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Topical Questions

Volume 707: debated on Monday 24 January 2022

On Thursday this week, it is, as the House knows, Holocaust Memorial Day. My hon. Friend the Minister for Levelling Up Communities will lead a debate on that day. It is important that we all recognise that the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust are absolutely invaluable, not just in challenging the unique evil of the holocaust and the poison of antisemitism but in reminding us that we need to be vigilant against prejudice of all kinds: anti-Muslim hatred, the persecution of Christians and any prejudice that is based on religion, ethnicity or any of our protected characteristics.

I certainly endorse the comments by the Secretary of State in relation to Holocaust Memorial Day.

The latest figures for Sheffield from February 2020 to April 2021 show a 46% increase in the number of private renters claiming housing benefit, because wages are simply not keeping up with rising rents. Some 28% of private rentals in the city contain category 1 hazards, which involve serious risk of harm, compared with just 4% of social housing. As the cost of living crisis deepens and energy bills rise, what are the Government doing to alleviate pressure on private renters and when this year will the Secretary of State publish the rental reform White Paper?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is the case that there are a number of people in the private rented sector who are not getting the deal that they deserve, both regarding the level of rent and the decency of their homes. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman on that.

T2. Will the Minister consider changing building regulations to require all new buildings to be self-sufficient in energy, which would have the triple benefit of securing supply, helping us towards net zero and reducing fuel poverty? (905199)

The building regulations set out the minimum energy performance standards. They do not prescribe the technology that is required—they just set the goal—which allows builders and homeowners the flexibility to innovate and select the most practical and cost-effective solutions appropriate to any development. Obviously, our intention is to go further. We have had the part L uplift, and building regs will move towards the future homes standard for 2025.

Would the Secretary of State give the House a clear and categorical assurance that if he cannot ultimately extract enough money from industry finally to fix the building safety crisis he will not allow the Chancellor to raid his Department’s budgets, including funding already allocated for new affordable homes, to make up the shortfall?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to update the House on the conversations we had with developers last Thursday. Those conversations were cordial and constructive, but we were also clear about the obligation developers have. I am confident that they will meet it.

T5. There are currently no statutory requirements for a planning authority to consult immediate neighbours in another planning authority, nor are there any in relation to the issuing of certificates of lawful use. As a result, green belt development by the back door is happening right now between my constituency and neighbouring South Staffordshire. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss those complexities in more detail? (905204)

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. As he will know, protecting the green belt is a firm manifesto commitment. Certificates of lawful use are intended to confirm that an existing use of land is lawful from a planning perspective. If there is any doubt about the lawfulness of the existing use, local authorities should reject the application and consider other ways of ensuring that progress is made. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue further.

The latest figures from Shelter show that women are 36% more likely than men to be in a constant struggle to afford housing costs or be in arrears and that under this Government nearly two-thirds of people in temporary accommodation are women. Can the Secretary of State not see that the Conservative cost of living crisis, the damaging cuts to universal credit, and the failure to give renters security in their homes are forcing even more women into homelessness?

What we do see is that Government funding during the covid pandemic has meant that, as the English Housing Survey tells us, 93% of people are up to date with their rent. With regard to helping people, our renters White Paper is coming forward. We will be doing things like banning no-fault evictions and they will help renters regardless of gender.

T6. I warmly welcome the Future Homes Standard, but in the meantime many homes are being built to the environmental standard of several years ago purely because of when their planning permission was granted. They will need to be retrofitted. Will my right hon. Friend consider requiring companies to build to the latest environmental standard, rather than the one in place when permission was granted, after a certain time has elapsed? (905205)

We absolutely will consider that. I know there are innovators in my hon. Friend’s constituency who are leading work in that precise area, so I look forward to working with him and those in his constituency to achieve just that goal.

T4. Do Ministers agree that the western gateway partnership, of which Newport is a part, deserves the same level of recognition and visibility in Government as other pan-regional partnerships, such as the northern powerhouse and the midlands engine? If so, will Ministers appoint a ministerial champion? (905203)

T7. Barton upon Humber, a market town in my constituency, is, like many up and down the country, having to contend with many residential planning applications. Public services such as school places and dentistry are unable to cope with existing pressures. Will Ministers consider strengthening the guidance to planning authorities and to planning inspectors to ensure that the availability of public services is paramount in dealing with those applications? (905206)

Again, I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his question. I will certainly consider the specific points he makes, but that is exactly what we want to do. Through the planning reforms we envisage, we want to ensure that developer contributions are made much more quickly in the process so that the sort of infrastructure he talks about is provided, and to ensure that greater land capture value is collected to ensure that those services can be provided to a greater extent.

T8. I am sure the Secretary of State will have read the latest report from the all-party parliamentary group on left behind neighbourhoods, which highlighted that there is a cost to the economy of £30 billion due to health inequalities in our poorest areas. Would the Secretary of State be willing to hold a meeting with the authors of the report and the officers of the group to discuss what more needs to be in the White Paper on levelling up around health inequalities? (905207)

I absolutely will do that. Although the White Paper will include a number of proposals to help to reduce health inequalities, as Professor Michael Marmot’s report and work—alongside the all-party group’s work—have demonstrated, significant work is required to be done on everything from obesity to cramped housing in order to deal with those issues.

Almost a year ago, the Minister for Housing, who has responsibility for planning, wrote to Liberal Democrat-run Hinckley & Bosworth Borough Council to say that it does not have an up-to-date local plan and to ask it to do more to get it updated. In his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), the Minister said that part of the problem is that areas become open to speculative developments. One way to strengthen the position is by having a neighbourhood plan, as in vanguard places such as Market Bosworth. The problem is that they are being ridden roughshod over. Will he look to strengthen the role of neighbourhood plans in future, and failing that, in the meantime, will he encourage Hinckley & Bosworth Borough Council to get its plan sorted and up to date?

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. We certainly want to extend and expand the use of neighbourhood plans in constituencies such as his—in Hinckley and Bosworth—and he is right that I have written to the council to encourage it to get on and update its local plan. It is nice to see that there are a couple of Lib Dems on duty here, because they ought to hear that there is nothing liberal or democratic about exposing a local community to speculative development. That is what the people in Hinckley and Bosworth face and I am very keen to make sure that my officials work with Hinckley and Bosworth to get that plan in place.

Under the Conservatives, home insulation rates have plummeted, emissions from homes are higher now than they were in 2015 and UK homes are the least energy-efficient in the whole of Europe. To help struggling families with the spiralling cost of energy bills, will the Minister finally copy and paste Labour’s plan to retrofit every single home with a special scheme to help low-income households?

The Government have a number of plans to help with the decarbonisation of homes for people with low incomes. A good example would be our social housing decarbonisation fund, which already has £1 billion committed to it from this year.

Will the Secretary of State take steps to make sure that when we build very large new housing developments, it is easy for new residents to get into their local surgery or new health centre?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We absolutely need to make sure that easy access to infrastructure and public services is part of significant housing developments, and I look forward to working with him to ensure that that is true in South West Bedfordshire and elsewhere.

In my city of Norwich, we have had less levelling up and more vital services simply levelled. Will the Secretary of State stop fobbing us off with insufficient, ad hoc pots of money and ensure that sustainable, long-term funding is given to my city and county councils, the real engines of any levelling-up agenda?

We do provide sustainable funding. The hon. Gentleman will know that the provisional local government finance settlement made available an additional £3.5 billion to councils. Norwich City Council had an increase in cash terms of up to 4.8% compared with last year, giving it a total core spending power of up to £18.6 million. Norfolk County Council got an increase of up to £55.5 million and the core spending power of South Norfolk District Council was at £15.7 million. If there are further conversations that he would like to have, I am very happy for him to write to me.

Compared with communities across the country, Basingstoke has built 50% more new homes over the past two decades. Local residents want to make sure that we have homes for our children and grandchildren, but we believe that Basingstoke has been doing far more than that. What advice can my right hon. Friend give my local council on how we can make sure that future projected house-building levels reflect the very special circumstances in my constituency?

I commend my right hon. Friend and her council for all the sterling work they have done to build the homes in Basingstoke that people need. The important thing is for people to make sure that their local plan is up to date and that they agree a sound plan with the Planning Inspectorate, based on the constraints that there are, to get the number of houses they need. I am very happy to work with her to make sure that that is so.

The Secretary of State cannot fail to have noticed the number of questions in this session that have centred on the White Paper. Councils around the UK want to know what the timetable is, what the criteria are and when it will be published. Inverclyde wants to apply for this levelling-up funding. Will he help me? Does he want to visit Greenock, so I can show him the projects?

I have spent many happy hours in Greenock and am looking forward to many more. I imagine that time there can only be enhanced, whether in Cappielow or anywhere else, with the hon. Gentleman. The key thing about the levelling-up fund is that constituencies across the United Kingdom, including in Scotland, have benefited. I look forward to working with him and others to ensure that—[Interruption.] As a Morton fan, he will appreciate that patience is a virtue.

The forthcoming levelling-up White Paper is an opportunity to undo the imbalance in investment in active travel networks between towns and urban areas, which get the lot, and villages, which get very little to connect them. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a meeting between me and one of his Ministers, together with members of Potton Town Council and Sandy Town Council, to talk about their active travel network?

The Secretary of State will be aware that Warwickshire County Council is keen to have some sort of county unitary deal, but he will also be aware that Warwick District Council and Stratford-on-Avon District Council recently voted for a combined council—probably with the intent of a unitary one as well. Should it not be down to not the councillors or the Secretary of State, but the public to decide the future of local government across our country?

I welcome the moves across Warwickshire to consider how services can be delivered even more efficiently as part of the economic success story that is the greater west midlands. In particular, I commend the leadership of Izzi Seccombe, the leader of Warwickshire County Council. The fact that she and her group continue to be re-elected with ever greater levels of support indicates that she is in a strong position to help bring people together across the constituency.

Volunteers who serve on our parish councils do an amazing job. In rural communities such as mine, there are significant challenges to attending meetings, such as transport, adverse weather, work and caring responsibilities. In the pandemic, we have seen that the virtual or hybrid format works well. Moving forward, will the Secretary of State look to allow parish councils to sit in virtual or hybrid format to increase and widen access and to help them work to the best of their ability?

If during the pandemic we had not allowed councils to meet virtually, not only would we have impaired the effective working of local government, but we would never have known about Jackie Weaver and the country would have been the poorer for it. I commend the work of parish councils and others. I am strongly in sympathy with the view that hybrid meetings should continue in order to ensure the maximum amount of efficiency. There is a case for saying that certain significant local authority meetings should occur with all councillors present, but I want to proceed with the maximum amount of consensus to reflect the maximum level of efficiency and in particular of sensitivity to those who serve in constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, where the rurality and dispersed nature of representation are important.