaches and is helping to inform the design of the UK SPF.

I was delighted to see eight successful projects from the Scottish Borders secure funding from the community renewal fund. It is brilliant to see the United Kingdom Government delivering in all parts of this kingdom. I want to see even more successful bids from the UK shared prosperity fund, so will the Minister come to my constituency to visit the Burnfoot Community Futures trust to discuss how its application might be as strong as possible?

Last week, the Minister for Levelling Up Communities told us that many community renewal fund projects will finish late. That will further delay the UK shared prosperity fund, under which areas such as Cornwall have so far received only 1% of the amount that they lost in European funding, having been promised that they would get all of it back. Will the Minister tell us how the latest CRF delays will affect the roll-out of the UK shared prosperity fund?

All the successful community renewal fund bids have been given additional time to deliver their good programmes. We have asked them all to be in touch if there is any issue and we stand by our commitments to Cornwall and other places to which we have made commitments to match EU funding.

There is a worrying pattern with this Government of overpromising and underdelivering, is there not? We have had the great train robbery and the return of the dementia tax and now they have postponed levelling up. The community renewal fund is plagued by delays. More than £1 billion of towns fund money has not even been allocated yet, and two years after the scheme was announced, it still has not delivered anything. If this is the Minister’s idea of levelling up, does he accept that it is just not good enough?

The hon. Gentleman says that the scheme has not delivered anything. I was in Norwich on Friday opening the first project ever funded by the towns fund. Whether it is the towns fund, the future high streets fund, the community renewal fund, the shared prosperity fund or the levelling-up fund, this Government are determined to put the financial firepower behind communities’ ambitions across this entire United Kingdom, so that we can level up and unite this country.

The Institute for Public Policy Research has pointed out that the UK shared prosperity funding of £1.5 billion from 2025 falls far short of the £11 billion that would have been received from the EU between 2021 and 2027. Will the Minister explain why the UK Government have not delivered on their promise to replace EU structural funds in full?

The UK Government will match the spending that different places had through the EU. We have had a delighted reaction from many of the places across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that have secured funding through the different routes that are now available, and we have all the additional flexibility and a reduction in the bureaucracy of those old EU schemes. The replacement funding not only matches the quantum of the funding that we used to get through the EU, but gets rid of that unnecessary bureaucracy.

Homelessness Reduction: London

This year, councils will receive £375 million to prevent homelessness, with almost 50% of that funding going to London councils. The funding is part of an overall investment in England of more than £800 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping this year.

Will the Government consider a specific fund for the relatively small number of families with children who have a terminal illness? I have several cases where there are specific requirements around enlarged doorways and an extra bedroom so that nurses and doctors can get around the bed and the child can have care at home. Will the Minister look at specific funding for certain London councils to provide that sort of special housing need?

I think it would be easier for me to agree to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the specific details of the case that she is talking about.

Planning (Street Plans) Bill

13. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of provisions in the Planning (Street Plans) Bill to allow residents to vote on the design of new homes in their streets on levels of housing supply. (904416)

I am delighted to hear it. Will the Secretary of State look not only at those ideas, but at the related “build up, not out” proposals in my soon-to-be-launched policy paper “Poverty Trapped”? Both enshrine local democratic consent and style codes as essential steps for new developments. Does he agree that they are both vital to unlocking the scale of home building that will make buying or renting homes more affordable, reducing poverty and levelling up communities everywhere?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is rare that we have legislation that combines greater democratic control with the potential for the beautification —for want of a better word—of our urban and suburban environment, and also unlocks the potential for the value of individuals’ homes to be enhanced by additional development. It is a triple whammy of good news; we just need to make sure that it meshes with everything else that we want to do that is beneficial. I am really grateful to my hon. Friend and all the supporters of his legislation for helping the Government out so much.

Residents in Hull and Hessle are often fearful that the design of new homes and new housing developments will lead to increased flooding. Anybody who has been a victim of flooding knows how utterly devastating it is for everybody concerned, so will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss my ten-minute rule Bill, the Flooding (Prevention and Insurance) Bill, which is designed to improve and strengthen flood mitigation and flood protection measures for all new builds?

I know how prone so many communities in the East Riding are to flooding. It is vital that we balance the need for new housing with making sure that there is appropriate mitigation, so I will ensure that I or another relevant Minister meet the hon. Lady to discuss her Bill and how we can take forward those provisions that mesh with our own ambitions.

Dorset: Increasing Opportunity

The Government are committed to levelling up the whole country, and Dorset is no exception. The new community renewal fund is investing in enterprise and skills training for young people in Dorset. The local growth fund in Dorset has contributed more than £98 million to 54 projects. We are also investing nearly £12 million into Dorset through the getting building fund to stimulate job creation and support the region’s economic recovery.

Dorset Council has historically been very financially responsible, spending wisely according to need, but now we are facing more pressure than ever, particularly from the cost of social care and the need to provide vital rural transport links. Will my hon. Friend confirm that Dorset will get its fair share in the upcoming local government funding settlement? Will he and his Front-Bench colleagues do all they can to support any future levelling-up funding requests from Dorset?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Yes, the Government are providing approximately £1.6 billion in additional grant funding in the LGDEL— local government departmental expenditure limit— each year. That follows year-on-year real-terms increases for local government since the 2019 spending review. It will allow councils to increase spending on vital public services such as social care. We will set out more details in the upcoming provisional local government finance settlement later this year.

Accessibility Standards for New Homes: Consultation Response

16. What his Department’s timescale is for responding to the consultation on raising accessibility standards for new homes which closed in December 2020. (904419)

My Department is considering responses to this very important consultation. We will publish a response that sets out next steps for increasing the supply of accessible homes as soon as possible.

Housing association Habinteg estimates that more than 400,000 wheelchair users are living in homes that are neither adapted nor accessible. Having new accessible homes reduces the need to adapt as individuals change during their lifetime and allows them to live independently for longer. Will the Minister meet me and experts from the Centre for Accessible Environments to find out what good accessible design can mean for users?

I salute the hon. Lady’s industriousness, the all-party parliamentary group that she leads, and the work that Habinteg and other groups undertake. She will know that as part of the affordable homes programme, between 2021 and 2026, 10% of the homes to be built—about 20,000 new homes—will require adaptation for living. I am very happy to meet her to discuss what more we can do and how quickly we can bring forward our response to the consultation.

Housing Developments: Infrastructure

18. If he will take steps to help ensure that additional infrastructure is in place before medium to large-scale housing developments are started; and if he will make a statement. (904422)

That is exactly what we are doing. As we consider new housing developments, it is important to ensure that infrastructure is in place for local communities. Our £4.3 billion housing infrastructure fund seeks to achieve that by investing to improve connectivity, healthcare services and vital infrastructure before housing is built.

I welcome the Minister’s words, but, having visited my area and observed the flood risk there, does he agree that the drainage capacity of an area should be assessed before any houses begin to be built, and that that assessment should be independent rather than being conducted by the water companies?

As my hon. Friend will know, the national planning policy framework was amended in July this year to ensure that all sources of flood risk, including drainage, are fully considered before planning permission is granted by a local authority. Sustainable drainage infrastructure is hugely important. I should be happy to discuss the subject further with my hon. Friend, and I draw his attention to the speech that I made in last week’s Adjournment debate in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith).

Topical Questions

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.