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Topical Questions

Volume 720: debated on Monday 17 October 2022

This Government’s mission is to deliver economic growth to make every part of our country more prosperous and successful. Levelling up is central to that mission, and our commitment to delivering on that promise and objective is stronger than ever. We have launched our investment zones, which, as I have said already, elicited a huge response from local government. That is, of course, proof that there is an appetite to make that mission succeed. As Secretary of State, I will back local leaders every step of the way to drive growth and deliver for their communities.

A recent report and freedom of information requests have found that levelling up is failing the north-east. Our councils are forced to spend millions on preparing bids, there remains a lack of transparency in the Department’s decision-making processes, and it is still completely unclear what levelling up means. It has always been an empty slogan, hasn’t it?

Fond as I am of the hon. Lady, who is an excellent parliamentarian, I am afraid that she is wrong on this point. The report in question set out that councils across the north-east had spent £4 million applying for the levelling-up fund and had received more than £360 million in return. That seems a very good rate of return to me. On her point about people not knowing what levelling up means, tell that to the people of Teesside, with the remediation of the Teesworks site. Tell that to the people of Blyth, with Britishvolt. Tell that to the people of Hartlepool—[Interruption.]

Order. This is the topical questions session, Secretary of State. We do not need these personal battles. Let’s move on.

T2. It has been an exception year for Mirfield in Bloom, winning regional and national Britain in Bloom awards as well as being presented with the Queen’s award for voluntary service. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Britain in Bloom community champion Christine Sykes, Ruth Edwards and the Mirfield in Bloom team on receiving recognition for their amazing work and does she agree that Britain in Bloom competitions are vital in transforming the visual appearance of our towns? (901655)

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the issue to the attention of the House. I join him in congratulating Christine, Ruth and the Mirfield in Bloom team. The Britain in Bloom competition is a fantastic way to bring communities together.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his place. He is the third Secretary of State I have had the pleasure of shadowing in the past 10 months and I wish him well for however long he remains in office. In an hour’s time, it looks like his investment zones will be the only thing left of this bin fire of a Budget. Can he tell us what assessment he has made of the amount of growth they will generate by the end of 2024 and will it be enough to offset the £26 billion he and his friends have just added to people’s mortgages?

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome to the Dispatch Box. I am really proud, as someone who represents a classic community that needs to benefit from levelling up, to be in this post. On her point about investment zones, we are clear and, more importantly, local councils are clear that this is a transformational programme and we are evaluating the bids that have come forward so that we can give her an estimate of the numbers that will be unlocked by the bids that have been received.

Oh my word, the Secretary of State has not done an assessment, has he? This is literally the only policy that the Government have left and he has not checked whether it will work. He said a moment ago that this is the Treasury’s money. It is not the Treasury’s money that he is using for this experiment; it is our money, and they have not checked whether it will work. First the Budget, and now this—it is really not getting any better. The truth is that the only thing growing under this Government is the size of people’s mortgage payments.

The hon. Lady is asking me to evaluate the impact of bids that we received only on Friday, so I am afraid that her logic is back to front. We are proposing investment zones because they are needed to drive jobs, growth and opportunity. Councils can recognise that even if, sadly, the Labour Front-Bench team cannot.

T3. Like the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), I wish my right hon. Friend longevity in his vital position. When will he announce the devolution deals with Suffolk and north-east England that were negotiated this summer? (901656)

I am very fortunate to have had two such able predecessors in my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), to whose work at the Department I pay tribute. As he knows, we are bringing forward devolution deals at pace—I believe in them passionately—and I hope that there will be good news to announce on both those deals very shortly.

Recently, I raised concerns about fracking being imposed on Scotland using the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. The Business Secretary replied that that Act is the Koh-i-Noor jewel in the crown of the UK constitution—an unfortunate comparison given that the Koh-i-Noor was pillaged from India by the British. Then we heard a Tory MP suggest that fracking should go ahead in Scotland, instead of in her constituency. As the Secretary of State for Communities, will he make it clear to his Cabinet colleagues that there must be no move to impose fracking on communities in Scotland?

T4.   I appreciate that some elements in Government may insist that we need more powers to deal with aggressive beggars, but I gently suggest that we have such legislation, including the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Does the new Secretary of State therefore agree that we do not need clause 187, a placeholder clause, in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, and will he scrap it immediately? (901657)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s tireless efforts to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping in Westminster, and to her successful campaign to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824. My ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), and I are keen to continue to work with her to ensure that we get the balance right.

T6. Today, representatives of food poverty charities delivered a petition to Downing Street calling for urgent steps to stop families having to rely on charitable food aid to survive. The all-party parliamentary group on ending the need for food banks has its own inquiry. Will the Minister meet us to discuss our report and its recommendations? (901659)

T5. As Blyth Valley is now at the heart of the renewable energy sector, I have the pleasure of informing the House that work is about to start on an £11 million STEM training centre at the Port of Blyth, which will give young people the skills and education that they need to move forward in the world of work. Does my hon. Friend agree that that has been achieved by having a Conservative Government, a Conservative-led county council and a local Conservative Member of Parliament? (901658)

My hon. Friend is an incredibly passionate campaigner for Blyth. I am glad to hear that construction will soon begin on that indispensable part of its £20.9-million town deal. I understand that the Energy Central learning hub will provide a range of state-of-the-art industrial training, which all shows the positive difference a Conservative Government, a Conservative council and a Conservative MP working together can make for Blyth residents.

T7. In Liverpool, 12% of all homelessness applications are a result of domestic abuse. Our self-contained apartments for women and children are constantly at capacity, and plans to double their number are expected to barely touch the sides. What measures will the Minister take to protect survivors of domestic abuse from becoming homeless? (901660)

My Department is committed to the delivery of safe accommodation with support for all victims of domestic abuse. That is part of the Government’s overall strategy to tackle violence against women and girls. I would be happy to write to the hon. Lady with more details.

T9. My hon. Friend will know that I have been campaigning for new homes to be built to the latest environmental standards, about which I have met previous Ministers in his Department. I very much welcome what the Government have done on recent building regulations, but will he meet me to ensure that houses are not just started but completed to the latest environmental standards? (901662)

I thank my hon. Friend, who does amazing work in tackling this issue in his area. In June, an uplift in energy efficiency standards for new homes came into force. There is a transitional period of one year to minimise disruption to projects that are already under way. To stop developers sitting on this, however, it will be about not just each project but each house, because homes must be built to the new standards.

T8. Local councils such as Hounslow have a statutory duty to assess and care for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children placed in local hotels by the Home Office. Many of these children are clearly 13 or 14 years old, and on one day alone 72 arrived in hotels in the borough. What discussion has the Department had with affected boroughs about the additional support they need to provide their statutory duty to these hugely vulnerable children? (901661)

We are working closely with local councils to understand where the pressures are, and actively exploring options to find suitable long-term accommodation for a range of different asylum-seeker cohorts. I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the specific challenges in her area.

On investment zones, can I urge the Secretary of State to consider mixed-use zones that feature housing and pension fund investments similar to what is seen in the Netherlands?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is a very perceptive one. We believe that zones can support both housing and jobs. Clearly, in some cases that could be on the same site.

T10. Contrary to last week’s pledge by the Prime Minister, the latest Chancellor has said he will cut public spending. Sheffield Council has seen its Government grant halved in real terms over the last 12 years, as Conservative Chancellors have boasted about shifting money to wealthier areas. We have lost £2.1 billion, the annual grant is worth £288 million less and local services have been decimated, so will the Secretary of State press the new Chancellor not to make any further cuts to council funding and to redress the damage already done? (901663)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be awaiting the local government finance settlement, but in the meantime Sheffield high street has received nearly £16 million from the future high streets fund and £8.2 million for three projects through the community renewal fund. There is also £20,000 for the gateway to Sheffield bid, and £46,000 across South Yorkshire, including Sheffield, so I hope he will include those funds in his assessment.

In the Harrogate district, a local council has asked for three sites to be considered as investment zones. All are existing commercial operations earmarked for future investment. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the understandable concerns about special protection landscape areas are not borne out by the reality now that the sites are being identified? Will he take the opportunity to reconfirm that targets on biodiversity and net zero remain central to his Department?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question about investment zones. As we have said, strong environmental outcomes will be absolutely at the core of investment zones, and we welcome applications from his area and from everywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Many families hosted a Ukrainian family nearly six months ago. Those arrangements are coming to an end, and there is a real danger that we are going to see a large number of Ukrainian families homeless this winter. The Government need to do far more than the response of the right hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) to a previous question. Can Ministers tell us what their strategic approach is to prevent us from having Ukrainian families on our streets this Christmas?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, and we are working across Government to ensure that we have a sustainable process for this. It was remiss of me, in my answer to the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), not to pay tribute to my predecessor, Lord Harrington, who is in the Gallery today. We all, across the House, owe a debt of gratitude to him for the incredible work he did to support Ukrainian families.

Doncaster Council has put forward three sites that will benefit from investment-zone status, with two in Don valley: Unity at Thorne and Doncaster Sheffield airport. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the merits of each of those proposals?

I thank my hon. Friend for alerting me to the applications from his authority area. He has been the most tireless champion of saving Doncaster Sheffield airport, for which he deserves our congratulations.

New research by the Disabilities Trust shows that 48% of homeless people have had a major brain injury, which may have led to their being homeless. Is it not time that we put to an end the situation where victims of crime or of a major accident end up losing everything? Will he answer that question and will he and his Department meet the Disabilities Trust and ensure that everything is done to bring that to an end?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case on this issue and I commit the Department to meeting to discuss it.

How will my right hon. Friend ensure that affordable houses are built in rural Britain if the development size limit moves from nine to over 40?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We are looking at all the measures that can be used to drive forward and accelerate housing growth, but as I said in response to the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), there are compelling reasons why this option has not been pursued before, and I hope that will give some comfort to my hon. Friend today.

That ends questions. Before we come to the next business I want to say something about applications for urgent questions. Although such applications are made in confidence, on an exceptional basis I want to say something about applications that I received today about the treatment of protesters at the consulate of the People’s Republic of China in Manchester at the weekend. I regard this issue as being of the utmost seriousness; it is something which I am convinced should be considered on the Floor of the House. Given the importance and urgency of the other business being taken I will not allow the UQ today, but if no statement on the subject is brought forward by the Government later this week, I shall certainly be sympathetic to a UQ application.