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House Building

Volume 589: debated on Monday 15 December 2014

We are making excellent progress in helping to deliver large-scale housing sites. Through long-term loans for infrastructure, capacity funding and brokerage, we have helped unlock or accelerate more than 90,000 homes to date, and a further 200,000 homes could be unlocked or accelerated on sites shortlisted for investment and wider support.

There are so many hard-working people in this country, including many firefighters, who would listen to that reply and not be able to believe the complacency. We have a Department with no leadership, no vision and no ambition, when we need a million new homes for our elderly people and for our young people, who have no chance of a home. This Government will face the wrath of those people at the next general election.

As before, I am sure there was a question in there somewhere. [Interruption.] And the audience agree. I find the hon. Gentleman’s follow-up point slightly bizarre, in the sense that this Government have provided roughly 700,000 new homes in the past four or five years, including more council houses than were built in the entire period of the previous Labour Government.

But the truth is that the Government are simply not building enough affordable homes. The number of homes built for social rent over the past year is the lowest it has been for 20 years, so it is little surprise that the waiting list in Sunderland has increased on their watch, whereas it more than halved under Labour. Thankfully, these Ministers have less than five months left in post, but may we have a little more action from them, even in those five months, and a lot fewer re-announcements of yet more empty announcements?

I simply point the hon. Lady to the facts: we have now delivered around 220,000 affordable homes in this Parliament, and there will be 165,000 over the next three years. It will be the fastest rate of building we have seen in more than 20 years, having inherited from the last Labour Government the lowest level of building since 1923. It was an absolute disgrace what was left by the last Government.

My constituents are concerned that if more houses are ever to be built on Teesside again in substantial numbers, more farmland could be swallowed up even though countless brownfield sites are available. Many of these already have planning permission, yet developers have left them derelict for donkey’s years. What steps is the Minister planning to take to get action from such developers? What will he do if they refuse to bring these kinds of sites, many of them close to our town centres, back into use?

As I said earlier, we have in fact put some money in over the course of the summer—a few hundred millions pounds—to encourage brownfield development. We are also now looking at the housing zones, and we will be making some announcements on that fairly soon to make sure we get these sites unlocked. When local authorities are developing their local plans, they are making sure that they are delivering viable sites to provide the houses we all want to see built.

Leeds city council has divided the city into areas in order to set the house building targets, and in Aireborough the vast majority of the sites being considered are in the green belt. I am aware that the use of green belt can happen only in “exceptional circumstances”. Will the Minister confirm what the definition of “exceptional circumstances” is?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about protecting the green belt, which is something that we always seek to do. The Secretary of State and I have outlined some further guidance on that in the past few months to make it clear that building on green belt land is something that we do as a last resort. Indeed, it is one of the exceptional circumstances to be taken into account against development to make sure that we protect our green belt. Obviously, every planning application has to be taken forward and adjudged on its merits by the local authority, planning inspectors and the Department.

Does the Minister agree that one challenge in bringing forward large-scale housing sites is the failure of local authorities to allocate sufficient land for housing in their local plan? For example, the Labour-controlled Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council has failed to bring forward a local plan, whereas Rugby borough council has had its local plan in place for some time, and has brought forward a site for 6,000 new homes at the Rugby radio site.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Rugby is an excellent example of a good, well-run council, which seeks to support growth and to provide homes for local people. It is important that local areas, in conjunction with the community, work out their housing need, make provision for it, and take advantage of the £1.5 billion that we are putting in to help unlock those kinds of sites.

The coalition came to office promising localism whereby locally elected councillors would decide on large-scale housing developments. In Tendring, the Government have now insisted on an extra 12,000 houses. How is that localism?

That is not how the system works. We do not have top-down targets. We got rid of the regional spatial strategies. It is up to the local authority to work out its housing needs and to look at the evidence base to see what it can provide locally, taking into account any environmental constraints.

The recent designation of Bicester as a garden city brings not a single new home to the table, as Bicester had already planned for and started to build 13,000 new homes as outlined in its local plan. Is it not time that the Government thought seriously about how to deliver our much needed new settlements rather than simply repackaging existing developments?

With respect, I think the hon. Lady has missed the point. Bicester itself came forward and wanted to develop on garden city principles. When I was there last week, officials showed me around the excellent work that the local authority is doing to release some of the land, including looking at the infrastructure to see how they can make it possible. We are not following a top-down approach. I appreciate that the Labour party wants to have a suit in Whitehall deciding who builds and where, but we believe in localism. Local areas should lead on garden cities. They should come to us with the outlines of what they want to do. I am talking about local decisions, by local people and for local people.