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Topical Questions

Volume 742: debated on Monday 4 December 2023

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.