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Housing and Planning

Volume 549: debated on Thursday 6 September 2012

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on housing and planning. The coalition Government inherited a legacy where house building had fallen to its lowest rates since the 1920s, and there was a top-down planning system that built nothing but resentment and a regime of regional planning quangos that created paralysis and confrontation. After six years of preparation, by the general election fewer than 60 councils had completed local plans. The result was no development, no regeneration and no community benefit.

This Government want to get the economy growing, to remove unnecessary red tape and to support locally led sustainable development. In November, the Government published a comprehensive housing strategy to support a thriving, active and stable housing market. In March, we published a national planning policy framework that condensed 1,000 pages of central planning guidance into just 50. House building is up; it was 29% higher in 2011 than in 2009. However, there is much more to do. So, my Department is announcing a further series of common-sense measures to promote house building and support locally led economic growth. The technical details were set out in a written statement that I laid before the House, but I will now summarise the key points for hon. Members.

Following on from Sir Adrian Montague’s independent report on supporting the private rented sector, we are providing £200 million of new funding to support institutional investment in high-quality rented homes. Thanks to the action we have taken to tackle the previous Government’s deficit, we are passing on lower costs of borrowing. We will be issuing a debt guarantee for up to £10 billion to support private investment in the private rented sector and in new affordable housing. We will support up to an additional 15,000 affordable homes through the use of loan guarantees, flexibilities and capital funding. We also intend to extend our successful refurbishment programme to bring an additional 5,000 existing empty homes back into use. The previous Government wanted to demolish Victorian terraces, through John Prescott’s pathfinder programme. By contrast, we are getting homes back into productive use. In total, we will invest another £300 million in these measures to support new affordable homes and to bring empty homes into use.

We actively want to support home ownership, which fell under the last Parliament, despite a Labour pledge to increase it by 1 million. We are extending our successful FirstBuy scheme for first-time buyers, with an additional £280 million of funding helping up to 16,500 first-time buyers to purchase a home. To free up more brownfield land for development and regeneration, we will accelerate the release of surplus public sector land and empty offices through a targeted programme of transfers from other Government Departments. We will work with local authorities and developers to unlock locally supported large sites. Just last week, we were able to unblock the Eastern Quarry in the Ebbsfleet valley, a major ex-industrial site that had been stalled for more than a decade.

We are working with local communities and councils, by strong contrast with the previous Government’s top-down plans for the so-called “eco-towns”, which failed to deliver a single home. But some councils need to raise their game, as they are failing to make planning decisions in a timely way. Planning delays create uncertainty, both for local residents and local firms. We will introduce a series of practical measures to help speed up planning decisions and appeals, and major infrastructure. Some complex developments take time to assemble, so we are allowing for developers to extend the duration of existing planning permissions. We will make it easier for developers to change unrealistic section 106 agreements negotiated at the height of Labour’s unsustainable economic boom; these are houses built on foundations of sand which are no longer economically viable after Labour’s bust. A development that is not built means no section 106 payments. Common-sense reform will result in more regeneration, more housing and more community benefits.

Sustainable development should go hand in hand with environmental safeguards, so I can confirm that we will protect the green belt, in line with our commitment in the coalition agreement. It has always been the case that councils can amend local green belt boundaries should they wish, and we support councils that choose to do so. They can introduce new green belt protection around new large developments. There is considerable previously developed land in many green belt areas. We encourage councils to make best use of that land, while protecting the openness of the green belt, in line with the requirements of the national planning policy framework.

If we are to protect our countryside, we need to focus more growth in our town centres. So we are introducing measures to make it easier to turn empty commercial buildings into housing. Our high streets will benefit from a greater resident population increasing footfall and supporting local shops. As a nation, we have great pride in our homes. We want to make it easier for families to undertake home improvements, such as building a new conservatory. So we will be seeking to simplify and increase permitted development rights for households. Cutting back municipal red tape in this way should provide a particular boost for small traders and builders. By contrast, the Labour Government wanted to tax conservatories with a council tax revaluation on family homes. The difference could not be clearer.

These practical measures build on the housing, local government finance and planning reforms already in play. They give more power to individuals, to communities and to councils. They provide new incentives to support local shops, local firms and local economic growth. They deliver sustainable development and get the business of building under way. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his oral statement and for the fact that he graciously offered one after my urgent question had been granted. But, once again, Mr Deputy Speaker, we have major changes in policy being announced first to the media and not to the House. We also notice that the Secretary of State has been uncharacteristically silent in recent weeks, while the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor have all been busy changing policy that we all thought he was responsible for.

The Government know that we have a housing crisis, but it is a crisis of their own making. Housing starts fell by 10% last year and affordable housing starts fell by a catastrophic 68%—that was a direct result of the cut in Government funding for affordable housing, which the Secretary of State allowed to happen. The Chancellor has put the economy back into double-dip recession, those who are looking to buy are finding it hard to get mortgages or to raise the deposits needed, and house builders who already have planning permission are not progressing those developments because they do not think that people will buy the houses.

We support measures that will help growth and build more houses—including the debt guarantee—and help first-time buyers. Indeed, we have been urging the Government to bring forward investment in housing. Will the Secretary of State tell the House when he expects that the number of affordable housing starts, which was only 15,000 last year, will match the 54,000 starts achieved in 2009-10 by the last Labour Government? Will he also tell us how many families have benefited to date from the NewBuy scheme?

The fundamental problem is not the planning system and not section 106 agreements, which are very important in providing much-needed affordable housing. The Local Government Association reports that planning permission is already in the system for 400,000 homes—it is the Chancellor’s failed economic plan that is preventing them from being built.

On section 106, how many affordable homes does he anticipate will now not be built because of his proposed changes, given that the National Housing Federation said this morning that section 106 provides 35,000 affordable homes a year? Will any replacement homes that manage to be built be built on the same development sites so that we can have mixed communities?

The Deputy Prime Minister suggested on the radio this morning that at present developers have to wait five years before they can renegotiate section 106 agreements. Will the Secretary of State confirm that those agreements can in fact be renegotiated at any time if the parties agree and that a number of local authorities have been doing exactly that because of the current economic circumstances? What evidence will developers be required to produce to show that a scheme is not viable? Will he clarify whether the proposed changes apply only to existing section 106 agreements or also to new ones, given that only last month he announced that for

“all planning obligations agreed after 6 April 2010, the period will remain at five years”?

This morning, the Secretary of State has also just announced in his written statement—I notice that he did not refer to it in his oral statement—a bombshell that threatens local decision making on planning decisions. The written statement laid before the House this morning states that if an authority

“has a track record of consistently poor performance in the speed or quality of its decisions”—

we must ask who will judge that quality—the Government propose

“to legislate to allow applications to be decided by the Planning Inspectorate”.

Can he explain why, having consistently denounced centralised decision making, he is now proposing a fundamental change? This is not a technical detail, but a fundamental change in which he proposes to take the power in future to decide whether he thinks that local planning decisions are up to scratch. If he does not, planning power will be taken out of the hands of local people. So much for localism. Does he not realise that that will cause alarm up and down the country, including among those on both sides of the House?

We have read a great deal about the Chancellor’s wish to undermine the green belt, which is much valued by all of us. Will the Secretary of State clarify what is happening? The Chancellor says that it will change, but the Secretary of State says that it will not. Who is right? Why is this shambles occurring?

When does the Secretary of State plan to publish more details on the relaxation of permitted development rights? Will the current height restrictions be maintained? Will he confirm that that will not apply to conservation areas and that where article 4 directions are in place they will remain in place?

Having completed the biggest change in planning policy for a generation earlier this year and trumpeted its success, the Secretary of State, in an extraordinary spectacle, has stood up before the House and, in effect, told us that his planning system is not fit for purpose. When will Ministers stop casting around for somebody and something else to blame, finally admit that it is the Chancellor’s failed economic policy has led to a collapse in house building and change course?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what I think was a partial welcome for these measures. The previous planning Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), had occasion to compare the right hon. Gentleman, whom we all love greatly, to Lady Bracknell. Today, he acceded to Lady Bracknell sucking a wasp.

Given the party the right hon. Gentleman represents, he should remember that under the previous Labour Government the number of social housing units fell by just under 500,000. He wonders why the housing position was so difficult: it was the stewardship of his party that caused the problem.

Let me deal with the various questions that he asked. We will publish the figures on NewBuy very shortly, but I am sure that he will be pleased that it has been welcomed by the sector. That gives people the opportunity to get quality houses that are newly built. On affordable housing, he seems to have missed the point of the statement. We are talking about building additional social houses and will be building up to 15,000. We should celebrate that. The problem with Labour—I say this with lots of respect—is that it seems to think that because a plan has been passed it happens. If social housing is uneconomic and developers build nothing, it does not matter if the ratio for social housing is set at 50%, because 50% of nothing is still nothing. There needs to be a dose of realism.

There seems to be a misunderstanding among Labour Members about section 106. It can be enormously helpful to builders and gives social housing in certain parts of the country where there is high demand a ready and available customer. In some parts of the country, however, there have been unrealistic views about what is possible and that is holding back development. That is why earlier this year I wrote to local councils and asked them carefully to consider the process of renegotiation. I am very pleased that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, about 40% responded. I commend them for that and they should be regarded as heroes and as part of the process. However, there still remain a significant number of authorities that have refused to accept the economic realities and that regard this as a badge of honour—

I will happily name and shame them in due course.

The question of the green belt is very straightforward. I think people forget what the green belt is about. It is there to act as a buffer between the major conurbations. A certain degree of tricksyism occurred under the previous Government, whereby they said that the green belt was growing but essentially pinched the green belt from high-pressure areas where it was needed and redesignated it in places where it was not. We want to make it absolutely clear that the green belt is immensely important, both to London as a green lung and to the wider countryside as part of ensuring that our communities are sustainable. Within the green belt, however, is a lot of land that was previously developed: unused quarry sites and scrap yards, for example. It seems to me to be common sense that we should be able to use this opportunity to swap land—to take a greenfield site that is not in the green belt and to put it in, and to use the former developed land to get development going.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about permitted development rights and I fully recognise that he is a millionaire and an aristocrat, who is probably unused to being able to measure land other than in acres, but speaking as a working class lad who is proud to own a detached house and whose garden is smaller than the right hon. Gentleman’s croquet lawn, I must say that we will clearly retain the rights to ensure that the curtilage of houses is respected. Nobody will be able to build beyond halfway up their garden as a maximum and we will not be building enormously into the sky. All those things are related and we will not be building a big extension on Dove cottage in Grasmere.

I thank the Secretary of State for today’s innovative announcement and for the written statement. I particularly welcome the regeneration aspect, which will be led by the community, hand in hand with developers. It is very important to all our constituents that they know that this is not the floodgates opening and that it will be done hand in hand with the community.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course this is about localism; it is about working closely with local authorities. It has been very refreshing to work with local authorities that are willing to renegotiate. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) should feel fairly cheerful, as many of them have been Labour authorities—we work with anybody. We have been very willing to help and be part of the process, because many local authorities perhaps lack the necessary experience to renegotiate a section 106 agreement. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is about putting the community in control.

We have heard much talk today about affordable housing and social housing. The reality of social housing in London is that between April and September last year only 56 new social rented homes were started, in a city of 7 million people. Is that acceptable?

That is why these measures are necessary and why we will be working hand in glove with London local authorities. Only yesterday I heard a quotation used in the housing debate stating how well things were going with regard to social housing in London and praising Mayor Johnson, indirectly, for that process. The hon. Lady should not be confrontational. She should join us so that we can work together, hand in hand, to increase the amount of social housing and affordable housing. That is certainly our intention and why an additional sum for flexibility, including guarantees on borrowing and the like, will be available to help the process.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and thank him for it. With regard to the conservatory policy, will he give the House an assurance that new technologies will be used so that, if the planning process is fast-tracked, they will not increase the risk of future flooding?

One of my more poignant memories of opposition is of being with my hon. Friend in her constituency and looking at the devastation caused by flooding. I pay tribute to her hard work locally on that and am pleased that additional anti-flood measures have been put in place. Clearly that is something we have to consider, but I am sure that she will recognise that the conservatories and extensions will not be freestanding; they will be part of existing dwellings.

The statement is a continuation of the Government’s attacks on the planning system as being responsible for all our ills. The only difference, of course, is that now the planning system they are attacking is the one the Secretary of State has just created. I wish to ask two simple questions. First, how can it possibly be localist to transfer planning decisions at first instance from elected local councils to the Planning Inspectorate? Secondly, how can we have any assurance that the number of affordable houses being built will increase when there is not a single mention here of the role of local authorities in building homes and when the number of homes built for housing associations will decline as section 106 agreements are revisited?

The hon. Gentleman has considerable experience in these matters, so I am surprised by his reaction, because this is about working hand in hand with local people. There might be a degree of muscular localism about it, but we will work together with good local authorities. It is only those local authorities that have been dragging their feet and being wholly unrealistic, operating in a kind of economy la-la land, that we will be dealing with. He should see this as an act of help and friendship towards local authorities, many of which have responded magnificently to the process of getting houses built. After all, the Labour party never contemplated anything like the guarantee we are offering on social houses; it was too radical for it. I think that we, the Deputy Prime Minister and our coalition partners have been most bold in taking this decision.

Section 106 agreements have been a really important vehicle for providing affordable housing. If such an agreement is renegotiated for sound and independently assessed reasons, will the council involved be provided with alternative means to provide those much-needed homes?

Absolutely. The alternative means will be a touch of realism about the process, which will help. My hon. Friend makes an important point. As well as the process of renegotiation, we are looking at being able to deliver an additional 15,000 affordable homes, on top of what we have already announced. It is a measure of the kind the Opposition would never have dared advocating. I know that she is a keen observer of the media, so she might recall that when the former Prime Minister was interviewed on “Newsnight” he said that the housing market was essentially a private one and that there was a good case for the withdrawal of much of state aid.

May I draw attention to my interests in the register? Will the Secretary of State tell us the distinction between the doctrine of muscular localism, which he has just announced, and heavy-handed, top-down centralism?

If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying so, he represented the heavy hand of centralism and I represent muscular localism.

The confirmation of green belt protection and the fact that county councils will retain responsibility for it are very welcome. We have thousands of empty homes in Newcastle and Northumberland that are not being utilised, so I welcome the further funding. Will the Secretary of State send forth the message that it is those empty homes that will benefit from the refurbishment money and those brownfield sites that local authorities should be building on, not green-belt rural sites?

My hon. Friend should also remember the new homes bonus, which is available for getting houses back. The place where I lived a quarter of a century ago in Bradford has benefited enormously as a result of getting homes that were previously not occupied back into use. He makes a very reasonable point about the amount of brownfield land that can be developed, and this is a way we can get building going.

For small builders in my constituency, such as Simon Smith, who builds conservatories and extensions, planning is not the problem; the problem is the fact that there is no demand in the economy and even those who are in work are shying away from adding extra developments to their houses. He has had to lay three people off as a result. With regard to extensions and the liberalisation of building on gardens, who will arbitrate in disputes between neighbours? Also, in the last Parliament the Conservative party argued strongly against building on gardens. Is that policy now dead?

Clearly the change does not allow the old system of garden grabbing. We will be consulting, so Mr Simon Smith will be able to make a contribution—[Interruption.] Indeed, I think the hon. Gentleman can go back to Mr Smith and say, “I’ve been down to the Commons and I think you might make a bob or two out of this.” I think he should go out with him at the weekend to leaflet places and get some business going for him. With regard to arbitration between neighbours, we are expecting people to operate in a neighbourly fashion, and there are the safeguards on curtilage and for ensuring that no more than half the garden is built on. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman feels so strongly about this, he should consider making representations during our consultation period. He shakes his head, but he is denying the aspirations of ordinary people. He kindly demonstrates that the Labour party is never on the side of those who aspire.

Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that his statement is not a green light for bad planning? If the glass is full, trying to add another pint will have disastrous consequences for the existing and new populations. I invite him to consider whether building 2,000 houses on the fields of west Mile End, in the fastest growing town in Britain, to be served by a mile-long cul-de-sac, is good planning.

My hon. Friend has frequently invited me to Colchester, and I think he will concede that I have frequently attended Colchester on his behalf. As he has shown me all these things, I must now exclude myself from the deliberations.

Residents in Walthamstow will be desperately concerned to hear talk of helping developers to overcome local decision making, given that we have spent nine years and four years respectively trying to restore our cinema and our dog track to help our local economy. The Secretary of State talks of wanting to give local communities the power to make such decisions, so will he meet me to discuss what more can be done when the settled will of local people is so clearly in favour of an alternative solution, to help them to make sure that developers are not the roadblock to reform?

The hon. Lady and I have spoken about this in the past, and she has made a number of points about development on Walthamstow dog track. Of course I will meet her again, and it would be good if we could work towards a solution, because she has a very strong interest—I do not mean financially—in getting it right. As someone who spent an evening there when it was a dog track, I recognise how important it is to the local community.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his pragmatic approach. If Labour Members do not think that planning is the problem, I am not sure which world they are living in, because planning is the problem. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will accept that permitted development rights are merely an extension of what was there already.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who made an enormous contribution to the national planning policy framework. The truth is that good planning can be the most exciting thing a community can do when it allows people to mould and build things that they are proud of, but not when it becomes a blundering reason for saying no and not really listening to local people or letting them work through their ideas. This proposal will enhance what we are already doing. After all, there is no policy change. Basically, there are a couple of smaller changes—one introduces a three-year extension and the other refers to section 106, which we were already consulting on. The NPPF remains absolutely in place. We promised the House that we would deal with procedural matters, and we are now doing that.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that increasing permitted development rights will cause great concern and alarm in many residential areas such as mine? Will this apply to all areas, including conservation areas, or are conservation areas excluded? If they are excluded, then why conservation areas and not others?

May I ask the Secretary of State to focus specifically on his brief reference to major infrastructure projects? The greatest threat to my constituency, in all my years representing it, was the prospect of a huge container port being built on sensitive land on the edge of the New Forest at Dibden bay. That was ruled out after a year-long public inquiry. Is my right hon. Friend saying that in future such decisions will be taken more quickly, but that the bar that has to be crossed to reach agreement will remain as high as it was in the past?

Of course the process will remain balanced. We introduced the presumption in favour of sustainable development so that the balance between the environment, business and heritage could be finely drawn. As somebody who sees planning inspectors’ reports reasonably regularly—a joy that my hon. Friends the new Ministers will now have—I know that they are clearly taking very seriously the mechanism of looking at those three pillars of sustainable development.

How does the Secretary of State propose to prevent developers from using this as another opportunity to build on greenfield land—not green belt, but greenfield—instead of being forced to build on the banks of brownfield land for which they already have planning permission?

The hon. Lady needs to understand that section 106 is about agreed development—it is not about inviting developers to look at other sites but about existing permissions. The Local Government Association helpfully points out that there are about 400,000 permissions for dwellings. That strengthens our case, because a lot of those developments are locked by section 106. We will go about them on a case-by-case basis, and developers will have to demonstrate that the development is uneconomic in order for the section 106 provision to be renegotiated. We have played a big part in the process with local authorities that have started it, and it works out extremely well in the sense that social housing then starts to be delivered. This package will deliver housing in a more realistic way.

The right hon. Gentleman is clearly still a strong advocate of conservatory values in Government. Does he agree that the case-by-case aspect of his section 106 proposals will be crucial because it will mean that in areas such as mine, which have suffered from plenty of housing being available for second homes but not enough affordable housing being available for local people, those specific circumstances may be taken into account so that the very welcome extra money he has announced for social housing will go as far as it can, along with market housing at the right price for local people?

I am delighted to say that from tomorrow we will be open for bids for this, and that the call-in procedures will be implemented as I walk out of the door today. Quite a lot of this is happening over the next few days.

The House is still not clear about the policy on green-belt land. The Minister has not allayed the fears raised in the Chancellor’s recent statement. He seems to suggest that as long as some replacement land is declared green belt, we can have a free-for-all on the current green belt. Will he categorically assure the House that green belt land will be protected as it always has been?

Will the Secretary of State clarify the situation in one respect? He says that he is seeking to simplify and increase permitted development for household conservatories. May I ask him to be mindful of the fact that in Somerset, the area I represent, housing is very expensive, which has an impact on rents? In dispersed rural communities, there is a serious danger that when small homes are extended their price becomes out of reach to single people, first-time buyers or people starting new families. Will there be some protection to make sure that small homes do not get lost in the system?

There are certain restraints on small homes, which is why the existing policy on permitted development rights was 3 metres for houses. This would extend it to roughly 6 metres, provided it does not extend beyond half the garden. I use the example of conservatories just for shorthand—this is clearly about extensions. We should bear in mind that extensions also fulfil a social need. Often, people want a larger home to take care of an elderly parent, or they may want to take in a member of their extended family. I do not think that we should forget that this will also generate quite a lot of money in the local economy.

Has the Secretary of State begun to quantify the extent to which relaxing planning regulations on conservatories will stimulate the local economy in real terms? Does he have any figures to demonstrate that?

I think I can help. I think that an independent report suggested that, because of the changes we are making to house construction in England, the cost of constructing a similar house in Wales will increase by slightly over £13,500. If we measure that against the cost of Labour bureaucracy, we see that we are taking a £13,500 tax off of building houses.

I should probably declare an interest, because at the weekend I had a conservatory priced for my two-up, two-down terrace, which, sadly, I cannot afford to buy. Will the Secretary of State confirm that nothing in the proposals will affect or water down any of the planning rules or regulations on flood risk and drainage requirements?

I hope that my hon. Friend is not trying to outdo me as a working-class hero. Clearly, this does not represent a watering down—it is strengthening what we are doing. Part of the problem, particularly with the green belt, which is there as a quality buffer between conurbations, is the suggestion that this suddenly means that it will be open season on the green belt. That is clearly not the case. The green belt is what makes this country what it is, but not every little bit of it is a beautiful, shining field—some of it is a scrapyard and some of it is a disused quarry. We can see what can be done for quality housing simply by taking a day trip to Kent to look at what we have done in Ebbsfleet.

Could the Secretary of State clarify whether he is effectively taking all the planning powers away from local authorities and calling in all local decisions? What is the position regarding the right to light and the right to amenities?

The right to light and the right to amenities are completely unaffected by this. [Interruption.] That certainly is not the case. All I am seeking to do is align my call-in powers with my recovery powers—to make them identical. I have always had the power to call in large developments by way of recovery.

The Secretary of State rightly says that the Government support locally led housing developments, and I welcome that. Can I be sure that no top-down decision will be made in respect of the CALA Homes site in my constituency, where the local council, Winchester city council, is doing exactly what the Government want by developing a locally driven and locally accountable local plan?

That sounds to me like the kind of world that we would all like to occupy. Obviously, I cannot prejudice any decision that I might make as a planning Minister, but that seems to me to be a happy place to be.

Does the Secretary of State accept that in areas such as mine, which is under enormous pressure for houses in multiple occupation, his proposals on domestic extensions risk an explosion of unsightly and unneighbourly developments that will degrade residential areas and, to repeat a phrase that he used earlier, the aspirations of those who live there?

Well, there speaks the voice of moderate Labour: “If you live in a house, forget about a conservatory. If you live in a small house, forget about an extension. They’re not for the likes of you, my lad—we preserve those things for the toffs.”

I thank the Secretary of State for the boost to the home-owning democracy that this party believes in. Does he agree that we shall take no lessons on top-down interference from a party that introduced targets on non-determination—13-week determinations and 26-week determinations—and then sent in the planning inspectors and chopped off the planning delivery grant when councils did not perform? That was top-down interference.

My hon. Friend gives a far better answer than I could to the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford). The reality is that this works with local people and local councils. It is not like sending in the commissioners.

With starts for social homes down by 97% and those for affordable homes down by 68%, will the Secretary of State now apologise for slashing the affordable homes budget, which has led to swathes of flattened land and boarded-up housing in parts of my constituency?

This is my advice to the hon. Lady: do not take a Whip’s question, because invariably the figures are dodgy. [Interruption.] My Whips are a saintly bunch. The level of support that we are offering is not materially different from the previous Chancellor’s planned reductions. The hon. Lady cannot get away from that or from the fact that her party promised not five eco-towns but 10, yet not one foundation has been laid for any building. She should think about that before she takes a Whip’s question.

The constituency of South Dorset—one of the most beautiful in the land—has always been under pressure from housing. Will our muscular, working-class hero reassure our local councillors that in south Dorset they—and they alone—will have the final say on who builds what where?

Provided that they work in partnership with the local community, and provided that they ensure that housing needs are met for future generations of people who want to live and work in and enjoy that beautiful county, and whose children want to be able to stay there, the answer is, of course, yes.

I am not convinced by the Secretary of State’s arguments about the green belt. In many urban areas such as mine, the green belt has been the last buffer protecting open space for urban communities. We have had to fight green-belt encroachment by developers in places such as the Tame valley. Will the Secretary of State explain whether his surplus public land includes playing fields and recreational space?

Of course it does not. That hare did not even get off the ground. [Interruption.] I do not know whether Opposition Members are jesting, but a hare is like a large rabbit. We are talking about property owned by Government and land held by my Department, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I can safely assure the hon. Gentleman that, on land transfers, we are not looking at local playing fields—do not be ridiculous.

I welcome almost all of the Secretary of State’s statement, but does he agree that space for growth cannot be infinite, especially in very high-demand areas, and that, despite the statement’s threat of new powers for planning inspectors, a council’s right to designate and protect local green spaces close to urban areas should remain intact under the national planning policy framework?

The national planning policy framework has not been changed one jot. This is administrative work to ensure that the decisions envisaged by that document are delivered. I am sure that my hon. Friend and his council will grasp this opportunity positively to enhance the local green belt and to look at any part of it that might reasonably be regarded as redundant.

If the Secretary of State is keen to accelerate the building of affordable housing, will he comment on the concerns about the speed at which existing funding available through the Homes and Communities Agency for affordable housing is being disbursed? Will he undertake to consider what more can be done to get all that money out in good time, so that building can be completed before the 2014-15 deadline, including in local authorities such as my one of Trafford, which has a high need for affordable housing and could be ready to progress with development quickly?

If there is a specific issue with Trafford, I am sure that the new housing Minister will meet the hon. Lady to discuss it. The Homes and Communities Agency did a pretty good job last year and got ahead of its target for the delivery of affordable housing. We should commend it for that.

In my constituency, Labour-controlled Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council is delaying the implementation of a local plan unnecessarily, much to the detriment of many of my constituents, who are effectively seeing planning by default at the Planning Inspectorate. What more can my right hon. Friend do to put pressure on the council to do the right thing by the people of my constituency and take up the responsibility that they have been given to put in place a local plan?

Without a local plan, development depends more particularly on each application. That makes the process more difficult, time consuming and complex. By refusing to make reasonable progress towards a local plan, the council is harming the environment rather than aiding it, because it is denying local people the opportunity to mould their environment—their villages or towns—in a way that will enable future generations to remain proud of where they live.

My constituency was flooded badly in 2007 with surface water. What thought has been given to the flood risk of extending permitted development?

With respect to the hon. Lady, I have already answered that question. To reiterate, we are talking about extensions to existing buildings. She makes a reasonable point about surface water, but the effect of the additions that we are talking about will be infinitesimal compared with that of Labour’s neglect of our flood defences.

I urge the Secretary of State, while he is finding more work for planning inspectors at failing councils, to say that planning inspectors should not be allowed to overturn the decision of a well-performing council when it rejects a planning application on reasonable grounds. The thing that most annoys local people is when an application is rejected by their elected councillors on reasonable grounds and the decision is turned aside for no good reason.

I do not like the decisions that I make being turned around either, but we must always ensure that people who apply for planning permission are treated fairly and reasonably. That is why we have an appeals system. In my experience, both from taking planning decisions myself and from what might best be described as our mystery shopping exercises on decisions that have been made over the last couple of years, reasonable objections are by and large upheld by planning inspectors, with just one or two exceptions such as those to which my hon. Friend refers, although I am not talking about that specific area.

There are several brownfield sites in my constituency, including one bordering Stockton town centre that has planning permission for hundreds of homes, but nothing has happened since the Government came to power, thanks to sluggish policy making. The Secretary of State spoke about unblocking such sites, so may I tell my local communities that he will ensure that brownfield sites in the area will be developed soon and that the need for expansion into greenfield sites on Teesside will be reduced?

The hon. Gentleman is a Member of Parliament and a person of influence, so he should get a wiggle on and get things cracking in his local patch. [Interruption.] Not a wig, my dear chum, although you are follicly challenged like me. The new framework gives people who care deeply about their locality, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman does, an opportunity to work with local councils and local developers to get something going.

One of the first things that the Secretary of State did when we came into government was to help end the practice of garden grabbing, which was prevalent in my constituency of Solihull and many other constituencies. Will he guarantee that nothing that the Government are introducing will bring back that unpopular practice?

One hundred per cent. I give an absolute guarantee. The hon. Lady can hold the Focus leaflets in check.

I draw the House’s attention to my indirect interests. I have concerns about the conservatory policy, because I think it will be a lawyers’ charter. Will the Secretary of State confirm that where local communities, working alongside their local councils and using all the powers in the Localism Act 2011, have identified a significant local need for social and affordable housing, the new policy will not allow developers simply to ride roughshod over that, supported by the new centralised powers, and override what the local community says it wants and needs? Government Members are living in dreamland if they do not think that will happen.

I think that the hon. Lady had to put that last sentence in to retain her credibility on the Labour Benches. The truth is that this policy is intended precisely to allow local people to get together and look towards the development of social housing. I represent a different kind of constituency from the hon. Lady’s, but I can think of a number of villages in my area that have got together to look for social housing, have gone out of their way to identify sites and have worked with housing associations to bring in that development. That is exactly the kind of development that we are talking about. That is why we are announcing an additional sum to deliver 15,000 more affordable houses on top of what we have promised. If she has a place in mind, she should get cracking with her local council and developers, and get the application in tomorrow.

Will my right hon. Friend keep pushing for houses to be built on brownfield sites first and keep bringing empty homes back into use? I welcome the £300 million. Given the figures that are being bandied around, will he clarify what number of houses have planning permission and are ready to be built?

Clearly, the figure changes almost hourly. It would not be unreasonable to use the figure of 400,000 houses, which has been used by the LGA. It is there or thereabouts. These proposals are necessary to unlock that process and to allow good local authorities to deliver growth.

Further to the Secretary of State’s answers on the simplification of and increase in the development rights of householders, will he say exactly what redress and legal rights will be given to neighbours who have an objection and find that good will is not the answer?

My constituency has seen unprecedented numbers of new developments over recent years, yet across Leeds 20,000 dwellings remain unbuilt and more than 14,000 are empty. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me and particularly my constituents, who were suspicious of the planning policies effected by the previous Government, that the changes will mean brownfield sites being used first, and that sites such as Kirklees Knowl and Rawdon Billing, which are as important to my constituents as the Yorkshire dales are to the whole nation, will remain greenfield sites?

That is a specific area that I know, and a lot of those spaces around Leeds bring their communities together, which is important. My hon. Friend’s question raises the problems that we have had, because Labour gave planning such a bad name that it has been difficult to regain the British people’s trust in the system over the past two years. I hope that, building on the national planning policy framework, the new measures will lead the British people to understand that planning is on their side.

I warmly welcome what the Secretary of State said about the green belt, town centres and the temporary waiver of unrealistic section 106 agreements. However, if we have done everything we can to remove developers’ excuses for not developing, why does it make sense to allow them to extend the duration of existing planning permissions?

We have recognised that section 106 agreements and existing planning permissions are often part of the same thing, and that it takes a bit of time to get work on big sites together. We are expecting an increase in the number of applications anyway, so it would make no sense to increase the number artificially. We therefore took the decision at the beginning of the summer to extend existing permissions, which was a sensible and pragmatic thing to do.

I am a school governor at Whitefield infant school in Nelson, which is located in the 33rd most deprived ward in the UK and was promised a complete rebuild back in 2009. Since that time a protracted planning process, with obscure objections from a number of unaccountable bodies, has added more than £1 million to the cost of building the school and pushed back the building date by three years from March 2011 to 2014 at the absolute earliest. The objections have been overcome, but the compulsory purchase order for the site is now stuck with the national planning casework team in the DCLG. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss that school building project, which is absolutely critical to housing regeneration in my area?

I understand that my hon. Friend wasted no time in lobbying the new planning Minister on the subject, and there are officials in the Box who will have heard his question. On my return to the office, I will be expecting an explanation.

Owing to low incomes and high property values, there is enormous demand for secure-tenancy, regulated-rent housing in the far south-west. How will the Government ensure that that highly localised demand for social housing will be met, and that the new funds that are being made available for social housing will not end up in other areas of the country where demand is less acute?

My hon. Friend should take the advice that I have given to a lot of Members, which is that they should go and see their local authority, talk to developers and get the bids in. One of the things that we have been keenest on has been getting private money into social and affordable housing, which the Labour party was also keen to do. Following the Montague report, we have a real chance to do that. That is why additional money has been made available to pump-prime the system. I hope that all Members will work actively with their local authorities and developers to build things that they can be proud of.

When the Secretary of State mentioned Grasmere, my thoughts turned to the wonderful Lake District national park on this splendid autumn day. That national park authority, like some others in England, gives planning permission only for local affordable housing. Has he given any thought to how his proposals, which I broadly support, will be implemented in national parks, and has he consulted the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on that matter?

Special rules apply to national parks. I think I made it absolutely clear that we are not looking at building a big extension to Dove cottage. We do not want artificially to change parts of the country that rely heavily on tourism, with which the nation is familiar and where it spends its leisure time. The nation is rightly proud of buildings in such areas.