I commend the good work Centrepoint is doing during the coronavirus outbreak.
Universal Credit was designed to simplify the benefits system with a focus on helping people into work and supporting their in-work progression. Having a simplified benefits systems has been hugely beneficial during this crisis and has allowed much of the focus to be on bolstering the existing system, not trying to reinvent it. Differential rates are paid according to peoples’ individual circumstances and age, although I would emphasise that the Department for Work and Pensions has increased the standard allowance in UC for all claimants. I would also add that additional amounts which provide for specific needs such as children or disability are paid at a standard rate in addition to the standard allowance, irrespective of age.
Universal Credit claimants can also get support with housing costs which can help to pay private landlords, local authorities or interest payments on a mortgage. In response to Covid-19, the Local Housing Allowance rates for Housing Benefit and Universal Credit claimants have been increased to the 30th percentile of local rents, providing additional financial support for private renters. If people need further support with rent Discretionary Housing Payments are available, while a £500 million Hardship Fund provides council tax relief to vulnerable people in England.
That being said, I share your concern that young people must be supported through the Coronavirus emergency. Benefits, however, are only one part of that support. I know my colleagues in Government have been working hard to protect jobs by helping businesses to open safely, while the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and Self Employed Income Support Scheme have also keep people in their roles throughout an uncertain period. Keeping young people in jobs and close to the labour market must be our priority.
Democratic Planning System
I believe that a planning system that is based on a legal framework and clear consultation with local residents is at the heart of responsible development. This is particularly relevant when normal working practices are disrupted, as has happened with the coronavirus outbreak.
The majority of planning decisions are made by planning officers. Planning committee meetings are held to decide a smaller number of cases. These meetings can now be held virtually as you mention.
The Government has emphasised that local planning authorities should seek to use all options available to them to facilitate decision-making. It has also explained that local authorities should ensure public participation in the planning process is maintained during the outbreak. My ministerial colleagues are working with the Planning Advisory Service to provide further information on how this can be achieved.
Amendments to existing regulations will temporarily supplement publicity requirements to put up site notice, issue neighbour notification letters and place newspaper advertisements. This will give local authorities more flexibility about the best way to publicise planning applications, including considering the use of social media and other online services.
I appreciate that you would like further detail and have passed on your comments to my ministerial colleagues. Local authorities should continue to focus on decision-making during these difficult times. I believe that clear and timely decisions provide certainty for local people and benefit the local economy.
I completely agree that we need to end homelessness, and I have been encouraged by the figures for 2019 which showed a 9% drop in the number of people sleeping rough. I think this shows that we are moving in the right direction, although there is of course much more to be done.
The Prime Minister recently announced a further £236 million toward Housing First style accommodation for up to 6,000 rough sleepers. This is on top of £437 million already committed for 2020-21 to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping in our communities.
The Government has recently announced an additional £360,000 for North Devon to reduce the levels of homelessness, and to support the brilliant schemes we have in our area. I was delighted to visit the Freedom Centre in Barnstaple in February, and to see for myself what needs to be done to rehouse the homeless.
I assure you that I will do all I can to eliminate homelessness, and I will continue to work with Ministers, charities and our council to ensure the right support is in place.
Support for Pubs
I have signed a letter to the Chancellor calling on the Government to cut beer tax at the Budget. With £1 in every £3 pounds spent in UK pubs going to the taxman, British drinkers now pay 40% of all beer tax across the EU, but drink only 12% of the beer. Seven in ten alcoholic drinks served in pubs are beer, underlining how directly a cut in beer duty will help pubs. Brewing and pubs in North Devon supports 1,759 jobs and contributes £41.0m to the local economy!
Pubs are at the heart of our communities across North Devon, but with three British pubs closing their doors for good every day the Government should consider a cut to beer tax.
I am fully aware of the many cases we have in North Devon where villages have lost their pubs completely, and I believe this campaign can help support the remaining 139 pubs which are central to rural life.
I agree that more funding is needed to build social housing and that barriers to development must be addressed. The £9 billion Affordable Homes programme will help deliver more affordable housing and socially rented homes.
However, funding alone will not solve the problem, which is why I welcome action to make the development system simpler and more robust. A new Housing Infrastructure Fund will be established to unlock more homes by putting in place vital infrastructure in high-demand areas.
Waiting lists for social housing increased 73 per cent in the past, rising from just over a million households in 1997 to almost two million households by 2009. I am encouraged that social housing waiting lists have declined by 34 per cent since then to 1,200,000 households. There is still much more for us to do, but we are moving in the right direction.
I agree that more needs to be done to improve housebuilding, which is why I welcome that the recent Spending Review promised continued support through Help to Buy loans and other housing programmes to deliver more homes where people need them.