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Topical Questions

Volume 714: debated on Monday 16 May 2022

Across Government, the Places for Growth programme has seen civil servants relocated from London and the south-east to different parts of the United Kingdom, whether it is Treasury civil servants going to Darlington in County Durham, Home Office officials going to Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire or indeed my own officials relocating to Wolverhampton in the west midlands.

There was speculation in some newspapers at the weekend that that estimable effort by civil servants should be joined by Members of the other place. I would wholeheartedly welcome the relocation of the House of Lords to one of our great cities. In particular, the attractions of the six towns that constitute Stoke-on-Trent, as I saw last week, are formidable. If the House of Lords were to relocate to Stoke-on-Trent, it would be assured of a warm welcome in one of the most attractive places in England.

Northstowe in my constituency is the biggest new town in the UK for 50 years—the biggest since Milton Keynes. It now has 1,000 houses, but it has no dedicated community centre, no permanent café, no pub and no shop. Thousands of frustrated residents lack anywhere to go for a pint of milk or a pint of beer. This new town is also causing environmental problems. There is flooding in the neighbouring village of Swavesey, and the neighbouring village of Longstanton is running short of water. Both problems arise from the failure of the local planning authority. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what his Department might do to address these problems and to make sure they do not happen again as Northstowe is built out to 10,000 homes?

I remind people that topical questions are meant to be short and quick, not “War and Peace.”

Steps taken in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and changes to the national planning policy framework should absolutely address the problems my hon. Friend identifies. Of course, the biggest problem he identifies is the fact that, sadly, South Cambridgeshire has a Liberal Democrat-controlled local planning authority that does not care about community but pursues a narrow political agenda, to the detriment of all.

With rent levels surging in the private sector and with the local housing allowance frozen once again, millions of hard-pressed tenants across the country are at risk of arrears and eviction. We know that rent tribunals are not an effective safeguard against punitive rent rises, and that the risk of such rises is likely only to increase when section 21 no-fault evictions are finally scrapped. Will the Secretary of State therefore tell the House why his planned renters reform Bill appears to be completely silent on protections for tenants against unaffordable rent rises?

Our renters reform Bill will specifically ensure that people in the private rented sector are protected, and I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman to ensure that the Bill satisfies the need of the hour.

T3. North Warwickshire Borough Council does a fantastic job of serving our local community, despite operating on a budget of only £9.5 million, which is certainly the lowest in Warwickshire and must be one of the lowest in the country. Will the Minister agree to come to my constituency to meet the council and to see for himself the excellent work it does, and to see how it could put the levelling-up funding on offer to excellent use? (900042)

I pay tribute to David Wright and North Warwickshire Borough Council, because they have done a fantastic job, particularly during covid, in supporting the local community and local business. I would be delighted to visit—to hop across the A5—not least because it is only 20 minutes away from Harborough.

T5. Just last year, Shropshire’s Conservative-run council missed out on three levelling-up bids, and it missed out on a bus service improvement plan bid, under the Bus Back Better fund, this year. There is no doubt that Shropshire has need of these funds, so I would like to understand: what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that levelling-up funds are allocated on the basis of need, rather than through some opaque bidding process that seems to be influenced by a council’s ability to direct resources at that bid? (900045)

We allocate levelling-up fund bids, as the Local Government Minister pointed out earlier, on the basis of appropriate competition in order to ensure value for money, but I have had a chance to talk to the excellent Conservative leader of Shropshire Council, Lezley Picton, to make sure that she and her superb team of Conservative councillors can deliver for the people of Shropshire, as Conservatives always have.

T4. I thank my right hon. Friend for delivering the shared prosperity fund, with historically high funding for mid-Wales and Montgomeryshire in particular, at more than £200 per head. I particularly thank him for the golden thread of rurality that we find in this formula, and I press him to continue delivering for rural communities. (900044)

One reason why mid-Wales has one of highest shared prosperity fund allocations in the country is precisely because we have taken rurality and the additional costs that come with it into account, and I look forward to building on that.

T6. It is clear that the Government’s approach to levelling up is a postcode lottery based on their own political ambitions rather than a genuine desire to help communities. With Portsmouth’s high streets in dire need of investment and our city’s cultural attractions struggling with the cost of living, when will the Minister stop moving the goalposts and finally stop short-changing Portsmouth? (900046)

That scored quite high on the cliché count, with “postcode lottery”, “moving the goalposts” and “narrow political calculation”. Instead of rehearsing for YouTube clips, the hon. Gentleman would be better employed looking at what we have done, not just for Portsmouth and Southampton, but for communities including Liverpool and Birkenhead, where this Government have been responsible for ensuring that local government receives the support it needs. If he wants to hang on to his seat, he would be better employed concentrating on delivering for his residents, not making party political points.

Secretary of State, don’t spoil a good day. You are having a good day so far, don’t ruin it.

T7. I and my Kensington residents welcome the fact that the social housing Bill was in the Queen’s Speech. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Bill will give social housing tenants the ability to hold their landlords to account? Will he also detail the likely timing of the Bill? (900047)

My hon. Friend is right to say that the social housing Bill will help social housing tenants in Kensington to hold their landlords to account, but we are not waiting for the new legislation; we are driving the “Make Things Right” campaign to make sure that tenants understand—[Interruption.] I am disappointed that Opposition Members think it is funny, as I think it is completely appropriate that tenants are able to hold their landlords to account. We are making sure that they understand how to do so and how to escalate complaints to the housing ombudsman should that be necessary.

Last week’s Bloomberg report suggests that levelling up in Scotland is just not happening. Given that Scotland is self-sufficient in gas and has great offshore renewables, should not the stewardship, licensing and revenues be linked to the Scottish Government budget, rather than to Her Majesty’s Treasury? Minister, when will these negotiations start? Can we kick-start some serious levelling up?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of the importance of the Scottish Government and the UK Government working together on levelling up. That is why I am so pleased that, working with the Finance Minister in the Scottish Government, Kate Forbes, we have been able to agree a prospectus for two new freeports in Scotland. I am sure that Fife will be one of the communities, areas and local authorities that will be working with the UK Government to exploit the opportunity that freeports provide outside the European Union.

T8. I welcome the proposals to ensure that empty shops have to be rented, but will the Minister explain whom they will be rented to? Will this enable upper floors to be converted to much-needed affordable housing? When will we see progress on filling key visible empty units in town centres such as Barnstaple? (900048)

High street rental auctions will apply to commercial property and make tenancies more accessible to businesses and community groups. We recognise the importance of diversifying high streets and have introduced permitted development rights to allow a wide range of commercial buildings to be changed to residential use without the need for a planning application. My hon. Friend is right: depending on the circumstances and the type of building, there could be opportunities to increase housing in areas such as hers where there are real challenges.

In the Homes for Ukraine scheme, it is left to the individuals involved to sort out matches with hosts for themselves, often through ad hoc Facebook groups. It is not surprising that that has led to reports such as:

“Ukrainian refugees using Facebook groups to seek a safe home in the UK are being put at risk of sexual exploitation”.

Criminal record checks on their own cannot prevent such exploitation. What assurance can the Secretary of State give in respect of the rigour and effectiveness of the separate home checks that are undertaken for the scheme?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important question. I am very grateful to the more than 100,000 UK citizens who have signed up to offer their homes for the scheme. As well as criminal record and police national computer checks before visas are granted, there are vetting and barring and other checks, often conducted by local authorities, at the time that individuals find themselves in homes. I would be more than happy to provide the right hon. Gentleman and others with a full briefing about the processes we undertake.

T9. In my constituency, the borough council has recently built new housing specifically for military veterans. As an ex-serviceperson myself, I was delighted to see this. Will the Minister please outline what more the Government are doing to make sure that there is housing for our veterans? (900049)

I thank my hon. Friend for his service to his country. The Government are committed to making the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran. Veterans with urgent housing needs are always given high priority for social housing, and we are investing £11.5 billion under the affordable homes programme to deliver more social homes, including housing for veterans.

For many in the privately rented sector, the Government are like Nero, fiddling while Rome burns. When are they going to get on and publish the timetable for the renters reform Bill? Last week’s was the third Queen’s Speech in which the Bill has been mentioned, yet there is still no timetable, while section 21 evictions are on the increase in many of our constituencies.

The hon. Lady suggests we are being Neronian in fiddling while Rome burns, but I prefer to think that we are like Julius Caesar: we have crossed the Rubicon, alea iacta est—the die has been cast—and the Bill will be on the statute book in this parliamentary Session.

The Forget-Me-Not group in Blyth is working hard to secure better opportunities for everyone in its local area of Cowpen Quay; however, the group needs a base in the community to house and deliver its services. This is grassroots levelling up, so will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss exactly what we can do to help these people?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the work of the Forget-Me-Not group in Blyth, which is doing amazing work in Cowpen Quay. I will do everything I can to support the group and will meet my hon. Friend to do so.

Will Ministers join me in recognising and commending the work of Ellel parish councillor Lisa Corkerry? She is never afraid to don the marigolds, grab the litter pickers and clean up Galgate. Lisa would like to know when the Government are going to provide adequate funds for local authorities such that she can put her efforts into making her community better rather than clearing up the mess left behind by others.

The local councillor the hon. Lady mentions sounds like an absolutely brilliant champion for her local community. I would love to know more, particularly about what we can do to help in practical terms, and I look forward to working with her.

Energy performance improvements to domestic dwellings are an important part of the Government’s agenda in respect of climate change obligations, as well as in respect of the cost of living. May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to private-rented off-grid properties, for which it is much more difficult and expensive to achieve energy performance improvements than for normal domestic dwellings?

It will indeed be much more challenging, which is why I am working closely with the Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Lord Callanan, to see how we can address the problem. I look forward to discussing the issue further with my right hon. Friend to see how we can find an appropriate solution.

Many agree that investment in levelling up should be not a competition but a considered plan created in partnership between central and local government to address the areas of greatest need. Ministers are meeting many Conservative MPs, but will the Minister meet me to discuss the levelling-up bid for my area to fund the Horden masterplan as well as to identify funding for other much-needed regeneration schemes in Easington Colliery and Peterlee town centre?

Durham is on the up and east Durham must be part of that story, so, of course, we will make sure that a Minister meets the hon. Gentleman to discuss what we can do to help.

Full fibre broadband coverage is essential to the Government’s aim to level up, but we lag behind most of Europe in rolling it out. What discussions has the Minister had with the Culture Secretary to ensure that the Government have a strategy to work with industry to improve coverage and speed up progress in rural and urban areas of the devolved nations, which currently have the poorest broadband?

The Culture Secretary and I talk daily. One thing at the top of our agenda is ensuring that we have connectivity across the whole United Kingdom. We are, of course, working with the devolved Administrations to make sure that every citizen of the United Kingdom benefits from UK Government investment.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to acknowledge the increasingly important role played by metro Mayors. May I therefore encourage him to make contact with Mayor Tracy Brabin, the excellent metro Mayor for West Yorkshire who now chairs cross-party group of Mayors, the M10, to ensure the closest working relationship between national, regional and local government?

I take the opportunity to thank the hon. Gentleman for his years of service as metro Mayor for South Yorkshire, during which, all party political differences aside, he did a superb job. I also congratulate his successor, Oliver Coppard. I look forward to working with Oliver and, of course, Tracy Brabin in the years ahead.

One of my constituents wants to sponsor a family of Ukrainian children, but the pause in applications has delayed the family’s ability to travel to the UK because they are travelling separately. The delay cannot be about safeguarding, as Ministers have claimed, because it has made them less safe. Will the Secretary of State intervene with his ministerial colleagues and enable Ukrainian children who are at risk to reach sanctuary in this country as soon as possible?

I cannot comment on any individual case, but it is absolutely the Government’s responsibility to ensure that as many Ukrainian parents and children benefit from our scheme as possible. We have to balance safeguarding concerns with the policy of the Ukrainian Government, but the hon. Gentleman raises an important question, and more will follow.

The levelling-up White Paper offered practically no new investment for the north-east, but it did have grandiose missions. Now we see from the draft Bill that those missions—and targets—can be changed at will by Ministers. Is not that a cheater’s charter, and are the missions worth the White Paper they are written on?

Newcastle has benefited from great civic leadership from Nick Forbes, who, sadly, is no longer the leader of Newcastle City Council as a result of a Corbynite coup. I want to thank him for his leadership. I stress that the missions can change because we live in a democracy, and this House should be capable of deciding the destiny of this nation. For that reason—[Interruption.] I know that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) finds the idea of democracy laughable, but democracy, I am afraid, returned a Conservative Government in 2019 to level up and unite this country, and that is the mission we will fulfil.

The Secretary of State likes to discuss the shared prosperity fund in abstract policy terms, but let us bring it back to brass tacks. In Angus, in 2019, we received £2,750,186 from the EU’s structural fund. Can he assure my constituents that we will get at least that, plus inflation, minus the Union Jack ribbon?

Whether they are in Arbroath, Montrose or Kirriemuir, people will recognise the vital importance of UK shared prosperity funding and other funding. When the hon. Gentleman talks about “no Union Jack ribbon” is he really suggesting, for example, that UK armed forces based in Arbroath and Montrose should leave? Is that what he is suggesting? Is he suggesting that we rip up the Union Jack in order to make a narrow, nationalist political point? Does he want the Marines to leave his constituency? That is what it sounds like to me. It sounds to me that he is more prepared to make a narrow, partisan nationalist point than to see this country defended at a time of testing.