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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 720: debated on Monday 17 October 2022

Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

The Secretary of State was asked—

Private Renter Security

1. What steps he is taking to enhance private renter security in the context of the cost of living crisis. (901629)

16. What steps he is taking to enhance private renter security in the context of the cost of living crisis. (901644)

19. What steps he is taking to enhance private renter security in the context of the cost of living crisis. (901647)

We understand the pressures that renters are facing with increasing rents and energy bills. That is why we have provided more than £37 billion of support this year to those who need it the most. Everyone deserves to live in a safe and secure home, and the Prime Minister is committed to the ban on section 21 no-fault evictions to protect tenants.

Ensuring a fair deal for renters remains a priority for the Government. The Government consultation on introducing a decent homes standard for the rented sector closed on Friday, and we are carefully considering our next steps to support the rental market.

The Prime Minister has U-turned on scrapping unfair section 21 no-fault evictions, but the freeze on housing benefit rates still stands. Millions are struggling to afford rent or are worried about being evicted during a cost of living crisis. They deserve much better than the chaos in Government. Will the Secretary of State give private renters the certainty that they need by immediately publishing the renters reform Bill?

We will bring forward reforms for renters when parliamentary time allows. What I can say in reply to the hon. Gentleman’s point about housing benefit is that we recognise that it is an extremely important and sensitive area of policy: that is why we have maintained local housing allowance rates at increased levels following the covid pandemic. We keep all these issues under review, and clearly this is something that we will be coming back to in due course.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism looked at 363 properties in Bristol and found that in only one of them was local housing allowance enough to cover the rent. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that LHA keeps pace with market rents, particularly in places such as Bristol, where so many people are now being priced out of housing?

My colleagues across the Government and I continue to keep rates under very close review. We have maintained the heightened rates that were introduced in April 2020. I very much welcome all proposals that the hon. Lady brings forward about the situation in Bristol so that we can look at that in more detail.

Is the Secretary of State aware that rents have risen by 15% in London and that the same has happened in my constituency? My constituent was forced to leave an abusive marriage. She works, but she can barely afford the private rent for herself and her children. She is already on universal credit. To make matters worse, her rent has recently increased by £300. How will the Government address such situations? When will they bring in the long-awaited renters reform Bill?

I am very happy to look at the situation affecting the hon. Lady’s constituent; it is something about which I always welcome discussion. We do have discretionary housing payments for people in very hard situations such as the case to which the hon. Lady refers. On the timetable for rental reform legislation, we will bring forward legislation when time in Parliament allows. That is an obvious priority for the whole Government.

My constituency has seen its supply of private rental properties drop by more than 60% in the past two years owing to the surge in short-term holiday lets. What plans has my right hon. Friend to redress the situation?

My hon. Friend is a consistent and effective advocate for the issues that affect rural constituencies such as North Devon, and I recognise—not least as a result of our conversations about the subject—just what a problem this is for her constituency. We are looking at all the options to ensure that there is a proper supply of rental properties in such areas.

Last week Government sources told The Times that Ministers were planning to renege on their commitment to abolish section 21 no-fault evictions, only for the Prime Minister to stand up days later and deny that that was the case. Private renters need long-term security and better rights and conditions now, not chaotic mixed messaging from a Government in disarray. Can the Secretary of State give the House a cast-iron guarantee from the Dispatch Box today that if the Government are still standing come the time, a renters’ reform Bill will be introduced in the next parliamentary Session?

I can confirm that we will introduce the rental reform Bill in the course of this Parliament. That is a commitment that we have made and are determined to honour. I could not be clearer in saying that I echo the Prime Minister’s words last Wednesday that this is going to happen.

People Registered as Homeless

The total number of people who have been homeless or threatened with homelessness in the last year is 4% lower than pre-covid-19 levels. That shows that our unprecedented action to protect households during the pandemic has worked, as does the fact that rough sleeping levels are now at an eight-year low.

The data that I have is very different. The cost of living crisis is expected to get worse in the coming months, there was an 11% increase in homelessness between 2021 and 2022, and the number of evictions peaked at nearly 5,000 between April and June this year, up nearly 30% on the previous quarter. What commitments will the Minister give today to ensure that hundreds of thousands of people do not risk losing their homes this winter?

The Government understand the pressures that people are facing as a result of the cost of living, and we have undertaken a range of measures to help them with, in particular, their energy bills. That is in addition to the more than £37 billion of cost of living support for families across the United Kingdom that we announced earlier this year.

The most egregious form of homelessness is rough sleeping, which is why I was so delighted that in September this year, thanks to the incredible hard work of Penny Hobman, Richard Chapman and Stephanie Larnder, we were able to publish this Government’s strategy to end rough sleeping. Will the Ministers commit themselves to delivering on that strategy?

I am grateful for the opportunity to pay fulsome tribute to my hard-working predecessor for his incredible work in not just getting the strategy over the line, but agreeing the £2 billion of funding that will support the implementation of that strategy over the next three years. I am delighted to be carrying on his great work.

I know that today’s focus is on heating homes, but for far too many people it is on saving their homes. Nearly 20,000 households have been put at risk of homelessness by no-fault evictions in the past year, a rise of 121%, while the Government dither. Mortgages are soaring, rents are rising, homelessness is increasing, and 1,300 Ukrainian refugee households, many with children, are homeless because of the Department’s failure to act on repeated warnings. The Chartered Institute of Housing says that without action this Government will break their promise to end rough sleeping by 2024. Will the new Minister tell us whether they are sticking to that pledge, or will he tell us the truth—that the homelessness crisis will not be fixed by increasing bankers’ bonuses, but will only be fixed by a change of Government?

We remain absolutely committed to our manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping. According to the latest official statistics, published in February 2020, the number of people sleeping rough is at an eight-year low and has almost halved since 2017. Rough sleeping has now decreased in every region of England. We are committed to continuing the great work of my predecessor and implementing the “Ending rough sleeping for good” strategy, and, as I said earlier, there is £2 billion of funding for the next three years.

Levelling-up Fund

3. How much and what proportion of the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund has his Department allocated to local authorities since that fund was announced in October 2021. (901631)

17. When his Department plans to announce the allocation of funds under the levelling-up fund round 2. (901645)

21. What his planned timetable is for (a) announcing the successful bids under levelling-up fund round 2 and (b) disbursing that funding. (901649)

Round 1 of the levelling-up fund saw a total £1.7 billion awarded to 85 lead applicants across 105 bids from the UK. Of this, my Department has awarded £1.24 billion, with £187 million paid out to date. We expect that figure to increase significantly as these projects move through the delivery phases. I expect to announce the outcome of round 2 by the end of this year, with funding decisions based on the framework set out in our levelling-up fund guidance.

Inverclyde has a very strong bid in, but we need maximum co-operation between this UK Government and my Inverclyde Council to ensure that we can line up all the ducks at our end and therefore get a maximum return on the investment. I heard the Minister saying that this would be announced at the end of the year, but last week I was being told that it would be at the end of November, so things seem to be slipping there, which concerns me. When will he tell me that Inverclyde has been successful, and how much money is he going to give me?

Fond as I am of the hon. Gentleman, I will not give him the money directly, but we will deliver it by the end of the year.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s answer, but can he confirm that levelling up is about need and not about geography, because while Essex as a whole may be seen as prosperous, there are pockets of deprivation that would greatly benefit from levelling-up funding?

My hon. Friend is exactly right: levelling up is all about pockets of need, wherever they occur in this country. I know that there are many pockets in the south of England that are deprived, and it is vital to get the message out across the House that levelling up is a Union-wide concept with benefits for every corner of the country from London to Leeds right up to the north of Scotland and to the west of Wales. It is a concept with applicability wherever there is need.

Dover District Council has developed the exciting Dover Beacon bid project, which would deliver £90 million-worth of economic benefit to the town and up to 60 skilled jobs, transforming a derelict site into a new creative and digital campus and a Dover school of art and design. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is an excellent proposal from Dover District Council, and can he confirm when a decision will be made?

My hon. Friend is a fantastic advocate for Dover on so many issues. She will understand, I hope, that I cannot comment on the merits of specific bids while we are evaluating them, but it is vital that she continues to champion the bid that has been brought forward for her town.

Eastwood is famous for two things: D. H. Lawrence and a whole list of lazy Labour MPs who have not brought one penny of investment into the forgotten town of Nottinghamshire. Things are going to change. We have just put in a £20 million levelling up bid, which will help the most deprived town in Nottinghamshire. Will my right hon. Friend please meet me to discuss my ideas to make sure that we get this money in the bank as soon as possible?

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend, who is such a fantastic advocate for his constituency, which I think he has made iconic through his work. As I have just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke), I cannot comment on a specific bid, but I am always happy to talk about the issues affecting places such as Eastwood.

Please could I remind the right hon. Gentleman that levelling-up funding was a pivotal part of this Government’s general election manifesto in 2019? Could I also remind him that round 2 of the levelling-up funding was expected by now? We are now in mid-October. Could he let me and my constituents know when we might see an answer on round 2, such that we might fund the Cullompton relief road?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his reminder, but I need no reminder of the importance on the need for levelling up. That is indeed why my colleagues and I were elected in 2019, and we will bring forward our answers on round 2 by the end of this year.

How can the Minister claim to be levelling up when his Government have presided over a net loss in funding for large parts of the country, such as the north-west, which will lose out by £206 million under the shared prosperity fund?

I can absolutely defend our record on levelling up. There is a £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, which is transforming opportunities across this country. The hon. Member need only look at the response of communities across the north-west to our manifesto in 2019, when we were joined on the Government side of the House by so many fantastic colleagues from that region, to see that people buy into that vision.

When the Secretary of State launched the levelling-up fund, it was denounced by the Scottish nationalist Government in Holyrood as a “power grab.” Now, of course, SNP MPs and SNP councils are only too eager to apply to benefit from the levelling-up fund. What conclusions does my right hon. Friend draw from the vast divergence between the rhetoric of Nicola Sturgeon and the reality of SNP MPs wanting all the financial benefits of being in the United Kingdom?

This is a fitting opportunity to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all his work in this Department. He is a fantastic champion of not only levelling up but the Union as well. As he rightly says, on this day of all days, when Nicola Sturgeon is bringing forward her vision, it is particularly ironic that we hear so much about the strength of the Union and the support it offers to communities across Scotland, to the benefit of SNP Members’ constituents.

We were told that major transport projects would be secured as part of the Government’s commitment to levelling up. There is no bigger major transport project in Wales than closing the level crossing at Pencoed in my Ogmore constituency, which opens up the gateway down to Swansea and Pembrokeshire. The project costs in excess of £20 million. If the Secretary of State wants to commit to the people of Wales, he should fund the level crossing closure, improve the area around Pencoed and ensure my constituency gets the money it was promised.

The hon. Gentleman makes a passionate case for this project, which obviously needs to be considered in the round, including by my colleagues in the Department for Transport. We have certainly heard him today. There is no doubt that accelerating infrastructure that unlocks growth is a key priority for this Government.

Although I support the Government’s levelling-up agenda and funding, there is concern in rural parts of Shropshire and the semi-rural borough of Telford and Wrekin that some areas of the west midlands are perhaps being overlooked. Can the Secretary of State reassure my constituents that the bids from Telford and Wrekin Council and Shropshire Council for electric buses and the regeneration of Wellington will not be overlooked in the second round?

I can certainly give my right hon. Friend that assurance. Not least thanks to his efforts, there will never be any chance of his part of the world being ignored.

The Government’s levelling-up plans have made so little impact that they have had to resort to paying local newspapers to carry positive stories. That is right: they are paying for positive coverage. These ads breach Advertising Standards Authority rules and have subsequently been banned. This is a risible episode. Will the Secretary of State come clean that the only conclusion to be drawn is that levelling up is a sham?

I am afraid I will neither do that nor accept the premise. With regard to these seven adverts, we have apologised. They all bore the HMG logo very clearly and were marked as advertorials. We accept the ASA’s decision, but we fundamentally believe it was appropriate for us to try to spread the message that levelling up has applicability across this country and is doing real good. Colleagues on both sides of the House have spoken about the projects they want to see delivered, which shows the appetite for this programme to succeed.

I am grateful for that answer, but the reality is that the Government have taken £431 per head in funding from local authorities. Now, through the programme that the Secretary of State trumpets, they will be handing back just £31 per head from the levelling-up fund. Even the winners lose.

Those who have been promised money are now concerned that Downing Street’s economic crisis and soaring inflation will mean their bids are no longer affordable. Will the Secretary of State commit that no bid either submitted or approved will have to be downgraded to accommodate the mess the Government have made of the economy?

The hon. Gentleman has to understand the situation we are in with regard to inflation. It is absolutely the case that, owing to the consequences of Putin’s war, prices are rising—[Interruption.] I will accept many things at the Government’s door, but I will not accept inflation as a consequence of Putin’s war. There is a clear read through to the costs of many issues, and this affects economies across the west. Neither central Government nor local government can expect to buck inflation, or to accommodate the cost of inflation in our settlements. There is therefore a mechanism within the levelling-up fund to allow bids to be resized for inflation.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) has raised his concerns about levelling-up funds reaching his constituency, but if levelling up is to mean anything, it should ultimately be about reducing child poverty. In Scotland, the Scottish Government are doing what they can to deal with child poverty, but in my constituency it stands at a shocking 25%, and that figure is set to increase thanks to the decisions made by the UK Government. So will the Secretary of State explain what reduction in these shocking levels of child poverty he believes will be achieved as a result of the levelling-up agenda?

The levelling-up agenda is broad and wide, but it does not take account of the levers that sit with the hon. Lady’s parent Government in Holyrood. Whether on welfare, drugs or education, so many of the things that will make a difference to children’s lives sit within the responsibility of the Scottish Government. They need to work those levers.

Levelling-up Agenda: Affordable Housing

5. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the Government’s levelling-up agenda on the supply of affordable housing. (901633)

As the exchanges of the past few minutes have highlighted, the Government remain absolutely committed to the levelling-up agenda to improve opportunities for communities, including the one I have the privilege of representing. As part of that, a substantial taxpayer subsidy rightly continues to be allocated across the country to building affordable housing.

Will the Minister accept that the chaos we have seen in the economy, created by this Government, over the past couple of weeks has had an impact on the affordability of housing for everyone? It has put up interest rates on mortgages and put up rents in the private rented sector. In constituencies such as mine valuable projects such as North Edinburgh Arts will include affordable rented housing. So when will this Government recognise that this needs to be done quickly and we need to get the next round out and the money distributed to communities that need it?

As the hon. Lady will appreciate, we are in a period of economic challenge across the world and interest rates have been rising for some time. On her question about affordable rents and affordable housing, she will know that housing is largely devolved, but the UK Government have brought forward hundreds of thousands of new affordable properties in recent years and will continue to do so in the years ahead.

£150 Council Tax Energy Rebate

6. What proportion of eligible households have received the £150 council tax energy rebate in (a) north Northamptonshire and (b) England. (901634)

As of 31 July 2022, the proportion of estimated eligible households to have received the £150 council tax rebate in north Northamptonshire was 87%, with the figure for England being 86%. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to see the progress his local authority and others have made when the most recent figures are released shortly.

Putting £150 into the pockets of eligible households has provided valuable help to tackle rising energy bills, but 13% of people have still not claimed this money. As the Government now look for more targeted help for people with their energy bills after April 2023, if this scheme is revised and reintroduced, what improvements will be made?

It is always a struggle to get the money out as quickly as possible, especially to those who are not paying by direct debit. Over the summer, I have been working with my officials and have directly spoken to a number of councils that have been a little slower than expected. We have issued guidance on the variety of payment methods and given short extensions to the deadline dates where councils have requested that, including in respect of any uncashed voucher-based payments with the Post Office until 30 November. We will always look to improve, to make sure that the money goes as quickly as possible to those who need it.

This morning, the Chancellor said that his support for business energy costs will focus on efficiencies. Beatson Clark and Liberty Steel in my constituency are high energy users and they have already made every energy efficiency they can. What will the Minister do to protect businesses such as those in my constituency with this shift in policy?

I thank the hon. Lady for that comment. When I was in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my colleagues there were always working with those energy-intensive industries such as the steel industry and with companies such as Liberty Steel, in her area. It is important that we continue to understand the position and develop the technologies that are needed for the long term, but in the medium term we will work with these industries to make sure we can offer support for those crucial supplies.

Mayoral Devolution Deal: East Midlands

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on the potential merits of a mayoral devolution deal for the east midlands. (901636)

It is a pleasure to take my place at the Dispatch Box for the first time.

Our recent devolution agreement with Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire will see a directly elected leader take decisions on transport, skills and housing in the region, as well as a new 30-year investment fund totalling more than £1 billion. On the levelling-up White Paper, we also named Leicestershire as one of the places invited to negotiate a county deal. We remain committed to continuing discussions with Leicestershire and the remaining White Paper areas, because we want to see them benefit from the brilliant opportunities that devolution provides.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but it has been apparent that since the west midlands has had a Mayor, it has economically outperformed the east midlands. Due to the Labour Mayor of Leicester’s veto, Leicestershire and Rutland cannot join Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire in an east midlands devolution deal. Will the Minister look again at how we can overcome Sir Peter Soulsby’s unreasonable objections and unleash the true economic potential of the whole east midlands?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his passion for delivering devolution in his local area. It is a shame when some local stakeholders do not back this project to deliver all its incredible opportunities. I will certainly work with my hon. Friend and local stakeholders to see what we can do to make that happen.

Freeports: Wales

We reached an agreement with the Welsh Government earlier this year to collaborate on and deliver a new freeport in Wales, and this has received Cabinet agreement. We launched the bidding prospectus on 1 September, the closing date is 24 November, and we expect to announce the successful locations in spring next year.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer and welcome her to her position.

Floating offshore wind represents a major new industrial opportunity across the whole of the UK, but especially for us in Wales. Does my hon. Friend agree that an innovative and collaborative freeport bid, along the lines of what Port Talbot and the port of Milford Haven are currently putting together, would help to unlock the full economic value and benefits of floating offshore wind for the whole of the south and west Wales region?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and for his passion and commitment to delivering a freeport. I know that he is a great champion for the Milford Haven bid in particular, and I look forward to sitting down with him to discuss it. The freeports programme has great potential to contribute towards achieving the Welsh and UK Governments’ decarbonisation agenda and net zero ambitions. We look forward to receiving strong bids from across Wales that demonstrate how they will meet the Government’s shared goals, as articulated in the bidding prospectus.

The Minister may not know, but I used to be a Swansea politician—I was a councillor. Is it not about time we introduced the Swansea barrage scheme, which would make a great difference to alternative energy for Wales?

I thank the hon. Member for his question. As he is a champion for Swansea as well as Huddersfield, I would certainly be happy to sit down with him and discuss this further.

Levelling-up Agenda: Impact of Cost of Living Crisis

10. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of the cost of living crisis on the levelling-up agenda. (901638)

The rising cost of living is being felt by people right across the UK, but particularly those in some of the least affluent areas, where particularly high inflation combines with low wage growth. That makes levelling up even more important. While providing immediate relief through the energy support package, the Government are also determined to help places build long-term economic resilience and growth, because we know that local growth means better opportunities and a better life for local people.

But the point is, as all of us have said, that spiralling inflation is devaluing the funds available for infrastructure and levelling-up projects, and labour and supply chain shortages will also cause inevitable delays. Are the Government willing to admit that Brexit lies at the root of all this? The Government’s plans are not levelling up; they are falling apart.

Brexit is the thing that has allowed us to set up the shared prosperity fund, so that we can deliver local benefits not just in England but right across the UK, including in Scotland. On the point about inflation, we are working with local authorities to see specifically how we can support them in ensuring that their projects are delivered.

As the Minister has acknowledged, the places most in need of levelling up are those suffering most from this Tory cost of living crisis, yet it was the Levelling Up Secretary who was cheerleader-in-chief for a mini-Budget that prioritised the welfare of the south-east over everyone and everywhere else. The Secretary of State is now talking about there being “fat to trim”. How much of that fat will have to be found in levelling-up budgets?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman mentions the mini-Budget, because he will know that one of the most incredible measures in it is investment zones, which our Department is committed to delivering to bring about local opportunity, local jobs and local investment to benefit local people, including in Scotland.

Investment Zones

11. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of investment zones for local (a) residents and (b) businesses. (901639)

15. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of investment zones for local (a) residents and (b) businesses. (901643)

Investment zones will turbocharge our plans for growth, spread opportunity and be transformational for towns and cities across the country. They will create new jobs and homes on targeted sites while maintaining strong environmental outcomes and keeping national green-belt protections in place. They will attract businesses and jobs through lower taxes and streamline planning rules to unlock commercial development. They will be created across the UK, including, we hope, in Wales.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I hope he will look favourably at the bids from Derbyshire that were duly submitted last week. Can he confirm how investment zones will interact with freeports and whether sites could have both statuses to really supercharge growth on those sites?

I am a convinced believer in the merits of freeports. Clearly, the final Government approval for some of those will go into place this autumn, and many are already operational. We are already seeing investment in freeports that we want to see in investment zones. Investment zones have the chance, through a very simple streamlined expression of interest process, to upgrade to full tax freedoms.

The Government intend investment zones to be located UK wide, but, in my constituency and the rest of Wales, that requires the engagement of the Welsh Government. Will my right hon. Friend update the House as to progress on securing that engagement?

My hon. Friend and his colleagues from north Wales have already been absolutely passionate advocates of the potential of investment zones to benefit their region. He is quite right that we will need the co-operation of the Welsh Labour Government to unlock the full benefits of these zones. Discussions are ongoing with the Welsh Government, and I am delighted that I will have his support in making the case to their Minister for the Economy that Welsh Labour should embrace these zones.

Further to the last question, my right hon. Friend will know that north Wales is part of the same economic region as the north-west of England, and it is therefore essential that it should have the same economic advantages. Can he confirm that he will be engaging not only with the Welsh Government but with Welsh local authorities and with the North Wales Economic Ambition Board with a view to ensuring that north Wales gets investment zones at the earliest possible moment?

My right hon. Friend is exactly right: we need to avoid there being a hard border between England and Wales, and indeed between Scotland and England, on these questions. It is vital that we make sure that we listen to the voice of business and local government as well as to MPs—my hon. Friends the Members for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes), for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) and for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) have already met me about this issue—to make sure that we avoid the disaster for north Wales of England proceeding with these zones and Wales not choosing to do so.

It seems that investment zones are one of the few bits of the mini-Budget that are still on the table. Can the Secretary of State clearly explain how investment zones will be financed? Will it be completely new money, and, given the pressure that local authorities have been under from austerity and now from inflation, will he give an assurance that the money for investment zones will not be found by transferring it from other parts of the local government budget and particularly from levelling-up funds?

Yes, this is new money. It is coming from the Treasury as part of the settlement. Clearly, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be setting out the medium-term fiscal plan on 31 October and that will be the moment of confirmation.

What guarantee can the Minister give that investment zones will not lead to any reduction in the desperately needed flood protection and flood mitigation measures? Will the Minister look again at the amendments that I have tabled to the levelling-up Bill to look at strengthening flood protection and mitigation?

The hon. Lady is right to advocate for flood protection, which is vital. I actually welcome her question, because it is an important chance to reaffirm that investment zones are not in any way about cutting away environmental protection. They are about streamlining planning and making sure that lower taxes are on offer in targeted sites. Overwhelmingly, they will benefit brownfield regeneration projects, which would otherwise take years to unlock. I really hope that reassures her, and we will look at her amendments in detail.

Although this is the current game in town, I will be clearly supporting Greater Manchester’s bid to Government, which includes proposals for the Ashton mosque area in my constituency. However, given that this is still part of the mini-Budget—the only bit that has not been shredded yet—can the Secretary of State outline what the tax advantages to an investment zone will be? Can he clarify to the House that expects there to be not displacement of employment across the city region, but genuine growth?

Obviously, genuine additionality is the litmus test that we set for this policy, although it is vital to note that I see no harm in ensuring that, in areas where there is real opportunity, we bring good opportunities. On tax advantages, there will be a range of powers available, including on business rates relief, enhanced structures and buildings allowances, enhanced capital allowances and, critically, action on employer national insurance contributions, designed to ensure that there are incentives for new jobs in the zones.

Worcester Shrub Hill station and the area around it offer a fantastic opportunity to deliver a brownfield development that can provide jobs and homes in an area of Worcester that is closely connected to some of the more deprived areas of the city. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that an investment zone around Shrub Hill in Worcester, as proposed by Worcester City Council, Worcestershire County Council and the Worcestershire local enterprise partnership, would be a great chance to put rocket boosters under the levelling up of Worcester?

My hon. Friend makes a compelling case for his project. It is clear that the level of interest across the House in investment zones is extraordinary; we have had hundreds of applications from local authorities for these zones, which is testament to the huge appetite for growth and investment opportunities across this country, driven by a low-tax Conservative Government.

The National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Centre for Cities have criticised the number of jobs created by enterprise zones compared with the initial Treasury estimates. Why on earth does the Secretary of State think this new iteration in the form of investment zones—with attacks, whether he says it or not, on environmental standards, planning and workers’ rights—will be any more productive than the other failed zone proposals?

I am terribly fond of the hon. Gentleman, as I hope he knows, but I am afraid he is just wrong in that summary of investment zones. There is no diminution of workers’ rights or environmental rights; the zones are about lower taxes and streamlined planning to deliver jobs and growth, and we should all welcome that across the House.

Investment Zones: Impact on the Environment

12. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of investment zones on the environment. (901640)

22. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of investment zones on the environment. (901650)

Investment zones seek to empower communities to deliver planning and outcomes that are right for the local area, while maintaining strong environmental outcomes and keeping national green belt policies in place. They are about working with local areas, and we look forward to receiving applications from Wales in due course.

I welcome the commitment from the Dispatch Box to get investment zones established in Wales with the Welsh Government. The Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, with which I am working closely, are seeking reassurances from those on the Front Bench about all the environmental protections we have on the statute books. We welcome investment zones and we want them in Montgomeryshire, but those strong protections are important to us. Will the Minister again confirm those protections?

We are absolutely committed to strong environmental outcomes, as I am happy to repeat and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said. We look forward to applications from Montgomeryshire.

I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

For strong, sustained growth it is vital that we protect, enhance and invest in our natural capital. Can the Minister give me an absolute promise that none of the proposed reforms to the planning system, including in the investment zones, will row back on the Government’s 10% biodiversity net gain requirement, as enshrined in our landmark Environment Act 2021?

As my hon. Friend knows, that biodiversity net gain does not come in for some time yet. It could be that, depending on the applications received for investment zones, the planning permissions will have gone through, or be in the process of going through, under the existing planning process. However, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have repeated at the Dispatch Box, and as is clear within the expression of interest guidance on investment zones, we are committed to strong environmental outcomes in those areas and across the planning system.

Energy Efficiency: Guidance to Homeowners

13. What steps the Government are taking with (a) local authorities and (b) housing associations to provide guidance to homeowners on energy efficiency. (901641)

The Government have launched help for households on, outlining the full range of support available to help with the cost of living. That includes a tool to help homeowners understand how to improve their home’s energy efficiency and the grants available to them.

Across Totnes and south Devon, small and medium-sized enterprises and local start-ups such as Oh4 are finding new ways to help to reduce household bills and energy costs. What steps is the Minister taking to co-operate with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and his colleagues to ensure that local authorities and housing agencies are using such organisations?

It is great to hear stories of SMEs such as Oh4 in my hon. Friend’s constituency finding those innovative solutions. The building regulations are set in performance terms and do not prescribe technologies, so local authorities and SMEs have flexibility. That encourages industry and SMEs such as Oh4 to continue pushing the boundaries, so that today’s trailblazing examples of green innovation become the industry standards of tomorrow.

Home Ownership: Government Support

We are committed to creating a fair and just housing system that works for everyone. We have already cut stamp duty land tax, as the threshold at which it becomes due has doubled to £250,000, and we are expanding first-time buyers’ relief. We also have a range of programmes in place to help people into home ownership. Since spring 2010, more than 800,000 households have been helped to purchase a home through Help to Buy.

My right hon. Friend will know that 836 families in Darlington have benefited from Help to Buy in the past year, and 715 of them were first-time buyers. Given the success of the scheme what consideration has he given to extending it beyond March 2023?

I gladly pay tribute to Help to Buy, which has been a huge success, helping over 361,000 households to buy a new build from its launch in spring 2013 until the end of March this year. However, it was never designed to be a permanent intervention in the housing market. The closure at the end of March 2023 has been planned and publicised since the 2018 Budget, which has allowed the market to respond by introducing several products that provide similar levels of support to Help to Buy for first-time buyers. The Government have introduced various schemes as well, including First Homes, the mortgage guarantee scheme and shared ownership.

As well as having to cope with the cost of remortgaging, thousands of people who thought they had bought a safe and secure home are still living with unsafe cladding and other fire-safety defects. What is the Secretary of State’s current assessment of the total number of properties in England that have yet to be made safe?

My commitment to making sure that we follow through on the issue of remediating unsafe buildings is total. There are 24 buildings over 18 metres that have yet to be remediated in the way that the right hon. Gentleman sets out.[Official Report, 19 October 2022, Vol. 720, c. 4MC.] My priority—I will meet developers shortly—is to ensure that they sign the contract, which they committed to do in the summer, thanks to the hard work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), and to make sure that they fulfil their responsibilities. We are also taking action against those freeholders who have declined to remediate the buildings that they are committed to look after. We have served a pre-action notice on the owners of Vista tower in Stevenage with precisely the intention of making sure that they honour their obligations.

Home ownership is absolutely key to social mobility, but as historically low interest rates come to an end, that becomes more difficult for future generations and existing homeowners. Will the Secretary of State commit to work with Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert to make sure that as we collectively navigate the changing landscape we communicate the most helpful advice to help people to deal with the changes?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to communicate clearly with the public about all the support and options that are available. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is coming to the House later this afternoon precisely to give the kind of calm, clear messaging that we want so that we can reassure investors and the markets that there is a clear way forward on this vital question so that we can get interest rates as low as possible

One of the things that has helped my local authority to become the best in the south-west in providing affordable housing to buy and to rent is the power to require private developers to provide a proportion of housing that is affordable. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that worrying reports that the Government are considering raising the threshold for that requirement are not true?

We are looking at all the options that are open to us to try to accelerate house building across the country. We want to make sure that the right incentives are in place for developers to build—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) will let me answer the question, rather than shout at me. The reality is that we want to look at all those options. We have consulted on that particular option before, and we have decided not to do it. It is an issue that we keep under review, but the reasons that applied in our decision not to proceed then are very powerful.

Ukrainian Refugees: Departmental Support

The Government stand with Ukraine, and under the two visa schemes, Ukrainian refugees have full access to public services and welfare for up to three years. Over 120,000 Ukrainians have now arrived using those two schemes.

I thank the Government for the incredible support we are giving to Ukrainian refugees and my constituents, who have welcomed so many into their homes. Sadly, we are already hearing reports of breakdown between sponsor and refugee. Last week, I met the leader of Runnymede Borough Council and discussed the plans that he is putting in place to support refugees who cannot be rematched. What support is available to local authorities in that regard?

I am grateful to the hosts in my hon. Friend’s constituency for the generosity and good will they have shown during the past six months, and I recognise the challenges that can bring. We remain steadfast in our support for Ukraine. For arrivals under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, the £10,500 per person we provide to councils helps to provide support to individuals and families, including in the minority of cases where someone is left without accommodation.

With the departure of Lord Harrington, who was a Minister in both the Home Office and this Department, will the Minister explain what discussions he has had with the Home Office about how to deal with the potential homelessness of many Ukrainians under the Homes for Ukraine scheme?

I have met the Home Secretary directly since my appointment and I work very closely with the Minister of State, Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), who is responsible for immigration. We are closely aligned on all these issues.

Topical Questions

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.