Local authorities have been at the forefront of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic in our communities where the most vulnerable and deprived have been particularly at risk. The spread of the virus has placed unprecedented demands on local services, and I am proud of our key and public sector workers here in North Devon.
Significant additional funding has been provided to local authorities to support them as they respond to the outbreak. £7.2 billion in funding has been made available for councils to relieve local pressures and help vulnerable people. This includes £4.6 billion in unringfenced funding, £1.1 billion for care homes, £300 million to support Test and Trace as well as funding allocated to councils from the Local Alert Level system and a number of grants to support communities and vulnerable people. A further £32 million is being provided to councils to support clinically extremely vulnerable people for the period that national restrictions are in place, alongside the £170m Covid Winter Grant Scheme to support children, families and the most vulnerable over winter. In light of the new restrictions, £2.2 billion will be given to businesses across England to support jobs, livelihoods and local communities. This funding builds on the recent Local Government Finance Settlement that provided the largest increase in a decade in spending power for councils in England.
I know that many councils are worried about what lies in the future. The Government has asked local councils to approach the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government if they are experiencing unmanageable pressures or concerned about their financial position. Councils can also claim funding through a compensation scheme for lost income from sales, fees and charges until the end of June 2021. The income recovery scheme covers local council losses over 5% of planned income at a rate of 75p for every pound, encouraging councils to minimise losses where they can and providing certainty where needed. This comes alongside a proposal for a phased repayment of council tax and business rates deficits over three years rather than one.
I welcome the Chancellor's further commitments to councils in the Spending Review. The spending power of local authorities is expected to increase by 4.5% in 2021-22. Separately, over £3 billion additional funding is being provided, which includes £1.55 billion for service pressures, £670 million for council tax support and £762 million to compensate lost tax revenue. Funding to address homelessness and rough sleeping is being raised to over £750 million, alongside £1.3 billion toward adult and children's social care. £220 million is being allocated to help local areas prepare for the Shared Prosperity Fund and £621 million will be made available through the Towns Fund. I am confident that these measures will provide local communities with the resources they need to recover from the outbreak.
Proportional Property Tax
I read the proposal with interest and it raises important points about fairness in our tax system. However, as I understand it, evidence about how the proportional property tax would work in England shows that a lot of places that are low income areas but also experiencing rising house prices would be hit very hard, even places with high levels of deprivation and low household incomes. If house prices were to rise in an area, low income households would quickly see their bills rise at staggering rates well above increases to their income.
Even if the new proportional tax was to be paid by property owners rather than tenants, it is highly likely that this would simply be passed on back to tenants in rent increases, as property owners still need to make mortgage payments.
On second homes and vacant homes, 95% of second homes are already charged full council tax and vacant homes can be charged double the council tax rate if these are empty for two or more years. Council tax is a valuable source of revenue for local councils and it is important that they have the discretion to raise or lower council tax rates based on the needs in their local area.
Problem debt is often difficult to escape and can have a devastating impact on existing issues including family problems and poor mental health. It is only right that people who fall into problem debt are helped to find a sustainable, long-lasting plan to solve their debt problems.
I welcome the action being taken to protect those who find themselves in problem debt through a new breathing space scheme. This scheme will consist of a breathing space period and a statutory debt repayment plan. Together, these two aspects of the scheme will protect debtors from creditor action, help them get professional advice on their debt problems, and help them pay off their debts in a sustainable way. Colleagues in the Treasury have already started work on this scheme by investing an additional £12.5 million throughout 2020-21 in order to implement breathing spaces as soon as possible.
The Local Housing Allowance (LHA) has already been increased to the 30th percentile of local market rents for Universal Credit and Housing Benefit claimants. This means that 30% of properties in each broad market area across England, Scotland and Wales are now within the LHA rate. This change will directly benefit over a million households who will see an increase in support of £600 a year on average.
Leaseholders of the Crown Estate do not have statutory enfranchisement rights, however, the Crown has indicated to Parliament that it will act by analogy in most cases to give leaseholders the same rights held by others more broadly. The Crown Estate has adopted a well publicised, voluntary policy of granting lease extensions, which I have been assured is expected to continue.
Fire Saftey and Cladding
I recognise how incredibly worrying and upsetting the issue of cladding is for those living in properties impacted by it and am reassured that ministers are committed to taking steps to further address this.
The £1 billion Building Safety Fund, alongside the £600 million in funding already provided for the removal of Grenfell-style ACM cladding, will help remove unsafe cladding on high-rise residential buildings, protecting leaseholders from remediation costs. This funding should mean that banks and mortgage lenders have certainty that remediation costs for these buildings will be paid for. The deadline for the fund has been extended to June 2021.
The Building Safety Bill will introduce a new era of accountability, making it clear where the responsibility for managing safety risks lies throughout the design, construction and occupation of buildings in scope. There will be tougher sanctions for those that fail to meet their obligations. The Bill also includes provision for the building safety charge which is designed to give leaseholders greater transparency about the costs incurred from maintaining a safe building. These costs would otherwise be recovered from the annual service charge as per the terms in most leasehold agreements. The Bill also includes a number of protections, including allowing the Government to limit the scope of what can be recovered from leaseholders.
Under the new statutory terms, the landlord commits to the leaseholder to carry out the necessary measures, apply for any available financial support and observe the statutory requirements in relation to raising charges. In return, the leaseholder commits to the landlord to pay a fair share of reasonable charges and co-operate with the building safety regime. I was glad to learn that Ministers are particularly committed to looking further at the question of costs throughout the process of scrutiny as the Bill is finalised for introduction.
Leaseholders should not have to worry about the unaffordable costs of fixing safety defects in high rise buildings that they did not cause, and should be protected from large scale remediation costs wherever possible. The Government is working to develop further financial solutions to protect leaseholders from unaffordable costs.
I am assured that my ministerial colleagues recognise the difficulties some people are facing on mortgages and expect lenders to do all they can to unblock these issues for leaseholders. The Government does not support the blanket use of External Wall System Review forms and encourages lenders to accept equivalent evidence that demonstrates buildings are safe for valuation purposes. Owners of flats in buildings without cladding will no longer need an EWS1 form to sell or re-mortgage their property thanks to an agreement reached between the Government and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), UK Finance and the Building Societies Association.
Fire Safety Bill (Grenfell)
A number of constituents have asked me about my vote on an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill on 7th September. I want to explain why I voted the way I did and why this does not mean that the Government is not taking action following Grenfell.
The Labour Party’s amendment’s intention was to speed up the implementation of the Grenfell Inquiry’s recommendations. In the debate on that amendment, the Minister was very clear that the amendment would not have made things move any more quickly.
The Government have committed to implementing the recommendations as quickly as possible. Any suggestion that the Government will not implement the recommendations is false. The MP for Kensington, whose constituency which includes Grenfell Tower, has written a statement explaining why the amendment would not have sped up the process and why it might have ended up slowing it down. Please find that statement attached below.
I want to end by assuring you that I believe very strongly that building regulations must change as a result of Grenfell. I sat on the Fire Safety Bill Public Bill Committee and so I am familiar with the terms of the legislation. I am therefore confident that it will effectively implement the Inquiry’s recommendations.
We must deal with unsafe cladding and ensure that people live in safe homes. This has been an issue where there has been cross-party consensus, and the Labour Party’s misrepresentation of what it meant to vote against the amendment has not helped to strengthen it.
Further guarantees have been added by the Minister of State for Security and the Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council has endorsed the government’s approach to the implementation of the recommendations.
The setting up of illegal traveller sites can be a nuisance for local communities and an inappropriate development of open space. I know that many local residents across the country are concerned about anti-social behaviour, fly-tipping, and noise related to unauthorised sites.
The Government is consulting on measures to criminalise the act of trespassing when setting up an unauthorised encampment in England and Wales. Ministers are also consulting on other measures to strengthen police powers in order to tackle unauthorised encampments. The consultation survey has now closed, and Ministers are currently analysing feedback. I, like you, await the Government's response and look forward to scrutinising any decisions that are taken. The measures under consideration would not affect ramblers, the right to roam or rights of way. Instead, measures could be applied in specific circumstances relating to trespass with intent to reside.
The Government has made it clear that only a minority of travellers are causing problems, such as through abusive behaviour and extensive litter and waste at illegal sites. The vast majority of the travelling community are decent law-abiding people and we must ensure that there are legal sites available for travellers. The Government has also given £200,000 to support projects working with Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities to tackle discrimination, improve integration, healthcare and education.
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.