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Commons Chamber

Volume 725: debated on Monday 9 January 2023

House of Commons

Monday 9 January 2023

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

New Writ


That Mr Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a New Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County constituency of West Lancashire in the room of Rosemary Elizabeth Cooper, who since her election for the said County constituency has been appointed to the Office of Steward and Bailiff of His Majesty’s Three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham in the County of Buckingham.—(Sir Alan Campbell.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

The Secretary of State was asked—

Potentially Unsuitable Development Proposals

1. What steps he is taking to help communities protect themselves from potentially unsuitable development proposals. (902977)

Mr Speaker, I would like to start by apologising on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his absence from the Chamber. As I believe you and the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) are aware, he has a family reason that means he is unable to be here today.

The Government are taking action to protect communities from inappropriate development through measures in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and through our proposals for updating the national policy planning framework, which we launched for consultation at the end of last year. Those proposals include giving increased weight to plans in decision making, removing the requirement to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply where a plan is up to date and strengthening the protections from speculative development for areas that have a neighbourhood plan that meets its housing requirement.

The Minister is well aware that communities across the Witham constituency, including many villages such as Hatfield Peverel, Tollesbury, Tiptree and Black Notley, have been subject to speculative developments, some of which have gone through on appeals from builders in particular or have been approved by councils concerned about their five-year land supply. What assurances can she and the Government give my constituents, who are fighting against many speculative developers and developments, that the Government’s planning policies are on the side of those communities?

I am very aware of the issues my right hon. Friend raises, because we discussed them at length as the Bill was going through the House. I am grateful for her contributions, which have strengthened the Bill. I know that communities, including in her constituency, invest considerable time and effort in preparing neighbourhood plans, and I understand their frustrations when decisions go against their wishes. The current NPPF already provides important additional protection from speculative development for areas with a neighbourhood plan, but we want to go even further. We have just published proposals to increase protections for areas, including those with neighbourhood plans. Those proposals are now out for consultation and I know the Secretary of State will consider all views carefully before making a final decision.

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to everyone else.

The consultation on the NPPF before Christmas included quite a lot of flexibilities and potential for changes on the standard methodology that would be the basis for calculating the housing needs assessment, but the one area where there did not seem to be much flexibility was the urban uplift. Can the Minister justify the 35% uplift and set out how it has been calculated for each of the urban areas? Secondly, in cases such as that of Sheffield, where the urban uplift will force development on to greenfield sites and the green belt, will there be flexibility so that the extra amount from the urban uplift does not have to be applied where it can do real damage to local communities?

I am sure other hon. Members have questions for me and other Ministers about the importance of infrastructure where we have development. Developments in urban areas have the benefit of that infrastructure, and it is important to build houses where there is infrastructure, so that uplift remains. However, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the green belt, and we are very conscious of the impact of building on green belt. There will be strengthened protections around that in the NPPF.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the best way to stop building housing in unsuitable areas is to build more on brownfield sites across the country? Is it not therefore all the more tragic that under the current Labour Mayor of London, house building has gone off a cliff because he remains obsessed with unrealistic targets for social housing in every development, stopping good projects from going ahead and depriving the people of this city and this country of houses for sale and for market rent, and of social housing as well?

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point, as always. We do agree that it is important that we build first on brownfield land. That is why we have a brownfield-first policy that we are absolutely committed to, and a brownfield fund to encourage investment in those areas. It is, of course, important that we have social housing, affordable housing and homes that first-time buyers can buy. But it is important that we have mixed developments, and that those houses are in the right places and in the right quantities.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

York is becoming unrecognisable as developers are building not only luxury student accommodation but luxury apartments across our city when we desperately need social and affordable homes. That is leading to the highest price rises in housing across the country—a staggering 23.1% last year—pricing out my constituents. How will the Minister ensure that local authorities just build housing according to need rather than the want of developers?

We do ensure that. We are committed to ensuring that we have in our new infrastructure the same amount of affordable housing that we have at the moment. As I am sure the hon. Member is aware, we have a fund of £11.5 billion going into affordable housing so that developers can create the houses that people not only want but need.

Interest Rates and Inflation: Inequality and Levelling Up

2. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of changes in the level of (a) interest rates and (b) inflation on regional inequality. (902978)

11. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of increases in inflation on the adequacy of levelling-up funding. (902988)

I wish you a very happy new year, Mr Speaker.

The recent autumn statement protected the most vulnerable by uprating benefits and pensions with inflation, strengthening the energy price guarantee, and providing cost of living payments for those who are most in need. My Department is continuing to analyse and respond to the challenges that inflation presents to the delivery of our levelling-up programmes and the levelling-up agenda, working closely with the places affected. We are continuing to explore what other support can be offered to mitigate against those inflationary pressures.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

According to the Department, construction of major projects has stalled because industry prices are well above the headline rates of inflation. As the Minister knows, UK inflation is projected to be the highest in the G7 this year, as it was last year. In the north-west, the Government have cut £206 million from the much-needed shared prosperity fund, so will the Minister confirm that her Department will make up the shortfall in the funds to help the construction industry play its part in rebuilding the economy and communities across the country?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing attention to the shared prosperity fund, which is just one of the many measures that this Government have put in place to help to promote investment in local areas right across the country. One point that I draw his attention to is that, in recognising the challenging landscape that we face at the moment, our Department is making an additional £65 million of funding available to successful applicants to ensure that they can take on board consultants, train up extra staff and increase their capacity so that they are responding to the challenges that they face.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker. It is great to see the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), take a break from his career break to come and join us today—he is very welcome.

The UK is already the second most unequal G7 country, with inflation higher in poorer regions—including many parts of the west of Scotland—than in London and the south-east of England. That is set to become even worse as a consequence of the Tory cost of living crisis. Local initiatives such as the Clyde green freeport are designed to boost economic prospects in the west of Scotland, but inequality is still a major impediment to economic growth. How can the Tories fix that inequality when they largely caused it in the first place and have spent the last decade making it worse?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for again drawing attention to the green freeports programme, which will provide brilliant opportunities for residents in Scotland; we hope to make an announcement on that incredibly soon. I draw his attention to the incredible UK Government funds going into Scotland: the UK shared prosperity fund, the levelling-up fund and the community ownership fund—all things that Scottish people can access thanks to the UK Government improving opportunities for Scottish people.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

In Hyndburn and Haslingden, we welcome the shared prosperity funding we have received, which will support places such as Haslingden market. But after significant stakeholder engagement, we now eagerly await the outcome of our levelling-up fund bid. Can the Minister confirm that the results will be known before the end of the month?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is an excellent champion for her community—this is not the first time she has bent my ear on the levelling-up fund, and I am sure it will not be the last. I can confirm that we will announce the full outcome of the levelling-up fund by the end of January.

In Darwen, our town deal is absolutely crucial as part of our levelling-up plan. However, because of inflation, not only is time a wasting asset, but so is the value of that deal. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council to discuss how we can speed up the release of the Darwen town deal funds?

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and happy new year.

Conservative failure to tackle regional inequality is just one in a long list of let-downs. Thirteen years of Tory rule, and parts of the UK have plunged further and further into poverty. Local authorities spent over £27 million applying for levelling-up bids, only for many to lose out—places such as Barnsley and Knowsley, which have been denied multiple bids with little transparency, leaving many colleagues in the dark and resorting to questioning Ministers about local bids, with no answers at all. Will the Minister please clarify the lack of transparency and the financial costs of these bids to cash-strapped councils, particularly during the cost of living crisis?

I thank the shadow Minister for her question. We are keen to get the levelling-up funding announced by the end of the month, with additional funding to what we were originally forecast to put out. We had £1.7 billion in the pot; we are now going to be divvying out £2.1 billion to local areas that really need it. It is the Conservative Government who deliver for the people across this country.

Strength of the Union

When we work together as one United Kingdom, we are safer, stronger and more prosperous. We are better able to tackle the big problems—from supporting families with the cost of living, to leading the international response to Russia’s war in Ukraine and to being a world leader in offering the vaccine to all our citizens. We are taking specific action in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, including putting local voices at the heart of decision making.

Oh—is it still Monday? Six of the last seven polls in Scotland have shown majority support for Scottish independence. What does the Minister think is driving up that support? Is it the ignoring of the majority of pro-independence MSPs? Is it the assault on workers through the anti-trade union legislation coming forward? Or it just 12 long, brutal years of Tory rule, for which Scotland has not voted since the 1950s?

We respect the priorities of the Scottish people, who are focused on improving the NHS, on education, on tackling inflation and on getting a ferry that actually works and takes them to the islands. We will work in co-operation with the Scottish Government. We respect devolution and we want to work with them to implement the people’s priorities.

If the Government and the Minister, as a proud Scot, respect the wishes of Scottish voters, surely they will respect the votes in the last Scottish parliamentary election, which elected a pro-independence majority in Parliament. Also, an opinion poll last year showed that 72% of Scots want to remain in the EU—what has happened to respecting that wish? If this is a voluntary Union, what is the mechanism for the people of Scotland to demonstrate their consent or otherwise to staying in it?

I am very proud to be a Scots person. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the 2021 Holyrood elections: less than one third of the Scottish electorate voted for the SNP in that election.

A guid new year tae yin and a’, and monie may ye see.

The Minister talks about Administrations working together, so how is it working together when the Government propose unpopular and extreme legislation, such as the proposed anti-strike legislation that they have trailed in the media, which no devolved Administration support and which has not been consulted on? How is that strengthening the Union?

This Government work tirelessly with the devolved Administrations. I have been in post for only a few months, and I have had two conversations specifically on Homes for Ukraine with the Scottish and Welsh Administrations. In the first three quarters of last year, there were more than 200 departmental meetings. The Prime Minister, within three weeks of taking office, met the First Ministers in Blackpool. That is the commitment of this Government.

If the devolved Administrations say no to the proposed anti-strike legislation, the Government will accept that then, will they not?

Leasehold and Freehold Reform

6. If he will bring forward legislative proposals to give freeholders rights to directly challenge management and service charges equivalent to those of leaseholders. (902982)

The Government are committed to building on the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Act 2022 and delivering the second phase of our major two-part leasehold reform programme within this Parliament. This will make it easier for leaseholders to purchase their freeholds and will establish greater fairness between those parties.

I welcome the steps taken by my right hon. and learned Friend and look forward to seeing them progress into law. Nationally, much of the focus has been on high-rise flats, but in Fylde there are many new housing developments completed in recent years with leasehold issues of their own. In light of that, what action is she taking to ensure that these reforms include those living on recently completed housing developments?

I can give my hon. Friend assurance that the many measures we will bring in will affect not only new purchasers but existing leaseholders. We will be bringing forward legislation later in this Parliament.

In my constituency, Councillor Weir of Great Denham, Councillor Gallagher of Shortstown and Councillor Dixon of Stotfold are leading efforts on behalf of local residents who own a freehold property to challenge excessive fees, lack of transparency and poor service by estate management companies. Will the Minister review the terms of reference of the property ombudsman to make it easier for homeowners—freeholders—to challenge these unfair practices?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight unfairness in relation to freeholders. Estate management companies must be more accountable to homeowners on how money is spent to maintain privately managed estates. We will be giving freehold owners on these estates new rights to challenge costs and appoint a manager, as well as requiring private estate management companies to join a redress scheme.

The Minister will know that in some parts of the country, residents are impacted by chief rents. The Rentcharges Act 1977 extinguishes all chief rents in 2037, but many of the property companies that hold the chief rents are now using sharp practices and scams to con their residents out of extra money by sending questionnaires to residents about home improvements they have had. What is she doing to tighten up on these scams and sharp practices?

The hon. Member makes an important point, and I know that freeholders are paying charges for maintaining communal areas, known colloquially as “fleecehold”. It is something we are looking at, and I am happy to update him on that.

Just before Christmas, a constituent of mine received a service charge bill in respect of her leasehold flat for fire-stopping works. Leaseholders rightly believe they should not have to pay to fix fire safety defects, and they think the Building Safety Act 2022 protects them from having to do so. Can the Minister therefore set out for the House in what circumstances it is still lawful for the owner of a building to charge leaseholders to fix fire safety defects?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, we are taking a number of steps in the Building Safety Act 2022 to strengthen protections for the residents living in these buildings. The Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), or I will write to the right hon. Gentleman on his specific question.

I welcome what the Minister has said about bringing forward legislation, which this House needs to pass as soon as possible, to protect leaseholders in ways put forward by the Law Commission, with proposals commissioned by the Government. Will she also consider how to make leaseholders parties to the building insurance for which they pay the premiums? For some reason, they are not thought to have an interest in it, but they should. That needs to change.

I have had a number of conversations with my hon. Friend; I know he is very committed to this area. He will know that we are bringing in legislation in due course that will make it much easier for leaseholders to enfranchise their leases. I am already looking at the particular area that he mentions.

Last month marked five years since a previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), promised to liberate leaseholders from “feudal practices”. We have obviously had some progress in terms of new builds, but existing leaseholders are still facing the same problems. I recognise the warm words from the Minister, but can she confirm that we will see legislation coming forward this year to deal with all the existing problems that leaseholders face?

What I can confirm is that we will be bringing forward legislation in this Parliament to make valuations easier for those extending their leases, to make the lease extension experience easier and cheaper, to make it quicker for freeholders to take control of the management of their buildings with a right to manage and a number of other measures.

Home Building

The design of our homes matters. That is why we have already taken steps to embed design quality in the planning system through changes to national planning policy and guidance. Furthermore, the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill requires areas to adopt local design codes, setting clear rules for development.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Councils can only require developers to build homes with energy measures that are in line with national guidelines. What work is being done to update these frameworks so that developers can be mandated to install measures such as solar panels or ground-source heat pumps and thereby reduce carbon emissions and, crucially, cut domestic energy bills?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of ensuring that our homes use green energy. In 2021, the Government introduced an uplift in the energy efficiency standards that means that new homes are now expected to produce 30% less carbon dioxide than the current standards. Furthermore, that is just a stepping stone to the 2025 future homes standard. Although we do not mandate specific technologies to enable innovation and tailoring to individual sites, we expect that most developers will use solar panels or heat pumps to meet those new standards.

It has been six months since Birmingham City Council applied for round 2 of the levelling-up fund. Sadly, Ministers overlooked our bid in round 1, but that was two Governments ago. I am grateful to the Minister for Levelling Up for confirming that the results of the second round will be announced by the end of this month. If our bid is successful, the funding will totally transform Erdington High Street—

The Welsh Labour Government have applied schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which provides minimum standards for sustainable urban drainage systems on new housing developments. New properties in England lack those same statutory flood protections. The Government launched a review last year, so when will its results be concluded and when will schedule 3 be applied here so that homes in England can have the same standard of flood protection as those built in Wales?

The Government have taken a number of actions on flood and waste water management, which we have increased through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. We will respond in due course to the consultation that the hon. Lady talked about.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

Reference to high quality housing is often a shorthand for reference to expensive housing, yet in my community nearly 6,000 people are on the council house waiting list, so we desperately need affordable homes that are of high quality. Will the Minister agree to change planning law so that councils such as mine in Cumbria and in our national parks have the power to enforce 100% affordability, so that we build to meet need not just demand?

I have had a number of conversations with the hon. Gentleman, and he knows that we are taking steps to help improve and build homes in his area. Not only do we have the £11.5 billion fund, but we have taken steps on the issue of second homes that he and other hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised with me, so that we ensure that people who live in particular areas continue to live there and use their services.

Does the Minister agree that the best way to build high quality homes is to give the greatest choice to the people who live in them as to what is built? Can she think of any ways in which we might encourage that?

I wonder whether my hon. Friend is talking about self and custom-build, about which I have had many conversations with him. He knows that we are strengthening the ability in the Bill to build such homes.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

The Government’s decision to signal the end of enforceable local house building targets has already resulted in a number of local authorities pausing work on their local plans. I have a simple question for the Minister: has her Department carried out any analysis or assessment of the impact on overall housing supply of the changes to national planning policy outlined in the national planning policy framework consultation that is now under way?

The simple fact is that under the present system, too few local authorities have local plans, because people do not want development in their area. Through the Bill, we are seeking to ensure that communities have a say on their local plans so that those plans are passed within the 30-month time limit that we have set out in the Bill.

Levelling Up: Cost of Living in Rural Areas

8. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of his Department’s levelling-up agenda on the cost of living for people in rural areas. (902984)

22. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of his Department’s levelling-up agenda on the cost of living for people in rural areas. (902999)

Levelling up is all about improving opportunities and living standards in all parts of the country, but we know that some cost pressures, including transport and energy, can be even greater in rural areas than in urban areas. That is why, in this year’s provisional local government finance settlement, we have proposed maintaining the £85-million rural services delivery grant. As we are concerned about the impact of the cost of living, the recent autumn statement also protected the most vulnerable by uprating benefits and pensions with inflation, strengthening the energy price guarantee, and providing cost of living payments to those most in need.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

Levelling-up funding will not help the systemic issues behind the cost of living crisis, but one of the challenges in rural communities is that the infrastructure is often not in place, so I am concerned about the Government’s delay in announcing the successful bids for levelling-up funding, particularly for the projects and communities that would benefit in North East Fife. I am also concerned that the Government are not pushing back the deadline on capital expenditure beyond 31 March 2025, because capital expenditure is difficult to deliver. Will they consider extending that deadline?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her pertinent question. That is precisely why we are putting in place additional funding to help to support local areas to build up their local capacity and improve their ability to deliver those projects on time. Ultimately, all our constituents want to see spades in the ground and projects completed as soon as possible.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

As the Minister just said, it is well documented that the cost of living crisis is affecting rural parts of Britain to a much greater extent because of the higher costs of petrol, food, transport and housing, and the lower average wages. I am seeing a growing number of emails from increasingly desperate constituents, including one who contacted me this week to say that she was wearing coats and hats in her house, despite having worked all her life. Her email concluded:

“I wish I was dead, I’m so depressed”.

Will the Minister acknowledge the extent of the problem affecting rural parts of Britain and work with her colleagues across Government to address the factors that are making the cost of living crisis much worse for people in rural Britain?

Again, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the case of her constituent. Sadly, I think all of us have seen examples like this, but it is particularly acute in rural communities. I represent a rural constituency so I have seen similar cases. A lot of work is going on right across Government to try to mitigate cost of living pressures, including cost of living payments and additional help with energy bills, but I am certainly willing to work with anyone across the House who can help us in that mission.

In many rural areas there is no mains drainage, and the cost of sewage disposal is adding to the rising cost of living. One housing association in Romsey and Southampton North is levying charges to homeowners of £300 per month, meaning that their sewage disposal charges are higher than their energy bills. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me so that she can hear more about the specifics of that case and understand if there is anything the Government can do to help?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this, and I will of course meet her to learn more and see what more we in Government can do to help support her constituents.

Levelling up must cover all parts of our country—north, south, east and west—including rural areas. With that in mind, does my hon. Friend agree that a great way for the Government to show their support for rural areas would be to back the Inspiring Eden Enterprise Hub bid, which would really be a shot in the arm for the people of Penrith, Eden and rural Cumbria?

My hon. Friend, my constituency neighbour, is an excellent champion for Penrith and The Border, and I certainly see the excellent work he does. I am certainly happy to meet him to discuss this further.

Empowering Local Communities

The Government are of course committed to seeing more empowered and accountable local leadership, and we believe that devolution is the key to ensuring that that happens. Alongside the existing nine devolution deals already in place, last year the Government announced deals with six new areas, which will provide them with over £4 billion to help drive growth and innovation, and to help them respond to the challenges and needs in their areas.

The town deal initiative has been very successful in empowering communities by enabling local people to decide for themselves how regeneration money will be spent. We are delighted in Stocksbridge to have had final sign-off on our town deal, which is £24 million of Government investment that is going to transform our high street, improve transport and enable people of all ages to flourish in our town. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the towns fund initiative should be a blueprint for future levelling-up projects, and will she honour Stocksbridge—I believe it is not very far at all from where she grew up—with a visit to see this community power in action?

Well, I cannot possibly say no now, as a proud south Yorkshire lass, can I? My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Stocksbridge, and I congratulate her and the Stocksbridge board on securing £24.1 million to respond directly to the needs of the town. The town deal model is indeed a strong one, and I can assure her that responding to the views of local communities and stakeholders, including the local MP, will continue to be at the core of our approach to levelling up.

I thank the Minister for her answer. What assessment has the hon. Lady made of the implications for her policies of the UK100 “Local Net Zero Delivery Progress Report” on local powers, which are critical for that very progress to actually happen?

I thank the hon. Member for his question. Our net zero strategy sets out our commitments to enable local areas to deliver net zero and recognises that local authorities can and do play an essential role in delivering on our climate action. The UK100 “Local Net Zero Delivery Progress Report” forms part of a growing body of evidence that reviews what is going on with net zero.

Unsafe Cladding

The Government are providing a significant amount of taxpayer subsidy to remediate cladding on high-rise residential buildings, 95% of buildings with unsafe ACM cladding have work under way or complete, and over £1.6 billion has been allocated from the fund alongside a wider set of interventions to speed up resolution for those leaseholders who are impacted.

It is quite clear to me that freeholders and managing agents have a duty of care towards residents, whether they be leaseholders or tenants. In Ipswich, we have two quite dramatic examples of where these freeholders and agents are dramatically failing the residents. We have Cardinal Lofts, which the Minister is aware of, but we also have St Francis Tower, where we have had residents for over a year living in darkness with no natural light because of the shrink wrap. Will the Minister confirm whether there are any plans for a new regulatory framework to make sure that these cowboy companies such as Block Management, which has refused to respond to my emails about block management, are held to account, and also to ensure that there are clear standards when it comes to remediation works?

My hon. Friend is an absolute champion for the issues that his constituents have highlighted to him, and I had the privilege of accompanying him on a visit to one of those particular buildings—Cardinal Lofts—a few weeks ago. Building owners have a responsibility to remediate the buildings that they own, and they have access to funds with which they are able to do that. They should be ensuring that developers and other interested parties are followed up accordingly to make sure that the ultimate aim, which is to ensure that leaseholders are not impacted, is resolved as quickly as it can be.

The Minister understands what a terrible problem this unsafe cladding is. A development in my constituency, Dalston Square, has unsafe cladding and the builders, Barratt, have accepted responsibility and put up scaffolding to deal with it. That scaffolding has been up for two years and nothing has happened because of a dispute between the builders and the contractors. Is there no way in which the Government can ensure that unsafe cladding is dealt with promptly so that tenants or residents do not suffer from the problems they encounter in having scaffolding up for two years?

The right hon. Lady raises an important point. We need to get these properties resolved, mitigated and improved and that needs to be done in a way that works, as much as it can, for leaseholders, who should not be impacted by this in the first place. I will be happy to receive any information on the building she mentioned; I visited a flat in Manchester just a few weeks ago which had a similar issue and I will be happy to talk to her about this specific issue in more detail.

Voter ID: May 2023 Local Elections

12. What assessment he has made of the feasibility of bringing in voter ID for local elections in May 2023. (902989)

The Government continue to work actively to ensure that voter ID is delivered in time for the 2023 elections, and we will continue to work with the Electoral Commission and all other parties, including local authorities, to ensure that that occurs.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but the Government’s imposition of voter ID, despite there being hardly any instances of voter fraud, is a crass attempt at vote rigging, and now the Electoral Commission and the Local Government Association are warning it will not even be possible to have everything ready by this May’s local elections. So will the Minister do the right thing for our democracy and pause the roll-out, or will the Minister ignore the experts and plough on, knowing full well that ploughing on and ignoring the experts will disenfranchise so many people across our country?

Just as when we discussed this in the statutory instrument debate, the hon. Gentleman has deployed some pretty outrageous rhetoric on an important issue. The issue is important for the integrity of the ballot box going forward, and we will continue to work with all parties. I will be speaking with the Electoral Commission shortly, which just today has begun its process of outlining this to people through its communications campaign, and we will ensure that in May 2023, when people go to the ballot box, they are able to cast their vote, and that people have an absolute commitment from this Government that votes are cast by people who are who they say they are.

But does not the Minister agree that the reason why Opposition Members say that there is no voter fraud is that they do not know, and only when we have voter ID will we be able to be sure there will be no voter fraud?

My hon. Friend makes an important point and the basic principle is that we want to ensure that the ballot box is sacrosanct and that the process has integrity, so when people go to vote, it works.

You are very welcome.

Those who set the standards for our elections, the Electoral Commission, thinks that May is too soon for voter ID reforms, and those who have to implement them, our electoral administrators, say the same. There are just 115 days until the local elections and the Minister seems to put a lot of stock in a campaign that is only starting today. The Minister did not address in his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) nor in the statutory instrument debate what it is in his judgment that he believes supersedes the views of those who actually have to make this happen.

We will continue to work with everybody in order to deliver this, because the Government have been absolutely clear for a number of years that it is important that the ballot box has integrity. We are bringing forward voter identification to ensure that that happens, and we will continue to work with all organisations to make sure it is successful in the 115 days to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Regional Inequality

In this challenging economic context, levelling up to tackle regional inequality is more important than ever. While this requires a whole-Government effort, my Department continues to push ahead through investment in local places, for example through the UK shared prosperity fund, from which I understand the Glasgow city region has been allocated more than £73 million for interventions that will build pride in place and improve life chances for people living in the region.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker. As successful bids for the levelling-up fund are finalised—I hope to see Shawfield in my constituency receive some money—how does the Minister expect this round of funding to support wage growth across the UK in the light of the cost of living crisis?

I appreciated the hon. Member’s pitch, which I am sure we will take on board alongside those made by colleagues across the House. The levelling-up fund is there to support local capital projects, of which there is such a wide range. Many of those will help improve wage growth, improve life chances and improve the skills of young people so that they can get on in life, because that is what the Conservative Government are all about.

With £56 million from the levelling-up fund, a £17.6 million Kidsgrove town deal, masses of funding from the shared prosperity fund and, of course, a Conservative-led council building 1,000 homes a year, on average, and reopening things such as Tunstall town hall, which Labour left shut for 30 years, does the Minister agree that those who want to see regional inequality broken should vote Conservative in May’s local elections?

Residential Developments: Infrastructure Provision

14. What steps his Department is taking to encourage the early provision of infrastructure for residential developments. (902991)

Providing the right infrastructure at the right time is really important to communities. That is why, in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, we are introducing a new infrastructure levy that will more effectively deliver infrastructure such as schools, GP surgeries and roads. It will also give the ability to a local authority to collect that money earlier. We will be publishing a consultation on the new levy shortly.

There is no better example of providing infrastructure early than Houlton in my Rugby constituency, where 6,000 new homes are being provided. The Minister will be able to see that on her forthcoming visit. The access road went in after just 272 homes. On education, the primary school went in after 79 homes, and the secondary school after just 776. With 1,000 new homes already on the site, the facility that is missing is primary healthcare, and discussions with the local NHS are moving far too slowly. What steps can she take to ensure that vital third item of infrastructure is provided as soon as possible?

I am pleased to hear about this successful development and look forward to seeing it. Due to the quasi-judicial role of Ministers in the planning system, I cannot comment on specific planning applications. However, as part of the new infrastructure levy, we are very committed to ensuring that the infrastructure delivery strategies, which councils will have to put together, will make it clearer to communities what will be provided. That should include things such as GP surgeries, which should have the integrated care board’s support.

First-time Buyers

There are currently no plans to further extend or replace Help to Buy, but all options to increase home ownership are kept under review. Our other schemes, including shared ownership, the mortgage guarantee scheme and First Homes, which have been trialled in my hon. Friend’s constituency, continue to support first-time buyers.

The Help to Buy scheme has been an invaluable way of getting on the housing ladder for so many people. I was recently visited by a constituent—a young nurse—who was desperate to use the scheme but worried that it runs out in March. Will the Minister give us an update? Will we be able to keep this invaluable scheme?

We do not currently have plans to do so, but we will keep that under review. Since 2010, more than 819,000 households have been helped to purchase a home through Government-backed schemes. That includes how we cut stamp duty land tax, and extended the mortgage guarantee for a further year to maintain the availability of mortgages to buyers with only a 5% deposit.

First-time home ownership is a pipe dream for most people in my constituency, where more people rent privately than own their homes and more people rent social housing than those combined, with more than 13,000 people on a pruned-back social housing waiting list. What will the Minister and her Department do to help councils build the right housing—affordable housing—in boroughs such as Hackney so that people can get their foot into any secure housing, whether rented or owned?

The hon. Member raises a very important point about how we help people to buy homes and get on the housing ladder. We have an £11.5 billion fund to help build affordable homes. She also mentions social housing. Since 1980, through the right to buy scheme, 2 million social housing tenants now own their own home, and we continue to develop schemes to secure people’s home ownership.

Empty Buildings in Town Centres

Regenerating our town centres is essential to the Government’s commitment to level up the country. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill includes measures to tackle vacant properties, such as high street rental auctions, and it clarifies compulsory purchase powers. We have also revised the business development and use class rules so that commercial buildings can change easily between uses. Through the town deals programme and future high streets fund, the Government are also investing £3.6 billion to regenerate town centres, which of course includes projects to redevelop empty shops.

With zero VAT on new build, demolition and greenfield development would seem to be the smart choice for developers, while empty buildings such as the former Debenhams in Eastbourne town centre, which would carry 20% VAT for renovation, are overlooked and year on year move towards dilapidation. Has any assessment been made of the number of new homes that could be delivered should different VAT regimes be levelled up? And, as there has been a great deal of negative campaigning—[Interruption.] I will come to that point next time.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question; she is a fantastic champion for levelling up in her community. Questions on VAT would be a matter for His Majesty’s Treasury, but we are of course committed to reviewing incentives around brownfield development and will announce further details on the scope of that review in due course.

Topical Questions

On 28 December, we announced an historic devolution deal between the Government and the local authorities of Northumberland, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham. A new Mayor for the north-east will ensure that local priorities are at the heart of decision making and will provide £1.4 billion to level up the area over the next 30 years. We have now struck deals with eight of the 11 areas identified for devolution in the levelling up White Paper, putting more power in the hands of local leaders representing over 7 million people in England.

Will the Government remedy the completely unacceptable situation whereby thousands of homes are built in areas such as mine—and in Rugby and elsewhere—without adequate general practice capacity? What will the Government do to put that right in areas where that has happened?

My hon. Friend has a great deal of experience on this issue in his area, as well as having raised it nationally. I was very pleased to discuss it with him and the relevant Minister in the Department of Health and Social Care today. It is important that all the necessary infrastructure for a housing development is built, whether in relation to education or GP surgeries. The infrastructure levy will facilitate that even further—[Interruption.]—but it is important that we work together.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I wish the Secretary of State well and thank him for advance notice of his unavoidable absence today.

What do the Government have to say to the 1.4 million households who woke up this morning to find that they are facing eye-watering hikes in their mortgage interest payments this year?

The hon. Member will know that the Government are already taking steps to help people with the cost of living. We have already taken steps to help people with their energy bills. I know that she will know, because she is a shadow Minister on top of her game, that the Chancellor met banks at the end of last year and put in place a package of measures to ensure that bankers are helping people with their mortgages, whether through flexibility or further switching.

I think “Sorry” would have been a good start. But seriously, it is chaos, isn’t it? Rents are rising at their fastest rate for seven years and mortgage payments are going through the roof since the Government crashed the economy. Leaseholder reforms have stalled and half a million people are still stuck in unsafe homes with unsafe cladding five years after Grenfell. Where is the mortgage emergency plan? Where is the end to no-fault evictions? Where is the affordable housing we were promised? What are the Government actually doing all day?

From 1980, this Government have delivered 2 million social homes. This Government have a proven track record: the period since 2020-21 has seen the third highest annual rate of additional homes built in the last 30 years. This Government have provided people with £37 billion-worth of support. This Government are on people’s side, helping them through this difficult time as well as when times are good.

T6.   The all-party parliamentary group for the east of England has carried out a review of levelling up in the region. It has found that although a good start has been made, there are five of the White Paper missions in whose delivery there is low confidence, four in which there is medium confidence and only three in which confidence is high. I would be most grateful if the Minister provided a full written response to the report, but in the first instance will she seek to make Lowestoft’s enterprise zone an investment zone? That would underpin and support levelling up. (903007)

Pitch for Lowestoft heard loud and clear! The Chancellor announced at the time of the autumn statement that the existing investment zones programme would be refocused to

“catalyse a limited number of the highest potential knowledge-intensive growth clusters”.

Our Department will work closely with key partners on how best to identify and support those clusters. My officials have read the APPG’s report; we will respond in full in due course.

A very happy new year, Mr Speaker. In September, amid the political chaos, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), published the Government’s rough sleeping strategy. Despite all the good intentions, the problem is evidently getting worse, not better. Data from CHAIN, the Combined Homelessness and Information Network—the most up-to-date rough sleeping snapshot for London—has confirmed that between July and September 2022, numbers were up 24% on the previous year. Figures published earlier in 2022 show that rough sleeping rose by 89% in the west midlands, 68% in Yorkshire and the Humber and 65% in the north-west—a shameful indictment of this Government’s record. Can the Minister rise—

This Government have made an unprecedented commitment on rough sleeping and homelessness. We are investing £2 billion over three years. We do see seasonal fluctuations, but the rough sleeping numbers are at under 3,000 at the moment. Every single person sleeping rough is one too many, but we are very much on top of this.

T7.   If we can spend huge sums of money housing people who come to this country illegally, as was attempted in a hotel in my constituency, how can it be remotely acceptable that we have a single rough sleeper on the streets of our country? (903008)

We are absolutely committed to ending rough sleeping. In September we came out with a strategy to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. As I say, one person sleeping rough is one too many.

T2. I am pleased that the Government have committed to banning no-fault evictions, but the law on illegal eviction must be reformed at the same time to stop frustrated landlords taking unjustified action against their tenants. The current law on illegal eviction is very difficult to understand and is rarely enforced. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government intend to reform the law on illegal eviction alongside banning no-fault evictions? If not, will she meet me to discuss the matter? (903003)

We have committed to taking a renters reform Bill through this Parliament. I am very happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss her particular issue.

T10.   Will the Minister update the House on his discussions with developers about replacing unsafe cladding? What process is in place to resolve disagreements between residents and developers when a dispute arises about the level of remediation needed, as has happened at Morello Quarter in Basildon? (903011)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is working to bring forward the developer contract; it has been discussed and debated for several months and we hope to have progress on it shortly. We are very clear that building owners ultimately have the responsibility to remediate these properties and make sure that leaseholders can continue to live their lives as they should be able to.

T3. Last month, Barclays announced that it was replacing its Ellesmere Port branch. We are losing shops in the town centre weekly. We have put in a levelling-up bid that we hope will address the issues, but every previous application has been rejected, so we are not hopeful of success this time around. What is the Government’s plan B for areas whose levelling-up bids are not successful? (903004)

We keep that under constant review. We are looking at the provision of further funds, but also at simplifying funding through schemes such as the UK shared prosperity fund, to empower local areas to make decisions on what is best for them.

Vital infrastructure for new homes includes upgrades to the sewerage networks that are needed to service them. Bringing schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 into effect would remove the automatic right to connect, which would mean extra money to upgrade those systems. The Government are reviewing it, but are they going to do it?

T4.   Building cost inflation is having an adverse effect on the proposed refurbishment of Edinburgh’s historic King’s Theatre, and a levelling-up application has been made to try to cover the shortfall in its fundraising. Will the Minister meet me so that I can brief her on this problem and tell her all about the fantastic project, which has been specially designed to benefit the whole community in Edinburgh? (903005)

My life peaked last month when I finally got to cut the ribbon on the Poundland in Owen Street, Tipton, which was opening after years of negotiation. A high streets strategy will be an important part of our levelling-up agenda. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can make the most of the true beating heart of the Black Country, including the high streets in Tipton and Wednesbury?

My hon. Friend has been a fantastic champion for his constituency. I congratulate him on his ribbon cutting, which I am sure was a moment of real joy. I should be delighted to meet him to discuss how best we can move forward with our high streets strategy.

T5. What recent discussions has the Department had with the Scottish Government about the gap in funding for remediating unsafe cladding, following the Building Safety Act 2022? (903006)

As the hon. Lady knows, this is a devolved issue. I shall be happy to talk to the Scottish Government if it is appropriate for me to do so, but I know that they, along with the UK Government, are absolutely committed to resolving the situation at the earliest possible opportunity.

The Dinan Way extension in Exmouth and the Cullompton relief road are two major projects that are needed to cut congestion and improve air quality locally. My hon. Friend knows that I have made the case for those bids previously, but may I make one final plea now?

My hon. Friend is another fantastic champion, not just for his constituency but for the whole of the south-west. We will announce the outcome of the bids in due course, but his question has been heard loud and clear.

T8.   Answers to parliamentary questions have revealed that the Government’s spending guidelines relating to local authority delivery of the holiday activities and food programme have seen, in just one year, more than £37 million wasted on the likes of publicity and marketing, as opposed to being spent on food for hungry children. Why is that? (903009)

As the hon. Lady knows, local authorities need to make a set of decisions whenever any money, such as grants, is made available. If she wants to provide any further information, the Department will be happy to respond to her.

Stroud’s levelling-up bid works with the private, public and charity sectors, which means that if we are successful, we can deliver jobs and meaningful change very quickly. However, in the light of the delayed announcement, will the Minister clarify whether we need to submit updated information, and will she meet me to discuss the matter?

My hon. Friend is yet another fantastic champion for her constituents. No further information is needed at this stage, but I should be happy to meet her to discuss the issue that she has raised.

T9. First we saw footage of the Prime Minister admitting to activists that he had diverted money away from urban Labour-voting areas. Then we saw the ex-Culture Secretary, the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), saying that the decision to defund the English National Opera was “politically motivated” and a “stunt”. To avoid accusations that levelling up is based merely on Tory targets and is anti-London, can the Minister tell us which funding formulas were changed, with what justification, and on whose authority? (903010)

A great deal of transparent information is available on, which I should be happy to send to the hon. Lady.

Devolution has been a resounding success in places such as Teesside and the west midlands, but in Labour-controlled South Yorkshire it has been an absolute disaster. Will the Minister meet me, and my South Yorkshire colleagues, to see what we can do to turn its fortunes around?

We believe that local empowerment is the right way forward, but it takes the right local leadership. I shall, of course, be happy to meet my hon. Friend and his South Yorkshire colleagues to see how we can improve things for the great people of South Yorkshire.

Hard-pressed tenants in my constituency have been contacting me, worried about losing their homes and about unaffordable bills and rent. Well over three years after the Government promised to end no-fault evictions, when will they finally stop dithering and bring in the renters reform Bill?

The Government are giving unprecedented support to help with the cost of living. We have been very clear that we will bring in the renters reform Bill in this Parliament, as soon as parliamentary time allows.

I believe a mistake was made when the levelling-up parks fund was announced, because Stoke-on-Trent did not get any money. When will the Minister correct that, so that I can put pump tracks in Middleport and at the old BMX track in Norton and Ball Green?

That is another fantastic pitch from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, Talke and Kidsgrove—I am not sure I have got all the titles in there. I would be happy to meet him to discuss it further.

Last month, 51,000 people came to the end of their placement under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, leaving them desperately needing somewhere to live. However, with the private rented sector unaffordable and council waiting lists already overwhelmed, families are having to choose between returning to a war zone and being homeless. What will the Government do about it?

We are delighted to have welcomed more than 150,000 Ukrainians into this country. We thank all the sponsors. On homelessness, 1,720 homelessness duties were owed to households who arrived under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. That is a small fraction.

An essential ingredient to levelling up is the ability to trade within a country to get the best prices and products. In Northern Ireland, that cannot happen because of the imposition of EU law, which has obstructed trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Will the Minister accept that only by removing the Northern Ireland protocol and abiding by the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill can this iniquity be removed?

The right hon. Member will know that the Government have brought forward legislation on the Northern Ireland protocol, recognising that it is not working at the moment.

The reason the British countryside looks different when driving down the motorway is that the Labour Government in 1945 banned out-of-town advertising hoardings. Why have the Government allowed them to start appearing on every single motorway in the land? When will they get rid of these horrible excrescences?

That is a very interesting point. I am sure a Minister will take that up and consider it with the hon. Member.

Cheshire West and Chester Council and I have put in an excellent bid in round 2 of the levelling-up fund for the corridor at Winnington bridge. On what day in January can we expect a positive outcome?

I cannot promise a positive outcome at this stage. All bids are under consideration, but there will be an outcome before the end of the month.

Over a million households and growing have real housing needs. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Minister’s Department has seen the largest proportional reduction across Government in post-2025 spending plans. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that there is adequate funding for social housing?

Channel 4

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if she will make a statement on the future of Channel 4.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

Channel 4 is a great British success story. It was set up by Margaret Thatcher and it has done exactly what she wanted it to do: positively disrupting British broadcasting and driving an expansion in the UK’s independent production sector, which is now surging at £3 billion. However, in the last decade, the media landscape has been transformed by technology and the entry of new, rapidly growing streaming platforms. Channel 4, along with all public sector broadcasters, faces unprecedented competition for viewers in terms of both programming and talent.

Channel 4 is uniquely constrained in its ability to respond to those challenges. There are limits on the broadcaster’s ability to raise capital and make its own content. Under current legislation, Channel 4 operates as a publisher-broadcaster, meaning that all its shows are commissioned or acquired from third parties, such as independent producers or other broadcasters, who typically retain the rights relating to those programmes.

The challenges faced by Channel 4 are very real. That is why the previous Administration decided to proceed with the sale in order to free the broadcaster from the constraints that were holding it back under public ownership. Over the last few months, I have carried out my own examination of the business case for the sale of Channel 4. I have listened to stakeholders and taken a close look at the broadcaster’s long-term sustainability and the wider economic outlook, and I have decided that pursuing a sale is not the best option to ease the challenges facing Channel 4. However, doing nothing also carries a risk. Change is necessary if we want to ensure that the corporation can continue to grow, compete and keep supporting our thriving creative industries. Anyone who says otherwise is burying their head in the sand.

After discussions with Channel 4, I am therefore announcing an ambitious package of interventions to boost the broadcaster’s sustainability. Under this agreement, Channel 4 will continue to play its own part in supporting the UK’s creative economy, doubling both the number of jobs outside London and its annual investment in the 4Skills training programme for young people. Meanwhile, we will introduce a statutory duty on Channel 4 to consider its sustainability as part of its decision making. We are working with Channel 4 to agree updated governance structures to support that long-term sustainability.

We will provide Channel 4 with new commercial flexibilities, including by looking to relax the publisher-broadcaster restriction to enable it to make some of its own content. In doing so, we will work closely with the independent production sector to consider what steps are necessary to ensure that Channel 4 continues to drive investment in indies, particularly the newest, smallest and most innovative producers. That includes increasing the level of Channel 4’s independent production quota, which is currently set at 25% of programmes, and potentially introducing specific protections for smaller independent producers. Any changes will be introduced gradually and following consultation with the sector. Finally, we will make it easier and simpler for Channel 4 to draw down on its private £75 million credit facility.

Alongside the changes to Channel 4, the media Bill will introduce a wide range of measures to modernise decades-old broadcasting regulations, including prominence reforms. Further details will be announced in due course.

First, I want to congratulate the Secretary of State on her happy news and to thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. It is extraordinary that this matter of huge interest to Members across the House was leaked to the media during the recess with no attempt to make an oral statement. Of course I welcome this decision, having campaigned against this terrible Tory plan since it was announced. The Secretary of State has at least reached the conclusion that was staring her in the face: that the plans for the sell-off were bad for Britain, bad for our creative industries and bad for British broadcasters and advertisers. The plans would have likely seen this treasured institution, which has been responsible for some of Britain’s best-loved films and exports, sold to a US media giant.

What a total waste of time and money this has been. At least £2 million has been spent, and there has been a huge opportunity cost not just for Channel 4, but across the creative industries, with the plans sucking the life out of all the important work that Ministers should have been getting on with. MPs on both sides of the House knew that the privatisation of Channel 4 was an act of cultural vandalism from a Government who simply did not like its news coverage. Can the Secretary of State give us her estimate of how much pursuing this flawed policy has cost the taxpayer, Channel 4 and our public sector broadcasters in lost opportunity?

This is the second time in six years that the Government have proposed this privatisation. What guarantees can the Secretary of State give that privatisation is off the agenda for good? How is she going to ensure future financial sustainability without damaging our vibrant independent sector? Prominence reform is key to that, so when will she bring forward the long overdue media Bill? Does she agree that these plans have been a massive distraction and have already led to British broadcasters losing out to the global streaming giants?

Finally, is it not the truth that after 13 years, this tired Government have run out of road and run out of ideas? They have no plan for growth to support our world-renowned creative economy; just infighting, time-wasting and petty vendettas.

As the hon. Lady will know, we have outlined, including in today’s written ministerial statement, an ambitious plan to secure and safeguard the sustainability of Channel 4 so that it can thrive and survive. It is completely wrong to suggest that we are not doing anything, or that the money we have invested in looking at this proposal has been wasted.

In fact, as I have already stated, Channel 4 has now committed to doubling its investment in skills across the country to £10 million. This is a new package, and the money we have invested in considering Channel 4’s sustainability is very clear and on the public record. It is important that we now work together to secure the future of Channel 4 and of our independent sector. As I outlined in my opening remarks, we will particularly safeguard small, innovative independents.

I follow the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) in saying that, over the last 13 years, Channel 4 has done better than ever before. If we want to congratulate Channel 4, we should also congratulate the Government on making that possible by not disturbing its arrangements.

The Secretary of State is right to examine the proposals put forward a year or so ago. I would not have frozen the BBC licence fee, I would not have proposed the privatisation of Channel 4 and I would not have put pressure on Arts Council England to strangle the English National Opera, but there is more to be done to put them on the right path.

Alex Mahon, the chief executive of Channel 4, spoke for me when she talked about Channel 4’s innovativeness in reaching audiences that others do not serve so well, and I think the publisher-producer split is worth preserving. I hope Channel 4 will not be forced to make too many programmes in-house, as it is vital that we keep the independent producers going. I hope we are back here in 10 years’ time with no more proposals to change the ownership of Channel 4, which is a good public broadcaster that successfully operates commercially.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that it is essential Channel 4 remains an incubator of the independent sector, which is why one measure we will be taking forward is increasing, from 25%, the proportion of content it has to take from the independent sector. Let us not forget that the package of measures announced today is about giving Channel 4 the tools to be viable in the long term. Of course, it is up to Channel 4 what it does with those tools. Nobody is forcing it to do anything.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

I congratulate the Secretary of State, but I heard her refer to a previous Administration. There is no new Administration, just the same old Tory Administration. This is the second time I have sat on these Benches to listen to a Conservative Secretary of State reverse their predecessor’s damaging proposal to privatise Channel 4.

Channel 4 is a flourishing, much-loved public institution that is making record profits and offers fearless journalism. The Secretary of State says her decision is based on evidence, which is a good call, but evidence, rather than any personal agenda, should surely have been the guiding principle from the get-go. For those who are not aware, Channel 4 receives no public funds. Can I try again: how much public money went into this Government’s aborted attempt at privatisation?

We have already put that amount on the public record. As the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) said, the amount is just shy of £2 million, but that also covers the general sustainability work that led to the package we announced today.

It is clearly new year, new politics when the Opposition secure an urgent question to praise a Minister because the Government have got a policy right, and I echo their congratulations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has got this absolutely right, but can she assure me that the independent sector, which has been a huge economic and cultural success since it was created in the 1980s, will be not only protected but enhanced by the measures announced today?

I can absolutely guarantee my right hon. Friend that it will be. We will be working extremely closely with the independent sector throughout this period and consulting it to make sure we get this right, not just for Channel 4, but for our thriving independent sector.

The problem with TV repeats is that we all know what the ending is going to be in advance, and we have seen this movie before. However, I am interested in what the Secretary of State has to say about the media Bill. She said she had an announcement to make today, but she did not make a statement to the House. When are we going to see that Bill? When are we going to see the measures that are vital to the future of our public service broadcasters in this digital age and that will ensure their sustainability and prominence?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to the media Bill, and we will be bringing it forward shortly. I cannot stipulate the exact timeframe here today, but I can reassure the House that this Government are absolutely committed to that Bill and to its important aspects, including prominence, for not just Channel 4, but all our public sector broadcasters.

Channel 4 is a great British success story, with creative hubs across the country, including in the south-west, creating jobs and improving our economy. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this move will safeguard the future of our world-leading independent production sector and help Channel 4 remain sustainable?

I assure my hon. Friend that this move certainly will make sure that Channel 4 has the tools—a range of tools—to be sustainable in a changing media landscape, where we know that the pressure is on things such as linear advertising, and to help it to continue to be an incubator for the independent production sector, which is home to many jobs in a number of our constituencies.

After the enormous waste of public money that this political exercise has been, I am very relieved that the Secretary of State has come to this decision. One thing Channel 4 has said is that it wants to thrive in the digital era. What steps is she taking to ensure that the outcome of the Government’s consultation on digital rights for listed sporting events is implemented as quickly as possible?

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker. I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer today and for the sensible decision she has taken on Channel 4, which is exactly the right thing to do. Will she expand on how small, creative, independent production companies in north Staffordshire, and those wanting to become such companies, can benefit from this announcement?

We will be working hand in glove with the independent sector to ensure that we put in place specific safeguards, especially for the most innovative, small and new independent sector producers. We will give an update shortly on that, but we are listening to them at all stages.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker. May I ask the Secretary of State: why did right hon. and hon. Members only hear about this U-turn on “Channel 4 News” and why has she not put the package before the House?

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker. I warmly welcome what my right hon. Friend has said. Is not the key point that Channel 4 operates in a distinctive niche in the broadcasting landscape, and everything we do should be designed to enhance that, not erode it? Is it not the case that what she has described today has the best chance of enhancing it, whereas privatisation would erode it?

I came to the same conclusion as my predecessor that the long-term sustainability of Channel 4 was questionable. That is why we put in place a package, which is different from that of my predecessor but has the same goal in mind of ensuring that Channel 4 can survive, thrive and flourish in the future.

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to everybody else. Who can forget the reading of the poem “Stop all the clocks” in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, one of Channel 4’s greatest triumphs? The point I wish to make is that that film featured Scotland in it and “Derry Girls” features Northern Ireland in it. As a Unionist, I believe that the British Isles is like a diamond: each facet is important. Channel 4 contributes massively to that, so may I ask the Secretary of State what special efforts will be made with the production companies in the provinces—the parts of the United Kingdom other than England?

We are working with the independent production sector across the UK, because it is vital that we protect job creation in all corners of our United Kingdom. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is not just an England-specific issue.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s words. The creative industries are simply our global superpower, and it is right that Channel 4 has the flexibility to be able to move with the times, respond to the changing media landscape and take advantage of commercial opportunities. Part of this is about nurturing the skilled workforce of the future so that they can respond to the needs of our creative industries. What kind of flexibility and focus will there be for Channel 4 to have the ability to do that?

As part of this package, Channel 4 has agreed to double its investment in skills for young people around the UK—from £5 million to £10 million—which will be important for the entire creative sector.

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to everyone working in the creative industries, especially those in Yorkshire and the north of England.

I do not want to be mealy-mouthed about this, because I am delighted with the Government’s change of course, but is the Secretary of State aware of the favour that she has done us? The campaign to save Channel 4 has been amazing in bringing together all the people in the creative industries in Yorkshire and the north, giving them a sense of purpose that will not go away. We are a vital part of the creative economy, and we will go from strength to strength in the future.

The creative sector is important to the whole UK economy, not just to London. That is why I am delighted that, as part of this package, Channel 4 has also agreed to double the number of jobs outside London, which goes to the hon. Gentleman’s point that it is important that we are boosting the creative sector all around the UK.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that reform is needed for Channel 4 to thrive in the future. Can she say whether the review will include Channel 4 having the ability not just to take a stake in programmes, which it cannot do at the moment, but to attract additional investment to go into programme making, as Channel 4 requested as part of its response to the Government’s review?

On accessing borrowing, we will make it easier for Channel 4 to draw down on its existing allowance, but any additional borrowing will be taken on a case-by-case basis.

As a Leeds MP, I am delighted by today’s announcement, but I know from my constituents that it has been a wasted 18 months for them as they have had to deal with these privatisation proposals. Can the Secretary of State tell me what additional benefits will accrue to Leeds and Yorkshire from the announcements today, and, specifically, how many jobs will move from London to Leeds, so that people can have a much-improved life in Leeds and Yorkshire working for Channel 4?

The additional jobs will be going not just to Leeds, but to other areas of the UK, including Glasgow and Bristol, and that will be a decision made and communicated by Channel 4 itself. As stated, the amount of jobs outside the capital will be double the number that has already been announced. The people of Leeds can take comfort from the decision that we have made today of putting Channel 4 on a sustainable footing so that its long-term future is secure.

I do recall, by the way, how Channel 4 had to be dragged kicking and screaming to move to Leeds, and even then the majority of personnel still remain in London. There is no question but that Channel 4 has some questions to answer on that. At the moment, Channel 4 has only 10% of the total audience. We want to increase that and we want to see Channel 4 survive. My question is that if that is to be achieved by borrowing, will Channel 4 not sink under debt? That was the reason why I supported its sell-off.

As my hon. Friend will note, we have not increased the amount that Channel 4 can borrow. That will have to be done on a case-by-case basis. What we are doing is enabling Channel 4 to have the tools that it needs to survive in a very changed media landscape, including relaxing the publisher-broadcaster remit. That will enable it to have those commercial freedoms and to stop it having its current rigid business model.

Would it not be really nice if, one day, when a Government Minister was appointed to replace another Government Minister and they knew that the policy their predecessor came up with was completely and utterly bonkers, instead of leaking a letter to the Prime Minister and letting it go out to the country rather than coming to the House first, they decided, “I know what I’m going to do: I’m going to come to the House of Commons and apologise. I’m going to say, ‘I am sorry, my predecessor had completely lost the plot for completely unknown reasons. I apologise to everybody for wasting all this time and energy and I am going to do better.’”? Or is that just the kind of plot that appears on Channel 4?