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Topical Questions

Volume 681: debated on Monday 5 October 2020

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 stricter 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 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 on 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.