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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 677: debated on Monday 15 June 2020

Housing, Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Weddings Sector: Covid-19

What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to support the wedding sector during the covid-19 outbreak. (903164)

May I begin by sending my best wishes and those of the Government to our colleague, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan)?

As Communities Secretary, ensuring that places of worship can open has been one of my priorities. Their contribution to the common good of our country as places of solace, inspiration and provision for the most vulnerable in our society is clear. I am pleased that they can now open for individual prayer. I have worked with faith leaders and representatives to ensure that this can be done safely, including publishing guidance last week and working with the places of worship taskforce, which I established last month. I am told that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Nichols went this morning to Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral respectively, and I look forward to working with them and others to ensure a broader reopening of places of worship.

I represent some of Berkshire’s best wedding venues, such as Wasing Park. We welcome the Government’s proposal to set up a taskforce looking at safe weddings, but there are couples in my constituency who are desperate to let their friends and family know whether their weddings can go ahead this summer. Can my right hon. Friend say when a date will be announced for summer weddings?

I fully appreciate the concerns that my hon. Friend raises. I know how important weddings are for venues and, of course, how many people’s plans have been disrupted. I can tell her that there is a significant effort across Government to allow people to hold weddings—in particular, small ones with appropriate social distancing—as soon as we can, but this must be done safely. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and I are working with faith leaders on this issue, and in the meantime, venues such as Wasing Park can avail themselves of the job retention scheme, the business rates holiday and the small business grants to help them get through the coming weeks.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that reopening churches and other places of worship is an incredibly important step in the right direction for our spiritual welfare across the country and symbolises the direction of travel, with the country returning to normality?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. People of faith have shown enormous patience and forbearance in recent weeks, unable to mark Easter, Passover, Vaisakhi and Ramadan with their family, friends and community in the traditional way. As we control the virus, we are able to move forward, and as we reopen our economy, it is right that the importance of faith and places of worship is recognised.

I had an interesting Zoom call with my constituency clergy last week, and they are confused. One vicar said to me, “So is it right that I can invite five members of my congregation to the church grounds for a barbecue and some beers, but if we start saying prayers, we’ll get busted?” I suggested that he could advertise his services as a barbecue with a very long grace. We need much clearer guidance if we are to get our churches properly and fully back into use as soon as possible. Frankly, they should never have been put out of use in the first place.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s important question. We published guidance last week for places of worship before they reopened for individual prayer. I am grateful to all the volunteers across the country who have worked hard to clean and prepare those places of worship over the last few days. The guidance was worked through by faith leaders in our taskforce. Places of worship can open for funerals, and Public Health England has previously published guidance on how to manage funerals safely. As I said, I very much hope that we can set a date for weddings soon.

The Secretary of State has announced the reopening of places of worship for individual prayer despite some faiths only practising communal prayer in their place of worship. This separation has caused confusion, which turned to chaos when the Government only published the nine-page guidance on Friday. Why did the Government not provide clear and timely guidance to all places of worship, regardless of their method of prayer?

I will explain the process that we have been through. We have worked for several weeks with leaders across all the faiths on our taskforce to produce guidance that is applicable to all faiths and then to support individual faiths in translating that into the particular practices of their faith. I appreciate and am conscious of the fact that the first step in this process—individual prayer—is much less relevant to some faith than others. In particular, it has limited applicability to Muslims and Jews in our communities, but I hope that they will see this as the logical first step towards a much broader reopening soon.

Towns Fund

Our £3.6 billion towns fund will play a vital role in supporting our country’s economic recovery, investing in housings, skills, technology, culture and town centres, as we move beyond the immediate covid-19 response. I am pleased that in the majority of cases work has been able to continue despite the challenges posed by covid-19, and later today my hon. Friend the Minister for local growth will publish towns fund guidance, setting out the steps by which Redcar and all the 100 towns with which we have agreed these historic deals can proceed.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his ongoing commitment to the towns fund, specifically in relation to the up to £25 million for Redcar town centre. Does he agree that the best use of this money is to help kick start revenue-generating projects to secure local government finances in the years ahead?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we want to see economic activity returning to great places such as Redcar. The purpose of the fund is both to provide immediate economic stimulus and confidence to those places and to set them up in the longer term for more sustainable economic growth and prosperity. I have heard his strong representation for a new horizontal pier in Redcar.

Local authorities in Rutland and Melton very much welcome the multiple cash injections from central Government, but they are now turning their attention to how we recover financially from this period. Both Rutland and Melton want a significant boost in domestic tourism and high street business trade, so what funding has my right hon. Friend considered for local authorities on top of the towns fund and pandemic relief so that local authorities can come back stronger?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the £27 billion the Government have provided to communities to ensure that they have the resources they need as they get through the pandemic. Both Rutland and Melton will also receive funding from the £50 million reopening high streets safely fund as they welcome the return of high street activity in the great towns she represents, such as Melton, Uppingham and Oakham

My constituency is the beneficiary of stronger towns funding for Workington, and the future high streets fund for Maryport. Across Cumbria we have nine such allocations, which I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees has the potential to change Cumbria significantly. Does he therefore have a plan to join up the teams leading these bids to ensure that Workington, Maryport and Cumbria more widely get the maximum benefit?

I know how closely my hon. Friend has been involved in some of those town deals. We want to ensure we get the maximum economic benefit from this investment, and so my officials are encouraging communities that benefit from multiple town and high street deals to work together to create a convincing and ambitious plan for the future.

I thank the Secretary of State for his warm words about my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) earlier. All of us in the SNP family, and I am sure in this wider House, want to see Amy get back to full health. She is not just a colleague of mine here; she is one of my closest friends here, and I look forward to her coming back and resuming her duties and rightful place.

Last year, among the backslapping and hoorah from Scottish Tory MPs, the Secretary of State’s predecessor came to the Dispatch Box and announced millions of pounds of stronger towns funding, complete with assurances that this money would be Barnettised. Over a year later, the Scottish Government are yet to hear any more about this. Will he confirm that his predecessor’s announcement is still valid and what the timescale is to deliver this overdue and promised funding?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will convey to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire and her family the strength of feeling and support she has on both sides of the House.

On the hon. Gentleman’s question about the towns fund, I will make inquiries with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and revert to him, but I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the many town and city deals that have happened across Scotland in recent years that have been championed by my colleagues in the Conservative party and which are bringing the same benefits to those communities—investment in technology, skills, heritage and town and city centres.

I am afraid that that response from the Secretary of State will sound like backsliding. Many people can go back and look at Hansard. There were lots of Scottish Tory MPs in here and there was great promise about some of this money coming to Scotland. If I am picking up the Secretary of State right, that now seems to be being pulled away. I hope very much that this will not be used to shore up what was the red wall. Can he give me a cast iron guarantee that the money will be Barnettised? Otherwise, those promises last year will seem like empty rhetoric?

The hon. Gentleman is trying to sow grievance where there is none. I have said that I will find out from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor exactly the status of that funding—whether it is going to be Barnettised—and I will revert to the hon. Gentleman as soon as possible.

Green Belt

The green belt is very important to all of us, and we continue to maintain strong protections for it through the national planning policy framework. It is clear that boundaries should only be altered in exceptional circumstances and where all other options have been examined.

Does the Minister agree that if we are to protect the suburban environment, that means not just safeguarding the green belt but rejecting proposals for overdevelopment on non-green-belt sites like Victoria Quarter in New Barnet or the tube stations at High Barnet and Cockfosters, which are threatened with high-rise development that is entirely inappropriate for the surrounding suburban area?

I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for that question. She is an assiduous campaigner for her constituents in Chipping Barnet. She will know that I cannot comment on any individual cases, but applications should be considered in accordance with the development plan. The Secretary of State asked the Mayor of London to pay regard to place in the siting of tall buildings, so where there are clusters of tall buildings, it may be more appropriate to site new tall buildings there than elsewhere. My right hon. Friend may, with advantage, take up that matter with the Mayor of London.

Building Safety Programme

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this question. I would like to acknowledge the commemorations taking place in her constituency to mark the tragic loss of life from Grenfell Tower three years ago. In the present pandemic, the residents and others there managed to pay tribute and to commemorate with respect and care. I congratulate them on their efforts and my hon. Friend on all her unstinting work.

Building safety is a priority for this Government and for me personally. The Government recently announced the biggest change in a generation on building safety, to be delivered through the upcoming building safety Bill, together with, now, £1.6 billion of support for remediation of unsafe cladding. We will leave no stone unturned to ensure that residents are safe now and in the future.

I would like to start by thanking you, Mr Speaker, for lighting Parliament green last night for Grenfell.

I welcome the £1 billion additional funding for the remediation of non-ACM cladding, but, as we all know, it is not just a question of the money—it is about actually getting the work done. Will my right hon. Friend update me on what progress he expects within the next six months?

Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right to highlight the pace of implementation as being important. Registrations for the new building safety fund, which opened on 1 June, have now reached 458. I am pleased to say that the draft building safety Bill will be published soon for scrutiny, and remediation continues across the estate where it is needed, despite the covid-19 crisis. We are determined to do all we can to support residents.

In remembering all those who lost their lives at Grenfell and the families and friends who are left behind, it is shocking that three years after Grenfell there are still 2,000 high-rise residential blocks that have dangerous cladding on them. The £1 billion building safety fund is welcome, but it will only remediate 600 of those blocks; it will do nothing to touch lower-rise residential accommodation, dangerous insulation and other fire safety defects, leaving thousands of people worried about their safety and their financial circumstances. Will the Minister go back to the Chancellor and put it to him that we now need a great deal more cash—the Select Committee says probably up to £15 billion—to ensure that fire safety defects are removed from all residential buildings within the next two years, which means five years after the Grenfell disaster?

As I said in answer to the previous question, pace is crucial in this regard, which is why the Chancellor has made available in this financial year £1 billion to remediate those buildings that suffer from non-ACM cladding. That is on top of the £600 million that we have made available for ACM-clad buildings. The hon. Gentleman is right that it is going to be necessary for a great many buildings to be remediated. We would expect some of that funding to come forward from the building owners so that those who let or are leaseholders in the buildings do not fall liable for the funds. We believe that £1 billion, now, to get on with the job, will go a great deal along the way to make sure that buildings are made safe for their residents.

Three years on from the Grenfell disaster, when 72 people tragically lost their lives, 245 buildings are clad in dangerous ACM and at least 1,700 are clad in equally flammable material. If the remedial work continues at the same snail’s pace, it will take up to 39 years for the work to be completed, yet if someone wants a controversial billion-pound planning application approved, it seems that high-value chicken dinners get things done. Will the Minister advise the House as to what influence can be applied to quickly make all our high-rise buildings safe once and for all?

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place; this is the first time since he took up his shadow position that we have sparred across the Dispatch Box—

It is the first time that the hon. Gentleman and I have sparred across the Dispatch Box—that is correct, so let us hold on to that.

The hon. Gentleman was rather ungenerous: we have made £1.6 billion available to remediate the buildings that need it. Remediation work has begun or been completed on 95% of all social-sector buildings that had unsafe ACM cladding on them, and remediation work has begun or been completed on 40% of such buildings in the private sector, while the other 60% have their plans in train. We want these buildings to be made safe as quickly as possible. That is why we have put the money on the table, why we will press for action to be taken and why the buildings will be made safe under this Government.

Private Renters: Covid-19

What steps the Government are taking to protect private renters facing financial difficulties as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (903170)

The Government have introduced measures to help tenants to continue to pay their rent; we are supporting workers by paying up to 80% of their wages; we have increased the amount available to welfare claimants; and we have raised the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile of market rents in each area.

I thank the Minister for his response, but on the day that Marcus Rashford, a 22 year-old footballer, wrote to all of us in the House to raise the spectre of family impoverishment under coronavirus, does he recognise the fact that a substantial proportion of private renters have dependent children—they are not all bedsit-land stereotypes? Will he bring forward immediately the plans to end section-21 evictions? The Conservatives are the party of the family; if people are losing their jobs already, they should protect families and homes now.

I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question. We have committed to bring forward legislation to enhance renters’ security, and that includes the abolition of section-21 evictions, but we will do it in a safe, sensible and sustained way. In the interim, the Government have worked with the judiciary, legal representatives and the advice sector on arrangements to ensure that courts are better able to address those tenants who are in difficult positions, and we have spent £7 billion of public money through the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that people can get the help that they need. We are working with the National Residential Landlords Association. It advises me that private rented sector rents have fallen by about 1% in the latest round of tenancy renewals. We are working hard across the space, particularly with the private rented sector, to make sure people get the help that they deserve.

I associate myself with the remarks by hon. Members about the victims and survivors of Grenfell.

Today the Treasury Select Committee says that freelancers, new starters and many others have fallen through gaps in the financial support schemes. Local housing allowance does not even cover average rents. Anyone with no recourse to public funds cannot even get universal credit. Over a million people are struggling with rent, but this is fixable. Will the Government today heed the calls of Shelter, Citizens Advice, Generation Rent, numerous charities and building societies and the Labour party, act now and prevent people from losing their homes in an evictions crisis in the autumn?

As I have made clear, we have worked hard to protect tenants from the prospect of eviction and also to ensure that they have the funds to live their lives. That is why we introduced the furlough system, which provides 80% of people’s incomes. That is why we have increased the LHA. It is why we have made available to local authorities £500 million to help those households facing crisis. The prospectus of the hon. Lady, which is simply to kick the can down the road and to pile up costs for people who may not be able to afford them, is not the right one. I think she should go away and think again.

Local Authority Funding: Covid-19

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the adequacy of funding for local authorities during the covid-19 outbreak. (903171)

We have paid an unprecedented £3.2 billion to local authorities to address the pressures that they are facing in response to the pandemic, including £17.9 million to the hon. Lady’s own council, on top of an increase of £13.5 million in its core spending power this year. We have introduced measures worth more than £5 billion to help to ease councils’ immediate financial pressures. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are currently working closely with Cabinet colleagues on a comprehensive plan to ensure councils’ financial sustainability over the financial year ahead.

I thank the Minister for his response, but the financial cost of covid-19 to Enfield council is expected to be more than £68 million and the Government have so far funded only a fraction of that burgeoning cost. The Minister is fully aware of local authorities’ statutory duty to provide a range of services to their communities. In the absence of fair funding, should local authorities begin making plans for more austerity to fill the funding gap by cutting vital services such as libraries, waste collection or adult social care?

The answer to that question is unequivocally no, they should not. As I set out in my previous answer, we are working closely with the Treasury on a comprehensive settlement for the sector, which we will bring forward in due course.

The recent reports on disparity in the risk and outcomes of covid-19, published by Public Health England, confirmed that black and minority ethnic communities have been disproportionately affected by covid-19. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that areas that have been badly hit by covid-19, particularly those with large black and minority ethnic populations, receive the support necessary to recover from the social and economic effects of the outbreak?

The hon. Lady’s question is a good and important one. Obviously, that is something that the Government have published research on, and it is obviously a fast-evolving situation. We continue to work closely with councils that cover areas of high density of BAME population, including, for example, Bradford. We want to understand those pressures and as we do, then we will adjust our response accordingly.

Hounslow Borough Council has identified spending pressures of around £15 million and income losses of £95 million due to covid-19, and the funding gap is rising. Our local authority is heavily dependent on aviation and my constituency has the fourth largest amount of furloughed employment. How do the Government plan to support partnerships between councils, industry, training providers and community organisations to ensure that our economic recovery and our community recovery go hand in hand?

The hon. Lady asks an excellent question. Clearly, it is important that local authorities and business work together. We have so far allocated a total of more than £103 million to Hounslow Borough Council precisely to help ensure that we support the whole community. That includes a generous settlement of grants for businesses as well as additional funding worth more than £14 million for the council. It is vital that any authority with particular issues—for example, links to aviation—that is struggling to make the books balance speaks to the Department and we will of course always be happy to offer detailed advice.

Local Authorities: Lost Revenue

What recent estimate he has made of the value of revenue lost by local authorities as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (903172)

What recent estimate he has made of the value of revenue lost by local authorities as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (903212)

We are working closely with the sector to develop a good understanding of the pressures that local authorities currently face. We have announced £3.2 billion of additional funding, councils will be able to defer £2.6 billion in business rates payment, and £850 million in social care grants were paid in April in a move aimed at helping to ease immediate pressures on local authority cash flows.

Manchester has lost £136 million in revenue this year alone. In Greater Manchester, the funding gap is £406 million. In the UK, it is £10 billion. The Minister just told us unequivocally that local authorities should not make plans for more austerity. Is he committing to fully fund those gaps?

As I explained in my previous answer, we will issue a comprehensive spending plan, which ensures that we do not leave local authorities facing unmanageable spending pressures in the year ahead. I point out that Greater Manchester councils have received £168 million of additional funding in response to the pandemic and their core spending power in this financial year increased by £150 million. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has held detailed talks with Sir Richard Leese, and obviously an invitation to have further conversations as required always stands.

The financial position of Merthyr Tydfil and Caerphilly County Borough Councils, which cover my constituency, was difficult enough before the pandemic owing to years of UK Government austerity. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that the Welsh Government receive the funding they need for Welsh local authorities and the funding that the Prime Minister committed to Wales in February to tackle the effects of Storm Dennis? The impact of the floods and the pandemic have caused a hugely difficult situation for local authorities in my area and across Wales.

The winter storms have passed from memory, given everything that has happened subsequently, but they were terrible and had a significant impact on several communities, particularly on the west coast of the country. I am very conscious of that. We of course make a commitment that the funds that were promised will be paid. Local government is a devolved matter and therefore my Department does not engage directly with Welsh councils, but they can rest assured that they will receive their fair share according to the Barnett formula.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, but it is not so sunny today I am afraid.

The Government made a promise to councils that they would provide full support so that councils could do whatever it takes to get through the coronavirus crisis. According to Local Government Association figures released on 29 May, councils needed as much as £6 billion to cover the cost of coping with the ongoing pandemic. If things returned to normal, that was the Government’s promise. However, we all know it is obvious that things will not to return to normal in July. Will the Minister speak to his Treasury colleagues and keep his promise to cover the deficit faced by councils and prevent them from going over the cliff edge? I acknowledge the Minister’s earlier responses, but he has yet to give a complete commitment to funding councils’ deficit.

We are obviously very conscious of £9.3 million that we have given to Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council. It is crucial that we deliver a suitable funding settlement for local authorities. We are working hard with Treasury colleagues to do that. The hon. Lady can rest assured that we will bring further details to the House as soon as we are ready.

Covid-19: Departmental Priorities

What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s priorities of the covid-19 outbreak. (903206)

Supporting the national and local response to covid-19 has been our top priority since March. We are giving councils the resources they need to respond and have injected £3.2 billion of new grant funding. This includes support for vulnerable people such as rough sleepers, where we have taken unprecedented action. Nearly 15,000 people have been housed in emergency accommodation, including hotels, since the start of the lockdown period.

I am grateful for that answer. In a consensual spirit, because this challenge affects everybody everywhere, can we recognise the remarkable achievement, proving what we can do when there is political will, of bringing rough sleeping all but to zero? However, we need to build on that and take it forward. What plans does the Minister have to work across the House to make sure that we can build on that success and end rough sleeping altogether?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way that he asked his question. We have seen a remarkable effort from local authorities, volunteers, the homelessness sector and councils of all party political persuasions, who have worked together to bring so many rough sleepers and people in danger of sleeping rough off the streets to give them the support they need. We are of course working with local authorities across the spectrum to put plans in place to support people into longer-term accommodation. Alongside that, we have announced £433 million to deliver 6,000 units of new move-on accommodation and personalised, wraparound support. I am always very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss this further.

Reopening of High Streets and Town Centres

What steps he is taking to ensure the safe reopening of high streets and town centres as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (903174)

What progress he is making on plans for the safe reopening of high streets and town centres as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (903180)

Helping our towns and cities develop safe trading environments, particularly on high streets, is vital to the Government’s efforts to kick-start our economy, get people back to work and get businesses trading again. We continue to examine all the options to revitalise our high streets. I want to spark a vibrant café culture to support hospitality businesses and make it easier for them to operate outdoors, with seating and tables for temporary markets set up, and for the streets to be temporarily pedestrianised. Many councils are already doing these fantastic things and I will be publishing our plans shortly.

Rugby town centre has reopened today with the unique innovation of images of a rugby ball placed on the ground to remind people of the need for social distancing. As a former salesman, I know that “You can’t sell if you don’t tell”, so does the Secretary of State agree that in addition to the practical safety measures that he has spoken about, councils must reassure people that town centres are open for business by accompanying them with an effective local marketing campaign?

Our £50 million reopening high streets safely fund, of which Rugby is one beneficiary, allows local authorities to create communications plans to give people the confidence to get back on to our high streets, to support local businesses and to help the economy move forwards.

This morning I was able to go to some businesses in Burnley and Padiham and see the incredible work that they have done to get themselves covid-secure, but covid is only one of the challenges facing our high streets, and Burnley has missed out before on the towns fund. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that he is committed still to working with me to make sure that Burnley’s local economy is reinvigorated for the long term?

I can give my hon. Friend exactly that commitment and help to reassure his constituents. I know that Burnley is benefiting from the historic high streets heritage action zones. We will also shortly bring forward the competitive round of the towns fund, where Burnley will be able to apply. I very much look forward to seeing his application, and I support and strongly endorse the campaign of his local newspaper, the Burnley Express, and encourage his constituents to support their local business community by finding time to shop local.

Local Economies: Covid-19

What steps he is taking to support the renewal of local economies as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (903175)

Obviously I very much welcome the fact that today is a big moment for all our local economies as shops reopen, which is really positive news. We have given councils, businesses and communities over £27 billion thus far to support them as we move to recovery from this pandemic. That includes almost £13 billion in business grants, which has so far supported 832,000 businesses, and the £50 million reopening high streets safely fund, which the Secretary of State referred to. Today we are also publishing the guidance on the £3.6 billion towns fund, which will enable 100 places across England to make further progress with their town deals.

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have welcomed the super announcements to help business improvement districts with various funds, to support local economies through the uncertainty of the covid-19 pandemic. This has been a vital lifeline for Love Loughborough, the BID in my constituency. Given the need to ensure that our town centres have the resources they need to get back on their feet, what further steps are being taken to support BIDs as the lockdown restrictions are eased?

BIDs have a significant part to play in our high street regeneration programme, and they will be even more important given the setback we have all experienced during the first half of this year. That is why we have legislated to allow BIDs that were due to re-ballot this year to continue until March 2021 and have announced £6.1 million in emergency support funding for BIDs. I am pleased that the Love Loughborough BID—not one to be said unless you have a taste for tongue-twisters—will receive £12,747 from this additional fund.

Building Safety Fund

The eligibility criteria for the building safety fund are set out in the prospectus that was published in May—as Members know, the fund was launched on 1 June. Where buildings are not eligible, our guidance is clear that building safety is the responsibility of building owners, and we have given expert advice on a range of safety issues and measures that can provide clarity.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) has explained, the fund is not big enough for the demand, and many buildings in Manchester are ineligible for it. Last week, I met residents of Skyline Central 1, whose building will not be eligible because the freeholder has already begun works on the property, yet the freeholder is passing all those costs on to leaseholders, to the tune of £20,000-plus each. So what more will the Government do to ensure that leaseholders are not bearing the brunt of removing dangerous cladding from their buildings?

I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question, and I know she is campaigning doughtily on behalf of her constituents. As I have said, we have been absolutely clear that where those buildings are already being remediated—where remediation was under way before 11 March—residents, leaseholders, should first seek to recover the costs from the owner, and the owner should do this from the developer of the buildings where the defects are found. The point of the fund is to get the remediation work under way quickly. I can quite understand the points she has raised and I am happy to talk to her further about that case.

Regeneration of Towns

Our £3.6 billion towns fund will create jobs and drive economic growth in towns across England, and the new high streets task force, along with our £50 million reopening high streets safely fund, will help local areas to kick-start the safe reopening of their town centres.

The new unitary Buckinghamshire Council has ambitious regeneration plans for Aylesbury, which has garden town status, with an excellent masterplan already prepared. Will my hon. Friend confirm that funding will still be available from central Government for the imaginative and innovative garden town project, which will make Aylesbury a place where people will want to live, work, visit and invest, long after the coronavirus crisis?

Yes, I can. Well planned, well designed, locally led garden communities play a vital role in helping to meet this country’s housing need well into the future. As we announced at Budget 2020, the Government have demonstrated their support for the Aylesbury garden town through a £170 million housing infrastructure fund award, which should help to unlock its full potential.

Home Ownership: Support

First Homes, our new flagship home ownership programme, will discount homes by at least 30% for local people and first-time buyers, reducing income and deposit requirements. We recently closed our consultation on First Homes, and we will publish our response very soon. This will add to other Government-backed schemes, including Help to Buy, which have supported over 627,000 households since 2010.

Around this time last year, a friend of mine purchased a property as a first-time buyer. On a purchase price of £275,000, he paid £3,700 in land transaction tax, which is the Welsh equivalent of stamp duty. Had he completed his purchase just eight miles away, across the border in England, he would not have paid any stamp duty at all. I commend my right hon. Friend, along with the Treasury, for this policy to assist first-time buyers, but will he join me in calling on the Welsh Government to raise the threshold for first-time buyers to £300,000 to mirror England so that young people are not incentivised to move out of my beautiful constituency?

My hon. Friend is right; Delyn is a beautiful constituency. He is also right to point out that stamp duty or land transaction tax in Wales is a devolved matter. The Welsh Government are not particularly successful at building houses, including social homes. I think they have built fewer than 140 in the last five years, so the message to the Welsh Government is: could do a little better. But I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that in England, stamp duty relief means that 80% of first-time buyers will pay no stamp duty at all, and cuts the price for 95% of those who do pay the tax. This relief has benefited over 500,000 people since its introduction three years ago.

Topical Questions

Yesterday marked three years since the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. No words will ever be enough, but my thoughts, and I am sure those of the whole House, are with the survivors, the bereaved and the community of north Kensington. Over the weekend I laid a wreath beside the tower on behalf of the Government. We will continue to work to ensure that this tragedy can never happen again.

Once again, I want to thank everybody across local government for their continued and dedicated response to covid-19. We have backed those efforts with £3.2 billion of additional funding, and today I want to reassure councils that I am working closely with Cabinet colleagues on a comprehensive plan to ensure their financial stability for the remainder of this year. I will say more about that shortly. Finally, as many shops reopen their doors to the public this morning and we look to the next phase of our recovery, my Department will be leading efforts to revitalise our local economies with a collective determination to realise Britain’s enormous potential.

In order to get our high streets back up and running, we might need a temporary relaxation of licensing laws—for instance, to get more tables and chairs out on pavements. Clearly we do not want a free-for-all, but what steps is my right hon. Friend considering?

I am very sympathetic to the argument that my hon. Friend has made. I would like to see more outdoor seating and for it to be easier and cheaper for small businesses to get licences. I would also like to see more temporary markets and more pedestrianisation, and for it to be easier to do things such as putting marquees outside pubs for longer this summer. These are all things we need to do to help our economy get going in the summer months, and I will be working with local councils to bring forward our proposals very shortly.

The Secretary of State is caught up in a cash for favours row that now reaches inside No. 10 Downing Street, but last week he did not even have the courage to show up and answer questions in this Chamber, so I hope he will be answering now. Given the gravity of the allegations surrounding his unlawful decision on the Westferry development, will he agree to make a full statement to the House, publish all correspondence and disclose all conversations with other Government Ministers and officials relating to the case, to reassure the public that the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Conservative party fundraising dinners?

Propriety in the planning the system is extremely important and I take my responsibility as Secretary of State very seriously indeed. The application to which the hon. Gentleman refers was highly contentious —all applications that come before the Secretary of State are highly contentious—and had been contested for many years. In fact, it had only come before Ministers in my Department and my predecessor in April because Tower Hamlets Council had itself failed to determine it. I took the decision in good faith and with an open mind. I am confident that all the rules were followed in doing so.

It is not unusual for a Secretary of State to come to a different conclusion from a local authority. It is not unusual for a Secretary of State to come a different conclusion from a planning inspector—no disrespect to the great people who work there—and my predecessors did so on a number of occasions. All the relevant information relating to this matter is with the Cabinet Secretary. I have taken, and will take again, advice from my permanent secretary about what further documentation we might be able to publish. As the hon. Gentleman says, we want to ensure the correct processes of the planning system are followed. That means publishing documents while bearing in mind the legitimate interests of the parties to this case, which remains a live planning application.

Back in March, the Chancellor rightly told the House that event hire companies with business properties would be eligible for rate relief and a corresponding leisure and hospitality grant. However, subsequent guidance from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government excluded those companies. Will the Secretary of State clarify the position—at present, neighbouring local authorities in my part of Hampshire are making different decisions for the same firms—or does he think that the new discretionary grant fund is the way to go? Right now, my local authority will do neither without the Secretary of State telling it that it can. (903225)

My understanding is that the new discretionary fund would allow a business such as the one my hon. Friend raises to benefit from that. I know he has written to me in the past asking for further clarification, but I am happy to come back to him once again and ensure that that business has the clarification it needs to receive the funding it desperately requires at this time.

The Secretary of State has admitted that giving full consent to Richard Desmond’s Westferry development was unlawful because of apparent bias, so why did he not immediately recuse himself from taking the decision instead of unlawfully trying to force it through? (903226)

Let us be clear about the circumstances here: all the parties to this application—that includes the Mayor of London, the applicant and Tower Hamlets Council—agreed to redetermine the case at my suggestion. The court consented to do that and that is now what will happen. If underlying her question is one made in writing by, I think, the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed), as to what the involvement of my Department was in this matter, I am happy to clarify. My Department knew about my attendance at the event before I went to it. It knew about the fact that I had inadvertently sat next to the applicant. I did not know who I was going to be seated by until I sat at the table. I discussed and took advice from my officials within the Department at all times.

In beautiful Hastings and Rye we have seen a noticeable increase in constituents contacting me about being terrified and intimidated, victims of antisocial behaviour from particular neighbours. What measures is my right hon. Friend taking to support social housing landlords in dealing with and reducing the increase in this disturbing behaviour? (903230)

First, let me say that it is completely unacceptable for anyone to feel unsafe or intimidated in their home. Earlier this year, I announced an additional £165 million for the troubled families programme to tackle some of the issues of antisocial behaviour and to help to transform people’s lives. Later this year I will publish our social housing White Paper, which I hope will empower tenants and improve the quality of life in social housing for ever. We have also given landlords, the police and councils a significant range of powers to tackle antisocial behaviour, including criminal behaviour orders and community protection notices.

Did the Secretary of State know, when he signed the planning consent for Westferry, that the next day a new levy would come into effect, which would have cost the developers tens of millions of pounds more? (903227)

That was a matter of public record. It was referred to in the planning inspector’s report that my Department received in November, so all parties would have been aware of that.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the work done with rough sleepers during this crisis presents a unique opportunity? Will he commit to redoubling efforts to bring together the national Government, local government, the voluntary sector and, crucially, employers to make sure that we can build on this platform, so that more rough sleepers can be found sustainable homes and careers and we can work towards the Government’s very laudable aim to end rough sleeping for good? (903233)

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. One of the great successes and few silver linings during the pandemic has been the fact that, working with charities and councils across the country, we have helped to bring in more than 90% of those people who are sleeping rough on our streets. That is something we should all be proud of and has undoubtedly saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives, but that is just the beginning. I am now working with the homelessness Minister—my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall)—and Dame Louise Casey on a long-term plan to give those people the accommodation they need to move on and restart their lives. That begins with working with local councils and bringing forward more than 6,000 new homes.

The Secretary of State’s answers to the hon. Members for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) and for Blaydon (Liz Twist) are entirely unsatisfactory. He accepts that he acted unlawfully in overruling a local authority to grant planning permission to a wealthy Tory donor, helping him to avoid £40 million in tax. Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how he expects the public to have confidence in planning procedures given his actions, and why he thinks it is appropriate for him to remain in post while a police investigation into his behaviour is ongoing? (903228)

I am happy to clarify a number of those points, the vast majority of which were factually incorrect. I understand that a Labour Member of the House of Lords did make an allegation to the police. That was swiftly assessed by members of the Metropolitan police, and they informed me that there were no criminal matters to investigate and they had no intention of taking it further. I would welcome the hon. Gentleman withdrawing that suggestion.

I entirely stand behind the decision that I made. I made it with an open mind, because we want to see more homes built in this country and in particular in our capital city. This development would have led to 1,500 homes and 250 affordable homes. I remind the House that this contentious decision came to my desk as Secretary of State because the local council had failed to determine it in accordance with the law.

Hinckley business improvement district has worked over the past decade to increase footfall and reduce shop vacancies. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), the Secretary of State talked about the vision that may well be in place. Will he expand on where he thinks BIDs should be in the future of driving forward such places as Hinckley post-covid-19? (903234)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which is a very good one. As he rightly says, BIDs have a very important role to play in this regeneration. We see them at the heart of the process of making sure that the high street comes back stronger from this pandemic and that we make good progress in making sure that the high street is genuinely fit for the future. That means meeting the needs of modern consumer habits.

On the Westferry development, the Secretary of State has just told the House that the Department was advised of the conversation with Richard Desmond at the fundraising dinner before he overruled his own planning inspector to approve the Westferry development, but a whistleblower in the Department says that there is no record of the dinner appearing in official documents. That is potentially a serious breach of the ministerial code, especially as the Secretary of State himself has just admitted that it is a highly contentious application. Will he now confirm when and how he advised the Department of the meeting, given the question of bias that this issue raises? (903229)

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Lady with her pre-prepared question, but as she will have heard in my answer a few moments ago, the Department was fully informed of my attendance at the event. I discussed with my officials that the applicant had raised the matter. I advised the applicant that I was not able to discuss it, so I think I have answered her question comprehensively.

My right hon. Friend has ensured throughout the coronavirus pandemic that local authorities have been supported and supported well. My local authority, Sefton Council, has concerns about future funding arrangements. What more can his Department do to help? (903235)

We said at the start of the pandemic that we would give councils, which were responding to covid so brilliantly, the resources they need, and we meant it. We have announced more than £3.2 billion of new grant funding, including more than £17.5 million for Sefton Council. As I said earlier, we are going to keep working with councils, including Sefton, to ensure that they have the resources they need.

May I start by sending, on behalf of all my Liberal Democrat colleagues, our very best wishes to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) for a speedy and full recovery? Who will make the re-decision on the Westferry Printworks development in place of the Secretary of State, and how will they address the concerns about apparent bias expressed by the High Court in its judgment? (903231)

As is usual in cases when planning applications are re-determined, a different Minister in the Department will be chosen and will make the decision, and whenever that case comes forward, he or she will do as I did and approach this matter without any bias, with an open mind and do the right thing.

Sitting suspended.