Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab)
I obviously want to contribute on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech and has now been introduced, and the measures on social housing, which the Select Committee have been dealing with in recent months. First, however, as a constituency MP, I ask: where are the measures in the Queen’s Speech to address the cost of living crisis that is affecting all our constituents?
When we talk about levelling up, we should recognise that those in the greatest poverty, who were struggling before energy bills rose, are struggling even more now. Frankly, they look at the eye-watering profits that have been announced in recent days by BP and Shell and wonder why we are not taxing those super-profits to help to cushion the effect of rising prices on their bills and households. The Government have not given an adequate answer to that.
To return to levelling-up issues, I have two major concerns. First, where is the money? That has been a challenge right the way through. If the Government are about levelling up, they are about levelling up Government spending across the piece. Pots of money—levelling up pots, high street pots and town pots—will not make any real difference by themselves, particularly in the context of the massive cuts to local government funding that the poorest areas that need levelling up have seen in the last 10 years.
The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities sort of got that message; the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), got it when he came to the Select Committee; and Andy Haldane got it even more—he basically said that we should not have those individual pots of money. We need proper resources and proper budgets to be given to our Mayors, combined authorities and local authorities to spend according to the needs of their area.
I ask the Minister for Levelling Up Communities, the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), what levelling up really means in financial terms. Does it mean that the Chancellor has an extra sum of money to announce which will be spent in our poorer areas to bring them up to the level of the richer parts of the country?
One particular example is the buses in South Yorkshire. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) in his place, who, until recently, was the Mayor of South Yorkshire, previously the Sheffield city region. I thank him for the excellent work he has done on behalf of the region, and my constituents in particular, over the last four years. He knows that the amount of money spent on bus services in London is about 10 times per head more than it is in South Yorkshire. We have the powers to run our bus service in the same way, but not the money.
I say to the Minister that this is about either an extra sum of money that the Chancellor will have to find or rediverting money from the richer areas to the poorer parts of the country. It has to be one or the other. How can we level up and get equality of funding unless we either find additional funding to bring the poorer areas up or transfer money from the richer areas to the poorer areas? It has to be one or the other. What are the Government going to do? Currently, they are really doing neither.
Secondly, I ask: where are the powers? Earlier, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), what additional powers are in the Bill to level up and give more authority to combined authorities, Mayors and individual local authorities. He could not answer the question because actually there is no answer. I cannot claim to have read every single one of the 196 clauses in the Bill and the 17 schedules to it, but I cannot find any mention of extra powers. I have found mention of other areas that currently do not have combined authorities, particularly county areas, getting them in the future, which is welcome, but I cannot actually find any additional powers.
The Select Committee has been much more radical. We have said that we should look at this the other way around: should not all decisions be made at local level unless there is a good reason for making them at national level? When the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Harborough, came to the Select Committee, he said that that was a bit radical. Well, it is, but I actually think we need a radical solution to deal with the fact that we are one of the most overcentralised countries in western Europe. That is the reality. There really is not any fundamental change here to alter that, and I am sure we will come back to and press that as a Select Committee.
There was going to be a major planning reform a few months ago, was there not? The previous Secretary of State announced it: the Government were going to tear up the planning rules and start again. It has now come down to a few clauses in the Bill. I am not dismissing that, because I think there are actually some quite good proposals in there. [Interruption.] Well, they are quite good because I think the Government have come round to the view the Select Committee took, which is why they are probably quite helpful. First, we have got rid of the three zones. It was never going to be possible to rewrite every local plan in 30 months, and we have got away from that situation.
We have, I think, moved to a situation where we are going to have simpler processes for local plans, and I think that is welcome, although we have to look at the detail of how they will be worked through. They will be digitised, and that is helpful. In clauses 50 and 60, I think, we have got to a point where, in individual planning applications, the local plan is going to be given greater weight, and I think that is helpful as well. There will be a degree of certainty for communities and for developers—both are important.
We have to get more of the public engaged in the local plan process so that it actually means something, because currently people tend to get engaged once a planning application comes in for a site near them. We have to change that, and get the community to look at where houses should be built and where other developments should take place in the area as a whole through the local plan. That does mean helping authorities, which are being stripped of resources in their planning departments, to undertake more work in getting all local plans up to date and in place in the next couple of years. I am generally not in favour of ringfenced grants, but I think there is a case for having a one-off grant to planning authorities to enable them to do a real job of getting local plans up to date and getting their community engaged in them to take some of the heat and some of the contention out of the planning process.
There are a couple of issues of slight disappointment. One, which the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) mentioned, is the issue of build out. Why are the Government not taking measures in this Bill against those who get planning permissions—there are hundreds of thousands of them around the country—and then do not build the houses they have permission for? Why are we not penalising them for that? Ministers have argued the case for that in the past, but there is nothing in the Bill to do it. Why not? We had the Letwin report, which recommended something like this, years ago, and it still has not been done.
When we began talking about planning reforms with the previous Secretary of State, the whole idea was to build more homes. It was said that the planning system was holding everything up. I think build out is a key issue there that the Government have not addressed, but where has the target for 300,000 homes a year by the end of this Parliament gone? That was the Government’s target. Would the Minister for Levelling Up Communities like to say whether it is still the Government’s target to build 300,000 homes a year by the end of this Parliament? That seems to have fallen off the agenda, and that is really disappointing because we do have a housing crisis in this country.
To again be complimentary to the Government, I think they have listened when it comes to the whole problem of compulsory purchase. Local authorities have been complaining about the very difficult process they have to go through, and if we are going to see real regeneration and redevelopment of our city centres, as the demand for retail floorspace drops, we are going to need easier compulsory purchase powers. I think they are in the Bill. I do not know all the details, but at least the Government seem to have listened and to have taken that seriously, which is to be welcomed.
On social housing, I welcome the improvements to regulation that are going to come. We have not seen all the clauses, and the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), is coming to the Select Committee on Monday to talk further about that. The Select Committee has seen and heard of some appalling examples of the really awful conditions that some social housing tenants are living in. The housing ombudsman has done some excellent work on mould and dampness in homes, and every local authority should be taking that into account.
I would say that, yes, in the past—and the Grenfell inquiry has highlighted this—there has been an attitude that social housing tenants are somehow second-class tenants in second-class housing, and we have to do everything we can to improve the standard of housing. There was also the idea that people did not really want to be social housing tenants, did they, so we would not build any more council houses and housing association properties. I am pleased that the Secretary of State said the other day that he wanted to see more social housing built, but again, where is the money? Where is the money? The Government are going to have to put in more grant to get the social housing built. If we are going to build the 300,000 homes we have talked about, at least 90,000 of those—probably more—are going to have to be social housing, and we are nowhere near that. I just say in passing that I hope the changes to the infrastructure levy in the Bill do not mean a reduction in the number of social houses built by developers, with the ending of section 106 agreements. That is another challenge.
Finally, on private renting, I welcome the Government’s commitment. Okay, we can be disappointed that we have not actually got a commitment to produce legislation, and I would have hoped for at least a draft Bill, but this issue is complicated and we must get it right. In particular, we must get right that landlords cannot use rent increases as a way of forcing out tenants when they do not have section 21 powers to rely on. One thing the Select Committee has pressed for, which the Government have not committed to, is the idea of a housing court. A housing court would simplify procedure to help both the good landlords and the good tenants—the good tenants being harassed by bad landlords, and the good landlords whose bad tenants will not pay the rent—to have a simplified way to get redress. I hope the Government might look at that again.
Overall, there are real problems with the cost of living that simply are not dealt with by the Government. On levelling up and regeneration, I would just ask: where are the powers and where is the money? Yes, there are some good details that we want to work through with the Government—on planning, compulsory purchase orders and social housing regulation—but there are still many challenges not addressed in the Queen’s Speech that we will need to come back to.