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Warwick District Council: New Offices

Volume 634: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered new offices for Warwick District Council.

Thank you, Mr Howarth, for giving me the opportunity to debate this issue, which is of immediate concern to residents in Warwick district, which includes my constituency of Warwick and Leamington, part of the neighbouring constituency of Kenilworth and Southam and part of the Stratford constituency.

At first glance, this debate will seem parochial, but it has much wider implications for local authorities across the country. It is fundamentally about the use of public money, and how local authorities use planning legislation for their own ends—using public money to build, in this example, a new council office, at a time of austerity. There are huge pressures on local authorities to restructure, to consider merging and to close certain services. We have seen our children’s centres and women’s refuges close. My question therefore is: are these the right priorities?

The issue at hand is the proposal for Warwick District Council to relocate from its current site near the centre of Leamington town centre to another site it owns in the town centre. It is a joint planning application that includes the development of a site for housing, which will contain 214 new homes in total, and of offices at the Covent Garden site, which will incorporate a new multi-storey car park, replacing the existing car park that occupies that site.

At last night’s planning meeting, both applications were approved. I do not agree with those approvals, and nor do the public. Why is the council building a new office in the first place? That has to be the first question.

Perhaps the council is seeking to move to offices that are smaller, cheaper and more efficient, which will enable it to provide the public services that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine want.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. At a time when local authorities are restructuring under the pressure of budgetary restraint, that could be an option, but there are other options, such as moving into vacant buildings that the authority owns. He is right to highlight that point, and I will come on to develop it.

How can a council that is likely to impose a 3% council tax increase in April, alongside other council tax increases that will mean a total rise of perhaps 7% to 8% for council tax payers, justify using scarce resources to build itself a shiny new office? Its sister county council has the necessary vacant space and is closing much-valued children’s centres, claiming that that is not what councils should be doing and that they should simply contract out delivery services. The council’s justifications include the fact that the offices are just 500 metres closer to the town centre and that they might be more economical to run. It claims that the move will be cost-neutral and could save £300,000 a year, but given my recent experience of its projects, including leisure centres, that will be wide of the mark.

There are three main issues: the development lacks provision for affordable housing, which is so desperately needed in the area; it is the wrong priority at a time of austerity; and it will disrupt car parking in Leamington town centre, and ultimately the viability of town centre businesses. In essence, it is the wrong development at the wrong time in the wrong place.

I want to touch on the issue of affordable homes. Some people may believe that the new office is critical at a time of economic austerity, and that the arguments of better heating and efficiency justify the £10 million spent, but then we discover that the council office project is being funded by the disposal of its current site for the exclusive development of private housing. In fact, the planning applications for the Riverside House and Covent Garden sites total more than 200 dwellings, but none of them will be council, social or affordable—zero council, zero social and zero affordable housing.

Remember that the two applications were made by the council for the council. What about the council’s own policy—the policy it wrote itself and specified in its own local plan—that 40% of properties on large new housing developments should be affordable housing? To be clear, large is anything greater than 10, so given that there will be 170 and 44 on the two sites, they comfortably qualify. It is clear that with these applications —approval has been outlined—the council is failing to meet its own standards for affordable housing, which it seeks to place on other developers. What sort of precedent is that setting?

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. The offices are a local issue, but the use of land for housing is a national issue—the use of land at premium prices that prevents the development of affordable housing has to be a national issue. Will the Minister have a serious look at that to see whether the local plan, which requires 40% affordable homes, can be enforced by central Government? We need to think of that as national public policy.

I thank my hon. Friend, who makes the point so well, as ever. Currently, in Warwick district—I am sure there are other examples around the country—only 27% of housing plans that have been approved are for affordable housing. The council itself is approving 0% affordable housing, so there is a much wider implication for the principle and for necessary housing, as he said.

If the council applied its own policy to those developments, Leamington would gain 86 affordable homes, which would make a huge difference to families in dire need of homes below market prices. Those who heard my maiden speech will be aware that there are about 2,400 people on the housing waiting list in Warwick district, that there are 700 statutory homeless people, and that there has been a 50% increase in rough sleeping in recent years. For young people, the situation is particularly dire. In 2015, Shelter found that 31% of working young adults in the area live with their parents, compared with a 25% average in England.

Some might simply excuse the council for ignoring social and affordable housing and accept the argument that it is not viable to include them, but that is missing the point. The new office development is not necessary, and it is only that that is disguising the council’s claim about why it is not building the much-needed affordable housing on the two sites. In its outline planning application, the council managed to wriggle out of the 40% requirement for affordable housing by securing viability—that great “v” word—appraisals that say that the developments would not be viable if they provided any affordable housing. Furthermore, the council is refusing to release the details of those viability assessments on the grounds that they contain commercially sensitive information, partly because the developments are a joint venture with a private company, which ignores the public interest in the investment in new buildings.

The council claims in the viability assessments that the capital receipts gained from the housing developments are required to fund the building of the new offices, but if it did not have the capacity to provide any affordable housing, it should never have proposed its new office plan in the first place. There is also the broader issue that the viability assessments allow developers to avoid requirements for affordable housing across the board. That policy was introduced in 2012 as part of the national planning policy framework, which has been disastrous for the supply of affordable housing, contributing to the housing crisis, and which should be dropped. When housebuilders such as Persimmon claim that developments are not viable, but the chief executive is pocketing a £130 million bonus, something is not right.

There is clearly a fundamental issue with a local authority being both applicant and jury. The planning committee is supposed to be quasi-judicial, but it is evident, as in this case, that planning officers lean on it to ensure that an application gets passed. How can the planning department “recommend approval” to its own committee on its own project? Let us be honest: that is not quasi-judicial.

The third report of the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life—the committee advises the Prime Minister on the standards to be expected of those in public office—stated:

“We have particular concerns about…local authorities granting themselves planning permission…and we believe that there should be greater openness in the planning process.”

Warwick District Council has done exactly what the Nolan committee advised that local authorities should not do. In a case of commercial confidentiality, the failure to deliver affordable housing should preclude such exemption from public scrutiny. The council’s proposals, which fail residents in the area who are in desperate need of more affordable housing, should be dropped.

The people of Warwick district, in common with all communities, have been battered by a programme of Government austerity these past seven years, and local services are being cut. Communities are losing children’s centres, social care is at a crisis point and all services are suffering from the cuts. It is no wonder that, in such a challenging environment, many people tell me how surprised they are that the district council is proposing to build a new office.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about a challenging fiscal environment. The proposal, to which he has referred to fairly, is intended to save £300,000 per year, but surely that is precisely why it should be pursued—it will enable more money to be spent on the services that people want.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point but his conclusion is wrong. There is a huge opportunity for all local authorities. His Government previously proposed One Public Estate, which was a genuine and sincere ambition to get authorities around the table to review all public assets and decide how they can best be used for the future delivery of services. The Warwick proposal is an example of where that has not happened. I proposed a “one Warwickshire estate” a couple of years ago. Had it happened, the district council could have been using its existing assets or those of its sister councils such as the county council.

The council should be using any capital budgets to build much-needed council housing to address the 2,400-long housing waiting list. Moving the council headquarters is not a priority for the people in my constituency or in Kenilworth, and it should not be a priority for the council at this time.

The effect of the development on the Covent Garden car park will also have an impact on our community. It will lead to the closure of a much-needed car park, one of the four main ones in our town centre. The closure for redevelopment will result in a lack of car parking space in our town centre and therefore a huge amount of pressure on the economic viability of the town centre and the businesses therein. In any event, while building a car park, there should be some sort of workable displacement plan for parking during the construction period, but none has been put forward.

Indeed, no other options have been put forward to the public, but they should be explored. The council should consider the use of existing space in the public asset register that I mentioned a moment ago, such as empty and underutilised office space owned by the county council, or even Leamington town hall, which is owned by Warwick District Council. That would reduce the cost and allow for the development of affordable housing on the Riverside House site, as well as avoiding the demolition of one of our main car parks in Leamington. If the council must push ahead with the plans, it should at least find some way of meeting its own affordable housing policy for both developments and on those two sites.

From what my hon. Friend is saying, it springs to my mind that the council knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Councils are not meeting the affordable housing tariffs they set for themselves. In my constituency, for the past two years Peterborough City Council has approved proposals that have not met its 30% social and affordable housing tariff. His council has not met its 40% target, but is still ploughing ahead with proposals to build and develop, showing it knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Does he agree?

I thank my hon. Friend for a valuable intervention. She is so right. The precedent is dangerous not only for Warwick district but across the country. It could almost become case law, in that people will cite examples from elsewhere and use them for their own ends. That is one of the fundamental flaws in the existing policy. Furthermore, there are question marks over the transparency of the planning process as it stands, and my example demonstrates clearly how the viability assessment can be withheld on grounds of commercial sensitivity, despite the clear and obvious public interest involved.

This is the wrong development at the wrong time in the wrong place, as I have said. The lack of provision for affordable housing shows appalling double standards. The council is pushing ahead with a development that is not necessary at a time of austerity, and that is an insult to our residents. The demolition of the Covent Garden car park will bring chaos and uncertainty to our town centre, and lead to closures of retailers and businesses there during the two to three-year development phase. I therefore urge Warwick District Council to rethink, and I urge the Minister to ask it to do the same. I also ask the Minister to consider the broader issues raised by this case, which have significance throughout the country and will be replicated elsewhere. I am grateful for having the time to speak today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on securing an important debate not just for his constituents but for various areas of the country—Members from across the House have made contributions, so he is obviously raising issues from their constituencies that they want to discuss.

To focus on Warwick initially, Mr Howarth, you, like me, are a proud northerner. I am also Minister for the northern powerhouse and it is appropriate for me to respond to this debate given that Warwick Castle was founded in 1068 by William the Conqueror, who was dealing with a rebellious set of northerners. I think we are both rebellious northerners and so it is appropriate for us to discuss Warwick under your chairmanship.

We heard an intervention by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) and I would like to frame the debate in terms of what his local authority has achieved by active management of its estate. The council has been inventive about how it has used its civic buildings in the centre of Rochdale, which adjoins my constituency—I know it extremely well—and it took a decision to move out of its iconic grade I listed town hall, which is a fantastic building and is now used largely for civic and private events. That shows how with active planning good local authorities may move offices to the betterment of the people they represent.

The iconic Rochdale town hall was, unfortunately, one of Adolf Hitler’s favourite buildings, but he told the Luftwaffe not to bomb it during the second world war, because he wanted to take it down brick by brick and to move it to Germany. A better use of it at the moment would be to replace the chimes from the Elizabeth Tower, the bong of Big Ben in particular, which we are all missing after it came back into use for a time over Christmas and new year. I hope that, with me, the hon. Member for Rochdale will continue to press the BBC on an issue that is important to the north of England.

I endorse strongly what the Minister is saying. Hearing the northern chimes of Rochdale town hall on the BBC would enlighten the world about the beauties of the north.

We are as one on that—“bong” is all I can say.

We also heard from the hon. Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya), who raised important issues in her constituency, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who has great experience as a former deputy leader of West Oxfordshire District Council. In his time there he was always involved in saving the local authority money, not for the sake of it or from any ideologically driven point of view, but so that he and his colleagues in the local government family of West Oxfordshire could invest in public services and public service delivery.

Before I move on to the main part of my speech, I will take the opportunity, on behalf of all hon. Members present, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in particular and me, to put on record our thanks to all councillors in our local government family who, regardless of political persuasion, work so hard to serve the communities that they represent.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington is aware that the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in any planning applications in the United Kingdom. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the merits of Warwick’s local plan or to discuss in detail the application that he mentioned specifically. Equally, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on what is essentially a local decision by Warwick council to relocate its offices. However, I am aware that that is part of a wider efficiency plan that includes a review of council assets. Local authorities are right to manage their own assets and expenditure responsibly in a democratically accountable way. Warwick District Council is a stable, well-managed, fiscally prudent, Conservative-controlled council that has achieved a surplus on its general fund revenue budget in each of the past six years and is projected to do so again in this financial year, which shows that it has a history of taking difficult decisions to better serve the people in Warwick, as a prudent local authority.

The hon. Gentleman raised concerns about affordable housing provision. I will set out our national policy on this issue and what our national planning policy framework does to encourage the delivery of affordable housing. I will touch on parking facilities and how the framework promotes sustainable transport solutions. I will also say a bit about how we require local authorities to make sure that the money they expend is spent well and that they take prudent investment decisions.

The Government’s priority is to boost housing supply and to build more affordable homes, supporting the different needs of a wide range of people. That is why the Prime Minister recently announced an additional £2 billion of funding for affordable housing, increasing the affordable homes programme in the 2016 to 2021 budget to more than £9 billion, to deliver a wide range of affordable housing, including social rent homes, by March 2021. The new funding will support councils and housing associations to build more genuinely affordable homes in areas of acute affordability pressure, where families are struggling with the cost of rent and some families may be at risk of homelessness.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of homelessness and families waiting on the list during his maiden speech; it is absolutely right and appropriate that in this House we focus on what is a hugely important issue for us all as constituency MPs and for the Government. Our expanding programme will provide a wide range of homes to meet the housing needs of a range of people in different circumstances and different housing markets. Further details on how social rent will be prioritised in the areas of greatest need will be published shortly. The Government have also confirmed plans to create a stable environment by setting long-term rent deals for councils and housing associations in England from 2020. Increases will be limited to the consumer prices index plus 1% for the next five years until 2020.

On our national planning policy, our housing White Paper shows that the Government are strongly committed to a plan-led system, where new homes are provided through up-to-date local plans prepared in consultation with local people. The giveaway about local plans is in their title: they should be local, widely consulted on and driven by local authorities, not by Government. The White Paper also includes proposals for local authorities to have clear policies for addressing the housing needs of particular groups. As part of that, we expect local authorities to identify their affordable housing need. As always, we expect them to make a planning judgment—as they do now—to understand how many affordable homes should be built in their local planning area.

As I started out by saying, it is up to local authorities to determine how their own affordable housing policy is applied, and to determine their own planning applications in line with their own view. Planning law requires that applications for planning permission must be determined in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Viability is a material consideration. Different sites have different costs, and it might be appropriate for local authorities to seek different levels of local planning applications, including affordable housing, in certain circumstances.

I am interested to hear the Minister’s specific comments on One Public Estate and the fact that this authority has chosen to ignore the possibilities offered by the Government’s own policy on that. Also, will he concentrate on the 40% figure, where the authority is failing against it at a 0% level?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me down a path. I am tempted, but I will not venture down it, because, as I am sure he is aware as a county councillor and as a Member of this House, the Secretary of State in my Department has a judicial role in local plans, local planning policy, and all planning applications in England. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for me to comment in the way that he has asked.

Viability assessments play an important role in making sure that both plans and individual proposals are deliverable. However, we recognise that viability assessments can add complexity and uncertainty to the planning process, which have led to delays and diminished contributions towards infrastructure and affordable housing. That is why in our recent planning consultation we included proposals that seek to simplify the process, creating more certainty about the contributions that developers are expected to make. That will also increase transparency —I think that the hon. Gentleman will like that—so that local people can better understand what contributions may be expected to be secured from developers. Of course, that will not be the whole solution, and we will continue to consider further reform of developer contributions.

I note that the hon. Gentleman has concerns about parking provision in his local area. Planning policy on transport provision set out in our national planning policy framework promotes sustainable solutions to give people a real choice about how they travel. The framework expects councils to support developments that facilitate the use of public transport, walking and cycling where it is reasonable for them to do so, and to focus significant developments in locations that can be made sustainable in terms of transport. Local authorities are expected to improve the quality of parking in town centres so that it is convenient, safe and secure.

All local authorities have a duty to deliver the best value for the people they represent. I hope that Warwick District Council and all local authorities will have in their mind when they look at plans anywhere in the country how they can save money for the council tax payer and refocus that on the priorities that we have discussed, such as affordable housing, which, as we all know, is hugely important. Our Prime Minister has been absolutely clear that tackling the housing crisis is the top priority for her Government and I am absolutely proud to play my part in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in ensuring that we deliver on that promise.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.