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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 707: debated on Monday 24 January 2022

Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

The Secretary of State was asked—

Standards in Public Life: Local Authorities

2. What steps he is taking to ensure standards in public life are upheld at local authority level. (905175)

The Government champion high ethical standards in local government. On 14 January, I supported the important Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) to disqualify sex offenders from local office and, before Christmas, I met the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to reaffirm that we will shortly be responding to the Committee’s report on this important issue and will set out further steps to improve the system.

I am sure that you of all people, Mr Speaker, would agree that standards of politicians at every level are not always observed. On Wyre Forest District Council, a local councillor has been sanctioned for not the first, but the fourth time, for standards breaches. In this case, it was the leader of the Liberal Democrat group, but I think that we would all agree that frequent offenders who see sanctions as an occupational hazard of being a controversial councillor come from every political party. It is three years since the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on local government ethical standards were published. Can the Minister confirm if and when the Government will legislate to implement their recommendations and that any legislation will equip councils with more robust sanctions for serious or repeated breaches of the code of conduct, an example of which could be a ban for six months?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue and for his recent letter on the matter, which I shall respond to shortly. I am actively considering the recommendations set out in the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and will respond shortly. It is of the utmost importance that local authorities have the right tools to make the system work.

Last summer, the senior Conservative councillor in my Angus constituency was unmasked as being behind an anonymous anti-SNP Twitter troll account, and for peddling misogynistic commentary on the appearance of female politicians, with flagrant attacks also on local councillors and parliamentarians. Conservative bosses in Scotland have mandated that he goes on a social media course, thereby paving the way for him to stand again in the May Scottish council elections. Does the Minister think that this is an acceptable way for Scottish Conservative councillors to behave?

I am afraid that I do not know the details of that case specifically. Although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is raising a very important issue, what I would say is that he looks at the recommendations in the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I think that he will find some things there that will address the situation to which he refers.

Standards, such as openness and honesty, are indeed important, and I do hope that the Prime Minister will soon agree to that. Despite the language and rhetoric of levelling up, the reality is somewhat different in our communities. How can we have local authority funding in the north of £413 per person over 10 years and spending of just £32 per person and it be classed as levelling up? The Secretary of State is quickly getting a reputation for himself in the Wirral as the Minister for closing down, laying off, and hollowing out, with libraries, leisure centres and public sector workers facing the chop? At what stage does he intend to get a grip and level up local government finances?

I am not sure whether that is a question specifically on the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The hon. Gentleman will know that the provisional local government settlement was published and that he and I have had discussions about that, which show that there is a significant increase in core spending power.

I start by agreeing with the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) about openness and transparency. Last week, the energy company in which Warrington Borough Council bought a 50% stake collapsed. My constituents are rightly concerned that £50 million of public money was invested in a loss-making company. Will the Minister meet me to look at what steps we can take to protect local services and what lessons we can learn from governance in local authorities.

New Homes for Social Rent

3. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of new homes provided for social rent since 2010. (905176)

Since affordable housing delivery is a devolved matter, I can speak only to the figures in England. The Government are determined to deliver social housing to help vulnerable families and tackle homelessness. Since 2010, we have delivered over 154,600 homes for social rent across England.

In Wales, the Welsh Government are delivering new social housing at an accelerated rate, year on year, with an 18% increase in the last year. There were 20,000 new affordable houses built in the last five years, 65% of which were social rented, and another 20,000 will be built in the next five years, all of which will be social rented and at a low carbon specification. Unfortunately, in England the opposite is the case, with affordable house delivery falling, so will the Minister say what conversations he has had with the Welsh Government Minister, and what lessons he can learn on delivering the much needed increase in the affordable and low carbon social housing required?

It is a fine invite for more conversation, but I do not think we need to learn any lessons from other devolved Assemblies. We are doing a fine job in England—not just building more houses for social rent but building more affordable homes, with £11.5 billion invested, and also making a significant amount of progress when it comes to decarbonising new homes.

Support for Town Centres and High Streets

Reviving our high streets and town centres is an absolutely essential part of levelling up. Our £3.6 billion towns fund includes support for 101 town deals and 72 future high streets fund projects. We are also providing support to local leaders through the high street taskforce and by introducing new planning flexibilities.

History, heritage and high streets—these things mean so much to the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Tears were flowing in the mother town this weekend after a fire ripped through the Leopard in Burslem. The Leopard pub has been standing since the 18th century and is where Josiah Wedgwood and James Brindley met to discuss building the Trent and Mersey canal.

In Tunstall we have empty high street shops, which are in a desperate state of neglect, with landlords all too happy to let them sit empty and uncared for. Will my hon. Friend outline to the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke how the levelling-up White Paper can empower local councils and people to hold absent or rogue owners accountable for damaging the hearts of our community?

I know that many of my hon. Friend’s constituents will be desperately sad about the fire at the Leopard; I was also sad to see the footage of it burning.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his leadership and hard work on regeneration. His ten-minute rule Bill on rogue owners is being closely studied in the Department; Kidsgrove is benefiting from a town deal; Tunstall library and baths are being regenerated through the levelling-up fund, and the local council is refurbishing the town hall. However, there is a lot more to do, and I am keen to continue my conversations with him on this important issue as we look to future legislation.

The Secretary of State has not really proved very successful so far. Since the Secretary of State took office, the Chancellor has blocked any new money for levelling up, the Transport Secretary has halved bus funding and scrapped our trains, and while the Secretary of State is moving 500 civil servants into smaller cities and towns, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is taking 65,000 of them away. In April our nations and regions stand to lose billions unless he does his job. South Yorkshire alone will be short-changed by £900 million if money that once reached us via Europe is now blocked in Whitehall. That is money for skills, new infrastructure, apprenticeships and science.

“It could be deployed in our NHS, schools and social care”—

those are not my words but those used by the right hon. Gentleman in the referendum. Will he keep his promise that no part of this country will be worse off? Or should I ask the Chancellor?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing attention to the fact that we are moving DLUHC staff to the great city of Wolverhampton. As I walk to my office in the morning, I walk past previous Labour Ministers looking radiant and John Prescott looking something, and I remember that they could have done this, but we are the party that is actually doing it and getting on with moving civil servants out of London. As for the hon. Lady’s wider points, she will have to wait for the contents of the White Paper. As well as the UK shared prosperity fund, matching those funds from Europe for each nation, we have the levelling-up fund, the community ownership fund and the high streets fund. Other than that, we are barely doing anything.

Thanks for that—I will ask the Chancellor.

That is not actually what I asked. I asked the Minister to guarantee that no part of this country will see its funding collapse in just 10 weeks’ time. It is absolutely great to see investment going into Newark, but what use is that for someone living in Barnsley or Bolton? Can he not see the problem? Money has been flowing to Cabinet Ministers’ constituencies and to key marginals, and still he refuses to come clean on how those decisions are being made. This weekend it became clear that the only way to get money out of his Department is to be at the beck and call of the Chief Whip. How can any community have confidence that they have a fair shot at getting some of their money back from his Department if he will not release, in full, the information he holds about how these decisions are being made?

It is true that levelling-up funds have been going to the constituencies of Cabinet Ministers—[Interruption.] I am sorry; I mean shadow Cabinet Ministers. Levelling-up funds have been flowing to—[Interruption.] I will admit at this Dispatch Box that money is going to the shadow Leader of the House, the shadow Education Secretary, the shadow Health Secretary, the shadow Culture Secretary: guilty as charged of levelling up those places, and on that we do agree.

I have been urging Bradford Council to prepare a levelling-up fund bid for the town of Bingley in my constituency which I very much hope will be looked on favourably by the Government. When will the deadline for the next round of bids for the levelling-up fund be, and what will the criteria be?

The next round of bidding for levelling-up funding will open in spring and we will set out the conditions for funding in due course.

The towns fund is a limited beauty contest. All town centres, such as Crownpoint in Denton and Houldsworth Square in Reddish, matter. Twelve years ago, those town centres had hanging baskets and planters, the street furniture was beautifully painted, and our main town centre park, Victoria park, had bedding plants. All those things have gone as the councils have faced 60% cuts. How are we going to get some civic pride back in communities such as Denton and Reddish?

That is a serious point, so let me address it in the consensual and serious way that it deserves. The rise of online shopping is posing major challenges to our town centres. That is why we are bringing forward the future high streets fund and the billions of pounds of funding that I mentioned. I also draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to things such as the community ownership fund, which helps to save these vital local assets. But of course we recognise that there is more to do, and more to think about in terms of how we change these town centres to help them adjust to a new world in which people will continue to spend more money online. We need to make them places where people work and live as well as just shop.

Increasing Home Ownership

As a Government we are determined to level up opportunities across our country, and that starts with building the homes that our people need. That is why we are helping millions of people into home ownership. Since 2010, Government-backed schemes have helped over 756,000 households to purchase their own dream home. Last June, we launched our new flagship First Homes scheme, providing homes discounted by at least 30% for first-time buyers, with a priority for local residents and key workers.

First Homes is an excellent initiative that could deliver homes in my constituency for local first-time buyers at even below half price. Will the Minister accelerate their delivery through section 106 agreements, pilot their delivery on public sector land in my constituency, and rename the policy from First Homes to “Half-Price Homes”, because then people would understand it much more clearly?

My hon. Friend, who is a doughty campaigner for home ownership, teases me. He wishes me to call First Homes “Half-Price Homes”. Perhaps that will become the shorthand name for this project. Perhaps even, in time, they will be known as Hollinrake homes. As to his other questions, we are already commissioning First Homes properties on both public and private sector land through our two early delivery programmes. We are aiming to deliver 1,500 of them before April 2023, and we certainly want to accelerate the programme so that more people are able to achieve the dream home that they want and deserve.

The whole nation breathed a sigh of relief when the Government’s planning-by-algorithm so-called reforms were ditched, so when will the son of planning-by-algorithm come out? My constituent Heidi has kept a small hairdressing business going throughout the pandemic, but she is not eligible for Help to Buy, so will the Minister look at introducing more schemes that would help people like her? We also want things that will preserve suburban character, because all the build-to-let things going up locally, up to 60 storeys high, are destroying everything that people liked about Ealing and Acton.

We certainly want people such as Heidi to achieve the home that they want. Through Help to Buy, right to buy, right to acquire, help to build and a variety of mechanisms, including our 95% fixed-term mortgage guarantee, there is a multiplicity of ways in which we can get people on to the housing ladder. The hon. Lady also asks about our planning reforms, and I can tell her that she will be hearing more about those in due course.

I am sure that the Minister would agree that by far the best people to decide how many homes we want and where they should be are local people. Would he therefore agree with me and the town of Malmesbury in my constituency, which raised the point that the neighbourhood plan, which this Conservative Government brought in, is currently being trumped by the so-called five-year housing land supply figures, which are handed down by central Government? Will he give me a hint as to whether greater importance will be given in the forthcoming housing White Paper to neighbourhood planning, thereby allowing local people to decide how many houses they want and where?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, because it gives me the opportunity to make it clear that it is for local communities to determine how many homes they want and need in their vicinity. Local housing need numbers are not an end point; they are a starting point. It is for local authorities to determine what constraints they may face to determine the numbers of homes that they need in their area. They then agree those numbers with the Planning Inspectorate to set a sound plan, and that is then the number that the local authorities build toward. Local authorities that fail to set an up-to-date plan leave their constituents at risk of speculative development, so it is for local authorities to set the numbers and make their plans.

Levelling-up Fund

7. What steps he is taking to ensure that levelling-up funding is allocated equitably and transparently. (905180)

14. What steps he is taking through the levelling-up fund to improve transport infrastructure in the north of England. (905187)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) for the brief, tantalising preview of what is to come. The levelling-up fund is allocated according to objective criteria, including value for money, strategic fit, deliverability and the characteristics of place. I am therefore delighted that places such as Rotherham, Liverpool and Newcastle upon Tyne have already secured funding through our levelling-up funds, which include the towns fund, the levelling-up fund itself and the previous local growth fund.

A bit more tantalisation here: how can the Government’s levelling-up allocations possibly be equitable and transparent when the Government’s own index of multiple deprivation indicates that the constituencies of the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care—numbers 254 and 268 of the 310 on the index—received £27 million and £14.5 million respectively, while an area in the top 0.5% of the index, which includes my constituency, where my constituency office is based, received nothing? The question is: is that equitable, transparent and fair? Will the Secretary of State or a Minister meet me and my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), to discuss our concerns?

It is certainly equitable, transparent and fair, and should the hon. Member wish, there is an explanatory memorandum on, which would take him, as it would any hon. Member, through the process by which funds have been allocated. I should say that the whole Liverpool city region received £37.5 million through the levelling-up fund, but I would be delighted to talk to him and the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) to ensure that future bids can land carefully, safely and successfully.

In Newcastle, we have been waiting seven years—seven years—for real-time integrated bus information of the type that Londoners take for granted. Now we hear that the £3 billion bus improvement funding is less than half that, and much of that is going on zero-emission buses, meaning even less money for our bus improvement plan, which includes real-time information. Will the Secretary of State commit to levelling up bus transport in the north so that we are no longer under-served, overcharged and underinformed?

Having spent some of the happiest months of my twenties on buses in Newcastle, I can absolutely sympathise with the hon. Member. It is the case that her constituency received £20 million from the levelling-up fund, but I look forward to working with her, the North of Tyne Mayor and Newcastle City Council to see what more we can do to improve public transport.

I welcome the £11 million from the levelling-up fund that has already gone to Rother Valley, including £4.5 million to transform Maltby, and I am glad that Rotherham Council is again putting in another bid for Rother Valley to get another £9 million for Dinnington High Street. Can the Secretary of State tell me what future funding pots will be available for other parts of Rother Valley, so that the whole of the constituency can be levelled up, especially the likes of Thurcroft, Swallownest and Kiveton Park?

My hon. Friend is right that there has already been significant investment in Rotherham. Of course, one of the beneficiaries of that is the shadow Defence Secretary, whose impassioned advocacy on behalf of his constituents has not gone unheard; however, there are a number of communities in Rother Valley. The community ownership fund, which we will be expanding, is just one route, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to take it with me to ensure that the villages and communities that he serves get the services they deserve.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that smaller and rural local authorities often do not have the capacity to deal with complex application processes? What steps will he take to address that concern?

My right hon. Friend is right. He represents, I think, the largest, and certainly the second-most attractive constituency in Scotland, which covers three excellent local authority areas. There are excellent local councillors in all of them but, essentially because they lack the economies of scale, we need to work with those local authorities to ensure that, from Lockerbie to Moffat, the communities that deserve investment secure it.

I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that the success of levelling up will depend in large part on how much money is available and how it is distributed. I do not know whether he has had a chance to look at the recent research by Teesside University, which shows that over the past seven years the amount of money coming through EU funding and the local growth fund has been £2.1 billion a year, while the amount for the next few years from the shared prosperity and levelling-up funds is projected to be only £1.5 billion a year—a significant cut. In addition, the cuts in his own Department’s funding have hit the poorest local authorities the hardest, so when he produces his levelling-up White Paper, will he produce a comprehensive list of spending per head by region for each Department and show how the policies he is advocating will change those funding levels for the benefit of the poorest areas, which have suffered most in the past 10 years?

I would gently contest the argument that the poorest areas have suffered most in the past 10 years, but the Chairman of the Select Committee makes an important point about transparency in the allocation of funding, and I look forward to working with him to ensure just that.

Given current media speculation about the allocation of levelling-up funding, and given that I am a Member of this House who has unfortunately had to vote against the Government on several occasions recently, will the Secretary of State reassure me on whether there is any point in North West Leicestershire reapplying for levelling-up funding? Does he agree that, were Coalville to be successful in the next round of bidding, it would demonstrate that the Government are not engaging in pork barrel politics?

My hon. Friend, like me, abjures the whole idea of pork barrels. What we both believe in is allocating funding on the basis of merit and need. I can assure him that he has been in the same Division Lobby as me more often, I believe—although I stand to be corrected by the Whips—than the deputy leader of the Labour party, the shadow Defence Secretary, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, the shadow Culture Secretary or the shadow Social Care Secretary, all of whom have benefited from levelling-up funds. If a requirement for Government funding were voting with the Government, I fear that the deputy leader of the Labour party, my dear friend, would have lost out. However, I am delighted that her constituents in Ashton-under-Lyne have benefited from our funding, because we are committed to levelling up and uniting the country, irrespective of political colour.

Analysis of levelling-up funding published recently by NPC—New Philanthropy Capital—found that, despite strong public support, homelessness is not being properly addressed. It found that communities with the highest concentrations of black, African and Caribbean communities fared poorly, and that four of the most deprived communities missed out entirely. Both the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) have sought to make a supposed joke of this, but I do not think it is laughing matter that while poorer communities have missed out, the constituencies of at least three Cabinet Ministers, which are considerably more affluent, were successful in their bids. Beyond the jokes and the spin, does the Secretary of State honestly expect the House to believe that the Government have acted equitably rather than defaulting to the usual approach of pursuing narrow self-interest?

I cannot see how it would be in the narrow self-interest of the Government, if operating on partisan lines, to have given the hon. Gentleman’s constituency £18 million for transport improvements from the levelling-up fund. These are not jokes; these are serious matters. We work with people across this House, including and especially in the Labour party, to ensure that funding goes where it is required. Lying behind the allegations made by him and others is a suggestion that somehow civil servants would conspire with Ministers deliberately to favour constituencies on the basis of political colouration.

My new opposite number, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy)—I offer her my congratulations on her elevation—recently wrote to me to ask whether we would make transparent the basis on which we allocate that funding. We have: it is published on a website called Google can sometimes be helpful to all of us.

Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s earlier comments, I am sure that he would never accuse a fellow Tory MP of misleading the House. Will he therefore comment on the veracity of the specific remarks made by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) about threats made to Tory MPs to withdraw investment from their constituencies and release negative press stories as punishment for supporting a no-confidence vote in the Prime Minister? Will he outline what investigations he intends to undertake to look into the abuse, or possible abuse, of levelling-up funds?

There is no evidence of any abuse of levelling-up funding. If anyone has it, I hope that they will bring it to the House’s attention. As for any suggestion that someone may be on the receiving end of lots of negative press stories for voting against the Government, as someone who is solid, 100%, totally behind the Prime Minister and yet also on the receiving end of a plethora of negative press stories, I can tell the hon. Member that there is no correlation between the two.

On every single criterion, my Gosport constituency should qualify for levelling-up funding, but our recent bid for funds was unsuccessful. Quite simply, we have a small council that lacks the resources to compete with the big guys for the funding, and there is also a strong feeling that our south coast location could disadvantage us. If, as the Secretary of State said, impassioned advocacy is a recipe for attracting funding, can he please give me a glimmer of hope for the future? Will he tell me that the levelling-up White Paper will also offer us hope, and when it will be published?

Few people put more passion into their advocacy than my hon. Friend. While in levelling up we must have a proper focus on the midlands and the north, other parts of the United Kingdom, including the area around the Solent—Gosport, Portsmouth and Southampton—also require investment. I will work with her to ensure that that investment is forthcoming.

Increasing Devolution Across the UK

Unfortunately, the levelling-up fund is already being used to bypass the devolved Governments, and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 could enable UK Ministers to overrule the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments’ policy decisions. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that riding roughshod over devolution will force the people of Scotland and Wales to choose between a return to direct rule by Westminster and controlling their own future through independence?

I appreciate the point and the way in which the hon. Lady makes it, but it is the case that a number of constituencies in Scotland received money from the levelling-up fund, and that money was allocated on the basis of bids supported by Scottish National party MPs and championed by Scottish National party-led councils. I enjoy working with the Scottish Government to ensure that we can work collectively together. Whatever our views on constitutional questions, the fact that we can work together on such issues is a credit to those Ministers in the Scottish Government who want to take that pragmatic approach and to her parliamentary colleagues who champion funding for their constituencies.

Freeports are one of the ways this Government are levelling up across the devolved Administrations, and I am delighted that there is to be at least one freeport in Wales. Can the Secretary of State update the House about ongoing discussions with the Welsh Government and when we can expect the Welsh freeport bidding prospectus to be published?

I can confirm that we have had very fruitful negotiations not just with the Scottish Government, but with the Welsh Government. I want to place on record my thanks to Vaughan Gething and other Ministers in the Welsh Government, and I hope that we will be able to make an announcement shortly about the process by which we will allocate freeports in Wales. At the moment the proposal is for one freeport in Wales, but I recognise that both south Wales and north Wales have significant potential for freeports in the future, and there are few better advocates, in particular for Anglesey, than my great hon. Friend.

The current Tory leader in Scotland and two former Tory leaders in Scotland, alongside every single Tory MSP, are calling for the Prime Minister to resign after their Scottish branch office leader was sneered at by the Secretary of State as just a man “in Elgin” and the Leader of the House decried him as a “lightweight”. In view of this, can the Secretary of State clarify how the self-declared Prime Minister of the Union will increase devolution while Scots calling for his resignation believe he is actively harming the Union?

I am terribly sorry but I did not realise or appreciate that saying someone came from Elgin was an insult as far as the SNP is concerned; in my view, it is a compliment.

Increasing Housing Supply: Local Communities

9. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that housing supply increases in line with the needs and wishes of local communities. (905182)

As I said in a previous answer, building homes is key to levelling up, and that is why we announced an additional £1.8 billion for housing supply at the last spending review, delivering £10 billion-worth of investment since the start of this Parliament and unlocking over 1 million new homes. However, it is important that local communities have input to the planning process, and we recognise that as part of our planning reforms the planning system must be more engaging and much more democratic.

Many people in social housing have been able to exercise the voluntary right to buy scheme for tenants of social landlords. However, in so-called rural locations, many are excluded, including many thousands of my own constituents. Would the Minister or the Secretary of State meet me and other MPs with constituents in similar situations to find a way forward that both enables people to own their own homes and ensures that the level of housing stock for rent from social landlords is maintained?

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. We are committed to enabling tenants in social housing to acquire their own home through right to buy or right to acquire, and we have helped nearly 2 million tenants to become homeowners—dream-home owners. I am aware that there are some particular issues in some particular rural areas, and I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues to discuss how we can ensure that those people have the opportunity of home ownership, too.

The Minister will know—and you will know, Mr Speaker—that I am a fan of One Direction, and Harry Styles in particular. If it is true that Harry Styles is looking to buy a £10 million property in the west country, he will join the thousands of people who have been hoovering up our homes to make them second homes. The pandemic has turbocharged the housing crisis in the west country, so will the Minister look seriously at ensuring every west country family can have a first home, not just have a region full of second homes for those who can afford one?

We are determined to make sure that there are homes available to buy for the people who want them around our United Kingdom, including in holiday hotspots such as the west country. That is why we have brought forward new policies such as First Homes, why we are closing the loophole which allows some people to abuse their second home and holiday let properties, and why we want to build more homes in those places to ensure people have the opportunity to own and enjoy them.

Infrastructure for New Homes: Sittingbourne and Sheppey

10. What steps he is taking to deliver the education, health and transport infrastructure necessary to support the homes built in Sittingbourne and Sheppey constituency over the last three decades. (905183)

The Government support local authorities through both central funding and developer contributions to deliver the infrastructure that new development demands. In 2020-21, Swale Borough Council secured over £3.7 million of developer contributions and we are providing Kent County Council with £38 million from the housing infrastructure fund to support road improvements, which will unlock 8,500 homes in Swale.

I am always grateful for any money that Swale Borough Council gets, but of course those particular funds are designed to ensure even more homes can be built, and that would do nothing to reduce congestion on roads in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, or to increase the number of secondary school places available to local people, or to make it easier for those people to get an appointment with a GP. What Swale needs is fewer houses, not more; so would my right hon. Friend consider placing a moratorium on housing targets for Swale Borough Council and local authorities in Kent generally until the problems I have highlighted are resolved?

As I said in a previous answer, it is for local authorities to determine the number of homes they need and to set those numbers accordingly. We want to make sure that where development takes place infrastructure is available to support it. That is why we have the HIF—housing infrastructure fund—to which I have referred and the new home building fund, with a significant amount of money for infrastructure. It is also why we want through our planning reforms to look carefully at how infrastructure funding can be provided, so that it is provided up front and new developments benefit from the schools and clinics and kids’ playgrounds that they need, and new communities get bang for their buck.

West Midlands Combined Authority: Further Devolution

11. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of the West Midlands Combined Authority’s proposals for a further devolution deal. (905184)

We commend the West Midlands Combined Authority under the leadership of Andy Street for its ambition to secure further powers for the region and will be saying more about our plans to strengthen local leadership in the forthcoming White Paper.

The Mayor of the West Midlands and I disagree on much, but I think he buys into my argument that we should be the green workshop of the world, and I agree with him that delivering on that requires radical devolution of resources and powers in at least 12 different areas, from skills to energy regulation. Has the Minister read the submission from the combined authorities—the Mayor and the seven mighty authorities of the west midlands—and, crucially, when the levelling-up White Paper is delivered, will he deliver on it?

I am glad to see this wonderful outbreak of consensus. I have read the exciting proposals put forward to us but I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the White Paper; however, I will say that Andy Street has continued to bring forward very exciting and interesting ideas.

Church of England: Real Estate

12. What discussions he has had with the Church of England on the potential role of its real estate in helping to meet housing demand. (905185)

We welcome and encourage the steps the Church is taking to make more of its land available for affordable housing. Since the Archbishops’ debate in March 2021 and the publication of the report from the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community, my officials have engaged with representatives to consider how we can provide support for that, and that is expected to continue.

The Secretary of State will know that the Diocese of Gloucester has been doing a lot to help implement the important report from the Archbishops, “Coming Home”. I particularly want to thank Bishop Rachel and all involved for their work in funding the national housing executive and delivering projects such as St Aldate’s and Hardwicke. The Secretary of State will however also know that housing is a complicated issue for the Church and the draft legal reforms on ownership are stuck with the Church Commissioners and the Archbishops’ Council, so what more can my right hon. Friend do, perhaps in conjunction with the Second Church Estates Commissioner, to make sure that the Church of England lives up to its leaders’ social mission and helps provide more space for homes for some of those most in need?

I am tempted to quote from the Gospel, John 14:2:

“In my Father’s house are many mansions”,

and it is certainly the case that we want to work with the Church of England to unlock more land and support its drive to secure greater access to affordable housing. I have recently been in touch in particular with the Bishop of Kensington, Graham Tomlin, and I know he will be taking forward further conversations in order to achieve the goals he and I and the Second Church Estates Commissioner share.

Levelling Up: Active Travel

Active travel is central to levelling up the nation’s health, air quality, social connectedness and prosperity. The Government committed £710 million of new active travel funding at the spending review and are establishing active travelling to support places. The White Paper will discuss transport’s contributions to levelling up, including of course active travel.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He knows of course that travel accounts for nearly a third of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions, with the majority coming from petrol and diesel vehicles. In my constituency of Bath the council is working very hard to get to net zero by 2030, and active travel is a key part of that. So in the upcoming planning reforms will the Secretary of State include the 20-minute neighbourhood principle, which ensures that people can access services and goods within a 20-minute return walk?

That is a very good principle—I completely agree with it. For those who do not follow our proceedings with the same intensity as top political commentators and all the rest of it, active travel refers to walking and cycling. I completely agree with hon. Lady. What we want to do is create communities where people can walk or cycle to all the facilities and amenities that they need. That is one reason why I am such a great fan of the work of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and the developments for which he has been responsible, as they embody that principle more effectively than the work of almost anyone I know.

Grassroots sports clubs and facilities are crucial to levelling up in some of the most deprived parts of Ipswich, whether it is a BMX club in Gainsborough, a boxing club in Nacton or Ipswich Vale Exiles FC: Maidenhall and Chantry. Will the Secretary of State confirm today that that is something that will be acknowledged in the White Paper and that when it comes to the second tranche of the levelling-up fund there is a possibility for it to be a grassroots clubs and facilities fund to back levelling up in such an important way?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is the case that the levelling-up fund and the community ownership fund are oriented towards ensuring that cultural and sporting activities can be supported. I should remark that just over a week ago I had the pleasure of visiting Bury where, through the community ownership fund, we could give the fan-led consortium the resources needed to take Gigg Lane back into its ownership. Only a few days later, the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) defected to the Labour party. Once a Shaker, always a Shaker, I was told in Bury, but there are some people who are steady on parade and there are some people who shake it all about. I think in Bury we prefer those who are steady on parade, rather than those who wobble under pressure.

Topical Questions

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.