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Topical Questions

Volume 728: debated on Monday 20 February 2023

I was honoured 10 days ago to have the chance to meet the family of Awaab Ishak, the child who died so tragically in horrendous circumstances in Rochdale. I was able to thank them for their campaigning work and, as a result, with co-operation from bodies across this House, we are taking forward legislation in his name and in his honour to ensure that the scourge of damp and mould is at last effectively dealt with.

In the levelling up White Paper the Government rightly confirmed that they would match European Union structural fund receipts for Cornwall. They could do the same for South Yorkshire, Tees Valley, County Durham and Lincolnshire, but so far have not. Will they?

I think we may be arguing from slightly different premises, because it depends how one defines the replacement for EU structural funds. I am more than happy to take the hon. Gentleman through the figures and point out the ways in which the funding we have supplied through the funds at our disposal match European commitments.

T3. One issue recently discussed at the Stoke-on-Trent summit at 10 Downing Street, led by my right hon. Friend, was setting free Homes England and Stoke-on-Trent City Council on their fantastic, UK-leading strategy for the regeneration of industrial cities. Will he update the House on how his mission to set free Homes England is going to date? (903641)

Stoke-on-Trent and all the six towns are enjoying a renaissance under this Government in a way that they did not under the last Labour Government. We are ensuring that investment is going into Burslem, Tunstall, Stoke and Hanley in a way that did not occur under that Labour Government. Homes England is at the heart of that investment, providing new homes and cultural investment and ensuring that people who voted Conservative at the last general election recognise that they made the right decision.

I wish the Secretary of State good luck with that. Last week, he told ITV News that,

“nobody will get in the way of making sure we get money to those who are vulnerable and who deserve it”.

Was he referring to the Chancellor or the Chief Secretary to the Treasury?

Seriously, the Secretary of State no longer has the power to sign off on a park bench. There are now reports of significant underspends in his Department that are about to be clawed back by the Treasury. Can he guarantee to the towns crying out for investment in town centres, high streets and affordable housing that the full allocation of the towns fund, the future high streets fund and the affordable homes programme will be spent? If he cannot, will he tell us who is to blame—him, or the Chancellor?

Just before the Secretary of State replies, I remind him that we should not use the name of the Member but their constituency, and also that he is certainly a right hon. Member.

My apologies to you, Mr Speaker, and to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer)—the “human roadblock”, as he was once memorably described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). Returning to the issue, it is absolutely the case that this Department is responsible for the disbursement, successfully, of funds to the frontline, helping to transform communities that were overlooked and undervalued by the last Government. No one is going to get in the way of this Department spending the money we need on the communities that need it. The only thing I would say is that there is not a single spending commitment that the hon. Lady has been able to make because of the shadow Chancellor. Labour—

Secretary of State, I do not want to do this every time we have questions. We get to topicals, and because the question is asked you feel it is a free-for-all. It is not your questions; it is Back-Benchers’ questions. Please, let us get everybody in, and let us start with Greg Smith, who wants to ask a good question.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Whole communities have been up in arms after perverse decisions by the Planning Inspectorate, most recently on a site between Askett and Meadle and another between Twyford and Poundon. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to reform the Planning Inspectorate to stop it walking all over local wishes?

The new national planning policy framework ensures that the Planning Inspectorate will work with, not against, local communities. The Planning Inspectorate also has a wonderful new chief executive officer—an official from my Department who helped to deliver the homes for Ukraine programme and understands what communities need and want.

T2. With around 1,000 jobs and 17,000 placements at stake in Northern Ireland, the shared prosperity fund is too little, too late for those organisations that are currently availing themselves of European social fund support. Can the Minister ensure that, at the very least, decisions on funding will be taken before the end of March to allow successful bids to continue without interruption? (903639)

Solar is an important part of the UK’s energy mix, and, as the Secretary of State will know, the sun always shines in Shropshire. Does he agree that solar farms, which are often of huge scale, need to be in the right place, not the wrong place? So often, a lot of good agricultural land is lost.

Shropshire, home to the “blue remembered hills” of A. E. Housman, is one of our most beautiful counties. It is vital, even as we pursue renewable energy across the United Kingdom, that we recognise that our environment is just as much about natural beauty as it is about striving towards net zero.

T4. According to the Government’s own reports, the Prime Minister’s Richmondshire local authority is the 67th least deprived local authority in the country, while Bradford is the 21st most deprived. Was levelling up at the heart of the Government’s decision to approve roughly £20 million of funding for Richmondshire and no funding for my constituency of Bradford South? (903643)

That money went towards ensuring that service families get the accommodation and support they deserve. If Labour wants to be taken seriously as a patriotic party, it should stop talking down our armed forces and ensure that they receive the money they deserve.

Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset secured £152 million from the levelling-up fund last month. The four counties make up the region’s new powerhouse, the great south west, of which I chair the all-party parliamentary group. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the fantastic opportunities that lie ahead for the great south west?

I absolutely will, and I will make sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), is with me as well. There is nothing that the two of us enjoy more than hearing good news from fantastic constituency MPs such as my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp).

T5. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.Not only have the Government legislated to allow sewage on to our beaches and into our sea, but they are now limiting funds for local authorities to stop historic coastal landfill sites polluting our coast. One of those sites is in gorgeous South Shields. When can we expect the Government to do something about it? (903644)

Actually, the way that this Government have handled Ofwat has ensured that we have done more to improve water quality—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady were to ask the chief executive of any water company about the toughest Environment Secretary that they have had to deal with, they would know. But anyway, on the key question of South Shields, I agree that it is beautiful, and I will have the chance to visit soon. The additional money that we are making available for the devolution deal for the north-east should help, but I would be delighted to visit and find out more.

There have been multiple frivolous applications in my beautiful South West Hertfordshire constituency, including in my hometown of Tring, where such applications would increase the population by 30%. What advice can the Secretary of State give me on how best to engage with his Department on these issues so that my constituents’ voices are heard clearly?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that the new Minister of State for housing and planning, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), will be meeting him shortly. It is absolutely vital that communities in the suburban green belt such as his have the opportunity to ensure that people have the new homes that they need and that we preserve the communities that make his constituency so attractive to so many.

T6. Around one in 10 owners relinquishing animals to the Dogs Trust cites housing issues as the reason. Can the Minister confirm that planned measures to protect pet ownership in the renters’ reform Bill will be maintained to prevent further pets from being given up unnecessarily? (903646)

Fisherman’s Green has been identified by the local council as a potential housing development site in Eastbourne. Local people do not support that, and I support them. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the council, which owns the land and has put the site into the strategy, can take Fisherman’s Green out of the strategy without sanction?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. I have been taking a close interest in the activities of Eastbourne Borough Council. The decision to develop Fisherman’s Green is the council’s alone, so the council could easily take it out—the changes that we have made in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill would allow it to do that. I am afraid that there has been a campaign of dissimulation on the part of her local council; it is a case of Lib Dems spinning here.

T7. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the leaders and elected Mayor of the north-east’s authorities on their work with the Government to secure a strong devolution deal? As his work concludes with Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, can he confirm that he will move quickly to work with those north-east authorities to convey “trailblazer” status and powers, as agreed in the deal? (903647)

I could not agree more that the north-east is on the up. Newcastle and Sunderland are doing well in footballing terms, but even better in political terms, thanks to the leadership of local figures, who are uniting with central Government to deliver devolution.

Antisocial behaviour is causing misery for my constituents, as I can tell from responses to my survey. Does the Secretary of State therefore welcome the stronger action that we have seen from Staffordshire police since its new local policing model was introduced last June? In the last month, that action has included a closure notice in Knutton, working with Asda to stop boy racers in the Wolstanton car park, and a section 34 order in Chesterton. It is a big issue, but we are moving in the right direction.

Staffordshire’s police and crime commissioner is certainly moving in the right direction, as is Staffordshire police, supported ably by my hon. Friend and others such as my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Kate Kniveton). Boy racers and others who cause misery for their neighbours need to be dealt with effectively. That is happening in Staffordshire and should be happening more broadly as well.

Many constituents are contacting me about the rental market; I am sure it is the same across the country. The shortage of available properties is making it hard for private renters who are seeking accommodation. One constituent emailed to say that she had been told to keep requests to a minimum if she wanted to have a chance of getting a property. What will the Secretary of State do about the frankly disgraceful emails that tenants are receiving from letting agents?

There are challenges in the private rented sector and with housing supply everywhere. I would say two things: first, we need to work together to unlock additional supply, which is why it is important for the Mayor of London—I am not criticising him—to play his part; secondly, we need to ensure that renters have the protections that they deserve. That is why we are bringing forward legislation, which I know the hon. Lady supports.

The Help to Buy scheme has helped hundreds of my young constituents to get on to the housing ladder, yet it is due to end shortly. Can the Secretary of State assure me that he is badgering the Chancellor to ensure that that vital scheme continues?

I do not need to badger the Chancellor; we are not just constituency neighbours, but brothers from different mothers. More than that, the newly appointed Minister of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), was immediately on the case. We will secure an extension to make sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents get the benefits from the scheme that they deserve, and I look forward to meeting him next month.

Does the Government’s commitment to look at helping blocks below 11 metres with cladding apply not only where that cladding is found to be dangerous and needs to be removed, but where lenders are still demanding EWS1 certificates, which cannot currently be provided?

Let me look into the specifics of any individual case. It should be the case, however—as the conversations that the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), has had with lenders show—that there has been a significant diminution in the demand for EWS1 forms. Where they are still being demanded, however, I would like to know more, so I look forward to working with the right hon. Gentleman to find out more about any kinks in the system.

On-street parking is a policy of Warwickshire County Council. Does the Secretary of State agree that the council has got it wrong in allowing people who drive internal combustion engines to park all day directly in front of the electric vehicle chargers that it has provided?

I will have to look closely at that. It is rare that Warwickshire gets things wrong, in my experience, but my hon. Friend seems to have identified an anomaly that stands in the way of the effective transition to electric vehicles, so I look forward to considering more closely the issue that he raises.

How can taking away £25 million from Halton Borough Council over the next three years be classed as levelling up? For Cheshire West and Chester Council, it is nearly half a billion pounds since 2010. That is not levelling up. When can we expect a genuine, fair funding review?

It is the case that at the last spending review, we secured a significant increase in local government spending, and as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire pointed out when we had the debate on the local government finance settlement, authorities such as that of the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) have received the funding they need in order to deliver the services on which constituents rely.

Does the Secretary of State agree that when we build thousands of new homes, we need to do as well at providing extra general practice capacity as we do at providing extra primary school places? If he does, what will he do about it?

I do, and our new infrastructure levy in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is designed to do just that. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and with the new Minister of State for Housing and Planning, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch, in order to make sure that the infrastructure levy delivers as we both would want.

While people in Levenmouth certainly welcome the fact that the levelling-up process gave us some of our own money back again, can the Secretary of State identify a single measure of need or deprivation by which the Prime Minister’s constituency is as needy and as deprived as the Levenmouth area in my constituency, and more deprived than the entire city of Glasgow?

First, as I mentioned earlier, the reason that money has gone to the Prime Minister’s constituency is that it is going to help service families who do so much in order to make sure that we are all kept safe and protected. Secondly, I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that it is a good thing that the UK Government are distributing this money in this way. It is the case that his party used to oppose that, but we are now delivering that money; for two successive years, cash has been delivered to Glenrothes, to Glasgow, and to other communities.

The third thing I would say is that I hope the hon. Gentleman is not the SNP MP quoted in The Times at the weekend as saying that the thing about the Scottish Government is that they cannot even—

The latest round of levelling-up funding has once again failed to provide much-needed investment in my part of Devon. The proposals put forward by East Devon District Council would have funded vital investment in Seaton and Axminster. What does the Secretary of State say to people in towns that are attractive to tourists, who feel taken for granted and feel that this Government are not serious about levelling up for them?

I say, “Vote Conservative,” because with a Conservative MP such as my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp), you have an effective advocate who can work with central Government in order to deliver.

More people rent privately in my constituency than own their own homes, and more people rent socially than both of those groups combined. When I visit those people, week in and week out, they are massively overcrowded with no prospect of renting in the private sector or buying. What is the Secretary of State doing to deliver properly affordable social rented housing?

The hon. Lady’s point is very similar to that made earlier by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), and my answer is also very similar: we need to work with the Mayor of London, who has clear responsibilities in this area. Once again, I am not criticising him, but I am stressing that the delivery of so much of the funding required to improve housing in the capital depends on effective action by the Mayor.

Some of the Homes for Ukraine six-month placements are now starting to come to an end, and some Ukrainian nationals in my constituency cannot get into private rented accommodation because they have no credit history. The local council is ready to look at rematching families, but if that does not work out, some of those Ukrainian refugees will have no choice but to present as homeless. Will the Secretary of State look at this issue, and look at the suggestion of a guarantor system backed by the Government?

That is actually a very fair and constructive point. Making sure that there are not just banking facilities, but the kinds of guarantees that the hon. Lady asks for, is something we have been looking at in the past. I will ask the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), to talk to the hon. Lady and to St Albans council in order to make sure that the generosity of her constituents is not undermined by the activity of the financial sector.

That completes questions. Will those who wish to leave before we start the urgent question please do so?