Amendment 281

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Report (8th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 18 September 2023.

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Baroness Pinnock:

Moved by Baroness Pinnock

281: After Clause 226, insert the following new Clause—“Regeneration of schools and hospitals: register of serious disrepair(1) Within one month of the day on which this Act is passed the Secretary of State must establish a register of schools and hospitals in England in serious disrepair.(2) The register must comprise a list of—(a) schools that have been partially or fully closed on a temporary or permanent basis because one or more school building was deemed unsafe for staff or pupils,(b) schools that have classrooms or buildings on site that are closed due to disrepair and details of those classrooms or buildings,(c) schools that require major rebuilding or refurbishment,(d) hospitals that have been partially or fully closed on a temporary or permanent basis because one or more hospital building was deemed unsafe for staff or patients,(e) hospitals that have rooms, wards or buildings on site that are closed due to disrepair and details of those rooms, wards or buildings, and(f) hospitals that require major rebuilding or refurbishment.(3) The register must be reviewed every three months to ensure it contains up-to-date information.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would require the Government to keep a register of schools and hospitals in serious disrepair, and ensure the register is regularly updated.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I tabled a version of this amendment in Committee—which seems a very long time ago; I think it was in March—on the need for a register of school and hospital buildings which are in a state of disrepair, so that local residents know what the issues are and can hold the Government to account for putting right those buildings that they have to use.

Little did I know at that stage about the huge, urgent issue that has emerged this summer around reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—concrete with air bubbles in it, as far as I can make out. According to the Department for Education, at least 147 schools in England have been affected by RAAC, but this number may grow as investigations continue. At least 27 NHS sites have been confirmed to have aerated concrete and I understand the NHS is conducting an urgent inquiry into the safety of the buildings. Thousands of patients and pupils are facing disruption as a result of this aerated concrete coming to the end of its life, which apparently means it could break and collapse the building at any moment. Very fortunately, so far no serious injuries have resulted from such collapses.

We know the Department for Education was aware of the use of RAAC in schools that were built in the 1970s and 1980s. Its report from 2018 showed that as many as 400 schools per year could need their buildings repaired as a result of the use of this material. The 2021 spending review provided funding for just 50 of those per year. At the end of 2022, the Department for Education listed building failures as one of six key risks in its annual report. Similarly, as an FoI request from my party has shown, hospitals across the country are facing huge repair costs from chemical leaks and broken fire alarms—in one hospital, raw sewage was in patient areas. In my view, sewage seeping anywhere in a hospital is totally unacceptable. This followed on from a report from November last year that the repair bill for NHS hospitals in England alone has hit £10 billion.

My amendment seeks, as a first step in tackling these issues, to get the information into the public domain. I will give one example of why this is important. School admission authorities are already being asked by parents having to choose a school for their children whether their preferred school is affected by a need for critical repairs which could disrupt their children’s education. School admissions are likely not to know, so it is really important that parents, in the case of schools, have the information to make choices about their children’s education. In the same way, NHS trusts should be able to make available similar information to patients where there is an ability to choose where an operation will take place.

Amendment 281 in my name is intended simply to persuade the Government that it is important to provide this information to the public and to enable accountability of the Government for the state of very important public buildings. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 7:15, 18 September 2023

My Lords, I have Amendment 282NE in this rather miscellaneous group. It is one of the joys of England that we have a lot of towns with houses that have no driveways but front gardens. We need to take care of that in the context of our policy for making everyone drive electric. As we have set things up at the moment, we have introduced an imperative that people should pave over their front garden and use it to park their car. If they do so, they will have a dedicated parking space and can charge from their own house, at the rate they are buying electricity in a deal they have made themselves rather than from some organisation doing it in the street. They also pay VAT at 5% rather than 15%. Zoopla says that, if you do that, you will increase the value of your house by at least 10%.

It is both for people’s convenience and a necessity. If you get an electric car and rely on very thinly provided street parking, you may find that you have to park some long distance from your house and cannot be sure of being able to charge your car when you need to do so. We are creating an environment that will result, if we are not very careful, in our towns becoming much less charming and beautiful places because of our good ambition that more people have electric cars.

I ask my noble friend to make it clear to local authorities that they can do something about this and do not have to give permission for a dropped kerb or paving over front gardens. They can wind this into an organised rollout of on-street charging and not let desecration happen by default.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, I will introduce my noble friend Lady Bennett’s Amendment 282NC, as she has been called away to “Gardeners’ Question Time”. Of course, I will vote to support Amendment 281.

I will be very brief. This is a quite simple amendment based on a report from the New Economics Foundation entitled Losing Altitude: The Economics of Air Transport in Great Britain. It takes on the Conservatives, on their own ground, on questions of growth and economics. There are still arguments that airport facilities are needed for business travel, but it has declined by 50% in the past decades.

All the infuriating by-products of air travel—the noise, disruption and pollution—are not actually worth while. The sector is one of the poorest job creators in the economy per pound of revenue. Automation and efficiency savings have meant that the rapid rise in passenger numbers between 2015 and 2019 was not enough to restore direct employment to its peak in 2007, plus wages are significantly lower in real terms than they were in 2006. That is obviously not for the top jobs; this is for the bulk of workers. Quite honestly, air travel just cannot be justified on any grounds anymore.

The amendment proposed a review to examine the costs and benefits of planned expansion of the UK air transport sector. Quite honestly, it is not worth it.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

My Lords, I will talk briefly to Amendment 282F which is in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and to which I have put my name. It is on the subject of allowing communities access to small areas of land that are available only on a temporary basis to foster schemes for growing vegetables, plants and flowers, not only to produce local food but to give multiple benefits to people’s health and mental health, and to community cohesion and engagement.

In her absence, I thank the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for her session with me and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, last week. We were disappointed that she saw this as a local and not a national issue. The problem with having this lodged at a local level is that these small, ad hoc community initiatives are, in many cases, very informal, and do not have a lot of oomph behind them in an understanding of how local government works or of who to talk to at local authority level. Indeed, there often is no one at local authority level for whom this would be a job. They falter, and then the lawyers get involved with the lease issue, if it gets to that point, at which stage these small community organisations collapse totally under the bureaucracy and strain of not having lawyers of similar firepower to the local authority.

I was delighted to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, talk about “Gardeners’ Question Time”, which is taking place in the House this evening. A very famous television gardener tried to get one of these schemes going in Birmingham, with a very determined national public servant. After three years, even they could not make it happen.

This simple amendment would require local authorities to identify those patches of land that they have, either in their own ownership or others that they know about, that are available for a defined short or medium term; people can grow a few things on them, have a good time and become cohesive communities. It would be a splendid idea if the Government were to accept this.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, raised an interesting issue. I will briefly comment on it because, to me, it seems that the fundamental issue is not just a visual aspect; it is also the fact that by using paving on front gardens you greatly increase the risk of flooding, because the run-off from paved-over front gardens is a serious addition to flooding problems. The issue here is not just whether you have pretty flowers in your front garden. There are complex issues, such as those which the noble Lord referred to around access to home charging, which will be very important in the future. There are excellent porous products that can be used instead of hardstanding. If local authorities are to have a role, it ought to be in specifying to ensure that porous products are used, not just in front gardens but in the creation of any car parks, because they work perfectly well.

I will briefly refer to the issue of aviation and the provision of airports. The concentration of so many large airports in the south-east of England is one of the most obvious manifestations of inequality in the UK, as well as making it extremely difficult to build modern public transport links to those airports to reduce their impact on the environment. The UK is generously supplied with airports, in comparison to most other countries. Many of them have spare capacity. I would urge that what needs to be done is to take these two factors together. Therefore, there is no justification for the expansion of airports in the south-east, and, in particular, no justification for expanding Heathrow for a third runway.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, there are a number of quite disparate amendments in this group, so I will speak briefly to them.

The first is Amendment 281 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, to which I added my name, on a register of disrepair in schools and hospitals. This raises a very serious issue. She introduced it very clearly and in detail, so I will not repeat what she said other than to endorse her remarks. We are completely behind her amendment and what she is trying to achieve with it. If the noble Baroness wants to test the opinion of the House, she will have our strong support.

Turning to the other amendments, I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, is now in his place. His amendment, around creating a new partnership model for town centre investment zones, has not really been mentioned. We had quite a discussion about this in Committee, in which we expressed our support. I express that support again and urge the Government to work with the noble Lord on how this approach can be taken forward. We need to do something to support many of our town centres, and his suggestions are worth exploring.

My noble friend Lady Young spoke to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, around local authorities publishing a list of publicly owned land which is suitable for community cultivation and environmental improvement. I totally support the principle of this; it seems like a sensible way forward to improve local growing and the environmental purposes of land.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, introduced the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, around reviewing the air transport sector. We must really think about our approach to this when we look at climate change. Obviously, we must support this important part of our economy. However, there is so much more to consider. I come back to this over and again: why is it so much cheaper to fly than it is to go by train? This has got to be at the core of how we approach this, particularly if you look at what the French Government have done regarding internal flights. It is something we must take a much stronger look at.

Finally, I was going to make the same point as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, about surface water flooding. If we are going to pave over more of our towns and cities, we are going to have more of a problem with surface water flooding—it is just a matter of fact. I support the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, to see what we can do to stop so many of the gardens in our towns and cities being paved over. It is not just about the aesthetics—although, obviously, they are lovely; there is a practical reason to consider this more carefully.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, Amendment 281 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, considers the important issue of school and hospital safety. It would require the Government to keep a register of schools and hospitals in serious disrepair. Nothing is more important than the safety of pupils, patients and staff in schools and hospitals. That is, I am sure, common ground between us across the House; however, it is our belief that the amendment is unnecessary. Furthermore, we think that it would not, in practice, have the effect that the noble Baroness intends. The Government provide significant funding and support for the upkeep of schools and hospitals, including additional support where there are issues that cannot be fully managed locally.

We already collect and make available extensive data on the condition of both schools and hospitals. Moreover, we are concerned that the amendment could add significant burdens on these sectors. Indeed, at worst, it could serve to undermine safety by moving our focus and resources away from providing targeted support for serious issues, such as RAAC, to instead spend time with schools and hospitals on minor issues that may close spaces temporarily but are easily managed locally.

The school estate consists of more than 22,000 schools and sixth-form colleges, with around 64,000 blocks. Of course, condition varies across the estate and a number of buildings are reaching the end of their useful life. While local authorities, academy trusts and other bodies are directly responsible for school buildings, we support them by allocating significant capital funding each year, delivering major rebuilding programmes and providing guidance on effective estate management. That is why we have a 10-year rebuilding programme prioritising those with the most significant issues. We have allocated more than £15 billion to improve the condition of the estate since 2015, including £1.8 billion for 2023-24.

The local knowledge that responsible bodies have of their estates, and how they are used, makes them best placed to ensure that school and college buildings are kept safe, compliant with regulations and in good working order. There is no requirement on schools to report temporary closures of buildings to the Department for Education, but the department always stands ready to provide additional support on a case-by-case basis if it is alerted to a safety issue by those responsible bodies.

The noble Baroness made specific reference to reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. The department is taking a more proactive and targeted approach to address the issue of RAAC, which affects a number of responsible bodies, and extensive work and support are in train to manage it. As she said, the issue of RAAC has spanned successive Governments since the 1990s. The Department for Education issued a warning notice in 2018 and published guidance in 2021, which has been regularly updated. Last year the Government took a more direct approach, asking responsible bodies to inform the department of any buildings where they think RAAC may be present. In those cases, the DfE sends a professional surveyor to assess whether RAAC is present. In line with the technical advice, spaces where RAAC was graded critical were closed until appropriate mitigations were put in place.

The department has acted decisively on new evidence and has now changed the guidance so that all school buildings with RAAC are taken out of use until suitable mitigations are implemented. It is worth emphasising for the record that the vast majority of schools are not affected at all. We will continue to support all schools with confirmed RAAC in whatever way we can to minimise any disruption to education, whether through teams of dedicated caseworkers or through capital funding to put mitigations in place.

On 6 September, the Department for Education published details of confirmed schools and colleges with RAAC as of 30 August; it has committed to updating that in due course. As I set out, any expectation or requirement for schools to report all building issues and closures would place an unnecessary burden on the sector and not, in practice, lead to better outcomes. It would mean that the department focuses finite resource on following up with schools that may have to close buildings or single classrooms for a short period and for relatively minor issues. As a rule, those issues are quickly resolved locally—for example, minor maintenance issues, burst pipes or boilers needing repair. It is more effective and efficient for the safety of the school estate if central government continues to focus our efforts on schools that may have serious issues with buildings that cannot be managed by responsible bodies locally and need additional support, such as our targeted work on RAAC.

However, as I mentioned, the department collects consistent data on the condition of schools. The condition data collection programme, which sent qualified surveyors into nearly every school in England from 2017 to 2019, helps the Department for Education understand the condition of schools to inform capital funding policy and programmes. Individual reports were shared with schools and their responsible bodies during the course of the programme, and a summary of findings has been published. On 20 July, in advance of the Summer Recess, detailed condition data on individual schools was deposited in the House Library; it is available on the Parliament website. A new condition data collection is in train to provide updated information on the condition of schools in England by 2026.

I turn now to health. As set out in the Health Infrastructure Plan and the NHS planning guidance, individual NHS organisations are legally responsible for maintaining their estates. We recognise that backlog maintenance can pose challenges to the efficiency, safety and quality of NHS services, and we also recognise the challenge for providers in maintaining their existing estates and investing in new facilities. To support that, we are investing to upgrade and modernise NHS buildings so that staff have the facilities needed to provide world-class care for patients, including £4.2 billion this year and an additional £4.2 billion next year.

In addition, the NHS also has well-established data publications. It annually publishes the Estates Return Information Collection, which already provides detailed information on the levels of backlog maintenance across the estate and in individual NHS trusts. Duplication would waste significant resources and place additional burdens on front-line services. For example, moving to a three-monthly review process would represent a quadrupling in the reporting burden that currently falls on NHS trusts. That is not an acceptable or proportionate position to take in the context of the challenges that our hard-working NHS estates teams are managing at individual hospital sites.

Amendment 282E in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, would create town centre investment zones, where the local authority could provide business rates discounts and where partnership working is incentivised. That is another area where we can agree on the general intent, but I must disagree that even more legislation is needed.

We all want to see our high streets and town centres adapt and thrive and, to that end, from October the Government will begin a pilot of high street accelerators, which are partnership working groups to support the high street. My officials have consulted with the British Property Federation on the policy design. The initial pilot will gather evidence to test the effectiveness of that type of intervention, and a decision will then be taken about how best to take things forward, including deciding whether that form of intervention could be strengthened, establishing the benefits of introducing accelerators to more places, or deciding whether other interventions offer greater value to achieve high street regeneration.

The Government are already providing a generous package of business rate support to high street businesses with a retail, leisure and hospitality scheme worth an estimated £2.4 billion in 2023-24, providing eligible businesses with 75% of their bill up to a maximum of £110,000 per business. Furthermore, local authorities already have powers in statute to offer business rates relief support in their local areas. It is important that we see this work through and draw conclusions about the effectiveness of place-based partnership models rather than legislating for a specific model, which may not be the most effective approach.

On Amendments 282F and 295A, which relate to community cultivation, there were lively debates in Committee on this issue, and I appreciate the time taken by the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Young of Old Scone, to discuss this important matter further with us in recent meetings. The Localism Act 2011 requires district and unitary councils to maintain a list of assets of community value, which can be either land or buildings, and which have been nominated by local community groups or parish councils. Local communities have the right to nominate the spaces and places that matter most to them. Alongside this, our national planning policy is clear about the importance of identifying and providing green spaces for community use, including allotment land.

I could not agree more that it is important for government to consult stakeholders as we consider appropriate steps to support local communities to grow locally produced food in their area. However, given the mechanisms which already exist to identify and bring suitable land forward, I feel strongly that we should avoid placing additional and overlapping duties on local authorities.

On Amendment 282NE, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas, as he knows, permitted development rights are a well-established part of the planning system, and an existing right allows homeowners to install hard surfacing in their front gardens. However, just to respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, on a point she raised, mentioned too by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, the right requires that where more than five square metres of hard surfacing is proposed, it must either be made of porous materials or run-off water must be directed to a permeable or porous surface within the curtilage of the house. If those conditions are not met, homeowners must submit a planning application to install hard surfacing in their front gardens, where greater than five square metres. However, the point I stress to my noble friend in the context of his amendment is that local authorities already have powers to remove this permitted development right through an article 4 direction where it is necessary to protect local amenity or the well-being of an area. Therefore, I suggest that his amendment is not necessary.

On Amendment 282NC, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, statutory requirements and processes are already in place to ensure that the impacts of airport expansions are properly assessed and consistency with wider government policy is considered. Local planning authorities are responsible for plan-making and decision-taking, including planning proposals involving airports, and they are the bodies accountable to local communities for the decisions they make. For nationally significant proposals such as the airports national policy statement, there is already a robust review process in place which is designated by statute under the Planning Act 2008. Therefore, on reflection, I hope that the noble Baroness will see that that would not be helpful. As I mentioned, there is already a review power under the Planning Act 2008, and separately there is also a review timetable, which is set out in the Government’s jet zero strategy.

I hope that provides sufficient assurance to the noble Baroness that the powers and processes that she is essentially advocating are already provided for. More generally, I hope that I have sufficiently assured the House that we are already taking action to address the issues raised in this group, and that the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government) 7:30, 18 September 2023

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for his extremely long, detailed and careful response to the issues I raised about the repair of schools and hospitals. I remind the noble Earl that the amendment refers only to setting up a register for buildings that suffer from serious disrepair, so it would not cover emergency water leaks or the like. The importance of a public open register is to enable transparency for all those who work in or use those buildings—patients, parents, pupils and all the staff who work in those buildings. Then, of course, it also enables accountability to those bodies responsible—in the end, the Government—for having full and timely repair processes for those public buildings. I am afraid that unfortunately, the noble Earl has not convinced me of the Government’s approach to school and hospital buildings that are in serious disrepair, so I beg leave to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 178, Noes 143.

Division number 4 Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Report (8th Day) — Amendment 281

Aye: 176 Members of the House of Lords

No: 141 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Amendment 281 agreed.