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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 681: debated on Monday 5 October 2020

Housing, Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Affordable Homes to Buy

This Government are making sure that hard-working families and first-time buyers have affordable, quality homes to call their own. Last month, we confirmed over £12 billion of investment to build more affordable homes—the most significant of its kind in living memory. This includes our new affordable homes programme, which will deliver up to 180,000 homes from next year.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. My constituents are keen to see villages grow gently, sympathetically and with a range of larger and more affordable homes, and I am pleased to hear him focus on quality. How will my right hon. Friend’s planning reforms focus on quality and ensure that no new three-storey, densely packed, large developments of identikit houses are allowed to ruin the edges of small villages?

Like my hon. Friend, this Government believe that beautiful high-quality homes should be the norm in every area of this country. Our reformed planning system will place a much higher regard on quality, design and local character, such as that in Lincolnshire, than ever before. Local planning authorities already have the power to set high standards for housing, including setting parameters for density, open space and private gardens. However, to go further, I have announced that we will create a new national design code, and I have asked Nicholas Boys Smith, the founder of Create Streets, to establish a new body to help every local community to create their own design code and deliver locally popular architecture for everyone.

Local Authorities: Funding

What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of Government funding for local authorities. (907010)

We said we would support councils throughout this pandemic, and that is exactly what we are doing. We have provided £4.8 billion in additional funding for spending pressures, including £3.7 billion of un-ringfenced funding. This is in addition to councils’ core spending power rising by over £2.9 billion this financial year, which is the largest year-on-year real-terms increase in a decade.

The Minister will know that Rochdale council has lost some £200 million in Government cuts over the last years, and this year it is likely to be £20 million short of money, even with the extra Government funding. The people who will suffer most from this are those dependent on acute services, children’s services and, of course, the elderly and the vulnerable. How does the Minister intend to make sure that they do not suffer?

The hon. Gentleman of course knows that this year’s local government finance settlement saw Rochdale Borough Council receive an increase of £12 million this year, which he did not object to when the finance settlement came through the House in February. More widely, throughout this pandemic we have supported Rochdale with £93 million to local councils, businesses and the local area. If Rochdale council is concerned about its financial settlements or about the financial situation, it should get in contact with my Department at the earliest opportunity. I would say that over half of the £4.8 billion allocated to local authorities has been spent on social care, but I am always happy to discuss it with him further.

Councils are facing in-year cuts of around £3 billion because the Secretary of State broke his promise to fully fund councils for the cost of getting communities through the pandemic, and that is according to the Conservative-led Local Government Association. The Minister tries to wish this away by bandying around Government funding intended for specific purposes that cannot be used to plug gaps in the council’s general funds. Since he would not wish to try to pull that same trick again here, would he tell the House which services he now expects councils to cut to plug the funding gap created by his broken promises?

Let us step back and look at the facts here. If we look at the local government finance settlement—the hon. Gentleman did not object to it in February; he supported it—and at the fact that local government has reported a £3.1 billion increase in spending pressures for covid, we have supported them with £4.8 billion, including £3.7 billion of un-ringfenced funding. What is not surprising is the hon. Gentleman turning up again today and talking down councils and their ability to respond to this crisis. Local authorities are proving themselves to be a resourceful, dynamic force, and we should be praising them.

Could I say that the Government’s decision to help councils with loss of funding, particularly for leisure centres, parking revenue and such things, is welcome? There is one group of authorities, however, that have not been compensated—the councils that run their leisure services at arm’s length. I raised this with the Minister’s predecessor back in July, and the response I got was that the Government

“are very serious about tackling it.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 1224.]

Since then, because Sheffield has lost over £10 million, which it has not been compensated for, from its leisure centres’ loss of income, we have written as Sheffield MPs to the Secretary of State twice—once in August and once in September, the second with the local leisure clubs—and we have not had a response. Could the Minister therefore update the House on what is happening in general on this issue, and will he agree to meet Sheffield MPs to discuss this issue, which really affects our city and its finances?

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his question. We recognise the vital role leisure centre facilities play in keeping our communities safe and protecting mental health. We are working closely with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on a further package of support for leisure centres. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and other Sheffield MPs to discuss the matter.

Brownfield Sites: Development

Delivering much needed new, higher-quality greener homes across the country is central to the mission of this Government. To do that, we will continue to prioritise building on brownfield sites to deliver the homes that we need while also regenerating our towns and cities. As a first step, we have allocated more than £400 million from our brownfield fund to seven mayoral combined authorities, unlocking 26,000 new homes while protecting our greenfield sites. Even as we overhaul our outdated planning system, our reforms make very clear that we will continue to protect the green belt and prioritise development on brownfield land.

As my right hon. Friend knows, my beautiful constituency of South West Hertfordshire is 80% green belt. Does he agree that continued protection of the green belt and prioritising building on brownfield sites is the right thing to do?

I am very happy to assure my hon. Friend once again that the protection of the green belt remains a priority, as does developing brownfield land in all parts of the country, including Hertfordshire. We do need to build more homes, including in places where homes are most expensive. It is, and will continue to be, however, for local councils to decide which sites are available, and which sites are viable and suitable for new homes. That will involve reimagining high streets and it will involve promoting gentle density, but we will do everything we can to protect both the green belt and our beautiful countryside.

Places of Worship: Covid-19

What steps his Department has taken to help places of worship open safely during the covid-19 outbreak. (907012)

What steps his Department has taken to help places of worship open safely during the covid-19 outbreak. (907018)

As Communities Secretary, ensuring places of worship can reopen and remain open has been a priority for me and my Department. Their contribution to our country as places of solace, as well as for significant moments such as weddings and funerals, is clear to us all. Places of worship remain open today for more than six people for communal prayer and services with existing covid-secure requirements continuing to apply.

During this pandemic we have seen a sharp spike in Islamophobia, from blaming Muslims for the spread of covid-19 to fuelling online hate. I am sure the Secretary of State will want to join me in commending the community for its patience and hard work in these difficult months. Given that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has previously highlighted the good work of the Muslim Council of Britain in reaching minority groups that the Government are unable or unwilling to reach, can he outline what discussions he has had with the MCB and other Muslim organisations on the safe reopening of mosques?

Like the hon. Gentleman, I want to praise and thank the Muslim communities throughout the country for their forbearance. We have worked closely with them through our places of worship taskforce that the Prime Minister and I set up. I have had the privilege to meet representatives from mosques, including the London Central Mosque on the eve of the Eid celebrations, to thank them once again for their forbearance. We have put in place detailed guidelines to help mosques to reopen safely and will continue to work with Muslim groups in the weeks and months ahead.

It is clear from what the Secretary of State has said that he recognises that in these troubled times places of worship are more important than ever in providing for the spiritual and material needs of their congregations and in combating loneliness and mental health problems. However, they face their own challenges in making their premises safe for their worshippers and meeting the costs of that as well as for their own people. What help is the Department giving directly to places of worship to facilitate that provision, and is it engaging with them regularly to ensure that this can be effectively implemented?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a series of very important points. At the start of the pandemic, I recognised that places of worship needed to be prioritised. They should not be relegated behind other activities, whether shops, casinos or other important things that we want to keep open to protect people’s livelihoods. Places of worship matter for those with faith, and we needed to ensure that they could reopen. I worked extremely closely with faith leaders through our places of worship taskforce. That work continues, and we have very good relationships with all the major faiths. The guidelines are in place and are now extremely detailed. They cover not only basic guidelines for all faiths, but very detailed guidelines for individual practices for particular religions. We saw that prominently recently, for example, with the Jewish holidays, when we worked out detailed guidelines for Yom Kippur. We will continue to work closely with faith leaders in the weeks and months ahead.

Since reopening, mosques have incurred the cost of PPE, which is an additional financial cost to them, along with deep cleaning several times a day after members and visitors visit. The Muslim Council of Britain estimates that it has already given out £500,000 in small grants, but there are far more mosques in need than those funds can reach. What action is the Secretary of State taking to financially support places of worship to reopen in a covid-secure way?

Alongside other charities, places of worship are able to apply to the £200 million coronavirus community support fund, which has helped organisations providing essential services for vulnerable people affected by the current crisis.

Planning System: Design and Beauty

With our planning White Paper “Planning for the future”, we are seeking views on proposals to achieve just what my hon. Friend refers to in his question. We are putting the creation of beautiful places at the heart of national planning policy, encouraging greater use of design codes based on what people want to see in their area, supporting local authorities and directing Homes England to help deliver that.

Under the White Paper, Bournville, an area that I am lucky enough to part-represent, was used as an example of an area of beauty. George Cadbury in 1893 had his vision of building houses for the area. Today, there are 25,000 people across 8,000 homes in Bournville. Will the Minister please accept an invite from the Bournville Village Trust to come and see the area for himself and the excellent work it is doing to maintain that beautiful community?

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that question and for that invitation to his constituency, being as it is just a hop, skip and a jump from my constituency of Tamworth. George Cadbury certainly had a vision for his community. I look forward to joining my hon. Friend and his friends in Bournville village to realise their modern 21st-century vision for his constituents.

Rough Sleepers: Covid-19

Since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, nearly 15,000 vulnerable people have been housed in emergency accommodation thanks to the hard work of local councils and charities, saving hundreds of lives. We are now moving on to the next steps through our Next Steps Accommodation programme. We have recently announced over £90 million for local authorities in England to prevent those we have accommodated from returning to the streets.

May I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to her new role on the Front Bench? This Government’s commitment to end rough sleeping is clear to see in the extensive and regular funding given to councils over the past year. I commend David Newbery, senior homelessness prevention officer at Guildford Borough Council, who successfully found appropriate accommodation for a victim of domestic violence I had spoken to on a Saturday morning by that very evening—there was the additional complication of a positive covid status—so that she did not have to spend another night unwell and fearful. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the commitment of those on the ground in Guildford, who are working tirelessly in partnership with central Government to end rough sleeping?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the tremendous work of those in her constituency. I join with her in paying tribute to those, not only in her constituency but across the country, who worked so hard with the Government to end rough sleeping and on the delivery of the significant programme of accommodating nearly 15,000 people during covid-19. We are committed to protecting victims of domestic abuse, investing over £80 million since 2014. Today, a new £6 million fund will help tier 1 councils to prepare for the implementation of the new legal duty in the Domestic Abuse Bill.

The coronavirus pandemic and the Government’s actions during it have shown that homelessness is a choice—not of the homeless themselves, but of the Government. Will this Tory Government choose to permit the existence of homelessness, or will they extend their actions during the pandemic to eradicate the problem once and for all?

The hon. Gentleman knows that this Government are committed to working hard to end rough sleeping by the end of the Parliament. That is clear in the investment the Government have made, particularly during the pandemic and, as I have just outlined in my previous response, with the Next Steps Accommodation Programme. We are committed to making sure that during the pandemic all individuals who were accommodated are supported, so they can move forward and have great lives, and we keep many individuals off the streets.

Local Authorities: Additional Funding for Covid-19

What steps he is taking to ensure that local authorities receive adequate funding for additional costs related to the covid-19 outbreak. (907016)

We have provided local authorities with an unprecedented package of support, including £4.8 billion funding for spending pressures, £3.7 billion in un-ring-fenced grants, and £1.1 billion for the infection control fund. We have also introduced a co-payment scheme to help councils recoup irrecoverable losses in sales fees and charges. In total, we have committed over £28 billion to local areas to support councils, businesses and their communities since the start of the pandemic.

All of which is welcome, but last week the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority called for a comprehensive Government-backed package to deal with the problems for the local economy that will be caused by the introduction of the latest covid-19 measures. Today, the combined authority and the Metro Mayor announced a £40 million welcome package to support local businesses and jobs. Will the Minister agree to hold an urgent meeting with local MPs, the combined authority and the Metro Mayor to discuss what further assistance the Government can provide to support our local economy?

The right hon. Gentleman will be fully aware that Knowsley has received £30 million in additional un-ring-fenced spending to deal with pressures resulting from the pandemic, on top of the £10 million increase in its core spending power this financial year. More widely, Knowsley received £51 million to support councils, businesses and the community. He will be interested to know that to prepare for local outbreaks we have provided a £300 million grant to all upper tier authorities to develop strong and effective local outbreak plans. In relation to ongoing engagement, I met the Mayor of Greater Manchester last week and I believe he is meeting the Secretary of State tomorrow. We are, of course, happy to continue those discussions.

Future Homes Standard

Our future homes standard reforms propose an ambitious uplift in the energy efficiency of new homes. The homes will have at least 75% lower emissions than current standards. That is real action toward a cleaner and greener built environment. Furthermore, ahead of 2025, we have consulted on a meaningful interim increase in the requirements of part L of the building regulations, which will act as a stepping stone to a full uplift.

If I cannot persuade the Minister to be more ambitious in his deadline, perhaps I could encourage him to use the time to be more ambitious in his target. Instead of a target of reducing carbon emissions by 75%, will the Government set a target of net zero carbon for new builds?

I am obliged to the hon. Lady. She seems to have forgotten the ambition of this Government, which has already been stated. We were the first Government in the world to legislate for net zero. She seems to have forgotten that just a few days ago, we introduced the green homes grant; 600,000 homes will benefit from that grant. She seems to have forgotten the work we have done to drive down poor energy performance certificate standards; now only 5% of homes are in the G category. We will certainly be ambitious. We will continue to work hard to build green homes for our country, and I am sure that when it comes to it and the hon. Lady stops talking, she will start to walk with us.

High Street Businesses: Covid-19

What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to support high street businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. (907019)

What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to support high street businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. (907033)

Revitalising our towns and high streets is vital to the Government’s effort to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, supporting people’s jobs and getting businesses trading again. Last month, we provided an £80 million boost to over 100 towns from our £3.6 billion towns fund, kickstarting important local investment projects.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I also thank the Government for deciding to ease the lockdown on Bolton so that people can start using cafés, pubs and restaurants more normally. This has also had the benefit of bringing more people on to our high streets and increasing footfall. As a further step, will he consider having 10 pm as last orders to enable a safe exit from pubs and restaurants as people leave and perhaps use public transport?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The requirement for pubs and some other businesses to be closed to the general public by 10 pm was designed to strike the balance of allowing people to continue to socialise while reducing social contact and minimising negative impacts on the economy. He will know that we do not take these decisions lightly. None of us would want that to continue a day longer than is necessary, and as with all measures, we will keep them under constant review.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Many business owners in Fylde and their employees have found themselves on the frontline of enforcing social distancing guidelines in recent months. What is the Minister doing to support those businesses, as well as local authorities, to ensure that high streets remain safe and public confidence high?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we published the safer urban centres and green spaces guidance to provide exactly that kind of information to business owners and councils. We have supported that with a £50 million reopening high streets safely fund and, more recently, with £60 million for the police and local councils to provide enforcement and compliance. This comes on top of our cuts to the taxes of local businesses through the business rates holiday, the 5% cut in VAT, and the reforms that we have taken through to help small businesses, whether that is on use class orders, outdoor dining and markets, or creating a simpler route through the planning system for regeneration—all measures designed to support businesses and protect jobs, and all opposed by the Labour party.

English Devolution and Local Recovery: White Paper

The Government intend to bring forward the English devolution and local recovery White Paper in due course, setting out how we will partner with places across the UK to build a sustainable economic recovery. I was very pleased to see that the parliamentary order to implement the Sheffield city region deal in law was made in July, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on all his work and support in finally reaching that significant milestone in his work so far as Mayor.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He will know that devolution has the power to transform people’s lives and local economies, but as a Mayor, it too often feels like I do not yet have the powers and resources to make transformative changes. The White Paper represents a golden opportunity to reset the dial, so does he agree that to properly empower local and regional leaders, the Government should commit to place-based, multi-year, flexible budgets so that we can better deliver for our communities?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I was delighted to meet him and nine colleagues from across the country to discuss their representations about the upcoming White Paper. We are genuinely pleased with the combined authority Mayors and the progress that they are making, but of course, we recognise that there is more to do. We will publish the White Paper in due course.

In the 2019 Conservative manifesto, the Government promised that every part of the country would have the powers to shape their own destiny. Given the broken promises that councils have had from the Government recently, can the Minister confirm that the White Paper honours that manifesto pledge, and that local leaders will have the powers to decide what works best for their communities?

I am not exactly sure what promise the hon. Lady was referring to, but we have certainly kept our promises to protect councils during this pandemic by providing them with billions of pounds of funding to support their covid response. We see the devolution and local recovery White Paper as an exciting opportunity to lay out our plans for devolution in this Parliament. We will bring it forward in due course, and I am very happy to listen to her representations about what should be in it.

Agricultural Land: Development

What steps he is taking to ensure that high-quality agricultural land is not used for housing developments. (907021)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already alluded, in his answer to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), to the £400 million brownfield fund, delivering 26,000 homes, and our commitment to prioritising brownfield sites does not end there. Our national planning policy framework is clear that brownfield should be prioritised for redevelopment for housing, and that local authorities should avoid using our best and most versatile farmland wherever and whenever possible.

My right hon. Friend knows that I have a high regard for him personally, but I am afraid that that does not extend to a planning White Paper that seems designed to smother the south-east of England and the garden of England in houses not for local people but for people from elsewhere. In responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), the Secretary of State said that the brownfield fund would be made available to metropolitan areas. Will that be extended across the board to rural areas as well? Also, could my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that all of the 1 million consents already granted will be used before a single further blade of greenfield site in agricultural land is also used?

I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for his question. I can confirm that, though he is correct that the £400 million made available for the brownfield regeneration fund was targeted at mayoral combined authorities, the home building fund has in it £5 billion to support new housing, including brownfield projects. More than 300 projects in England will receive a share of the £900 million to get Britain building: the getting building fund. That will also, I trust, support his constituency. I also remind him that just a couple of days ago we voted for permitted development rights, which will allow for the reimagining of town centres, and the demolition and rebuild of disused commercial buildings. That will also take the weight off any pressure on green spaces, so the Government are committed to the end that my right hon. Friend wants: building brownfield first.

Dangerous Cladding: Residential Buildings

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that dangerous cladding is removed from residential buildings of all heights. (907022)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that dangerous cladding is removed from residential buildings of all heights. (907027)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that dangerous cladding is removed from residential buildings of all heights. (907034)

We are taking action with the biggest reforms of building and fire safety in nearly 40 years through the Building Safety Bill. To tackle the most urgent problems, we have already made available £1.6 billion to remove unsafe cladding systems, and appointed expert construction consultants to review aluminium composite material remediation timescales and to work at increased pace. There therefore should be no excuse for delay.

There should indeed be no excuse for delay, but a constituent of mine tells me that she and her partner are stuck between a rock and a hard place because they cannot sell their flat. Up to half a million people are now in the same position. The Minister will know that whether buildings are above 18 metres or, as in the case of my constituent, below that height, mortgage lenders are requiring EWS1 forms for fire safety clearance. My constituent’s management company refuses to test her building because it is below 18 metres. The Select Committee called for urgent action in June, so what is the Minister doing to help all those who are trapped by the failure of remediation and by these requirements?

With respect to buildings below 18 metres, we are following the advice of Dame Judith Hackitt to target the tallest buildings—those over 18 metres—because they are at greatest danger of fire if they are clad. With respect to the EWS1 form—a Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors form—I can confirm that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had discussions with lenders and that my noble Friend the noble Lord Greenhalgh has discussed with the insurance industry how to resolve these matters better. We are encouraging the industry to accept alternative evidence of assurances. Not all lenders require EWS1 forms, and we will encourage more lenders to take similar action.

Countless Salford residents are among over 700,000 nationally who are still living in dangerously cladded homes, yet only 65 registrations to the building safety fund have been allowed to proceed, an estimated 1.5 million people cannot sell their homes, and exorbitant remediation costs are still being passed on to leaseholders for defects that they did not cause. Will the Minister end this protracted scandal today and commit to the proposals set out by the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee?

I have every sympathy with the situation that the hon. Lady’s constituents find themselves in. She will understand that in order to target the right buildings and ensure that the buildings most at risk are prioritised, it is important that the money disbursed by the Government is spent effectively. We have had 2,784 registrations to the end of September, and 1,857 of those—many of them received on the last day of application in July—were incomplete. We are working with the owners and with the submitters of the registrations to ensure that they get the information right, and as soon as they get the information right, we can determine when we can get the money out of the door. I hope that we get the first money out of the door very soon indeed.

According to leading civil servants, the building safety fund will cover less than a third of the buildings that require external remediation, and it does not even cover the interim safety measures and costs that may unscrupulous freeholders have been pushing on to leaseholders, including at Raphael House in my constituency. My constituents and I are wondering whether the Government could increase the budget for that fund so that all buildings are covered, including the cost of the expensive interim safety measures, and extend the application deadline beyond April so that freeholders can act responsibly in the best interests of leaseholders and tenants.

The objective of the £1 billion fund is to target those properties that most need help, where there is no other immediate means of helping them. £1 billion is not a small amount of money and it is important that we get that money out of the door first to help those places that need it. The hon. Gentleman might, while he is at it, have a word with the Mayor of London, because London is lagging well behind the remediation of properties around England. That is why Lord Greenhalgh had to organise a London summit to get London to up its game. So, as much as we are determined to get the money out of the door, he must encourage the Mayor to do the same.

Ritu and Rebecca are among the many thousands of people now trapped in this situation despite their good intentions. Hon. Members across the House have discussed the EWS1 form today. The current estimate for the 1.5 million people stuck in this situation is that it will take 15 years-plus to resolve. This requires a sense of urgency. When the Minister going to get a grip of the situation?

As I explained to the House just a moment ago—I think the hon. Gentleman heard what I said— the Government are working with lenders to make sure that this situation moves as quickly as possible, so that lenders require other more easily available assurances and are encouraged to act much more quickly. We continue to work with the industry to make sure that those people get the help and support they need, and I can confirm to him that we will bring forward further proposals very soon.

Regeneration: Town Centres

We are committed to supporting regeneration in town centres through the £3.6 billion towns fund, which includes the £1 billion future high streets fund. Last week, we made an announcement on £80 million from the towns fund, which will go to more than 100 towns in England, to kick-start regeneration projects. We are also providing support to local leaders through the High Streets Task Force and have protected businesses from eviction during the covid pandemic.

My constituency office is in Liskeard, a small market town that is more than 1,000 years old. It lost the head office of the local district council when that authority was abolished and its farmers’ market has left the town. What more can be done to increase demand again in small town centres such as Liskeard?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the beauty of her town of Liskeard, and she knows that I, too, am a fan of her part of the country. The Government are totally committed to helping our high streets and town centres to adapt to changing consumer behaviour during this challenging period. To achieve that, the Government are supporting places across the country with the High Streets Task Force, which will work with local authorities and groups to get the access to the experts required to come up with the ideas and drive to build the skills for sustainable place making and share that best practice. We have also introduced reforms to planning use to enable that mixture on the high streets to drive footfall and businesses into our town centres.

High streets such as mine in Dudley have undergone a period of profound change—they did so even before the pandemic struck—so does the Minister agree that making it easier to convert commercial and retail units into new homes will help regenerate the high street and create more housing?

My hon. Friend is right. We agree that turning disused commercial and retail units into new homes can provide more housing, and create more vibrant town and city centres. A number of national permitted development rights allow for shops, offices and high streets to change to residential use, which will have the impact of creating environments where people want to live, work—[Interruption.] And play.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for letting me stand in for my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), who has not been able to get here, and I hope that the Minister will not be lost for words with this one. The Secretary of State has been criticised for the way he allocated taxpayers’ money through the towns fund. He will share my concern that there must never be any question of gerrymandering public funds, so will he explain why he ignored civil servants on how the towns fund should be spent, and blocked funds for Sunderland, Stockport and Ashington but handed out money to wealthier towns with more prosperous high streets, such as Newark, which he just happens to represent?

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have had a lot of respect for him in his previous work in this House, but I am disappointed with his position there. As an elected Member of Parliament, I am totally committed, like this Government, to driving up regeneration across the country, in no matter what part of the United Kingdom. Suggesting that there was anything underhand in relation to that towns fund is totally out of order. I can tell him that that fund has been allocated to towns up and down the country. They are dying for that regeneration and people want to see their towns developed, and we are committed to continuing to deliver on the promises we have made.

Overdevelopment: London and the South-East

We are committed to delivering the homes and communities that this country needs, while protecting our important green spaces and avoiding overdevelopment anywhere in the country. Our consultation sets out the elements that we intend to balance when determining local housing need, including building 300,000 homes, tackling affordability challenges in the places where people most want to live, and levelling up our towns and cities. The consultation recently closed and we are reflecting carefully on the feedback.

In March, the Secretary of State wrote a strongly worded letter to the Mayor of London to express concern that his London plan tilts away from family homes towards one-bedroom flats. How does the Secretary of State reconcile the inconsistency between that letter and his new housing algorithm, which will generate such high targets that they are unachievable without tower blocks full of predominantly one-bedroom flats?

As I said, we will reflect carefully on the feedback that we receive from the consultation on calculating local housing need. My right hon. Friend refers to the desire to protect quiet neighbourhoods and ensure that they are not overborne by tall tower blocks. I am keen to make sure that local authorities are at the heart of decision making, and we will make sure that that is a fundamental part of our response to the consultation. I reassure my right hon. Friend, who is a doughty campaigner for the fine borough of Barnet, which builds lots of homes, that we will bring forward proposals to achieve the sorts of ends that she is looking for.

Topical Questions

Our town centres and high streets are the beating heart of our communities. Our landmark towns fund, through which we are investing £3.6 billion into more than 100 towns, is just one part of that commitment. We also want to give local communities the freedom to transform their areas for the better—to give boarded-up eyesores on the high street a new lease of life, to give shop owners the flexibility to change the use of their property, and to allow families the chance to increase the size of their home as their family grows. Each of these reforms will help small businesses and individuals to sustain jobs and invest in local communities. That is the mission of this Government.

This year marks 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. It vital that we remember what happened so that we can learn the lessons of the past, so will my right hon. Friend reassure me and the House that the Government remain committed to delivering a national holocaust memorial?

I am delighted that the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), has expressed his support for the national holocaust memorial. I hope that now is the moment for Members from all parties in this House and, indeed, in the other place to unite behind the proposal and ensure that the memorial is built as soon as possible.

With millions of people living in homes that are cold, damp and expensive to heat, in the midst of a respiratory illness pandemic, with millions more looking to the Government to give hope for the good jobs of the future, and with a climate change crisis as well, what part of cancelling Labour’s zero-carbon homes standard does the Secretary of State think was a good idea? When will he commit his Government to returning to a zero-carbon—not low-carbon but zero-carbon—homes standard?

As we have set out time and again, we are committed to net-zero homes—we do not want to see any new home built in this country that needs expensive retrofitting in future. If anyone thinks that the Labour party is going to deliver that or indeed any other strategy for homes in this country, they will be “sorely disappointed”—those are the words of The Guardian, not myself. The hon. Lady said that it would be years before she was able to bring forward any plans for housing whatsoever. What a sad indictment of the Labour party—the party of Herbert Morrison and Clement Attlee. We are planning to build a million new homes in this country; the Labour party’s plans are as empty and vacuous as a Wendy house blown over in the first gust of autumn wind.

Can I just say that the questions are pretty short and the answers are meant to be pretty short as well? I say to the Secretary of State that I am going to run the whole list of questions.

The Government are absolutely right in their commitment to building more homes, but we also need to look after the ones that we have. I am especially thinking of those predominately council estates that were built in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, with many homes falling into a state of disrepair. Will the Secretary of State commit to looking at ways in which we can regenerate those estates and build back better? (907070)

I will. I would like to see further investment in estates regeneration of the kind that my hon. Friend describes, and he will know that my hon. Friend the Chancellor recently announced £2 billion for the green homes grants to improve homes across the country.

Scotland has had more structural rules on cladding than the rest of the UK for several years now and has different tenancy forums from England, so does the Secretary of State have any idea of the potential consequences of the internal market Bill on Scottish housing regulations and building standards, including those on cladding?

I work closely with the devolved Administrations on housing matters, and I am open to any representation from the Housing Minister in Scotland. As far as I am aware, we have had no representation whatsoever.

In Crewe and Nantwich, we have seen recently another example of planning permission being given for a housing development without sufficient consideration of the impact on the local NHS, which really causes concern among my residents, especially as the development went against both the neighbourhood plan and the local plan. What more can we do to ensure that the impact on NHS services is more consistently taken into account in planning decisions? (907071)

The decision to which my hon. Friend refers is now being challenged in court, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment while those proceedings are live. None the less, he makes an extremely important point that people across the country want to see infrastructure flowing with new housing, whether that be hospitals, GP surgeries or schools. I would highlight that, in our planning reforms, our new infrastructure levy will drive more investment in infrastructure—both social infrastructure and physical infrastructure—in the years to come.

The current top-down centralised response to covid is not working anywhere near as well as it needs to. Properly integrating council leaders and metro Mayors into the decision-making process will help protect lives and livelihoods. May I ask the Minister or the Secretary of State to ensure that, together, we work to achieve properly joined-up Government and that local and regional leaders are treated like partners and not passengers? [R] (907075)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Of course we are in regular contact with the M9 group of Mayors about the covid-19 response and indeed, as I have said, we have meetings with him and colleagues tomorrow with the Secretary of State. Metro Mayors do occasionally attend Cobra meetings where it is appropriate. In relation to the pandemic, it is particularly important that we recognise the crucial working relationship with Public Health England and the fact that we are led by the chief medical officer. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the importance of close working with metro Mayors up and down the country is absolutely vital.

My right hon. Friend knows that I have previously raised this issue about ensuring that new build homes meet the required standard. Sadly, my own constituency has had cases of residents moving into new properties with considerable issues on the moving date, such as, for example, a flooded kitchen. Such situations are unacceptable, and we need to see every home built to high standards now and also fit for the future in environmental standards and connectivity. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the new homes ombudsman service will hit the ground running and protect residents purchasing new build homes? (907072)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that too many homes have been built in this country to poor standards in the recent past. That is why we are now legislating for the new homes ombudsman, and we are already taking action by working with the New Homes Quality Board to raise standards. We will also respond in due course to the Law Commission’s important reports, with which we intend to right the wrongs of leasehold as quickly as possible.

You and Ministers, Mr Speaker, will remember that, three and a half years ago, New Ferry in my constituency suffered from a terrible gas explosion, which hurt people and left a massive hole in our town centre. I am grateful that, this week, Ministers will meet me to discuss progress that we are making rebuilding New Ferry. I simply ask the Minister if he will join with me to publicly thank, and place on the record the thanks of all of us to, the people of New Ferry for the work that they have done to rebuild our town centre. (907078)

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. I pay extreme tribute to the residents, businesses and charitable organisations in New Ferry who have worked so hard to recover and get the town back on its feet over the past three years. I know that she is meeting one of my ministerial colleagues later this week, but as a Local Government Minister I am also at her disposal to discuss this hugely important matter in her constituency.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to address the inherent unfairness in the operation of the housing infrastructure fund, which allocates 80% of its budget to London and the south-east and only 20% of it to the rest of us? (907073)

My hon. Friend and I have agreed on this point for some time. The housing infrastructure fund directs funding to those areas where there is the greatest affordability challenge. That is important, in some respects, but any Government who want to level up must also direct infrastructure investment for housing to other parts of the country as well. I will certainly bear that in mind as we design the successor to the housing infrastructure fund later this year.

Managing the coronavirus pandemic has already cost Cheshire West and Chester Council over £35 million. Despite Government support, which I welcome, it is still £8 million behind on its current budget, which is already depleted by £330 million since 2010 by Government cuts. Will Ministers now commit to providing the support to make good the £8 million deficit that has been caused by the management of the coronavirus crisis? (907079)

As I said, we have provided £4.8 billion to local authorities up and down the country to support them with the cost of the pandemic, and £3.1 billion has been spent in addressing those pressures. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that his council has received £21 million in additional covid funding on top of the increase in core spending power of almost £18 million this year, which of course he supported.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the unprecedented level of financial support that his Department has provided to regenerate Blackpool town centre—not just the £8.6 million that we received over the course of the summer but the £50 million that we are expecting to receive via the towns fund and the future high streets fund. Can he reassure me that regenerating towns such as Blackpool will remain at the very heart of this Government’s levelling up agenda as we get the economy back on track? (907074)

My hon. Friend has been a doughty champion for Blackpool in his time in the House so far. It is absolutely right that Blackpool receives further investment to help it to continue to drive forwards. That is why I am pleased that it is a recipient of funding from the high streets fund and the towns fund. I look forward to announcing the outcome of both this autumn.

It is 232 days since Storm Dennis flooded many, many properties in Rhondda. A quarter of all such properties in the whole of the UK were in one constituency, Rhondda, and that is wholly disproportionate to the normal funding for the Welsh Assembly. It is 222 days since the Prime Minister promised my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) that the money would be passported through to the local authorities from Westminster to Wales to pay for that. It is 97 days since the Prime Minister wrote to me to say that this was all going to be sorted out. It is 74 days since the Treasury said that it was going to sort this out. Yet we still have not had a single penny. Can the Secretary of State prove to be the best Minister of the lot and sort it out by the end of today?

I am happy to take that up with my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Environment Secretary and revert to the hon. Gentleman with a plan.

The Secretary of State has overseen a shocking betrayal of millions of people who are trapped in flats they cannot sell because of cladding, irrespective of the height. Mortgage companies are refusing to remortgage. Shared ownership tenants who own only 10% are being forced to pay 100% of the cost. When is the Secretary of State going to get out of his ivory tower, stop talking and start actually helping our constituents? (907076)

I do not agree with that analysis of the actions that we have taken as a Government. We are bringing forward the biggest change to building safety regulations in a generation. We have outlined plans for our £1.6 billion fund. Of course there is more that we could do. This is one of the most challenging and difficult issues faced by the Government today, or indeed any Government, and has built up over many generations, but we intend to tackle it and to provide support for those in need.

Covid regulations prevent homeless shelters from opening, so will the Government extend the severe weather emergency protocol to cover all areas affected by any lockdown, both to protect homeless people and to prevent the virus from spreading? (907084)

We are working with the chief medical officer’s team and Public Health England to prepare guidance as to how night shelters could be opened safely and in what circumstances, but the hon. Gentleman is obviously right that it is difficult to do so in a covid-compliant manner, so we are working with local councils to consider alternatives so that nobody should be left on the streets in the coldest weather this winter.

My constituents in villages such as Burton Joyce and Stoke Bardolph understandably want to protect their green spaces and their village identity, which are part of what makes those places what they are. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government’s proposed planning reforms will ensure that local people are empowered to decide on the shape of their community? (907077)

I can certainly confirm that. We want to ensure that the green belt is protected so that there are beautiful green spaces for our constituents to enjoy and the identity of villages and communities such as those that my hon. Friend represents is protected and preserved for future generations.

John Wheatley’s Housing (Financial Provisions) Act 1924 transformed municipal housing not simply for Scotland but for the UK. A century on, that legacy has been tarnished by Tory policies and is now threatened by the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) mentioned. Will the Secretary of State guarantee not to reduce Scottish standards, given the understandable fears that arise as a result of Grenfell and other Tory cutbacks, or will the lesson be, as with other Red Clydesiders like John Wheatley, that only an independent Scottish Parliament can protect the rights of Scottish people? (907088)

The hon. Member is entirely incorrect. We are determined to build more homes in this country while protecting and enhancing standards, and absolutely nothing that we do will compromise building safety regulations. Indeed, quite the opposite. We are creating the largest change to building safety standards in my lifetime.

In ensuring that children with special educational needs and disabilities have the provision that they need locally, the London Borough of Richmond is running a cumulative deficit of some £15 million in the high needs element of its dedicated schools budget, putting wider council finances and services at risk. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me, representatives of the council and the Department for Education to find a workable solution to this untenable situation? Our discussions with the DFE have proved fruitless so far. (907098)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Of course she is right that the dedicated schools grant is administered by the DFE, which is responsible for its amount and allocation, but we are certainly working closely with the DFE, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and the sector to understand what more can be done to mitigate the immediate risks. I am personally very happy to meet her and her council to have a discussion about what more can be done.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.