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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 616: debated on Monday 24 October 2016

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

House Building and Planning

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on (a) house building and (b) affordability of housing of allowing urban property owners to build up, not out, to the height of the tallest building in the same block without requiring planning permission. (906722)

My hon. Friend highlights the importance of increasing brownfield development and building to higher densities to deliver more homes. I announced our plan for urban regeneration at our party conference and I will set out further proposals as part of our housing White Paper later this year.

I am delighted at the progress that my right hon. Friend has made so far, but may I urge him to go further still? I encourage him to include proposals to build up, not out, in his forthcoming White Paper, to cut development pressure on green fields, release huge numbers of new buildable sites, regenerate urban centres and, most important of all, cut the cost of new homes dramatically?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the need for more homes in the right places so that the housing market works for everyone. That means encouraging urban regeneration, making the best of brownfield land and building new homes where people desperately need them. Later this year, my housing White Paper will ensure that that happens across the country, including Weston-super-Mare.

Surely the Secretary of State is not going to fiddle-faddle with regulations like this at that level. What this country needs, given the housing and homes crisis—the deepest in a hundred years—is bold, imaginative innovation in the house-building programme, and we want it now.

I think “fiddle-faddle” is an appropriate description of what happened under 13 years of Labour government, when house building fell to its lowest level since the 1920s.

Recently the leader of Rossendale Borough Council and I wrote jointly to the Minister for Housing and Planning to say that our objectively assessed housing requirement did not take account of topographical and flooding issues in the Rossendale valley. Will the Secretary of State, on behalf of our hon. Friend the Minister, agree to a meeting with the leader of the local authority, Alyson Barnes, and me to discuss those specific issues?

My hon. Friend makes a passionate case, and while it would not be appropriate to comment on the details, I can make sure that the Minister for Housing and Planning meets him.

I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council.

My constituents would broadly support the idea of building up, not out, but in middle England towns such as Kettering, with its limited public transport options, the problem is that the more residents we squeeze into any street, the greater the pressure on parking spaces. Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a big difference between inner-city developments and developments of this sort in middle England towns?

My hon. Friend is right, and highlights the need for correct and adequate infrastructure in towns and villages across the country if we are to build the homes that we need. The proposals that we will introduce later this year, including the White Paper, will certainly take account of that.

Rough Sleeping

One person sleeping on the streets is one too many. All too often, support and intervention are only provided at crisis point, which is why we have launched our £40 million homelessness prevention programme—an end-to-end approach to tackling homelessness and rough sleeping to get people back on their feet.

St Mungo’s reported last week that four in 10 people sleeping rough in England have mental health conditions, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Poor mental health makes it harder for rough sleepers to get off the streets and almost impossible to gain access to mainstream NHS services. St Mungo’s reports that

“the small number of specialist…mental health services are facing cuts or disappearing altogether.”

How exactly is the Secretary of State addressing the growing mental health crisis among people sleeping on the streets?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. As she rightly points out, homelessness is not just an issue of providing enough homes but of dealing with other causes. There is a cross-party working group on homelessness, and the Government are working across all Departments to deal with these complex issues. I am sure that we will make further progress.

It is often alleged—I am not sure how much statistical evidence there is—that a disproportionate number of rough sleepers in Britain come from the armed services. Will the Secretary of State tell us, first, whether or not that is true and whether there is any statistical evidence; and secondly, what more can be done to ensure that when people leaved the armed services they are given proper accommodation and kept off the streets?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. It is a disproportionate number, which is unacceptable. Almost all local authorities have signed up to the armed forces covenant, which will help, but we have to do more. The fact that the Government have committed £500 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping over the next four years will certainly help.

Two weeks ago, I joined the excellent Wintercomfort organisation in Cambridge, which provides services for rough sleepers in the city. It was in no doubt that the numbers are rising inexorably. How can reducing the support for supported housing in any way help to deal with this issue?

The hon. Gentleman should know that we are not reducing support for supported housing. This is an issue that we continue to take seriously and that we will continue tackling.

Clearly, having any single individual sleeping rough in this country is a disgrace. Will my right hon. Friend take urgent action to identify the people who are sleeping rough and to ensure that they get the help and support that they need, so that they have a home of their own and they can get back to a normal way of life?

Of course the Government can help with that. My hon. Friend will know that last December the Government committed to looking at options, including legislation, to deal with homelessness and to help rough sleepers. I am pleased to announce to the House today that the Government will be supporting his Bill, the Homelessness Reduction Bill, which is also supported by Crisis and Shelter. I thank him for all his hard work on the Bill and also thank the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who is responsible for local government.

It is good to see the Secretary of State and his new team in place, and it is even better to see our new strong Labour team in place. We will hold the Secretary of State and his team hard to account for the public for their failings.

With Labour in government, the number of homeless people sleeping rough on our streets fell by three quarters. Since 2010, the number has doubled. Why does the Secretary of State think that that has happened?

The right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of Labour in government. Let me remind him what happened—he was a Housing Minister for some of that time. Labour cut the number of houses available for social rent by 421,000. Since we have been in office, more council housing has been built, helping people to find homes, than in the entire 13 years of the Labour Government. If Labour had spent as much effort on building homes as it does on building its Front-Bench team, we would have had better results.

You can’t help the homeless if you won’t build the homes. Over the past six years, the Secretary of State’s Government have cut all funding for building new, genuinely affordable social housing. He asks about my record. In 2009, when I stood where he is standing, Labour in government started 40,000 new social rented homes. Last year, it was 1,000. From Labour’s Front Bench, I welcome the Secretary of State’s backing for the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), but will the right hon. Gentleman take the opportunity on Friday also to deal with the causes of rising homelessness? Build more affordable housing. Act on private renting and reverse the crude cuts to housing benefit for the most vulnerable people.

Again, the right hon. Gentleman raises his record in office. The House needs to be reminded that, under Labour, house building fell to its lowest level since the 1920s. That is Labour’s record, and Labour will never get away from it. Soon we will introduce a White Paper on housing. Let us see if he is able to support it.

Neighbourhood Plans

The Government are fully committed to neighbourhood planning, which enables communities to shape the development and growth of their local area in a positive manner. The Neighbourhood Planning Bill will further strengthen and future-proof the process and ensure that communities have the support that they need.

I think we would all welcome local communities being involved in their local plans in more detail. However, does the Secretary of State agree that one of the big challenges is ensuring that developers use land that they already have planning permission for, with a particular emphasis, as we have heard, on brownfield sites?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Where sites have planning permission, developers should move ahead as quickly as possible. People in desperate need of housing expect developers to work with the local authorities to deliver those new homes. That is why we are trying to help where we can. The Neighbourhood Planning Bill will make a difference, as will the £3 billion home building fund that was announced last month.

There will be no real localism while developers have the right to appeal planning decisions and communities do not. In cases where a neighbourhood plan is in place, will the Secretary of State commit to seriously consider allowing a community right of appeal when a developer proposes a speculative development that goes against that plan?

A community right to appeal would further slow down the planning process, which is not in anyone’s interest. We need more homes built in this country and we need them built quickly, and measures such as those in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill are precisely the ones that will help.

In Eastleigh, we face countless hostile planning applications, some destroying ancient woodland and beautiful green spaces. Does the Secretary of State agree that the borough council’s failure to deliver a local plan and much needed associated policies for neighbourhood plans prevents councils such as Botley from bringing forward their neighbourhood plans, thereby letting down my constituents?

My hon. Friend has been a consistent champion in this House of the need for Eastleigh to have an up-to-date and properly supported local plan. Eastleigh Borough Council needs to get its act together. Her constituents deserve to have their voices heard, and our neighbourhood plan will strengthen that right.

In a recent appeal by the developer, the Planning Inspectorate totally overlooked the local neighbourhood plan in Tettenhall in my constituency. From memory, it made one passing reference to that plan in a 17-page decision upholding the developer’s appeal. I would not expect the Secretary of State to comment on a particular appeal, but will he have a look at how seriously the Planning Inspectorate takes local neighbourhood plans?

It would be wrong of me to comment on the detail of a particular planning application, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, which is now before Parliament, will strengthen these neighbourhood plans. It will bring them into legal force far quicker, it will make it much easier to modify them and it will give more support, including financially, for communities to put them together.

High Streets (England)

We all want to see our high streets succeed and thrive and that is why we have introduced the biggest cut in business rates, worth £6.7 billion. We have launched the high street pledge, we have introduced digital high street pilots, and we are celebrating our high streets through the Great British High Street award, the finalists of which we announced last week.

Thornbury High Street attracts visitors from around the country to its art festival, regular farmers markets and annual carnival. Does my hon. Friend recognise the contribution of tourism to local high streets, and how is he working with his colleagues at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to support high streets as local and regional tourism destinations?

I know from my constituency how important the high street is in attracting people in. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he is doing in his constituency. We saw an increase in footfall in August of 1.1%. We are working closely across government with our colleagues in DCMS on funds such as the Discover England Fund and, of course, the Coastal Communities Fund, which is funding a significant number of projects that are all about increasing tourism and jobs in the tourism sector.

The Minister mentioned business rates. As a result of the business rate revaluation, many retailers on high streets up and down the country face significant increases in business rates. That will not help high streets, and it will not help retailers. Is that not the reality of what he has just announced?

Of course, the business rate cut is helping 600,000 of the smallest businesses, which do not pay any business rates at all. It is fiscally neutral, and three quarters of businesses will see a cut. I would have thought that that would be something the hon. Gentleman would welcome.

In the next week I will be launching my annual best shop and market stall competition, with a new category—best café—this year. Will my hon. Friend join me in wishing all the entrants the best of luck, and does he agree that independent outlets are key to creating a unique and thriving town centre?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on this excellent competition. I look forward to hearing the results, and pay tribute to all the work she is doing. Independent retailers are central to the success of many of our high streets and I pay tribute to the work they do. They of course will benefit from the small business rate cut that we have announced.

We have some beautiful high streets in Corby and East Northamptonshire, and our pubs are an integral part of them. What steps are Ministers taking to help to promote our pub trade and ensure that these vital community hubs are protected?

Again, the business rate cut is of significant value to many of our pubs. A huge number of tourists coming to the UK list a visit to a great British pub among their desires for their trip. That is why we made the changes we did to beer duty.

Leaving the EU: Local Government

As well as some challenges, leaving the EU presents some fresh opportunities for the whole country. Working with Government colleagues, I am determined that local government takes advantage of those opportunities.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has stated that only one third of the £1.3 billion of structural funds Scotland will receive up to 2020 has been allocated to local authorities. Some 20,000 businesses will benefit from these funds, potentially creating up to 11,000 jobs. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that there will be no financial detriment to our local communities if Scotland is dragged out of the EU through hard Brexit?

The hon. Gentleman will know that, first, the Chancellor has already guaranteed that any application for EU structural funds up to the autumn statement will be fully honoured and, beyond that, that fund applications will be honoured as long as they meet the UK national interest. However, leaving the EU also gives us an opportunity to design a new fit-for-purpose investment model that will benefit all our communities in the UK in exactly the way we want.

Does my right hon. Friend share the view of his predecessor—that local government should have a say in the withdrawal negotiations?

Yes, I do. I agree with my hon. Friend that the impact across the country of leaving the EU will be felt by local authorities in some ways—we have just heard a good example of that—and I assure him that I am having a very strong dialogue with the relevant Ministers to make sure that local government’s voice is heard.

The Secretary of State has just said that the Government will guarantee the funding for EU-supported council schemes signed off before the autumn statement, and perhaps those signed off before we leave the EU. On support for farmers under the common agricultural policy, however, the Government are going to guarantee every single penny up to 2020. Why will the Government not give the same treatment to local communities, which will really suffer if these important schemes are lost because of the Government’s failure to give them proper support?

We will make sure that no community suffers. That is why we have the transition process. The guarantees we have given local councils and local communities are very important. Again, once we leave the EU, we will be able to design a system that fits the needs of the UK and no one else.

My right hon. Friend is dead right to say there will be opportunities. Is it not the case that, whereas at the moment local councils and regions are forbidden to fund regional airports and other forms of infrastructure under EU law, that will no longer be the case and the United Kingdom will be able to choose what is best for our citizens?

As always, my hon. Friend makes a very important point. Once we leave the EU, no EU rules or regulations will apply, and we will be able to come up with those that best suit the needs of local communities.

It is a very interesting point that the hon. Gentleman over there has just made.

Does the Secretary of State not accept that, even if we are not members of the EU, state aid rules may still apply under World Trade Organisation rules, so local authorities will still have to abide by a lot of these rules?

The hon. Lady mentioned WTO rules, if I heard her correctly. That may or may not be the case, but even if it were, she will understand that WTO rules are not the same as EU rules.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I will certainly table more questions to find out more detail on that.

The Secretary of State may be aware that Glasgow City Council has produced a document with a series of requests of the Scottish Government and the UK Government to help to prevent the detriment that is likely as a result of a hard Brexit. I expect other local authorities around the UK will do something similar. How will he ensure that the range of voices within local government is listened to and acted on by this Government?

I will make sure the voices of English local government are heard. When it comes to Scottish local government, I am sure it will work with the Scottish Government, who, as we have seen today, are engaged in the process.

I declare an interest as a member of Oldham Council.

In July, the Secretary of State highlighted the importance of local government having a say in the process of leaving the EU. He also committed to having a conversation with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, so it would be great to get an update on those conversations and to find out exactly what role local government will have.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the process is ongoing and will take a number of months, if not years, so there will be plenty of opportunity for dialogue, including within the Government. I have had discussions with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on various issues that will affect local government, but I will not give a running commentary on them.

I do not think that anyone is expecting a running commentary, but any commentary would represent progress, given the silence at the moment. Local government wants to know what part it will play; at the moment that understanding is fuzzy, to say the least. The Secretary of State will know the importance of EU structural funds—£5.3 billion of investment that is vital to many of our local communities—and the ability to administer those funds is a key component of the 10 devolution deals that are set so far. Does he agree that uncertainty about the future of those funds is stopping the vital long-term planning that is needed and risks damaging those devolution deals, which have only just been agreed, and that the poorest in the community will suffer as a result?

The Chancellor has provided significant certainty about structural funds, especially for applications that are made before the autumn statement. Recently, at the Conservative party conference, he provided further certainty about funds beyond then. That is exactly what business is looking for.

Empty Homes (England)

As of October 2015, 203,596 homes in England had been standing empty for longer than six months, the lowest number since records began.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Protecting green spaces and providing new homes are both important. What further steps can the Government take to ensure that empty homes are reutilised, notwithstanding the fact that they have already reduced the number of empty homes to an extremely low level?

Local authorities have strong incentives. They earn the same financial reward through the new homes bonus for bringing an empty home back into use as for building a new one. They also have strong enforcement powers. They can charge up to 150% council tax for homes that have been empty for more than two years and apply empty dwelling management orders to force owners to bring properties back into use.

In our town centres there are thousands of empty rooms on upper floors that could easily be converted into homes, yet they do not appear in the now excellent statistics to which the Minister refers. Will he bring together the key stakeholders and agencies to look at what the real barriers are that have meant that Governments of all hues have failed to achieve that conversion?

My hon. Friend is a former Housing Minister. I am happy to do as he suggests and perhaps to talk to him offline about that. [Interruption.]

Affordable Homes

7. What steps he is taking to ensure that the planning system encourages the building of more affordable homes to rent or buy. (906732)

The Government continue to reform the planning system. We have set out our clear intent to intervene on those councils that do not have an up-to-date plan. We have legislated to ensure that the planning system delivers starter homes for first-time buyers, as well as affordable homes for people wanting to rent.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The recently published Greater Manchester spatial framework states an ambition to

“significantly increase the supply of housing that people can afford, including through the planning system.”

How will Greater Manchester be able to achieve that ambition, given that the Housing and Planning Act 2016 lets developers off the hook by effectively ending their obligation to provide affordable homes to rent and buy?

The Housing and Planning Act does no such thing. The hon. Lady’s question made it clear that she was interested in more affordable homes for people to rent or buy. The Act requires developers to provide affordable starter homes for first-time buyers, but there will still absolutely be a determination to deliver affordable homes for rent. I look forward to visiting Greater Manchester shortly to discuss these matters.

Developments such as Chapel Hill in my constituency will have 40% affordable homes. Does not that show that the planning system already gives local authorities the relevant powers they need, and that they should be using them in the same way as Conservative-led Basingstoke Borough Council?

I had the privilege of meeting the chief executive of my right hon. Friend’s council the other day, and I commend the council for its work. Her example clearly shows that our aim should be to deliver affordable homes to both buy and rent.

16. In Cumbria, we suffer from brain drain, as graduates do not want to return to us after university. Proper planning for affordable housing in the rural north could be the answer. As well as attracting young talent, that could take pressure off the London housing crisis. Will the Minister ensure that we do not have a one-size-fits-all planning policy for affordable housing? (906743)

I thank the hon. Lady for her excellent question. Too often, the housing problems that we face are portrayed as a problem for just London and the south-east. The Secretary of State, the ministerial team and I are clear that we need a housing policy that delivers more homes right across the country, and recognises the circumstances in different housing markets.

In Bath, all our brownfield sites will be developed by 2025 to 2030, with the only nearby sites being the brownfield land south of Bristol that has been left undeveloped for decades by the Labour council and Labour Mayor of Bristol. Does my hon. Friend agree that the changes in the last planning Act and the infrastructure Bill will make a huge difference to developing brownfield land across the whole of the south of Bristol and west of England?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Brownfield registers and permission in principle can make a big contribution to ensuring that as much development as possible goes on to brownfield sites. The example he gives also shows the benefit of sometimes working across councils, as is happening in Greater Manchester, to plan for strategic housing needs.

Teesside Investment

8. With reference to the report by Lord Heseltine, “Tees Valley: Opportunity Unlimited”, published in June 2016, whether he plans to provide increased levels of support or investment for Teesside. (906733)

The Government are clear that there are huge opportunities on Teesside, which was why the Secretary of State met Tees Valley leaders last week. That is also why we are committed to implementing the groundbreaking devolution deal. We have made the transfer of the first £15 million. In addition, we will be providing Tees Valley with £37.7 million this year from our local growth fund.

While not flawless, the Heseltine report recognises the real potential on Teesside. However, the recommended electrification of the North Allerton to Teesside line has been ruled out. Carbon capture and storage was recommended but has been ruled out. Prioritisation for the national teaching service for the area is still under review. The immediate transfer of the former SSI site to the new mayoral development corporation is recommended but still in limbo, with previous promises on funding taken away. Will the Minister give any of the report’s recommendations the go-ahead in the near or middle-distant future?

We are already implementing some of those recommendations. Many, of course, were down to local implementation. Just last week, we issued the indemnity allowing the site inspections to be undertaken. Once the inspections have been completed, we expect the MDC, which we wish to establish in the middle of next year, to come forward with proposals on resources. The national teaching service pilot scheme has already been rolled out. We will confirm plans for rolling it out further later in the year. I want to work with the hon. Gentleman and other key stakeholders in the region because there is huge potential in that site—we are absolutely clear about that.

Midlands Engine

I led the inaugural midlands engine trade mission to north America in September. I am leading a second mission to China this month. Establishing a mayoral combined authority within the west midlands will help to bring about even more trade and investment opportunities for the midlands engine.

The black country economy and the west midlands have had a substantial revival over the past few years. In the last year alone, there has been a 46% increase in foreign direct investment in the black country. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to do all we can to take advantage of the devolution settlement in the west midlands, in the context of the midlands engine, to drive the growth of trade and investment into the west midlands from around the world?

The black country and the wider west midlands have seen strong performance of inward investment and exports. Our historic west midlands devolution deal includes an investment fund of £1 billion to drive growth, and what we also need to drive growth is strong local leadership. There is no doubt in my mind that Andy Street will bring that to the west midlands.

We note the sedentary approval for that proposition from the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant).

There are many great businesses in Stoke-on-Trent, such as engineering firm Brown McFarlane, that want to grow through trade and investment. Thus far, however, we have had very little engagement from John Peace and the midlands engine. We are not part of the combined authority of the west midlands and the black country. Will the Minister tell the House when John Peace will be visiting Stoke-on-Trent, and what plans the midlands engine has for north Staffordshire?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are many excellent businesses in his part of the world, and I think that Sir John Peace is a fantastic choice to chair the midlands engine. The hon. Gentleman rightly makes the point that the midlands engine is not the same as the west midlands devolution deal. I am sure that Sir John Peace will take a great interest in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and I will make sure that he hears the hon. Gentleman’s case.

Another key part of the midlands engine will be the Lincolnshire devolution deal. Will the Secretary of State join me in encouraging the eight out of 10 councils that have voted for it already to work with the Government to make sure that we get the best devolution deal for Lincolnshire and that Lincolnshire does not turn its back on half a billion pounds of Government money?

My hon. Friend highlights the importance of these devolution deals, including that for greater Lincolnshire, in bringing about more growth and better productivity in all regions of the UK. As my hon. Friend said, eight councils out of 10 have accepted the deal—I hope the others will as well—which will make a great difference to jobs and growth.

I had thought that the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) would require a degree of intellectual dexterity to relate the question to Leigh or Manchester, but he might have been saved by the Secretary of State’s referring, perhaps gratuitously, to all regions. I think that the right hon. Gentleman is a beneficiary of that.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

One cannot help but notice that all the talk these days is of the midlands engine. Suddenly, the northern powerhouse is about as popular on the Conservative Benches as its originator, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne). Although I am not against investment in the midlands, will the Secretary of State give a cast-iron guarantee that manifesto commitments to invest in the north, including in High Speed 3, will not be delayed or diluted by new commitments to the midlands?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman has significant ambitions, but he must not talk down the north at every opportunity. He will know that the Government are as committed as ever to the northern powerhouse, and that applies to all our commitments around investment and growth.

House Building

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently announced the £3 billion home building fund to ensure that we are not so reliant on a few large builders, and the £2 billion accelerated construction programme to speed up building on public land. We will be setting out further plans in a White Paper later this year.

Havant Borough Council is working with communities to update our local plans to ensure that local housing needs are met strategically. Will the Minister join me in congratulating them on their work and welcome their commitment to ensuring that home ownership is within reach of everyone?

I am happy to do that. It was a pleasure to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency recently and to meet Councillor David Guest, who is leading this work on behalf of Havant Council, and the great housing associations First Wessex and Radian, which are doing great work in this field.

A fair proportion of these homes have to be affordable. Earlier this year, Westminster Council approved a scheme for 103 luxury flats in Westminster. Thirty per cent. of those would have given us an estimated value of £100 million; in fact, the council agreed to just 2% and took a contribution of £6 million. Will the Minister make it his urgent business to ensure that councils do not evade their commitments to providing a reasonable proportion of affordable housing?

Both the Secretary of State and I have made it very clear that we need more homes of every single kind in this country—more homes for people to buy on the market, more affordable homes for rent, and more shared ownership. I hope that the hon. Lady will therefore welcome the Government’s starter homes policy to ensure that developers provide starter homes for first-time buyers when they build out schemes.

In Swindon, we have cross-party support for our local plan, and by working with developers in advance of the submission stage of planning, we are delivering the popular Tadpole Farm development. Will the Minister agree to visit Tadpole Farm to see what best practice we can share to deliver much needed new homes?

That would be a delight. It is good to hear in this Question Time about councils that are getting on with the business of developing local plans that meet the housing needs of their areas. I hope that all councils in England will follow that example.

18. Will the Minister give some reasons why home ownership among people under 35 has fallen by more than a third of a million since 2010? What will he do to start reversing that trend so that people of my age are able to afford their first home? (906745)

The hon. Gentleman uses an interesting timescale, because the fall in home ownership among the under-35s started in 2004-05 and the previous Labour Government did nothing about it. Indeed, the new shadow Minister said that he is not sure that he thinks that is such a bad thing. That decline was halted in the past year. The job that now falls to the Secretary of State and me is to reverse that decline so that young people have the chance to fulfil their dreams.

In her conference speech, the Prime Minister acknowledged that the Conservatives’ house building record was not good enough. Given the historic failure of the past six years under the Prime Minister’s predecessor, whose house building record was worse than that of any Prime Minister since 1923, how can we be convinced that the present Government will do anything differently to prevent six years of failure from becoming 10?

Let us take care of the party politics first. The previous Prime Minister inherited from the previous Labour Government the lowest level of house building since the 1920s, but the number of homes being approved has now increased significantly. In the year to June, our planning system granted a record number of applications. However, if the hon. Lady wants to put aside the party politics and is saying that we need to do better and to build more homes, she will find complete agreement among this ministerial team.

Light Pollution

11. If he will issue guidance to local authorities on taking steps to control light pollution and protect dark skies. (906737)

The national planning policy framework is clear. Local planning policies and decisions should limit the impact of light pollution from artificial light, including the impact on intrinsically dark landscapes. Our March 2014 planning guidance sets out how light pollution should be considered in the planning system.

Light pollution is not just a problem for people who want to look at the stars; it is also a problem for birds, which become confused about when they should begin the dawn chorus. They sing for so long that they have no energy left to mate. I am sure that the Minister understands why this is a problem. But Brexit—

Order. I wish to hear the hon. Lady, at such point as she has had the opportunity to regain the necessary composure.

Brexit does give us the opportunity to control public procurement, so when the Minister is talking to local authorities about what kind of LED lighting to purchase, will he encourage them to buy lights from Thorn in Spennymoor in my constituency?

It is always important to reserve enough energy, and LED lights are certainly one way of not using as much energy as our current street lights generally do. I hear what the hon. Lady says, and I think that, when practicable, local authorities should always seek to procure goods and services from UK firms.

The Minister for encouraging avian procreation is not unknown in Ealing. May I invite him to return to that sweet borough, where he will see the stars glittering like diamonds on a bed of black velvet because a very hard-working, intelligent and innovative council has changed the street lighting programme to one with down-lighters and lower luminescence? Will he return with me to Ealing and gaze up at the stars, which are now visible?

I usually expect most Labour local authorities to leave people in the dark, but on this occasion I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I made a fantastic visit to Pitshanger Lane in his constituency not too long ago and I should be delighted to return at some point.

Building Regulations

We have not set out any formal plans to review the building regulations as a whole, but we have publicly committed ourselves to reviewing part B following the Lakanal House fire. During the passage of the Bill that became the Housing and Planning Act 2016, we made a commitment to review the energy-efficiency standards for buildings in part L.

I am grateful for that answer, as far as it goes. I do not know whether the Minister has considered my Protection of Family Homes (Enforcement and Permitted Development) Bill, but surely he must agree that help is needed for home owners whose homes and neighbourhoods are blighted by rogue builders and developers who flout the regulations and planning laws because they know that current enforcement action is costly and complicated.

I have had a chance to review the hon. Gentleman’s private Member’s Bill. The Government do not agree that further legislation is necessary, but we certainly agree with him that there is a problem in this area. Indeed, last week we announced further powers to give councils the ability to deal with smaller houses in multiple occupation that are causing the kinds of issues that he has mentioned.

Supported Accommodation

13. What assessment his Department has made of the potential effect on homelessness of the decision to cap housing benefit for supported accommodation at local housing allowance rates. (906739)

The Government are committed to protecting the vulnerable, including homeless people. That is why we deferred the implementation of the local housing allowance rates for supported housing until April 2019. From then on, we will provide a new funding model to meet additional housing costs above the local housing allowance rates.

That is all very well, but the chief executive of the National Housing Federation has already stated:

“We want to put supported housing on a secure and sustainable footing for the long term and we are not confident that the new system will guarantee this.”

What is wrong with that point of view?

I have met the chief executive of the National Housing Federation and discussed this issue with him at some length. We are giving confidence to the sector that funding will be devolved to local authorities, and that that funding will be ring-fenced. Save for the changes to social rent increases, the quantum of funding to the sector will be the same. The chief executive seemed reasonably reassured on that point.

Following the statement made by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), on 15 September, it is vital that the consultation on the funding of supported housing should get under way as soon as possible. Can the Minister tell the House when it will commence?

The consultation will be released very shortly, and the evidence review on which this process has been based will be released at the same time.

The Minister should realise that people living in supported accommodation are among the most vulnerable in society. He has left a whole series of charities and others in the third sector, including Framework in Nottingham, in limbo as a result of the lack of a decision on this issue. He must ensure that the Government put their money where their mouth is and support those vulnerable people. They need help and they need it now.

As I have just said, save for the social rent increases, the quantum of funding will be the same in this regard. We are setting out certainty, and we will certainly be doing that in the consultation, which will be released shortly.

Business Rates

14. If he will make it his policy to reverse the decision to introduce a business rate rise for organisations that seek to own and supply themselves with rooftop solar power. (906740)

Business rates are based on valuations carried out independently by the Valuation Office Agency. Nearly three quarters of businesses will see no change or a fall in their business rates next year, thanks to the 2017 revaluation, with 600,000 set to pay no business rates at all. For the minority that face an increase, a £3.4 billion transitional rate relief scheme will ensure that no business is unfairly penalised.

Despite what my hon. Friend has said to allay my fears, I wonder whether I could persuade him to meet me and local representatives of the solar industry and other constituency interests. We might come up with a few arguments that he has not yet heard and that might persuade him to change his mind about these rate rises.

I am aware that the rateable values of certain types of rooftop solar insulation are increasing under the revaluation. However, there are many factors that determine the rateable value of a property, and the installation of solar panels is only one element. Many will see an increase in the rateable value of their solar panels but see their overall rates bill reduced. That said, I hear what my hon. Friend has said and I am more than willing to meet him and local representatives of the industry.

Coastal Communities

It is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend in his place. We are all proud of our coastal communities. I say that as a Member representing a coastal community myself. We have already invested £125 million in coastal communities across the United Kingdom through the coastal communities fund, £92 million of which was invested in England. We want to go even further, and we have identified at least a further £90 million for local projects. The bidding for those funds has begun, and 40 projects have made it through to the next round. We will be making a decision on them early next year.

I welcome the Minister’s response and his kind words. The Queenborough Harbour Trust in my constituency has been successful in the stage 1 bidding process for obtaining a grant from the coastal communities fund. What advice would he give to the trust members as they enter stage 2 of the process, to ensure they get some success?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his advocacy on behalf of the trust. It should seek guidance and support from its funding officer and its capital adviser who has been assigned to it by the Big Lottery Fund, which administers the coastal communities fund on our behalf. Advice is also available to it on the Big Lottery Fund website.

Topical Questions

The recess was far from a quiet period in my Department. Earlier this month we announced the £5 billion of funding for new homes, we have continued to drive forward devolution deals, and we are in the process of offering councils extra certainty through four-year funding settlements, but there is plenty more to come, including the White Paper—and, if I am even daring to dream, the press pack outside No. 10 might stop confusing me with Sadiq Khan.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I am sure he shares my concern about the very high number of excess winter deaths in our country each year. He will understand the importance of Government, national and local, working together to address this, so will he say what specific plans his Department has to co-ordinate activity and minimise the number of cold weather deaths this winter?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue and rightly highlights the need for co-ordinated Government action. Public Health England has already published a cold weather plan, which gives recommendations for the NHS and public health and social care and community organisations to work together and help the people who are most vulnerable this winter.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on his plans to encourage innovation in the construction industry? (906749)

We have huge plans in this area. One of the key objectives of the home building fund and the accelerated construction projects the Secretary of State announced at party conference is to encourage more use of offsite construction.

The Secretary of State’s Department is supposed to be England’s voice in government, yet standing up for the English and the services they depend on seems low on Ministers’ list of priorities. The independent Care Quality Commission pointed out recently that the Government’s huge funding cuts have left services for England’s elderly and vulnerable at tipping point. With the social care crisis across England getting worse week by week, when might we expect the Secretary of State to act?

I recognise that there is growing demand for social care across the UK, especially in England, which is why in the last spending review we pledged an additional £3.5 billion by 2020, including allowing councils to have a social care precept, so there is money that is ring-fenced, and also the better care fund.

T6. North Devon Council and the coastal communities team have just heard that their bid for funding for Ilfracombe’s excellent new water sports centre has made it through to the next round. Will the Minister congratulate them and agree that this is an excellent example of this Government reinventing our coastal communities? (906752)

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend’s compliments to the Government on this and wish Ilfracombe all the best. It has made it through to the final 40, and we will be making an announcement on the final fund early next year, so congratulations again.

T2. The northern powerhouse project has brought much needed investment, attention and cohesion to northern cities like mine of Manchester. So why is it that many of the key players involved in the northern powerhouse project, including former Ministers, now feel that the programme has been all but cancelled? (906748)

I am sorry, but that is complete and utter nonsense, and I have to say that if Opposition Members are really interested in the northern powerhouse, they should stop talking it down at every single opportunity and trashing it. We have delivered through the northern powerhouse a record number of enterprise zones and billions of pounds of investment in public transport projects across the north, and I know from my 10 years as a local government councillor in the north that that is a lot more than the Labour Government managed to do for the north during their time in power.

Order. The hon. Member for Pendle has perambulated from one part of the Chamber to the other, but we are nevertheless happy to hear from him.

T7. Local business rates retention will be a great boost for many local councils. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with local authorities about 100% retention? (906753)

This is a reform for which local government has long campaigned and in which my hon. Friend has shown great interest. To deliver the commitment, we held an open consultation that invited councils and businesses to have their say and have established a joint steering group with the Local Government Association to consider the mechanisms needed to set up and run the new system.

T4. The revaluation of property for business rates is creating uncertainty for businesses and local authorities. Stockton faces two different problems: small leisure businesses have been priced out of our town centre; and telecommunications companies are fighting their valuations, potentially knocking huge holes in the council’s budget. How will small businesses be protected? Will the Minister assure me that the 2017-18 finance settlement will take future valuations and changes into account so that Stockton Council will be no worse off? (906750)

The hon. Gentleman is confusing two issues. On business, there is a record package of £6.7 billion of business rates relief. On local government funding, I assure him that the revaluation process is a revenue- neutral exercise after which no local authority will be disadvantaged.

T9. The rapid growth in our elderly population is a key driver of housing demand, so what are the Government doing to ensure that we are building not only enough homes, but enough of the right homes for an ageing society? (906755)

The national planning policy framework requires councils to plan for a mix of housing, but my hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important not only to get the right housing for our elderly population, but to release crucial family housing and to boost the second-hand market, allowing developers to build more homes.

T5. How is the Government’s proposal for 100% business rates retention compatible with the statement in their consultation document that there will be“a level of redistribution between authorities similar to the current system of 9 tariffs and top-ups”? (906751)

I say to the hon. Gentleman that 100% of business rates will be retained in local government to be spent on local government services. There will need to be a form of redistribution so that local authorities that do not collect as much in business rates are not left in a difficult situation. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know we consulted extensively in the sector and received more than 450 responses.

We are doing a number of things. At the party conference, we announced the home building fund, which will provide home builders with the finance that they often cannot secure commercially. We are also looking into planning policy to ensure that we release the vital small sites that small builders can take on.

T8. I welcome the Prime Minister’s determination to keep the Union together. With devolution to councils and cities and to areas such as the northern powerhouse, can we have regular meetings with the devolved Governments and their oppositions to ensure that we are all pulling together? (906754)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will. I am pleased that he has expressed his views about the importance of Unionism. It is key that we continue to work together—that is when we are at our strongest. I support the Union, and Unionism is absolutely central to that. That is my view and that is the Prime Minister’s view.

General aviation airfields, not least White Waltham in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, make a valuable contribution to pilot training, business aviation and sporting aviation. Is the Minister aware that they are now seriously under threat? It is proposed that Redhill aerodrome will become an estate of 4,500 homes, and he will know about Wellesbourne airfield near his constituency. Please can we have a policy that protects general aviation airfields across the country, because otherwise they will all be covered with concrete?

My hon. Friend’s passion for the aviation industry is well known. I am happy to meet him to discuss that vital sector and what we can do in planning policy on protection.

Chesterfield Borough Council stands ready to help end the housing crisis by building more homes, but the Government have reneged on the deal they did with Chesterfield in 2012. Changes to rents and the money coming into councils have made it much more difficult to deliver the houses that we need. Will the Minister meet a delegation from Chesterfield to understand the changes so that we can build the houses that Chesterfield needs?

I am happy to meet a delegation to discuss this issue, but of course the reduction in rates helps vulnerable tenants in reducing the bills they face. The hon. Gentleman is, however, right to say that we must make sure we find a way to ensure that councils, along with housing associations and private builders, can build the homes we desperately need.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that he is fully engaged in evaluating the regional growth fund bid from Swindon and Wiltshire? Will he ensure that the emphasis on long-term skills development at Wiltshire College will be looked upon favourably in due course?

I met my hon. Friend recently to discuss issues across south Wiltshire. We are assessing the local growth fund bids at the moment—this will be a massive investment in regeneration across the country—and we will have an announcement on that particular proposal shortly.

On the Secretary of State’s regeneration of coastal communities, he will know that North Antrim has off its shore the only regional island that is inhabited by people—with the exception of Great Britain—Rathlin Island. He will also be aware of Ballycastle, Bushmills and Ballintoy. May I invite him to these areas to see regional communities’ regeneration—

I would call the hon and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire if she were standing, but she is not and so I cannot. She is now, so I call Lucy Frazer.

I would like to refer to the question raised by my friend, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who mentioned the link between mental health and homelessness. Does the Secretary of State understand that the reports say there is a link, with 60% of people from the homeless community also having mental health issues? What is he doing to liaise with the Department of Health and with local authorities to change that link?

As my hon. and learned Friend highlights once again, homelessness is more than just a housing issue. She can be assured that we are working across government—my Department, the Department of Health and the Treasury—in making sure that we are doing everything we can, as our recent announcement on homelessness helps to demonstrate.

One of the main ways that developers in London manage down the levels of affordable housing is by a financial viability assessment. Does the Minister agree that all local authorities should make those assessments public at the start of the planning process, so that communities can transparently scrutinise them?

What we need to do is take as much of the conflict as possible out of our planning system, be it in respect of agreeing the level of need, the local plan determination or viability assessments. There is nowhere in this country where the gap between what we are building and what we need to build is greater than in London.

Forgive me, Mr Speaker, as I raise the issue of Christmas shopping. As internet retailers prepare for black Friday and as online shopping breaks records, rural high streets struggle. Will the Secretary of State support Wealden high streets in Hailsham and Crowborough and increase footfall by visiting Uckfield high street for his Christmas shopping?

I will of course be spreading my Christmas shopping across large parts of my constituency, but I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. She raises an important point, which is that as we get towards Christmas people should try their best to shop local.