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House Building Targets: North East Bedfordshire

Volume 696: debated on Wednesday 9 June 2021

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of housebuilding targets in North East Bedfordshire constituency.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham; it is a particular pleasure. I am grateful to the Speaker for granting this debate at this time, because it enables me to engage directly with the Minister on the existing impact of high levels of house building in my constituency ahead of his finalisation, with the Secretary of State, of the forthcoming planning Bill.

I place on the record my thanks to the Minister for his willingness to meet me on multiple occasions—I have lost count—to discuss the particular effects on my constituency of development from a wide variety of sources: the construction of East West Rail; the creation of development corporations; the 2017 Oxford-Cambridge arc proposals—highly questionable, in my mind— from the National Infrastructure Commission; road improvements, including on the A1 at Black Cat roundabout; and the processes of the local plans for Central Bedfordshire Council and Bedford Borough Council. The Minister has always been open to discussions, and I am grateful for that.

In this short debate, I will cover the Conservative party manifesto commitment to “infrastructure first”; the Department’s view on housing consequences from East West Rail and other transport decisions; environmental impacts of particular concern in areas where local authorities are having to meet housing growth targets that are well above average; and some critical requests for consideration by the Minister in the forthcoming planning Bill.

Let me let me start with some context. My constituency is already recording housing growth at roughly three times the average of the constituencies of all Members of this House. The National House Building Council provides some statistics: in 2018, North East Bedfordshire’s figure for new homes registered was 2.2 times the national average, in 2019 it was 2.9 times the average and last year it was 3.5 times the average. We anticipate that that rate will continue to increase in relative terms. Moreover, the Office for National Statistics states that in terms of absolute population growth, in the decade to 2026 the local authority of Central Bedfordshire, which covers part of my constituency, ranks second only to Leicester of all local authorities outside London. The population of North East Bedfordshire is already growing fast, and that rate of growth is getting faster. The absolute growth in population will be one of the highest in the country.

The effects of this house building are already having an impact on the availability of local services. Difficulties in accessing GP services are already being felt across my constituency: from Arlesey and Stotfold to Biggleswade and Sandy to Harrold and to Sharnbrook, residents have contacted me to say how increasingly difficult it is to access GP services. This is not to do with covid; it is directly to do with population growth. A House of Commons report on changes in the numbers of GPs, trainees and locums for clinical commissioning groups across the country records a 6% decrease in the number of qualified permanent GPs for the Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes CCG since 2019. In that CCG, which covers my constituency, there were 2,112 patients per full-time equivalent GP as of December 2019, compared with 1,722 in England as a whole. There is already a disparity in access to GP services, which is only likely to grow, given the growth in housing numbers.

The Minister and I—and indeed you, Sir Graham—stood on a manifesto commitment of “infrastructure first”, pledging that we would ensure that new roads and services were in place before people moved into new homes. Does the Minister acknowledge that securing access to GPs and school places is a crucial principle of our “infrastructure first” pledge? Will he commit to an urgent review, with his colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care and in the Department for Education, to assess the current and projected requirements for my constituency and plans for improvements?

Let me turn to other aspects of infrastructure: roads and railways, of which my constituency has many, in part thanks to a 2017 National Infrastructure Commission report entitled “Partnering for Prosperity,” which was chaired by Lord Adonis. The report stated, with reference to the area between Oxford and Cambridge:

“Without swift and determined action to overcome the area’s housing crisis, it will fall behind its international competitors and fail to attract and retain the talent and skills it needs.”

I will not question that, although I feel that it was a bit tendentious in its expectation. This technocratic report went on to state:

“If the arc is to maximise its economic potential, current rates of house building will need to double—delivering up to one million new homes by 2050.”

However, the target of 1 million homes was wrong. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now. The target included an allocation of overspill of 230,000 or more from London. It was based not on the fulfilment of the projections, but on the over-fulfilment of the highest projection of growth for the area. In short, it was a number plucked out of thin air by Lord Adonis, to get a PR-ready headline, but it bears only a tangential relationship to reality. Yet this “one million new homes” figure remains a potential threat to the already successful plans for housing growth in my local authorities of Central Bedfordshire and Bedford Borough Council. Can the Minister reassure me that this fantasy figure of 1 million new homes in the OxCam arc no longer plays a role in housing targets for the area?

From my discussions with CPRE and local environmental groups in Bedfordshire, I know there are considerable concerns that the rate of growth of housing means that biodiversity and access to green spaces are threatened. Does the Minister recognise that these frequently heard concerns, which I know concern him as well, are even more important in areas of considerable housing growth? Will he commit to requiring developments in Central Bedfordshire and Bedford Borough Council local authority areas to embed environmental considerations from the very start of the planning process, rather than making them considerations somewhat later down the track? I believe we need to prioritise access to our environment for residents where housing development is considerably above the national average. The Minister and the Department need to take action to move forward those considerations right to the start of the planning process.

A key part of the National Infrastructure Commission report was the creation of the east-west railway, linking Oxford to Cambridge and to points beyond them on both sides. This project is well under way, but the process has created concerns and confusion for many of my residents. I do not want to draw the Minister into transport-related matters, but can he advise me on a couple of points?

First, in the discussions with local authorities about the East West Rail project, were any considerations of consequential requirements for additional housing ever made by his Department or by the Department for Transport? If so, what were those additional requirements? Secondly, the Minister may be aware that, in part at the request of the leadership of Bedford Borough Council, the east-west railway is now planned to go via the town centre and then north across my constituency. That was a considerable surprise for many of my residents, partly because Bedford Borough Council’s recommendation was put into the consultation without the Mayor or the leadership letting the councillors know that. They did not even have a vote on whether to put it into the consultation. It was a surprise, because people saw that route and thought it was longer, more costly and hillier than alternatives.

I am agnostic on what the route decision should be, but I am not agnostic on the facts that underpin decisions when they are made. As we know, with very large infrastructure decisions, it is important that local communities understand and see that the process is transparent, and understand and see the data underlying any decision.

Given that surprise, will the Minister advise me—not on transport matters, but specifically on housing ones—whether that particular route decision to go through the town amended any expectation of consequential housing growth over any other route options? He may not have answers to my two questions today, but if he would commit to writing to me about them, I will be very grateful.

As I mentioned, my constituency has multiple changes planned or in progress, yet I am advised by local authorities that the level of co-ordination between Departments—over changes in water routes, railways, roads and other utilities—is extremely poor. That causes greater uncertainty in the preparation of local plans and greater disruption for residents. Will the Minister pay particular regard to improving such co-ordination in his forthcoming planning Bill? Furthermore, I encourage him in his efforts to reform CIL, the community infrastructure levy, as part of the effort to give local authorities the resources they need to fund required infrastructure.

The planning Bill offers a positive vision to enable housing developments to proceed more effectively and with more, not less, local community involvement. Does the Minister agree that any future changes in planning regulations should include, and indeed enhance, the involvement of local people in shaping and protecting their communities? Does he share my desire that the voice of local residents, easier access to proposed developments in their areas, the empowering of neighbourhood plans to have real teeth, promotion of micro-scale developments, encouragement of more smaller local builders and the closing of loopholes for creeping developers to exploit should be clear objectives of his plan and his Bill?

From discussions with town and parish councillors, in Potton, Upper Caldecott, Everton and Harrold in particular, I know that those are aspects of reform that are crucial to them. Reassurance of the power of democratic involvement in the planning of local communities is particularly important to North East Bedfordshire given the scale of change. Will the Minister also advise me what his Department sees as the respective roles of the spatial framework, development corporations and local authorities in setting and meeting housing targets in my constituency?

Finally, I have some further points on the planning Bill. Given the market failure in house building, greater recognition of the social contract is needed in fulfilling the country’s ambitions of making home ownership more accessible. The Local Government Association states that there is already planning permission for more than 1.1 million homes. Currently, there are no real penalties for failure to build when permission is granted. That free ride should end, with existing approvals given a “build by” sunset clause on planning rights and all new permissions issued with a build and council tax schedule.

Without such action, the ability of local authorities to fulfil their part of the social contract—from the national Government’s objective to the local plans for housing, the neighbourhood and parish council’s control over what happens in their communities and builders building what the country demands and requires of them—will be fundamentally undermined. I hope that the Minister will bear those particular concerns of North East Bedfordshire in mind.

The value of the debate for me has been in being able to demonstrate to the Minister that in one of the constituencies in the country that is facing some of the most considerable change—potential and current, of which house building is a crucial part—his Department and his ambitions for the planning Bill can have real impact and real contact. I hope that he will take away some of the points that I have made as he finalises his preparations for the planning Bill.

It is a great pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham, and a great pleasure to reply to the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), who is a doughty champion for his constituents. I am grateful to him for his kind words. He is right; we will always continue to engage in dialogue to make sure that we get planning reforms right, particularly for his constituency. I think I am speaking to him and his Bedfordshire colleagues later today. We will continue to maintain that dialogue.

I begin by reminding hon. Members that our country does not have enough homes. The average house price in England is about eight times higher than average gross earnings. In London and other parts of the country, including parts of the OxCam arc, it is around 12 times higher. I am pleased that the figures from 2019 to 2020 demonstrate that housing supply increased by some 244,000 new homes—the highest increase in more than 30 years—but we have an unwavering commitment to build more and, by the middle of this decade, to deliver at least 300,000 new homes each year, to ensure that we address the housing challenge.

We have already brought forward a number of proposals with the planning White Paper to improve housing supply—changes to permitted development rights, for example, and changes to use class orders, which make for a more flexible and responsive system and which will allow for the more gentle densification of urban and suburban areas, meaning that the weight can thereby be taken off some of the greener spaces that we all want to protect and enjoy.

We have a bold and ambitious vision for the future of planning and house building in our country, much of which was set out in the White Paper. We will bring forward the planning Bill in this Session of Parliament, which will make the planning process clearer, more accessible and more certain for all users, improving the quality, quantity and speed of home building.

Engagement, as my hon. Friend said, is absolutely crucial. It is not just about building more homes; it is also about engaging more people, and I will say a little bit more about that later in my remarks. We must ensure that the right homes are delivered in the right places for communities across our country and that new development brings with it the schools, hospitals, GP surgeries and transport links that local communities need and that my hon. Friend champions, while at the same time protecting our unmatchable natural environment.

My hon. Friend made a few remarks about local housing need. Let me just say in context that the local housing need numbers for his constituency remain those that we posited back in 2018. They have not changed as a result of the consultation we undertook last year. I also remind him that the standard method for local housing need calculation does not set a target; it is simply a starting point in the process of planning for new homes. Local authorities will still need to consider any constraints that they face locally to assess how many homes can be built in their area, as opposed to how many the local housing need calculation may suggest. I point him to my “Dear colleague” letter—from memory, I think it was on 18 December last year—which makes that very clear. I congratulate him on the work that his own council is doing in making sure that homes are built.

The “Planning for the future” White Paper, which we published last year, sets out our vision for the planning system. We had some 44,000 responses to the consultation, which was a very substantial amount of interest. We are working our way through them and consulting stakeholders big and small, as well as colleagues in the House, to ensure that we fully understand the feedback and that we represent and reflect it as best we can. We want to get this right; we do not want to just get it done quickly, and we are taking our time to address the feedback.

Our proposals for reforming the planning system will make it simpler, quicker and more accessible for local people to engage in, which is what I think my hon. Friend wants for his constituents. Now, something like 1% of local people get involved in local plan making—1%. That is not many more than the planning officials in a local authority and their blood relations. The number who get involved in an individual planning application rises to a whacking 3% of the local population. Yet, after what is oftentimes a very tortuous process—planning applications can take five years to go through—nine in every 10, 90%, are passed. That suggests to me a system that is not particularly engaging and not necessarily a very democratic one, in which communities have a real say in what is built around them. We want to change that with our reforms. We want to modernise the system and, through digitalisation, local communities can have a much clearer say in what is built for them, how it looks, where it goes, what the infrastructure should be and what the design of the buildings should be, too.

My hon. Friend pointed out the importance of “infrastructure first”. We agree with that. I will certainly be very happy to take forward his request with my colleagues in the Department for Education and in the Department of Health and Social Care, but let me say that the infrastructure levy that we propose is designed to ensure that developers pay for their fair share of affordable housing and infrastructure through a simpler, faster and more transparent infrastructure levy. We all know that section 106, which takes up the lion’s share of developer contributions, is slow, rather like the planning system; is opaque, rather like the planning system; and results, rather like the planning system, in outcomes that were not necessarily expected by the local community at the outset of their expectations.

The levy will be collected and spent at local level, with up-front infrastructure priorities such as schools and GP surgeries being at the heart of the proposition. It will also, incidentally, enable the speedy introduction of our First Homes initiative, which will enable local first-time buyers, including key workers, to get on the housing ladder by providing them with discounted properties. In constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, and nearby constituencies, where the cost of housing is oftentimes significantly above average earnings, that will be a mechanism to help his local constituents stay local, get on the property ladder and achieve their aspiration of having a stake in the country.

That is outwith the national home building fund, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced at the spending review and also at the Budget. It will be some £7.1 billion of funding for infrastructure, which we reckon will unlock something like 860,000 units for housing development across our country.

We also want to create more beautiful places by asking local authorities to develop their own design code, setting the standards that new developments will be expected to meet. One of the biggest concerns that many of our constituents have about new development that is proposed around them is what it will look like: “Is it going to look the way I would like my community to look?” Giving local people and local stakeholders much more say in what those design codes will be will make our planning system that much more consensual. It will also make the design of new builds really coherent with the local community, doing away with the “anywheresville” development that perhaps too many places have suffered from for too long.

We will publish the responses to the White Paper as soon as we can. However, as I said, we want to get this right and get it done quickly. There will be plenty of opportunities for colleagues across the House to continue to talk to Ministers to ensure that we get the proposals right.

My hon. Friend raised a number of questions about the OxCam arc. Let me say in introduction that we believe the OxCam arc, over quite a period of time—to the middle of this century—can support the creation of 2 million extra jobs and add over £110 billion a year to our economy. It is one of the fastest growing economic areas of our country, so there is a real opportunity to engender prosperity and growth for people. However, I am conscious that he has some concerns, so let me say that the ambition to build 1 million homes in the OxCam arc was a recommendation of the National Infrastructure Commission’s “Partnering for Prosperity” report. While we want to see more homes built, and let us remember that the OxCam arc is not a small space—it stretches from the north of Northamptonshire right down to the border with London—let me be clear that the 1 million homes number is not a specific Government policy or indeed a target. However, we do want to maximise the number of homes that can be built across the country.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the importance of the environment. We want to ensure that we are baking the Environment Bill’s requirements for biodiversity net gain and nature recovery networks into our planning reforms. We are working out how most effectively to do that as the Environment Bill becomes an Act and we need to take it into account.

My hon. Friend also mentioned East West Rail. The railway will pass through North East Bedfordshire. I point him to the commitment that the Government have made to explore new settlement opportunities around stations such as Tempsford and the St Neots area so that, subject to appropriate community consultation, development can be delivered in the right places and in the right way. We are supporting Bedford Borough Council to develop its locally led vision for the realisation of the full benefits of East West Rail. I am sure that my hon. Friend has contributed to the consultation, which closes today, and I encourage anybody else who still has the time to do so. However, may I reinforce the message that while we are working with places, including Bedford, to understand opportunities for more housing and what advantages East West Rail will bring, housing targets continue to be determined by planning policy and by local plans?

My hon. Friend also asked to hear a commitment from the Government about the involvement of local people and local communities in the planning process, and when changes are made their voices need to be heard. Let me agree with him. It is absolutely our intent to engage more people in the planning process at an earlier point in the process so they can have a real say in how their communities are designed—what should go where and what it should look like. We believe that the proposals, which we are refining and will bring forward shortly, will achieve that purpose of more engagement and more say where it counts.

If I have not answered my hon. Friend’s remaining questions, I am happy to write to him, meet him or speak to him through whatever forum to allay any concerns or address any ideas he has. May I congratulate him on securing this important debate for his constituents? I hope that he and you, Sir Graham, will see that the Government are committed to delivering a planning system that will truly level up for all communities in our country; a system that is fit for purpose and that works for all. It will deliver a faster, more transparent and more predictable outcome for everybody, so that we build the homes that we need, to the design that we want and to the standards that we expect, with the infrastructure that communities need, and we can all be proud of our planning for the future.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No.10(6)).

Sitting suspended.