I beg to move,
That this House has considered low cost housing.
It is good to have you looking after us this morning, Mrs Gillan. It is also good to see the departmental Whip in her place—she is a fully-fledged Minister in her own right anyway. As a former Whip, I feel it is always good to see a Whip temporarily released from the office’s vow of omerta and allowed to show their knowledge of the area they cover for the Whips Office.
Housing, whether rent or mortgage payments, is probably the single biggest monthly bill that most of us face and because we have not, as a country, built enough new houses for decades, no matter who has been in Government, the costs have been getting steadily steeper. The result is less living space, longer commutes, less cash left over at the end of each month for other things and, overall, a lower quality of life for all of us. We need to increase the number of new homes that are built and yesterday’s welcome White Paper contains some important steps towards that goal. Most important, from my point of view, were the ideas to make it easier to build up, not out, in urban areas—greater housing density, in the jargon.
Anyone walking around most British town centres, passing train stations or high street shops, should look upwards. The chances are that they will mostly see fresh air—skyline. British towns and cities are some of the most low-rise in Europe, which seems bonkers for a country that is also one of the most crowded. Much of this is self-inflicted. For many Brits taller buildings create instant mental images of 1960s brutalist concrete tower blocks on sink estates—the backdrops for gritty dramas of social decay from left-wing film auteurs. This mental trope has had some real-world consequences for the country too because it means that we are, as a society, instinctively resistant to anyone who proposes building upwards. So let me sing a fierce anthem of praise for taller buildings—not necessarily brutalist tower blocks, although they have their admirers, but for elegant, well-proportioned apartment blocks and terraces where the design stands the test of time.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and apologise for interrupting him as he gets to the chorus of his eloquent speech. He talks about the need to build upwards. Does he agree—he has alluded to the ’60s-style connotations that building upwards has for many people—that we need to have planning forethought in terms of what buildings will be like in 20 or 30 years’ time so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the 1950s and 1960s?
That is absolutely right. There are some people who, from a purely aesthetic point of view, love brutalist concrete architecture and rather more who dislike it a lot. For most of the rest of us, one of the crucial tests is not merely the aesthetics but whether this stuff remains liveable, not only in the first few years after it is built but over many generations. Another is whether it is therefore acceptable to the rest of the community. It is not just a question of what somewhere is like to live in as a location; it also has an impact on other people as they walk past.
As the hon. Gentleman said, it depends on how the design stands the test of time. There are places such as four or five-storey Regency terraces and Victorian town houses, which people still want to live in and walk past a century or two after they were built, or their slightly taller and more modern equivalents, which provide trendy new city centre living space for young professionals or well-designed retirement homes for older folk. We do not need to be scared of these buildings. One of the densest urban areas in Britain is Kensington and Chelsea, which is hardly a byword for inner-city decay. Elegant continental cities such as Paris and Madrid are far denser than almost anywhere in Britain too.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is giving a very powerful speech so I am loth to interrupt him. He mentioned the international comparisons and Kensington and Chelsea, but I think he is missing the suburbs. I represent a suburban seat. He said that housing is the single biggest bill, but it is also the single biggest issue in surgeries. I had a candidate stand against me as a “no to tall buildings” person. His slogan was, “We want to be living in Acton, not in Manhattan.” Has the hon. Gentleman had similar experiences as a constituency MP? People just do not like these buildings; they crowd out light and are not in keeping with the suburban landscape.
The hon. Lady just gave a classic example of this instinctive British fear. I have discovered that in general if people see a beautiful building that is well-designed and moderately, but not too enormously, tall—Manhattan being an example of where things are incredibly tall—many of those concerns are greatly reduced. The taller something is the more impact it has on everybody else for miles and miles around and therefore the greater care we have to take. There is a middle ground that I will talk about in a minute, which will provide us with a great deal of building and housing opportunity to reduce the cost of housing without having to make everywhere look like Manhattan, if I can put it that way.
The hon. Lady’s intervention leads me to say that we need to throw off these mental shackles—these 50-year-old emotional architectural scars—and instead count the blessings of building up, not out.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this important issue of how we better utilise our space. He will know—I am sure this is the case in his constituency, as it is in mine—that people have the opportunity to live above shops. That is a special scheme brought in by local councils and local departments and is a way of utilising the space that is there. Does he agree that that is one method for addressing the issue of low-cost housing?
That is a very good example—a classic example—of the kind of thing we need to look at. Many British high streets are two storeys, or perhaps three storeys, tall. Not only are those upper storeys lightly used, and in some cases unused, but there are two or three further storeys of fresh air above them that could be developed into housing as well. The crucial point that was made yesterday in the White Paper, but has been more broadly accepted for years, is that the only way to bring down the overall cost of housing in this country is by increasing the supply. We have to make sure that more of this stuff is built and finding those right, convenient locations near social and physical infrastructure is crucial. I will expand on that point a little more in a minute, but the hon. Gentleman has touched on a particularly good example.
I was about to number the blessings of building up, not out and I shall now carry on doing so. First, it will attract much needed new investment to regenerate and save tired or rundown town and city centres, bringing fresh life, a broader mix of businesses and longer trading hours to high streets that—as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned—are suffering under the twin attack of out-of-town shopping centres and online retailers.
Secondly, building up, not out could help break the stranglehold of large house building firms over the number of new homes that are built. Those firms tend to focus on larger sites, whether greenfield or in towns, and rarely pick up smaller plots where an individual bungalow or two-storey shop could be redeveloped into four or even eight smart new apartments on the same site. By releasing lots of overlooked smaller urban plots we can create a fast-growing cadre of insurgent new developers, adding much needed new capacity and competition to the sector and its supply chains and speeding up the too comfortable, cosily slow rate at which the big firms currently convert their land banks and planning permissions into completed homes.
Thirdly, building up, not out will reduce urban sprawl by cutting the pressure from builders to concrete over green fields and green belts at the edges of towns and villages across the country. Given the strain and pressure on our green spaces, they should be our last building resort, not our first. Fourthly, it will cut commuting by allowing people to live closer to work, shops and other community hubs from libraries to GP surgeries. The reductions in emissions, and the effects on both our quality of life and the wider environment, will be very significant indeed.
Finally, building up, not out would release huge numbers of new urban house building sites to solve the housing shortage. As the Secretary of State said yesterday in his new White Paper, the only way to make homes more affordable for everybody is to build a lot more of them. Whether we are talking about renting or buying, the basic laws of price and demand mean that the prices will never stabilise, much less fall, unless the supply of housing increases dramatically.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is making very good points, and I agree with him about the Government’s welcome White Paper yesterday on improving the housing supply. Does he agree that one of the challenges can sometimes be the fairly entrenched, long-held concerns that people raise locally about higher properties? Incentives are needed in the system to encourage local authorities to give planning consents if we are going to overcome some of the problems.
I agree with my hon. Friend for two reasons. When taller buildings excite the kind of Manhattan-ish concerns that we just heard about from the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), there clearly has to be careful consideration and community buy-in, because they have such a profound, wide-scale impact on local views and local infrastructure. Smaller and more modest proposals—I will talk about those in more detail in a minute—are much more absorbable and go much more with the grain of local things, so they may well not need a huge number of extra permissions and incentives, beyond the fact that they provide an opportunity for individual landowners to make a contribution and perhaps to increase the value of their particular site. I will expand on that, and perhaps if my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) is not completely convinced, he will intervene later.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. I am glad to hear that he is talking about building up rather than out, given that in the past we have built on the green belt, destroying our environment. Does he agree that no matter what form of building there is, it is vital that the infrastructure is correct, because we have faced major problems in our cities from flooding over the past few years?
I absolutely agree. One advantage of building up rather than out in existing urban environments is that an awful lot of infrastructure is in place anyway. Less brand-new infrastructure needs to be constructed as a result. Other problems come from building in urban environments—for example, existing infrastructure may be put under strain and need to be expanded in some way—but flood defences are a good example of where the effects are perfectly scalable. When a flood defence wall has been built, an awful lot more can be built behind it. The flood defence wall does not need to be upgraded just because more has been built behind it, even though it may need to be upgraded when it wears out in 50 years’ time. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very good example.
As I was saying, prices will never stabilise, still less fall, unless the supply of housing increases dramatically. Cheaper homes are one of the cheapest, simplest, most effective ways of raising living standards for everyone and, by making our available cash go further, of improving the country’s economic productivity.
In the 1970s and ’80s, our towns and cities were places without an economic purpose. Their industrial manufacturing centres were dead, social problems multiplied as jobs dried up and people left in droves. But now, urban living in towns and cities is fashionable again, because, even in our highly connected, distance-defying online world, it turns out that there is huge value in people clustering together. Ideas flow more freely; skills and knowledge too. Firms in similar sectors create clusters that feed off their neighbours’ energy, hire each other’s staff and drive each other on. Building up, not out helps those things to happen more easily, so more wealth can be created. It is greener and cheaper, and it makes us richer and improves our quality of life, so clearly, the idea’s time has come.
To their eternal credit, I think the Government get that. The new White Paper has much to say about developing smaller sites of half a hectare or less, and subdividing large sites so that smaller developers can get in on the act as well. Local development orders and area-wide design codes, which streamline planning permission if people want to build particular pre-approved types or styles of property in a specified area, make a strong showing too. There is a range of new permitted development rights, which allow everyone from hospitals to brownfield site owners to build without all the red tape, heartache and uncertainty of getting planning permission.
From a design point of view, I completely get the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but how would he inject affordability? The rate in London has been at up to 80% of market rates, and units in high-rise buildings in my constituency seem to be bought off-plan by people at property fairs in Singapore and by Russian oligarchs—the lights are always off—so how would he make that link and build affordability in?
The hon. Lady tempts me into a slightly wider area of discussion than the one I was focusing on. However, my broad point at least is that we will not be able to make all housing more affordable, whether that is for those on lower or middle incomes, unless we dramatically increase the supply of new homes of whatever tenure—whether we are talking about homes for rent or for buying. Only by doing that over the longer term will we manage to reduce the cost of housing for everybody at all income levels. The hon. Lady might like to propose some additional measures and, if so, I am sure that she will make some remarks later to turbo-charge some other opportunities for those on lower incomes as well. However, as a starting point and a fundamental, we are kidding ourselves if we think we can get away without increasing the overall level of new homes that are being created in the first place.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. One aspect concerns me slightly about the London model: is there not a risk that people being allowed to build upwards will lead to the creation of single town houses that have become much larger, therefore creating half-a-million-pound houses rather than low-cost housing, which is the thrust of the argument?
If demand is unsatisfied in any part of the housing market—whether at the top or bottom end—that will spill across. If people are looking for a particular size of house—if their family is growing and they need a three-bedroom house as opposed to a two-bedroom house—and they cannot find one, the demand will spill over into other areas of the housing market. Demand will drive up price, no matter what, and that will knock on through to other areas of the housing market. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are hotspots in the housing market—geographically and in terms of kinds and sizes of house and tenures—where this problem is particularly acute, but we cannot afford to be that choosy. We need to build an awful lot more of all kinds of houses if we are to reduce prices. Some of the hotspots may well apply to people on lower incomes and, at that point, we should be doing something about it, but that should not be to the exclusion of everything else; otherwise the knock-on effects will still be felt throughout the tenure range.
With what I have said in mind, I would like to take up the offer in the White Paper and make a formal submission to the consultation that the Minister launched yesterday. I want to make a concrete proposal—please forgive the pun—for a new permitted development right to add to the suite that the Government suggested. The right would allow small-scale additions to town and city centre properties when the final result is still below the treeline or other buildings in the same block. Converting existing shops or offices would still require planning permission, but building new apartments within those height limits above them, or above existing housing, would not. It would not apply to substantial new buildings or major developments, nor to listed heritage buildings or conservation zones.
That measure is safe, sensible and proportionate and should not scare anyone—certainly not those worried about Manhattan-style buildings. It would offer a little piece of freedom from the cold and clammy hand of bureaucracy: a chance for every householder to help solve the nation’s housing problems by extending the size, and value, of their property by adding extra bedrooms or perhaps an entire apartment on top of what is there already. It would provide an opportunity for energy and ideas to have their head, without being diverted, amended or discouraged by official objections, rooted in the very British fear of any building that is taller than two storeys high.
Without the measure, officialdom will be too slow to change. They will not be forced to look upwards, and will carry on thinking the same way as they have for the last 50 years. We need change immediately, not at some distant future time. Without a shock—a stimulus—and some creative development yeast, the White Paper’s dough will never rise. Many valuable town and city centre sites will continue to be ignored.
The new permitted development right could be that stimulus—that little piece of freedom. It could be a creative spark that lights the blue touch paper of Britain’s stodgy, slow-paced, cosily comfortable housing market so that it takes off like a rocket. It would improve our economy and our quality of life, make our homes more affordable and reduce development pressure on greenfield and green belt sites. I hope the Minister will agree.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. As a Back Bencher, it is certainly unusual for me to be second in the speaking order.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing the debate. He has campaigned on this issue and raised it in Parliament before, so it is clearly something that he is keen to see progress. I agree in principle with much of what he said about ensuring vibrancy in main streets at night. If that can be done by building upwards above shops, that is a good thing, but in the long run we really need to be careful. I have already touched on my concerns that the proposal might open the door for the construction of large town houses without delivering low-cost housing, which is the thrust of this debate. I am also slightly concerned that there may be a rush by too many people to do it. We need to ensure that the right controls are in place, including building standards and building controls, and that the processes can be inspected. Clearly some low-rise buildings were only ever designed to be low-rise buildings, even though they may be adjacent to higher buildings.
I fully accept that. I know that is the premise; I am just saying that we need to ensure that the resources are there to keep an eye on things. We have heard stories about properties in London getting built in the rear of gardens and so on, which is done without planning consent or building standards consent. It is a question of ensuring that procedures are properly followed. Foundations need to be checked and may need to be strengthened, and buildings that are structurally tied to adjoining buildings need proper structural design. I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s good point about controls, listed buildings and exemptions, and I agree that a controlled method of allowing building up can work.
Let me return to low-cost housing, which is the title of this debate. We need to do more to make low-cost housing available. I welcome the UK Government’s White Paper, but neither I nor my party think it goes far enough. As was raised yesterday, the elephant in the room for low-cost housing is the right-to-buy model. In the long run, the extended right-to-buy model for social housing will eat into the availability of low-cost housing. Subsidies from the public sector to allow people to buy properties use money that could otherwise be going directly into stimulating housing growth or be put towards brownfield development. Members have raised concerns about building outwards and eating into the green belt. Clearly brownfield regeneration is a good thing, especially in the urban environment. The money being taken out of the system for right to buy could be put to better use, either directly for building new social housing or for stimulating new brownfield development.
By ending right to buy, the Scottish Government have protected 15,500 properties that would otherwise have been sold from stock. Quite often, houses that are sold end up in the buy-to-let market, which pushes rents up because social rents are always cheaper than private rents, and that has an impact on the housing benefit bill. Again, that means more money from the public purse that could otherwise be going towards housing.
The Scottish Government are making a record investment in council house building. I request that the UK Government consider going back to that model and funding the construction of public housing. Because there is no right to buy for housing in Scotland, housing associations have more confidence to build housing. They can also get subsidies from the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government delivered 30,000 affordable homes in the last Parliament and have a target of 50,000 for this Parliament.
I recognise that the White Paper targets affordable homes, but the argument goes full circle: for the UK Government to deliver affordable homes, they need to put public money to the best possible use, not subsidise the purchase of properties for people who already have one and who do not need a discount to become a homeowner. I know that a lot of people have aspirations to become homeowners, but the No. 1 thing is to ensure that there are enough homes for everybody. We can look to further drive home ownership once there are enough homes for everybody, but once that happens the market will even out and we will not see the continued push on prices.
The hon. Gentleman said that there would be controls on listed buildings. My other concern is that we would need tight controls on the aesthetics of buildings to ensure that they blended in with the surrounding environment. Where there are permitted development rights rather than planning controls, there still need to be tight guidelines.
May I press the hon. Gentleman a little on that point? I take his point with respect to areas that have a homogeneous architectural style and that therefore have conservation of one kind or another, but not areas that have no such homogeneous style and no conservation control or anything like it. Most British cities are a hotch-potch of things built over several centuries, and that is fine. I am concerned that he is trying to create a sort of clammy bureaucratic control where historically there has been none and everyone has been happy with the outcome.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. Perhaps, as always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. However, I would have real concerns if people were just able to throw up these buildings. There could be real issues with the materials used, with long-term maintenance and with the aesthetics of buildings. For instance, if people use the wrong materials for wood fascias and do not maintain them, they become a real eyesore in the long run. I am just putting that out there; I think those issues should be considered within permitted development rights. Local areas might not have a completely homogeneous style; as he says, cities may have developed as a hotch-potch, but that is not always an attractive look, and if we do not watch out, it can become even less attractive. Clearly that is not the desire behind the hon. Gentleman’s proposal, but I conclude by congratulating him on advancing it.
It is an honour to serve under you again, Ms Gillan. I thank the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) for securing the debate.
I wondered whether there had been a mix-up by the Chairman of Ways and Means, who decides on these debates, but knowing him and understanding the process as I now do, I know that that is not possible. Hon. Members may have attended this debate and people may have watched it in anticipation of a debate on low-cost housing, perhaps hoping to hear some more detail about the White Paper that the Government released yesterday or some more meat put on the bones of the essential topic of low-cost housing. Instead, this debate has been about a small proposal to tweak the planning system.
I will address the proposal from the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare in a moment, but first I will address low-cost housing, which is the topic of the debate and is what I expected to be speaking on. Of course the overall supply of housing—which the hon. Gentleman states it is the intention of his policy to address—is important, because we have a shortage of housing in this country, as the Secretary of State said yesterday. In a pure supply and demand curve, one expects more supply to mean lower cost, and the obverse—shortage of supply—means higher cost, which is exactly what has happened in the open market; so housing becomes more and more unaffordable for more and more people.
That has happened in the last seven years. Under David Cameron, the UK built fewer homes than under any peacetime Prime Minister since 1923. The number of home-owning households rose by a million under the 1997 to 2010 Government, but it has fallen by 200,000 since 2010, and this shortage has meant that the price of buying has risen and risen, putting homes out of the reach of even well-paid young people. Members here today may have watched “Newsnight” last night, in which there were reasonably well-paid young professionals who could not get on the housing ladder. In my constituency in west London, working people earning reasonable salaries cannot even afford to rent, and if they can just about pay more than 50% of their income on rent, they have no money left to save up for a deposit. The market is not delivering affordable homes to rent or to buy, except in some economically deprived areas, where there are more homes than there are people who want to live in them.
In most of England, because house prices have risen, more and more people need some kind of subsidised low-cost housing. Since 2010, however, Government funding for all types of affordable housing—there were eight definitions of affordable housing in the White Paper—has been withdrawn, except for one, which is for first-time buyers. The level of new affordable house building has still managed to hit a 24-year low. The number of shared ownership homes and other low-cost home ownership homes being built annually has fallen by 66% since 2010, to just 7,540 homes a year, meaning that 34,170 fewer affordable homes have been built since 2010 than in the last six years of the last Labour Government. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) clearly described the problems—and the potential solutions—of delivering truly affordable low-cost housing.
For social rented housing, official statistics show that the number of social rented homes that were started in 2009-10 was almost 40,000, but in 2015-16 the number of social rented homes being delivered was less than 1,000—a fall of 98% and the lowest figure since records began.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said yesterday in the main Chamber that private house builders, housing associations and councils need to fire on all cylinders to build the homes that we need, and councils need to be allowed to build homes again to meet the needs of local people. At the moment, they are not allowed to do that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for giving way. I agree with what she is saying, that this “Pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap and leave it to market forces” solution does not sound like it is enough. When it is left to market forces, in a place such as Ealing, people seem to use these high-rise homes that are going up as a very expensive piggybank; they are not even living in them. Obviously we need more social housing to counteract all this.
My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is absolutely right. I have experienced that in my own constituency. We still have newly built homes that are never let, because they are seen as nothing more than an investment, and many of them are very high in price.
As I have said, the latest affordable housing statistics have fallen to their lowest levels in 24 years. Of course I welcome any credible initiatives to provide low-cost housing, but where is the evidence that this well-meaning initiative to extend permitted development rights, which the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare has discussed today, will actually deliver low-cost housing?
Between February and April in 2016, the Government consulted jointly with the Mayor of London on proposals to deliver more homes in London by allowing a limited number of additional storeys on existing buildings through a permitted development right, local development orders or development plan policies, which is exactly what the hon. Gentleman is seeking. That was part of the Government’s commitment to explore how more homes could be built on brownfield land, in order to reduce the pressure on greenfield or metropolitan open land. The Government summary of the responses that they received to that proposal says:
“More than half of those were not supportive of the proposal, with a one-size-fits-all permitted development right approach considered unworkable. While it was noted that it could support town centres and deliver more homes, it was recognised that the complex prior approval that would be required to protect neighbours and the character and amenity of an area would result in a permitted development right that is no less onerous than a planning application.”
Specifically, a couple of the consultees—the Planning Officers Society and Historic England—did not support the proposals. I am well aware that the British Property Federation welcomed them.
I just wish to clarify something for the hon. Lady. I have read the document she is quoting and learned of the concerns surrounding the proposed permitted development right, which has been consulted on already, but my proposal is different. It starts from the same place, but is designed to avoid the criticisms that were levelled, which she has rightly pointed out. I have endeavoured to modify my proposal in a way that will allow it to sidestep those issues.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. Nevertheless, with any consideration of extending permitted development rights, there are always unintended consequences. That is why the Planning Officers Society, Historic England and other organisations did not see the merit of, and therefore did not make the case for, extending them. In fact, it was not only permitted development rights that were considered, but other methods.
As I say, the British Property Federation welcomed the proposal for an extension to permitted development rights, but even the BPF said that
“it is unlikely to deliver a significant amount of new homes”,
which, as the hon. Gentleman said in his speech, is one of his key aims.
What are the reasons to retain the status quo, which is what I am suggesting? Proposals to develop upwards can go through the planning application process. What is wrong with that? A planning application provides notification, consultation, transparency and accountability, whereas extending permitted development rights does not. If any proposal to build higher makes sense in a town or village centre; if it works with neighbouring buildings; if the space standards and design provide good quality housing in which people will thrive, it should be granted planning permission. However, to deny a community or a parish council the ability to comment, to deny planning officers the ability to negotiate improvements to a proposal, and to deny locally elected councillors the opportunity to determine the application would just open the gates to unpopular, unwanted and possibly bad developments.
If a local council makes a bad planning decision—possibly in the face of fierce local opposition to an application—there is always the opportunity to appeal to the impartial Planning Inspectorate. Nobody denies that enabling more homes to be built in a town or village centre is a good thing for the life and vibrancy of that place.
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiment. However, is it not very difficult for the types of people my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) has spoken about today—people who want to carry out small extensions or build small buildings—to bring the sorts of planning appeals that she just talked about? Sometimes bad decisions are made because around the time of elections, planning issues can become very contentious in local authorities.
Having been a councillor myself for many, many years, I am well aware of that pressure, which is why we have the appeals system—it is why we have that check and balance. Let us remember that one can only get away with refusing a planning application if the refusal is made on good planning grounds. Officers are there to advise councillors, and if councillors ignore officers, the application will go to appeal, and, if it is a good application that was refused for the wrong reasons, the Planning Inspectorate will overturn the refusal and the application will be granted.
The planning system is there for a reason. It is there to protect communities and ensure good development. It ensures that there are appropriate facilities, amenities, space standards, parking provision and so on. When permitted development rights are extended, a lot of that is lost. I am sure that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare does not want to see a load of high-rise buildings going up that do not meet basic standards and do not provide a basic quality of life for the people living in those dwellings and in surrounding dwellings.
I repeat that I am not proposing huge high-rise dwellings at all; I am proposing things that can be built up to the height of the local treeline, for example, which is four or five storeys at the most. I gently say to the hon. Lady that if the planning system works so bleedin’ brilliantly, we would have four or five-storey developments in market towns and seaside towns around the country, but we do not. I doubt very strongly that that is because communities everywhere have roundly decided that they cannot live with anything taller than two storeys. I suspect that it is because there is a chilling effect. People are being discouraged from putting such applications in because of officialdom knocking them back all the time.
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I believe he was in the same meeting as me last week, where we talked about converting empty space above flats into residential. In that interesting and informative roundtable, we heard that there is a whole host of barriers to converting empty space above shops, and the same applies to the proposal to increase heights. The planning system was not suggested as the main barrier. There are other barriers, such as structural ones, security ones, issues of funding and whether it is worth the cost. Except in very high-price property areas, such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) and I represent, it is just not worth landowners’ while to do it. There is a range of barriers.
No one denies that enabling more homes in town centres is a good thing for the life and vibrancy of those town centres. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, but the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare could do better than blaming the planning system for the lack of delivery. The planning system can deliver what he wants now. He has brought no evidence that this little tweak of the planning system will deliver more housing, let alone more affordable housing. He has made circumstantial links between more supply, of which the proposal would provide a tiny amount, and a crashing fall in housing prices. There is no evidence.
We have seen problems when permitted development rights are extended, such as with the coalition Government’s policy, which has now been enshrined permanently, of allowing employment space to be converted into residential without planning permission. In Hounslow—I represent half of the borough—we have seen poor-quality housing, poor space standards, inadequate parking and issues with everything from refuse disposal to access. That policy is not providing good-quality housing or affordable housing.
The other extension of permitted development rights that was enacted under the coalition Government allowed homeowners to extend the rear of their homes by 6 metres, rather than the 3 metres it had been previously. Those developments have a massive impact on the neighbours. That is why we have to be careful about extending permitted development rights, and the Opposition do not support such extensions.
Building can be done at height with good design, but there is no reason why that cannot be done through the normal, transparent and accountable planning application process. In the years I was a planning committee member—some of those were as chair—we granted many applications for increasing the height of buildings and homes or for building new higher ones. We refused some terrible applications. The system allows for that to happen. We have a massive housing shortage in west London, but the prices are high enough that it is worth the developers’ while. We saw the applications; we approved the good ones and refused the bad ones. The market in west London is doing exactly what the hon. Gentleman desires.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way yet again. She is being very generous and kind. I gently say to her that the London economic microclimate is not typical of the rest of Britain. I am rather reassured by some of the things she has said about what is happening in parts of London and how these things are being handled, but I do not think those incentives, processes or habits of mind among councils and council officials are broadly spread across the country.
In which case, the hon. Gentleman is effectively admitting that it is not the planning system that is the problem, but the state of the property market and other barriers to development. The market in west London is doing exactly what he wants, and I suggest he looks elsewhere for the cause of the problem and, therefore, for the solution.
The hon. Gentleman wants beautiful buildings; that is why a planning system is needed. He is proposing a solution that removes local oversight, but there is no evidence it will work and it could create unintended consequences. Furthermore, his proposal does not address the subject of the debate: low-cost housing. I am almost inclined to dissent when the Question is put at the end of the debate as to whether we have considered low-cost housing, but I will leave that for then.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). He has been fortuitous in securing this debate on low-cost housing the day after the White Paper was published, but he is rather disadvantaged by the fact that the Minister responsible is so busy selling the White Paper that he has to put up with a reply from me, but I will endeavour to answer the points he has raised.
The tone of the debate has frankly been a bit miserable, in truth. My hon. Friend has come forward with a proposal to expand the supply of housing. We all know that supply is the biggest challenge in delivering low-cost housing. Houses have become less and less affordable because we have not been building enough houses, period. We need to look at what we can do to unlock a bigger supply of houses, and that is what the White Paper is all about. I could happily trade statistics with Opposition Members, but the reality is that we have not been building enough housing in this country for decades. There are many reasons for that. Some of them are to do with planning, public opinion, finance and land prices, but what is clear is that our housing market is broken, and I do not think we should be ruling anything out in fixing it, because we have a real problem in terms of fairness for everyone in society being able to live in a decent home that they can afford. We in Government and as politicians should be seeking to deliver that.
That is where my hon. Friend has it in a nutshell, in coming forward with a proposal that could unlock substantially more housing. Listening to him and the reaction to his remarks from Members highlighted a massive cultural prejudice against building up, rather than building out, and there is a reason for that, which he alluded to in his remarks. We were very badly let down in the ’60s. That was the zenith of building up, not out, but we built buildings that were ugly and unpleasant, and they became unpleasant places to live. That is in people’s minds when they start thinking about high-rise housing and development. I have it in my constituency. We are on the border of London, so we have a substantial need for new houses. We have a substantial amount of brownfield land and green belt. Members will not be surprised to hear that we get a lot more planning applications for housing on green-belt sites, because we all know that it is cheaper to build there. We are also on the river, and if there is one place where high-rise developments would work, it is on the river.
My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles)—I think we were all impressed by his courage in turning up for the vote yesterday—came to my constituency when he was housing Minister. He did me no favours because he described one of my riverfront housing developments as pig ugly. It was a four-storey housing development on the river, and people want to live on the river, but his point was that if the planners had been a little more adventurous, we could have built something higher and more beautiful. When one visits places such as Greenwich in south-east London, one can see that they have shown imagination. They have opened up the river and created nice places to live, so I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s interest in this.
To give my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare some comfort, the White Paper sets out clearly the importance of high-density brownfield development, which is a part of his proposal. We propose changes to national policy to make it clear that local plans and individual development proposals should encourage building up where acceptable. We also propose to make better use of public land. The Department would welcome my hon. Friend’s response to the White Paper so that we can take this forward. It is incumbent on all of us, and it is very easy. We all react to our postbags—Mr Grumpy always complains about the planning application that is proposed—but we have a role now, because this is such an important issue, to sell what will really deliver more housing, so I encourage my hon. Friend to make his submission as robust and as forthright as he wishes.
The Government welcome the opportunity to discuss low-cost housing in its wider sense. The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) made some excellent points, but we need to recognise that the problem has been in the making for decades and the issues are complex. We do not say that the White Paper has all the answers or all the solutions. There is no silver bullet. If there was, the previous Labour Government would have delivered it, as would we in the last Parliament. Let us get real here. This is a serious problem, and unless we have a grown-up discussion about it, we will not solve it and we will let down future generations.
There is some stuff in the White Paper that was nicked out of the Ed Miliband playbook—we are pleased to see that there will be a ban on letting fees—but it could have been a little more aggressive on the “Use it or lose it” idea. I apologise, Mrs Gillan; I should have said my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). In Ealing we have a site, which my 12-year-old remembers as a building site for most of his life—it was a cinema—that is going to be rebuilt for residential use, but it has been land-banked for the best part of a decade. What does the White Paper say about that, and how can we be more aggressive with developers who simply sit on land while the value goes up?
The hon. Lady has hit on a major structural problem that is inhibiting the ability to supply. There are many examples of what she talks about. Some developers are bringing forward a supply of housing and others are sitting on the land.
The White Paper on housing that we published yesterday advocates shortening timescales for the implementation of planning permissions where appropriate. That is very much on our agenda. We are considering legislative changes to simplify and speed up completion notices, which will encourage developers to build out or face losing the site. I am a big fan of naming and shaming. Transparency is an effective tool. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Where we have developers clearly engaging in predatory behaviour and exploiting the marketplace, we should be prepared to name and shame them. Every one of us in this room has a voice. Where we see bad behaviour by developers, let us shout out about it, because we have to deliver more houses. It is that simple.
I trust that hon. Members have had the opportunity to digest some of the housing White Paper, if not all of it, and I hope that they will engage with the debate. I want to make it incredibly clear how committed the Government are to grappling with this problem. We want to make sure that all hard-working families have the housing that they need at a price they can afford. The root cause of the problem is that demand outstrips supply. Only by increasing supply substantially will we stop the increasing spiralling of house prices and rents.
If all options are on the table in the White Paper, will the Government reconsider the right to buy and extended the discount? Have the Government put a cost against how much money has been paid out in the extended right-to-buy scheme and how many properties might have been delivered had the money gone directly to house building?
The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I disagree with his point about right to buy. We are firmly committed to it. We want to encourage the aspiration for everyone to own their own home. We want to enable that, and right to buy is very much a part of it. He made very thoughtful remarks in his earlier contribution, and we have answers. We are firmly committed to making sure that, for every additional home sold, another social home will be provided—nationally. There is a rolling three-year deadline for councils to deliver the affordable homes to replace right to buy. We must also remember that when someone exercises their right to buy, the house is not removed from the stock. They still have a housing need. Again, the issue comes back to making sure that we increase the supply of houses.
Perhaps I can give the hon. Gentleman a little more comfort. It was said by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth that councils were not building more homes. Actually, they are. Some councils are showing considerable imagination in unlocking new homes. They are establishing local housing companies and we are encouraging them to do that. We see local councils as part of the partnership to help to increase supply.
I am sorry if the hon. Lady feels that I said councils are not building new homes. They are building new homes, but they are having to use other resources now that there is no Government funding. They could build an awful lot more if they could be released from the borrowing cap. My own council is building about 400 new council homes. The problem is that councils are losing their own stock at a faster rate through the right to buy than they can build new council homes. They are building them using capital funds that could also be used for other infrastructure such as schools and so on.
I am not sure I entirely accept that. Certainly local authorities have the powers to borrow using their general power of competence, and they have established local housing companies to do that. There is an obligation to replace one for one, following the right to buy being exercised. Ultimately, we see local authorities as a partner in delivering more housing. That is the message I want to press home today.
Our broken housing market is one of the greatest barriers to progress in Britain today. If we are really serious about building a fairer society for everyone, we need to tackle that. We need to fix this to make sure that housing is more affordable. As has been mentioned, many people spend significant amounts of their income on rent or mortgage payments. Building more homes will slow the rise in housing costs so that many more families will be able to afford to buy a home or enjoy the benefits of lower rents.
To summarise and put what the housing White Paper proposes in context, first, we will insist that every area has an up-to-date plan, because development is about far more than just building homes. This is where the challenge is for local authorities. The planning process and building a vision of where new homes will be built and what the future will be for a local economy is so important. It is about getting community buy-in. It will help to tackle some of the cultural prejudices that we discussed earlier in the debate. If communities have ownership of a local plan for their local area, they will get the attractive homes that they want and need. My challenge is for local authorities to step up and deliver. We are all aware that there are far too many local authorities that have not risen to the challenge of identifying where houses are needed. There are still too many councils that do not have a local plan, and they need to show leadership and deliver.
Secondly, and as the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) noted, we need to ensure that homes are built quickly once planning permission is granted. We will make sure that the planning system is much more open and accessible. We will improve the co-ordination of public investment infrastructure to encourage that, and we will support timely connections to utilities to tackle unnecessary delays, but the real issue is developers. We will give councils and developers the tools they need to build more swiftly and we will expect them to use them. I suspect that this is an issue that we will look at as reactions to the White Paper unfold and we consider whether there is a need for further legislative change.
We will also diversify the market. We want to bring new players in to the supply of housing. We need to give support to small and medium-sized builders and custom builders and to champion modern methods of construction to support new investment to build to rent. Those measures could be transformational. The idea of institutional investment that builds property estates or residential blocks that are specifically for rent, which people can rent for a long time, could transform the housing market and make renting much more affordable.
The White Paper also sets out how we will support housing associations to build more and explores options to encourage local authorities to build again. As I have said, we will also encourage further institutional investment in the private rented sector. Finally, because we recognise that building the homes we need takes time, we will also take more steps now to improve safeguards in the private rented sector. Hon. Members who represent constituencies in London will be particularly concerned about that.
We have seen the need to do more to prevent homelessness. I am very pleased that the Government have committed to fully funding the Homelessness Reduction Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). We will provide £61 million to local government to meet the costs of the new burdens associated with that Bill over the course of the spending review period.
We could easily trade statistics, but I do not think there is any value in playing the blame game about where we are now. We need to look at how we fix it. Everybody has a role to play in that—including the former Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), who the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton mentioned. The Government are very clear that fixing the problem is a real priority.
We have already delivered 313,000 affordable homes in England since 2010. The affordable homes programme alone delivered 193,000 affordable homes, exceeding expectations by 23,000. At the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced the expansion of the affordable homes programme with an additional £1.4 billion, which increased the overall budget to £7.1 billion. That is a significant investment from the Government in tackling the problem. The expanded programme also allows a wider range of products to help people on the pathway to home ownership and to continue to provide support for those who need it. Those products include shared ownership, rent to buy and affordable rent.
Opening up the programme in that way will help to meet the housing needs of a wider range of people in different circumstances and at different stages in their lives. We have to recognise that there are different problems in different areas of the country, but also different problems hitting people at different stages of their lives. We need to make sure that we have a solution for all of those.
Affordable rent was a policy introduced to get more bang for our buck in providing social rent models. It allows rent to be set at 80% of market rents so that we can unlock more supply. Those tenants will still benefit from a sub-market rent. This is a particular issue in London, where the affordable rent can be set even lower.
Home ownership, however, continues to be the aspiration for most people, which is why we have looked at the Help to Buy products, right to buy and shared ownership. Shared ownership offers a route through the part-buy/part-rent model to enable people to get on the housing ladder sooner than if they were saving for a deposit. Purchasers buy a minimum 20% share in the new-build property at market value, pay a controlled rent on the remainder and may continue to buy further shares until the property is owned outright. We will continue to use that tool to expand home ownership. Since 2010, around 45,000 new shared ownership schemes have been delivered and we will continue to deliver more.
Help to Buy has already helped more than 200,000 households to buy a home, including through the equity loan scheme, which has benefited 100,000 households—81% of whom were first-time buyers. We have also committed £8.6 billion for the Help to Buy equity loan scheme to 2021, to ensure that it continues to support homebuyers and stimulate supply. We recognise the need to create certainty for prospective homeowners so we will work with the sector to deliver that.
I come back to the issue of the planning regime and how we can speed up its ability to help to deliver the volume of supply. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare is quite right to look at tools for how we can do that. He highlighted the importance of increasing brownfield development and building to higher densities to deliver more homes. If widely adopted, that could reduce the need for green-belt development. What excites me about the idea is the ability to regenerate our high streets. I am sure I am not alone, given the way that retail is moving today, in seeing some of my high streets really struggling. The idea that we could create a new, mixed-use high street, rather than a retail-dependent one—one where people can live above the shops or behind the shops in new high-rise developments and be able to go downstairs and visit cafes and restaurants—is quite an exciting concept, which would particularly appeal to the younger generations coming through. There is massive potential, and I encourage my hon. Friend to carry on trying to open people’s eyes to the potential of this initiative.
The Department has been engaging with my hon. Friend on his work and has taken up his proposals. We consulted last February on proposals to allow limited upward extensions in London, no higher than the height of an adjoining roofline. Following that consultation, we recognise that there is potential to deliver more homes nationally, not just in London, through a change to national planning policy to support upward extensions in suitable locations. As set out in the housing White Paper, we propose to amend the national planning policy framework to make it clear that local plans and individual development proposals should address the particular scope for higher-density housing in urban locations where buildings can be extended upwards by using the airspace above them.
In the White Paper, we have committed to reviewing the nationally described space standards, because of feedback from the sector that in certain places, space standards make it hard to use land efficiently and stop cheaper houses being built, which more people now want to rent or buy, such as Pocket Homes. We have to recognise the limitations. When we write planning law, we write it at a given time, in a given set of circumstances. When the world changes, we need to be prepared to be fleet of foot in dealing with new opportunities to address the issues we face. However, this is not a race to the bottom, and Government are clear that in assessing the options we will be looking for a solution that combines greater local housing choice with good quality and with decent places to live.
As I have set out, in the past few years we have seen over 300,000 affordable homes built in England. We now need to go much, much further and meet our obligation to build many more houses, of the type people want to live in, in the places they want to live and at a price they can afford. Doing that will give those growing up in society today more chance to enjoy the same opportunities as their parents and grandparents. I am struck by the fact that this is the first time that the future generation will be less well-off than their parents, when for many decades we have been used to high living standards. It is firmly my view that the price of housing is central to that.
We will ensure that the housing market is as fair for those who do not own their own home as it is for those who do, and we will continue to look at what is happening in the private rented sector. All that is a vital part of our plan for a stronger, fairer Britain, and a critical step along the road to fulfilling the Government’s mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone.
I would like to extend my thanks to everybody who participated in this debate, in particular my hon. Friend the Minister—and Whip—for responding so constructively and helpfully. As she said, the timing of this debate was slightly fortuitous. As everyone here will appreciate, when we put in for debates we have little control over precisely when our names will come up, so I had no idea that it would take place 24 hours after the publication of the housing White Paper.
As the Minister said, I have been campaigning on this issue for some time, so this is at least partially a celebration of victory, because I am pleased to say that the Government have listened. There is a great deal in the White Paper about building up, not out, and it contains some very welcome steps. The Government deserve full credit for taking some major steps in the right direction. Therefore, my modest proposal, as the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) called it, is a final flourish or a final capstone—a residual step to ensure that it is done well and fully, rather than only partially. I think I am very close to the summit of achieving what we need to do, and I want to take this final step. This is, at least in part, a celebration of victory as much as a request for further activity.
I want to pick up on the Minister’s comments about there being a slightly miserable tone to the debate. She is absolutely right that there is no silver bullet to this problem, but it is perhaps a little reductive to say that because one particular proposal—in this case, my final step—does not solve all the complicated, deep-rooted and long-lasting housing problems that this country faces, it should therefore be opposed. If we let the best be the enemy of the good, we will get nowhere. This is a far broader issue than we can possibly cover in one debate, but I am pleased to say that we will make some progress.
I will finish on this point, which I direct to the Labour party and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth in particular. My hon. Friend the Minister said there was a cultural divide over tall buildings, but I think that in this Chamber there has been a cultural divide over the approach to regulation, too. I accept that the planning permission and planning regulation process plays an important role in preventing substandard building and inappropriate large-scale building—the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth was right to point all those things out. However, when it comes to regulating our fellow citizens in a free society, the burden of proof is on us to show why what we are doing to take away their freedoms is right, not on them to explain why they should have them back. Therefore, if I have a modest suggestion for an extension of those freedoms—a rolling back that will not impact on the broader points that the planning system is rightly geared to prevent abuses of—then it is up to us to justify why that should not happen. The burden of proof should be on us.