The Minister of State, Home Office and Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (Lord Greenhalgh) (Con)
My Lords, I am greatly honoured to close the debate on Her Majesty’s gracious Speech on the important issues of levelling up, communities and transport. I start by thanking noble Lords for their contributions today and my noble friend Lady Vere for opening the debate so expertly. It has been a pleasure to listen to what has been a well-informed and wide-ranging discussion.
Regional inequalities exist right across the country—inequalities that we have set about tackling in the past year with the levelling-up White Paper. There are disparities between so-called have and have-not places in the United Kingdom. There are places where opportunity matches up to talent and ambition, and places where it does not.
Levelling up is not simply about redressing the north-south divide, because the reality is that there is a north to south Wales divide, an east to west Yorkshire divide, a Norwich to Ipswich divide, a Glasgow to Inverness divide and, for the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, a Workington to Carlisle divide. When we set about tackling these divides earlier this year, we were setting out on a bold mission to try to realise the full potential of every place and every person across the United Kingdom.
When we published the levelling-up White Paper, we set out a clear blueprint for reversing the country’s geographic inequalities. Months on from that publication, families everywhere are feeling a cost of living squeeze on their finances caused by inflation, the war in Ukraine and the rise in energy prices. We needed a Queen’s Speech that rose to the scale of the moment—recognising the challenging economic climate we find ourselves in, rewarding the sacrifices of the past two years, addressing the cost of living squeeze and setting us on a clear trajectory towards sustained economic growth. As many noble Lords have reflected in their speeches—although perhaps not all—that is exactly what we have. The Bills I am addressing today meet the needs of the moment, with measures that will support hard-working families, ease the strain on their finances and improve their day-to-day lives.
I start by congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford for a truly marvellous speech, which really emphasised the importance of thinking about inequalities at a local level, with his experience of moving from Cambridge to Notting Hill, Aston and eventually Guildford. The importance of addressing inequalities in a place that on the surface can appear extremely affluent was a very powerful message.
To respond directly to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, obviously we are pursuing a stand-alone renters reform Bill, and we will have the opportunity to bring that forward. Not only will that scrap Section 21 no-fault evictions and apply the decent homes standard —as the noble Baroness mentioned—but, importantly for landlords, there will be a better system to deal with antisocial behaviour and wilful non-payment of rent, so it will balance the interests of landlord and tenant.
In response to the noble Lords, Lord Truscott and Lord Berkeley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, I am the Leasehold Minister, and I can say at the Dispatch Box that the Government remain committed to delivering the second phase of our major two-part leasehold reform in this Parliament. It is a long-term reform programme, and it is important that we get it right.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, wanted to have the strategy of levelling up unpacked. It is very clear that there are four guiding principles: empowering local leaders and communities to regenerate their areas; boosting local growth by increasing productivity, pay and living standards; spreading opportunities and improving public services; and, finally, restoring a sense of community, local pride and belonging.
However, it is important that we also address some of the issues that the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, mentioned, about how we deal with healthcare inequalities and the measures we use to address them. The DHSC will lead on the health mission to ensure that the gap in healthy life expectancy between areas will narrow by 2035 and that healthy life expectancy will rise by five years. Equally, finding ways of bringing community healthcare and ambulatory healthcare into the high street could be brought into my department, under levelling up. It is important to ensure that we have healthier lives and to level up by narrowing the gap of seven years in life expectancy that the noble Lord talked about—I think he said it is 15 years when looking at chronic diseases and healthy life expectancy. That is certainly part of our mission.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, levelling up will boost productivity, pay, jobs and living standards by growing the private sector, especially in places where they are lagging. This is about unleashing the power of the private sector. I am happy to work with the noble Baroness, with her experience in London First, on some of her ideas around partnerships.
The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, wanted to know how the Government are going to increase capacity to level up. We are increasing UK-wide R&D investment outside the greater south-east, creating three innovation accelerators: one in Greater Manchester, a second in the West Midlands, and a third in the Glasgow city region.
My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe was concerned about the impact on planning proposals in slowing down the system. While the Bill we are bringing forward will modernise the planning system and put local people in charge, it will champion beautiful design in keeping with local preferences. Digitising the system will make sure that it is far easier for underrepresented groups to have their say.
My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe also raised the issue of supporting SME housebuilders. As she mentioned, the proportion of them has declined. We have launched a £1.5 billion levelling-up home building fund, which provides loans to SME builders to deliver 42,000 homes, so that is definitely a move in the right direction.
There was a group of contributions—from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lords, Lord Cameron of Dillington and Lord Carrington—about what the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will do for rural communities. We are rolling over the local government finance settlement from last year, including the rural services delivery grant of some £85 million. To respond to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, we are making sure that planning officers in rural areas have the requisite skills to develop the right planning policies for their areas.
On permitted development rights, we have introduced a range of PDRs to enable farmers to change agricultural buildings for commercial or residential use. To respond to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, we have seen 212,000 affordable homes provided in rural authorities in England between April 2010 and March 2021.
The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, raised the importance of rural broadband connectivity. We have committed a sum of £5 billion to Project Gigabit to bring broadband to 85% of the UK by 2025, so we are continuing to roll it out to those areas.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford raised the important question of the environment. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will give communities the tools to put environment at the heart of their neighbourhoods. It will simplify the environmental impact assessment process, and the green belt will continue to be protected.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, with his considerable experience of local government, wanted to know about councils rejected from the levelling-up funds. All unsuccessful applicants were offered feedback, even though it was verbal feedback, and we will look to see whether we can strengthen that. Importantly, they were given support and invited to bid for the second rounds, which were recently opened. The proof of the pudding is how well they do with the benefit of that feedback, but I take his points on board.
I will, of course, meet with the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, at any time; I make that commitment. The levelling-up agenda is about ensuring that everyone has access to the same opportunities, no matter their age or location, so of course that extends to children in poverty. That is why we have the missions on well-being and life expectancy; it is for all. I make the same point in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, with whom I will of course visit a food bank. I am happy to take that on board and go with my former City Hall colleague to visit a food bank. We want to see quality of life improve for everyone.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, I say that levelling up means levelling up for women, for men and for everybody. No one will be left behind. We certainly want to see levelling up for women in left-behind areas and more opportunities for all. Levelling up will support part-time jobs; quality of work is an important element of levelling up, and the living standards mission will drive progress on boosting pay, which is one of the key elements of quality of work.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, as a previous Communities Minister I can say that the Government have launched £10 million of new capital funding for local authorities to build new transit and permanent Travellers’ sites, which is important. Also importantly, we have provided £1.4 million in targeted educational support for GRT young people, so there are some tangible measures of support for the GRT community.
Both the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, wanted to see commitment towards social housing. I point to the affordable homes programme of some £11.5 billion, which is looking to deliver up to 180,000 affordable homes and a record number of social rented homes—some 32,000 are committed over that period, which is more than the previous period.
In response to my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe on housing for the elderly and vulnerable, I say that local authorities assess the types of homes needed for different groups in their communities. Obviously, our affordable homes programme helps to deliver those homes, based on local housing need.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, on the geographic inequalities of Northern Ireland, I say that, obviously, the people of Northern Ireland deserve a stable and accountable devolved Government. We have taken action to support households and businesses, with over £22 billion in 2022.
I now turn to transport matters. Buses have been mentioned by many noble Lords. My noble friend Lady Vere pointed out that the Bus Services Act 2017 provides all the legislative underpinning needed. We do not need more legislation; we need to focus on delivery. That is why we recently announced £1.1 billion of funding that, using the existing legislative regime, will transform bus networks. We will indeed “bus back better” with that £1.1 billion of funding.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, wanted to know the plans for areas that got no money towards improving bus services—he mentioned the Liverpool City Region and South Yorkshire. Both are receiving funding from the city region sustainable transport settlements, and Liverpool has also received an indicative allocation to start delivering its bus service improvement plan—so failure does not mean that there is not some form of support by some other means.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, on the plans for Great British Railways to improve rail infrastructure in Wales, I say that the Government are exploring a joint working agreement between Transport for Wales and Great British Railways to improve the rail offer in Wales.
I turn to HS2, on which there were many contributions. The Government have obviously set aside £100 million to look at the most effective way to take HS2 trains to Leeds. The terms of reference for the integrated rail plan will be set out shortly, and the Government are committed to delivering HS2 East.
In response to my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe on whether the transport Bill will implement the recommendations made by her committee on ticketing, I say that the Government have committed over £360 million of investment in fares, ticketing and retail, announced in the spending review. This will transform the customer experience. The transport Bill will empower Great British Railways to go further still in improving the customer experience.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, on provisions for consultation about HS2 with local authorities, I say that, on a project of HS2’s scale, local impacts will unfortunately be unavoidable. High Speed 2 (HS2) Ltd needs to ensure that communities are properly informed. Complaints about HS2 activity continue to fall, from a peak in February 2021, despite construction gathering pace, so there is some improvement. High Speed 2 (HS2) Ltd recognises the issues raised by the noble Baroness.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on ancient woodland, I say that our first environmental sustainability progress report shows that design work on phase 1 of HS2 has so far made good progress on minimising impacts. Some 5.7 hectares of ancient woodland that had been expected to be needed for construction will no longer be impacted, including seven woodland sites where there will be no impacts at all. There are some lessons there for the next leg of HS2, and I am sure that more improvements will be forthcoming.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, who wanted to know why there was no commitment to an underground station in Manchester, I say that I am told that this would delay the delivery of HS2 services and cost up to £5 billion to deliver. This has been properly considered and ruled out on cost and delivery-delay grounds.
I turn now to the vexed questions of the regulation of e-scooters and pedicabs. We obviously recognise that new forms of micromobility are important for the future of transport. I can confirm that the transport Bill will address this, including regulations focused on maintaining safety, and ensuring the licensing of e-scooters and pedicabs.
The noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, raised the issue of the rollout of freeports and how that will impact more widely. The Government will fully evaluate the impact of the programme to provide an evidence base for the future of levelling-up initiatives.
Turning to the request from the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, for a free bus pass for children, I am told that this would require primary legislation and that it is currently not in the scope of the transport Bill. However, local authorities in England already have the power to offer concessions in addition to their statutory obligations.
My noble friend Lord Borwick mentioned the importance of bringing in more accessible taxis for disabled people, and that there had been a commitment to this 27 years ago—I was not around then, certainly not at the Dispatch Box—and that, to use the term he used, the clock is ticking. All I can say is that our updated best practice guidance on taxis and private hire vehicles includes a recommendation that local licensing authorities incentivise the uptake of wheelchair-accessible vehicles where mandating them would be inappropriate. I am sure that he is an inveterate campaigner and will continue to have fruitful dialogue with my noble friend Lady Vere.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, mentioned the employment Bill and why it was not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. We have a strong labour market, with unemployment back below its pre-pandemic rate, and we are supporting people into high-skilled, well-paid work through our multi-billion-pound plan for jobs.
My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe raised the reform of business rates and whether it might not help the high streets, but certainly we are providing around £1 billion of support in the next five years through the business rates system. The Bill does ensure that properties are revalued every three years, so business rates keep pace with the property market.
There was an intervention during the speech of my noble friend Lady Vere from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, about whether the boycotts Bill would apply to the Scottish Government. I am delighted to say that the foreign affairs (economic activity of publicly funded bodies) Bill—also referred to as the boycotts, divestment and sanctions Bill—will extend and apply across the United Kingdom, so it does apply to Scotland. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, will be delighted to hear that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, wanted to know whether the Government would commit to a new good food Bill. The Government have committed to publishing a food strategy White Paper, which will bring forward recommendations from Henry Dimbleby’s independent review towards a national food strategy to help ensure that everyone can access, understand and enjoy the benefits of a healthy and sustainable diet.
I believe that Her Majesty’s gracious Speech reaffirms this Government’s commitment to level up every part of the country. Once in place, this legislation is going to ease the immediate cost of living, while opening up new opportunities across the United Kingdom for jobs and growth. It is going to make every part of our country a great place to live, start a family, own a home and start a business; it is going to ensure that no person or community is left without hope or opportunities. These are ambitions I am sure that everyone in this House shares, and over the course of today’s debate we have all reinforced our shared commitment to end disparities and unleash opportunity. In the months ahead, I look forward to hearing more of your Lordships’ valuable insights and working together on the many Bills coming forward in the forthcoming Session.
Debate adjourned until tomorrow.