Topical Questions

Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – in the House of Commons on 7th March 2022.

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Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

The situation in Ukraine is at the forefront of the minds of us all in this House, and I am grateful for the immensely hard work of civil servants across Government, and of those in local government, as well as those involved in diplomatic and humanitarian efforts at this time.

My Department has two specific roles in supporting cross-Government work. The first is exploring how we can support the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and other Departments with a sanctions regime that meets the needs of the hour, and in particular how we can target the property and assets of those in this country who have been supporting the Putin regime. We are also responsible for ensuring that we can provide appropriate support for refugees arriving in this country. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already expanded the family sponsorship system, and we have an existing humanitarian sponsorship scheme, which is being expanded now to ensure that local authorities and others can play their part in ensuring a warm and safe welcome for those fleeing persecution.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

More than 2,100 residents have signed my petition to see the former Teddington police station site repurposed for community use and affordable housing. The Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Neil O’Brien, confirmed last week that there is nothing in law or guidance that says the Mayor of London has to sell the site to the highest bidder, as he claims, and he has reportedly rejected a bid for a new home for Park Road GP surgery and affordable homes because he is insisting on getting the highest price—probably from luxury developers. Will the Minister join me in calling on the Mayor to reconsider this decision, as Teddington residents are demanding?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

I know how determined the hon. Lady has been to represent the residents of Teddington in this matter, and I know she has raised it in a Westminster Hall debate with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I will seek to ensure that my ministerial team are closely engaged with the hon. Lady to ensure that we can come to a fair and equitable solution for her residents.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, Communities & Local Government

It is three months since Russian troops massed at the Ukraine border and not a single detail has been published about the community sponsorship scheme that the Secretary of State is supposedly leading. We stand alone among European countries in insisting on a visa that takes months while desperate people are being turned back at Calais. Nearly 2 million people have fled Ukraine and only 50 visas have been granted. Will he really ask desperate people to wait months for his Department to get its act together or will he pick up the phone to the Home Secretary, cut out the bureaucracy and help people now?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

I agree with the hon. Lady that it is vital to provide the fastest and safest route for those fleeing persecution and we are working with our partners on the ground in Poland and elsewhere to do just that. We are processing more than 14,000 applications under the family scheme at the moment. Of course, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary outlined last week, that scheme has been significantly expanded. There is an existing community sponsorship scheme and the details are available on gov.uk for those who wish to help through it, but we are expanding it and more details will be announced later today and later this week.

Photo of Lisa Nandy Lisa Nandy Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, Communities & Local Government

I point the Secretary of State to last year’s inspectorate report that highlighted that his existing scheme is an absolute shambles. People are being asked to wait months on end to access it and still not a single detail has been published. I cannot bear to listen to that with the scenes that we are seeing unfolding in front of our eyes—it is too slow. While he quarrels with the Home Office, we are turning away refugees and, worse, letting oligarchs off the hook.

Seriously, how can the Housing Secretary sit there without any sense of shame while, just down the road, Russian oligarchs linked to the Kremlin are offloading millions of pounds from the UK property market in a fire sale? That is the dark money that sustains the Putin regime. He could set that right this afternoon through amendments tabled by his Back Benchers and by Labour that would start to put an end to the shameful situation that his party has presided over for too long. Will he back those amendments?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

Again, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising two important questions. On the need to ensure that we have a rapid expansion of the scheme, we need to use the existing community sponsorship scheme, which has been successful, to—[Interruption.] She has already asked her question, and I can answer. If she wants to try to rewrite her original question, she is welcome to do so. [Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

Thank you very much for ensuring order, Mr Speaker. The scheme that we are expanding will ensure that we meet the needs of the hour and that all those who need humanitarian resettlement find it. As to the hon. Lady’s point about the steps required to ensure that the assets of oligarchs and others are addressed, the legislation that we are bringing forward will mean that we have the strongest sanctions regime in the world.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

My constituents have shown an outpouring of generosity for the people fleeing Ukraine. This weekend, my children and I spent time at Hursley parish hall where we received thousands of items that will be driven to Poland in the next 48 hours. Many constituents say that they feel helpless and want to do something; I do not doubt—many have already been in touch—that the humanitarian sponsorship pathway will lead to Winchester. Can my right hon. Friend confirm what I think he just said at the Dispatch Box, that more details on it will be announced later today?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

I will make two points in response to my hon. Friend. First, I thank his constituents for their amazing work, which reflects the commitment and compassion of many people across the country. The single most important thing that any individual can do at the moment is donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee. It is understandable that people want to see goods of a humanitarian nature flow to the Polish border, but the nature of the support that we need to give means that it is actually more effective to raise money to give to the DEC and others. With respect to the expansion of the humanitarian sponsorship scheme, there are more details to come.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Transparency International recently estimated that more than £1.5 billion-worth of UK property was bought by Russian oligarchs accused of corruption or links to the Kremlin between 2016 and 2021, of which £1 billion is in London. Can the Secretary of State assure that House that the UK will bring forward emergency legislation to repossess Kremlin-linked properties in London, which he reportedly favours, and does he agree that using the proceeds from those properties to offer further support to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine would be entirely appropriate and desirable?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

For the second time today, I must praise the hon. Lady for a gift of clairvoyance that few hon. Members enjoy.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley

Does the Minister share my and my constituents’ deep frustration that, despite this Conservative Government making up to £20 million available to my constituents through the levelling-up fund, Labour-run Bradford Council did not even bother to submit a levelling-up application? When will it have the next opportunity to do that?

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Some £20 million is potentially available to Keighley and Ilkley through the levelling-up fund. Bradford is in a top priority category, and I really hope that it will bid so that we can build on the tens of millions of investment already being put into Keighley through the towns fund.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

Communities across Scotland and the UK stand ready to help those displaced by Putin’s war on democracy in Ukraine. Every local authority in Scotland participated in the Syrian refugee resettlement scheme and I am sure they would want to do so again, but they cannot at the moment because of the shambolic response by the UK Government. The Secretary of State’s Department is meant to be doing whatever is needed to make sure that sponsors can be quickly matched with Ukrainians in need, so when does he expect significant numbers of Ukrainians to arrive under the humanitarian sponsorship pathway, and will he join me in urging the Home Secretary to remove the unforgivable blockage—

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

I think the hon. Lady said the shambolic response from the European Government and that she probably meant the United Kingdom Government, but not to worry. I respectfully disagree. More details on how we will help not just the devolved Administrations but local government to accept a higher proportion of humanitarian refugees will follow shortly.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

Can I ask one of the Ministers to outline the benefits the levelling-up White Paper will bring to West Sussex, particularly to coastal communities and constituencies such as mine, where economic disadvantage and deprivation are happening—whether north or south, east or west?

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My hon. Friend is completely correct. Some £19.4 million was allocated to projects in Bognor Regis and Littlehampton through round 1 of the levelling-up fund, in addition to the £21.1 million allocated to Crawley. I look forward to working with people in West Sussex to do more through round 2 of the levelling-up fund as well as the UK shared prosperity fund.

Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Labour, Salford and Eccles

The Government announced the renters reform Bill in the 2019 Queen’s Speech, and they announced it again in the 2021 Queen’s Speech. My constituents desperately need this Bill to abolish no-fault section 21 evictions, introduce a national landlord database, apply the decent homes standard and much more, so will the Secretary of State confirm when he is finally going to get on with introducing this Bill?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

We need to introduce the White Paper, which will be published in the spring, first. I look forward to discussing its terms with the hon. Lady so we can ensure that the legislation subsequently introduced is fit for purpose.

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge

Corbett meadow is a beautiful meadow in my constituency that is at risk of development, but in the local plan it has been designated as local green space. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that, when the final plan comes out, that should be respected?

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

Due to my role in planning, I cannot comment on specific plans, but national park policy empowers local communities by making it clear that they can designate areas of importance as local green space through their local plans. Such designations ensure that these important assets are provided with protection, reflecting their importance.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media & Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Housing, Communities & Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (The Constitution and Welsh Affairs)

The airline Wizz Air has offered to fly Ukrainian refugees from Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, and there are indications that Cardiff airport could be a destination for some of these flights. I understand that there have been initial discussions with the Welsh Government, but would the Secretary of State lend his support to co-ordinating a post-flight visa processing facility at Cardiff airport, so that Ukrainians fleeing the warzone can be brought to Wales quickly and safely?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that, and I will look closely, with my colleague the Home Secretary, at that proposition. It is important that we have appropriate biometric checks, for reasons that are well understood, but I appreciate the generosity of the offer, and indeed we have been talking to the Welsh Government about how we can co-ordinate our efforts.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Many people are still planning to staycation this year. Would the Secretary of State extend the scheme that worked so well during the pandemic, and allow permitted development rights to be relaxed so that pop-up campsites can allow people to have holidays in places such as North Yorkshire?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

I now know what my Easter plans will be. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that making sure, through the exercise of permitted development rights, that we can provide people with the opportunity to holiday in places as beautiful as North Yorkshire is an entirely welcome development.

Photo of Christian Wakeford Christian Wakeford Labour, Bury South

Reported cases of antisemitism continue to rise, with the Community Security Trust recording a record 2,255 cases in 2021. The Government have funded the security at Jewish locations, including synagogues and schools, and this, unfortunately, is vital to ensuring the safety of the Jewish community. Will the Secretary of State commit to the continuation of this funding next year, as well as ensuring that it is adjusted for the increased cost associated with inflation?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As the Minister who, as Secretary of State for Education, initiated that scheme, I will do everything I can to ensure it continues. But I would make one additional point: one of the things we can all do across this House in order to tackle the evil of antisemitism is stand against the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, and that is why when we bring forward legislation to outlaw BDS at local government level I hope we can count on the hon. Gentleman’s formidable voice pressing on those on his Front Bench the importance of supporting that legislation and not, as they did in the past, abstaining.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

Levelling up is crucial to rejuvenating our high streets and making sure we do not have buildings collecting dust and not in use, which has often been the case in Ipswich. In Carr Street, however, that is not the case: we have micro-shops there now: fantastic businesses such as Trini Flava, Central Vintage, and the Juice Mix bar. Does my right hon. Friend agree that to do this we need not only funding but a local council with a bit of a proactive, can-do attitude to bring such premises back into use?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

Yes, we need a council that is composed of simulacra or clones of my hon. Friend. If every Ipswich councillor was as ambitious for Ipswich as he is, Ipswich would not only be in the premier league for football—which it is not at the moment of course—but in the premier league of places to visit in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure)

Seven out of 10 of the most deprived areas in Wales, six out of 10 in Scotland and three out of 10 in England have not received any levelling-up funding. When will the right hon. Gentleman give them that opportunity—when will he publish the timetable and the criteria for the second tranche of money?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

It is coming in the spring statement, but I should say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I count as a friend and much admire, that he should have a word with Joanna Cherry, who seems not to want this money to go to Scotland because she believes it works against devolution. The hon. Gentleman wants that money to come to Scotland; can the Scottish National party please make up its mind?

Photo of Sarah Atherton Sarah Atherton Conservative, Wrexham

In the past week I have worked with Anna Buckley from Wrexham’s Polish integration support centre to logistically manage the unprecedented UK response to her call for donations. Businesses and people across Wrexham have answered that call, with hundreds of volunteers sorting through five warehouses full of donations going to Poland. Will the Secretary of State congratulate Anna and the community spirit of Wrexham?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

Anna, the Polish community and indeed the wider citizens of Wrexham set a brilliant example, as so many do, of community action to support those in need. I congratulate her and my hon. Friend.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Will the Secretary of State speak to his colleague the Home Secretary and make her aware that only issuing up until now 50 visas for Ukrainian refugees is quite wrong and brings shame upon this country?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

I talk to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary every day. The Home Secretary was in Poland at the border talking to those who were working with refugees: she was delivering while others, I am afraid, seek to make political points. We have a Home Secretary who is energetic, determined, on the job, talking to those on the frontline, making a difference, and I am afraid that when people want unity, purpose and delivery they will say to the right hon. Lady—

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Conservative, West Suffolk

Will the Secretary of State confirm that when it comes to local plans the idea that we need exactly the same proportion of extra housing in every part of every council area is wrong, and instead the different needs of different communities, as in my constituency in Haverhill, Brandon and Newmarket, can be treated differently, not with a one-size-fits-all approach?