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Topical Questions

Volume 723: debated on Monday 21 November 2022

The House will, of course, be aware that following the tragic death of Awaab Ishak, the chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing stood down at the weekend, but there is still so much more to do to ensure that the lessons from that tragedy are learned. I have written to local authorities and registered social landlords, to ensure that the dangers of damp and mould are at the front of all our minds, and further action will be taken in due course.

Colleagues across the House are eagerly awaiting the results of the latest round of the levelling-up fund, and I obviously want to draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to Devon County Council’s bid to cut congestion in Exmouth. Does he agree that levelling up must make a real difference in every region, including mine in the south-west?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his passionate plea. As a former Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department —and a very successful one, if I may say so—he will know that at this stage I cannot comment on individual bids. I am delighted that Devon County Council has put in a bid to the levelling-up fund, and we will be announcing the results of that bidding process in due course.

It is almost five and a half years since the horror of Grenfell, yet the building safety crisis remains unresolved for the vast majority of affected leaseholders. Will the Secretary of State tell the House when the overdue developer remediation contract will be published? When will Ministers finally resolve the problems relating to mortgages and buildings insurance, and when will those leaseholders who are currently excluded from protections learn whether their Government intend to help or abandon them?

Across the House there is a determination to ensure that the terrible tragedy of Grenfell is met with appropriate steps, both legislatively and in regulatory terms, and also that those who are trapped in buildings through no fault of their own are given the opportunity to move on with their lives. We will shortly be publishing the details of those contracts. We are meeting lenders to discuss moving away from the situation in which so many people have found themselves, and we are also talking to the insurance industry about the steps we need to take.

T3. In the care White Paper the Government committed to investing £300 million in supported housing for people with long-term health conditions, the numbers of whom are likely to go up by 125,000 this decade. In the wake of the autumn statement, will the Secretary of State assure me that that money is still available? (902318)

The Government remain committed to our 10-year vision for the reform of adult social care, and we are taking forward proposals in the “People at the Heart of Care” White Paper. As my right hon. Friend will appreciate, following last Thursday’s fiscal statement, Departments are reviewing specific spending plans, and details will be announced in due course.

T8. Tory austerity has hit councils hard. Under the Tory Government, Leeds City Council has been hit by cuts of £2 billion, which is money needed for key local services. Would not another round of austerity be an act of Government vandalism punishing the poorest areas in our country? (902323)

T5. I thank my hon. Friend for her support on Friday in the debate on my private Member’s Bill. Has she seen in today’s Inside Housing that last year exempt accommodation cost 174 of 333 councils a staggering £883.5 million, with 100 authorities who provide it not reporting anything? Given that huge amounts of money are going out the door—potentially to rogue landlords—will she commit to closing the loophole as fast as possible? (902320)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his Bill passing its Second Reading on Friday. This is clearly an important sector and there is no question that we need to put in place the licensing regime, on which I made a commitment that we would lay regulations within 18 months. However, it is critical that the taxpayer gets good value for money.

I strongly welcome the Secretary of State’s letter to local authorities over the weekend. It is right and proper that mould should be seen as a serious hazard to health. Does he agree that we also need regulatory powers, with resources to allow local government to implement those powers? Without that, we are simply using words and not action.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We do place responsibilities on local authorities—the letter reinforces that—but they do need to be appropriately resourced. I look forward to working with them to ensure that the personnel and resources are there to keep everyone safe.

T6. May I ask the Secretary of State direct how he believes it is either compassionate or conservative to be increasing council tax poverty? What message does he have for thousands of households in Dorset who next year will have to pay more than £90 every week in council tax as a direct result of his failure to reform the grant funding system? (902321)

I say to my hon. Friend, who is a brilliant advocate for his constituents, that we face a need for economy across the board and, funnily enough, as Opposition MPs have reminded us, the council tax base is often broader in areas that are relatively more prosperous such as those that he represents. Of course, I recognise the strains and pressures faced by his constituents. However, at a time when belts are having to be tightened everywhere, although it is a terrible thing to say, I actually feel sorrier for some people not in Christchurch but in other parts of the country because the relatively wealthy and the relatively older in our country already have it relatively better.

Since I met the Secretary of State, the pace of short-term holiday lets in my constituency has exploded, with the flipping of private rented homes and the hoovering up of homes to purchase meaning that people in my constituency have nowhere to live. When will he bring forward legislation to license short-term holiday lets? Will he support my private Member’s Bill, which aims to do that?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue also raised by Members from North Devon, North Norfolk and elsewhere. Through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and other measures, in co-operation with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, we are looking at what we can do to alleviate some of the pressures that her constituents and others face.

T7. Our precious green belt should never be prioritised over brownfield sites. However, local authorities are coming under increasing pressure to include green belt in their core strategies because of unfair housing targets. Will my right hon. and learned Friend help councils to better implement a “brownfield first” policy by reforming the formula used to set housing targets? Will she meet me and representatives from Erewash Borough Council to discuss the matter further? (902322)

We are absolutely committed to making the most of brownfield land. In fact, the national planning policy framework sets out that planning policies and decisions should give substantial weight to the value of using suitable brownfield land in settlements and should prioritise that. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that.

The Secretary of State is well aware of Bell Building Projects and the work it is doing to remove cladding across these islands. What representations has he made to Homes England, which is taking four to five months to pay the invoices of this company and other contractors?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Organisations in the private sector, such as the one in his constituency, are contributing to dealing with the building safety crisis. It is the responsibility of Homes England and indeed my Department to make sure that small and medium-sized enterprises that are making a contribution are promptly paid. I have raised the issue with Homes England and in the Department, and I hope that prompt payment will follow. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for speaking up for small business in his constituency.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that green-belt sites set aside for housing in local council draft plans are removed prior to plan adoption? (902324)

The national planning policy framework is clear that a local authority should not propose to alter a green-belt boundary unless there are exceptional circumstances and it can show at examination of the local plan that it has explored every other reasonable option. Any proposal to release land from green belt is subject to rigorous examination by the planning inspector, who is independent and who acts on behalf of the Secretary of State.

Taxpayers in St Albans district are shelling out £3 million a year to subsidise big developers because the Government’s cap on planning fees prevents my local councils from charging the full amount for processing a big application, and last week I tabled the presentation Bill to scrap that cap. Given the enormous pressures on household budgets, will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how we can urgently address this issue, perhaps through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill?

I sympathise with the position in which the hon. Lady’s constituents find themselves, We can certainly do more to ensure that developers pay their way when dealing with applications of this kind. One of my colleagues would happily meet her.

There is overwhelming evidence that the building blocks for lifelong emotional and physical wellbeing are laid down during the first 1,001 days of human life. Does my right hon. Friend agree that supporting that is the best piece of levelling up we could possibly do? What more can he do to ensure that family hubs and joined-up start for life services are rolled out right across England as soon as possible?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and her impassioned advocacy of better support for children and families in the first 1,001 days of a child’s life has helped to shape Government policy. The wider roll-out of family hubs, support for children’s services and, in particular, targeted intervention when children are at risk of abuse or neglect will, when taken together, help to ensure that we level up opportunities across this country. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for all her work on this issue.

European social fund projects in Northern Ireland face a financial cliff edge. Over 1,000 jobs are at risk and over 17,000 service users fear for their future. Can the Secretary of State give me an assurance that there will be an investment plan and a process in place to give those organisations the chance to apply for shared prosperity fund support ahead of next April?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, and I will work with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make sure that there is an investment plan in place.

The renters reform Bill will make private tenancy arrangements fit for the 21st century. Will my right hon. Friend set out what steps the Government are taking to ensure that such tendencies are also up to a decent standard? How will that be backed up with monitoring and enforcement?

We are committed to legislating for a decent homes standard, which is critical. I agree that enforcement is terribly important, which is why we have strengthened councils’ enforcement powers, including through penalties of up to £30,000.

Awaab Ishak’s death was shocking, and such things should not be happening in our country in 2022. Everybody deserves a warm, safe and decent home to live in. His case shows what happens when people living in social housing are disregarded, as has been the case in my constituency after decades of Conservative control of Wandsworth Borough Council, which has allowed social housing stock to go into decay. What is the Secretary of State’s Department doing to assist investment in social housing?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. I should say that Wandsworth under Conservative leadership was an outstanding and exemplary council in so many ways, but I understand that she has to make that point—the constituency Labour parties have to be kept happy and so on. The key thing is that all local authorities have an obligation, as do all registered social landlords, and we want to work with them to tackle the issue that she rightly raised.

In Chelmsford we badly need more social and affordable housing. When new housing developments are built, the local authority can set a rule that a certain proportion of the new homes must be affordable. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider enabling local authorities to put in place similar rules when large commercial buildings such as office blocks are converted from commercial to residential properties.

That is an important issue that relates to permitted development rights. My right hon. Friend is on to something, so I look forward to working with her.

As private sector rents continue to rise in west London, more and more of my constituents on low incomes and dependent on benefits are having to pay rent well above the levels of the local housing allowance. They cannot afford it and are having either not to eat or not to heat their homes. Will the Secretary of State make a statement about the urgent need for the Government to uprate local housing allowance?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about local housing allowance, but I gently remind her that one thing we can do is to improve the supply of housing in west London, and I think I am right in saying that she has not always been an energetic supporter of every development that has come forward in her constituency.

In June, the Prime Minister announced plans to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants to enable them to purchase their own homes. Will my right hon. Friend update me on the progress of this initiative and confirm whether a tenant who has purchased an initial equity stake in a housing association home on shared-ownership terms will be able to use a right-to-buy discount to purchase the remaining equity stake through staircasing?

I have been proud to support a very good levelling-up bid in Oswestry in my constituency. With North Shropshire being such a large rural area, public transport is a really important part of levelling up the whole region, so will the Secretary of State look favourably on both Oswestry’s bid and Shropshire’s bid to improve bus services across the county?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for speaking so passionately about the bid for her constituency. I am certainly willing to engage with her and Ministers at the Department for Transport to see what more we can do.

Rutland and Melton councils have put forward a brilliant blueprint for rural innovation in our levelling-up bid, focused on health and transport. The context is an urgent need to put social mobility into funding formulas for those areas of deprivation otherwise hidden by affluence. Will my right hon. Friend do what he said he would do back in February: take up an offer that is too good to be true by coming to Rutland and Melton to discuss the bid and the future of social mobility funding?

What an alluring invitation—and yes. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) pointed out earlier, Leicestershire and Rutland are relatively poorly funded in comparison with other local authorities, which is why the particular plight of deprived communities in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere is at the forefront of our minds.

Recent analysis has found that £1 in every £13 allocated through the two levelling-up funding rounds will be lost to inflation—that is more than £560 million—so how will Ministers ensure that complex bids such as that for the remediation of hexavalent chromium at Shawfield in my constituency do not miss out on funding opportunities as a result?

We will do everything possible to work with local authorities, particularly to make sure that every pound goes further. The hon. Lady quite rightly raises the whole question of bearing down on inflation; I hope that she and others will be in the Division Lobby tomorrow evening to support the Government in the measures we have taken in the autumn statement that will bear down on inflation. I note that Members on the Labour Benches have not yet criticised those measures; they appreciate, as we do, that we need to work together to tame inflation.