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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 742: debated on Monday 4 December 2023

Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

The Secretary of State was asked—

Economic Growth: Yorkshire and the North

For our part, we wish Mr Speaker all the very best, and we hope that he enjoys a speedy recovery—but it is wonderful to have you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also welcome the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) back to the Front Bench. I know that he, too, was unwell recently, so it is great to see him in his place and looking so well.

We are taking considerable steps to boost economic growth in Yorkshire and the north, including the creation of two investment zones in south and west Yorkshire and, of course, the extension of devolution to the whole of the historic county.

I am sure the whole House wants to see Mr Speaker back and well again very soon.

The Secretary of State must be looking at different data from that which I am looking at. I know he does not like experts, but I have hope that, as Christmas approaches, he will have a Pauline conversion—he will see a flash of light, fall off his camel and realise that, in order to level up expertly and well, he needs local authorities on the ground to deliver those policies. Will he please reconsider his attitude to local government in this country?

I am grateful to the hon. Member. As the Minister for Local Government has just reminded me, when Saul was on the road to Damascus he was not actually travelling on a camel.

Improving transport links with a new mass transit system for Leeds is critical to the programme that we undertaking. We are working with local authorities in Leeds; we are working with the Mayor of West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin, and with the chief executive of Leeds City Council, Tom Riordan. Moreover, in Kirklees we are investing £65 million through round 3 of the levelling-up fund, with a new open market to provide regeneration in Huddersfield and, of course, the upgrade of the Penistone line, for which my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood) and for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) have been such brilliant advocates.

I, too, convey to Mr Speaker a “Get well soon” message.

In addition to the amenities in Yorkshire and elsewhere in the north, there is a wonderful real ale pub called The Bell Inn at Pensax, in the north of the Malvern Hills. May I put on the record my strong endorsement of its bid to the community ownership fund?

It sounds as if that particular inn, in the heart of Elgar country, is something behind which all of us on the Front Bench can rally. It sounds like an excellent candidate for the community ownership fund, which has seen scores of buildings taken back into public ownership by their communities for the benefit of all.


Tragically, we have seen a significant increase in antisemitism since the events of 7 October. The Community Security Trust recorded 1,500 antisemitic incidents between 7 October and 22 November, the highest total in a 47-day period since records began in 1984 .

Despite the first-hand accounts of survivors such as Yoni Saadon and organisations such as ZAKA—whose members collected the bodies following the Palestinian terror attack of 7 October, and have described mutilated genitals and women’s bodies having been so badly abused that their pelvises were broken—there are some in the pro-Palestinian movement who continue to deny that these atrocities took place. Whether we are talking about dead babies or gender-based violence against Jewish women, it appears that Jews do not matter. Does the Secretary of State agree that this risks fuelling further the antisemitism that we have seen in this country since those attacks?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the events of 7 October were uniquely horrific. It was an exercise in calculated, premeditated sadism which everyone in the House condemns. However, as my hon. Friend says, some voices, including some prominent media voices, have considered it appropriate to cavil, to question and to prevaricate in the face of this violence. It is vitally important for us to recognise—even as we recognise that all life is precious, and even as we recognise that it is vital for us to do what we can to minimise casualties in this conflict—that the events of 7 October stand out as the biggest slaughter of Jewish civilians since the holocaust, and for that reason there can be no quibbling when we face such a transparent evil.

I agree with everything that was said by the previous questioner. Could the Secretary of State engage with his opposite number in the Department for Education and argue for the promotion of education about the events of the holocaust? I have believed for a long time that one of the reasons behind the increase in antisemitism, notwithstanding recent events, is the fact that the holocaust is now slipping from memory into history, and we need to perpetuate the analysis and grasp of that particular period of history.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and it gives me an opportunity to thank the Holocaust Educational Trust, which enjoys support across the House. The work done by its chief executive, Karen Pollock, is exemplary. As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, as the voices of survivors fade and the holocaust moves from memory to history, it is vital that we ensure that every successive generation appreciates the unique evil of that event, the origins of antisemitism and the need to be vigilant against its recrudescence.

I thank the Secretary of State for his robust answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). Does he agree that the sight this weekend of bereaved family members from both the Muslim and Jewish communities joining together in a combined rally against Islamophobia and antisemitism was an inspiring sight that we should all hold in our hearts and honour? Does that not serve as a lesson to those people from one community or the other who preached hatred against others who are in fact innocent victims?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. All of us approach any conflict with a sense of horror and foreboding for what it may mean for innocent civilians, and it is in that spirit that the vigil that he mentions was held. It was great to see people from across communities expressing solidarity. I had the opportunity last week to talk to leaders from various Muslim community groups across the United Kingdom, and I pay tribute to them for their work in challenging extremism of all kinds.

If we are to tackle the reality of antisemitism in the present, it is vital that we learn from the past. In the summer of 1945, 300 Jewish children who had survived the death camps in Nazi Germany made their lives and were rehabilitated on the banks of Windermere lake at Troutbeck Bridge. They are affectionately and proudly known by all of us as the Windermere boys. As we work together to celebrate their legacy, and to use that legacy to ensure that we fight antisemitism in every part of our country, will the Secretary of State meet me and the people involved with the project to discuss how we can build a lasting memorial to the legacy of those wonderful young children who built a new life in this country and overcame the horrors of Nazi Germany?

I am really grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding us of that episode in our history, and I would be absolutely delighted to work with him to ensure that that signal moment in our history is properly celebrated. It has been a feature of the United Kingdom that we have always recognised the importance of standing up against antisemitism and providing refuge to those fleeing persecution, so I look forward to talking to him in due course.

The London Borough of Havering has now reversed the appalling decision it made last week to cancel its Hanukkah festivities for the Jewish community. It is impossible to imagine any local authority in the country trying to cancel the annual celebrations of any other faith group. Does my right hon. Friend agree that all local authorities should be careful to avoid any such rash action at this sensitive time, and that they should use intelligence and common sense in their decisions?

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely correct. I understand that the London Borough of Havering has now reversed its decision, but it seems to me that it was based on a misconception, which is that the idea of the celebration of any faith should be seen as provocative at this time. We know that there are individual Jewish citizens who feel uncomfortable wearing the kippah or any outward symbol of their faith, and to have a London borough saying that the menorah should not be lit because it would be provocative at this time is wholly wrong. Freedom of religion—the chance for us all to express our faith—is fundamental to British values, and he is right to say that other local authorities should not go down that same route.

Levelling-up Fund

3. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the levelling-up fund at distributing funding across all parts of the UK. (900433)

8. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the levelling-up fund at distributing funding across all parts of the UK. (900439)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the levelling-up fund at distributing funding across all parts of the UK. (900441)

On Monday 20 November we announced that a further £1 billion will be invested in 55 projects across Great Britain, from Bolton to Elgin, and from Newcastle to Rhyl. In the third round we have targeted funding at places across Great Britain that are most in need, as assessed through our levelling-up needs metrics. We have also ensured the best possible regional spread of projects, so that every part of Great Britain benefits from the fund over its lifetime. Further details are set out in a published methodology note.

With new money helping Pembrokeshire County Council to regenerate Haverfordwest town centre, with community ownership funding enabling the villagers of Hayscastle Cross to save their local pub, and with new investment in Visit Pembrokeshire to improve accessibility for tourists visiting the county, does the Minister agree that, compared with the clunky, difficult-to-access EU funding schemes, these new pots of levelling-up money are being distributed far more effectively to all parts of the United Kingdom?

My right hon. Friend is right that the efforts we are making in Pembrokeshire, in part thanks to him and other Members of Parliament for the county, demonstrate levelling up in action in his part of Wales. I am delighted to continue working with him on that.

Does the Minister agree that Clwyd South’s £13.3 million of levelling-up projects in the Trevor basin, Llangollen and Corwen, which I recently visited, and the newly announced £160 million investment zone for Wrexham, Clwyd South and Flintshire are shining examples of the effectiveness of levelling up galvanising investment and activity in north-east Wales?

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for his constituents in Clwyd South, and for constituents in Shropshire as well. I completely agree that the £13.3 million investment from the levelling-up fund will protect a valuable heritage site for north Wales, an area enjoyed by locals, while encouraging visitors to stay longer and spend more in local shops, cafés and campsites. The recently announced investment zone in Wrexham and Flintshire also demonstrates our commitment to levelling up investment in research, innovation and support for economic development in the region.

My local council has sadly been unable to attract any levelling-up funding or community renewal funding into North Norfolk. As I have repeatedly requested in this place, I need just £3 million for a roundabout at the top of Holway Road in Sheringham, but £3 million is too small for a levelling-up bid and too much for Norfolk County Council. In the spirit of Christmas, how can the Minister give me a present of £3 million for a roundabout in North Norfolk?

I wish I could give my hon. Friend a Christmas present. I recognise his work, campaigning on behalf of the people of Sheringham for the improvement of the A148 Holway Road junction. I know he is already engaging closely with Norfolk County Council on the project. The £600 million investment fund, agreed through the Norfolk county deal, will provide the county council with the local means to fund exactly this sort of project, with the first tranche of funding due to be available next year. If there is anything further I can do, I would be delighted to work with him and with colleagues in the Department for Transport to progress this project.

The Minister will not have too much difficulty assessing the effectiveness of the levelling-up fund in Northern Ireland, because Northern Ireland is the only country in the United Kingdom not to receive one penny in the last round of levelling-up funding. He will not level with the people of Northern Ireland, giving the spurious excuse that, because an Executive has not been formed, he cannot allocate the money. What discussions does he need to have with the Northern Ireland Executive that he did not have with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Parliament or any local authority in England before allocating money there?

The right hon. Gentleman and I have had numerous conversations to that effect. Northern Ireland has benefited from £120 million in rounds 1 and 2 of the levelling-up fund but, in the context of growing pressure on Northern Ireland budgets, it is right that the UK Government should consider their approach to the funding available for Northern Ireland in this round. In LUF3, £30 million has been reserved for Northern Ireland and, as part of our commitment to levelling up, we will work with the restored Executive to find the best approach to supporting people in Northern Ireland. I again confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that I will work with him and others, once the Executive are back up and running, to see how we can best level up his community.

Whitchurch in my constituency has not received any levelling-up funding, whether from the levelling-up fund itself, the towns fund or the future high streets fund. Now it has found itself without a civic centre because of dangerous reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, so it has lost its library, registry office and driving test centre, which was soon to be reopened following a long campaign by myself and others. Will the Minister meet me to work out what we can do to put that important building back into the heart of Whitchurch?

The Resolution Foundation’s report on economic stagnation, published today, shows how levelling up simply is not happening under this Government. One of the speakers at the event this morning was Andy Haldane, the chair of the Levelling Up Advisory Council, who said that greater financial devolution was needed in all areas, not just in the favoured few. It sounds like he has been taking inspiration from our proposed “take back control” Bill. Does the Minister agree with him that more economic devolution is needed in all areas of the UK?

I do agree with him. That is why we are following our devolution framework, expanding devolution to more areas in the UK. Under the last Labour Government, the only area in England that had a devolution deal was London. Through devolution, we have been able to expand that offer to more than 60% of England. We have invested more than £13 billion of local growth funding into communities the length and breadth of the country, restoring pride and ensuring that we tackle regional inequality.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to see levelling up in action, he need only look at places such as Teesside, which was left behind under the last Labour Government. It is now being transformed through the UK’s largest freeport, Teesside airport and the Treasury in Darlington; town deals in Redcar, Middlesbrough, Thornaby, Darlington and Hartlepool; high street funding in Middlesbrough, Loftus and Stockton; and levelling-up funding for Eston and TS6, Hartlepool, Guisborough, Yarm, Eaglescliffe and Billingham. The Opposition are all talk; we are delivering levelling up in action.

Madam Deputy Speaker, please pass on my best wishes to Mr Speaker for a speedy recovery.

Alongside the levelling-up fund, the Department created the community renewal fund in order to alleviate regional disparities. If the Minister is to mark his own homework, how does he think levelling up the country is going?

As I said in response to a previous question, we have committed more than £13.9 billion of local growth funding to communities across the United Kingdom, including in Scotland. We have committed to publishing the details of the levelling-up missions in due course, and I will ensure that the hon. Lady has an update when we do that.

In fact, academics from the University of Manchester have found that the community renewal fund gave £9.9 million to the south of England at the expense of other regions, which seems to be a trend that we see in levelling up. Does the Minister agree with me that his Department’s plans are, simply put, doing little to tackle regional inequalities?

I completely disagree with the hon. Lady; the facts show something quite different. As I said when I outlined round 3 in the House on 20 November, the biggest recipients of the levelling-up fund have been the north-west, the north-east, and Yorkshire and the Humber. That tells a very different story from the picture painted by the hon. Lady.

Private Rented Sector

I am delighted to announce that our Renters (Reform) Bill completed Committee stage in the House last week. Our ambitious and balanced reforms will deliver on our manifesto commitment to abolish section 21 evictions and to reform grounds for possession, so that landlords can recover their properties when they need to.

The Secretary of State moved with admirable speed after the death of Awaab Ishak to ensure that social landlords honour their obligations to tenants in terms of mould and safety, but those in private rented accommodation do not have that protection. Can the Minister tell the House, and the world, why private tenants are put at risk in that way?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the work that he did following the tragic and unnecessary death of Awaab Ishak. We have tabled an amendment to the Renters (Reform) Bill to expand the decent homes standard to the private rented sector for the first time. I look forward to working with him to ensure that the Bill is in as good a state as it can be when it leaves this House.

The Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee has been taking evidence about local government finances. In the past two years, expenditure on homelessness and temporary accommodation has increased by 50%. The reality is that section 21 notices are a prime driver of that. The Renters (Reform) Bill will abolish section 21, but the Government have not yet announced a timetable for the legislation’s implementation or the abolition. The Government have said that we need court reform. I completely agree, but how was that helped by the Chancellor’s announcing in the autumn statement a freeze of the budget of the Ministry of Justice for the whole of the next Parliament?

I can confirm to the Chair of the Select Committee that I met the relevant Minister in the Ministry of Justice just this morning to discuss that point. We are working at pace to ensure that the courts are ready for the biggest change in the private rented sector in over 30 years. The hon. Gentleman talked about local government funding. We are conducting a new burdens assessment for local government to ensure that any additional burdens that are placed on local government are funded properly.

In the festive spirit, I extend my sympathies to the Secretary of State, who seems to spend his time haunted by the ghost of Christmas past. In 2019, a Tory Prime Minister promised to ban no-fault evictions. Since then, households have been put at risk of homelessness because of a section 21 notice nearly 78,000 times. In 2017, the fifth predecessor of the Secretary of State pledged action to end the medieval practice of leasehold, but just last year another 207,000 homeowners became stuck in that expensive nightmare. All the while, the Secretary of State has been beavering away drawing up what can only be described as Alice in Wonderland legislation: a Bill to ban no-fault evictions that will not ban no-fault evictions, and a Bill to ban leasehold that will not ban leasehold. Is he too scared to stand up to his Back Benchers, or has he truly fallen down the rabbit hole?

I should remind the right hon. Lady that I am not the Secretary of State. Let me also remind her that the Renters (Reform) Bill is the biggest change to the private rented sector in 30 years—longer than I have been alive. We have to ensure that we get this right both for tenants and for the 2.4 million landlords in this country. She may be willing to brush aside the concerns of landlords and turn her back on what are often small businesses. We are not. We will deliver a Bill that protects renters and ensures a fair system for landlords.

Local Authority Funding: Essex

5. What funding he plans to provide to local authorities in Essex in the 2024-25 financial year. (900435)

The Government will bring forward our proposals for the 2024-25 local government finance settlement in the usual way, towards the end of the calendar year, but I pledge that it will be before the House rises. We will set out our proposals for the 2024-25 financial year and then invite views in our formal consultation.

I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities. He may know—he definitely will now—that Braintree District Council, Colchester City Council, Maldon District Council and Essex County Council provide essential statutory services to my Witham constituents and many more. The costs of statutory services such as adult social care and care for children are rising. I suspect that he will give a nuanced answer, but can he give any indication of how the local government finance settlement will support those local authorities in delivering those vital statutory services?

I have never given a nuanced answer in my life and I do not intend to start doing so now. I thank all the councils my right hon. Friend mentioned for the work they do in delivering services for their communities. Local government has seen a real-terms increase in core spending power over the period 2019-20 to 2023-24. I know she knows that, but I assure her and the House that we recognise and understand the pressures on local government. We will look in the round at sector spending when finalising the budget at the upcoming settlement, as we do every year, but I shall certainly bear at the forefront of my mind the representations that she has made.

Leasehold Reform

On 27 November the Government introduced the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill, which delivers the Government’s manifesto commitments on leasehold reform and makes long-term necessary changes to improve home ownership for millions of leaseholders across England and Wales.

In January, the Secretary of State told The Sunday Times:

“I don’t believe leasehold is fair in any way. It is an outdated feudal system that needs to go. And we need to move to a better system and to liberate people from it.”

But the Government’s Bill does not sort it, nor does it free my constituents from their feudal masters. Why?

As the hon. Gentleman will know if he has read the Bill that was introduced last week, a substantial amount of progress is proposed under it: a substantial number of leaseholders will be much better off and experience a substantial improvement to their lives as a result of the changes that this Government are proposing.

A large number of freehold homeowners in my constituency pay charges to property management companies for maintenance services that are not always carried out. The management companies rarely respond to complaints from residents, who often do not have the money to seek legal advice with a view to taking court action. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the new Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill will grant freehold homeowners the right to transparency about how their money is spent, to challenge companies when the contracted services are not provided and, where necessary, to have the contract removed from that company?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that issue, and I know that many of us will have heard of similar experiences in our constituencies. That is another example—I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham)—of reform under this Bill that will significantly improve the lives of leaseholders for the long term.

As you will no doubt be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Government’s Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill, designed to ban the sale of new leasehold houses, does not actually contain any provisions to ban the sale of new leasehold houses, because the Department apparently did not have time to draft them before publication. If and when the Government rectify their mistake and add the necessary provisions, will they incorporate measures to reinvigorate commonhold by making it accessible and available to both prospective homebuyers and existing leaseholders? If not, why not?

As has been outlined, we intend to bring forward further changes to the Bill during the process, as Opposition Members know is normal, because they have sat in the same Committees that we have. We are not proposing to change leasehold to commonhold under the Bill, but that remains part of our long-term approach and we would like to see further reforms as soon as we are able to.

One outsider and apparently one or two Opposition Members misinterpreted what I understood the Secretary of State to be saying in January. Can the Minister confirm that the opportunities for enfranchisement will take away many of the problems that residential leaseholders now suffer and, in effect, that will get them to commonhold? I will just add that if we had waited to transfer all leaseholds to commonhold, we would not have the Bill now and 6 million leaseholders would have been betrayed.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We all want to see those in leasehold in a much improved situation. We are making huge steps forward with this Bill and we look forward to continuing and augmenting that reform in due course.

Council Funding

18. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of assessments of relative needs at ensuring the adequacy of council funding. (900453)

We are in close and regular contact with sector representative bodies and councils from across the local government family to monitor budgets and service delivery. I have had many discussions with those bodies and organisations since my appointment. As hon. Members will know, the final local government finance settlement for 2023-24 made available up to £59.7 billion for local government in England, an increase in core spending power of up to £5.1 billion, or 9.4%, in cash terms on 2022-23. The Government will continue to look in the round at local government spending ahead of fiscal events, and we will be announcing funding for next year’s finance settlement later this month.

May I take this opportunity to wish Mr Speaker a speedy recovery?

I thank the Minister for his response, but I say respectfully that I do not find it satisfactory. I declare an interest as a proudly active Somerset councillor. Councils provide essential services, such as adults’ and children’s social care, yet increasing costs in social care, alongside inflation, mean that many councils around the country are struggling to provide adequate care. I must warn him that, without action, lives will be foreshortened. The cost of providing services is higher in rural areas than urban areas, yet rural residents will receive 13% less per head in social care support. Will he reassure me that the forthcoming fair funding review will address the unequal way rural councils are funded?

The hon. Lady, who is my constituency neighbour in some respects, makes an important point in a serious way. I concur very much on the seriousness of the issue and the challenge that it is presenting to our upper-tier authorities. As I said, we will of course look in the round at all the pressures being placed on local government to see what we can do to help. She rightly mentions the rural services delivery grant, which I have championed. It is very much in my mind to see what we can do during the settlement to address the issue that she raises of the cost disparity of delivering quality services in rural settings, particularly where populations are sparse.

Under the current relative needs assessment formula, the poorest fifth of councils receive about 10% below their assessed needs, while the richest fifth get 15% above them. That is hardly levelling up, is it, Minister? A review of the current formula, which is over 10 years old, has been repeatedly postponed. Meanwhile, local authorities such as Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council could be missing out on thousands or perhaps millions of pounds, which could deliver much-needed services in our town. When will the review finally take place?

The hon. Lady raises an important point about the formula. I am tempted to say that if the spectre of covid had not, quite rightly, taken up a huge amount of bandwidth in both central Government and local government, we might have been in a different place. We can spend an awful lot of time discussing the minutiae of the formula, and there will be a time when that needs to be done. The crucial task that we have in hand at the current time is to play the cards that we have been dealt, to deliver a settlement that works for local government and to deliver the quality and range of services that all our communities, irrespective of where they are in the country, have a legitimate expectation to receive.

We are not making terribly fast progress this afternoon. Could everyone who has their question written down cut out the bit at the beginning and just ask the question? This is not speech time; it is Question Time, so let us just have questions. If we get short questions, we can get short answers, too.

Local government finance has been front and centre of our local news given the stark situation in Nottingham. The Minister will know about Nottingham’s unique circumstances following decades of poor decisions and mismanagement, but it will not be lost on him that the whole sector is under significant pressure. I know that he will make the case about finances to the Treasury, but the Government could help significantly by allowing more flexibility in the system. Will he work with colleagues around Government to help us to remove ringfences, particularly in areas, such as public health and transport, in which we could make better decisions if we had more freedom to do so?

I am not going to give a running commentary on the situation in Nottingham, save to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I keep it under close review. On my hon. Friend’s wider point about trust and liberalisation, his call falls on open ears. I am happy to work with anybody who wants to ensure that our local authorities can stand up and deliver, as long as they accept accountability and responsibility for the decisions they take. The Government have a proud record on working in a relationship of trust with our local councillors and councils in order to deliver for people up and down the land.

In 2018, Tory-led Northamptonshire County Council issued a section 114 notice—as close as a council can come to declaring itself bankrupt. Since then, under this Conservative Government, we have seen a further eight councils from across the political spectrum do exactly the same. In September, the credit agency Moody’s warned that more local authorities will

“fail over the near term”

due to high inflation, interest rates and service demand. By the Government’s own assessment, how many more councils are at risk between now and budgets being set next year?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place and echo the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State; it is great to see him back on the Front Bench.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Nobody is going to doubt that section 114 is a serious issue. As I have said to the Local Government Association and others, I do not think it is right for us to name and shame, point the finger or assign blame. We are intent on working with councils that have already alerted us to see what we can do to help, and on working alongside councils that have concerns to ensure they do not fall into that situation. I am not going to give a running commentary on that, save to make this pledge: we will work with those councils to ensure that they can continue to deliver for their voters.

Land Use: Renewable Energy Generation

12. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero on the use of land for renewable energy generation. (900444)

The Government have in place a framework, developed in collaboration with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, that supports the deployment of renewable energy technologies. That is balanced by national planning policy, which is clear that land assets such as farmland must also be protected.

On current usage, 2,000 acres of solar panels are required to power around 50,000 homes, whereas a small modular reactor requires just two football pitches and powers 1 million homes. Does my hon. Friend agree that solar is a highly inefficient land use, and can he confirm that the provision to protect land used in food production remains in the new national planning policy framework?

I know that my hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in this issue. We will be publishing more on the NPPF shortly, but he is absolutely right that we need a variety of different energy sources that can support the UK’s future energy needs.

As the Minister knows, there is a disparity between the contracts for difference scheme for the mainland and what exists for Northern Ireland. I have made overtures to the Minister responsible to see whether we can get that changed, but that has not happened yet. Will the Minister use his influence to make sure that we in Northern Ireland are treated equally with everybody else in the United Kingdom?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He might like to write to me, or I am happy to speak to him separately in order to understand the issue, and either I or my colleagues in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero will be happy to respond.

Levelling-up Policies: Regional Inequalities

14. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s levelling-up policies at reducing regional inequalities. (900446)

In that case, can the Secretary of State tell us whether Scotland will receive more or less funding to tackle regional inequality than it would have received if we had done as 78% of voters in my constituency did and voted to remain in the European Union?

We are doing better outside the European Union. If we had followed the hon. Gentleman’s advice and remained in the European Union, we would have found that the fishing industry was decimated by the common fisheries policy and we would not have had the opportunity to invest in new levelling-up partnerships in Argyll and Bute, the Western Isles, Dundee and, of course, the west central belt. This UK Government are intervening where the Scottish Government cannot to support local government in Scotland, which is why whenever I address the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, I get a warmer welcome than the First Minister of Scotland does.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is a great shame that Stoke-on-Trent City Council, which is now Labour-run, has scaled back its levelling-up plans by getting rid of the proposed e-sports arena? The first of its kind outside of London, it would have built on Staffordshire University’s UK-leading—indeed, world-leading—e-sports courses, as well as the 9,000 jobs created since 2015, the £56 million we got in levelling-up funding, the £17.6 million Kidsgrove town deal, and much more.

When it comes to levelling up and the e-sports centre, I am always clear that it is my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove who answers the call of duty. He is absolutely right to say that, under the Labour council now in Stoke-on-Trent, the huge progress we were making on levelling up has stalled. What we need are more Conservative elected representatives in Stoke-on-Trent.

Electoral Commission

16. What recent discussions he has had with the Electoral Commission on administering free and fair elections. (900451)

Free, fair and resilient elections are pivotal to our society, and if we agree on nothing else in this House, I hope it is on that. The Government regularly meet the Electoral Commission, both at ministerial and official level, to discuss a broad range of electoral issues, and I am due to have my first meeting with it next Tuesday.

I thank the Minister for his answer, and I welcome him to his place. He will know that the cyber-attack in October 2021 was not detected until August 2022, and the commission admitted that it had failed a cyber security test in the same year. What work is the Minister doing with the Security Minister to ensure that the defending democracy taskforce has a remit with the Electoral Commission? I agree with the Minister, as should all Members of this House, that we should have free and fair elections without intervention from other states, so what work is he doing to ensure the general election next year is protected from any hostile states?

The hon. Gentleman—and, dare I say it, my friend—raises an important point. There is a good range of discussion taking place between my Department and the Home Office and a range of meetings focused on that. Conscious of the role that the commission can play, we must ensure that those who stand in our elections, participate in them and administer them feel safe and secure in their roles, and moreover that the results, whatever they are, stand up and are not open to challenge as a result of cyber-attack or anything else.

A report from the all-party parliamentary group on democracy and the constitution has found that the photo voter ID scheme creates a real risk of injustice and potential discrimination. The report highlighted the case of an immunocompromised woman who was denied her right and her voice at the local elections after being told that she needed to take off her mask. Does the Minister agree that denying someone a say in how their community is run because of a disability is completely unacceptable? Can he confirm that any indications of potential discrimination found in the photo voter ID system will be dealt with prior to the next set of elections?

The hon. Lady raises a serious point, and let me put it on record that I would be happy to meet her and the APPG to discuss their issues and concerns. We have made great strides—there is a specific workstream—in ensuring we maximise how those who have a disability can vote and do so in a free and unfettered way, and we will continue with that. I am very sorry to hear about the case the hon. Lady raises, but if she wishes to write to me on the issue, I will of course look into it in my discussions with the commission. It is absolutely pivotal that, in all we do with regard to our election rules, access to voting—freedom to vote—is absolutely at the heart of it, and as the Minister responsible for elections, I shall guarantee that.

Topical Questions

Right, I am going to issue a challenge to the House. We have 10 topical questions and others to get through, we have very little time to do it—and we have a lot of business today—and I would not like Mr Speaker to think that we are going slowly just because he is not here: short questions, short answers!

At the autumn statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made available to my Department money for investment in London, Cambridge and Leeds, planning capacity and capability, the local authority housing fund, the local housing allowance, home buying and selling and the affordable homes guarantee scheme—quite a coup.

I think I got most of that. Newport West is home to a thriving and inclusive Muslim community, and I pay tribute to the multi-faith work being done to bring our communities together after the terrible events in the middle east. Can the Minister outline what discussions he has had with the Welsh Government about supporting this multi-faith work, and about eradicating Islamophobia in Wales and the UK once and for all?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady. Of course, Newport is one of many cities and towns where there is effective working between representatives of Muslim communities and figures in local government more widely. I had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues with the First Minister of Wales at the British-Irish Council just 10 days ago, but there is much more that we need to do to deal with anti-Muslim hatred.

T2. Over the summer, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Building Safety, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) published a non-binding code of practice for cladding remediation works, following intensive discussions with him, and also my highlighting the devasting case of St Francis Tower. Will he update the House on how in practice that non-binding code of practice is working? Has it led to improved behaviour and been a step forward, and has he considered further my view that perhaps that code of practice needs to be legally binding? (900457)

My hon. Friend was a driving force behind that code of practice, and we are monitoring it actively. Anecdotally I am seeing fewer issues, although there are still some. I would be happy to receive from him and other Members of the House any information or evidence that suggests there is still a problem.

T4. The cost to councils of delivering services will exceed their core funding by £2 billion this year. Newcastle expects a funding gap of £56 million, following £369 million of Conservative cuts to funding and years of Conservative economic failure. Can my constituents rely on council services under a Conservative Government? (900459)

They certainly cannot rely on a Labour Government, because the Leader of the Opposition just this morning has been talking about his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and cost cutting. I am afraid all the hon. Lady is doing is raising false hopes that have no chance of being satisfied under a Labour Government.

T5.   [R] My interest is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Why is it Government policy to deny a landlord and tenant the ability to agree a mutually convenient fixed-term tenancy? (900460)

Fixed-term tenancies can trap tenants into poor-quality homes, and trap landlords into long-term tenancies with bad tenants. With the abolition of section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, we no longer see such things as necessary, but I am happy to work with my right hon. Friend to ensure that the Renters (Reform) Bill works for his constituents.

The latest Government figures highlight that a record 139,000 children—children!—are in temporary accommodation in the lead-up to Christmas, which is a 14% increase. Meanwhile, only 9,500 homes for social rent were built last year. If we take into account all the homes built since 2010, that is minus 14,000 each year. Does the Minister regret handing back £1.9 billion of unspent departmental money to the Treasury last year, given that we are in an urgent housing crisis? Why not adopt Labour’s plan to get Britain building again, with 1.5 million homes over that parliamentary period?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that our target is 300,000 homes per year which, when multiplied by five, equals 1.5 million. In the autumn statement we had three measures to address the challenges of temporary accommodation: we uprated the local housing allowance to the 30th percentile; there is a new £120 million for a homelessness fund; and an extra £450 million for the local authority housing fund.

T7. Does my hon. Friend agree that Stoke-on-Trent City Council should invest its share of the £200 million that it recently secured from the National Lottery Heritage Fund on one of the three beautiful “beasts” of Burslem, including the indoor market, in order to regenerate the mother town, for which the leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council is a local ward councillor? (900462)

It is fantastic that Stoke-on-Trent has been chosen as one of the 20 places to benefit from the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s £200 million investment in the Heritage Places initiative. The fund will make its funding decisions under that initiative and independent from Government. However, I am sure that the National Lottery has heard my hon. Friend’s loud cry for Burslem, and I am sure it will look at it favourably.

T6. Sacha from Kempston, Bedford, is one of an increasing number of freeholders who are afflicted by estate maintenance charges. Will the Secretary of State commit to a review into the role of those excessive, unpredictable and often opaque fees and insurance costs that not only treat mostly new homeowners as cash cows, but are putting their homes at risk? (900461)

T9. The Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft enterprise zone, which was set up in 2012, has been very successful. With no investment zones in the east of England, will my hon. Friend meet my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Sir Brandon Lewis) and me to consider how best the enterprise zone can be enhanced, so that it can continue to create jobs in the low-carbon energy sector? (900464)

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth. We have no plans at present to amend enterprise zones, but I am keen to ensure that their constituents continue to reap the rewards of levelling up, including the £100 million of investment for Sizewell C and freeport east, which will generate thousands of jobs across his region in new low-carbon technology.

T8. Caius House is a small youth charity in Battersea that leases a space in a multi-use high-rise building that includes residential dwellings. Despite its having state-of-the-art fire alarm systems, the charity faces huge waking watch costs. As the Building Safety Act 2022 does not protect registered charities, such as Caius House, will the Secretary of State look into this case? Will he seek to bring forward legislation to protect charities from high costs due to fire safety remediation work? (900463)

I think we responded to a written question on this matter just a few months ago, but I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to talk about it in more detail, if there still is a problem. I am not aware of one at the moment.

Horsham is suffering severe water stress and is subject to water neutrality. Does the Minister agree that mitigations should be thorough, evidenced and monitored?

I absolutely agree. Water neutrality is impacting on small parts of the country, but it needs to be dealt with seriously and proportionately by statutory consultees, and then with a can-do attitude from councils where appropriate.

T10.   Does the Minister agree that young people leaving care after their 18th birthday should get more help to get their first home? Will he back my campaign that I am running with Barnado’s and Plymouth care leavers for a deposit scheme for care leavers and a rent guarantee scheme, because every single care leaver leaving local authority care deserves a good, decent and safe first home? (900465)

I know the hon. Gentleman has done a significant amount of work on this matter within Plymouth, and I know that my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions are doing a significant amount of work, too, and I would be happy to meet him to talk more about the matter.

Sadly, a second homeless person died over the weekend. The number of rough sleepers is increasing, and the temperatures are falling. Will my hon. Friend take immediate action to ensure that rough sleepers are provided with a decent place to sleep, particularly during this cold weather?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Clearly, the death in Manchester was tragic. Local authorities can activate the severe weather emergency protocol measures. Manchester did activate those, but sadly the man was not known to local services. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and we will do everything to support rough sleepers over the winter period.

The Government announced in the autumn statement £120 million of new money for homeless prevention for next year, but that is just a drop in the ocean, with Enfield Council alone facing a £9.8 million overspend on temporary accommodation for this year. When will this Government recognise the scale of the crisis and provide top-up funding for the homelessness prevention grant and discretionary housing payments?

I remind the hon. Lady that our total package for homelessness and rough sleeping over three years is £2 billion. The £120 million is in addition to that, but I agree with her that there are real pressures on homelessness, particularly in London, and that is why there were three measures in the autumn statement.

It is now 10 weeks since the bins were emptied in Warrington. A national pay dispute has spilled over into a local disagreement. Does the Minister agree that it is now urgent that Labour-run Warrington Borough Council gets round the table with the unions and finds an urgent agreement, before the situation turns into a health emergency?

Absolutely. Again and again, we find that Labour-run local authorities, despite their much-vaunted relationship with trade unions, are incapable of resolving these disputes. Whether in Birmingham or Warrington, Labour must do better, otherwise working people suffer.

On public services, City of York Council area comes 152 out of 152 when it comes to public funding. As a result, services are now having to be cut in the area, as the council has £55 million less than when we last had a Labour Government. How will the Secretary of State ensure that fair funding stretches across all public services when looking at the new funding formula?

We are absolutely committed to making sure that local authorities receive the resources they need. Having had conversations with the leader of City of York Council, I appreciate the constraints under which it is operating, and we hope to be able to say more in the local government finance settlement.

I have spoken to Ministers about the work of organisations such as Fromehall Mill and the Sub Rooms, and we have been down to Berkeley town. With them in mind, when will the next round of announcements about the community ownership fund be made?

I am delighted to confirm to my hon. Friend that the next round of the community ownership fund opens this week, on 6 December. We will have the outcomes of the last window in the coming weeks, but I know that she is very keen on Fromehall Mill and Berkeley Books, which she has been championing.

The announcement that Edinburgh airport is for sale comes hard on the heels of the announcement last week that Grangemouth is closing the oil refinery. What can the Secretary of State say to reassure my constituents in Edinburgh West that everything possible has been done to ensure that this does not undermine the green enterprise zone in the area?

The hon. Lady does a fantastic job of standing up for her constituents in Edinburgh West, and she is absolutely right: the UK Government should be, and are, working with the Scottish Government and private sector partners in order to ensure that sustainable growth continues to be part of the plan for Edinburgh and the wider Lothian region.

It is clear that the Government are planning to protect councils during the transition to the new planning system, and are not planning to force councils into having an out-of-date plan by taking away their right to submit a new, up-to-date plan. Can the Secretary of State help me get this across to my local Lib Dem-run council, which is saying the exact opposite?

I had the great pleasure of visiting Harborough on Friday, when I was able to see the enormously high regard with which my hon. Friend is held. Unfortunately, that high regard does not extend to Oadby and Wigston Borough Council or Harborough District Council—two Liberal Democrat authorities that are playing fast and loose with the planning system, and which are not putting in place the protection that their residents deserve. All too often we find that Liberal Democrat local authorities do not have plans in place, do not have planning departments that work, and let their residents down. The Liberal Democrats are the enemies of good housing policy, and that is why we need to make sure that Conservatives are in power in local government.