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Housing in Kent

Volume 616: debated on Wednesday 2 November 2016

[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered housing in Kent.

I recognise that more new homes need to be built in the United Kingdom, and I acknowledge that the Government are taking steps to encourage the building of those homes. However, I feel that Kent is being asked to take more than its fair share of the new house building, particularly since we have already seen in recent years unprecedented housing growth that has led to great pressure on our local infrastructure and services.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He will be aware of the housing and infrastructure problems in Dartford that cause terrible congestion at the Dartford crossing. Does he agree that more housing in the area simply adds to the number of people, the number of vehicles and the congestion? It is therefore vital we have the infrastructure to go with those new housing plans.

I am more than happy to agree with my hon. Friend, because he is perfectly right. The pressure we have been facing will only increase unless action is taken to stem the tide of development.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an essential debate. A nonsensical 18,560 new homes are planned for the Maidstone area, notwithstanding the already serious and chronic traffic congestion around the town. Does he agree that local authorities must be much bolder and more robust in using the legitimate constraints provided for in the national planning policy framework to set more sensible and sustainable housing need figures in their draft local plans?

As the MP for the neighbouring constituency, I share those exact concerns, but our local authorities are put in an invidious position by the Government, and I will raise that concern. In order to meet Government targets, local councils in Kent are planning for 155,000 homes to be built by 2031.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for all the brilliant work he has done on this issue. He talks about pressure on local authorities. One of the biggest pressures is where developers that have been given permission to build do not build, and instead sit on the land waiting for another day when things are good for them. That pushes pressure on to others and the local authority. That is completely wrong. Does he agree that the Government need to ensure there are severe penalties for developers that sit on the land where they have been given permission to build? That is completely wrong and undermines the whole objective of creating more housing in the area.

I am more than happy to agree, and I will raise that issue later in my speech.

I mentioned that Kent is having to plan for 155,000 homes by 2031. However, in the same period, the number of jobs likely to be created in Kent has been estimated to be only 121,000. In essence, Kent local authorities are being expected to plan for 34,000 homes for people who work outside the county. In contrast, Cornwall—which I know is on the other side of the country but is still part of the United Kingdom—is only being expected to plan for 47,500 homes to be built in the county. That is less than one third of the target being imposed on Kent. Continued housing growth in Kent at the current level is simply unsustainable. It will lead to the loss of more and more green fields and inflict immeasurable harm on our beautiful county, which, after all, is the garden of England. Those additional homes will lead to thousands of extra cars on our roads, thousands more children in our schools and thousands more people using our health system, all of which are already stretched to the limit.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In Medway alone, we are facing an arbitrary demand for an extra 30,000 houses. Does he agree that the high housing targets we are seeing across Kent are undeliverable and will do nothing to benefit or improve the lives of the people who already live in our communities, unless there is acceptance of the burden being placed on Kent, backed up with proper investment in infrastructure and services? He has outlined some of the pressures.

I do agree. I was born and raised in Medway and am a proud man of Kent. I believe we have taken more than our fair share. Unfortunately, the problem is not new for Kent. Our local authorities have consistently had high housing targets imposed on them. The need for such high targets comes from migration, both internal and external. Kent County Council’s figures show that 84% of population growth in Kent is due to migration, with the Government consistently imposing high housing targets to keep up with the movement of people.

More migrants, mean more houses, mean more migrants, mean more housing. It is a vicious circle that has resulted in agricultural land being covered in concrete and many natural habitats being lost. The situation is not helped by a planning system that encourages developers to build on green land despite brownfield sites being available, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) said.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In Thanet, we are supposed to be taking grade one agricultural land—the finest agricultural land in the country, bar none, with wonderful alluvial soil—for houses when we have brownfield sites available. Another threat is at Manston airport, which some people want to smother in houses simply to take overspill from London, which has nothing to do with Kent and nothing to do with Thanet.

I am delighted my hon. Friend has raised that issue. Another example is Isle of Sheppey in my constituency. In Queenborough and Rushenden, the Homes and Community Agency owns a large brownfield site, which has good access to road, rail and local amenities, but has remained undeveloped for years. Two miles away, in Minster on Sea, thousands of homes have been built on green fields as part of the Thistle Hill development. The main roads on Sheppey are now some of the most congested in Kent.

In Sittingbourne, too, there are plenty of brownfield sites on which to build, yet Swale Borough Council is being forced to allocate additional green land in its local plan for housing, although it is not needed at present. When that land is included in the local plan, developers are effectively given the green light to build on it straightaway, instead of developing the brownfield sites that already have planning permission. That is nonsense and affects many small communities, such as the village of Borden, where a planned development of 665 houses will change that rural community out of all recognition.

This is not the first time that has happened in my constituency. The village of Iwade, at the time of the 2001 census, consisted of just over 400 dwellings with a population of 1,142. In just 15 years, Iwade has grown and now consists of 1,690 dwellings with a population of 3,087. It is no longer a village; it is a small town. It is not the only area of rapid growth in the past decade. Eden village, Kemsley, Milton Regis, Minster on Sea and The Meads have also seen major housing developments. My constituents in Sittingbourne and Sheppey have seen their area change beyond recognition in the past 25 years. All those developments have reduced our green open spaces, destroyed good agricultural land and affected the lives of whole communities.

My constituency has made more than enough sacrifices to help to solve the housing crisis, and enough is enough. We do not want the character of our area to change any more. My constituency is not unique in Kent. As my hon. Friends have said, many areas are facing similar pressure for housing development. We are calling on the Government to help us to protect what is left of our green fields, open spaces, traditions and communities.

Does my hon. Friend agree that to facilitate more houses in Kent we need another Thames crossing? It must be built in a way that gives motorists choice to ensure that we have resilience in Kent. The only way to achieve that is to build another lower Thames crossing east of Gravesend, which is option C.

Order. This debate is a short one—only 30 minutes. The mover of the debate has so far been very understanding in giving way and I have been kind in allowing that, but perhaps we could allow him to make his speech and, if there is time left before the Minister speaks, I will be willing to allow other contributions. Perhaps hon. Members could be more understanding.

Thank you, Sir Alan. I am more than happy to take that into account. I will be summing up fairly shortly.

I agree that we need a lower Thames crossing, but we need it for existing residents and communities, not to encourage more housing. The Government should spread responsibility for providing new housing land to other areas of the country. As more people move to Kent, particularly from London, the county is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with a rapidly growing population. Other parts of the country are not taking their fair share of the housing needed to help to overcome a national problem.

Government statistics for house building in the June quarter of 2016 show that there has been an unequal amount of house building between north and south. In the south-east, 3,180 dwellings were started, compared with just 960 in Liverpool city and 1,090 in Greater Manchester. How is that proportionate? We have a national housing crisis, yet certain areas are taking the brunt of the new building.

I understand there are different needs in different areas, but these statistics show the south-east is taking responsibility for five times more new homes than if it were divided up equally between regions. That is unfair and Kent is a real victim of that unfairness. It is time for the Government to act and to reduce the number of homes for which they expect local authorities in Kent to plan. Ministers can do that by making it clear to local authorities that no further green fields have to be allocated for housing until all the current brownfield sites in their area have been developed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I am in a slightly difficult position because some of my colleagues, whose support I value highly, have spoken passionately about their concerns. I entirely understand those concerns and some legitimate points were made, but I must set out some points of difference and I hope they will bear with me while I do so. I will come to their legitimate points, with which I am in complete agreement.

The first thing to say at the outset is that the Government do not set housing targets for local authorities. We have a local plan-led system in this country. The Government require local councils to carry out a robust assessment of housing need in their area and then, subject to whatever land constraints they face, to meet that housing need. That is incredibly important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) said something my constituents often say to me that it is worth exploring. There is a feeling that more and more homes just lead to more and more people living in the area. Actually, there is pretty compelling evidence that if we do not build the additional homes that an area needs, the people still come, but rather than living in their own homes, they just live in more overcrowded conditions. We have only to look at what is happening now in some parts of our capital city, where people live in sheds at the bottom of gardens and in other completely unacceptable conditions. If people want to live in an area but we do not provide enough housing to allow them to live in decent conditions, they still come.

I will take my hon. Friend the Minister up on one thing. He said that the Government do not set targets for local authorities. My authority, Swale Borough Council, put in a target for housing that was then rejected by the Government and it is now having to increase that target. It is wrong to say that they do not set targets.

Just to be clear on that point, what will have happened is that Swale Council’s plan will have been examined by an independent inspector, appointed by the Planning Inspectorate. The inspector’s job is to test that the assessment of housing need in that area is realistic. If it was rejected, that would be because compelling evidence was presented that the assessment was not realistic.

I have taken the time to look at the data for each of the local authorities—I apologise if I miss anyone out—that hon. Members in the Chamber represent. I will start with my hon. Friend. His council is in the best position. The annual household growth projections, which are not Government figures but independent Office for National Statistics figures, show projected housing growth in Swale of 540 households a year, and Swale Council delivered 540 net additions to the housing stock in 2014-15. In Dartford, the projections show 603 extra households a year. The council is currently delivering 570. In Maidstone, the projections show nearly 900 extra households a year, but the council is currently delivering only 580. In Thanet, the projections show 600 extra households a year, but the council is delivering only 380. In Medway, the projections show nearly 1,350 extra households a year, but the council is delivering 480.

I say to my colleagues that if, as a country, we do not build the number of homes necessary to accommodate our population growth, we will continue to see what we have seen for the last 30 or 40 years, which is housing in this country becoming increasingly unaffordable for people to buy or to rent, with all the consequences that that has for inequality, both geographically and between generations. I will leave colleagues with just one statistic—it is a national rather than a Kent statistic. Of people who are my age, 45, 50% owned their own home when they were 30 years old. For people who are 20 years younger, who are 25 today, the projection is that in five years’ time just one quarter of them will own their own home. That is the consequence of years and years of failing to provide enough housing.

My hon. Friend made two other points that I want to tackle, and then I will come to all the areas where I am in the happy position of being in complete agreement with all my colleagues. One of the issues was migration. He referred to the figures for population growth in Kent as a result of both internal migration from within the UK to Kent and external migration into the UK. It is important to draw a distinction between population growth and household growth, because they are different. Migrants tend to be younger, so there is less of an impact on household growth than population growth. At national level, about half our population growth is due to net migration, whereas only just over one third of household growth is due to net migration. The household projection figures that I cited for each local authority already assume a reduction in net migration from the current levels.

In addition, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a huge imbalance in the level of house building in different parts of the country. That is a reflection of a market economy and of where people wish to live. Some of our colleagues—they are not in the Chamber at the moment because this debate is about Kent—live in areas where houses can be acquired for very low prices because people do not want to live in those areas and do not want to buy those properties. Therefore, if the Government were to adopt a policy of trying to set targets for every area and saying that each part of the country should assume a uniform level of housing, the reality is that we would see very sharp house price inflation in areas where demand was larger than supply. We would also see homes that people do not want to buy on the open market in areas where the demand does not exist.

I hope colleagues accept those points in the spirit in which I have made them, because the job that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has given me is to ensure that as a country we start building the number of homes that we need to build. I now come to the points that my hon. Friends made with which I have complete sympathy and which we will seek to address in the White Paper that we will publish later this year.

My hon. Friend made this point very powerfully, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford reinforced it in his intervention. One of the main things that my constituents say to me—in Croydon, we have all the same pressures to which all my colleagues have referred—is that in recent years, the infrastructure has not been put in to support the additional housing. The consequence of that is that people say, “I understand why more housing is needed in this area, but it is making it harder for me to get my children into the local school. It is making it harder for me to get an appointment at my local GP practice. It means that my train, when I go to work in the morning, is more overcrowded.” Hon. Members are therefore absolutely right to press the case for investment in infrastructure that ensures that local communities—not just the people who are lucky enough to get the new houses, but the local communities in which that housing is placed—benefit from the new housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has been a doughty champion of the need for an additional, third crossing of the Thames, and my brother is a constituent of his, so he can rest assured that I hear about the misery that is inflicted on him whenever there is a problem with the existing crossing.

I pay tribute to the excellent work that my hon. Friend the Minister is doing. I completely agree with him about infrastructure, but linked to that is the issue of developers who sit on land or landbank. What are the Government doing about that? They can do something about it by ensuring that there is a severe penalty. That would ensure that those who get planning permission develop in good time. If they do not do that, they should lose the planning consent and be penalised in order to make the system much fairer.

I had noted my hon. Friend’s very good point even before that intervention—I had noted it from his previous one—and I was just coming to it.

My diagnosis is that we have basically three problems—three reasons that lead to us not building enough homes as a country. The first is that, in some places, we are not releasing enough land. Those tend to be in the parts of the country where demand is at its most acute.

The second reason is that there is a growing gap between the planning permissions that we are granting and the homes that are actually being built. Hon. Members may be interested to know that in the year to the end of June, the planning system in England granted a record number of planning permissions—277,000 homes were consented in those 12 months—but people cannot live in a planning permission. We must do a better job of turning planning permissions into actual starts.

There is a range of reasons why that does not happen. My hon. Friend puts his finger on one problem—developers landbanking and taking too long to build out—but there are others. Often, the utility companies are too slow to put in infrastructure. Councils sometimes rely too much on pre-commencement planning conditions that delay schemes starting. There is a range of factors. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I cannot set out today what will be in the White Paper, but I can give him a categorical assurance that the White Paper will include measures to try to deal with the problem that he talks about.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) spoke powerfully on the third issue that I want to address. I had the privilege last week of visiting his constituency and seeing some of the area for myself. He spoke about the importance that people attach to green fields. My constituency has a significant amount of green belt land, so I know perfectly well the importance that my constituents attach to that, but in other parts of the country, where there is no green belt, people feel equally passionate about green spaces. Therefore it is absolutely the priority of this Government to try to ensure that development is concentrated on brownfield land. We have already made a number of interventions to try to make that more likely. I do not have time to go through them all, but will reference a few.

Perhaps my hon. Friend and I can talk in more detail separately, but one thing that I would point out to him and his council is brownfield registers, which were legislated for in the Housing and Planning Act 2016. A number of local authorities are already trialling them, but the idea is that local authorities draw up a register of brownfield land. They could possibly link that with the planning permission in principle reform in the Act, so that developers can see where there are sites that are suitable for housing development and have permission in principle. In that way, they will have clear planning certainty that those sites can be progressed. The Government have a clear manifesto target to get 90% of brownfield sites developed by the end of this Parliament. I reassure him that the Secretary of State and I are passionately committed to trying to ensure that, to the maximum extent possible, we focus development on brownfield sites.

One problem with some of those sites is contamination from previous uses, so we have tried to put in place funding programmes that can help with remediation. A good example is the new starter home land fund. My hon. Friend referred to a site in his constituency that has been sitting vacant, and he is frustrated that it has not been brought into use while developers pick on greenfield sites elsewhere. I say to him strongly to look at whether that fund could help to bring that land back into use.

I also refer my hon. Friend to our neighbourhood planning system. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) is, coincidentally, now in the Chamber. He played a pre-eminent role in pressing forward that policy. It presents a huge opportunity to local communities to control where the development goes within their communities. One of the problems we have right across the country is that too many councils do not have up-to-date plans in place. The result is that the presumption in favour of development applies and we get speculative applications where, essentially, developers are picking the sites they want to see developed rather than local communities saying, “If we need 800 homes in this area, we will decide where the right sites are for them to go.” The combination of ensuring that local councils have local plans in place, and ensuring that individual communities below that have neighbourhood plans that set out in more detail exactly where the right sites for housing are within that neighbourhood, gives people control over the planning system.

One thing I want to achieve is minimising the number of cases that end up on my desk because a council has turned down a speculative application. A colleague or another Member of the House will be furious and will ask the Secretary of State to call the application in. Not only is that incredibly divisive, but it wastes a huge amount of time and money. What we want in England is a plan-led planning system in which communities decide where the appropriate places are to build the housing that we need.

I will make only two final points—I am conscious of the time. Density is one of the other things that we want to look at in the White Paper, which might reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey. It is particularly relevant in London. How can London accommodate more of its own growth? If we want to protect our precious greenbelt, we need to look at whether we could have more intense development on the sites that we have already developed. In my constituency, when faced with the choice between building on our precious greenbelt and metropolitan open land or having a number of very tall buildings in the centre of Croydon, people much preferred the latter. There is huge potential in major centres and around public transport hubs to have denser development. That does not have to mean unattractive tower blocks. Actually, the most densely developed borough in London is the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where there is some incredible architecture. We can get high-quality, dense development that provides more homes on a given plot of land.

I hope my hon. Friends are reassured by my response. It is my job to make the moral case for building the homes that our country needs, so that we have a country that works for everyone and so that young people who work hard and do the right thing have the opportunity to get on the housing ladder. I am also very cognisant of the concerns that have been expressed in the debate by hon. Members who are passionate about protecting the character of their local areas. I firmly believe that, with the right policies, it is possible to strike the right balance between those two very important objectives.

First, the notion that the Planning Inspectorate is not accountable to Government is quite bizarre, because the Secretary of State can call in any plans that he wants. To say that it is independent is disingenuous. The projected targets that are being placed by the inspectorate on local authorities are taking into account the notional migration into the areas that need those houses. The houses that are being built are not actually solving the problem of homelessness in our boroughs. We still have homelessness. We still have people that need homes and are not getting them because, as the estates are being built up, they are sucking in more people. I will leave the Minister with that thought.

Question put and agreed to.