I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Covid-19 has had a profound impact across the economy. It required many businesses to shut their doors on
So far, the job retention scheme has supported over 9 million jobs; 2.6 million people have been helped by the self-employment scheme; over 850,000 small businesses have benefited from around £10.5 billion in grants; and over £40 billion of Government-backed loans have been made to over 970,000 businesses. Every one of these interventions has helped individual families in each of our constituencies, but we are now reopening the economy in a cautious and phased manner, and the measures in the Bill are designed to provide a boost to businesses to help them as they look to bounce back from a period of enforced hibernation.
The overall aim of the Bill is to provide an adrenaline boost to key sectors of our economy. We want to support the hospitality sector by allowing outdoor dining and off-premises sale of alcohol, helping the sector back on its feet with the promise of al fresco dining for all this summer.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the measures allowing al fresco dining are essential to allowing the food and hospitality sector to bounce back following lockdown, and will he encourage all those businesses to go and update their ceramics and buy purely from Stoke-on-Trent?
My hon. Friend makes a compelling case for his constituency, and he makes an equally important point that this is an opportunity to get businesses going—up and running—after a period of enforced hibernation.
We are all very grateful for my right hon. Friend’s efforts, particularly to help small businesses. I have noticed in Lincolnshire that small businesses and shops seem to have done better during the lockdown, as people have wanted to shop locally. As we are helping small business, would it not be a retrograde step if we were to reopen Sunday trading laws, since it is our present Sunday trading laws that do so much to protect small shops and businesses from large businesses and supermarkets?
As my right hon. Friend will know, measures related to Sunday trading are not in the Bill, but of course Sunday trading has been temporarily relaxed in the past, during the Olympics, and that was about ensuring support for businesses and consumers. But as I said, that is not in the Bill.
Through this Bill, we also want to support the construction sector to get Britain building again by enabling the extension of site operating hours and extending until
Does my right hon. Friend agree that construction is vital to getting our economy going, including in South Ribble, where my constituents are looking forward to the new Tesco’s in Penwortham? For that reason, I welcome these measures. Does he agree that they are vital to supporting growth as we come out of lockdown?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I know she is working incredibly hard to support businesses in South Ribble, and I am sure she is looking forward to going to the Tesco’s once it is up and running.
We also want to support the transport sector by enabling shorter-term licences for drivers of heavy goods vehicles and passenger carrying vehicles and allowing for the risk-based testing of HGVs and public service vehicles. These measures will allow goods and public transport to keep moving. We want to continue to support small and medium-sized enterprises through the quicker delivery of bounce-back loans, which have provided a financial lifeline for more than 920,000 small businesses so far. This measure is retrospective and will disapply elements of consumer credit law.
I speak as co-chair of the all-party group on fair business banking and support the suspension of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 with regard to bounce-back loans due to affordability issues, but does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that lenders still comply with the requirement to treat customers fairly in the collection process or if there are debt issues later on and that forbearance is applied?
As ever, my hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. Yes, forbearance is part of these measures, and we would expect that very much to apply.
Before I turn to the detail of the Bill, I want to thank all those across industry and both Houses who have engaged with the Government to help develop the measures in the Bill. I also thank the Local Government Association, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the Home Builders Federation and the British Property Federation for sharing their expertise. I am pleased to say that the measures in the Bill enjoy wide stakeholder support. The LGA, the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Beer and Pub Association, UKHospitality, the Freight Transport Association, the Road Haulage Association, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the British Property Federation and UK Finance have all expressed their support.
I add my name to that long list, but can my right hon. Friend give some confidence to local authorities? There are a lot of planning rules and regulations, and some of our planning officers are quite conservative in their interpretation. Where there is discretion, can we send the message out from this place that decisions must be decided in favour of business and of opening up?
Of course we want to make sure that businesses open up, and we want local authorities to help local businesses do that, which is precisely the reason for these measures. We will publish guidance alongside the measures in the Bill, and I would ask local authorities to adhere to it. If my hon. Friend has any specific suggestions, I would be very happy to hear from him, as would my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who will wind up this debate.
My right hon. Friend is making a compelling case for giving a boost to many sectors of the economy, but will he reflect on the fact that some sectors will not be able to reopen because of the necessary rules? I am thinking of theatres, concert venues and other music venues. Given the need to adhere to the rules, will he make special provision for those that cannot trade their way out of difficulty?
On the point that my hon. Friend Huw Merriman made, it would be very unfortunate if any of these venues, theatres or concert halls fell into insolvency, and we hope to avoid that, but in doing so we should guard against granting planning permissions that take them immediately out of those very valued uses. Will my right hon. Friend reflect on both during the passage of this Bill?
My right hon. Friend, who has previously served as Business Secretary with great distinction, raises a number of important points. On insolvency, he will know that with the support of both Houses, we passed the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020, which came into effect on
I turn first to the temporary measures in the Bill to step up the recovery of our hospitality sector. Our 127,000 pubs, restaurants and cafés, which employ around 2 million people, are the lifeblood of our high streets and town centres. Social distancing guidelines significantly affect their capacity to accommodate customers, and food and beverage service activity has fallen by nearly 90% in the last quarter. The Bill introduces a temporary fast-track process for pubs, cafés and restaurants to obtain local council permission to place tables and chairs on the pavement outside their premises.
I spent my weekend in Dartmouth speaking to some of those businesses in the hospitality and tourism trade. May I associate myself with the words of my hon. Friend Huw Merriman about making sure that councils are not over-zealous in their approach to allowing businesses to adopt the measures in the Bill for outdoor dining? I think it is very important that we can give those businesses reassurance.
Of course my hon. Friend makes an important point, but I think local authorities will understand that it is in their self-interest to ensure that businesses can open and that high streets flourish. I certainly encourage businesses to look at the guidance and adhere to it.
In my borough, licensed premises are a very important part of the local economy, and we work with local residents to support them. This measure, with seven days’ notice, allows an enormous amount of off-sales, which are already causing havoc in my constituency with people defecating, urinating and leaving problems in parks. People are talking about fake Glastonbury. This is going to cost my borough a lot of money to police. We are not party poopers, but we do not want the other sort of pooping, either. Will the Secretary of State make provision to allow councils some discretion where there is a particular problem with a licensed premises causing antisocial behaviour?
Ultimately, it is possible to revoke these permissions, and expedited processes have been put in place. Nobody wants to see bad behaviour, but this is a 10-day process, and there is an opportunity in the first five working days for anyone to put in their views to the local authority. Ultimately, the local authority decides. There is also a clear requirement that a legible notice is put up at the premises, so anyone who is in the locality will be able to see it when they pass by, and they can make representations if they wish. These new measures will cut the time to receive approval for this licence from an average of 42 working days to just 10 working days, and the application fee is capped at £100.
Public safety and access for disabled people using pavements is of course absolutely vital, so I can confirm that local authorities will be able to refuse or revoke licences where appropriate. The Government will be publishing minimum requirements and guidance for footway widths and distances required for access by disabled people.
The Secretary of State spoke earlier about the organisations that he has consulted. Has he engaged with, say, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association to understand the sorts of risks and challenges that people with sight loss face? We have a centre for guide dogs in my constituency. This is a real issue for these organisations.
I can confirm that we have engaged with disability groups in the preparation of the clauses in this Bill.
We will also be making changes to alcohol licensing. Currently, any licensee wishing to add off-the-premises sales permission has to apply for a licence variation. This takes time, with a 28-day notice period, adverts placed, and sometimes a hearing. Ordinarily, of course, that is necessary. However, hospitality businesses are not operating in ordinary economic times, as we all acknowledge, so the Government are temporarily changing the process. Under the measures in this Bill, most licences will automatically and temporarily be extended to include off-the-premises sales. However, there are safeguards in place. The extension will not include premises that have been denied off-sales permission or had it removed within the past three years. Taken together, these measures will help our hospitality industry to get back to business over the busy summer months.
Has the right hon. Gentleman given any thought to allowing a review of this Bill, because—I am particularly talking about the hospitality industry—it will be coming into operation over a busy summer period, and we will see the effects of that? If he were to agree to a three-month review period where we, as a House, can see the evidence and then, if necessary, amend legislation, that would be a welcome step.
First, these are of course temporary measures. A 90-day rolling review, which I think the hon. Lady is proposing, would undermine the certainty that we are giving businesses in terms of these particular measures. She will know, however, that should the Government wish to extend any of the measures, they will be subject to made affirmative or draft affirmative procedures, so they will come before the House before there is any opportunity to extend them further.
I now return to the issue of trying to get the construction sector moving. In 2018, this sector represented almost 9% of our GDP. Lockdown has had a profound impact on construction sites across the country. We estimate that almost 1,200 unimplemented major residential planning permissions, with capacity to deliver over 60,000 homes, have lapsed or will lapse between the start of lockdown on
We will also make it quicker for developers to apply for longer construction site working hours. This will help to facilitate safe working—for example, by staggering workers’ hours—and to make up for lost progress. Applications will be concluded within 14 days. This measure does not apply to applications from individual householders. Local authorities retain discretion and can refuse applications where there would be an unacceptable impact. Again, this is a temporary measure. Extended hours can only last up until
Across my constituency, there is already tremendous local sensitivity about excessive developments, the planning process and some of the procedures for public participation in the process being curtailed—there are virtual meetings and sometimes council executives make decisions on their own. Will the Secretary of State assure me that the Bill will not limit public participation in anything that might be the result of an extension or expansion of existing planning permission or indeed a new planning permission?
No, it will not. I will talk a bit about hybrid appeal proceedings, and I think my hon. Friend will find that helpful.
There are two further planning measures that relate to the new spatial development strategy for London and hybrid appeal proceedings. The Mayor of London will shortly publish the new spatial development strategy, setting out plans for new homes for London. The Bill temporarily removes, until
Social distancing has also constrained the Planning Inspectorate’s ability to conduct hearings and inquires, and a backlog has been growing. Through the Bill, we will enable the inspectorate to combine written representations, hearings and inquiries when dealing with appeals. That change was recommended by the independent Rosewell review. A recent pilot undertaken on the review measures reduced average decision-making time from 47 weeks to 23 weeks.
The Secretary of State mentioned 60,000 houses that big companies will be able to build, but does he recognise that small and medium-sized companies that do refurbishments, extensions and small works are critical to the core of the economy? Will he ensure that they can also progress their applications through councils for approval? They may be sitting on the line where that may not happen.
As I said, these measures will not relate to residential applications that have been made. The whole point is to get the construction sector moving. I have talked about a range of measures that we have set out for the sector, and I hope that more SME builders will be able to take advantage of them.
The Bill will enable lenders to continue issuing bounce-back loans quickly and at scale. It will retrospectively disapply the unfair relationships provisions in the Consumer Credit Act 1974 for lending made under the scheme. Reflecting current circumstances, the bounce-back loan scheme allows lenders to rely on self-certification from the business that it meets the eligibility criteria for the scheme and can afford to pay back the loan. It also provides for simpler information disclosure requirements to the borrowers. That will ensure that small businesses can continue to access the financial support that they need without undue delay.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. I want to take him back to the point about public participation, because it is such a sensitive area. He said that in clause 20, the procedures for planning proceedings can be altered. Either now or in Committee, can he clarify who will be making those decisions and what impact that will have on public participation in relation to housing developments that might have a dramatic impact in the area? I want to be clear about whether the Bill will affect that dramatically.
The Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend Christopher Pincher, will deal with the details of that. The point of these measures is to get the economy going, which my hon. Friend Richard Fuller is keen to do. I understand his point, and we will address it in Committee.
The Bill temporarily allows the issuing of one-year lorry or bus driving licence renewals, rather than the standard five years. Shorter renewals will be allowed if an applicant is otherwise healthy but unable to obtain the medical report required for a five-year licence. That will relieve pressure on GPs and allow drivers to continue to work. The Bill also reforms powers to exempt temporarily goods vehicles, buses and coaches from roadworthiness testing. That will allow the high demand for heavy-vehicle testing, which restarts from
In conclusion, the Government have stood shoulder to shoulder with businesses throughout the covid-19 emergency and now, as we emerge from this pandemic, we need to support our economic recovery and help businesses with more flexible ways of working. The great British economy, helped by a willing public, is reawakening from its enforced slumber. Taken together, the measures in the Bill are designed to provide a much-needed economic boost, and I commend it to the House.
May I start by thanking the Business Secretary for the constructive conversations that he and I have had on the Bill? As he knows, we support the measures contained in it.
The wider context to this Bill is the economic crisis that we face, the scale of which we have not seen for a very long time. As an Opposition, we have tried to work constructively with Government. Indeed, we have welcomed a number of steps that the Government have taken. We called for the furlough scheme and indeed have welcomed it, though we believe that too many people remain excluded from support. We called for the 100% underwriting of Government-backed loans, and we have welcomed the bounce back loans, too. We have also supported the Government on the difficult decision to move from 2 metres to 1 metre-plus where 2 metres cannot be observed, although we do have concerns about the test, track and trace system.
I hope that we can agree that the past few months have shown the power of Government to step in and protect jobs and businesses at a time of crisis. My case today is that that power has not gone away, and neither has the need for it to be exercised. The Government must not shrink from that, because, let us be clear, we are not at the end of this economic crisis, but just at the beginning of it.
Let me deal first with the provisions in the Bill. It is a short Bill and there is a large degree of agreement on it. The headline provisions, as the Secretary of State has said, will enable the hospitality industry to reopen quickly and serve a greater number of customers in a safe environment. We welcome the temporary loosening of planning regulations to enable bars, restaurants and cafés to serve customers outside their premises. I take the point that my hon. Friend Meg Hillier has made about the need for some caution here. It is important that local authorities continue to have discretion in these matters because they are best placed to make the judgments about the local impacts. It is also right to put on record the concerns of the shop workers’ union, USDAW, which has worried about the safety of staff. The guidance is very clear about the mitigation and reduction of risk that is needed if 1 metre-plus is in place, and I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that that is really important, and that it is also very important that the Health & Safety Executive takes a tough line in enforcing safety as well.
We also welcome the measures in enabling construction sites to get back to work more easily through extended working hours. Again, and I am sure that Members across the House will agree with me, it is in the interests of local residents that local authorities have discretion in these matters.
I think we agree about the need for local authorities to have discretion, but they also need resources. In my borough, we have more than 1,300 licensed premises in a very small area of London, and a lot of licensing officers are needed just to deal with the flow of applications. Does my right hon. Friend not think that the Government need to address that?
My hon. Friend in her customary eloquent way anticipates my next point. We have seen—and I am grateful to my hon. Friend Steve Reed, the shadow Secretary of State for local government, for giving me the exact figures—£10 billion of costs loaded on to local authorities during this crisis, and only £3.2 billion provided by Government, despite the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government saying that the Government would stand behind councils and give them the funding they need. We have another Bill that puts yet more pressure on local authorities, but with no clear plan about how they will be reimbursed, and our new clause 5 speaks to that issue.
We also welcome the changes to transport licensing and the removal of the unfair relationship provision in the Consumer Credit Act to ensure that bounce-back loans are more easily accessed. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the detailed discussions that we had about that particular provision.
Those are the main provisions of the Bill and, as I said, there is cross-party agreement on them. Obviously, there will be detailed discussions in Committee. However, I have to say to the Secretary of State and the House that we are under an illusion if we think that the measures in this Bill will go much of the way towards addressing the crisis that we face:
It is important to note that many sections of our economy employing hundreds of thousands of people, including gyms, leisure centres, live entertainment venues, beauty salons, conference facilities, night clubs and swimming pools, will still not be able to open for public health reasons. We support those public health decisions. Other parts of our economy will open only with severe restrictions, including large parts of our hospitality industry, which employs 3 million people or one in 10 of the whole workforce. The British Beer and Pub Association says that 25% of pubs will not be able to reopen even at 1 metre. The Government themselves acknowledge, in the scientific assessment of the change to 1 metre, that the hospitality industry will lose 25% to 40% of its revenue even at 1 metre distancing. That revenue translates into a risk to hundreds of thousands of jobs. Live performance remains prohibited, which affects the theatre sector, employing 290,000 people. Manufacturers, too, are reeling from the fall in domestic and worldwide demand.
I say all that not to cast doubt on the public health measures being taken or to speak against the Bill, but to point to the wider context, which is that the Government are taking a one-size-fits-all approach to the furlough, for example, demanding an employer contribution from August and a cliff edge at the end of October. The shadow business Minister, my hon. Friend Lucy Powell, received this letter from a venue in Manchester in the past week:
“As the Government furlough scheme draws to a close, I will be making very difficult decisions this week so that I can give notice during the period of 80% furlough contribution to commence a redundancy consultation with the majority of my venue staff. With zero income and no appropriate financial Government support, I have no choice but to make these decisions.”
We are not asking the impossible of Government; we are saying, “Look at what other countries are doing”, whether that is Spain, Italy, New Zealand, France or Germany. They are taking a sectoral approach to the furlough. They are saying that specific sectors are more affected by the public health measures and that, therefore, the economic measures have to match that.
The shadow Secretary of State will be aware that the Government measures taken across the economy, which he has welcomed, already raise issues of fairness between those who fall one side of the line and those who fall on the other side. What is his proposal for those sectors? Some businesses will fall just to one side, but who will be the expert to understand who fits where? I am all up for it if he can reconcile that, but there are risks, are there not?
Of course there are, but just because we cannot do everything does not mean that we should not do anything. The grants programme that the Government introduced was done by sector—retail, hospitality and leisure. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about boundaries, and some business organisations would raise that issue, but I worry that technical concerns about boundaries, which have been overcome for the grants scheme, stop us doing something that makes real sense.
What the right hon. Gentleman says about the sector-based nature of the grants scheme highlights the problem in his argument. All MPs in this place, I am sure, have been contacted by people—in the hospitality supply chain, for example—who were not getting support. It is so difficult to take a sector-based approach. Will he concede that that is not as easy as he thinks?
Of course it is not easy, but the hon. Gentleman’s implication is that nothing can be done for those sectors that are obviously more affected by the public health measures.
The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head. If things can be done, they should be done, but my point is that the strength of the Government response is that it has been comprehensive. It has used the power of Government and it has not necessarily taken a one-size-fits-all approach. I am worried—we see this in the evidence that has been brought forward—about the one-size-fits-all approach.
I speak as a business person as well as a Member of Parliament. In my view, the Chancellor made the job retention scheme very generous, continuing it a lot longer than many thought it would; and rather than have a sector-based scheme to help some people and not others, he has tried to help all employers and make it flexible for all the different categories of employer.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that we have had the furlough, but I disagree that it should be cut off at the end of October, because I really worry about the economic impact. We have 2.8 million people already claiming unemployment-related benefits, and I worry about the implications for these other industries.
The tragedy is that the Government have spent £22 billion on the furlough, but I fear that we will throw away some of that investment by not recognising that specific sectors face specific challenges. I urge the Business Secretary —he knows this, as he talks to the same people that I do—to use all the powers of his office to make representations to the Chancellor to find a way of fixing that, so that we have a sector-specific approach to the furlough, including an extension beyond October.
Just as I do not believe that the furlough should be abruptly ended, I believe that there are issues of access to loan finance. As I have said, the bounce back loans scheme has been successful at getting money out of the door, but the same cannot be said of the other small business loan scheme, the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. In the case of CBILS, only half of all applications have been approved, and the supposed freeing up of the scheme as a result of bounce back loans being made available is yet to materialise. We still do not know why 48,000 out of 98,000 CBILS loans are stuck in a holding pattern, and we do not know how many have been rejected and how many are still in the queue. One of the things we are asking for in the Bill is for the Government to publish data on the true number of rejections and the total number of inquiries.
The problem is not just with the small loan scheme. We have seen a wave of job losses in manufacturing, from Rolls-Royce to McLaren to Jaguar Land Rover. Make UK is predicting that as many as 170,000 jobs could be lost this year in the manufacturing sector alone. Any talk of levelling up will come to nought if we lose those jobs—I am sure that sentiment is shared across the House—and I urge the Secretary of State to look at the international comparisons of France and Germany, which have protected and supported strategic sectors of the economy, such as steel, aerospace and automotive, in a number of different ways. That is why our amendment to the Bill calls on the Government also to publish the true number of rejections in respect of the larger loan scheme, the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme, and explain why 400 larger businesses have not been able to access support through the scheme. Again, we do not know whether they are stuck in a holding pattern and still waiting in the queue or have just been rejected. These sectors are calling for tailored Government support to help them through the crisis, but it has not been forthcoming. The big point is that, from hospitality to leisure to manufacturing, this is a general recession, but it was also much more acute in specific sectors, and the Government need to recognise this far more in their response.
If one part of the Government’s strategy is about shielding sectors of our economy from the sectoral recession, the other part must be about job creation and employment. We are to have a speech tomorrow from the Prime Minister. It is a shame that we do not have a Budget; I do not really understand why we do not have a Budget in what is potentially the worst recession in 300 years. If now is not the time for a Budget, I do not know when is the time for a Budget, but there is a speech tomorrow and big promises are being made about it.
The Bill rightly talks about what can be done in the construction sector. The way to help the construction sector is not just to tweak the operational hours, although that is important, but also to deliver on some of the promises the Government have made. Again, I think this view can be shared across the House; I do not often quote the Conservative manifesto approvingly—[Interruption.] —or at least not enough, but it promised £9.2 billion for energy efficiency in public and private buildings. Conservative Members all stood on that manifesto and I am sure that they support it.
We know how behind the Government are on building retrofits. The Committee on Climate Change recently said that there has been “negligible progress since 2015” and that the challenge of retrofit and renovation has gone “largely unaddressed.” We know that investing in retrofit is the ultimate win-win. This is the ideal opportunity —it would help the construction sector, not just in relation to operational hours, and could create tens of thousands of jobs—but today there are reports that it is being blocked by none other than Dominic Cummings. Apparently, he is uninterested and thinks it is “boring old housing insulation”. The Secretary of State and I have a good relationship, and I am happy to give way to him so that he can say that the £9 billion is going to happen. We need the £9 billion, so I am happy to give way. He has overruled Dominic Cummings on Sunday trading; now is the time to overrule him on this.
Let us also bring forward the £12 billion of social housing spending that has been promised. All these things are important, and they are also part of job creation. I think the idea that we need a green recovery is shared throughout the House, as least at the level of principle. Some people—assiduous readers—will have read over the weekend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s rather long speech, which mentioned Franklin Roosevelt 17 times. [Interruption.] I see Members nodding. Let me tell the House about Roosevelt: he put 3 million people back to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps. We need that kind of ambition on retrofit; on manufacturing low-carbon engines; on adapting our towns and cities to walking and cycling; on creating green spaces; and on reforesting and rewilding. We need what I call a zero-carbon army as part of a youth jobs fund.
We should see all these things as part of the green new deal because—this is the point—we face an unemployment emergency in this country. We should be under no illusions: a million young people are forecast to be out of work this year. We need a scale of action that matches that. That is my point. The Government measures we have supported over the past few months have recognised the power of active government in a crisis like this. My appeal to the Government is not to shrink from that now, because we are just at the beginning.
To conclude, we welcome the Bill as a step to help the hospitality and construction industry to reopen, but it is not nearly enough. The Government have shown that they are willing to take action, but we face the deepest and sharpest recession, possibly for hundreds of years, and Government power has to be continued to be used. The decisions taken by the Government in the coming weeks will determine how many jobs are lost and how many businesses survive. The commitment to do whatever it takes cannot be a hollow promise. We are calling for an extension to the furlough for specific sectors; an urgent job-creation programme with a green recovery at its heart; and real action on infrastructure, not just words. I urge the Government not to step back when our economy, our businesses and our workers desperately need support.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. Due to covid, this maiden speech risks being something of an old maid—no comments in the Gallery, thank you. I rise to give this speech in tribute and with thanks to the wonderful people of South Ribble who, throughout this horrible once-in-a-century pandemic, have kept their heads, asked sensible questions and looked out for each other in myriad ways, small and large. Their humour and perseverance truly are the best of British, and I am chuffed to bits to serve them in this House.
I must also pay tribute to that fantastic Lancastrian, my predecessor Seema Kennedy. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] From her work securing millions to prevent flooding in Croston and Penwortham to her championing of our communities with Jo Cox, she is an intelligent, warm, generous, true lady. I extend my very best wishes to Seema and her young family and look forward to working for her at some point in the future.
And so to South Ribble and our history. Around 15,000 years ago, as the ice sheets retreated, fertile soils were carried down off the majestic Pennine hills to form the deep rich loams of Rufford, Longton and beyond. This soil of the very best grade, along with the skilled farmers and horticulturalists who look after it, produces some of the best produce in the world. Who in this House can say that their white turnips grace Harrods food hall? Not many, I’ll warrant. I pay personal tribute to all our growers, whose skill is legendary.
In advance of the next bit, I am going to have to apologise to Professor Mary Beard and her colleagues, because this is not something I have been taught. I have just read it in books, so I am going to get something wrong. If we look at Lancashire in the Roman era, we have the first written evidence of our proud culture. The ancient historian Tacitus describes how the northern tribes prepared for war: singing, chanting, drinking, tattoos and blue woad, and even being roused to laughter by a man at the front of the group. It strikes me, 2,000 years later, that Peter Kay has an ancestor and that Tacitus would have recognised the same in the people of Penwortham as they walk to Deepdale, Old Trafford, Anfield or, if you must, Ewood Park. Plus ça change!
Before you think our northern history is all about blokes, let me introduce a peer of the famous Boadicea, Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes. The Brigantes were the iron age tribe of the north, and at the time of the Roman invasion we were ruled by Queen Cartimandua. Now, that was a politician! As Channel 4’s “Time Team” found, to its televisual disappointment, our lands are not covered by huge Roman forts, temples or mosaics. In doing pragmatic deals with local leaders, Queen Cartimandua protected her peoples, focused on trade, avoided oppression and avoided being killed by the Romans—in many ways, a woman who would approve of recent Bills in this House. For example, in her later years, when she tired of her king, she divorced him and took up with a handsome man in uniform, the head of her guard—[Laughter.] A development that I can see has caught the imagination of several genders in the House.
Slide forward another 1,000 years and South Ribble is at the heart of the Danelaw, the proud lands above the line between Chester and the Wash. Here we find the first reference in history to southerners up north. In about 1069, a bunch of people with silly accents—apparently they were Normans—rolled up in helmets and said “Gud moaning, we own all of this now.” Funnily enough, the north of England’s response was, “Er, no thanks!” There then followed quite a lot of genocide and burning people in their houses. In the recent history books, this is entitled the harrying of the north. Something of an understatement, that. While the he details may be largely forgotten, the sentiment of mistrust is not.
To my friends in the north, I say in the here and now: what is in the interests of the north is in the interests of the Tory party and the country. Full stop. You have made the right choice. Despite what you may hear from those who want you to know your place, I see no conflict at all in being proud to wear both the red rose of Lancashire and the blue Conservative rosette. We want a fishing rod, not a fish. We do not want a force-fed narrative of being downtrodden and oppressed; we want to rewrite a century of complacency. We need infrastructure to get to our work quicker and get back to our families without getting stuck. We want to be respected and cherished, and in all honesty we probably want to win the premier league every year with about 2 billion people around the world watching, although I am happy to concede to the House that there is a tiny bit of internal division about which team should actually do it.
A few hundred years later still, we enter the age of machines and steam. Take one look at the skills in Leyland, the trucks they built and still build, and their contribution to engineering across Lancashire, and it warms my heart. I am a sister, cousin, niece and friend to engineers across the north, but I must mention one in particular: my dad. A man who comes from the same political tradition as Mr Speaker, as you well know, Mr Deputy Speaker. Having a daughter who comes home and announces she wants to be a Tory MP was something of a surprise to him.
When we used to go on holiday as a family to Llandudno, there were people on the front selling see-through plastic macs that had emblazoned on the back in large, colourful letters, “The views of this child are not necessarily those of the parents.” It has been a family joke for some-ty years that I should have been bought one. However, attending the work’s old buffers’ buffet this winter, shortly after the general election, my dad was assailed with an astonished, “Fletch, I didn’t realise you were a Tory. Is it your daughter that’s just been elected next door?” With shock, he has now realised that the shoe is on the other foot; it is he who now needs a badge that says: “The views of this child are not necessarily those of the parents”. That is no way to repay a man who made huge sacrifices to feed his family, climbing in toilet windows to earn a wage but break a strike, moving halfway across the world to work on his own when jobs were tight in the early ’80s. Dad, I am sorry that you need the badge, but thank you anyway.
For those who do not know us, it is easy to think that the innovations of the industrial revolution were all brownfield, so what if I told you of the canals and land reclamation delivered for more rural areas such as Tarleton or the village—the clue is in the name—of Banks? Banks possesses the wonderfully named road Ralph’s Wife’s Lane, a long, wide thoroughfare that on first introduction leads to a couple of immediate questions. Who on earth was Ralph? Arguably more importantly, why was he so awful that his wife had to live down a long, massive, wide road to get away from him? And why did she not have a name? I look forward to hearing her story.
In fact, let me highlight the continued strength throughout the ages of the northern female. Rightly, there are wonderful statues to the Pankhursts and the fight for women’s votes, but I argue to the House very strongly that the movement’s success was due in part to symbiosis with a Lancashire culture that has roots far deeper than the industrial revolution. Step into Edwardian shoes in a Manchester terrace—can you imagine the conversation between the educated middle classes and a bunch of working-class Lancastrians like Annie Kenney and Mary Leigh? “Actually, we have campaigned for votes since the 1860s and have yet to succeed in our aims.” “Right, yeah, we’re just going to have to blow something up.” I add my voice to their quote:
“I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”
My grandma passed grammar in Salford shortly after the votes for women movement succeeded. My auntie won prizes for academic achievement, but at 12 she had to leave and work in a shirt factory. Her experience means that my family values education beyond anything else as an engine of getting on—we aspire. “Do your best. Try harder. See what you can get up to.” My mum was the woman who said to her daughter, “No, you can’t go and knock-on and go out and play; you’ve got to do this next practice paper for your exams”. She regularly said: “Katherine, I’ve been saying since you were two that you’ll either be a stripper, a social worker or a scientist.” Well, mum, given that I have a biology degree, and with the nature of modern politics, there is a very good chance that I have achieved all three. Thank you, mum—you were right about the exams.
You may have guessed that I am very proud of what I am and where I come from—a community that says, “Go on, succeed, but don’t get too big for your boots. Don’t be patronising or ignore us or make assumptions about who we are or what we want. Definitely don’t come up here with southern accents to gain access to safe seats and explain how oppressed we are. You will get two words to that: ‘Look, love’”. Call it the northern powerhouse, call it levelling up—I am interested in labels only if they help communicate real action, and I will tirelessly advocate for exactly that. Championing the old lands of the Danelaw will guide my actions in Parliament.
To conclude, I think the ultimate lesson we should take from the suffragette movement is not actually one of women’s lib. It is that we are always only going to achieve big things—huge changes—when the people who say, “Actually—” and the people of different cultures and classes work together. We are best as one nation, not divided by class war or political tribalism. Look around me on these Benches. Look at the breadth of experience of culture, of vowel sounds—it is true. I can report to you that while some of the accents in this place are still silly, I have yet to see a southerner in a northern helmet, and I am struck by how serious they are about investment and growth and jobs. In short, they’re all right.
This flipping covid. It is a huge test for us, and we will pass it only if we take a leaf out of the suffragettes’ book and work together equally. I say to South Ribble, the north and the country: “Let’s combine our efforts, turbo-charge business and trade the hell out of our current position with all the peoples of the world.” I look forward to working with the descendants of everyone to make that happen, and I almost definitely promise not to metaphorically blow something up to make that happen.
May I take this opportunity to warmly congratulate Katherine Fletcher on her fantastic maiden speech? The Business and Planning Bill was perhaps not the most auspicious starting point for a maiden speech, but she gave us an industrial, geological and historical tour de force of the constituency. She follows a distinguished predecessor in her constituency, and I am sure I will not be alone in saying that I look forward to hearing more from her throughout this Parliament.
I will keep my remarks comparatively brief, as the Bill only really affects Scotland in respect of three clauses: clauses 12, 13 and 14. However, it would be remiss of me to miss the opportunity to say, on some of the licensing aspects, that the picture painted by the Minister of pavement cafés opening up the length and breadth of England presented a very—what’s the word?—European picture of England, which my party certainly, and I am sure others too, very much looks forward to seeing.
I turn to clauses 12, 13 and 14. The changes in the Consumer Credit Act are welcome. I hope that they lead to more instances of loans being given to the businesses that require them. I must say, though, that I am somewhat sceptical that that will lead to the transfer of cash that we need in that respect. Edward Miliband was absolutely right that we are really only at the start of our response to this crisis, and we are going to have to revisit this.
It is extraordinary that we have not heard from the Chancellor about his coming back to deliver what should be an emergency Budget. Much more still needs to be done as the crisis and our response to it evolve. In that respect, I very much commend the 10-point plan announced earlier today by Scotland’s First Minister, who talked about a major fiscal stimulus for the economy, VAT reductions for hospitality, investment in low carbon and digital, and of course changes to increase flexibility in the Scottish fiscal framework.
I will now deal with the other clauses that affect legislation in Scotland. The changes to the Road Traffic Act 1988 regarding driving licences and vehicle certifications are reasonable, proportionate and risk based, and we support them. It would be sensible to keep those measures under regular review, along with other aspects of the Bill. However, I make this plea to the Minister: we must return to the status quo ante as soon as reasonably possible, once it is possible to clear the backlog of testing of drivers’ continued fitness to drive and of vehicles themselves.
The Bill is a narrow one and a necessary one, but what we should really be hearing about is the emergency Budget that we need as we plot our way out of this crisis economically.
They tell us all that it is a challenge to make a maiden speech—I knew that I should not follow my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher. I am one of the last of my intake to deliver my maiden speech, but I am probably one of the last who was expected to be here anyway, so that fits.
This Bill is a critical step in the recovery, but before contributing to this debate, I would like to talk a little bit about Sedgefield and give you a context for my comments. Sedgefield as a constituency has a significant rurality, with many farms, including the outstanding Archer’s ice cream, and around 40 different settlements. We have the William Beveridge-designed Newton Aycliffe as the biggest town. We have businesses ranging from the well-known, like Hitachi and 3M, through to the iconic Cleveland Bridge, to Crafter’s Companion, founded by our local Dragon, and some of the most innovative companies in the UK, like Kromek and the Centre for Process Innovation, and so many SMEs.
I was born in one of the mining villages, Ferryhill, before going to school in Newton Aycliffe and spending close to 40 years as an accountant in the manufacturing industry. I have also had the opportunity to sit as a councillor in both my local authorities, Durham and Darlington. I have an insight into the rural communities because I have been married to a farmer’s daughter for around 35 years. We have Charlie, born in 1993, whom we are both immensely proud of, being the first in our family to go to university—somewhere called Cambridge.
My dad was originally a miner but mainly a fireman, who, along with my mother, provided my brother and I with an upbringing that was loving, stable and showed us the value of hard work as he rose to be a divisional officer. I have to thank my agent, Charles Johnson, and his sadly recently departed wife, Carol—Carol did not know where a fence was to sit on it; she had views—who were particularly instrumental in me becoming involved in local politics in the first place. I, of course, thank my campaign team—this is all of them: Keith, Catherine, Oliver, Giles and, of course, my wife Lillian. There was a little bit of a target around me—some target seats. Their support in the campaign was invaluable, and I certainly would not be here without them.
Some notable politicians have held Sedgefield over the years. [Laughter.] I, of course, think first of Roland Jennings, who held the seat from 1931 to 1935 and served in the Durham Light Infantry in the first world war. He was the last Conservative Member of Parliament for Sedgefield. He had an entry in Hansard with him asking the Minister of Transport for help—nothing is changing there.
My immediate predecessor is Phil Wilson. I thank Phil for his magnanimous speech at the count. He was Labour, not Corbyn, and with that conflict, he found it a very difficult campaign. I have heard good comments from Members on both sides of the House about Phil—in particular, the work he did on the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces—and I wish him all the best.
I said in my campaign that I would listen to the people of Sedgefield, and that is what I will do. So far, I have been lobbied on everything, from the price of pipe tobacco to HS2. One of the early pleasures in my role has been to meet the young ambassadors from Ferryhill and Chilton, whose latest campaign is “#dontthrowitallaway”, and it is about the rubbish that comes out of McDonald’s and places like that. I will give them all the support I possibly can.
I have started in this place with two primary areas of focus for Sedgefield: to work for the communities left behind as our economy became too London and financial services dependent, and to support local business. To that end, I am now joint chair of an APPG for left-behind communities, and I have been elected to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.
It is, hopefully, from this informed base that I would like to contribute a little to the debate. I would first like to say that I support the measures in the Bill as necessary first steps that will undoubtedly help pubs and restaurants, and I encourage as many of you as possible to join them—of course, in a socially distant way. While I am strongly in favour of developing pavement café space and so on to help with the recovery, we must remember to be as inclusive as possible and not forget that some of our visually challenged people might find these changes difficult.
In deciding what our next actions should be, we need to ensure that we do not look to recover to where we were—we need to go to where we want to be. Remember that before coronavirus, we had committed to the communities that had been left behind that we would level up this United Kingdom. With Sedgefield being equidistant from the north coast of Scotland and the south coast of England, we are a great place to start.
We must be aware that, even with these measures, some great businesses will need to reposition themselves for a new future that requires fewer people. One example would be the outstanding Rockliffe Hall hotel, whose staff have been writing to me, praising the way they have been treated during the lockdown, but the hotel is still having to make redundancies because of forecast lower occupancy rates. We need to take every opportunity to find ways to support job retention and creation and to minimise as far as possible the impact on our people and their economic opportunities. There are businesses, particularly many new start-ups and the self-employed, that have fallen through the gaps of the incredible efforts delivered by the Chancellor, and I would ask, if at all possible, for the Government to take another look at how we can help them to survive and grow.
There are many options we can take to move forward. As is typical of the north-east, we have some suggestions about what and how. A local business fellowship forum that I have listened to has written to the Chancellor providing some suggestions. It says that infrastructure needs accelerating and should not be frustrated by overly protracted planning processes. Tax breaks are needed to support construction and in particular green construction. The forum also argues for some 100% capital allowances, bonds for local authorities to support local investment and supply chains that maximise local content for integrity and the socioeconomic benefits that come. We need to consider mass contingent equity investments to drive investment.
The forum also asks us to lift some of the restrictions on the enterprise investment scheme and venture capital trust funding to improve access. In the end, cash is king, so it also asks the Government to push the importance of prompt payment and to broaden the Government-backed insurance scheme. Those suggestions show that businesses are looking at how to deliver growth, and I encourage the Chancellor to listen and to be as expansive as possible in his consideration of such suggestions.
I suggest that we can combine economic delivery with our levelling up agenda, for example, by delivering promises on infrastructure. In Sedgefield, several of our villages are named after railway stations. We have Ferryhill Station, Trimdon Station and Station Town. They have one thing in common: none of them has a railway station anymore. Ferryhill is an obvious place to rectify that. It is something that had been campaigned for since it was closed in the Beeching era, and not even Tony Blair, who was Labour Prime Minister for 10 of his 24 years as the Sedgefield MP, managed to deliver that. Maybe its time has come.
Broadband is key infrastructure and it needs to be for all. In Sedgefield, we have a number of rural blackspots, such as Killerby, which has close to zero broadband, never mind gigabyte broadband, and that needs to change. The delivery of local management for local need could be further developed. I would like to see people such as the Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, given the opportunity to drive more agendas and for devolution gaps such as Durham, which fall between combined authorities, to have their situation sorted and for them all to have the latitude to crack on and deliver.
I would like to see a mechanism for getting some funding support direct to community groups, such as Deaf Hill Regeneration Group and Ferryhill Ladder, which are so embedded in their communities and can ensure that all the money hits the target for maximum benefit.
The opportunity to relocate some Government Departments, such as possibly the Treasury and others to the north-east—and preferably to Sedgefield—could both improve local economies and Government understanding, but also reduce pressure on the housing and travel densities in London.
It has been noticeable during the crisis how much people have stood up and helped their neighbours, and that is something we need to encourage. I will therefore look to my immediate neighbour, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to pop over the bridges on the Tees and give me a hand.
Those are the key strands that should be part of our approach to starting the process of levelling up, while at the same time invigorating our economy. People will no doubt question whether it can be done. Well, we got Brexit done, and this is a Government who can get things done. I remind the House of a poem by Edgar Albert Guest, which starts:
“Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That ‘maybe it couldn’t,’ but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!”
For us, it is now all about getting it done.
My message to the Government is that we have the ideas and talent to deliver the economy and welfare of the UK from these challenges, and my message to the people of Sedgefield is that we can get it done. I will do everything in my power to listen to you, represent you and shout for investment in our amazing constituency to deliver the connections and visions that create the aspiration and opportunity for you to get it done, too.
It is a pleasure to follow the maiden speech of Paul Howell. He may be surprised to discover that between Sedgefield and Shoreditch there is a bigger connection than he might imagine and that we might be on the same side on tackling the issue of broadband, because my constituency, like his, has notspots, even in the heart of what some people call Tech City. So we can perhaps work together on that. I am also a supporter of relocating Government departments outside London, championing it when I was in government, so we have two points in common. In other ways we may be hammer and tongs against each other, but we can find the points of agreement, and if we disagree, let us disagree well. He was right to pay tribute to Phil Wilson and to describe him as magnanimous. Phil is a good, kind, thoughtful and wise men, and it was a real mark of the man that despite losing Sedgefield to the other party, he did not take defeat badly. It is noble of the hon. Gentleman to acknowledge that.
I want to focus on the Bill’s clauses relating to hospitality. Before doing so, I wish to stress that my borough of Hackney is very pro-enterprise. We support it to such an extent that we have more than 1,300 licensed premises in a 19 square mile borough; we are the third most densely populated borough in London, and there has been a 66% growth in the number of premises since 2006. So this is something we have been pushing, and I pay tribute to the many exciting and interesting entrepreneurs who have set up businesses. In one ward alone, Hackney Central, we have five microbreweries. So this is a great place to come to drink, party and have fun, but we have always tried to balance that, for the most part, with the needs of residents. I worry that with this Bill the balance is shifting so far one way that we will rue the day, in a few months’ time, when we see what residents have had to put up with.
I need to describe what our local residents are already putting up with. We may have had lockdown, but businesses have been able to sell off the premises in open containers, and some of my local parks, notably those without boundaries—London Fields, Well Street Common and others—have become party places. They have not just become party places for people having a responsible, quiet drink in a gathering with friends, within the social distancing rules. I am afraid to say that we are talking about people who have no regard for other people, and who have defecated and urinated in the parks, and in people’s doorways and stairwells. People are having to scrub down their front doors and remove human excrement to get out of their house cleanly. That is not acceptable, and it is not down to the shortcomings of the local authority or the police.
The volume has been so great that this has been very difficult to keep on top of. The police are receiving complaints about antisocial behaviour, with about 70 to 90 on a sunny weekend, depending on the day. The local authority noise patrols and wardens are out in force doing what they can, but they are simply outnumbered. Fines have been issued, and more than 100 of the 193 issued were to people from outside the borough, be they from south London or as far away as Bishop’s Stortford or St Albans. We welcome people to Hackney— we want people to come to support our vibrant businesses —but they need to have some personal responsibility. My fear about this Bill is that it rushes through one of the most radical changes in licensing laws in a matter of a couple of hours this evening, with a handful of Members engaged. The Bill was unveiled only on Thursday and we had until Wednesday, or until today, to make amendments—this is going very fast.
I wish to refer to a couple of clauses. Clause 3 deals with the determination of applications, with subsection (3) setting out what happens at
“the end of the public consultation period.”
The business has to put in an application to the council, and the day after that it is deemed as received. This is deemed as being the start of the public consultation. Ten days later, at the end of that period,
“the local authority may—
(a) grant a pavement licence to the applicant, or
(b) reject the application.”
Of course if there is a public concern, the application can be looked at again, but subsection (8) states:
“If the local authority does not make a determination under subsection (3) by the end of the determination period, the licence for which the application was made is deemed to be granted by the authority to the applicant.”
We are quite willing to support businesses with looking at extended licences and so on—that happens all the time in my borough. But with some 1,330 licensed premises, the pace at which this is going means that there will not be enough resources in Hackney Council, or in any council in the country unless there are few licensed premises in the area, to deal with the onslaught of licence applications.
The clause is very much in favour of business, and of course I am in favour of businesses getting support, but we need to ensure that we get a balance. The Secretary of State talked about limits—for example, a premises that has had problems or an application for an off licence refused in the past three years is not eligible, but that has not happened to many businesses. A lot of businesses will be applying for the first time because of the peculiar and difficult circumstances of covid-19.
An obligation on the business to deliver a restrained service is missing. Such a service is difficult to control because once people are spilling out of a premises on to the pavements and into car parks, it does not take much to spill further into our parks and create more of the nuisance that we have seen recently, to the real detriment of residents.
For some, this may be a dilemma, but for me it is about getting the balance between what is right for residents and what is right for business. The Bill goes far over the line to support business. Yes, it is a difficult time, but there are not enough safeguards for local councils and not enough resources. The Government need to provide the resources to councils such as mine and that of Nickie Aiken, whose constituency must have even more licensed premises than Hackney South and Shoreditch and the borough of Hackney, so that they can cope. That is difficult to do. They cannot rustle up licensing officers with the right experience in the time available. The Government also need to give powers to councils where there has been antisocial behaviour so that there is a quicker way of withdrawing a licence.
We have to get the balance right. Of course we want things to return to normal as soon and as safely as possible, but the Bill will create other problems. I am sure that the Minister does not need me to remind him that one of the challenges of becoming a Minister is the unintended consequences element of the work. A Minister makes a decision and officials say that they have checked everything, it is all great, everyone has looked at it, but there is one little bit that perhaps they have not thought through fully. That usually connects the decision to life out there in the real world. The Minister is very welcome to visit my constituency—we might even go for a socially distant drink in a responsible establishment—but the reality in my part of the world right now is not pleasant. It has become a party place and it has been very difficult, almost impossible, for the council to keep on top of.
I urge the Government to reconsider the matter and think about any safeguards, support and succour they can give local authorities. I am not a party pooper. I support enterprise and the licensed premises in Hackney, but there must be a balance. Any measure must not be to the detriment of residents who have had to put up with the fouling and bad behaviour of recent weeks and months.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) for their maiden speeches. They truly demonstrated the depth of talent in the party and why I believe that this side of the House will be a formidable force for many years to come. I congratulate them.
Covid-19 has posed not only one of the most significant public health crises that many of us will ever experience, but significant challenges to our economy, the way we do business and our life as we knew it. Social distancing, self-isolating and the new normal are all terms that I would never have guessed I would use regularly when I first entered the House in December ’19. Indeed, we do not yet know what the new normal will look like, but we can all agree that it will be different from the old one. It has been a long, hard slog and as we find that new normal, it is vital that we pass legislation such as the Bill that allows us, our businesses and our economy to emerge from this economic slumber.
I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor took decisive steps to protect the livelihoods of as many people as he could. The decision to put our economy on life support was supported by Members of all parties and hopefully means that we have been able to soften the blow of covid-19, as I hope the Bill will also do. When I spoke to business owners in my constituency, everyone relayed to me their relief at having the business support packages, including the bounce back loan scheme, the job retention scheme—the original and the revamped flexible one—the rates reliefs and the grants. In Meriden, 14,900 people have been furloughed, representing 22% of our resident population. Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council has distributed more than £25.4 million of grants to almost 94% of the eligible businesses. I thank Solihull MBC, the leader, Councillor Ian Courts, and the chief executive, Nick Page, for their hard work in ensuring the money got to where it needed to be, and the Chancellor for taking the decisive steps that needed to be taken at the time.
I welcome this Bill, particularly the opening up of outdoor spaces, which could mean the difference between a business surviving and failing completely. I wholeheartedly welcome the reduction of the fees to permit the opening up of new spaces and the reduction of red tape. Of course, I encourage everyone to behave responsibly as they enjoy this new al fresco Britain, as these are new hard-earned rights, earned by the whole nation.
Finally, the bounce-back loans scheme is a timely intervention and, once again, the Chancellor’s proactive approach has provided businesses with a lifeline. Banks were struggling to lend as they had to do so in accordance with the Consumer Credit Act 2006, so it is right that we agree to clause 12 to stop the BBLs being subject to the unfair relationship provisions. We needed our banks to step up and they needed this to do so. Not to have done this would have had the result of delaying vital funds for businesses and would have posed onerous requirements for checks, which would have inhibited the very purpose of the BBLs and irreparably damaged our economy.
This virus has meant that we continue to adapt to an ever-changing landscape, and this Bill is part of the responsive and responsible way that we have dealt with one of the most testing periods of our time.
May I add my congratulations to the two new Members have made their maiden speeches, the hon. Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell)? I recall that when I made mine, I harked back to the wars of the roses, so I feel somewhat outdone by the hon. Lady’s references to the ice age.
From my conversations with local businesses over the last few weeks, it is clear that the coronavirus has affected different businesses in different ways. Many have been able to continue their services across digital channels, and to expand or diversify their offering to new and existing customers. Food and drink stores have been able to continue trading, and some have even seen sales increases, as people have had more time for shopping and cooking. Other forms of retail, such as books, music and clothing, have been able to maintain some level of sales via online shopping and delivery. I have been really impressed by the ingenuity of our business community and the way they have responded to this crisis. I have a great deal of confidence that, in this nation of shopkeepers, we will continue to respond to the challenges of the post-lockdown world.
There is one sector, however, that has been badly hit by the lockdown and continues to face enormous challenges in its ability to revive—our hospitality sector. Encompassing cafés, restaurants, pubs, events, tourism and accommodation, it exists to bring people together, to encourage contact and to promote social gathering. They are facing an existential threat from a new world that needs people to keep their distance from each other.
I cautiously welcome the Government’s moves to lift restrictions on people visiting pubs, cafés and restaurants, although, like many of my constituents, I remain anxious about how this can be achieved while maintaining social distancing guidelines. This virus remains far from beaten, and I am dismayed at the mixed messages from the Government about how people should conduct themselves in the face of what is still a major threat both to our health and to the economy. We would face the future with more confidence if we had an effective system for tracking, tracing and isolating future diagnosed infections, and the lack of such a system constitutes a major risk to the effective functioning of our whole economy.
In that context, the Liberal Democrats welcome the provisions in today’s Bill. In particular, the provisions to ease the process for cafés and restaurants to apply for permission to provide pavement seating are very much to be welcomed. It will give many businesses the flexibility they need to open back up, while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
I particularly welcome the fact that councils are to continue to play a major part in the granting of such licences. In many parts of the country and in many town centres, our hospitality businesses play a major role in the local economy. To encourage that economy, councils can play a major part in reconfiguring our town centres to enable more pavement seating—closing roads to motor traffic and introducing pedestrianised areas, for example—which can support businesses in meeting the conditions of their licences.
Can the Government confirm that they intend to include mobile catering units in their plans? Many of these micro-businesses are missing out on their regular trade at festivals this year, and would benefit from the boost to business that being able to set up in a town centre could give them. We also support the powers given to councils to vary the terms of licences.
While we are all keen to see our hospitality sector given this essential support, it does not come without costs. I really want to echo the point made by Meg Hillier, because we have seen many of the same problems in Richmond and Kingston, and it is really appalling and a huge burden on local residents. Local residents may experience additional nuisance, for example, from strong lighting and noise later in the evening, and also an increase in antisocial behaviour after closing time. Additional pavement furniture may cause accessibility issues for those in wheelchairs or those who are partially sighted. It is to be welcomed that councils will have the power to judge each application on its own merits and to apply its own acceptability criteria. It is also welcome that these changes are temporary. Short-term changes to support local business owners during this difficult time are more likely to be welcomed by our local communities than permanent changes that threaten to cause a long-term nuisance.
In the same vein, we support the changes to allow businesses with an on-site licence to convert to an off-site licence, but we have some concerns about the overall provision for off-site licences. Like many areas of the country, Richmond and Kingston have needed police interventions to disperse large crowds who have gathered on our open spaces to drink and play loud music. This has led to considerable antisocial behaviour, including drunkenness, public urination and drug taking. Local residents and police report that they have not seen antisocial behaviour on this scale before, and it is causing considerable distress to residents affected.
The hon. Lady is describing very delicately, I have to say, the reality of what this is like when you are living through it. Does she not think that the Government need to recognise that we want businesses to be supported, but the cost to councils, and to the police, of enforcing this and managing antisocial behaviour will be huge?
I am really glad that the hon. Lady has made that point. I have had lots of conversations with both the local council and the local police. It is clear that for suburban boroughs such as mine in London, where the Met police have, quite rightly, violence reduction as their priority when it comes to targeting their resources, the resources are simply not there to pay for the neighbourhood policing that we need to be able to keep on top of this kind of menace to our local residents. It is a really important point. I take this opportunity to press once more for further funding for neighbourhood officers in the outer boroughs in London, because that is a really urgent priority.
From my conversations locally, it appears that, by and large, our licensed premises are behaving responsibly in their provision of off sales and that a lot of the problem is coming from supermarkets promoting the purchase of alcohol in large quantities. There is a debate to be had about whether this is ever a good idea, but during a pandemic when people are being instructed not to gather in large groups, it is completely irresponsible. Supermarkets were quick to introduce limits on a number of toilet rolls or bags of pasta that customers could buy at the beginning of the lockdown, and they ought to do the same for alcohol now. If they do not act reasonably in this regard, councils ought to be able to take action, in the face of threats of large gatherings and antisocial behaviour, to require shops to restrict their alcohol sales. These increased powers to councils, while welcome, will come at a cost, as the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch pointed out, and there should be greater financial assistance to councils to enable them to administer, review and enforce the new licensing regime.
We cautiously welcome the extension to hours that can be worked on a construction site, but support the discretion granted to local councils to restrict those hours in residential areas. Building work is one of the chief sources of nuisance in residential areas, and that nuisance is compounded when people are spending many more hours at home. We also welcome the extension of planning consents already granted. It will save local authorities a great deal of time and money not to have to review planning consents already granted that may have expired during the lockdown. However, in acknowledging that construction has been delayed for many developments, the Government also need to consider that local authority housing targets will also have been put at risk, and they should look again at any proposed sanctions against local authorities in this regard.
In summary, we support this Bill principally because it recognises the important role of local authorities in supporting our local businesses and safeguarding our local communities. This Government place too much faith in technological solutions, whether for their doomed contact-tracing app or as a way to make the Irish border magically disappear, so it is reassuring to see that they still recognise the value of local leadership and decision making in meeting the health and economic challenges of this pandemic.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Sarah Olney, and indeed to speak in the same debate as two excellent maiden speakers. Paul Howell made an excellent speech. It reminded me that we are next-door-but-one neighbours, because I am also a neighbour of the Chancellor of the Exchequer—they are big seats up north, some of them. I would be delighted to work alongside the hon. Gentleman in making sure that we get the right investment for the north of England.
Once upon a time, in 1997, when Sedgefield was on the map for a different reason, I was a candidate for South Ribble and got annihilated, just about holding my deposit, so I very much congratulate Katherine Fletcher on an excellent and very entertaining speech. However, she has the biggest and most formidable task ahead of her, because she is now my dad’s MP. That will make life difficult for her. I note that she was very on the fence, shall we say, on which team she supports. Just to be clear, her predecessor supported the right team. Anyway, it was a marvellous speech and I thank her ever so much.
Not North End? Fair enough. Anyway, all the best. Both maiden speeches were wonderful. On to even more serious matters, Mr Deputy Speaker. You must really have to sit on the fence where you are—good golly. Burnley? Blackburn? My goodness me. Stick with Clitheroe—that is my advice.
The Liberal Democrats support the provisions in the Bill and recognise how necessary they are. We recognise the colossal sacrifice that so many people have made in the last three and a bit months. Many did so before there was any guarantee of any kind of financial support, which might have made it a little easier for them. My constituency has an average age 10 years above the national average, and we were one of the infection hotspots right at the beginning. The number of deaths was tragically high in our community in south Cumbria. Many people running businesses of all sorts closed down or restricted their economic activity right at the beginning, before any compensation was available to them, because they put the interests of their neighbours and people they had never met before their own financial interests. I pay tribute to my constituents and indeed folk around the country for doing that.
At the head of the movement to try to get people to restrict their economic activity right at the beginning, even telling people not to visit the Lake district—Britain’s biggest tourist destination after London—was Cumbria Tourism itself, our tourism board. It led the calls for people to visit us, but just not now, not yet, in order to keep people safe. We need to remember that sacrifice. I am very moved by and proud of it.
Of course, the Government package did come weeks later and it is very welcome. It is important in this process—in this crisis—that we find ways of working together and being collectively responsible for the mission to get Britain through the covid crisis as much as possible. It is right for those on the Opposition Benches, and indeed on the Back Benches, to hold the Government to account, and to do so constructively. I take my role as Cumbria’s only Opposition MP seriously. I have a responsibility, which must not be abused, to speak out, but I recognise that my job would be undermined, and I would be undermining my constituents and folks across Cumbria, if I was oppositionist for opposition’s sake. So it is important to congratulate the Government and work with them, when they have done the right thing. The furlough scheme, the grant schemes and so on undoubtedly saved, at least for the time being, millions of jobs around the country and thousands of jobs in my constituency.
There are, however, some gaps, and I want to spend a moment or two talking about them. It is still beyond me that the Government have still not been able to find a package to support people who make their living by being directors of very small limited companies. I can think of a person I know well in my constituency who is a photographer. He is a one-person band, effectively; he is not the director of some large corporation. His income has been completely stopped these past three months. The Government surely could still find ways of ensuring that directors of small limited companies are able to get support.
I also think, in relation to this package of measures, of the plight of people in the mobile catering industry, whose interests have been represented incredibly well, especially by my hon. Friend Wendy Chamberlain. It is important that they are explicitly referenced in the Bill so that they are supported to be able to make a living, and supported for the shortfalls in their incomes over the last few months.
I am bound, though, to focus on the gap in provision for those who have been self-employed for not so long. One in four people who work in my constituency work for themselves; they are self-employed. Our community is hugely entrepreneurial and we are very proud of that. New business start-ups are one of the council’s most important focuses. Many small business do not make a profit in their first, or even their second, year; it just does not happen. People put their effort, money and capital into getting going, and they maybe turn a profit in year three. Those innovative, risk-taking people, who have perhaps made a lifestyle choice to earn a bit less money, but to live in a nice part of the world, put their kids through the local school and add to our community, are falling through the gaps. When Westmorland and Lonsdale had the largest single increase in umemployment in the United Kingdom—of 312%—we know that many of those were those hard-working, innovative people who were starting off, and the Government did not find a way to be able to support them.
The Government said that they were not able to support them because there was not 12 months’ worth of evidence of them operating. I would argue strongly against that, but even if that is an argument, why, when we came to the second iteration of support—when some of the people who were denied the first time round would have then done 12 months—were those people not included? It is so important that those people are not forgotten and that we as a country invest now in supporting them.
In my constituency, 37% of the entire workforce is on furlough. That is the biggest number anywhere in the north of England and the biggest number of anybody outside London. It is important to remember that a large part of that will be down to the significance of the hospitality and tourism sector, with 60,000 people working in it throughout Cumbria, the bulk of whom are in my constituency, the Lake district, the Yorkshire dales and other parts of south Cumbria. While we look forward nervously and cautiously, but with a level of excitement, to
With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, in Committee, I will want to talk about our new clause 1 and hospitality and tourism in a bit more detail, so I will not go further at this point, save to say that I recognise many of the comments from my hon. Friend Sarah Olney and Meg Hillier about antisocial behaviour sometimes coming with the immediate upsurge in visitor numbers. That is not just in urban areas. The road on the east side of Coniston water had to be closed down in the last couple of weeks because of the antisocial behaviour we have seen there, and many of the florid descriptions from my hon. Friends can be repeated about the Lake district and the Yorkshire dales. I could say many things about that. One is that the countryside code is very good. It does not need amending. It needs publicising and embedding in our schools and to be promoted by the Government. I hope that they will do just that.
I turn to planning and the easing of planning restrictions being seen as underpinning the revival of our economy. That is absolutely right—at times, that will be worth pursuing. However, I point out to the Minister that in some cases, the revitalisation of a local community can be helped by restrictions or new changes in planning law. In particular, I am thinking of absentee ownership, or second home ownership, in places such as the Lake district, the Trough of Bowland, Yorkshire dales and other places of natural beauty.
In my constituency, 7,000 of our properties are not holiday lets, but second homes—they are boltholes that are not lived in for nineteen twentieths of the year. That means it is a home owned by somebody who sends no children to the local school and who rarely contributes to the local post office, the bus service and so on. It is possible to make planning laws that would enable places such as the Lake district and the Yorkshire dales to have a lid on the number of empty homes in our communities. Therefore, a community that has been built and shown to be vibrant during the covid crisis can have the opportunity to grow still and not peter out due to a lack of full-time homes.
I am intrigued by the speech the other night about Roosevelt—we will wait to see whether there is anything behind that. Undoubtedly, the only answer as we build back better from all this is to take that Keynesian, investment-based approach and do so in a thoroughly green way, with renewables, recycling, making sure that we have retrofitted insulation and moving forward with public transport. This is an opportunity not only for us to build back better and demonstrate our ambition for a different kind of country, but to do so in a way that our children and our grandchildren will thank us for, because we did so sustainably, renewably and in a thoroughly green way.
I will keep my remarks short, Mr Deputy Speaker. First, I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) on two remarkable maiden speeches.
There is no question but that we need to get the economy up and running again, and that we need to do so with a sense of urgency. There is also no question but that the hospitality and construction sectors have suffered, and that they need our help. I welcome a number of things in this Bill, such as allowing tables and chairs to be put on pavements on a temporary basis. However, I am concerned about one particular provision in the Bill, which has already been referenced by Meg Hillier, and that is off sales of alcohol. As I read it, off sales of alcohol will be allowed to run for the same time as on sales of alcohol. I have a central London constituency, so I have many premises with late licences. I am concerned that if these late licences are to run until 1 o’clock in the morning, bars will still be selling alcohol on the streets to big groups of people until 12.30. Like the hon. Members for Hackney South and Shoreditch and for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), I can say that central London has seen issues over the course of the past two to three weeks. I certainly had issues at the weekend in my constituency where the police were heavily involved. I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to think about whether we could put a time limit on off sales—let us say to 11 pm.
My other point concerns construction work continuing on residential developments until 9 pm. I was delighted that my right hon. Friend said that this would not apply to single dwellings and that local authorities would have discretion even in major developments. Can I ask him to ensure that local authorities have that discretion, because many people in my constituency live in small terraced houses, bang on top of each other, and in mansion blocks? It is not like building a new estate outside a new town, where it does not affect anyone. Obviously, I spent a few weeks at home during the lockdown and I must say that a basement development going on next door until 9 pm would have been intolerable. I welcome what was said, but let us ensure that local authorities have that discretion.
In conclusion, I welcome the Bill, but ask my right hon. Friend to consider the time restriction on licensing for off sales.
Before I start, may I thank the hon. Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) for their maiden speeches? As I have said before, an abundance of talent has been shown by new Members from all parties, though I particularly enjoyed the two speeches today. I wish both Members well for the future in the House. I hope they will make many more contributions; if they are as good as they were today, we are in for a lot of good times. Their speeches were absolutely excellent.
The explanatory notes make it clear that the Bill includes a range of measures to help businesses adjust to new ways of working as the country recovers from disruption caused by covid-19. May I put on record my thanks to the Government and to Ministers for what they have done not only to hold fast against covid-19, but to ensure that businesses have an opportunity to go forward? The measures support the transition from the immediate crisis response to the recovery and getting the economy moving again. They support businesses in implementing safer ways of working to manage the ongoing risk of covid-19, in particular the need for social distancing.
I am probably not the only Member who has received a summary of information from SIBA, the Society of Independent Brewers. It has asked a couple of questions that I want to put on the record with Hansard, and the Minister might be able to respond to them at the end of the debate. Some breweries do not have a premises licence and cannot offer takeaway and delivery directly to the public. The Bill will not help them during the covid-19 crisis. One in four breweries—about 500 out of 2,000 breweries in the UK—do not currently have any way to sell directly to the public, and the sales of small breweries have reduced by 65% to 82% because of covid-19. They have not received the same level of financial support as pubs and the hospitality sector, such as through the business rates holiday or the £25,000 grant.
Some 65% of small breweries have been mothballed since covid-19 and trade during the summer months will be vital for their survival. Some have been using temporary events notices to offer limited services, but they are by their very nature limited in time and number, and businesses must already be registered with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs under the alcohol wholesaler registration scheme and approved as a fit and proper person.
The small breweries ask the following questions. They call for an extension to the licensing relaxation to allow small independent breweries who cannot sell directly to the public to be able to do so on a temporary basis. That could be done by extending the authorisation of off sales to small breweries that do not hold a premises licence but are registered under the alcohol wholesaler registration scheme, and allowing small breweries that do not have a premises licence to apply quickly and more easily by treating the application as a minor variation—that might be a simpler way of doing this. Also, the number and time period for temporary events notices might be expanded to assist breweries, allowing for takeaways and deliveries. Will the Minister respond to those points at the end of the debate?
None of us in the Chamber could argue against the need for the Bill. With an estimated 25% of the people on furlough facing redundancy, there is a crystal-clear need for help for business, and not simply in the form of grants, but right through the economic period. Only this morning a business owner with two small convenience stores was on the phone asking for clarity on whether the new regulations will allow him to have more people in his shops, and therefore, it is to be hoped, fewer people having to queue who might then go elsewhere rather than wait. The current situation is unfair because the same problem applies to the big supermarket chains but the waiting time is less, and people can get most of their shopping in one place. All businesses apart from the major supermarkets are clearly facing a rough time ahead.
It is abundantly clear that we must enable businesses—especially small businesses, which are the backbone of the economy—to survive this time. We in Northern Ireland have a larger proportion of small and medium-sized businesses than the rest of the United Kingdom. The high street in Ards—Newtownards—which is my major town, won the Northern Ireland high street of the year 2019 award. We are doing, with others, all we can to secure grant funding and measures with the local council to help the boutique shops, which people travel to from the length of Northern Ireland, to survive. What a difference a few months makes!
The Bill also has measures to help haulage businesses and other commercial interests, and that is absolutely necessary. As I have said, I am supportive of this Bill, but a point was highlighted to me by an interested party, and it is of concern and must be addressed: the closure of the Bill powers. The Minister will have received correspondence from my office on the issue of licensing, and in particular HGV licensing. In simple terms, the Bill rightly gives the Secretary of State the power to issue exemptions from testing as he sees fit, and he can also withdraw that exemption at any time. However, there is a concern in that there is no obligation to set standards or rules, and the Secretary of State’s powers are constrained. In previous times, such power vested in a Minister would be resisted by Parliament, especially without a covering sunset clause to make the power temporary. I want to ask the Minister about this point; the Secretary of State mentioned it at the beginning of the debate, but unfortunately I did not get a chance to ask this question. The 12-month exemption can be granted so that haulage companies and operators can maintain their schedules for maintenance, so that they are not compromised and those schedules do not have to be rearranged twice. I just want to make sure that those companies are able to deliver and have their maintenance schedules in place, and will not be disadvantaged in any way.
There is also the issue of new vehicles and trailers. I welcome the information about a temporary reduction in duration of certain driving licences in Northern Ireland. That is a response to some of the things that I have written to the Minister about, so I am glad to see it in place. That tells me that we all have a role to play in the House to assure the Minister, or to change his mind—advise him—so that he comes forward with some ideas, which he clearly has. I thank him for that.
We all understand that unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. That is why I was pleased with the furlough scheme, and many people have taken advantage of it. To be honest, had the furlough scheme not been there, many businesses would not still be here. The scheme has done some excellent work to ensure that businesses can hold on, until they get the chance to reopen over the next period of time, which will happen.
We must also ensure that we secure the way forward, not having the Minister with absolute and unending power as the new norm. That is not how democracy works. I add this caution: I hold firmly to that belief in democracy, even if I do not always agree with its outcome, such as the imposition of abortion legislation in Northern Ireland—not an issue in the Bill, but an example of a recent decision that we think should have been for the devolved Assembly to determine. We are in grave danger of forgetting that we can never allow power to be abused, whatever form it takes. I ask the Minister to insert a sunset clause in order to bring the powers to an end, or to have further accountability in the process of decision making under the Bill.
I conclude with this comment: we need this Bill and I support it, but we also need accountability and limitation of power. I ask the Minister to come back to us on that matter. I thank the Government for all the help for businesses so far, but we need it for the future as well and to take us through to the last part of this year. I hope that with the reduction in the R rate across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, especially in Northern Ireland where it is reducing greatly, the future will be better—as Captain Moore always says, “Tomorrow will be a good day.”
Reducing and removing red tape is vital to enable businesses to bounce back rapidly as they reopen. In north Devon, we are blessed with vast areas of open space, so many of our pubs, cafés and restaurants will be able to open more effectively this summer if customers are able to spill on to pavements, car parks and beaches. I warmly welcome the Bill and the opportunities it presents to many of the local businesses that I love to visit, such as Johns of Instow, Lilico’s in Barnstaple, SQ in Braunton, The Rising Sun in Lynton and The Grove in Kings Nympton.
I recognise that consultation with stakeholders has been undertaken. However, with an elderly population in North Devon, I remain somewhat concerned. Clear access along pavements must be available to the disabled and partially sighted, who frequently find street furniture a hazard. I trust that that will be facilitated. I hope that the proposed amendments to the planning process will include measures to enable our town centres to revitalise themselves completely, giving speedy changes of use, and opportunities for new businesses or much needed housing to be rapidly developed in the unfortunately ever-growing number of vacant shops on our high streets.
All that will not be possible if our councils do not have the resource to deliver it. Multiple layers of councils in counties such as Devon do not always have that resource, despite their best attempts to deliver rapidly. Indeed, the interaction between different council tiers make such changes more challenging. Councils have made an unprecedented response to the pandemic, and I take this opportunity to thank the teams at North Devon District Council, the town councils and Devon County Council for their tireless commitment, despite the increased workload.
I fear, however, as we have already seen in North Devon, that some well-intentioned initiatives are hard to bring to fruition and take far too long to implement. Small district councils have small teams, some still working from home, with poor broadband that is already overloaded. Reducing red tape can only work if council teams are able to implement plans rapidly and have the necessary resources to deliver what our businesses and high streets so desperately need. That is not in any way to criticise the work of the officers and staff at my local councils, but more to recognise the structural difficulties that are endemic to multiple layers of local government. I would like to take this opportunity to urge everyone, in the coming weeks, to come and visit some of our fantastic pubs, cafés and restaurants in North Devon; to enjoy our great hotels, holiday parks and B&Bs; and to indulge in the new outdoor drinking and dining facilities that I hope will rapidly appear with the passing of this Bill.
Those of us who live in North Devon all year round know that people need to be robust to dine with us outside. It can be wet and windy, but that is part of the charm of a British seaside holiday. We have weathered many storms back home, and we will weather this economic one. The shops of Barnstaple, Ilfracombe, South Molton and Braunton will be more than happy to sell everyone additional waterproof and windproof layers as we seek innovative outfits in which to dine out in weather like we had this weekend—or people could take a leaf out of my book and wear a wetsuit more often.
I add my tribute to the two brilliant maiden speeches that we have heard this afternoon, particularly—Members will expect this from the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee—the avowed commitment to girl power from my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher. She spoke of Queen Cartimandua, whoever she may be. I will now lapse into the awful vowel sounds that she talked about and use the word “actually” rather a lot. It is okay, though; we became firm friends on our first meeting and she forgives me for being from south of the M4, although she does not yet know where that is.
This debate is a brilliant opportunity to highlight some of the challenges that our local businesses have faced during the pandemic. I welcome the measures that we have seen for pubs, in particular, including the ability to have off-sales and extend how they work. I will highlight two examples of what we have seen in my constituency so far; there are many other hostelries. The Hatchet Inn in Sherfield English got regulars to sponsor sheds in the car park, which are converted into dining areas. At the end of the pandemic, the sheds will be sent off to their new homes to become woodsheds. That provoked a challenge, which I would like the Minister to think about. Although the outdoor dining areas were brilliantly located in the car park, they were, of course within the curtilage of a listed building.
I am sure that many of us, up and down the country, have public houses that are also listed buildings—or perhaps my constituency is particularly blessed. The reality is that 18th-century pubs and coaching inns tend to be very small inside, and to have low ceilings and small doorways. The alternative—in rural areas, in particular, we can get away with this quite easily—is to spread outdoors into the car park or the beer garden.
That brings me to another point: the Rockingham Arms, in the village of West Wellow, has already installed a marquee at the front of the building, hard up against the road. I absolutely welcome it, and the Rockingham is one of my favourite pubs in the entire constituency, so I have no doubt that I will find myself in the tent on the car park. It does, however, bring outdoor dining much closer to local residents, so I particularly welcome local councils’ ability to exert their influence and work hand in glove with publicans and licensing authorities to ensure that solutions are appropriate for each place and circumstance. The Hatchet initially thought that it might have to submit a full-on listed building application, but it is working closely with Test Valley Borough Council to ensure that that does not have to happen. Those are exactly the sorts of challenges that will be thrown up on a case-by-case basis.
I wish to speak a little bit about pavements. We have heard the valid concerns about the elderly and those with disabilities, particularly from the RNIB and Guide Dogs, who are concerned that those with visual impairments will find outdoor seating a challenge, but we have to find a way to manage that. In the centre of Romsey, we are very lucky. Within the past 12 months or so, the county council has spent in excess of £2 million providing us with a new outdoor piazza in the centre of the town. I am sure that that will prove to be a real boon to premises such as Josie’s, Café Fresh and Café No. 5 by enabling them to have outside seating areas. If only we could make sure that the sun would shine. I give credit to the former leader of the county council—I must declare a personal interest—who was absolutely determined that the seating area would be on the side of the marketplace that stays in the sun until late in the afternoon. It is no good if such areas are in the shade.
This is, as I have said, a good and important Bill, but when we are talking about planning and business, it would be remiss of me not to get on one of my favourite hobby horses. I am possibly the only MP from the Solent region who will speak in the debate. I welcome the measures that are being taken to enable house builders to get on and build, which is important, and I concur with those who have said that that must be done sensitively in residential areas—of course it must—but in south Hampshire we have a particular problem with nitrates. It has not been able to grant planning permissions for many months because of the nitrate build-up in the Solent, which leads to algae. That means that we have a massive logjam in the planning system and many councils are in real danger of not meeting their housing targets, so while the Housing Minister is sitting on the Treasury Bench it would be remiss of me not to ask him, please, to crack on with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England and find a solution to that significant problem.
Let me move on to another great hobby horse of mine. An enormous amount of work has been done to open up the economy in a safe and measured way—we have seen all sorts of sectors coming back—but I cannot help but feel that this has been a recovery designed by men, for men. We have seen female-led businesses left at the back of the queue. It is obvious that men with hair need barbers and hairdressers; they perhaps find less need for pedicures and leg waxes. It is noticeable that the beauty industry’s employees are 90% female and a majority of its businesses are women-led. We are preventing our female entrepreneurs from getting back to work. It seems to me to make little sense that a haircut is okay but a pedicure is not. Perhaps the Minister knows how far feet are from anybody’s mouth—although I have a habit of putting mine in mine.
I also want to talk a little about sport. Football, fishing and golf were very quick to return. I absolutely get that women like all those things, but football audiences are 67% male. What someone cannot yet do is open up a yoga studio. There is a massive difference between factory-style gyms with banks of treadmills and individual yoga and pilates studios, where there are very few aerosol emissions and which can be cleaned thoroughly between individual customers. Even in a group yoga session, there can be massive space between individual participants. Again, yoga instructors are 80% female and the client base is predominantly female too.
I appreciate that there is no longer a BEIS Minister on the Treasury Bench. I wish very much that the Secretary of State had been here to hear my comments, because it is crucial that we reflect the point that this apparently male-led recovery has taken little account of the physical, emotional or mental wellbeing of women. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that he considers, in winding up the debate, that we need a recovery that brings women along with us, or else we will fail.
May I add to the long list of deserved congratulations to my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) and for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher)? My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble is actually a good friend, not just an honourable one. She may be completely misguided about football—in a minute, I will ask her to intervene and tell us all who won the premier league recently—but she is a good egg none the less. They both showed why their constituents made a good choice.
I wanted to speak in this debate because I think what the Government are proposing is exactly the sort of thing that they should be doing at this time. I welcome the ability to vary construction hours and to extend outline planning permission, and the changes to the Consumer Credit Act to facilitate bounce-back loans, for which I have heard universal praise in my constituency. In contrast with the CBILS loans, where it was felt that the banks were slow and bureaucratic, the bounce-back loans have been warmly welcomed. However, I want to speak particularly about allowing bars, pubs and restaurants to seat and serve people outside, and to focus especially on pubs.
From the Barrington Arms in Shrivenham to the Town Arms in Wallingford, I have 85 pubs in my constituency, which puts it in the top eight by number of pubs. We have heard a lot about how many of them have been closed and had to furlough staff, and how few of them have more than six months’ cash. The Government’s support package for pubs has been phenomenal—the business grant scheme, the furlough scheme and the business rates holiday have all been hugely welcome—but the sector has been in trouble, or at least facing challenges, for some time. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of pubs in the UK fell by 29%, so there have been some real challenges for many years before we got to coronavirus.
In rural constituencies—mine is predominantly rural—those challenges are a particular problem, because the pub is the beating heart of village life. After a certain time, it is quite literally the only light that is on for some considerable distance. Pubs in my constituency, and I am sure those in many others, have been at the heart of the community’s response to coronavirus. The George & Dragon pub in Upton said to elderly and vulnerable people, “If there are any essentials that you can’t get, give us a ring and we will go and find them and bring them to you entirely free of charge.” With the help of a couple of benefactors, the Fox in Denchworth has been giving free fish and chips to every villager every week during this period—that is 171 villagers—and has now set a challenge in which people can earn gift vouchers to spend there if they lose 10% of their body weight in two months. Many of us could join that challenge in the hope of having a healthier lifestyle.
Despite all the challenges they have faced, those pubs have been there for their communities, and now those communities want to be there to support their pubs. Reducing the distance from 2 metres to 1 metre will certainly help, but measures to allow them more easily to seat and serve people outside will make it that little bit easier for us to support them and give them the best chance of survival.
As someone who joined the House recently after 27 years in business, I welcome the measures in the Bill; they are positive and practical steps at a time of national need. I look at them with one eye on how they will help our wider economic growth, which is the next challenge coming at us. For most of these businesses, there is a very thin line between costs, which are mostly fixed, and revenues, which even at the best of times depend on myriad factors. All the Government help in the world—and this Government have been generous and done what it has taken—is no substitute for real customers and real revenues, so the measures in the Bill are literally a lifeline for many of the hospitality businesses that I represent in Arundel and South Downs. The Federation of Small Businesses said that the measures on food and drink outdoors
“will help small businesses in the hospitality sector to resume trading with confidence”,
and they will.
In most businesses, the single most valuable commodity is time, so having short and clear timeframes for the grant of a licence is as much of a benefit as capping the administration costs. I echo my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes: there is nothing in the Bill for businesses such spas and nail bars. I would like to see some of the same creative thinking that has put together the package in the Bill applied to those sorts of businesses, as well as to exhibition businesses, which have been quite hard hit in my constituency and do not have a path to reopen.
Members from all parties will recognise the familiar sight of queues outside pharmacies during this crisis. It would be welcome if, ahead of the winter, Ministers would take the opportunity to repeal the National Health Service (Pharmaceutical and Local Pharmaceutical Services) Regulations 2013 and thereby remove one of the last restrictive practices on our high streets. As our population ages, pharmacists have a vital role in our towns and villages, but there is currently a regulatory requirement to demonstrate need, which acts as a barrier, meaning that there is not a single pharmacy store on Arundel High Street. That forces the elderly and infirm to walk almost a mile out of town for the simplest prescriptions. Such a change would be simple and popular.
Like others, I welcome the reforms of the planning process. Here, too, as we look to boost the economy, there may be sensible opportunities, and I urge my ministerial colleagues to go further in the future. The shift from working from home offers a step change in productivity, sustainability and the employment of previously excluded groups, such as mothers, joining the workplace. The extension of permitted development rights to create home and garden offices, as well as the automatic change of use of retail and office premises to residential, will lock in those benefits and help create the homes our nation needs.
Finally, I note the one permanent change in the Bill to the way the Planning Inspectorate works. With the greatest respect to the hard-working individuals involved, too often the Planning Inspectorate is the sticking plaster on a broken process. We literally ask it to reconcile the impossible and then wonder why it produces answers that please nobody. The answer—I accept that this is probably a longer debate for another day—is an end to one-size-fits-all planning policies that mean measures designed to expedite rapid construction in towns and cities that have the infrastructure to cope end up blighting rural areas, and yet still the homes do not get built.
The Centre for Cities says that, with imagination, we can easily accommodate all the new dwellings that we need within the existing curtilage of our cities. I agree, and as we focus on sustainability, food supply chains and achieving net zero, which we have baked into law, we have the opportunity, once and for all, to make it clear that precious woodland, countryside, agricultural land and rural flood plains must never be developed for housing, putting an end to the long-term planning blight suffered by my constituents around Adversane, West Grinstead and the 17 parishes around Henfield. I am pleased to support the Government on this excellent Bill, but where possible I urge them to go further and faster in the interests of business and the economy.
It is a pleasure to speak after my hon. Friend Andrew Griffith, and an even greater pleasure to speak after my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), who made wonderful maiden speeches. It is great to hear those regional voices. They are from the north and for the north, and they will add to the compelling case to rebalance this country by further investment in the north. It is great to hear them make that case.
I will focus most of my comments on clause 12, but I welcome all measures in the Bill, particularly the aid to the hospitality sector. I have some fine hostelries in my constituency, including, I have to say, the world’s best restaurant, as identified by TripAdvisor—the Black Swan at Oldstead. It is a wonderful place, about four miles from my house, and is run by celebrity chef Tommy Banks, a local person from a local family. It has a wonderful back story. There are many, many good restaurants through my patch, and they will get lots of support through the Bill.
Clause 12 talks about bounce back loans, which have been a huge success of the Government’s and an excellent scheme that many businesses have taken advantage of; I think about a million businesses have secured a bounce back loan. The scheme gets money out the door as quickly as possible to businesses in need. It is fair to say that because of the length and depth of this crisis, not every business will get through this recession. This is the third recession that I have been involved in with my business, and it is no doubt the most difficult.
It is absolutely right that we have suspended the provisions of the Consumer Credit Act to get that money out the door quickly, so that lenders did not have the responsibility of ensuring that businesses were creditworthy for the amounts of money they were taking. The worry is what happens down the line. I am the co-chair of the all-party group on fair business banking, which has spent much of the last decade trying to fight for justice for lots of businesses that were badly treated in 2008 and post 2008. We desperately want to make sure that that does not happen again.
It was great to hear the Secretary of State confirm in his opening remarks that although the Consumer Credit Act provisions have been suspended in terms of credit worthiness, they have not been suspended in terms of collection, which should mean that lenders show forbearance if things go wrong. Inevitably, some businesses will need help to get through this, and, sadly, some businesses will simply fail, but we have to ensure that those businesses are treated fairly through the process. For our larger banks, which are regulated firms, there is now the senior managers regime, which has a requirement to treat customers fairly through the process and a requirement to stick to the Lending Standards Board standards of lending practice for business customers. That is good, because there are checks and balances that we can apply to the bigger banks.
I sound a note of caution, though. Quite a few lenders are distributing loans through this scheme that are not regulated firms, so they do not come under that regime. Additionally, I believe that some of them are not even accountable to the Financial Ombudsman Service, so if there is a dispute there is not a means of alternative dispute resolution. We have to ensure that the message goes out loud and clear to lenders that have distributed money through these schemes that they must treat customers fairly through that process if things go wrong and ensure that any restructuring gives that business every chance of staying in business and getting through this crisis.
The loan scheme has been a huge success. One of the big successes in the SME lending market over the last few years has been the emergence of FinTech sector alternative lenders, which is breaking the stranglehold of the big four banks. Some 80% of SME lending is controlled by the big four banks, and we want to see much more choice for SMEs in their borrowing decisions. The British Business Bank has authorised about 80 lenders for the CBIL scheme and about 20 lenders for the bounce back loan scheme. The difficulty is that it is not just about getting authorisation; it is also about getting access to funds. The big banks, being deposit takers, get access to something called the term funding scheme. They can borrow money from the Bank of England at 0.1%, so if they are lending money at 2.5%, 3% or 4% through the CBIL scheme, that still makes commercial sense, and they have access to moneys.
Non-bank lenders—FinTech companies such as Funding Circle, Tide and iwoca—and lots of lenders in the asset finance space do not get access to the term funding scheme. They are relying on borrowing from their normal sources—wholesale markets—and they cannot borrow as cheaply. The Government loan guarantee also specifically excludes situations where money is being borrowed from third parties. That puts these lenders in a very difficult situation. Tide had secured £500 million to distribute to UK businesses through an EU wholesale funder, but it could not provide that money because of the lack of guarantee for that lending. The Treasury is aware of that, and we need to deal with it, to ensure that the choice of finance provision is as wide as possible for our SMEs. The other way to deal with this is for the banks that can access the term funding scheme to simply on-lend to non-bank lenders, but that is not working currently. This is a work in progress, and we need to deal with it.
As a number of Members have said, bounce back loans are relatively easy to get, whereas CBILs are much more difficult to get. It is possible to move from one to the other—a company can get a bounce back loan quickly and then upgrade to a CBIL of a higher amount, to pay off the original loan. That is right and proper, but lots of businesses are not managing to get CBILs because the criteria are stricter. One reason behind that is that there are restrictions on state aid, one of which is that undertakings in difficulty cannot be supported through those schemes at the moment. The EU has said that it will drop that requirement, which is good—it is an EU requirement, and we are still bound by that currently—but we need to implement that quickly, so that more businesses can get access to the CBIL scheme and borrow as they need more money. That aside, this is an excellent Bill. I will be supporting it if we go through the Division Lobbies, and I very much welcome it.
I would like to start by saying that I welcome this Bill on behalf of the Labour party. It is a pleasure, after my disagreements with the Secretary of State over recent weeks, to find myself broadly in agreement with Government Front Benchers this evening. I thank the Minister for engaging with me so constructively about this over recent days. Businesses clearly need more support to get back to work quickly and safely. This Bill is a start. It is intended to enable the next phase of easing the lockdown to go ahead.
Before I elaborate, I thank the Members in all parts of the House who have made contributions to the debate, including my hon. Friend Meg Hillier, who raised concerns about the impact of further relaxing licensing on antisocial behaviour which I am sure the Minister will wish to respond to. I add my congratulations to the many we have already heard around the House on the two maiden speeches from the new hon. Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell). They were very different speeches in style but both extremely admirable debuts in this Chamber. I look forward to many more I suspect entertaining contributions from the hon. Member for South Ribble.
The country is facing a major recession, perhaps the worst in three centuries. It will take a major national effort to help families and employers to get through this while also making sure that the risks of a second damaging peak in covid-19 infection are minimised. These circumstances would be challenging for any Government. Without a vaccine—and we do not have one yet—nothing is risk-free. My right hon. Friend Edward Miliband outlined from the Dispatch Box how the Opposition have supported the Government in many key decisions throughout this pandemic, and that extends to this Bill and other very significant measures such as the furlough scheme.
However, we must recognise too, so that we can learn from them, that the Government have made mistakes that have made the situation more difficult than it needed to be. Their initial promises on council funding have still not been matched by action, leaving many local authorities that will be key to supporting economic recovery in their own localities uncertain about funding just a few weeks ahead, let alone in the months and years ahead as the recession deepens. The Government’s instinct to over- centralise and their failure to listen enough to communities and professionals on the frontline has led to serious and avoidable failures in obtaining protective equipment, ramping up testing, protecting care homes, and accurately identifying everyone who needed support to self-isolate through the shielding programme. I would add, in the light of what we have seen in Leicester today and over recent days, their failure to share the data on the infection rates in localities with the relevant authorities in those localities, who will need it in order to marshal the support that is needed to enforce local lockdowns if they are required.
After the Government wasted two months on a centralised track and trace programme based on an app that never worked, they belatedly, although rightly, recognised the importance of engaging local government and public health professionals, but not soon enough to provide reassurance that the lockdown could be eased as safely as possible. As a result of that, we are reopening, but with higher levels of risk than were necessary. These failures have made the challenges to people’s health, people’s jobs, our high streets and our businesses worse than they needed to be, and there are important lessons to learn if we want to avoid a second lockdown.
The hospitality sector faces particular challenges. The temporary changes to licensing rules will help pubs, cafés, bars and restaurants to reopen quickly and serve customers outside. Many of these businesses operate on extremely tight margins, and without this lifeline many would not survive, so the changes are welcome. However, the British Beer and Pub Association points out that 10,000 pubs are not eligible for the Government’s grant scheme. It says that unless the Government make specific support available now, thousands of pubs will close for good, taking hundreds of thousands of jobs with them. We cannot allow that to happen to such an important part of the British way of life for so many people, so I hope that the Government will move quickly to provide the support that is needed.
My right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Business made some very important points about the need for the Government to review the flexibility of the furlough scheme to support the specific needs of the hospitality sector. Sectors of the economy will open at different rates. Some are more susceptible to covid-19-related restrictions than others, and the hospitality sector is one of the most at risk. There needs to be greater flexibility, or many businesses that are vital to the life and identity of their locality, and the jobs that come with them, will be lost forever.
Local authorities have a key role to play in supporting their local hospitality sector, but they need greater clarity from the Government on their new role. The Government must be clear on how the new licensing requirements will be monitored and enforced, given the severe lack of resources available in local authorities to carry out those functions. Council budgets are under unprecedented pressure after 10 years of austerity and the Government’s broken promises on fully compensating them for the costs they have incurred as a result of covid-19. It is important that the Government now offer cast-iron guarantees that none of the measures in this Bill will place further costs on councils that could lead to further cuts elsewhere.
We welcome the extension of construction site working hours. The sector has a backlog of work to catch up on, and this flexibility will allow that to happen. It is important that communities do not feel their interests are being ignored in this, so Labour would like to see councils given the discretion they need to restrict hours of operation where there is a compelling and overriding local reason to do so.
The introduction of more flexible planning appeals is also welcome in speeding up the process—although perhaps not as flexible as the Secretary of State for Housing has been involved in recently—but we want reassurance that no legitimate voice is digitally excluded from being heard. Local government is worried about the cost implications of these new rules, so I urge the Minister to publish a report detailing the extra costs that councils will face in processing increased volumes of planning applications through the new system.
The measures to speed up lending through the bounce-back loan scheme are welcome, but I hope the Government will recognise that many businesses are still finding it difficult to access loans through CBILS, as the backlog builds up and the rules lock out too many. We need a fresh look at how the scheme can be amended to support more businesses faster. I agree with the points made by Tim Farron about people who are directors of small limited companies—often freelancers—who have been denied support and, as I know from my own constituency of Croydon North, are really struggling as a result.
In conclusion, the measures in the Bill are welcome and we will help to ensure its passage, but I want to be clear that this Bill only helps at the margins of what will be needed. We are facing a deep recession—possibly the worst for three centuries—and millions of people up and down the country fear for their jobs and for their livelihoods. We will need more than this Bill to help this country weather the coming storm, but for this evening, we welcome the Bill and we will support its passage through the House.
First, I am sure on behalf of the whole House, I want write into the record my appreciation of the maiden speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell). My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble demonstrated some oratorical elasticity in the sense that she was able to draw together Tacitus, Cartimandua and Peter Kay. Historians among us recognise and honour that feat, although I suspect the Whips Office paid greater attention to the fact that she said she might occasionally prefer to be a rebel.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield paid full tribute to Phil Wilson, a strong and fine member of the Opposition Whips Office, and he also paid some tribute to the chap who preceded him; I forget his name. My hon. Friend spoke in prose and gave us some poetry, but whether he speaks in poetry or prose, he will always be welcome in this Chamber and, perhaps one day, even in Trimdon Labour club.
I also wish to congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti), for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) and for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for their support for the measures we are introducing—I shall say some more words about those shortly. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes and the entrepreneurial spirit of all at the Rockingham Arms, and look forward to her letter to me on nitrates. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Wantage (David Johnston), for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), whose support for the bounce-back loan I am grateful for—I shall pass his message on that to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I thank all Members from across the House for this lively, constructive and, I think, supportive debate, and I am grateful to Steve Reed for his support for these measures. He is right to say that occasionally we fling some spice and some ginger across the Chamber in our debates, but when it really matters, when the chips are down, we all want the best for our country, which is why we are coming together to support this Bill tonight.
The Bill is good news for our businesses, for jobs and for everyone who is looking forward to enjoying a safe summer as we bounce back from an incredibly difficulty period. We need to tread carefully, but, thanks to the sacrifices and resolve of the British people, and the unprecedented support this Government have provided, we are turning a corner and on the road to recovery. This Bill is pivotal to that economic and social recovery, and I am pleased that the measures it contains to support hard-hit sectors and help businesses adjust to new, safer ways of working have, as I say, been largely welcomed. As my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary said earlier, we listened to and worked with a wide variety of stakeholders and experts, and we are delivering on what they told us through this Bill. So I welcome this opportunity to address important issues raised in this debate, to ensure that the Bill gets Britain back to work safely and that the power, prosperity and opportunities we all want to see are returned to our economic sector.
We know that the hospitality industry is raring to go. Our restaurants, pubs and bars want to make the most of summer trading and welcome back their customers, and it is vital we support them to do that safely. As my right hon. Friend said, this is the third largest employer in our economy, with the pandemic and social distancing measures having serious consequences for its ability to operate. That is why the Bill will temporarily make it easier for businesses, including restaurants, pubs and bars, to obtain a licence, to set up outdoor seating and to sell either food or alcohol, or both, with a fast track to get permission for furniture such as tables and chairs on pavements, thereby enabling them to maximise capacity, within social distancing guidelines. I understand that there may be concerns about potential obstruction of highways, so I wish to reassure the House that we are taking steps to mitigate that. Recommended minimum footway widths and distances required for those with impaired vision and mobility, for example, will be clearly set out using the Department for Transport’s inclusive mobility guidelines, thus striking a balance between the effective use of space and maintaining traffic and thoroughfare. In addition, we will provide councils with enforcement powers and the ability to revoke licences where conditions are breached.
I should emphasise that the changes to outdoor eating and drinking and off sales will be carefully implemented to minimise public nuisance and reduce any crime or disorder. The police already have powers to issue closure notices to a premises in such cases under section 76 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, but we are also building in safeguards to the Bill, such as an expedited review process for alcohol licences, which allows responsible authorities such as the police to quickly alter the licensing conditions granted to premises if necessary. They will be able to revoke permissions granted. I will work with my colleagues in the Home Office and the Local Government Association to ensure that those measures work.
Taken together, the temporary new measures will be a lifeline for our hospitality industry, as are those we propose for planning to restart the construction industry and deliver the homes this country still very much needs.
In my contribution, I referred to the temporary events notices for breweries. Has the Minister had a chance to look at the provisions that they need to ensure that they can continue to prosper and do well after the covid crisis is over?
The hon. Gentleman mentions breweries. He knows that the Bill largely covers England and England and Wales. It does not cover other areas of our devolved community. However, I can tell him that by ensuring that breweries’ customers open up and can sell alcohol to their customers, we are helping breweries around the country and in Northern Ireland, whether they are big or small.
As hon. Members have heard, activity is picking up in the construction industry, another sector that is an engine of our economy and that is keen to get Britain building again. I pay particular tribute to construction workers up and down our country who worked through the pandemic and the businesses that got their sites back up and running in these difficult circumstances. I am pleased to support their efforts through the safe working charter, which my Department developed with the Home Builders Federation.
However, we know that there is more to do. Home starts and completions are well down on last year, with planning permissions for at least 60,000 homes hanging in the balance. That is why we are speeding up the planning system through the temporary measures in the Bill as part of a wider reform to ensure that it is fit for the 21st century. That means greater flexibility for builders to seek extensions to site working hours to facilitate social distancing, which will support the sector’s safe economic recovery. We want work on construction sites to resume swiftly and safely, but I recognise the potential effect of the change on residents when we are all spending more time at home. Several Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington, raised that point.
I encourage builders to work constructively with local communities and councils to minimise disruption. I want to be clear that councils will retain local discretion over the decision-making process. They also have legal duties regarding statutory nuisance, which continue. They know their areas best and that is why they will continue to have discretion in their local decision-making processes. They are well placed to judge the effect on local businesses and residents, and where there will be an unacceptable impact, they retain the discretion to refuse extended hours.
We are also enabling the extension of planning permissions that have expired since the lockdown began or are about to expire, saving literally hundreds of projects. This is at the request of local authorities and the construction sector. I recognise that there is a risk of schemes being delayed further if existing permissions are extended too long, which is why this will be only a temporary measure. Our extension date of
Another significant measure, which will help us double the pace of appeals while maintaining fair decision making, is the proposal to enable the Planning Inspectorate to advance appeals using more than one type of procedure. When we tested this hybrid approach last year, we more than halved the appeal time. This change, backed by all parties in the planning system, will be introduced on a permanent basis. In making these changes, it is important that we bring communities with us, and I am satisfied that, by agreeing through the Bill to temporarily remove the requirement for copies of the London plan to be made available for inspection at premises and on request, and instead enabling inspection free of charge by electronic means, the interests of transparency and accountability will be served.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for clarifying a point that I raised earlier during the Secretary of State’s speech. I would just like to ask him for clarification on a slightly more detailed point about housing developments outside London, particularly those in my constituency. It is about the process in the Bill for the public themselves having the opportunity to review any application. What changes, if any, might occur to their rights to make representations on applications?
I do not believe that this Bill does anything to disadvantage anybody in their right to fair access to information. Some of the changes that we have already made allow people to take part in planning committees virtually. Not everybody wants to go down to their town hall at 10 o’clock on a wet February evening if they can, quite literally, dial into those planning committees and see what is going on. They have access in a way that they would not ordinarily have.
I make this final point with reference to my hon. Friend’s point and the changes that we are making to the Planning Inspectorate’s processes. This particular proposition was made by Dame Bridget Rosewell as part of her recommendations. It was one of the 22 recommendations that she made, and it will allow planning inspectors to use a variety of tools consecutively to speed up their adjudication on decisions, which is good for everybody involved in the process. The average time has already been cut from 47 weeks to 23. We believe that this mechanism will speed up adjudication on planning decisions even more, and that is to the betterment of all involved.
This Bill could not be more important for reopening our economy, for championing firms large and small and for helping people live their lives again, with safety still paramount. Let us ensure this Bill’s swift passage, as I think all hon. Members have said in their contributions, and get Britain back in business. I commend this Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).