Business and Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:39 pm on 29th June 2020.

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Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 7:39 pm, 29th June 2020

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.