Before I call the Minister to move the Second Reading, I wish to remind Members of the House’s conventions. With a large number of Members seeking to participate today, Members will recall that if they participate in the debate they should be present throughout the opening speeches and the wind-ups, be present for most of the debate, and, as a minimum, remain in the Chamber for at least two speeches after their own. Also, while we appreciate that interventions are an important part of our debates, if Members intervene repeatedly they are likely to find themselves being called later in the day than might have otherwise been the case. This is so that we all respect other and treat each fairly and in the best possible way.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am delighted to be able to move the Second Reading of this Bill. The Government are getting on with the job, and no Department is doing more than my own. There are five Bills in the Queen’s Speech generated from our Department. As well as the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, there is legislation to improve conditions for those in social housing, to improve the rights of those in the private rented sector, to ensure that business rates can be updated so that our economy thrives, and to get rid of the pernicious employment of boycott, divestment and sanctions policies by those who seek to de-legitimise the state of Israel. I hope that all five pieces of legislation will command support across this House. They are designed to address the people’s priorities and to ensure that this Government provide social justice and greater opportunity for all our citizens.
This Bill looks specifically at how we can ensure that the Government’s levelling-up missions laid out in our White Paper published in February can be given effect, how we can have a planning system that priorities urban regeneration and the use of brownfield land, and how we can strengthen our democratic system overall.
My right hon. Friend will know that perhaps one of the most exciting pages in the levelling-up White Paper is page 238, which announces that there will be a new hospital health campus in Harlow over the coming years. He knows how important that is because of the fact that our current hospital estate is not fit for purpose despite the incredible work that staff do. Can he confirm that the timeline for our new hospital will be announced in the coming months?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Of the more than 400 pages in the White Paper, page 238 is perhaps one of the most important, not least because it contains an image of what we can hope to see and what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will be announcing, which is action to ensure that my right hon. Friend’s constituents get the state-of-the-art, 21st-century hospital that they deserve. That would not happen, I am afraid, under the Opposition, because it is only through the investment that we are putting in and the sound economy that has been created under my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s leadership that we are able to ensure that the citizens of Harlow get the hospitals that they need.
I wonder if there is a page missing in my copy of the Bill, because I was looking for the net zero test, which I am sure the Secretary of State would agree ought to be applied to all planning decisions, policies and procedures, yet it is conspicuous by its absence. Does he agree that if we are serious about using this Bill to really level up, then we need to have that net zero test? Can he commit to that now?
I will say three things as briefly as I can. First, the national planning policy framework that will be published in July will say significantly more about how we can drive improved environmental outcomes. Secondly, there is in the Bill a new streamlined approach to ensuring that all development is in accordance with the highest environmental standards. Thirdly, as the hon. Lady knows, under the 25-year environment plan and with the creation of the Office for Environmental Protection, the non-regression principle is embedded in everything that we do. The leadership that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has shown, not least at COP26, in driving not just this country but the world towards net zero should reassure her on that front.[Official Report, 13 June 2022, Vol. 716, c. 2MC.]
May I follow up on my right hon. Friend’s point about local leadership? What more are we going to do about devolving fiscal responsibility to local authorities? Ultimately, if local authorities have true powers of leadership, they must have the means of raising revenue in their own areas in a way that does not increase taxation but offsets it, so that local decisions are funded locally.
My hon. Friend, who was a distinguished local Government Minister, makes an important point—a point that was made just as eloquently and forcefully by Ben Houchen, the Mayor of Tees Valley Combined Authority, when he talked about the vital importance of leaders of combined authorities and others having more control over business rates and other fiscal levers. This legislation and the devolution negotiations that we are conducting with Ben and others are designed to move completely in that direction.
On the subject of metro Mayors, the Secretary of State will have seen that the decarbonisation summit took place this week. Metro Mayors met and made an offer to the Government to work more closely with them on the transition to net zero. Has the Secretary of State seen the detail of that offer, and if not, will he get in touch with Mayor Tracy Brabin and look at what more can be done to work closely with the Mayors on this important agenda?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Across the 12 metro Mayors, we have seen examples of leadership on the environment and the move towards net zero, and indeed on the modernisation of transport systems. I know that the Mayor of West Yorkshire is particularly keen to ensure that transport and spatial planning are aligned to drive progress towards net zero. I will do everything I can to work with the Mayors of West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire.
I want to follow up on the two questions that Conservative Members have asked about transferring powers to local authorities and Mayors. I can see in the Bill welcome proposals to expand combined authorities to more parts of the country, particularly to county areas. What I cannot see anywhere—if I am wrong, the Secretary of State will point me to the precise clause—is the making available of more powers that are currently not devolved to any local authorities. Are any such powers going to be devolved, and if so, in which clause do they appear?
The Chair of the Select Committee brings me to an important point, which is that this legislation is complemented by other activity that Government are undertaking on levelling up. That activity involves negotiations with metro Mayors, for example in the west midlands and in Greater Manchester, on the devolution of more powers. When my good friend the former Member for Tatton initiated the programme of devolution to metro Mayors, he did so by direct discussion with local leaders. We will be transferring more powers, and we will update the House on the progress we make in all those negotiations. I noted a gentle susurration of laughter on the Opposition Front Bench, but I gently remind them—I sure the Chair of the Select Committee knows this—that when Labour were in power, the only part of England to which they offered devolution was London. This Government have offered devolution and strengthened local government across England.
As I look at the Benches behind me, I find it striking that in this debate on this piece of legislation, which is about strengthening local government and rebalancing our economy, the Conservative Benches are thronged with advocates for levelling up, whereas on the Labour Benches there are one or two heroic figures—such as the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), who are genuine tribunes of the people—but otherwise there is a dearth, an absence and a vacuum.
Talking of dearths, absences and vacuums, may I commend to the Labour Front Benchers the speech given by Lord Mandelson today in Durham—a city with which I think the Leader of the Opposition is familiar—in which he points out that Labour has still not moved beyond the primary colours stage when it comes to fleshing out its own policy? In contrast to our levelling-up White Paper and our detailed legislation, Lord Mandelson says that Labour is still at the primary stage of policy development, but I think it is probably at the kindergarten stage.
We have put forward proposals, and we are spending £4.8 billion through the levelling-up fund and similar sums through the UK shared prosperity fund, to make sure that every part of our United Kingdom is firing on all cylinders—and from Labour, nothing. When it comes to addressing the geographical inequality that we all recognise as one of the most urgent issues we need to address, it is this Government who have put forward proposals on everything from strengthening the hand of police and crime commissioners, to strengthening the hand of other local government leaders, and providing the infrastructure spending to make a difference in the communities that need it.
My right hon. Friend rightly makes a powerful case for devolution and increased democracy, but is he aware that under this Bill, a combined authority can be created that transfers powers from second-tier councils to itself, without needing the councils’ consent? That is different from the position under the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009. Does he agree that that would be tragic for real devolution to the lowest possible level, and that the consent of district councils to the transfer of any powers must be secured?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and it gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to and thank those who work at district council level. As we look at the pattern of local government across this country, it is important to recognise that one size does not fit all. Although I am a strong advocate of the mayoral combined authority model, and it has clearly brought benefits in areas such as Tees Valley and the west midlands, we need to be respectful of district councils and the structure of local government in those parts of the country that do not—and, indeed, need not or should not—move towards that model. I look forward to engaging with him and the Association of District Councils on how we can make sure that our devolution drive is in keeping with the best traditions in local government.
As my hon. Friend reminds the House, the devolution proposals outlined in the Bill extend the range of areas that can benefit from combined authority powers, and they strengthen scrutiny. One criticism that has sometimes been made of the exercise of powers by Mayors in mayoral combined authorities is that there has been inadequate scrutiny, particularly by the leaders of district authorities within those MCAs. Our Bill strengthens those scrutiny powers, and in so doing strengthens local democracy overall. That is in line with the progress that the Government have made, including on the Elections Act 2022, which the Minister for Local Government, Faith and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), brought in.
When we talk about levelling up, and particularly when we think about changes to our planning system, we absolutely need to focus on effective measures to regenerate our urban centres. One challenge that the country has faced over the last three or four decades has been the decline in economic activity and employment in many of our great towns and cities. We need to make sure that people’s pride in the communities where they live is matched by the resources, energy and investment that they deserve.
I saw some of that energy on display when I was in Stoke-on-Trent just three weeks ago, under Abi Brown, the inspirational Conservative leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Real change is being driven to ensure that all the six towns that constitute Stoke-on-Trent have their heart strengthened, their pride restored and investment increased.
I am just about to refer to my hon. Friend. In order to ensure that people have the tools they need, we need to tackle some of the things that generate urban blight. We need to deal with the problem of empty shops, vacancies and voids on our high street, which not only depress economic activity but contribute to a lower footfall and less of a sense of purpose, buzz and energy in our communities. That is why, following on from the ten-minute rule Bill introduced by my hon. Friend, we will be bringing forward compulsory rental auctions, so that lazy landlords who leave properties void when they should be occupied by local community trusts, businesses or entrepreneurs will be forced to auction those properties, to ensure that we have the entrepreneurs that we need and the small businesses that we want on the high streets that we love.
May I personally thank the Secretary of State? He came to the great towns of Tunstall and Burslem to see at first hand the regeneration of brownfield sites to create hundreds of new homes, and to look at the blight of rogue and absent landlords on our high streets in the town of Tunstall. He has sat down and met me on many occasions to look at this legislation, and it is a big win for the city of Stoke-on-Trent, as well as for Members from across this House. I want to put on the record a “Thank you” on behalf of the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke.
The communities of Tunstall, Burslem and Kidsgrove could not have a better advocate than my hon. Friend, and I could not have a better ally in shaping measures on urban regeneration. To drive urban regeneration, we will be increasing the council tax surcharge on empty homes. That is a means of making sure that we deal with that scourge and bring life back to all our communities.
Critically, we will also reform the compulsory purchase rules, because the way those powers operate often thwarts the desire of Homes England and others involved in the regeneration business to assemble the brownfield land necessary to build the houses and to get the commercial activity that we want in those communities. The reform in the Bill will ensure that the assembly of land required for urban regeneration becomes easier, so more of the homes that we need are built in the communities that need them in our towns and cities, rather than on precious green fields. The legislation also introduces new measures to facilitate the creation of the urban development corporations that have been integral in the past in driving some of the changes that we wish to see.
A significant part of the Bill seeks to reform the planning system, which I know is an issue of concern across the House of Commons. We all recognise that we have a dysfunctional planning system and a broken housing market. There is a desperate need for more new homes to ensure that home ownership is once more within the reach of many. It is more than just the planning system that needs to change: as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will outline later this week, changes need to be made to everything from the mortgage market to other aspects of how Government operate to help more people on to the housing ladder. Planning is part of that.
As well as making sure that we have the right homes in the right places, we must recognise, as the Bill and my Department do, why there has been resistance to new development in the past. Five basic and essential factors have led to resistance to development and our Bill attempts to deal with all of them. First, far too many of the homes that have been built have been poor quality, identikit homes from a pattern book that the volume of housebuilders have relied on, but that have not been in keeping with local communities’ wishes and have not had the aesthetic quality that people want.
One of my predecessors in this role, Nye Bevan, when he was the Minister responsible for housing in the great 1945-51 Government, made it clear that when new council homes are built, the single most important thing should be beauty. He argued that working people have a right to live in homes built with the stone and slate that reflect their local communities and were hewn by their forefathers, so that when someone looks at a council home and a home that an individual owns, they should not be able to tell the difference, because beauty is everyone’s right. I passionately believe that that is right and there are measures in the Bill to bring that forward.
The Secretary of State rightly references the important role of local people in new developments, but the Osterley and Wyke Green Residents’ Association and Brentford Voice have expressed their concerns that the national development management policies in the Bill give the Secretary of State powers to overrule local people and the local plan, and that unlike for national policy statements, there is no requirement for parliamentary approval. In reality, is the Bill not the latest in a long line of power grabs by this Government?
I am allergic to power grabs. I am entirely in favour of relaxing the grip of central Government and strengthening the hand of local government, which is what the planning reforms here do. The reference to the national development management policies is simply a way to make sure that the provisions that exist within the national planning policy framework—a document that is honoured by Members on both sides of the House, of course—do not need to be replicated by local authorities when they are putting together their local plans. It is simply a measure to ensure that local planners, whose contribution to enhancing our communities I salute and whose role and professionalism is important, can spend more time engaging with local communities, helping them to develop neighbourhood plans, and making sure that our plans work.
I suggest that the Secretary of State addresses a problem to which national parks are particularly prone, where a historic lawful development certificate is acquired because a caravan was previously located there, affording huge development on the basis of permitted development rights over which the national park authority and the planning authority have no control. That is a power that needs to be grabbed and given back to local authorities.
I hear the important point about national parks, and the echo from my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) with reference to areas of outstanding natural beauty. The environmental protections in the Bill should meet that need, but I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend in Committee to ensure that the protections are there.
My right hon. Friend has referred to the national development management policies. There is great concern that they will override local planning authorities, which spend a great deal of time preparing their local plans that are then approved by Government inspectors. It would be quite wrong if national Government overrode them, and it would destroy the careful balance that has existed since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, in which planning was devolved to local authorities.
My hon. Friend gives me the opportunity to reassert that the NDMPs will not override local plans. Local plans have primacy—that is perfectly clear in this legislation. As a result of strengthening the plan- making system, we will make sure that we deal with the issues and questions that have led particular communities to resist development in the past.
I mentioned the importance of beauty. Specifically, for example, we will strengthen the role of design codes in local plans. Through our new office for place, which is a successor in some respects to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment but even better in its drive, we will be in a position to ensure that beauty is at the heart of all new developments. In particular, I pay tribute to my predecessors in this role, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) and the late James Brokenshire, who worked to ensure that beauty, quality and higher aesthetic standards were at the heart of new architectural developments and did so much to reset the debate away from where it has been in the past and towards a brighter future.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the Secretary of State would not want to inadvertently mislead the House. In response to the question from the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) about the conflict between local plans and national policies, he made a comment—
Order. Is this a point of order for the Chair? I am sure that the Secretary of State would not wish to inadvertently mislead the House, so if that is the point of order, I agree with the hon. Gentleman and that is the end of the matter.
I thank the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman is a senior Member of the House. It does not seem to be a point of order for me, but a point of argument with the Secretary of State, who is willing to give way. Will the hon. Gentleman withdraw his point of order so we can allow the Secretary of State to continue?
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. Clause 83(2) proposes a new section 38(5C) to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, which says:
“If to any extent the development plan conflicts with a national development management policy, the conflict must be resolved in favour of the national development management policy.”
That is what it says—it overrides the local plan. It is in the Bill.
It has always been the NPPF’s function to have those national policies, which have been agreed and which ensure that plans are in conformity with what this House wills our overall planning system to be. It is no more than a more efficient way to make sure that the existing NPPF and any future revisions of it are included in local plans.
Another reason why we sometimes see opposition to development is infrastructure. One of the critical challenges that we must all face when we contemplate whether new development should occur is the pressure that is inevitably placed on GP surgeries, schools, roads and our wider environment. That is why the Bill makes provision for a new infrastructure levy, which will place an inescapable obligation on developers to ensure that they make contributions that local people can use to ensure that they have the services that they need to strengthen the communities that they love.
Of course, section 106 will still be there for some major developments, but one of the problems with section 106 agreements is that there is often an inequality of arms between the major developers and local authorities. We also sometimes have major developers that, even after a section 106 has been agreed—even after, for example, commitments for affordable housing and other infra- structure have been agreed—subsequently retreat from those obligations, pleading viability or other excuses. We will be taking steps to ensure that those major developers, which profit so handsomely when planning permission is granted, make their own contribution.
On the issue of viability that the Secretary of State has just raised, how does the Bill seek to prevent developers from going back and using viability as an angle to, say, reduce the number of affordable homes that they are expected to build in any new development?
The reason for the infrastructure levy is that it ensures a local authority can set, as a fixed percentage of the land value uplift, a sum that it can use—we will consult on exactly what provisions there should be alongside that sum—to ensure that a fixed proportion of affordable housing can be created. The hon. Lady is quite right to say that there are some developers that plead viability to evade the obligations that they should properly discharge.
The Secretary of State will be aware that, at the moment, someone can build tens of thousands of houses but people wait years and years for increased general practice capacity. Those from the Rebuild Britain campaign whom I met this morning tell me that they believe that integrated care boards and trusts will be prevented from requesting section 106 money to mitigate the impact of new housing, and medical facilities are but one of 10 types of infrastructure that there is no duty on local authorities to provide. Is he really confident that this will be better under the current Bill?
I am absolutely confident it will be better, but my hon. Friend makes a very important point, which is that section 106 agreements—sometimes they work, and in many cases they do not—do need to be improved, and the proposals for our new infrastructure levy should do precisely that. However, the way in which the infrastructure levy will operate is something on which we will consult to ensure that it covers not just the physical infrastructure required but, as he quite rightly points out, the provision of critical healthcare.
The Secretary of State is being generous with his time. This is about the infrastructure levy and the timing of its payment. At the moment, it appears that payment is going to be on completion, which benefits developers, but not the local authorities and place makers that will need to put in the infrastructure up front.
The way the levy is going to operate will mean that, if the development value—the value uplift—for the developer is greater over time, local communities can get more of it. It is a way of making sure that there is appropriate rebalancing. Again, one of the things I want to stress, because it is important to do so, is that there are strengthened powers in the Bill to deal with some of the sharp practices we sometimes see in the world of development and construction. There are stronger enforcement powers, stronger powers to ensure that we have build out and stronger powers to deal with the abuse of retrospective planning permission within the system. I look forward to working with the hon. Lady and others to ensure that all those enforcement powers are fit for purpose.
I thought there was going to be a bit of a fight there over who would intervene. I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I welcome the provisions on planning enforcement. A key intervention, however, is to break the business model of rogue developers. Would he look again at the debate we had last year on my Planning (Enforcement) Bill, so that we can enhance these important powers to break this model and ensure that people cannot profit from gaming the planning enforcement system?
Yes. The reason I was so pleased to be able to give way to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is that I think his legislation and the arguments he made were incredibly powerful. I am a bit wary about criminalisation, but I am keen to explore with him and others how we can have effective tools—real teeth. We have some proposals in the Bill, but they may not go far enough, which is why I hope we can discuss in Committee exactly what we need to do to ensure that enforcement is stronger.
I should say—I touched on the environment briefly earlier—that as well as making sure we have new development that is beautiful, that is accompanied by infrastructure and that is democratically sanctioned, we need to make sure we have new development that is appropriately environmentally sensitive. Let me repeat—
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Just before he entirely leaves the issue of infrastructure, to which he is right to draw attention, one of the big problems is that the water companies do not provide adequate drainage systems when new builds are being proposed, so should they not have such systems in place before new developments actually start?
My hon. Friend is getting me on to a subject that I have often touched on in the past, which is the role of water companies overall. When I was fortunate enough to be Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I was able to talk to the water companies about the way in which they have privileged financial engineering over the real engineering required to ensure that new developments are fit for purpose, and in particular about how we deal effectively with a lack of investment in infrastructure, such as a lack of effective treatment of waste water. The way in which some of the water companies have behaved, frankly, is shocking, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be bringing forward more proposals to ensure that the water companies live up to their proper obligations, because it is a matter of both infrastructure and the environment.
I mentioned earlier that the environmental outcome reports, which the Bill makes provision for, will strengthen environmental protection, and of course the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is helping to ensure that biodiversity net gain is integrated fully into the planning system to make sure we have the enhanced environment that all of us would want to pass on to the next generation.
As we recognise the need to develop homes in the future that are beautiful, with the right infrastructure, democratically endorsed and with the environmental externalities dealt with appropriately, we also want to ensure that they are parts of neighbourhoods, not dormitories. That is why it is so critical that we deal with one or two of the flaws—I will put it no more highly than that—within the current planning system. Such flaws mean, for example, that we can have developers that, because they do not build out, subsequently exploit the requirement for a five-year housing land supply to have speculative development in areas that local communities object to. We will be taking steps in this legislation and in the NPPF to deal with that.
We will also be taking steps to ensure that the Planning Inspectorate, when it is reviewing a local plan and deciding whether it is sound, does not impose on local communities an obligation to meet figures on housing need that cannot be met given the environmental and other constraints in particular communities. There are two particular areas, I think, where the Planning Inspectorate —and it is simply following Government policy—has in effect been operating in a way that runs counter to what Ministers at this Dispatch Box have said over and over again. That has got to change, and it is through both legislation and changes to the NPPF that we will do so. We will end abuse of the five-year land supply rules, and make sure that, if local authorities have sound plans in place, there cannot be such speculative development. We will also make sure that, even as we democratise and digitise the planning system, we are in a position to make sure that the Planning Inspectorate ensures not that every plan fits a procrustean bed, but that every plan reflects what local communities believe in.
Will my right hon. Friend go further for the sake of clarity, and make sure that there is, if not an equation, at least a clear mechanism by which local authorities can net off the contradictory elements—floodplain, green belt—so that they are not asked to build houses in inappropriate numbers simply because of a national target?
Exactly right—my right hon. Friend is spot-on. We do need to have a more sophisticated way of assessing housing need, and that is something we will be doing as part of revisions to the NPPF, but the protections my right hon. Friend quite rightly points out are integral to ensuring that there is democratic consent for development.
In Wolverhampton, we have developed right up to my northern boundary, which borders South Staffordshire. That land is currently under proposal for housing, and my residents in Wednesfield and Fallings Park really object to losing their beautiful green space and green belt. Could the Secretary of State reassure them that their views will be taken into account, even though this crosses local authorities and is at the edge of the West Midlands mayoralty?
Absolutely. First, my hon. Friend’s constituents could not have a better champion. Secondly, green belt protection is critical. Thirdly, we will ensure that a local plan protects those areas of environmental beauty and amenity. Fourthly, we will also end the so-called duty to co-operate, which has often led some urban authorities to offload their responsibility for development on to other areas in a way that has meant that we have had not urban regeneration but suburban sprawl.
On the issue of constraints, can my right hon. Friend give us some further detail about whether the local authority could argue for constraints on the basis of economic areas, for example? Could that be an opportunity to save my dockyard from closure, following a proposal for flats to meet a housing target?
Again, a variety of factors can be part of a sound local plan. Indeed, at the moment, permitted development right provisions that allow us to move from commercial to residential are capped at a certain size to ensure that we recognise that some commercial sites should not be moved over to residential. In a way, that is often sensible, but not always, and certainly not when we are thinking about an historic dockyard that has existed since the days of Samuel Pepys.
The Secretary of State is making a great argument on solving some of the flaws in the system. He may not have been privileged enough to be at the debate that I held yesterday on neighbourhood planning. One of the problems that came out was that, if a council does not have an up-to-date local plan—my Liberal Democrat-run borough council does not have one—neighbourhood plans get ridden roughshod over. What can my community do to stop and prevent the sprawl that happens in my constituency?
I am shocked—shocked, I tell you—that a Liberal Democrat authority does not have a plan in place and, as a result, housing numbers are spiralling out of control. Imagine what would happen in other beautiful parts of our country such as Devon, in a community such as Tiverton, or Honiton, if Liberal Democrat politicians were in charge. I reassure my hon. Friend that this legislation will ensure that if you have a local plan in place—preferably one put in place by Conservative councillors—you will safeguard your green spaces and natural environment, and you will not have those developers’ friends—the Liberal Democrats—concreting over the countryside.
On the Isle of Wight, we are separated by sea from the mainland. Our local building industry builds between 200 and 300 homes a year, and we cannot really build more. The standard methodology gives us ridiculous targets of 700-plus, and the nonsense of the mutant algorithm would have given us 1,200-plus. Even in the current consideration, we are forced to offer targets that realistically we cannot hope to build. What reassurance can he give the Island?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I think it is the case that the thinker who coined the phrase “mutant algorithm” is my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), who is now an Under-Secretary in the Department and working with me and the Minister for Housing to address precisely the concerns that he outlined. We need to build more homes, but we also need to ensure that how we calculate need and how plans are adopted is much more sensible and sensitive.
The Secretary of State is saying much that suggests that he believes we should rein in the Planning Inspectorate and give back to local authorities more control over planning, but that is not in the Bill. So is he today at the Dispatch Box saying that he will table amendments to the Bill along those lines?
I will say two things. First, I hope to work constructively with Back Benchers across all parties to ensure that the Bill is strengthened. I have never seen a piece of legislation introduced to the House that could not be improved in Committee, and I know that this Bill will be. I also look forward to good ideas, if they come, from Opposition Front Benchers.
Secondly, it is also the case that the publication of a revised NPPF and NPPF prospectus will help us to appreciate what the nature of the further amendments should be. As my right hon. Friend knows, in one or two areas of the Bill, there are placeholders, where more work requires to be done. I am frank about that and I look forward to working with her.
Order. The Secretary of State has just said what I was hoping he would say, so I do not have to say it. Sixty-two Members wish to speak in the debate. The time limit will be very short for each speech, and every intervention made is stopping somebody from getting to speak later. I have noted who has made the most interventions.
The Secretary of State is being generous. On housing and the constraint of local authorities, in my constituency, we have an over-supply of 4,000, which a previous Housing Minister described as “very ambitious”—in other words, too much development. May I bring him back to the lack of GPs in infrastructure supply through development? Will he make NHS Providers a statutory consultee in any of these developments?
I am interested in what the Secretary of State has said about the re-emphasis on the environmental protections. Of course, in urban areas, that is often urban green space rather than green belt. I have a case in Haughton Green in my constituency where the council closed Two Trees high school. When it closed the school, it said that there would be housing on the footprint of the school but that the fields around the school, in a heavily urbanised area, would be protected, so there would be a green doughnut. It now says that it has to build on the entire site to meet the Government’s housing targets. With what he just said, does he give hope to the people of Haughton Green that the council can look at Two Trees again?
I cannot comment on a specific planning application for reasons that the hon. Gentleman knows well, but I appreciate the strength of his point and will ask the Minister for Housing to engage with him more closely on both that specific issue and the broader policy points that he raised.
As the Secretary of State knows, York also has a Liberal Democrat-run council, and the challenge we have is that the council is not building the tenure of housing that my local residents can afford either to rent or to buy. So how will this legislation really shift the dial on affordability?
I have a lot of sympathy for the hon. Lady and the situation in which she finds herself. I know that she is a doughty champion for York—it is a beautiful city, and a potential home for the House of Lords if it does not want to move to Stoke—and that York needs the right type of housing and commercial investment. I look forward to working with her and with Homes England, and also to consider what we can do in the Bill to deal with some of the consequences of some of her constituents foolishly having voted for Liberal Democrats at the local level.
The Secretary of State was asking for good ideas on things that have been missed in the Bill. On building more social and affordable housing and GP surgeries, there is a missed opportunity here to ensure that public sector-owned assets such as land and buildings, including police stations, can be sold for slightly below market value where a GP surgery is needed or housing associations want to build social housing. He is aware that I have been campaigning for that on Teddington police station in my constituency, which the Labour Mayor wants to sell to the highest bidder for luxury housing, even though the community wants a new GP surgery and more affordable housing. Will he put that provision in the Bill?
Well, this is a first. It is the first time—certainly in the last seven years—that there has been a Lib Dem policy proposal that makes sense. I am nostalgic for those coalition years when, every so often, there was a Lib Dem policy proposal that made sense—they normally came from people who are no longer in the House—and that one does. Yes, she is absolutely right.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I should probably quit while I am ahead. We have consensus on one particular area where reform is needed. I stressed earlier, in introducing the Bill, that it sets out to ensure that urban regeneration becomes a reality, that our planning system is modernised, that the missions we have to level up this country are on the face of the Bill and that we are accountable to this House. There are so many colleagues who want to contribute, because that mission is so important. I beg leave to ask the House to give the Bill its Second Reading. With that, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will sit down.
The Secretary of State is a born performer and he was clearly having fun today. I was glad for him that he could not see the faces behind him when we reached the planning section. I suspect he may need to reach over to this side of the House a little more in the coming weeks and months than he has just done in that performance today.
Even the Secretary of State cannot perform his way out of this one. The Bill has been brought to the House on the day when the reality of the Government’s record on levelling up has been laid bare. New figures published today by the Office for National Statistics show that London alone of the regions of the UK has had a post-pandemic recovery that has far outstripped the rest of us. Our industrial heartlands, once the engine room of Britain, including the west midlands, are performing at 10% below pre-covid levels. That is the brutal reality of a decade of underinvestment, money stripped out of communities and money taken out of people’s pockets. This is what it has done to our communities in every part of this country.
So how is it that the Secretary of State has come to the House with lots of jokes, smart phrases and slogans but nothing in the Bill that will turn that around? The only mention of levelling up in this hefty great tome, apart from in the title, is in the 12 missions that will be written into law. But this is a law not worth the paper it is written on because tucked away in clause 5 is the sleight of hand that has become so characteristic of this Government. The cat is out of the bag. Not only will they not back the country, but they will not even back themselves. In clause 5 is a measure that allows the Government to tear up those missions on a whim—their entire levelling up agenda, the promise made to the people of Britain and on which they won the last general election—presumably when they fail to deliver every single one.
The country simply cannot go on like this.
I will give way in a moment.
In 19 of the last 20 years, only two regions of our country have been given the backing they needed from their Government to succeed. They cannot try to fire the economy on one cylinder and expect it to work. If the right hon. Gentleman would like to tell me how he thinks that can work, believe me, I am all ears.
The hon. Lady said that, under the Conservative Government, there has been a lack of investment in the regions. Harlow, as she knows, has a fair bit of deprivation, but under this Government it has been levelling up for the past 10 years: an advanced manufacturing centre, millions of pounds; an enterprise zone, millions of pounds; a new hospital coming, hundreds of millions of pounds; a new road junction on the M11 just about to open up, many millions of pounds; infra- structure improvements; a technical school opened up; and a £23 million town fund. That has not been happening just over the past year; it has been happening over the past 10 years. This Government have been levelling up Harlow for 10 years.
That was a superb audition for the forthcoming reshuffle and I am sure we will hear many more of them. I hope that that gave the right hon. Gentleman a better press release for his local paper than the failure to back the hospital that was promised. Let me tell him the reality of what levelling up has done in Essex: £292.5 million taken by his Government from the people of Essex, even when levelling-up funds are taken into account. That is the reality of levelling up for the people he represents. No wonder he sits there with such a glum face, listening to that record.
Our core cities are still far outpaced by London. We are an outlier across major economies. The inequalities between regions are outstripped by the inequalities within them. And even the winners in this system are losing. London is the region with the highest disposable income in the country, but I do not need to tell any of my London colleagues the reality of overheating some parts of our economy and underinvesting in others. Once we take the crippling housing costs that are holding back a generation into account, disposable income in London falls way down the ranking and people are worse off.
The Secretary of State has presented a Bill today that contains more aimed at dealing with housing and planning than it does on levelling up, democracy and devolution. Can he not see the problem? We are one of the most geographically unequal countries of any major economy. As someone once said, when levelling up was a thing:
“for too many people in this country, geography turns out to be destiny”.
If this Government continue to write off the opportunities for many parts of the country—to write off the potential and the assets we have, for lack of imagination and investment—they will continue to cram more and more people into small corners of the country, and that in turn will continue to push up housing prices. Surely the Secretary of State can see, even if he cannot admit it today, that one of the chief ways to deal with the over 120 clauses aimed at dealing with pressures on land, planning and development, is to level up the country. The clue is in the title. Why are they not doing it? Any self-respecting Secretary of State would have brought us a plan to get proper resources spent wisely and invested for the long-term recovery of our local economies.
It is this Conservative Government who have invested £56 million in the levelling-up fund, £31.7 million in Bus Back Better, 500 brand new Home Office jobs, and the £17.6 million Kidsgrove town deal that has unlocked the refurbishment of a sports centre that Labour closed in 2017 because it could not be bothered to spend a single pound coin. Labour’s legacy is a PFI hospital with 200 fewer beds than the old one, stealing £20 million a year from the doctors and nurses on the frontline, PFI schools stealing money from teachers in the classroom, and the white elephant council office that wasted £40 million. Why would Labour ever come back in Stoke-on-Trent? I cannot see it.
That was a fantastic audition for the Secretary of State’s job, but I cannot imagine, based on that performance, that the hon. Gentleman will be around long enough to keep his own. Let me tell him why. I was in Stoke-on-Trent the other day meeting some incredible young people at the YMCA—an amazing organisation. Those young people had a lot to say about the record of this Government, and it sounded very different to his. Let me tell him the reality of what has happened in Stoke-on-Trent. Taking into account every single penny of levelling-up money that has been allocated to Stoke-on-Trent, his constituents are £27.7 million worse off as a consequence of this Government. That is the Tory premium. That is the premium we pay for having a Tory Government. If he had an inch of conscience about the plight of some of the young people I met, he would be standing up and challenging this Government on their record of not delivering for Stoke-on-Trent.
Tory Members do not need to believe me. Why do they not read the Public Accounts Committee report that was published today? It is devastating. It says that billions of pounds have been squandered on ill-thought-out plans, forcing areas to compete over pots of money—small refunds for the money that has been stripped from us over a decade. This is not “The Hunger Games”; this is the future of our country and it is no way to treat the people in it. The Chair of the Select Committee said that this
“Government is just gambling taxpayers’ money on policies and programmes that are little more than a slogan, retrofitting the criteria for success and not even bothering to evaluate if it worked.”
This is our money. In case Tory Members have not noticed, as they sit and joke and laugh, and make wisecracks at other political parties, we have not got money to burn in this country right now, so why are they burning it?
Why has the Secretary of State not come here today with a guarantee that every part of this country has a right to the sort of basic infrastructure that we would expect in any modern economy? Since the Conservatives won the election, they have not just refused to make good on that promise, but backtracked on the promises they have already made. They press-released northern powerhouse rail 60 times over seven years and then casually axed it. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) mentions Bus Back Better. Quietly, under the cover of the pandemic, they halved the funding that was available for bus services. I am starting to wonder what they have against Yorkshire in particular. Let me tell him about our record on buses. Right across this country, we have Labour representatives and metro Mayors who are delivering on that promise, such as Tracy Brabin, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), Oli Coppard, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram. Those are the people who are delivering the bus services that we need. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North might want to go and learn a thing or two from them.
I am starting to wonder what the Government have against Yorkshire, in particular. There has not been a penny for bus services in South Yorkshire. They have cancelled the eastern leg of High Speed 2.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech. Does she share my disappointment about the fact that flooding prevention and mitigation measures have not been adequately addressed in the Bill? If we want a strong future for Yorkshire and areas such as Hull, we need to get serious about tackling flood prevention and mitigation. I hope that the Secretary of State will look at that issue again when revisions are made to the Bill.
My hon. Friend is an outstanding advocate for her community and we on the Front Bench absolutely support her call for proper action to deal with the crisis of flooding around the country. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) is here; she knows only too well, too the impact that flooding has on communities up and down the country and the shameful way that we have been treated by the Government, with promises of action and measures. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said during the Secretary of State’s opening remarks, there is not a single mention of net zero in the Bill. What is the commitment, if it is anything at all?
I was starting to wonder what the Government had against Yorkshire, but then I saw yesterday that they had also casually scrapped the Golborne link. That decision appears to have been made in the face of pressure from Tory MPs ahead of a confidence vote in the Prime Minister. It is going to create havoc for people trying to travel by rail across the north-west and it plays into the real problems that we already have with east-west connectivity.
Then I saw that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) said that he had voted for the Prime Minister to keep his job after receiving assurances that there would be a funding review for his council. Can I ask the Secretary of State—
The hon. Lady completely misunderstands and she gets it completely wrong. Several years ago, the Prime Minister realised that the Isle of Wight was the only island in the UK that does not have a multiplier. The Isles of Scilly get a multiplier of 1.5 and the Scottish islands get the Scottish islands needs allowance. I said to the Prime Minister, “Will you commit to rectifying this wrong, which is a policy flaw?” He said “Yes,” and I reminded him of that promise beforehand. Did I ask for a bag of cash? No, and it is completely untrue for her to say that, so she can get up now and apologise.
I of course gave the hon. Member the right of reply, but I am quoting literally and directly a quote on his website. If those are not his words and are not correct, I leave it up to hon. Members to judge. I am simply quoting his words to the Secretary of State and asking whether that is correct, because we have had a report today that says, in stark terms, that the Department—
This is a serious allegation. I am not in a position right now to weigh up one side of the argument against the other, because I do not have the evidence before me of whatever words were published and whatever words have been said. I ask the hon. Lady —[Interruption.] She cannot possibly be looking at her phone while I am speaking to her. No, no, she cannot possibly be looking at her phone while I am speaking to her! I ask her to get us over this part of the debate, and we can come back to this matter at another time. Will she please withdraw the—[Hon. Members: “ No!”] Do not shout at me when I am speaking from the Chair! Will the hon. Lady please withdraw the allegation of corruption, which is a very serious one, and perhaps find some other words to show that she disagrees with what the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) said. We can then proceed with the debate and, if necessary, come back to this point at another time.
Out of deference to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, of course I will rephrase my words in a manner that is far more acceptable to you: this looks awfully dodgy to me, Secretary of State. Was this signed off by him or his Department? I would certainly never disrespect the Chair by reading from my phone, so I will not do it now, but the words are there on the website of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, and if anybody cares to look at them, they can draw their own conclusions.
I say to the Secretary of State that this matters at a time when councils and our communities around the country have had £15 billion stripped out of them by the Government. That is not what respect looks like. [Interruption.] Written into every part of the Bill is a lack of respect, and every single hon. Member who sits there chuntering and heckling, rather than standing up for their own communities, needs to look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they are doing a good job for their communities.
I take exception to what the hon. Lady said. How dare she suggest that Government Members are not standing up for their communities when we are quite obviously aggrieved with the allegation that she has just made against a fellow colleague? So yes, we do have a right to chunter at her comments.
I do not need to dwell on the point about a lack of respect; we have just seen the most stunning display of a group of representatives who will open their mouths but cannot open their ears and eyes to the reality of what is happening in their communities.
In the press release that accompanied the Bill—[Interruption.] Perhaps I could directly address the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, who is chuntering again. If he cared one iota for his constituency, he would not be chuntering at me; he would be asking the Secretary of State where the missing £27 million has gone.
No, we have heard plenty from the hon. Member and it is about time that he listened.
We were given a promise of the biggest transfer of powers out of Whitehall, but instead, we have three tiers of powers on offer in the Bill. The upper tier of those powers is still pretty limited. Areas can get priority for new rail partnerships. They can get a consolidation of local transport funding. They can get—[Interruption.]
Areas can get consolidation of local transport funding. They can get a role in designing and delivering future employment programmes and access to something called a long-term investment fund, but only if they can clear the bar of the upper tier and only if they accept a governance arrangement that is imposed from Whitehall.
I went back to look at what the Prime Minister promised when he made his levelling-up speech last year:
“Come to us with a plan for strong accountable leadership and we will give you the tools to change your area for the better”.
Will the Secretary of State tell me why a kid in Barnsley should have to turn down an apprenticeship because of the lack of a functioning bus service while a kid in Bolton can take one up just because somebody hundreds of miles away in Whitehall, who has never set foot in either of those communities, decided that they liked the look of the local leaders—the local leaders we chose—in one area more than another? Why is there not a right in the Bill for every area to have democratic control over their bus services, if that is what they choose?
The Secretary of State said that the last Labour Government did not devolve power in England, but let me remind him of what can be done, and what was done, with the right level of commitment and imagination. It was the last Labour Government who set up the regional development agencies. In the north-west of England, which I call home, we had the foresight to bring Media City to Salford. That was not just about the economic regeneration of one of the most disadvantaged areas of the country; it was also a key measure that started to rebalance the national debate that determined who had a voice and who got a place and was reflected in our national story.
Under the last Labour Government, the regional development agency in Yorkshire was among the first to see the potential of wind in Grimsby—the Grimsby docks are the windiest place in Europe—and I have met those young people who, a generation later, are powering the world from the Grimsby docks through clean energy and life-changing apprenticeships. It is not just in Grimsby that the Yorkshire regional development agency saw potential; it looked for potential everywhere. It understood the legacy of skills, because of steel cutting from the steel industry, that made Rotherham an ideal location for one of the most incredible advanced manufacturing centres in the world. That is what real power and devolution looks like.
All that potential in our communities, realised by the last Labour Government, has now been collapsed into the spectacle of two proud cities that were at the forefront of the industrial revolution—Birmingham and Manchester —begging for the right to introduce a tourist levy on hotel bedrooms. When they have come to Whitehall, it is not just Ministers’ doors that have been repeatedly closed to them, but their minds as well.
I am listening very carefully to the hon. Lady, who, to be frank, is painting a picture of doom and gloom in the northern part of the country over the past 10 years. Could she explain, then, why unemployment in her constituency is 30% lower than it was when we took office in 2010? Does she not think that that is a good thing?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about doom gloom around the north of England, but I have just told him about the life-changing jobs that were brought to those communities by action taken under the last Labour Government. I have just told him what ambition looks like, and what levelling up looks like in action. If he thinks that that is doom and gloom, I dread to think what he thinks about the legacy of his Government.
In fairness to the Secretary of State—I feel I ought to say something nice to him; if he could see the faces behind him, he would not feel very cheerful—it is not his door and mind that have been completely closed, but the Treasury’s, and it is the Treasury that calls the shots. In fairness to him, he inherited a complete mess in relation to planning, and it falls to him to try to sort it out.
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could ask the Secretary of State that question, because it was his then policy adviser who led the campaign against it.
In all fairness to the Secretary of State, we were relieved to see the back of a planning framework that seemed to be based on a traffic light system. Our communities deserved far better than that. However, this Bill, as he has heard from colleagues on both sides of the House, allows neighbourhood plans to be overridden when they conflict with a national development management plan. The Secretary of State can make one of those plans at any time—without consultation if he chooses, and without any approval from a single Member of this House—and he can override people in any one of our communities if their plan conflicts with his to any extent. That is not being serious about handing power to local communities, is it?
The press release that accompanied the Bill said that the big idea behind handing power to local communities—notwithstanding that the Bill includes measures that allow Whitehall to override them—is something that the Secretary of State calls “street votes”. Will he explain exactly what those street votes will do to put power in people’s hands and put them in the driving seat of their own communities? The reason I ask is that, if he has a plan, it is not, unfortunately, in the Bill. How is it possible that that flagship idea, which headlined the press release, has not yet been written? Does he not accept that we are entitled to better than plans drawn up on the back of an envelope after horse-trading has taken place, usually to his detriment, behind closed doors in Whitehall?
The Secretary of State says that he wants beautiful communities that work for people, and I agree with him, but that means that we have to put power back into people’s hands, because people who have a stake in their own communities and who have skin in the game will do more, try harder, work for longer and be more creative in order to build thriving communities. It also means that we have to end the system where people can come to our communities and extract from them, taking our wealth, running down our housing and sitting on our land.
Surely the most basic plank of all this is that people have the right to know who owns their town, village or city. However, the measures in the Bill that try to ensure that more information is collected about land ownership also allow the Secretary of State to withhold that information from communities. Why on earth would a Secretary of State want to deny people in our villages, towns and cities the right to know who owns the housing, land, shopping centres and town centres that make up those beautiful places that we call home? I remind him that it was that great Conservative—also a great radical—John Ruskin who said:
“Nothing can be beautiful which is not true.”
The commitment to beauty in this Bill is not true.
We need a serious plan to tilt the balance of power back in favour of the people who built this country and will do so again, who have stake in the outcome and skin in the game. We have debated the problems they face many times in this Chamber—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. She is absolutely right to highlight the very poorly designed planning system and the failure of the current proposals to change anything. In my area, there are enormous pressures on land and terrible pressures on green spaces, yet brownfield land in the south of England is not being redeveloped as it should be. When it is redeveloped, it is not done appropriately, and local needs and local authorities are not listened to as much as they should be. Does she agree that there needs to be a complete rethink of that imbalance?
I agree with my hon. Friend, who reminds us that we have had 12 long years without real action to put power back in people’s hands. He raises a really important point—I think all Members have raised it: that, as long as there are centralising tendencies in Government, and as long as they find their way into Bills such as this, we will continue to undermine the situation. If the Secretary of State does not want to listen to Opposition Members, I urge him to listen to Members on his own side; looking at their faces, I do not believe they will allow this to drop.
We have debated the problems that people face in this House many times. There are simple changes that the Secretary of State could make in order to stop people coming into our communities and extracting from them.
I want to make a couple of very simple points. First, the constituents of the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) could have applied to a very good recent fund for brownfield sites; Gloucester was successful in its application.
Secondly, I find it curious that the hon. Lady keeps referring to the regional development agency, which was one of the most disastrous organisations ever created. It did nothing but harm in my city of Gloucester, and all the bad things that it did are gradually being sorted out by this progressive Conservative Government. Could she talk about the Bill rather than Labour’s failures of the past?
Given all the chuntering and chuckling among the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, I did not catch the end of his intervention, but I can tell him that we have been calling for a long time for measures to make funds available to bring brownfield sites into use. I know that very well myself, as I represent a former mining community—[Interruption.] If he would just listen for a moment, he would hear that I am about to agree with him.
Representing a former mining community, I know how painful it is for people to see green spaces built on when brownfield sites cannot be used for lack of a small amount of investment to deal with contaminated land and other issues. I have no quibble with the hon. Gentleman about that, because those measures are welcome and important. But if he wants to challenge the last Labour Government about Gloucestershire, may I remind him that it has had £91.2 million taken out of its pocket by this Government? Perhaps he might have something to say to the Secretary of State about that.
We have debated the problems many times in this Chamber. The Secretary of State referred to the five Bills in the Queen’s Speech for which his Department is responsible. Luckily for him, he will be seeing a lot of me and my colleagues over the next few months. We will remind him that there are simple changes that he could make, such as stopping sharks from coming into our communities and milking the housing benefit system; housing people in supported exempt accommodation; or allowing communities to go to rack and ruin. He knows that, because we have debated the issue many, many times and he has heard about it from colleagues on both sides of the House. Can he explain why, with five Bills in the Queen’s Speech, the simple measure needed to tackle the problem has not found its way into a single one?
The Secretary of State proposes an infrastructure levy to replace section 106. I apologise if I have missed it, but there is no clarity in the Bill about whether that will raise more or less money than the current system. There is no clarity about whether it will boost affordable housing or whether affordable housing will continue to drop off a cliff. I will tell him why that matters: it potentially makes the difference to whether our kids can stay and raise families in the communities they were born into. We are entitled to know the answer, not after some horse-trading behind closed doors or on the back of an envelope once he has asked for our votes, but now, as we scrutinise the Bill.
Can the Secretary of State tell us what is in the Bill to stop his new system from allowing developers to create ghettos of poorer housing reserved for poorer people, while earmarking prime sites exclusively for wealthy buyers? What measures will he put in the Bill to prevent the new infrastructure levy from being used in that way? I can tell him that if he will not introduce those measures, we will.
Where are the Bill’s impact assessments? Where is the regional impact assessment? Where is the local impact assessment? The Secretary of State knows how important it is to close the gaps between and within regions: it is so important to him that he proposes to write such objectives into law, with some caveats. The clue is in the name: it is the Department for Levelling Up, but it has not even bothered to assess the impact of its own legislation on regions of this country beyond London and the south-east. I would be pretty ashamed of that.
What I would be most ashamed of, however—bar none—is a measure that has been tucked away at the end of the Bill and that reverses the commitment made by the Government and this House to junk a Victorian piece of legislation that has no place in modern Britain. It is simply unacceptable to seek to criminalise people who find themselves homeless. This Government have presided over soaring numbers of people in temporary accommodation and B&Bs. Those numbers are up 37% on the past year, and even now the Local Government Association is concerned that there are Ukrainian refugees sleeping on the streets because the Homes for Ukraine scheme has broken down. They deserve help, not antiquated measures, a lack of thought or imagination, and harshly punitive principles tucked away at the end of this Bill. It cannot be right that we are saddled with a Government who are reaching back for inspiration not only from the 1980s, but now from the 1880s as well.
The Secretary of State will face problems with the Bill as it goes through the House; he knows as well as anyone that he is in for a bumpy ride ahead. I welcome what he said when he was challenged by the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) at the end of his speech, so I ask him to work with us to turn things around over the coming weeks and months. In every part of Britain, people are ambitious for themselves, their family, their communities and their country. They need a Government who match that ambition, so let us turn this Bill into a vehicle to match it.
We will fight tooth and nail for our communities at every stage of the Bill, to make good not just on the promises of the Secretary of State, but on the promise that they have and the promise of Britain. Our message to the Secretary of State is “You have acknowledged today that this is not good enough and that there is work to do, so join us and fight for our communities to make good on that promise.”
I am grateful to have caught your eye in this very important debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am not so grateful to have to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy). I cannot believe that in a speech that lasted more than half an hour, she could not find something to welcome in the Bill, which will help to level up some of our poorest communities in this country. I can only conclude that she and I have been reading different Bills.
I declare my registered interest as a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors; I have practised professionally in planning matters. I welcome the fact that earlier zonal planning proposals were dropped, and I welcome the abolition of the five-year land supply. It is right to try to speed up the planning process by better using data and digitalisation. Where better to start than by streaming and accelerating the local planning process, and concurrently introducing neighbourhood development orders in clause 89 to make the neighbourhood plan process easier? That is important, because those plans are where most people become involved in the planning process. They are a truly democratic part of that process.
Unfortunately, the democratic theme applies with a vengeance to the national development management policies set out in clauses 83 and 84, which I referred to in an intervention on the Secretary of State. It is very important that we think carefully about them, because they set a dangerous precedent that begins to nationalise planning policy and upsets the delicate balance between national and local policy that has existed since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which largely decentralised planning.
I will not, because I have only four minutes.
Given the enabling power in the Bill to implement NDMPs, and the enormous centralising power, what will they contain and what will be the consultation process to create and amend them? That is a key question, and I hope that the Minister for Housing will provide some answers when he sums up.
I was heavily involved in the Public Accounts Committee’s inquiry into local government finance; indeed, I secured an Adjournment debate on the subject on 27 April—it is printed at column 845 of the Official Report—to urge the Government to stop local authorities such as Cotswold District Council, which wants to borrow £76.5 million on an annual core spending budget of just £11.2 million. The Liberal Democrats running that council are financially illiterate.
I welcome the implementation of the Letwin review to speed up development with the introduction of a development commencement notice that sets out the annual rate of housing delivery within large developments and the consequent completion notice. I also welcome the new infrastructure levy in clause 113, to be set in conjunction with the retained section 106 powers. In the Cotswolds, agricultural land is worth between £10,000 and £15,000 per acre; with planning permission, that could increase to half a million pounds or more. With good tax advice, only 10% is paid on the gain.
If the infrastructure levy is properly implemented, it could provide substantial infrastructure. It could end the endless argument about delays and viability, because the developer would know before purchasing the site what they would be expected to provide. The construct of charging on the gross development value—I urge the Minister to listen to this—is interesting, but will deter any aspect of environmental design improvement unless it is statutorily required. A better construct might be to capture the increase in land value, which I have demonstrated is there.
Finally, the increase in planning and enforcement fees is welcome. Most planning departments are poorly funded; they should be properly funded to determine applications rapidly and should employ good and well-qualified planners. Thank you for allowing me to speak in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I wish I could say that I was optimistic about the impact of the Bill, but the fact is that this flagship Government agenda will not deliver what it purportedly sets out to do; it is mere smoke and mirrors. We have moved on from the vague so-called missions in the White Paper to a Bill which is doomed to fail. Even the respected Institute of Economic Affairs has concluded that the plans, which are grandly referred to as missions, are “of dubious quality”. The new five-year plans and annual updates just will not be a fix for that dubious quality.
It is not just me, the SNP and, indeed, those in the Institute of Economic Affairs who are unconvinced by the Bill. The Institute for Government has concluded that it
“lacks the ambition needed to deliver”
the Government’s own levelling-up missions.
A real flaw in the Bill is the lack of accountability and ownership of each of the 12 levelling-up missions on the part of individual UK Government Departments. The Government could, of course, fix that if they chose to do so. Instead, they have given themselves the power to move the goalposts and change targets that look as if they will not be met. Rather than merely marking their own homework, the Government are ready to lower the pass mark of the test that they have set themselves if they fail. They tell us how important their levelling-up plans are; they tell us that the plans are a “flagship” commitment. If that is really true, why do they seem to have so little faith in their ability to deliver true levelling up?
The Institute for Public Policy Research has called for an independent body, established in law, to oversee and judge the UK’s progress on levelling up. What Government who had confidence in their ability to deliver true levelling up, as the Government say they do, would resist that kind of scrutiny and accountability? What have they to fear from transparent and objective allocation mechanisms for delivery? The only conclusion that can logically be drawn is that the Government know that there is more bluster here than actual substance. True levelling up requires investment, but the necessary financial backing is absent. Any investment must be delivered in a non-partisan and transparent way. And let us not forget that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out that departmental budgets will actually be lower in 2025 than they were in 2010. How does that support levelling up?
People in Scotland know that this Government cannot be trusted with levelling up. There has been a 5.2% cut in Scotland’s resource budget, and a 9.7% cut in its capital budget. Levelling up, my eye! We only have to look at the Government’s record. Brexit—which it roundly rejected—has cost Scotland billions of pounds, causing exports to plunge, with increasing costs for families and businesses. The Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted a chilling 4% contraction in the economy from Brexit alone. I know that it makes uncomfortable reading for Conservative Members, but Bloomberg’s research shows that under this Prime Minister, many areas that were lagging behind before his election are now further behind than before. In fact, 87% of constituencies are now stagnant or falling even further behind.
Only 38% of the 100 most deprived councils have received any levelling up money. According to the Institute for Government, central Government grants to councils were reduced by 37% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-20—and at this point, only about two fifths of the Brexit damage has been inflicted. We see that all too clearly in Scotland, where exports fell by 25% in the latest year, to June 2021, compared with the equivalent period in the previous year.
How can we truly believe that levelling up really is a “mission” of this Government, when every indicator points to so many being left behind? Families are left to struggle on through a cost of living crisis, with insufficient support or even understanding from the Government. However, there is another aspect to all this. How can it be true levelling up if several Ministers whose seats are prosperous receive priority for levelling-up funding? The 49 councils in England that are considered to be the “most developed” are now priority places for so-called levelling up, and are represented by no fewer than 35 Tory MPs. What a coincidence! How can it be true levelling up if this funding has favoured wealthy Tory areas over deprived areas? Indeed, the constituency of Bromsgrove has done very well out of levelling-up funding, despite being one of the wealthiest areas in England. The Institute for Government has said that for true levelling up to take place, there must be an “incredibly serious, complete re-orientation”, but there is, as yet, no evidence of that.
Per person, per head, Wales and Scotland are getting less levelling up than England. Scotland is receiving a mere 3.5% of all funding, despite having 8.2% of the UK’s population. I know the Minister thinks that pesky Scots should just shut up and be grateful, but we in Scotland are not very fond of tugging our forelocks in gratitude for crumbs from the Westminster table. Moreover, we cannot simply forget that the Public Accounts Committee—with its majority of Tory MPs—concluded in November 2021 that the allocation of the much-trumpeted towns fund was “not impartial”. Yet we are supposed to believe that it will all be different now, with the levelling-up fund, even though we know that certain Tory MPs—I am choosing my words carefully—appeared to tweet about how they had expressed confidence in the Prime Minister, having been told that funding for their constituency would be “looked at again”. So much for levelling up! Many have perceived this to mean that it depends on patronage and favours, as opposed to doing what it says on the tin. No wonder this Government are running scared of setting up an independent body to oversee and judge the UK’s progress on levelling up.
How can the people of Scotland truly believe this rhetoric about levelling up when no one trusts a word that this Prime Minister says any more, and even fewer have confidence in him? It also must be said that levelling up, in all its ill-conceived guises, is a clumsy and pretty obvious attempt to claw back powers from the pesky devolved nations who will not take their medicine and co-operate by voting Tory. Their democratic institutions must be undermined, so that they can be governed by Tories in devolved areas whether they like it or not. They will have to take that medicine.
This ought to come as no surprise to anyone. We know that the Secretary of State for Scotland is part of a group of senior Tories who are plotting to undermine devolution with the so-called “muscular Unionism” which has replaced the so-called “respect agenda”, health being the latest devolved competency in their sights. It has been well trailed, not least on the Conservative Home site, that the Secretary of State—not so much Scotland’s man in the Cabinet as the Cabinet’s man in Scotland—is
“dismissive of both the theory and practice of the Scottish Parliament”.
Not to worry; I hear that most of the democratically elected members of that institution feel the same way about him. But this Bill—following on the heels of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, the repeated disregard for legislative consent motions, and the petty taking of the Scottish Parliament to court over the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill—shows the Government’s real agenda; and Scotland sees, and her people are not fooled by these attacks on our Parliament.
In this Bill, the Government say that the devolution of power is important to the levelling-up agenda, while at the same time they concentrate all the power for the delivery of funding in Whitehall, imposing a top-down approach on devolved Parliaments and riding roughshod over devolved powers. Levelling-up funding delivered across the UK has already robbed Scotland of £400 million in Barnett consequentials. We are now in a farcical and hugely disrespectful position, as the UK Government seek the Scottish Government’s help in implementing projects selected by the UK Government in devolved areas.
Part 1 of the Bill must be radically reformed so that devolved Governments take the lead in any levelling-up investment in devolved areas, which is what they were elected to do. Just as the Scottish Government took the lead with EU investment, they must also be allowed their legitimate democratic place with levelling-up funding. That will avoid duplication of spending and inefficiency, and will also focus levelling-up priorities and missions on devolved strategies and plans. Setting councils against each other and cutting out the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament will deliver no coherent strategic vision for Scotland and her priorities. The other areas of the Bill that impinge on devolved competences, in parts 3, 5 and 10, also require legislative consent motions from the Scottish Parliament. Consultation is not enough. The Scottish Parliament must have democratic responsibility for devolved matters, as it has been elected to do.
My SNP colleagues and I are not impressed by the Bill, which could be a metaphor for this whole Tory Government. It is mere smoke and mirrors; it will not do what it says on the tin; all attempts to hold it to independent scrutiny and accountability have been rejected; the goalposts can be moved and targets changed when they are missed, suggesting that failure is baked into its very core; and it is a blunt instrument to attack devolved powers. The Government can trumpet this Bill all they like, but it is doomed to deliver nothing of any substance to the areas of Scotland and the rest of the UK that desperately need levelling up. Like this Tory Government, no one trusts it, no one is fooled by it, and it will undoubtedly let people down.
A friend of mine, while raising money for Shelter, the housing charity, ran the London marathon dressed as a house. In view of the quite serious injuries he sustained while doing that, it was perhaps not the wisest decision, but he was making a point. On the side of the house were painted the words “Home is everything”, and indeed it is, particularly for those who do not have one. Our country has a growing population, an ageing housing stock and a younger generation who have been almost entirely priced out of home ownership and for whom even renting a home costs far too high a proportion of their income. We need to build new homes.
The reason I am delighted to support the Second Reading of the Bill today, including its proposals for strengthening the planning system, is that it offers the best chance we have had for many years to improve what is an unacceptable and deeply flawed system. We currently have a serious problem. In 1995, two thirds of people between 18 and 34 were homeowners with a mortgage. The proportion is now just one in five. The Government observed in their February 2017 White Paper, “Fixing our broken housing market”, that the housing shortage was not a looming crisis, stating:
“We’re already living in it”
and noting that it was
“a problem that won’t solve itself”.
A gap has opened up between the places we want to see and those we actually create. Instead of beauty and a natural order in our new housing, we see a sterile sameness almost everywhere we look. The consequences are stark: most new housing is opposed most of the time, and in no other period in our history would housing be thought of as pollution. I understand why there is so much opposition. One witness in the housing review I did for the Prime Minister last year commented that
“the planning system rewards mediocrity”,
and people are entirely right to object to mediocrity.
We do not do enough to protect our beautiful countryside; nor do we insist on land reuse as a default starting point. Instead of the new housing that most people want, we have a soulless monoculture. The clunky and inconsistently applied methods for taxing land value uplift mean that we do not see the timely and right-sized improvements in physical and social infrastructure that we need, whether that is schools, doctors surgeries or strong sewerage systems. Most fundamentally of all, the wishes and interests of customers are barely considered. Indeed, for the very item on which customers spend the largest proportion of their incomes—their homes—they hold the least consumer power. That is intellectually indefensible.
There is a solution, and it involves creating the conditions in which customers are treated as if they matter the most, rather than for the most part scarcely mattering at all. More people want to build their own homes than to buy new ones. Research by the Home Builders Federation indicates that only 33% of people would consider buying a new build home, while research by the Nationwide Building Society indicates that between 53% and 61% of people would like to commission their own home at some point in their lives. For the under-34 age group, the figure is 80%.
If we genuinely want to see a solution to England’s housing problems, we must remove the risks around infrastructure—a proper public function—and create more certainty around planning so that the system is predictable, as should happen anyway in a rules-based system. We need permissioned and serviced plots to be readily available everywhere, and then allow consumers to make real choices. Moreover, there is clear evidence that consumers with free choices commission much greener houses with much lower running costs. Increasing consumer choice will therefore assist the Government in meeting their climate change commitments, which will not be met without significant changes in how we build houses. In conclusion, this Bill offers a real opportunity to deliver important changes and I am pleased to support it.
The principle of levelling up is absolutely right, and it is one that is shared across the House. We have one of the most unequal countries by geography, and one of the most centralised. Both of those issues need addressing. However, the two fundamentals to addressing them are missing from the Bill. First, where is the money? Individual pots of money adding up to a few billion pounds are not going to do it. We need to see a commitment from the Government to actually change the way in which whole departmental budgets are spent. Why is it right that we spend 10 times as much per head on public transport in the south-east as we do in Yorkshire? That is a question the Government need to answer.
I asked the Secretary of State if he could point to any new powers in the Bill that would be available to councils and Mayors. It was clear from his answer that he could not do so, because there are none. He reverted back to saying that there would be discussions between Mayors, combined authorities and the Government as the initial devolution measures that the Government introduced under the coalition were brought in. Why are we back to individual negotiations? Why do we not have a right, through a devolution framework, to powers for all local authorities to access? That is something that we on the Select Committee have asked for, but it is not in the Bill.
Initially we were told that we were going to have a levelling up Bill with some planning powers incorporated into it. What we actually have is a planning Bill with a levelling up wraparound, because most of the serious measures in it are about planning. Some of them are probably welcome. The proposals to simplify local plans and make them accessible to local people, so that the argument can be about where we build homes at that stage rather than having rows about individual planning applications later, are welcome. Will the other measures in the Bill really do it? We are going to test that in the Select Committee. The Minister for Housing, the right hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) is going to come to the Committee next week, and we are looking forward to seeing him. I hope he is looking forward to coming.
There are measures in the Bill that the Committee has asked for to simplify the powers available to local councils relating to compulsory purchase orders. Again, are they going to do it? Is there a real commitment to end the hope value system whereby landowners get money out of this process for doing nothing? We welcome the plans for improved environmental impact assessments, and we are going to test how they will work in practice. We welcome the increased powers of enforcement for local authorities, and I come back to a point I have mentioned before. When a developer refuses to implement the conditions given to an application that has been agreed, should that not be able to be taken into account by a local authority when the same developer puts in an application to build somewhere else? If that developer has failed at the first hurdle, why should it be given a second permission? Avant Homes, in Owlthorpe in my constituency, is an appalling developer, and there have been problems with it elsewhere as well.
The strengthening of powers over retrospective applications is also to be welcomed, but will there be an impact assessment to see whether it is really going to work? The Royal Oak, a centuries-old pub in Mosborough in my constituency, was demolished, and the developers came back months later to get permission to rebuild on the site. They are going to get a slap on the wrist, and that is not good enough. We need real powers to deter that. On the levy being implemented instead of section 106 agreements, can the Government absolutely assure us that this will not reduce the number of affordable homes being built? This will be tested at the Select Committee. We all share the ambition on levelling up, and there are some good specific measures in the Bill, including the ability for local authorities to set up local development corporations. That is another measure that is positive. However, I am really doubtful whether the specifics, particularly around planning in total, add up to a real agenda that will deliver the levelling up goal that we all want to see.
I greatly welcome the change of tone from the Minister and Secretary of State in recent weeks; they have taken a step in the right direction, but I still want the Bill to address a number of points as it progresses.
I represent a constituency that is largely urbanised and the land that is not urbanised is green belt or parkland; it is simply not possible to meet the targets that were set out based on the 2014 census. So my first point to the Minister is that we must move away from that as being the basis for a calculation of housing numbers. We also need to move away from the inspectorate being able to simply impose national targets on a local authority; local authorities must have serious input into what the real housing needs are.
My second point is that in my area the housing needs assessments have been based on the salaries of people who work in the constituency, but in commuting areas such as mine a lot of those people do not live in the constituency; in fact many, many of my constituents work in central London and earn more. That is also a flaw in the methodology that needs to be changed.
I think there is general acceptance across these Benches that we need to set some pretty tight parameters for the inspectorate. There are too many cases of the inspectorate doing its own thing; Ministers have been pretty clear in saying, “This is what our national policy is” on, for instance, the green belt, but all too often the inspectors simply do something different. They are there to implement policy, not to run the policy. I hope the Bill will include clear measures to make sure the inspectorate has strict parameters to work within in the future.
I would also like the Minister to take up two points in terms of the environmental sections of the Bill, one of which he is aware of. I think we have all experienced situations where somebody looking to apply for planning consent just clears a site—they rip the whole thing apart before applying for planning consent, with no thought for the ecology of the site or, frankly, the surrounding area. In doing so, they pay no attention to whether there are any vulnerable species on that site or implications for the local ecology. That must change, and I will be pushing as the Bill progresses for a provision that requires developers to do a holistic survey of the ecology and wildlife of a site and, if they identify vulnerable species, to have a plan to relocate those species. That must be an essential part of the planning application; developers simply must not be able to clear a site before going for planning consent, and they must have duties to look after the wildlife, plants and animals on that site if they are going to develop it. The Minister knows I will be pushing for that, and I hope he and the Government will take it up and introduce such a provision themselves.
We rightly focused a lot last year on better environmental practices generally and requiring each area to have nature recovery networks as we must reverse the decline of so many of our species in this country, but that must not happen in isolation from the local planning process; there must be a link between the two. Local authorities shaping a local plan must also be mindful of their plan for a nature recovery network—what needs to be done to restore the wildlife in that area and reverse the loss of species. I ask the Minister to look carefully as the Bill progresses through Committee and Report at how we can create that link in this legislation so the obligation is clear and it is put in the local plan. Local authorities are planning for housing need and there is indeed a housing need; my constituency and others around the country need more homes and all of us have a duty to work to try to ensure that those homes are delivered in the best way possible, but we must not do that at the expense of the natural world with no reference at all to what we have all been debating over the past couple of years, namely having better conservation in the UK. I ask the Minister to make that a part of the Bill as well.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), and I particularly agree with him on the need to strengthen the nature conservation provisions in the planning element of the Bill.
Levelling up has been the mantra of this Government for the last three years—it is a slogan that is emblazoned on everything they do—but many of my constituents feel left out of the levelling-up agenda, because their local public services have been decimated over the past 12 years, their health inequalities have risen, and their sense of civic pride has gone into decline as a consequence. It is jarring therefore to hear this talk of levelling-up from the same Government who have overseen the biggest decline in living standards since the 1950s.
I represent a constituency that straddles two local authorities, Tameside and Stockport, whose settlement funding has declined by 24% and 32% respectively since 2015. In 2020, some 12,900 people across these two boroughs were forced to access food banks, an increase of over 25% on the year before. That is yet another example of charity picking up the slack where Government have so catastrophically failed.
However, I want to give the Government the benefit of the doubt and believe that they do want constituencies such as mine to turn the corner. I want to genuinely support the Government in doing that. I do not want to play party politics. It does not serve my constituents well to be left in the gutter while everybody else is doing well. I want to ensure the people I am sent here to provide a voice for share in the wealth, prosperity and future of this country. But for that to happen, we need the Government to look a bit more closely at some of the measures in the Bill.
I shall give an example. A school in my constituency, Russell Scott Primary School in Denton—a school that I went to—had an extensive refurbishment. Sadly, that was botched by Carillion just six years ago. Today it is a crumbling building. The foundations are shot to pieces; the roof is not safe; the fire safety measures do not meet national planning regulations; and when we have freak weather events—which we often do in Manchester—the school floods and sewage backs up into the classrooms.
We have appealed to the Government to provide money for a rebuild, and that has fallen on deaf ears. If we cannot level up our children’s future—and education is our children’s future—we are letting those kids down. Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council has put in a bid to the Government for emergency funding. I hope the Minister will pass my comments on to the Department for Education because true levelling up is education, it is skills, it is the kids and their future—the future of our country.
Since 1996, 22,317 houses have been built in North Somerset compared with a target of 24,687, which shows that this is not a nimby district. However, as many colleagues will recognise, the overall figures hide enormous variability. During the years when the town of Portishead, a triumph of regeneration, was growing, we exceeded our targets by some way. Taking the period as a whole, targets were exceeded in seven years but missed in 18 years. That is a very good reason for housing planning to be considered over longer periods. Five-year housing land supply measures are nonsensical and should be dropped.
But these figures show the effect of two important factors which need to be tackled in this legislation. The first is the conflicting signals given by central Government to local authorities on planning priorities. While overall housing target numbers are given, there are simultaneous restrictions being put in place. In North Somerset, the land area is 40% green belt, 30% flood zone and 15% area of outstanding natural beauty. In my discussion with the Secretary of State, he made clear he hoped the Planning Inspectorate would take account of local authorities that had tried to balance these conflicting and sometimes contradictory factors when it comes to housing targets, but we have to go much further. We need to furnish local authorities with a clear mechanism to net off the proportion of their land covered by things such as green belt, floodplain and AONB so that more realistic housing targets can be set, reflecting more accurately the availability of land in any one locality.
The second issue we need to tackle is land banking and build-out, which creates a Catch-22 for local authorities. Developers are given permission to build, but they do not do so. They then complain to the Planning Inspectorate that the local authority needs to give more land for housing, which creates a huge amount of uncertainty for local residents and even planning blight, but it helps to fill the developers’ pockets.
I will not give way because so many colleagues want to take part.
The next issue is the green belt. The current framework has stood the test of time and represents a good balance between the values represented by green-belt policy and the need for some unavoidable development to meet local need. The village in which I live has seen two examples of redevelopment and infilling, which represents small and more acceptable development much better than the huge housing estates we have seen in other towns such as Backwell, Nailsea and Yatton in my constituency.
That brings me to my brief final point. We need to see more small developers coming into the housing market to provide much-needed competition and flexibility. I would like the Government to consider whether we can make it easier to have small developments of perhaps 30 to 40 houses, which would be much more attractive to small, new, innovative builders and much less attractive to the current dominant players in the housing market. As a matter of policy, we should introduce competition into the house building market. After all, if I remember correctly, we are a Conservative Government.
I had looked forward to this Bill, so it is disappointing that the opportunity seems to have been missed. This feels like not a levelling-up Bill but an unambitious planning Bill. There are huge environmental, housing and planning control crises to be solved, but the Bill has not done so.
I will focus on some of the issues affecting rural communities such as mine in Cumbria and in Northumberland, Devon and Cornwall. These areas are under huge pressure. We have seen a housing crisis become a housing catastrophe over the last couple of years. I saw a story in last week’s Sunday Times about Langdale in my constituency, where 90% of houses are second homes. Up to 80% of houses that changed hands during the pandemic went into the second home market. We have seen the collapse of the private rented sector into the holiday let sector and Airbnb. And we have seen individuals forced out of their community because there is nowhere else to go. People with jobs, and with places at the local school for their children, are having to uproot and go to places where they have none of those things because they have been kicked out.
This is having an impact across the country. Fifty per cent. fewer rentals are available across the country, but there is a 6% increase in demand. Average rents outside London are going up by more than 10%. In the last generation, buying a home was a pipe dream for most people in rural communities and elsewhere. It now appears that even renting a property is a pipe dream for many. Such properties are not available, and they are certainly not affordable. Meanwhile, planning permission is being given for buildings that do not meet net zero and without a compulsion for them to be sustainable and to meet the climate emergency.
What could and should this Bill do? It should give new powers to local authorities, national parks and local councils to prevent family homes from becoming second homes and holiday lets. We could create a separate category of planning use for second home ownership and holiday lets, as distinct from full-time, permanent dwellings. Local communities would then have the power to control what happens to their housing stock.
The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. At the very least, the Bill should match what the European structural funds were doing. Those funds dwarf the paltry levelling-up fund. Some people would call this Bill a subsidy from less well off areas to better off areas.
I agree. Rural communities such as mine are being completely overlooked, in terms of both funding and the powers we are demanding to tackle these huge problems.
In planning, enforcing affordability in perpetuity is crucial. In this country, we seem to give planning permission and to build for demand, not need. In places such as the lakes, the dales, Cumbria, Cornwall and Devon, any house that is built will sell, but will it meet local need? No, it will not. This Bill does not give us the powers to enforce affordability in perpetuity. It does so little to build in nature recovery, which is vital to our communities and to any new developments.
The Bill also does nothing to give planning authorities, national parks and local authorities the power to enforce planning conditions. If a developer starts work on a field for which it has been given planning permission to build houses—they may have been told to build 25% or 30% affordable housing, which is not enough in the first place—and finds a few more rocks than it says it expected, it can use a viability assessment to go back to the drawing board. The developer can then say, “We don’t need to provide you with any affordable homes at all, and the Government will back us up.” That has happened in Allithwaite in my constituency and elsewhere. Let us give communities real power.
I will continue. I am aware of the time, and other people want to speak.
The enforcement of conditions is vital, and we need to stop developers getting away with using viability assessments to take the mickey out of local communities, which is totally and utterly unacceptable, as is the fact that planning departments are denuded of staff and resources. Even the conditions we have are therefore not enforceable.
The Bill also lacks any support for public transport in rural communities. Cumbria got nothing from Bus Back Better, despite making a perfectly good bid. Why? Apparently because there is an emphasis on bus lanes. The country roads of Cumbria have only one lane, so there is no room for a bus lane. That shows the bias against rural communities such as Cumbria, Northumberland, Devon and Cornwall in the distribution of funding. There is also a lack of investment in internet connectivity. In areas such as ours, small business is king, so we need to support internet connectivity.
Listening to the Secretary of State, the Bill sounded like Roosevelt’s new deal. Instead, it is more like Major’s cones hotline. It is a massive disappointment.
There is much in the Bill that I welcome, such as digitising the planning system, tackling land banking and enforcing planning controls. I also welcome the important omission of the growth zone proposals that were in the “Planning for the Future” White Paper. These zones would have removed local input on what is built in areas designated for growth. I campaigned strongly against them, and I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for killing them off.
There are other measures that urgently need to be added to the Bill because, as it stands, it does not curb the powers of the Planning Inspectorate, it has no new protections for greenfield sites and it does not reduce or disapply housing targets. Excessive housing targets are creating ever greater pressure on elected local councillors to approve applications that amount to overdevelopment. Where committees turn down such proposals, they are at risk of being overturned on appeal.
Targets remain very high, even after the Government’s climbdown on the so-called “mutant algorithm.” The Bill’s focus on better design does not resolve these issues. Loss of precious green space remains problematic even if what is built on it is well designed. A block of flats is still a block of flats no matter how tastefully it is presented.
In one respect, as we have heard already today, the Bill worsens the problems that Back-Bench colleagues and I have been highlighting about the erosion of local control over planning. Clauses 83 and 84 empower the Secretary of State to set development management policies at a national level, which will override local plans.
I am sorry, but I am unable to give way.
This radical change departs from a long-established planning principle that primacy should be given to elected councillors making decisions in accordance with their local plan. Management policies of this kind are at the heart of almost all planning decisions, covering matters as crucial as character, tall buildings, affordable housing and protection of open spaces. Removing from councils the power to set these management policies will severely weaken democratic control of the planning process. Development management policies form a bulwark of defence against inappropriate development. Centralised control would almost inevitably force councils to approve many applications that they would previously have rejected. These clauses amount to an aggressive power grab by the centre, and I hope they will be dropped.
Yes, I think we should seriously consider that.
The Secretary of State seems to accept the need for some rebalancing between councils and the Planning Inspectorate. The policy paper published with the Bill proposes to remove the requirement for authorities to have a rolling five-year land supply for housing, where their plan is up to date. That could be helpful, but it is impossible to say without more detail. The proposal is not in the Bill and even if implemented, it probably would not apply to areas already in the process of updating their new plan. So any impact probably would not be felt for several years, by which time many greenfield sites could have been lost.
I therefore appeal to Ministers to seize the opportunity presented in this Bill to restore the powers of locally elected councillors to determine what is built in their neighbourhood, by scrapping the mandatory housing targets which have been undermining those powers. We must stop these targets, and the five-year land supply obligations they impose, from being used as a weapon by predatory developers to inflict overdevelopment on unwilling communities. Once they go under the bulldozer, our green fields are lost forever. Once suburban areas such as Chipping Barnet are built over by high-rise blocks of flats, their character is profoundly changed forever. Please let this Government not be the ones who permanently blight our environment with overdevelopment. Please let us amend and strengthen the Bill so that we clip the wings of an overmighty Planning Inspectorate, restore the primacy of local decision making in planning and safeguard the places in which our constituents live.
I think that what unites us across the House is an ambition to avoid the postcode where someone is born defining their possibilities in life. I think that that is something we share, but it is the reality for too many of the people we represent. We now live in a country where it takes five generations for the heirs of someone born in the lowest income group to rise up and even earn national average wages. That is a complete scandal. Social mobility has broken down in this country, and this Bill should have stepped up to address our ambition.
I wish to say two things by way of my contribution. First, as a former Chief Secretary who drove through the Total Place initiative and someone who has spent 20 years working on devolution—as the Minister knows, there are centralisers and localisers on both sides of this House, and I am resolutely a localiser—I am convinced that the inequalities in this country will be impossible to eradicate unless we create the freedom for local regions to begin developing their own institutions. They should be robust enough to mobilise and co-ordinate the demand and supply sides of ideas and innovation, capital and investment and land, and crucially, to intervene in the labour market. We will continue to fail until local regions have the power to set up radical university enterprise zones, like the Fraunhofer, to translate innovation into the private sector; regional banks; regional land trusts; and local commissions on skills and enterprise. However, there are a few steps we could take now to drive this forward.
First, we have to take the 149 different local spending programmes which, together, have in them £65 billion, spread between eight different Departments, and put them into block grants for local areas. We have the most ridiculous centralisation at the moment as a result of having to bid against different criteria for 149 different programmes. We have to take a Total Place approach to pooling public sending—crucially, Department for Work and Pensions spending, as well as that of Department for Education and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. We should go further and create full-time regional Ministers in government and full-time regional Select Committees in this House. Crucially, we have to fix the gross imbalances in public spending that mean that spending per capita in London is 70 points higher than it is in the west midlands.
Secondly, as chair of the East Birmingham Inclusive Growth Taskforce, I can say that East Birmingham is a city the size of Derby, that it is the land between the two high-speed stations, but that it is also the capital of Britain’s unemployment. The potential is enormous, because of the new jobs that will be created by High Speed 2, but we have to make sure that we are not the oasis of inequality in between that wealth. That is why Bridgid Jones, the Deputy Leader of Birmingham City Council, has today written to Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, to ask that we make East Birmingham the key focus of the west midlands trailblazer devolution deal. We have a number of asks. We want to see: multi-year whole place public funding—pooling budgets between the Department for Work and Pensions and others; a levelling-up zone that would give us tax increment financing, potentially for a new urban development corporation; net zero powers; support for early intervention and preventive work, particularly in health; an enhanced transport package that would allow us to see our metro built through East Birmingham; a lot more funding for schools and for skills; tailored employment support; and greater housing powers.
We would love the Minister to meet a delegation from Birmingham along with the east Birmingham MPs in order to discuss this devolution deal in more detail. I am confident that we will also have the support of the Mayor of the West Midlands, too.
I have a lot of respect for the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy)—she is not in her place but will be coming back very shortly—but I have to say that her speech was pretty dire, her allegations silly, and her withdrawal pretty mealy-mouthed. For the record, for those on the Labour Front Bench, and for anyone else who wants to listen, I make no apology for persuading the Government to treat the Isle of Wight like every other island in the UK. The Island is the most under-represented place in this country. I have twice as many constituents. We are separated by sea from the mainland, and I have to fight three times as hard to get any Government to listen to me. I make no apologies for speaking with passion and determination, and I make no apologies for fighting tooth and nail.
I shall tell those on the Labour Front Bench something else: we were not in the first round of levelling up, but by last December we were. We are now getting a new crane for Wight Shipyard, which means dozens of apprenticeships, and I am proud of that. If Labour Members want to insinuate anything about that, they are welcome to do so. I have one final piece of advice before I go on to the real issues here: the reason why there are so many of us here, not only in this debate, but in this House, is that, perhaps, we have a reputation for delivering for our folks. That is something that the Labour party may want to take into account. Anyway, that is almost a minute and a half of my life that I will not get back, so I shall now move on to the substance of the Bill.
The presentation of Tory MPs saying, “No, no, no!” to change is not true. We see the hundreds of thousands of unbuilt permissions and we worry. We know our youngsters cannot get on to the housing ladder and we worry. We see the loss of landscape in my patch celebrated by Tennyson, Turner, Keats and many others, and we worry. We see lazy developers relying on greenfield sites and we worry. We want the system to change. What we do not want is a system that keeps on giving to developers who give nothing back, who pocket development and then say, “More, please” like some inverted Oliver Twist. What we want is people who deliver for our communities and also for the nation.
I know the hon. Gentleman was desperate to get an extra minute. He is making a really impassioned speech and I agree with much of what he has said so far. He mentioned developers snapping up greenfield sites. In my constituency, the local community rose up to protect a site called Udney Park Playing Fields in Teddington, and thanks to a legal challenge it is now protected green space. The developer, however, will not now sell the site back to the community despite a good bid to turn it into playing fields, because they paid over the odds and they will wait years and years until planning policy changes. Meanwhile, the site is going to rack and ruin. Do we not need powers to tackle that?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. She will probably have to wait 10 to 15 years. There will be a form of planning blight on that land. We have the same with an awful development on my patch called Pennyfeathers, which I wish had never been built. I wish the Secretary of State or, indeed, the wonderful Minister for Housing, had the powers to say no to it; we could go back to having a vineyard and green fields there, as there should be.
I am very supportive of my colleagues on the Conservative Benches who have made speeches this afternoon, but let me turn briefly to amendments. Targets are the bane of so many of my colleagues. They need to be advisory, not mandatory, and I remind the Government that neighbourhood plan areas tend to say yes to more developments because they get the chance to shape them. If we do not feel that developments are being shoved down our throats, and that we can shape them more, the Government will have greater success.
The Secretary of State has heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) and others about the pernicious loopholes, the vandalism of sites of special scientific interest and the way people corruptly game the system. Why is character not grounds for opposing development? Why can we not shut down those loopholes that do such damage to our countryside, national parks and AONBs?
I know this is not a tax Bill, but fundamentally we need to find an effective way of changing the economics from greenfield to brownfield sites, so that the half a million or a million properties on brownfield sites are developed. We also have a second homes problem, not only on the Island but in Cornwall, the lake district and other areas. We need to respect property rights, but communities in my patch such as Seaview, Bembridge and Yarmouth must not become Potemkin villages that are empty for much of the year. We must have a community that stays there.
There will be a series of amendments to the Bill, and I assure the Minister they will be as supportive as they can be, but I will finish with something close to my heart: compulsory purchase. I want the Government to give more powers to councils for compulsory purchase. In Sandown, a town in my patch, a Mr Steven Purvis owns the Ocean Hotel and is fighting forced redevelopment tooth and nail. Nick Spyker owns the Grand Hotel in Sandown. Those places sit empty year in, year out.
Sandown is crying out for investment. The Island cannot afford owners who, for whatever reason, keep those properties as empty eyesores, damaging our communities, our public health and our economy. We must ensure that our councils have the power to say to people such as Purvis and Spyker, “Invest, or jog on.” There will be a lot of amendments to this Bill, many of them supportive, but we need to get a grip and we need to drive development and levelling-up forward.
The purpose of power is to bring transformation, with transformation of communities delivering transformation of life chances. When we get that moment to bring forward legislation to tackle the burning injustices perpetuated throughout our communities, where 14.5 million people live in poverty, one third of them children, we expect Government to make the bold interventions to ensure that everyone has a sustainable home to call their own; that public land is used for public good, delivering the homes people need and can afford to live in, rather than seeing investors further their wealth; and that we build houses and high streets together to ensure that the local community is served.
I welcome the opportunity to auction off empty units to ensure that our high streets become vibrant again, and I urge the Government to look further at ensuring that spaces above shops are utilised, not just for business, but for start-ups, creatives and social enterprises and as incubator and accelerator spaces, such as those the University of York is investing in. The Government have failed to level up power between communities and vested interests in this Bill, or to provide the framework to shift the entrenched planning injustices and tilt planning towards the needs of our communities. With this Bill, we still have landowners marking time against profits and developers continuing to extract wealth from investments while denying house seekers the right to a home.
That brings me to the challenge before us. We need to get the pecking order right with housing, putting social housing at the heart of what needs to be developed, and then bringing on affordable housing so that house seekers can have the home they long for. That is what Nye Bevan did when he developed his “homes fit for heroes”, putting the power in the hands of municipal authorities and giving them the permissions and powers to build. We must learn from that in order to build to need again. I think everyone in this debate ultimately wants to ensure that we get the right tenure, in the right places, at the right price for our communities. This Bill simply does not tick that box, so we know there is more to come in terms of amendments to the Bill to make sure that that happens.
Without having value defined in the infrastructure levy, it is hard to assess the benefit it will bring. I trust that the Minister will say more about that. Take York-based Persimmon: last year it generated £3.61 billion in revenue and made just shy of £1 billion in pre-tax profits. A robust levy must demand more from those large developers, so that those who make the greatest profits contribute the most, whereas small developers have greater opportunities to grow their businesses. We need to capacity-build as well as to see a strong social return. The problem is that when addressing housing need, the Government start with numbers, not numbers combined with tenure. Their starting point is therefore market value housing, which house seekers simply cannot afford. In my city of York, we are seeing those homes turning into second homes and Airbnbs, stripping out the opportunity for people to have a home they can call their own. We need to ensure that this Bill also addresses the scourge of Airbnbs, which are shooting up everywhere.
If the starting point is first to build social housing to meet needs and ensure that house seekers get the homes that they need, this Bill will do its job. At the moment, it needs further revision, and I trust the Minister will listen to that.
My right hon. Friend the Minister knows through our many conversations about planning that there is, in my view, much to welcome in this Bill, but also much to improve. The general feeling in my constituency is that the planning system is not currently working for anybody.
Given the limited time, I will choose four quick points. I passionately believe that we have to scrap housing targets and make them advisory, and to look at ensuring that the infrastructure plans are upfront. In Stroud, we are in the invidious situation where local people are desperately worried about the emerging local plan coming from Stroud District Council, and they feel ignored. Sharpness, Whaddon, Cam, Wisloe and Whitminster, among others, are facing thousands of new homes going into their areas, but they have no confidence that the infrastructure will be in place to assist the people who are going to live in those homes or the people already there, and so avoid chaos.
There is no confidence, unfortunately, that the council is paying attention to the consultation, and in some cases consultation responses have been lost. Any challenges to the council about bona fides issues are often met with blame for the Government targets, even when the Government say that the council has control, and the Planning Inspectorate is in the mix with all that as well. I ask that we make the housing targets advisory so that there is no confusion over who is responsible and we can do what is needed for our local areas, and that we make the infrastructure plans and infrastructure levy upfront so that we can plan properly. I hope that work is being done to look at what can be done with the Planning Inspectorate now.
On dilapidated buildings, I really welcome the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) in seeing legislation come through to deal with empty buildings that are an eyesore. We need to auction properties, as the Secretary of State said, and strengthening rules on compulsory purchase is very important. We are blessed with beautiful old mills that represent our industrial history, but also blighted with some really ugly buildings—including Tricorn House, which has dogged our area for decades. Very sadly, a young boy lost his life at the property last year, so we feel very passionately that we want to see change there.
It is obvious to me that the fastest route to change is a private sale or a private demolition; I would be very happy to press the button, if I am allowed. People locally know that I am working as hard as I possibly can to move this forward. The owner says that he is committed to selling but nothing actually happens, so it is useful for me to be able to say now that winter is coming, or at least legislation is coming.
On existing planning permissions, I was hoping for, and actually expecting, more in the Bill to deal with developments in terms of land banking and permissions that have already been given. These should be homes by now, in many cases. Communities have already gone through the pain and stress of the planning arguments, so not to see the homes go up ends up being an additional slap in the face.
On environmental matters, housing developments like the one in Great Oldbury are fabulous, wonderful homes, but even a gentleman I spoke to who is living there and loves his home agreed that new homes are being built now without solar, electric charging points or insulation, and with gas boilers, so they are likely to need to be retrofitted. Where is the mandating of developers, because I think they have probably had their chance? Let us future-proof the housing stock and stimulate the market.
Finally, I ask my right hon. Friend to look at my proposal through the all-party parliamentary group on wetlands that we implement schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. That will help with surface run-off, flooding and sewerage issues, and we can get this done without too much sweat from his Department.
I am going to ask the question, “What does levelling up actually mean?” My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) asked the same question, and people in our communities have not got a clue what this means.
In my view, levelling up should be about people. It should be about individuals and families. We should be addressing issues in the left-behind communities, which were once proud and thriving but which have been left behind for an awful long time. It is fair to say that people believe that levelling up is purely political rhetoric—a political narrative and a political slogan—that does not mention them. Levelling up should be about tackling child poverty, pensioner poverty, fuel poverty and food bank reliance. It should be about employment opportunities, educational opportunities, health outcomes and life expectancy. It should not just be about shiny new one-off projects in towns that need a bit of a polish.
I take this opportunity to invite the Secretary of State to visit me in my constituency and witness for himself the desperate need for some sort of levelling up finance. I want him to come to Northumberland and visit Ashington and Bedlington to see the holes in the centre of those wonderful towns, which are desperate for investment but have not had any for many years. I want him to walk through the streets of Bedlington and listen to the constituents who have been pleading for leisure facilities for many, many years but have not been given any. I want to take him to the Hirst area of Ashington to see the conditions that some of its residents live in, which many people would not tolerate. They do not even have a suitable refuse collection, so there are bin liners on the streets, seagulls the size of jumbo jets, and rats right across where they live. We need investment and support for these held back communities.
I want to take the Secretary of State to Newbiggin, Morpeth, Choppington and Sleekburn, but we would need to make sure that the buses were on time, because we have not got a suitable bus service. In many of the places I have mentioned, people have to get the bus at 10 o’clock in the morning and return to the community by 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon, because otherwise the bus service is not there to assist.
I want the Secretary of State—I will call him my right hon. Friend—to come and see how people live in my constituency, because this is an extremely serious issue. It is time we used the leaps forward in modern technology and connectivity to radically rethink Whitehall. We need to make it a priority to create jobs in the places I have mentioned—real, good, solid employment opportunities with decent wages and terms and conditions, and trade union recognition. We need to stop the rhetoric and focus on reality. I say to the Secretary of State, “Come along and join me. I am sure you will enjoy it.”
In Wokingham, there are thousands of permissions outstanding to build new homes, and thousands of new homes have been built in recent years. We do not need or want Government inspectors determining in favour of yet more homes on greenfield sites that are outside our local plan area.
I am pleased with the anger among Conservative Members about the disgrace that is the abuse of the planning system by some large development companies and rich landowners, who manage to game the system to get extra permissions and make money out of the granting of the permission while houses go unbuilt under the legitimate permissions that have been granted. I understand that the Government agree with us, so where is the new direction to the planning inspectors to say that the Government will no longer put up with that? If a statutory instrument is needed to make that clear in law, where is the statutory instrument? As the Government have now brought forward a Bill about planning law in general, can we have a clause in the Bill that nails the issue? I do not know anyone who defends the gaming of the system in that way by rich development companies—I do not think the Labour party defends it. The Government should nail it, so please let us see the draft clause.
The Secretary of State did not answer my polite inquiry—perhaps it was too polite—about what will be done to ensure that local communities have more say and influence over how we define and calculate housing need and over the housing numbers that we think are appropriate and feasible for our area. Surely they have a right to a say in that and may have something useful to contribute to the discussion.
Infrastructure is crucial in this argument. In places such as Wokingham and West Berkshire, where I have the privilege to represent many of the people, we have seen a huge increase in development—some granted on appeal against our wishes—but no proper extra provision for infrastructure. Planners must understand that we cannot suddenly conjure up new broadband, sufficient water supply, enough cable to take the extra electricity that is required, the extra road space needed for all the extra cars, or the extra primary schools and surgeries that will be needed to cater for people.
In an area that has been subject to very fast development, as mine has, there is no excess capacity in the private sector services or the public services that are crucial to a good quality of life. It is embarrassing if planning inspectors grant permissions to build more homes and there then has to be a scramble to put in a cable big enough to take the extra power and to find private companies to organise some broadband, and of course there are the usual family arguments in the NHS and the education system to get the quite lumpy investments that are needed. All those things need to happen before the houses are opened up for people; we should not invite people into new homes that they have bought in good faith only for them to discover those pitfalls and difficulties in the provision of services.
My final point about the Bill is that I am proud to belong to a party that opposed unelected and elected regional government, and we won the argument about elected regional government in England. I would like Ministers to talk more about England, because a number of Cabinet Ministers and senior Ministers are basically England-only Ministers in practically all they do. I trust them to make some of the big calls, as long as they listen to me and my local community. We do not need regional government interjected between us and the Ministers who actually have the power and the money. Let them talk England and forget regional.
I am glad to speak as a Welsh MP after that. This Bill should be read in the light of the Public Accounts Committee report on “Local economic growth”, published today. On the levelling up fund, it states:
“principles for awarding funding were only finalised by Ministers after they knew who…would win and who would not as a result of those principles.”
That is, the decisions were taken and then the principles were established as to who would win. It also states:
“The Department also needs to demonstrate how the priorities of the devolved administrations will be addressed in the context of administering these local growth funds on a UK-wide basis.”
That is, the Government in Wales decide their own priorities, but somehow the administration of local growth funds is decided on a UK-wide basis. Many people in Wales feel that this Government have been steadily undermining devolution, and that is another example.
The Bill intrudes on devolved areas such as health, education and housing, bypassing our Senedd, which raises concerns regarding Wales. For instance, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Welsh Government regarding the levelling-up metrics? How will they be monitored to account for distinct Welsh economic and development structures? What methodology will the Government use to measure the success or failure of the metrics in Wales?
Wales has the highest levels of child poverty in the UK and high levels of disability, and we should not be disadvantaged by ill-thought-out evaluation procedures. The Westminster Government should take immediate action to address the structural causes of poverty in Wales, and I shall list just three. Research and development funding should be devolved. Per head, research and development expenditure in the east of England was £1,106 in 2019; in Wales, it was £252, which is a great difficulty for our local economy. We should be getting the £5 billion Barnett consequential owed from HS2 spending, which is provided for Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Welsh Government require greater borrowing powers to pursue proper economic development.
This Bill is just one part of the levelling-up agenda, and it cannot be divorced from the replacement of EU funding. Wales has done very poorly out of that. Not only is the funding far below what was promised, but there is no coherent strategy as to how it will be spent. We know that the funding formula for other funds, such as the shared prosperity fund, does not reflect the needs of Welsh communities. Indeed, Wales Fiscal Analysis has shown that funding for the SPF will shift money away from the west of Wales, which is poor, to the east of Wales, and will fail to address rural poverty. There is also a huge democratic deficit involved in the levelling-up approach.
The UK Government’s application of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 to devolved areas has excluded the Welsh Government from decision making, which again is a very severe blow to the Government of Wales. Indeed, we all hold, as I have said, that the UK Government are busily undermining Welsh democracy, and I am afraid this Bill will continue that process.
The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will answer the many questions people raise about what levelling up means. It will lead to a greater understanding that levelling up is not an action or even a series of measures, but a philosophy—a philosophy that will determine the direction of Government policy making in years to come.
Stoke-on-Trent Central features regularly in the national media because we have branded ourselves as the litmus test for the levelling-up agenda. Shoppers in Hanley are asked what levelling up means to them and if it has happened in the city. It is unsurprising that many focus on their immediate surroundings, and reflect on the closed shops in the high street as a sign of continued decline. So I welcome the new powers for local leaders to run high street rental auctions, in which they can auction off tenancies in shops that have been vacant for over a year. This and the use of compulsory purchase orders will help to end the plague of empty shops that blight so many high streets. I also welcome the announcement that the al fresco dining revolution will be made permanent. In the Piccadilly area of Hanley, businesses use the pavements to full advantage, creating a local hospitality hotspot through café culture.
It is time there was better understanding about the missions behind the Government’s levelling-up agenda. The challenge of addressing decades of decline in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent is vast, so how do we do it and how will we know when it is done? It is rather like the old adage, “How do you eat an elephant?” We know the answer—“One bite at a time”—yet we are all hungry for change. We are impatient with the speed of reform and, as we come out of two years of firefighting a global pandemic, the hunger for transformative politics is greater than ever.
Working together with Stoke-on-Trent City Council, the Stoke-on-Trent MP trio have succeeded in making the case for massive investment to improve the city’s public transport offer, as well as for the £56 million levelling-up funding, which will unlock key regeneration sites within the city. It is understandable but frustrating that major regeneration projects take time, and that people walking around the city centre will currently only see rubble and fences marking the start of the Etruscan Square project. When finished, it will provide urban living space for young professionals with hybrid working lifestyles, and an e-sports arena to build on our Silicon Stoke ambitions. Fences also mark the goods yard project, which will provide a quality living, retail and hospitality offer canal-side and near the mainline station. However, those ambitious projects cannot be delivered overnight, and the original plans will need adjusting because of a number of factors outside the council’s control such as the rate of inflation and the co-operation of key partners such as Network Rail and First Buses.
In fact, it cannot be right that in the same month that Stoke-on-Trent has secured £31 million for a bus improvement plan, the local bus company has decided to cut back bus provision in Abbey Hulton in my constituency, where many residents are dependent on the service to access work. In Stoke-on-Trent, one in three households is without a car, so bus provision is a vital lifeline. Public transport is a public service that must address residents’ needs, and Government support must require that commitment from private sector partners.
Given the time limit, it is not possible to cover the entirety of the Bill, so I close by reaffirming my commitment to support the Government in their plans to tackle health and education inequalities so that my residents in Stoke-on-Trent Central have the same opportunities as people in more affluent parts of the country. Levelling-up means creating the right conditions for everyone to live a long, healthy, productive life—in short, to thrive.
In my constituency, levelling-up is more than just a buzzword. Communities like mine have borne the full brunt of 12 years of the Conservative Government’s austerity agenda and a chronic lack of investment. Forgive me if I do not trust the very same party when it claims that it is the one to fix the mess that it has made.
Let us look at what the Government have done to council funding. Local authorities are the backbone of our society, delivering the services that people rely on every single day. Levelling up will be achieved only if our local authorities are empowered with the investment they need to deliver for their communities, but their funding has been cut to the bone by the Conservatives. Sheffield City Council has seen its central Government grant cut by more than £3 billion in real terms since 2010. That inevitably means that budgets are being stretched thinner and thinner, and my constituents are left to deal with the consequences. Speaking of budgets being stretched, the cost of living crisis means that families are having to cut back even further to make ends meet, but the Government have turned their back on them. In my constituency, the claimant count is almost double the national average. It was therefore a hammer blow when, last year, the Government callously slashed universal credit by £20 a week. Not only that but they scrapped the triple lock on pensions, leaving households with impossible choices to make.
Government Members may be quick to point out subsequent rises in universal credit and the state pension this year, but they are a drop in the ocean compared to the high levels of inflation, which are putting more and more pressure on household budgets. We cannot level up when people are still being pushed into a never-ending cycle of poverty. Decisions were made in a very different economic climate, and inflation has now sky-rocketed to a 40-year high. If the Government are serious about levelling up, they must revisit their cuts, which have taken money out of people’s pockets at a time when the cost of everyday essentials is spiralling out of control.
When these issues have been put to Ministers, they have constantly stuck to the line that high-paid jobs are the solution, but, under the Government’s watch, work is no longer a reliable route out of poverty. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that the proportion of families in poverty where at least one adult is working is at an all-time high. Those figures are the culmination of the Government standing back for more than a decade while low pay and insecure work became more and more prevalent in our economy.
The truth is that we have a Government too distracted by scandals of their own making to focus on delivering the changes that the country needs. The never-ending soap opera of the Prime Minister means that, for communities like mine, levelling-up is seen as merely an afterthought.
My constituents have concluded that the Government simply do not care about them and their everyday struggles. In 2019, the Prime Minister visited Sheffield and delivered a promise to level up every corner of the UK, but let us look at what has happened since. Independent analysis shows that, by the Government’s own 12 levelling-up metrics, my constituency has fallen even further behind. The South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority has big ambitions for the area, but they are being held back by the Government. The Mayor made a detailed £474 million bid for a bus service improvement plan that truly would have helped to level up the region, but it was rejected by the Government. That is perhaps not a surprise when we consider the fact that the funding available under that specific scheme came to just over £1 billion, despite £3 billion being initially promised.
The Government are going nowhere near far enough to truly level up constituencies like mine. What we need is bold action, but the Bill, in its current form, is simply more empty rhetoric.
I very much welcome the aims and missions of the Bill on education, skills, health and wellbeing, transport connectivity and closing gaps in opportunity. Levelling up is a key priority for the Government and a key priority for me representing a rural constituency. I am passionate that rural areas are looked after by the levelling-up agenda and recently held an Adjournment debate on that very issue.
Transport access is pivotal in levelling up. Unfortunately, in 2014, Cumbria County Council took the decision to stop using central Government moneys to subsidise commercial bus services. That led to a reduction in services. Last year, Cumbria received £1.5 million from the rural mobility fund, but this year it did not receive anything. I am concerned that the funding system needs to be looked at. Central Government and local government need to work together to produce better services. We have fantastic volunteer services in Cumbria—the Fellrunner, the Border Rambler—but we need people to work together.
I have been working closely with Alston Moor Federation of schools to see what can be done to improve transport access. Pupils and teachers tell me that, basically, students are being disincentivised to go to the next stage of their education because of the lack of transport facilities. That is not levelling up; that is really unfair. There are similar themes in other schools in my constituency, including in William Howard School, Ullswater Community College and Nelson Thomlinson School to name just a few. Students are having to drive themselves on challenging rural roads or rely on families, and are sometimes taking the life-changing decision not to go to the next stage of their education. The Government have, quite rightly, said that people need to be in education up until the age of 18, but the discretion is with the local authorities as to what level of transport is available for post-16. I really urge the Government to put a duty on local authorities to look after people post-16, so they can get to the next stage of their lives. I have raised the issue with various Government Departments, but we really need to get central Government working with local government to improve the life chances of our young people.
Digital connectivity is absolutely paramount in the levelling-up agenda. I have been calling for better broadband and mobile phone coverage in rural Cumbria, as have colleagues across the House for their parts of the country. I firmly believe that part of levelling up has to mean physical and virtual connectivity, so again I urge people to work together.
Along those lines, local government restructuring has presented some challenges for rural Cumbria. I am concerned that there is inertia—lack of grant applications, lack of decision making—as we have new authorities coming in. I urge people to work together to ensure that public services can still be delivered. I again ask the Department to allow parish councils to be able to meet in virtual or hybrid formats, so that local decision making can be made in isolated communities, too.
We have heard about housing from many colleagues. In my part of the world, the second home issue is at crisis point. People are being priced out of their local communities and are unable to live in their own communities. I am pleased that the Government have moved on that issue, closing some of the council tax loopholes, and that the Bill looks at increasing costs on second homes, but we really do need more affordable housing for our local area, so that people can get on to the next stage of their lives.
Furthermore, in terms of levelling up our communities, we need equality of access to all our healthcare services. I feel passionately that we need equality on rural mental health for people to be able to access services and that is part of the levelling-up agenda, too.
There can be no levelling up in the UK until there is a restoration of funding for the public services on which we all rely. Conservative Governments since 2010 have decimated funding to local authorities. Central Government funding for Wirral Council dropped 85% between 2010 and 2020. The impact on our communities is devastating. As a result, in Wirral West the future of libraries in Hoylake, Irby, Pensby and Woodchurch is uncertain, as is the future of Woodchurch leisure centre and swimming pool. Far from levelling up, the loss of those facilities means the running down and impoverishment of the lives of everyone who relies on the services. How short-sighted of the Government to ignore the importance of libraries, pools and leisure centres.
There can be no levelling up until the Government provide building blocks for educational progression for adults in all communities. The Learning and Work Institute highlighted that more than 9 million adults have low literacy or numeracy skills, 13 million have low digital skills and more than 850,000 people say that they cannot speak English well or at all, yet the number of adults taking classes to improve their skills has fallen significantly in recent years. Those numbers are stark, yet the Government have failed to understand how important such provision is for levelling up opportunity across the country.
There can be no levelling up when around 4 million children are living in poverty and the cost of living crisis is threatening to push many more into poverty. Why does the Bill not address food insecurity? Between April 2021 and March 2022, 2.1 million emergency food parcels were given to people in crisis by food banks in the Trussell Trust network.
There can be no levelling up for all generations if the Government repeatedly fail to act on the climate crisis. They should ban fracking and underground coal gasification once and for all. Instead, they have commissioned the British Geological Survey to advise on the latest scientific evidence around shale gas extraction. We do not need a review to know that fracking is not the answer to our energy needs. Exploring the extraction of fossil fuels is an absurd and irresponsible response to the climate crisis. As Greenpeace UK said, the Government should stop
“pandering to fracking obsessives who aren’t up to speed with the realities of 21st century energy”.
The Better Planning Coalition, a group of 27 organisations across the housing, planning, environmental, transport and heritage sectors, said that
“the current proposals for new Environmental Outcome Reports give far too much leeway to Ministers to amend and replace vital aspects of environmental law.”
The coalition is concerned that those
“powers could be used to weaken essential safeguards for nature”.
“Any new environmental assessment system should be set out in primary legislation, not in secondary…and clearly deliver for nature, climate, cultural heritage and landscape.”
The recent announcement by Leverhulme Estate that it has submitted planning applications to build 788 homes on the green belt in Wirral is a matter of real concern, as local residents and campaigners have made clear to me. The Government must introduce much stronger protection for the green belt. It is incredibly important for the health and wellbeing of people who live nearby and has an important part to play in our response to the climate and ecological emergency, supporting habitats for wildlife and allowing nature to flourish.
In conclusion, the Government are failing to provide our communities with the public services and facilities that they need; failing to tackle the crisis in adult literacy that is leaving many unable to realise their potential; failing to tackle poverty; and letting down both this and future generations on the environment. Put simply, the Government’s levelling-up Bill fails to deliver.
The Bill focuses on three things that are close to my heart and the hearts of many Members: levelling up, democracy and devolution. If anybody wants a symbol of what can be achieved through the levelling-up fund, they should look no further than at what is happening in Kings Square in the heart of Gloucester. In what was the Debenhams department store will arise, by September next year, a new teaching campus for the University of Gloucestershire, bringing 5,000 students, 300 staff and the revitalisation of retail. That enterprise will be able to train people in health and teaching skills, thereby bringing huge help to our hospital and schools. So yes, the Bill is hugely important.
A big part of the Bill documentation is about planning. One thing that I would like to highlight there is the ability of councils to be creative in compulsory purchase orders. There are two examples on the streets of Gloucester: the ex-Colwell College on Derby Road and the Pall Mall Investments building on London Road, both of which are giant eyesores plagued with litter and antisocial behaviour. They are a symbol not of levelling up, but of what cannot be done because of not having the powers to enforce that these buildings should be brought back to productive use. I am all in favour of the clauses in the Bill that allow for better compulsory purchase.
There is one aspect of the Bill that needs to be highlighted. Unfortunately, the new class of combined county authority in the Bill, as it is currently worded, takes away from a consent section in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009. That section only allowed district council functions to be transferred with consent, whereas clause 16 of the Bill does not require the consent of district councils—second-tier councils; borough, city or district—that cannot be constituent parts of the CCA. Ministers tell me that it is not their intention for districts to be stripped of powers, but I believe that the Bill can do that, and so does the District Councils’ Network. I hope that the Minister will give a reassurance in his summing up that the Bill Committee will look very closely at the issue and ensure that a new combined county council cannot take away powers from a district council without its consent. We should be devolving down, not up. We should be creating new authorities with consent, not fiat. We should be reinforcing democracy, not taking it away from two-tier councils through unintended stealth clauses.
This is particularly relevant to small cities, because if cities such as Gloucester lose powers to combined county authorities, they would be the losers. We would have less say about our future and fewer representatives to work with community groups, and the outcomes in terms of local pride would invariably be exactly the opposite of those intended by the levelling-up Bill.
By contrast, a well-focused city council, with responsibility for its own future, is delivering, through the levelling-up fund, the brownfield site fund and the shared prosperity fund, and has further ambitions for another key part of our city centre. We will be doing our bit to achieve the goals that the Secretary of State and his Ministers share. But that is not all, because there are changes happening through multi-academy trusts, the use of diocese land, and the achievements of our university and college in the skills agenda. Be in no doubt that levelling up is happening, but let it not be at the expense of second-tier councils, and let us ensure that the Bill allows us all, however small our authority, to achieve what we want.
The Government’s levelling-up White Paper states:
“While talent is spread equally across our country, opportunity is not. Levelling up is a mission to challenge, and change, that unfairness.”
I want to talk about an unfairness that is at the heart of inequality in the UK, and why I think the Bill lacks the ambition to address it.
There is a housing crisis in Britain, and my city is at the sharp end of it. In 2021, there were 21,615 households on Sheffield’s housing waiting list. Between 2020 and 2021, nearly 3,000 Sheffield households were made homeless or threatened with homelessness. Sheffield has also experienced one of the largest increases in annual rental demands in the country. From 2020 to 2021, there was a 46% increase in the number of private renters claiming housing benefit to help pay the rent. A 2019 Sheffield and Rotherham housing market assessment found that, in 13 of the 19 areas in our region, one third of all households were priced out of private renting altogether. After 12 years of stagnating wages and savage cuts to our local services, and now soaring inflation, the situation is getting far worse, not better.
Without action to tackle the housing crisis, the words “levelling up” will ring hollow to many of my constituents and the 17.5 million people across the UK who are also affected. The failure to invest in good-quality, genuinely affordable social homes lies at the root of their problems and at the root of the housing emergency, so surely that is where the Government should start.
But that is not what the Bill proposes. Rather than mandate for a boom in affordable and social rents, the proposal for an infrastructure levy only guarantees that affordable housing will be built at the same rate as it is now. But the status quo clearly is not working. Between 2015 and 2020, there was a net loss of more than 1,500 social homes in Sheffield. Only 229 new homes could be built by the local authority, and 1,800 were lost through right to buy. Our city council is ambitious and has embarked on a programme to build more than 3,000 new council homes by 2029 but, without proper support, that will not be enough to tackle Sheffield’s housing emergency.
The conditions in the Government’s affordable homes programme have made building good-quality social housing in Sheffield almost impossible. Until 2021, geographical restrictions stopped us from receiving funding altogether, despite the great waiting lists that we have. Even though Sheffield is now eligible, the way in which money is allocated is still producing problems. To ration a small national pot of money, the Government have mandated that schemes with the cheapest cost per home be prioritised. Delivering good-quality, environmentally friendly, disability-accessible social homes is often not possible because they cost more to build than other types of affordable housing. Social housing should and could be a source of quality, innovation and even excitement for our communities, but the programme bakes in a lack of ambition for the delivery of our housing stock. We should be providing families with a home, the asylum for so many people. People cannot get on in life if they do not have access to good-quality housing. That is a fact that we need to acknowledge and take seriously, but the Bill does nothing to address it or to address the rapid decline in affordable housing. What Sheffield needs to level up is a plan to build good-quality affordable social homes, but, as ever with this Government, what we have is a wasted opportunity and more of the same.
I did not expect to come here today and hear light entertainment from Government Members, but I have to say that I am pleased that the Secretary of State seems to have given up on his ambitions to audition for—[Hon. Members: “Time!”] My apologies. I will stop.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will be delighted to know that I will stick to my time.
I welcome this much-awaited Bill. Levelling up opportunity everywhere is recognised by everyone I speak to in my Guildford constituency as a worthwhile and honourable mission of this Government. Although Surrey County Council was not included in the pilot county deals that have been announced, we need to see Surrey in phase 2 to tackle deprivation in Surrey and accelerate our own levelling-up programme.
Of the four areas in Surrey that fall within the bottom 20% of the national index of multiple deprivation, two—the wards of Westborough and Stoke—are in my constituency. Some of the adjacent wards have a life expectancy differential of up to 10 years, and there is a 14-year gap between wards in highest and lowest life expectancy for women. In the areas worst affected, more than 40% of children are impacted by income deprivation; the associated features include malnourishment, housing instability, low educational attainment and mental health disorders. We are levelling up healthcare with the new GP provision that my local clinical commissioning group plans in deprived wards, but I am concerned that we are losing local access nearby. Levelling up should not take away.
While we wait for more powers to be devolved to Surrey, my local enterprise partnership—the M3 LEP, which will see its long-term future integrated into local democracy under the Bill—needs an interim plan. It continues to provide vital support to business and our local economy to stimulate growth through innovation and enterprise. Guildford and Surrey more widely continue to be a net contributor to the Exchequer, but growth is slowing. We want to do our bit to help to level up the rest of the country, but we need continued investment, both private and public, to do so.
I welcome some of the Bill’s planning measures, including digitisation of the process, powers to deal with vacant properties on our high street, and a real focus on delivering infrastructure. Infrastructure is a genuine frustration for my residents, who have seen local plans that will deliver a high number of homes through massive strategic sites on green belt and an additional town centre masterplan with densification. Local residents worry about the Wokingisation of Guildford, which does not suit its topography, let alone its historical beauty.
I have concerns about the Bill, but they have already been addressed by many right hon. and hon. Members; I encourage my constituents to go back through Hansard and read those concerns. I am particularly concerned that there are no additional measures to protect greenfield in the Waverley part of my constituency. That greenfield is often more pristine, beautiful and remote from existing infrastructure than green-belt provision that we are trying to protect.
Finally on infrastructure, in order to level up in Guildford, we need to tunnel down. The A3 through Guildford is the most polluted road on the strategic road network in England. Air pollution is lowering the life chances of my constituents. I thank the many constituents who responded to the road traffic infrastructure survey that I put out, including by signing up to my petition to get the A3 tunnelled under Guildford.
Levelling up and investment are needed everywhere across this country. I welcome the Bill.
When the Prime Minister staggered out of Monday’s no-confidence vote, he and his remaining allies were quick to take to the airwaves to insist that this lame-duck Administration intended to move on and focus on delivering bold solutions to our country’s biggest problems; but, as we meet here today to scrutinise a “flagship” piece of legislation, it is as clear as day just how bereft of ideas this Government are.
The Bill is desperately lacking in ambition, and nowhere is that clearer than in the parts that deal with the critical issue of housing. Our country is in the midst of an acute housing shortage, with more than 1 million people nationwide languishing on the waiting lists for social housing and millions more trapped in unaffordable and inadequate accommodation in the private rented sector, but the Bill will do little to deliver the new social housing that the country so desperately needs, which the housing charity Shelter recently estimated to be 90,000 new social homes each year.
I believe that if we are serious about getting to grips with the scale of this country’s housing crisis and delivering on the promise of affordable and quality homes for all, we must at long last have the political courage to do away with what has become an unquestioned, and indeed unquestionable, pillar of housing policy. I am speaking, of course, of the right-to-buy policy, which, since its inception more than four decades ago, has led to the decimation of social housing stock, and which today remains one of the greatest obstacles to local authorities’ building the social homes that my constituents—and the constituents of every Member—so rightly deserve.
When I raised this issue in the House last month, the Minister for Housing said that he could not understand why I had a problem with a policy that had helped so many people on to the housing ladder. Let me be clear: I empathise enormously with anyone who wants a home that they can call their own, but as I walk to work each morning, I am greeted by homeless people lining the streets in one of the richest boroughs in one of the richest countries in the world, and when I return to my constituency at the end of each week, I am greeted by an inbox filled with the desperate pleas of constituents who are trapped in damp and draughty housing in the private rented sector, and who have been left with no choice but to hand over small fortunes each month to unscrupulous landlords who care nothing for their health and wellbeing.
The time has come for us to accept that realising the dream of home ownership cannot come at the expense of the precious social housing of which our country is in such desperate need. It was for that reason that my colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government—whose foresight and breadth of ambition are unmatched anywhere on this Government’s Benches—decided to scrap the right to buy once and for all in 2019, and the time has surely come for England to follow suit.
We must also take steps to reduce the amount that it costs local authorities to build new social homes, and that means delivering urgently on the promise of land value reform. Land value today accounts for up to 70% of the cost of building new homes, and has been responsible for a staggering 74% increase in house prices in my lifetime. Today, too many local councils cannot commit themselves to building new social homes, because they have no choice but to pay the so-called “hope value” of the land on which those homes would be built.
It is time, Madam Deputy Speaker, to put the needs of local communities before those of the property developers who are so well represented on the Conservative Benches opposite.
This morning I learned the very sad news that a 51-year-old constituent, a father of four children, had received a diagnosis of terminal cancer, which was spotted far too late. His GP surgery is in the town of Leighton Buzzard, the third largest town in Bedfordshire and the biggest in my constituency, which has grown massively in size and where all the GP surgeries are somewhat swamped, to put it mildly, by the residents who have recently come into the town. The new Clipstone Brook surgery is not coming to pass, and we have no indication yet of whether there will be a health and wellbeing hub in the town.
I use that tragic story—and all our hearts and sympathies, I know, go out to my constituent’s wife and four children—to illustrate the point that when we build tens of thousands of new homes, we need to be every bit as rigorous in making sure that the increased general practice capacity is put in at the same time as those houses go up as we are when it comes to the provision of school places.
On Tuesday, I celebrated being an MP in this House for 21 years. In that time, I have rarely found a child without a school place to go to. We generally do public administration quite well in this country. Sometimes we run ourselves down—I think that is a fact—but we can do well for school places. We plan well, and when we build new houses, we make sure that, in the main, there are primary schools for those children to move into. Why is it, then, that we have such difficulty with making sure that the increased general practice capacity is in place? We can do better, and for the sake of my 51-year-old constituent, we have to do better.
What people generally do not understand is that NHS England provides hardly any additional funding for health infrastructure to cater for the impact of new housing. There is £105 million in total for the whole of England, £90 million of which is ringfenced for technology for GPs, leaving jut £15 million. That is around £2,600 per GP practice. What are they going to do with that? We really have to do better. Local authorities have no statutory requirement to provide health services—quite understandably, I think most of us would say. If we look at page 294 of the Bill, in schedule 11, we see that medical facilities are just one of 10 types of infrastructure that the infrastructure levy is supposed to provide. All the other nine are extremely worthy, and I do not want to argue against a single one of them in favour of medical facilities, but I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister, who I know is taking this issue seriously, that we have to get it right.
This is what my constituents care about more than anything else: the ability to see a doctor when they need to do so. When we build thousands and thousands of new homes, we really have to do better. The advice I have had from some very experienced health planning lawyers and from the Rebuild General Practice campaign is that there are fears that the Bill might make the situation worse, and that it will certainly not really fix the problem, so I say to the Minister, whom I have met privately on this issue: please, please take this away and, for the sake of all our constituents, get this right.
Despite the talk of investing in and empowering local communities through the process, this Bill, like the White Paper, fails to deliver. Major decisions will continue to be made in Whitehall, with communities made to compete for small, paltry pots of money handed out by Tory Ministers. I want to take the short time I have to speak to focus on levelling up in Wales. I am astounded that I am one of only two speakers, along with the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), to make reference to Wales, because the levelling up White Paper and the Bill have significant and very concerning implications for my country of Wales.
Wales needs, deserves and is entitled to investment. The levelling up White Paper identified a number of income and employment metrics that showed that Wales needs levelling up. The reality that we are facing, with the worst cost of living crisis in living memory, is extremely worrying, and I hold this UK Government accountable for the situation, which is indeed dire for my constituents. I have just conducted a survey in my constituency to find out how the crisis is affecting local people, and the response has been staggering. More than 600 local people have responded, making it clear that the crisis is making life a misery and painting a bleak picture of poverty, anxiety and despair.
What does the Bill actually do for Wales? How have the Welsh Government been involved in the development of the Bill and consulted on the measures that are included? The UK Minister spoke today about a revolution of democracy and increasing devolution, and in the intergovernmental relations report that the Secretary of State presented to the Welsh Affairs Committee recently, he talked of the
“extensive engagement between UK Government”—
The truth is very different. The Welsh Senedd Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee noted on Monday of this week that
“due to very limited prior consultation by the UK Government and the complexity of the Bill”
it has not yet
“been possible to fully consider the devolution consequences of what is being proposed”,
and the Welsh Government intend to lay a legislative consent memorandum before the Senedd when they have a better picture of the Bill’s implications for Wales.
So there we have it: a levelling-up Bill for further devolution and regional investment with no consultation or involvement of the devolved Government of Wales. This is another centralising Bill, handing powers to the Westminster Secretary of State, and it certainly is not resulting in more funding for Wales. The Welsh Government have stated that the Welsh budget will be nearly £1 billion worse off by 2024 as a result of the UK Government’s so-called levelling-up programme—that is appalling—and it will allow the UK Government to sideline the Welsh Government by making spending decisions in areas under the Welsh Government’s control, such as transport and the environment.
This is yet another example of Ministers at Westminster, with no understanding of the measure of need in different communities in Wales, bypassing the democratically elected devolved Government of Wales, resulting in more prosperous areas benefiting while more severely deprived communities such as mine are excluded. It flies in the face of any democratic measures or recognition of the reality of devolution.
The UK Government’s promise to Wales of, “Not a penny less, not a power lost” rings hollow. This is not levelling up; it is levelling down.
I want to start by addressing the many positives in this Bill that will make a significant difference going forward. I particularly welcome the ending of the zoning proposals in the original planning reforms put forward in 2020 to support the presumption for brownfield development and to support the improved enforcement of planning controls and the attempts to tackle land-banking. I also congratulate the Government on making a centrepiece of this legislation democratic engagement and involving local communities. However, it is also my argument today—and I will certainly be pursuing this with other Members who have spoken in the debate as the Bill progresses through Committee and Report—that we must further strengthen the community involvement in and democratic under- pinning of our planning system. On that point, there have been swathes of development across my constituency over many years, placing a great burden on parish and town councils, whose representatives do the job for the love of their communities and neighbourhoods without renumeration; the Government must therefore acknowledge the strain that mega-development—huge planning proposals coming through—places on councils.
In the brief time that I have for my speech, I want to highlight a couple of areas of concern that must be acknowledged and polished in this Bill. The first of them is understanding the geography of an area. Much of the south of Buckinghamshire is designated as an AONB, so when targets are put on the whole county there is only place the build-out can happen, which is largely across my constituency and that of my constituency neighbour my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler). The Bill must tackle that issue, although I should also say that I support those Members who have said in the debate that targets should be advisory, not mandatory; if we are to have true local control and democratic consent to development, local communities must decide what is right for them.
Secondly, we must focus more on the loss of agricultural land. The Environment Act 2021 put a duty on the Government to consider environmental concerns in every part of policy making. We should have a similar provision to protect agricultural land for food security. Too much agricultural land in my constituency is being lost—not just to houses and the great destroyer that is HS2, which of course I oppose, but to solar farms and so much more. That will have an impact on our food security.
I also ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing to give us greater clarity on where the Government currently stand on the Oxford to Cambridge arc. We have seen great words written in the press about the Secretary of State’s flushing gesture when asked about the Oxford to Cambridge arc, but it would be good to have certainty that the once-held ambition for 1 million homes across the arc, many of which would have landed in my constituency, has indeed been dropped.
I share the concerns of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) about clauses 83 and 84, which need to go. We must also fundamentally challenge the way in which developers are allowed to fund the very reports that inspectors and planning officers work on.
With average wages, education levels and some health outcomes lower than elsewhere in the south-east, and with life expectancy differing in my hometown by seven years from one area to the next, levelling up and regeneration are mission critical. Since 2010, Conservative-led Governments have not only recognised that but rowed in and invested in the potential they see in my hometown. That has most recently been manifested in the £20 million levelling-up bid that is set to place us as a premier visitor destination; in the hundreds of millions of pounds for a new hospital; and, not least, in the investment in East Sussex College to promote skills, including skills across the construction industry. I welcome this Bill, which seeks to close the gap in productivity and opportunity.
I will focus my remarks on improving the planning system, because having a place to call home sits at the heart of all our ambitions and underpins every measure of wellbeing and success. For context, 1,337 households were on the council’s housing register as of April 2022. Building the right homes in the right places and with the right community infrastructure is as vital as it is challenging.
It has got more challenging in the last year. My beautiful seaside constituency has seen a surge of new homeowners from the nearby cities of Brighton and London, and the change in commuting patterns is set to consolidate that dynamic. As the eastern gateway town to the South Downs national park, and sitting on the iconic Seven Sisters coastline, it is perhaps unsurprising that we welcome newcomers into our midst when awareness of the value of green space has never been so keenly felt, but the same essential environmental qualities make new development, at any scale, utterly constrained. The 600 to 700 new homes to be delivered per annum is a little beyond the rainbow. My local council has seemingly never been able to adequately challenge or counter this number in its local plan, which I hasten to add it is now at some pains to bring up to date.
How can new legislation provide the homes we need? In Eastbourne, the use and optimisation of existing properties and the built environment means stronger action on empty homes and commercial buildings. Although it is beyond the remit of this Bill and the presenting Department, I make a pitch for levelling up the VAT regime. With new builds at 0% and refurbishment, restoration and repurposing at 20%, we are seeing heritage buildings left mothballed and not attracting the development needed for them to be brought back to market. That is particularly key at the Debenhams site, and it is a concern ahead of the Brighton University campus removal.
I would also like to see more in the Bill on brownfield sites, including the funding for them, and more challenge on the undersupply that sees up to 1 million permissions across the UK not completed, including 1,000 in Eastbourne. As the Bill develops, I will apply the morning smell test. There is a very live, fiercely disputed local planning application for a vast housing estate on our now precious open space. As the Bill progresses, I welcome every opportunity to improve it.
I welcome many things in this Bill, from the setting up of levelling-up missions through to the powers to regenerate, but I will focus on housing and planning because I get more correspondence about that than anything else.
I believe strongly that Governments should be helping as many people as possible to own their own home. More importantly, the vast majority of my constituents believe that as well. Those who already own their own home remember the pride they felt in getting on the ladder for the first time, and they are often helping their children and grandchildren to try to do the same. Those who do not own their own home have never complained to me about too many houses being built—they only say that they are not affordable.
The problems in my constituency, which are dismissed as “nimbyism”, actually stem from the fact that the two district councils I cover are in the top 10 for house building in the country relative to their zone but the bottom third for infrastructure. That has meant we get many homes that are too often low quality and unaffordable, and put an unnecessary strain on the environment, local infrastructure and people’s quality of life.
So I entirely support the Government’s focus on BIDEN—beauty, infrastructure, democracy, environment and neighbourhoods. I am grateful that they have listened to a lot of the complaints people had about the planning system. Such complaints related to issues from stressing the importance of local plans, which I believe will have greater weight in the Bill, through to the issues of five-year land supply; we had the bizarre situation where land is allocated by councils for development and if it is not developed, it is not classed towards this—it is not the council’s fault that that is the case. I am pleased we are going to challenge some of the anti-competitive practices that we have seen in this industry for a long time. Like a number of colleagues who have spoken, I also support moving away from the zonal system, because that was one thing that most concerned constituents; someone would be able to build whatever they wanted in certain areas.
There are lots of things we might still do to help enhance this Bill as it moves through—many of them have been touched on, but I shall address them briefly. First, I support the digitisation of the planning process. I would like to think we might bring back hybrid meetings for people when it comes to these planning situations, as that is a logical approach. We must make sure that the digitally excluded still have ways of taking part.
I welcome the environmental outcome reports. However, as the Minister knows, I feel strongly that this is not just about what something does to the surrounding environment; it is about the way in which the houses are constructed. He knows that I would like to see houses built to the latest environmental standard once a certain period has elapsed, rather than to the one at the time permission was obtained, which is often five or six years previously. We know that we will have to retrofit those homes.
I agree with what a lot of colleagues have said about targets. I understand why they are needed. My two district councils have usually exceeded their targets, but the way in which they are used is unhelpful. We have a problem with Oxford City Council always demanding the highest possible number of houses but not building any of them; in my area, we build 1,500 when it builds 88, yet it still says it always wants the highest target it could have.
Finally, on infrastructure, I completely endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has said. We have to get infrastructure in first, particularly GP surgeries. Constituents do not believe it is coming any more. They, like most of the rest of the country, believe in home ownership, but the way we have built homes has too often made them feel a curse on the area people used to love. I hope this Bill can fix that.
I support the Government’s commitment to levelling up, to boosting jobs, to boosting our high streets, to boosting economic opportunity, and to enhancing our standard of living. Those priorities are all shared by the people in Gosport, but, as the Minister knows, I am not convinced that this levelling up Bill goes far enough. I would like to explain why.
I wish to raise three issues in particular that affect my Gosport constituency. It is a peninsula of about 25 sq km. It is not very big, but it is more than 80% built on. The rest that is not built on is largely Ministry of Defence land, at flood risk, or part of a conservation area. There is simply nowhere to build the wildly unrealistic 2014 housing target numbers without concreting over the last remaining green space, ruining air quality, which is already one of the lowest in the country, and decimating the vital strategic gap. To add insult to injury, more recent housing numbers, which the Government have chosen to ignore, significantly reduce the projected requirement, so we are being asked to build more houses than we actually need.
In my constituency, we need levelling up to prioritise job growth and productivity. We have one of the lowest job densities in the country and pockets of significant deprivation, so I urge the Minister to look at how targets can be made much more locally and applied much more sympathetically in this Bill.
A related issue, which the Minister knows about, is that of nitrates. Across the Solent region, it has caused numerous developments on brownfield sites to be delayed and housing targets to be missed. I understand that a nitrates trading platform, funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is being piloted in some of our local authorities in the Solent region, with a potential to be rolled out across the UK. This is a massive issue. It puts swathes of farmland out of use today, at a time when our food security is of vital importance, in order to address the impact of chemicals that were put on our farmland more than 30 years ago. It is a major obstacle to planning. I ask the Minister to work with colleagues in DEFRA to address this and move forward to find a less ridiculous solution.
Finally, regenerating our high streets is key to levelling up. They need to be reimagined—not just places where we shop, but places where we live, eat, socialise and work. A local company, Pro Pods, has been instrumental in reimagining the high street. In Gosport High Street, unused shops and the buildings above them are being brought back into use. The shops come back into use as independent traders, and the upper levels as high standard homes of multiple occupancy—executive HMOs if you like.
However, there are worries about the Valuation Office Agency’s interpretation of the Local Government Finance Act 1992, which means that these executive HMOs up and down the country will now be considered as separate dwellings despite the fact that they share all the common facilities. This is causing significant hardship to tenants who are seeing increases to bills of around £500 a month because they are then liable for the council tax rather than the landlord. In some instances, tenants have been given backdated bills of around £3,000.
Furthermore, if these facilities are considered as separate properties after four years they can be lawfully be used as separate dwellings in planning laws, creating a surge of micro flats that do not meet current housing standards. Please can the Minister look at what can be done in this Bill to ensure that HMOs are classed as one property? We want to level up how council tax is charged, not stifle the ideas that are about reinvigorating our high streets and ensure future housing standards.
There is much in this Bill that I welcome, and a just a few caveats. Let me start with the caveats. When I was a local government Minister, I was very proud to be part of the team that delivered the Localism Act 2011 and the first iteration of the national planning policy framework. The whole point of that was handing power over to local communities so that they could shape their own built and physical environments.
As we drive forward, quite rightly, towards a greater emphasis on regeneration and levelling up, we must be careful that we do not lose that localist aspect to what we are doing. That applies in a couple of areas. The first is, as has already been mentioned, the way in which targets operate. I do not rule out targets as a spur, but when they are imposed in a mandatory and rather arbitrary fashion, they are a particular problem in areas such as suburban London where they are magnified by the predatory attitude of the Labour Mayor of London towards suburban boroughs. We see unrealistic targets put on boroughs such as Bromley, much of which is green belt, which therefore puts pressure on to London suburbs at the same time as much brownfield land in London, much of it publicly owned, remains unused for many years. We really need a brownfield first policy in our urban areas—that is an area that the Government should put a spur behind.
My second point is on local plans. I particularly welcome the removal of the requirement for a five-year rolling land supply when there is an up-to-date plan. That will avoid the abuse we have had in areas such as Bromley town centre, with speculative developments being allowed on appeal, but equally we must ensure that things such as the national planning development model do not erode the ability to create truly local plans in that area.
On London—here I declare my interest as chair of the APPG for London—while I understand that levelling up is important, it should not be at the expense of London. First, London is the economic powerhouse of the whole country, and if we harm London, we damage everybody in the long run. Secondly, London also has high levels of poverty. It is worth remembering that post pandemic, 27% of households in London were living below the poverty line once housing was taken into account. Even in comparatively affluent suburbs such as mine, London has pockets of real poverty. We need levelling up within London as well as across the rest of the country.
My third point is that levelling up and regeneration must come with proper devolution. I welcome the mayoral model and the approach we are now taking with combined authorities. Those are sensible, but we ought to couple them with financial devolution. As I said in my intervention, the approach really only makes sense if communities have the ability to raise more of their revenue locally.
We have one of the most centralised local government finance systems in the western world, and that does not make for long-term, healthy democracy. We must do more work on that. The current Prime Minister, when he was Mayor of London, set up the London Finance Commission, which came up with many useful devolutionist but entirely pro-Conservative recommendations, and I hope he will take those on board again as a basis for the future.
Finally, I ask the Minister not to forget the contribution that the arts can make to levelling up—both cultural arts and the performing arts. As chair of the APPG on opera, I draw his attention to the excellent work being done by English National Opera. For example, it is rolling out programmes in school hal