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Topical Questions

Volume 744: debated on Monday 22 January 2024

Earlier this month we launched the consultation on Awaab’s law, which insists upon time limits for repairs in the social rented sector. In the shaping of this law and many other initiatives and interventions to help people in social housing, the example of Tony Lloyd, the late Member for Rochdale, is in all our minds and hearts. Awaab was one of his constituents, and Tony Lloyd could not have been kinder or more supportive of the efforts of my Department and others to see justice for Awaab’s family.

The household support fund has supported 330,000 households in Liverpool since its introduction. The focus needs to shift from crisis support to prevention but in the short term the demand for local welfare is rising. Like many other councils, Liverpool City Council says the household support fund will need to continue beyond March 2024 to keep residents well supported to stay in and enter work and prevent an escalating crisis, reducing pressure on public services including local authorities. What representations has the Minister made to the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure the continuation of the fund after March?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the fund has helped many communities in need, particularly in Liverpool. He and other Liverpool MPs have been assiduous in making the case for its continuation and I have passed that on to colleagues.

T4. Leicester-shire MPs had plenty of time last week with two Ministers from the Department—the levelling-up Minister and the local government Minister—to discuss the funding and structure of our county council. To follow up, will the Minister for local government commit to meet the county council leadership to ensure that the funding and the formula that goes with it are improved for the future? (901092)

I thank my hon. Friend for his positive engagement, alongside that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) and my hon. Friends the Members for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) and for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), who came to see me to discuss this issue last week. I would of course be delighted to meet the leadership of Leicestershire County Council with my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) and his colleagues. Through the good offices of our hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire, I met informally with Councillor Louise Richardson, the cabinet lead on health, last week.

First, Mr Speaker, may I echo the comments made by the Secretary of State in relation to the late Tony Lloyd, who will be greatly missed in all parts of the House?

As we have heard from the shadow Secretary of State, the whole country has been levelled down since 2010 at an average rate of £10,200 per person. That is a damning indictment of this Government, but with about 1,300 projects funded by the future high streets fund, the towns deals and levelling-up funds, that decline should, in theory, not have happened. How many of those projects have now been completed and what evidence does the Department have that those projects have contributed to reducing regional inequalities?

The evidence of the reduction in regional inequalities is perhaps most marked in Teesside and the Tees valley where the Conservative Mayor Ben Houchen has been responsible for overseeing an economic renaissance, renewed foreign direct investment, and improvements in public health and education. The message is clear: if we want levelling up to work, we need to elect Conservative mayors in May.

T5. The Minister will be aware that Labour-run Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council has recently given the go-ahead for developers to build hundreds of new homes at Highfield Park in Maltby on land that has always been greenfield. What he might not be aware of is that the developer has given thousands of pounds to the local Labour party, which none of the councillors voting on the issue declared. What can he do to ensure that such greenfield sites are not wantonly given over to developers? (901093)

I am sorry to hear about the challenges that my hon. Friend has seen in Rother Valley. It is one reason that more Conservative councillors need to be elected on to Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council for the future. We are absolutely aware that there are challenges. We need to build more houses and in the right place, and the best way to do that is by getting a local plan in place, and by the councils that are responsible for that engaging properly with their communities about it.

T2. My local authority is bending over backwards to try to build social housing and is committed to building 2,000 new homes, yet the Government are still standing in the way by placing restrictions on reinvesting right-to-buy money in building social housing. Why will the Government not assist local authorities to build those houses? We have had 14,000 fewer homes a year since 2010. Does the Minister accept that that is a disgraceful record for the Government? (901089)

We always stand ready to work with local authorities of whatever stripe or colour to ensure the delivery of new homes. As the hon. Member knows, London is the region of the United Kingdom that has performed worst against its housing targets. Principally, that is down to the Mayor, not to individual local authorities, so I look forward to talking to him about what more we can do together.

T8. There is a powerful community campaign to stop an asphalt plant being built in countryside in my constituency. The application has dragged on for years. Will the Minister look at how applicants and councils can be compelled to provide and process information in a more timely manner, so that such applications do not blight the lives of local people for so long? (901096)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need decisions at the earliest possible opportunity. Sometimes that is not possible, but it is important that things are done as quickly as possible. That is one reason that we announced a few weeks ago that we were monitoring local authorities’ planning application performance, so that can see where they are, and are not, doing the right thing.

T3. Lease-holders at Orchard House in my constituency are in an unsafe building with known defects. They have been issued with a remediation order, but the freeholder is simply not co-operating. Does this not suggest that the feudal freehold system should be abolished for flats, as well as for houses? What assurances can the Minister give my constituents that they will get help from somewhere? (901091)

It suggests to me that the freeholder is doing the wrong thing, and where the freeholder is doing the wrong thing, they need to be held to account through the court system, as they are, and they will eventually be forced to do the right thing. On the specifics, I am happy to talk to the hon. Lady, if that would be helpful.

We have £72 million for Bishop Auckland through the levelling-up fund, the future high streets fund and the towns fund, £20 million for Spennymoor through the long-term plan for towns and a £1.4 billion investment fund through the north-east devolution deal. It really is the Conservatives who deliver for the north-east, is it not?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and I thank her for her work in this role in the Department and all that she has done to help level up in her constituency.

T6.   There are 14,000 families waiting on Liverpool’s housing register. We are facing a housing and homelessness crisis, and the cost of providing temporary accommodation has gone from £250,000 to £19 million in the past three years. The leader of the council has written to the Secretary of State twice. When will the Secretary of State wake up to this emergency? (901094)

I appreciate the advocacy of Liverpool MPs on behalf of those in temporary accommodation, and I appreciate the scale and nature of the problem. I have been working with the Mayor of Liverpool city region and others to look at a strategic futures advisory panel report that we believe will unlock not just additional housing, but additional investment in Liverpool and the Liverpool city region. I look forward to discussing that with the hon. Member and, indeed, the new leader of Liverpool City Council.

Over the weekend, the Express ran a story about Ferryhill in my Sedgefield constituency being a dumping ground for rapists and paedophiles. My constituents believe that has been driven by housing groups advertising in the south to people that they have houses in places such as Ferryhill where no checks are required. Can the Minister meet me to discuss how we can stop the degeneration of places such as Ferryhill?

I am very sorry to hear of my hon. Friend’s concerns. I will meet him and discuss how our antisocial behaviour action plan can help in Ferryhill.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Today, more than 40 of the Government’s own MPs have written to the Prime Minister with their concern about the financial situation facing councils and the need for emergency funding. The Local Government Association says that there is likely to be a £4 billion funding gap over the next two years. If there are to be these council shortfalls and many people will not see the essential services they rely on, what will the Secretary of State do to ensure that people still have access to the vital services they so desperately need?

I think that of the 40 MPs who wrote that letter, one was the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and one was the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke), so I look forward to their joining our ranks as part of the swelling tide of Conservative support that I see across the country. On the specifics of the hon. Member’s point, we have been listening carefully to colleagues in local government and will respond in due course.

Local council tax payers in Warrington quite rightly expect high levels of governance and transparency when councillors are using public money to invest in commercial businesses, which carries a high level of risk. Does the Minister agree that the decision by Labour-run Warrington Borough Council to reduce the number of opposition councillors on its audit committee flies in the face of good governance and that questions need to be asked about how it is managing its £1.8 billion debt?

I recognise the concerns regarding Warrington’s debt. Of course, the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 provides new powers for the Government to step in and take action to protect the public purse. My experience is that where important scrutiny chairmanship roles are held by opposition parties, those who take the decisions take better decisions, and the scrutiny is much better as a result.

Does the Secretary of State think it is acceptable that leaseholders of Lee Court in my constituency should be without heating and hot water, as well as experiencing multiple problems in the communal area? If he does not think that is acceptable, how and when will he strengthen the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill to stop these injustices from happening?

I absolutely accept that, and I believe that I wrote recently to Lewisham council to draw attention to its responsibilities in the area.

On Metro Mayors, may I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the decision of Ben Houchen to deliver the £250 million Darlington northern link road using Network North funds? Does he agree that that is a fantastic example of Ben delivering for Darlington and the Tees Valley?

It is just another example of Ben Houchen as Metro Mayor using all the powers at his disposal and the resources released by this Conservative Government to ensure that, at last, Teesside and the Tees Valley gets the investment it needed. One reason he attracts so much criticism from the Labour party is that he is a Tory who delivers for Teesside in a way that no one has ever delivered before.

Will the Minister commit to further levelling-up funding for the devolved institutions for local sports clubs across Northern Ireland, instead of funding Casement Park to the detriment of every other sport looking for funding in Northern Ireland, so that all traditions and all sides of the community can benefit from the funding?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point seriously. It is important that we support grassroots sport and other civil society organisations in Northern Ireland. We are working hard to try to ensure that we can do that with our partners in a restored Executive. In the meantime, I should say that I am grateful to Ulster rugby for ending its relationship with Kingspan, which means that we can unlock additional funding for grassroots rugby across Northern Ireland.

While I am deeply disappointed that Stoke-on-Trent Labour refuses to make the necessary terms and conditions changes to help save Stoke-on-Trent City Council funding, there is a united view across the political divide in Stoke-on-Trent that the legacy in children’s social care is causing huge financial strain on the local authority. Will the Secretary of State do everything he can to work with Councillor Jane Ashworth to ensure that that gap is funded and those children—the most vulnerable in our society—are protected?

Absolutely. I hope that the House will note that my hon. Friend, who fights incredibly hard for his principles and for Stoke-on-Trent, is taking a typically statesmanlike approach in putting his constituents first. Come the next general election, people should remember that he is someone whose big heart reflects their good values.

Road safety is put at risk by roads that are not adopted, because speed limits cannot be enforced and often they do not get gritted. There are serious worries that people will get injured. What more can the Department do to ensure that key service roads on big, new housing estates get adopted more quickly?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to ensure that developers live up to their responsibilities to provide appropriate infrastructure. It has been the case that a number of fleecehold—for want of a better word—developments have unadopted roads, where children are at risk.