Thursday 9 February 2023
[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]
Brownfield Development and Green Belt
[Relevant documents: e-petition 575169, Prioritise brownfield development in law to protect our green belt and farmland, and e-petition 600577, Ban developments on Green belt and Greenfield sites across the country.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of brownfield development and protecting the green belt.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members, from both sides of the House, for being here today to support my debate. I appreciate that this is a Thursday afternoon just before a recess, and by-elections are going on across the country. I am sure that Members have many pressing commitments in their diary, so I am impressed by the number of colleagues here to support me today. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on her recent appointment to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; I am pretty certain that she knows a little bit about the topic that I will be speaking to today.
It gives me great pleasure to open this debate on our green belt. The national planning policy framework states:
“The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts.”
I very much hope that that is the case. The recent new clause 21 to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill—so ably put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who is with us today in Westminster Hall, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), who is unable to be with us today, to strengthen the green belt’s protection against speculative development—would certainly help the Government with that stated objective.
However, CPRE, the countryside charity, rightly identifies that
“the Green Belt has never before faced such serious threat as large sections of land disappear under new developments.”
It is worth remembering the purpose of the green belt in our communities. It serves five purposes: to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas; to prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another; to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment; to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land. Despite the fact that we have those protections in place, however, they too often count for very little with developers who seek to drive a coach and horses through planning policies to take what is the easy answer for them but the unpalatable option for so many of our constituents.
In my own constituency in the west midlands, we were previously part of a consortium with three neighbouring local authorities to produce our local plan, known as the “Black Country Plan”. It proposed, across the borough of Walsall, a staggering 7,100 homes, of which 5,500 were proposed for my constituency of Aldridge-Brownhills, primarily on green-belt sites. Nearly every one of the proposed sites broke the central link of one of the five purposes of our green belt—that is, to prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another. Indeed, one of the central themes throughout the consultation process, which came up time and again from my constituents, was their objection to having our community subsumed to become a suburb of a Greater Birmingham. After the first round of consultation on the proposed plan, which more than 7,000 households from my constituency opposed, the answer, at stage 2 of the process, was not to take on board the comments of constituents such as mine in Aldridge-Brownhills; it was to come back with more proposals for yet more housing on even more green-belt sites.
However, now that the Black Country consortium has been dissolved, new clause 21 of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill would help Walsall Council and the leadership, under Conservative Councillor Mike Bird, to forge a new local plan, which I believe could have a primary focus on “brownfield first”—brownfield development being prioritised over green-belt development.
I emphasise that those of us who argue for greater protection of our precious green belt are not and should not be simply labelled as nimbys. We are not. Nor is it the case that somehow I simply want to push the proposed housing into someone else’s constituency. I do not. What I want is for us to be ambitious and to be a regeneration generation.
We all recognise that we desperately need to see more homes come on stream faster and in larger numbers, but what types of homes do we as a nation need? I argue that they must include starter homes to allow younger people the same opportunity that my husband and I had in our 20s—I remember the joy of getting the keys to our first home. All too often, however, those are not the homes that developers want to build, particularly in proposals for the green belt. Indeed, speculative developer plans in a development brief for one green-belt site in Aldridge-Brownhills proposed to build four and five-bedroom houses in a location where average house prices are between 51% and 110% higher than the national average spend of a first-time buyer, which stands at just over £200,000.
The race to ensure that the next generation have the same opportunities will not be solved by concreting over Britain’s green and pleasant land. If we simply accept the argument that supply shortage is the principal reason for advocating green-belt development, we will walk into the developers’ trap. Building on inappropriate sites, with no infrastructure plan to support development in areas where there is all too often a shortage of school places and GP provision already, does not add to the existing community cohesion; in fact, it risks creating greater community tensions.
Given that we now have the capacity to build 1.2 million new homes on brownfield sites in England, surely they should be the first port of call for any house building programme. The Government are to be congratulated on continued initiatives such as the brownfield land release fund, which will help us to introduce a realistic house building programme on brownfield sites. The fund has allowed regions such as mine, under the stewardship of Mayor Andy Street, to ensure that we are remediating brownfield sites and operating a “brownfield first” approach across the west midlands and the Black Country. I place on record my thanks to the Minister’s predecessor in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for successfully overseeing a further round of that important funding, and I now look to the Minister to pick up the baton and lobby the Chancellor of the Exchequer, ahead of the Budget on 15 March, for further resources to advance the opportunities for more local authorities to apply for, and take advantage of, the scheme. She knows the west midlands very well, so she knows that we can and do deliver, and we want to do more.
However, in addition to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and initiatives such as the brownfield land release fund, the imminent changes to the national planning policy framework need to be used as an opportunity to strengthen protections for our green belt. I hope that we will institute the prioritisation of brownfield land over greenfield land in the changes that are due to be brought forward to the NPPF. Like CPRE, I hope that they will include a firm presumption against giving planning permission for development on additional greenfield sites, compared with those already in the plan. Greenfield sites should be allocated in local plans only where sites are primarily affordable homes for local needs, or where it can be shown that as much as possible is already being made of brownfield land, particularly by providing more housing in towns and city centres.
The NPPF also needs to change to require that all developments have diverse housing tenures and types. As I mentioned previously, a proposed development in my constituency has exclusively focused on large four and five-bedroom properties, offering no hope or opportunity to young families and young people. The infrastructure levy should be subject to change, too, to reflect the high cost of greenfield development to local communities and its impact on them, although brownfield redevelopment should still be required to make a contribution to affordable housing targets. We also need to provide local communities with stronger mechanisms to bring forward brownfield land as a source of land supply, such as increased compulsory purchase powers.
There will always be naysayers who tell us that brownfield land will not provide sufficient land to meet housing need and that the loss of brownfield sites for housing purposes will lead to the loss of land that could be used for employment purposes. However, we need to recognise that areas such as the Black Country and the west midlands—land on which heavy industry once stood—are unlikely to be returned to widespread employment use. If we are to be the regeneration generation, we need developers and our wider construction professionals to pioneer new communities that will offer a mix of employment and housing. In fact, a large part of any revival of our town centres and high streets surely can be achieved only if we accept the need for more designated housing in them to provide new and in-built footfall.
There is no doubt that when the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill went to the other place, it did so in a far better state. However, I fear that the concessions that were won through the acceptance of new clause 21 can be easily undermined if powers under the NPPF are not strengthened. We need to see an end to the five-year land supply obligation and an end to the scandal of land banking. We need further Government support with the cost of land remediation through the brownfield fund and the brownfield land release fund, and that needs to be adequately resourced.
I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will agree that the best developments are those that work with, not against, local communities. The right type of planning regulation that unlocks the power of local communities and economic growth should not be seen as incompatible with protecting our environment and precious green belt. In the same way, our whole debate about the green belt should not be seen through the lens of “green belt good” and “house building bad” —or vice versa.
To conclude, we need to draw on our resources to solve the failure of house building. That means seeking to use our resources to build 1.2 million homes on brownfield sites first. “Brownfield first” should be our development watchwords. Get this wrong, and our green belt will be lost forever, which would be a travesty for future generations, but get this right, and we can truly be the regeneration generation.
I think it is the second time this week that you have guided us through a Westminster Hall debate that I have attended, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing the debate and on her comments, which resonated with some of the problems we face in my area.
Obviously the country has a housing problem as our population increases and household size falls, but it seems to me that, as the right hon. Lady just said, a large amount of brownfield land in the country remains undeveloped. There are also large numbers of planning consents in land banks held by developers that are sitting on their assets and allowing them to grow while seeking further planning consents, on which they will probably sit as well.
It is time to think carefully about our green belt. I represent a rural community of 23 separate villages. It is important for Members who represent urban communities to understand the importance of the independence of a local community, its local identity and local culture. Ribbon development, which gradually takes one field, then another and then another, results in the bringing together of communities that historically were often rivals, or certainly have different identities that they want to retain.
Take the village that I live in, which is a Quaker village in a mining community. We are now two fields away from Pontefract. If we go back far enough—back to the civil war—we stood for Parliament and Pontefract stood for the Crown. That is some time in the past now, but we get the point. I can look from the top of our village down into Pontefract; it is creeping closer and closer, and there are plans to develop more of those fields. The village I live in is a rural community, with its own identity. We do not want to be part of Pontefract, and the same applies to all the other 22 villages that I represent.
At the present time, we have three developments, all in the green belt and all for housing. I want to say two things about that: first, it is lazy for planners to simply draw lines on maps that look tidy without first having thought about the social, economic and environmental consequences. Secondly, to some extent, it is greedy of developers to want green-belt land, which is often easier to develop than brownfield land, particularly in a mining community such as mine where much of the brownfield land has been polluted and needs to be cleaned up. There are three sites in my constituency, all in the green belt; a lot of people want to speak, so I am not going to go into detail, but Springvale Rise, Highfield Road and Huntwick Grange are all under threat of development at the moment.
The first thing to say about my constituency is that these villages were mining communities. The coal was taken out by rail, so roads that would carry large amounts of traffic were never built, because people lived in the village where they worked, and they went to the local pub, club, football club or whatever social activity, and to the local school. Our roads are not built to carry the amount of traffic that is being generated by increasing numbers of vehicles, particularly now that there is no work in our communities either, but the highways engineers seem prepared to approve almost anything as long as it is going to deliver housing targets that have been imposed from above.
I was so pleased to hear our leader, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), say that he is going to bring back control for local communities, and I think some rhetoric about the same principle has been heard from the Government as well. If we are going to develop villages that need development, that should be done from the bottom up, not from the top down—that is my central point. Green-belt incursions should be a last resort, not the easy resort. I am asking for a presumption against green-belt land and in favour of brownfield land, and I think the Government have said that there will be one.
Does the Minister have time to reply, or else to write to us, about the following point? The Government, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have made statements about preferring brownfield development, and a “Dear colleague” letter has come from the Secretary of State that indicates—it uses the present tense, rather than the future tense—that he has issued orders about preferring to move away from green-belt development. Now, an inspector is looking at our local authority’s plans, and I have spoken at those hearings. That inspector started her inspection prior to the new legislation that the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills has referred to, and prior to the issuing of that “Dear colleague” letter and, apparently, some changes to the way in which the planning frameworks operate. She is unclear whether she will be applying the new rules as they come into place, or whether she is now obliged to work according to rules that are no longer extant, or will no longer be very shortly. Some guidance on that question would be helpful.
The green belt is very important. I want to focus on one single aspect of it, or maybe two, because other Members will develop other arguments in favour of it. First, I represent many old miners. If a person lives in poverty and perhaps has a bad chest, as many of those old men do, they should not be deprived of access to the countryside, but the more we build up, the fewer amenities will be available. That is what is happening throughout all the villages I represent, every one of which was a mining village. The loss of amenities matters a lot: they should be not for just the middle classes, but for everybody, and yet we are seeing incursions that I think are a disgrace.
The main point that I want to finish on—it will take me one or two seconds—is that there is no obligation on planners, developers, councils or anybody else to do an analysis of the ecological impact of a development before it has been approved. In my view, that is completely wrong.
We have one development that could be 4,000 or 5,000 houses, if they get away with it. I commissioned, because nobody else did, an ecological survey by the reputable West Yorkshire Ecological Service. That survey discovered on the site to be developed 26 or 28 separate species of birds, mammals or other forms of life that are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, or birds that are on the Red List. Nobody had done that work, yet all of these species are protected, as far as I can see. There ought to be no development that destroys their habitats, yet that is what is being threatened.
It is a curious situation, because there is legal protection, but no attempt was made to identify which species were threatened by the development. It seems to me that the Minister could helpfully go away to the Department and discuss that point. Every time we build on green belt, rare species of flora and fauna are threatened. The land in our case has never been developed; it is ancient woodland that has never been touched, ever, but is is now under threat from the development at Huntwick Grange in Featherstone. Will the Minister reflect on the ecological impact?
Only a couple of weeks ago, when the United Nations discussed biodiversity, the Secretary-General, in a very striking phase, said that humanity is in danger of becoming
“a weapon of mass extinction.”
What are we doing? We are building on sites where there are species that are under threat, and that may well become extinct in due course. Some species now have a very fragile hold on existence. Can we really say that our planning policies should just ignore threats to our biodiversity? I think not.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing the debate. It is an honour to follow the powerful speech from the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett).
I am delighted to be taking part in this debate as the Member of Parliament for a constituency that contains substantial amounts of green belt land. I know how hugely my Chipping Barnet constituents value the breathing space that green belt gives them. It has kept urban sprawl at bay for more than 70 years, but excessive housebuilding targets have been making it harder and harder for councils to turn down bad development proposals. In a number of areas, that is leading to loss of greenfield and green belt land around the country, and to increasing pressure to urbanise the suburbs.
I was very struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Hemsworth on the progressive blurring of the gaps between different communities and communities being merged together, and the crucial importance of giving people access to the countryside on their doorstop. For all those reasons, green belt protections are crucial.
Even where councils refuse planning applications, there is a risk that a planning inspector will overturn the decision on the basis that the development is needed to meet the centrally set, top-down housebuilding target. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, that is why I tabled new clause 21 to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which was signed by 60 Members of the House. In response, the Secretary of State brought forward significant concessions to rebalance the planning system to give local communities greater control over what is built in their neighbourhood. That is very welcome. It is being taken forward in the consultation now under way on the new national planning policy framework, but the battle is by no means over because the extent to which the compromise delivers real change depends on how it is implemented. It depends on that consultation.
Let me give an example. I very much welcome the new NPPF footnote 30, which promises that brownfield development will be prioritised over greenfield, but even on brownfield sites, it is crucial to respect factors like local character and density. "Brownfield first” must not mean brownfield free-for-all. We need more detail on how the “brownfield first” approach will be delivered in practice, including how the new developer levy will be used to promote it.
I very much welcome the proposal that councils will no longer be required to review green belt boundaries, even where doing so would be the only way to meet the centrally determined target. I also welcome the crucial concession that if meeting a top-down target would involve building at densities significantly out of character with the area, a lower target can be set in the local plan. Wording needs to be added to the new NPPF to make it clear that a substantial proportion of councils are likely to be able to benefit from that new flexibility and to depart from the target determined by the standard method. We also need additional wording in the NPPF to give more strength and clarity to what will be considered sufficiently “significantly out of character” to justify lowering the target, and how councils will be able to satisfy the test for establishing it.
As the Better Planning Coalition says, the whole target- setting process should focus on housing need, rather than housing demand. They are not the same things, and should be properly distinguished. The consultation also proposes removing the test that local plans have to be “justified”, which would be a welcome way to reduce the evidential burden councils face in establishing the exceptional circumstances that justify reducing their target. However, if that measure is to deliver the outcome promised by the Secretary of State, firm and clear instructions must be given to the Planning Inspectorate to accept local plans from councils that are based on reasonable evidence.
Scrapping the duty to co-operate was a key part of the compromise, too. The duty has created great pressure to build on green belt and greenfield areas outside our major towns and cities. Although the consultation proposes abolition, which is welcome, it envisages that the duty will be replaced by what is called an alignment policy. It would be good to hear from the Minister about this, as we need to know what that policy is if we are to be confident that the duty to co-operate is being scrapped and not simply relabelled.
Giving councils new powers to set design codes is also welcome, but design standards need to be additional to, not a substitute for, existing planning protections on matters such as green belt and greenfield density, height and character. A project that is an overdevelopment cannot be cured with high-quality design.
I would also highlight continuing concerns over national development management policies. Local development management policies provide a bulwark of defence against bad development, protecting greenfield sites and open space, constraining height or preventing loss of family homes to blocks of flats. Central control over all those policies could be deeply problematic and undermine the primacy of the local plan. Ministers say that that is not intended and that the NPPF consultation delivers on the Secretary of State’s promise to consult on NDMPs and their scope, which is welcome. However, NDMPs could still be used to rewrite the entire planning system and significantly restrict local decision making. I therefore urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to look again at this issue in debates in the other place and consider amendments that restore the primacy of the local plan in the event of a conflict with an NDMP.
Finally, I want to say a brief word about London. I welcome the indication by Ministers that the new flexibilities contained in the compromise proposals in the consultation will apply in London, but there is still an urgent need to curb the power of the Mayor of London to impose targets on the boroughs. We are the party that promised to scrap regional targets, yet they are alive and kicking in our capital city. The Mayor has used the London plan to try to load additional housing delivery obligations on to the suburbs, especially boroughs such as Barnet, which have already delivered thousands of new homes in recent years.
Crucial progress has been made as a result of the discussions between Ministers and Back Benchers on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and my new clause 21, but my long-running battle to safeguard the local environment of Chipping Barnet, which it is my honour to represent, must continue. Know this: I will fight with diligence, determination and perhaps even a little obstinacy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing this important debate.
It is vital that we protect the green belt because it brings huge benefits to people’s health and wellbeing, and has a major role in supporting wildlife habitats, allowing nature to flourish and mitigating the effects of climate change. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) in pointing out that that is important for everybody, regardless of how much wealth they enjoy.
It is vital that we build the houses that people so desperately need on brownfield sites. We need to build truly affordable homes on brownfield sites that have high insulation values, and heat pumps and solar panels as standard, so that people can enjoy the benefits of moving into a high-quality home that is cheap to heat. Who would not want to do that?
The last “State of brownfield” report by CPRE, the countryside charity, published in November last year, found that the number of new homes that could be built on brownfield land has reached record levels, with more than half a million homes with planning permission waiting to be built. It revealed that
“over 1.2 million homes could be built on 23,000 sites covering more than 27,000 hectares of previously developed land.”
However, it also highlighted that despite that,
“development of the highest quality farmland has soared 1,000-fold in 10 years”.
As Tom Fyans, the interim chief executive of CPRE, said:
“You know the system is broken when hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people and families are on social housing waiting lists, many in rural areas. Meanwhile, across the country, tens of thousands of hectares of prime brownfield sites are sitting there waiting to be redeveloped.”
There is work to be done to ensure that the development that can take place on brownfield sites does indeed take place there.
The Secretary of State has said that as part of a “brownfield first” approach, Homes England, the Government’s housing and delivery arm, is spending millions on acquiring sites in urban areas to regenerate new housing, but it is no good acquiring the land if it then sits unused. It has been noted that there are often barriers to developing brownfield sites, one of which is the need for remediating works. Will the Minister outline whether she thinks the Government are doing enough to help local authorities to ensure that brownfield sites in their areas are viable for homes to be built on? Have the Government made any assessment of the amount of brownfield sites in the country that could be suitable for housing, but where significant remediation is necessary before development can take place?
Another CPRE report from 2021 pointed out that 793 applications were submitted for building on green belt land between 2009-10 and 2019-20, of which 337—just over 42%—were approved. That resulted in the building of more than 50,000 housing units on the green belt in that time, so for all the Government’s talk about protecting the green belt, it is clear much stronger protections are needed. The Government know that people care passionately about this. We need action now to make it easier for development to take place on brownfield sites and we need much stronger protection for the green belt. Without that, developers will simply carry on pushing to build on green belt sites.
With the absence of such protections, it is perhaps no wonder that developers feel emboldened when it comes to submitting applications for housing on green belt land. In my constituency, Wirral West, 61.9% of the land is green belt. It is a very beautiful part of the world and is clearly attractive to developers, given that in recent months we have seen four planning applications from Leverhulme Estates for homes on land in Barnston, Irby and Pensby. All were refused by Wirral Council last autumn, following a determined campaign against the proposals by local residents. I attended and addressed two public meetings—one at Greasby Community Centre and one outdoors in the village—in support of the many people in my constituency who oppose the destruction of the green belt. People will not forgive politicians who destroy the things that they love.
People in Wirral West value the green belt extremely highly, and they have made it very clear that they do not want to see it built on. I fully support them in this. Leverhulme Estates has appealed against Wirral Council’s decision to refuse these applications, and the appeals are now in progress. There is to be a public inquiry, which is distressing for local people, who want the local green belt to be preserved. A further application from Leverhulme Estates, for up to 240 homes in Greasby, is due to be decided by Wirral Council this evening, and the officer recommendation is to refuse that application as well. It was reported in the Wirral Globe last week that 6,000 people have signed petitions against the application, further demonstrating the strength of feeling in Wirral West, and wider Wirral, against development on the green belt. I have previously called on Leverhulme Estates to abandon its plans to build homes on the green belt in Wirral West, and I do so again.
Wirral’s local plan is currently going through its inspection process, but the plan, which was submitted to the Secretary of State in October last year, states:
“Sufficient brownfield land and opportunities exist within the urban areas of the Borough to ensure that objectively assessed housing and employment needs can be met over the plan period. The Council has therefore concluded that the exceptional circumstances to justify alterations to the Green Belt boundaries...do not exist in Wirral.”
Local people are extremely concerned about the actions of Leverhulme Estates and a series of other developers that are actively challenging that position.
Has my hon. Friend had a similar experience to ours, where the houses built on the green belt are often not accessible financially to local people? It adds insult to the injury of losing green belt land when their children or grandchildren cannot afford to live in the houses that are being built.
My hon. Friend points to a serious problem that we see in constituencies up and down the country. Developers want to build homes on Wirral West’s precious green belt, while local residents want to preserve it for the benefits its brings to health and wellbeing, as well as for environmental reasons. I stand with local residents in their fight to protect the green belt.
Brownfield land is not a static resource. Over time, some brownfield land leaves local authority registers as it is reused and new brownfield land enters the register as it becomes available. It continues to be a renewable resource, and every effort should be made to ensure that it is used to the greatest possible effect.
The Government should bring forward much stronger protection for the green belt as a matter of urgency. We need to see policy that drives the development of brownfield sites to build the truly affordable, zero-carbon homes the country so desperately needs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing an incredibly important debate, as the other place continues its deliberations over the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. I worked alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on many amendments. We will start to see some big wins in protecting the countryside from development on green belt, open countryside and greenfield sites, which will push the Government much more towards their stated aim of brownfield development.
I will start by trying to define what we are talking about. It is not just the green belt. That is a technical term. The green belt is vital to many constituencies, but in mine, we have very little technical green belt. What we have is 335 square miles of open countryside. Ninety per cent of the land in the constituency that I am fortunate enough to represent in this place is agricultural.
I echo the points made by the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet when I say that it is important to remember when we debate these matters that there is a point to the countryside. It is not just there to be pretty and beautiful, although it is both of those things. It is not just there for people to enjoy for leisure: to walk, camp and do all of the things we enjoy the countryside for. It has specific purposes. First, obviously, to produce the food and drink that we all enjoy eating and drinking. It is part of the vital backbone to our national economy. It is also important to things such as water management, allowing drainage to run, rivers to flow and chalk streams to be vibrant and active. The more we build over open countryside, green belt and agricultural land, the greater the risk there is to those things.
I will give a couple of examples from my own constituency. When the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill was in Committee, I used the village of Ickford as an example when speaking to some of the amendments on flooding. The village is small and close to the Oxfordshire border with Buckinghamshire. Deanfield Homes has almost finished building nearly 90 homes on a site there —a site that has always been known to flood. It is on the flood plain of the River Thame.
Throughout the planning process, every excuse under the sun was accepted. Every clever scheme that was introduced for clever drainage solutions, or whatever it might be, was proposed and ultimately accepted by the Planning Inspectorate. Of course there are no surprises in the fact that that land continues to flood to this day, to the extent that the developers have even raised the level at which they are building the houses, with the fancy graphics used on the marketing materials even showing enormous slopes in the back gardens to allow water to run off, which of course goes into the existing and older properties in that village.
Only this week, I heard from a concerned constituent in the village of Haddenham, which has seen considerable development over recent decades, who reported a development at the back of their house on The Clays, off Churchway. The drainage pond that was put in as the developers started to dig foundations has been way above its natural level for some time. The amount of concrete that is going into those foundations is forcing the water towards their cul-de-sac, which is surrounded by walls made out of a cob unique to Buckinghamshire called wychert that, if it gets wet, quickly falls down.
We therefore have to ensure that we encourage the development of the houses and commercial properties that we need on brownfield and regeneration sites; I very much appreciate the soundbite that my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills came up with, namely “the regeneration generation”. It is important that we are cautious about the impact that development on the countryside has on flooding.
The big issue, of course, is food security. The more we build over our countryside—our farmland and prime agricultural land—the lower our self-sufficiency in food will drop. We are already down to about 60%. Of course we will never hit 100%, because there are lots of things that we like to eat and drink that cannot be grown in this country. Nevertheless, the more we build over our agricultural land, the more reliance we will have on imports, which is crazy.
I was pleased when, off the back of an amendment that I tabled to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, the Government and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities agreed to put into the consultation on the new NPPF a reference that food production can be “considered” in the planning process for the first time. That is important and I urge the Minister to ensure that that change makes it through to the final NPPF. More than that, however, I urge her to ensure that planning authorities up and down the land are given a clear instruction that that is now available to them and they can use it.
A big flaw in the current NPPF—the previous NPPF, if we can call it that—is that the best and most versatile agricultural land was often walked all over and ignored by planning authorities and indeed the Planning Inspectorate. It would therefore be much appreciated by my constituents if the Minister could give some assurances in her response about the pressure that the Government will apply to planning authorities and the Planning Inspectorate on the provisions that will hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, be in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act and the new NPPF.
My last point is about consistency within the Planning Inspectorate, because if we are to achieve the ambition of the homes, commercial properties and solar panels that we need being on brownfield sites, or on rooftops in the latter case, rather than across our fields, we will need consistency in the planning process. I have a perverse case that has come to light regarding land—open countryside —that was always believed to be protected as a buffer zone next to the town of Princes Risborough in my constituency. Despite two previous decisions by the Planning Inspectorate saying that the land should be protected, a third planning inspector has now granted retrospective permission to a number of plots that have been developed on the site, so the residents of the hamlet of Ascot and the nearby hamlet of Meadle are up in arms. We need consistency from the Planning Inspectorate when it considers such matters and—if it can be achieved through the Minister’s good offices—we need that clarity to be pushed down, not only to planning authorities but to the Planning Inspectorate.
The facts speak for themselves. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) and others have mentioned, the plots are out there on brownfield land. The CPRE’s data is pretty clear: there is space for 1.2 million homes. The Government’s manifesto talked of an ambition to build 300,000 houses, whereas brownfield development can deliver 1.2 million without touching a blade of grass on the green belt—precious agricultural land, open countryside, nature reserves and so much more. I urge the Government to be bold in their ambition to move towards brownfield development.
The hon. Member has made the case very clearly. Does he agree that we need a much more positive way to talk about brownfield development? Wirral Council’s plans for the Wirral, which is a peninsula, involve the development of the east side of the borough, which has brownfield sites with fantastic views of the Liverpool city skyline. Brownfield sites can be incredibly exciting urban developments that people will want to live in, but we need the political drive to make sure that they happen. The design of many brownfield sites can be very attractive for people.
I fundamentally agree with that proposition. Lots of brownfield sites offer spectacular views—whether of a skyline or out towards the countryside. The big challenge is political ambition, but we also need recognition within the tax system through the infrastructure levy to ensure that prospective developers do not look at a brownfield site and a comparator in the green belt or open countryside and say, “It is far cheaper for us to develop the countryside.” If we had a sliding scale to make it cost-neutral to the developer, so that they paid far less in the infrastructure levy or another form of taxation to develop a brownfield site, that would be a quick political win to get us to the brownfield development that I think all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken in the debate want to see.
I thank you for calling me, Ms Fovargue, and I thank the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for setting the scene. I supported her request to the Backbench Business Committee for this debate. We are discussing English planning rules, so I cannot share any knowledge from that perspective, but I wish to sow a Northern Ireland perspective into the debate, as I always do, because what we have in Northern Ireland is mirrored in England. I will also reflect on the contributions of right hon. and hon. Members.
I congratulate the Minister on her new role. I know that she will put her energy and commitment into her position, and I look forward both to her response and to her contributions in her role in the future.
The NPPF states:
“Planning policies and decisions should promote an effective use of land…in a way that makes as much use as possible of previously-developed or ‘brownfield’ land.”
It goes on to instruct local planning authorities to
“give substantial weight to the value of using suitable brownfield land…and support appropriate opportunities to remediate despoiled, degraded, derelict, contaminated or unstable land”.
That is the thrust of where I am coming from, because my constituency has utilised brownfield opportunities over the years, but there is still opportunity there. It took a long process to convince the planning authorities— I understand that the planning system in Northern Ireland is different from that on the mainland.
I represent an area that has a lot of land that is not under permitted development. Although our planning system is different, the problems are the same. It is incredibly costly for a developer to develop a brownfield site, with remedial costs on top of the cost to build, which is more expensive in Northern Ireland due to the Northern Ireland protocol. My goodness, I have to mention the Northern Ireland protocol in every debate I attend, because it affects us. It affects us in planning and in everything in life—it affects the very air I breathe—so its impact cannot be ignored.
New housing developments have to do a number of things. There is a delicate balance to strike between meeting the need for houses and protecting our natural environment, and I am not sure that the balance is being struck; what hon. Members have said today indicates that it is not. As the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, new housing developments must deliver affordable housing for people to buy and they must develop infrastructure, whether that be for storm water, sewerage, roads, footpaths or street lighting. In Northern Ireland, a great deal of that development is not put in the hands of the Departments but in the hands, and indeed the moneys, of the developer.
I have lived in the Ards area and peninsula for all but four years of my life. I am pleased that the Minister—and, I think, her husband—came over to my constituency last summer. I was pleased to have her come and see what she told me was the beauty of my constituency, including Strangford lough. I know that the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for some time, also had an opportunity to go there on regular occasions, including to Mount Stewart and down the Ards peninsula where I live. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty and of special scientific interest, so there are broad controls over what can happen there. Over the years, we have been able to develop brownfield sites down the Ards peninsula. Whether it be Ballyhalbert, Portavogie or Carrowdore, where there was land available, or Ards town—the main town—Comber, Ballynahinch or Saintfield, all that brownfield land has probably been taken.
It is important to have the infrastructure. For 26 years, I was a councillor for Ards and North Down Borough Council, and I had a particular interest in planning. I recognised early on that there was an opportunity to move towards brownfield sites, and we moved that way and relaxed planning rules to ensure that brownfield sites could be used. Let us be honest: factories—in the linen sector, for example—had closed down, and they were never coming back, so that land was going to lie there for ages. It seemed logical to move in that way, so we did over time, but it took the planning laws to change.
The Library briefing succinctly sums up the issue when it says that:
“CPRE (formerly the Campaign to Protect Rural England) has argued there is sufficient brownfield land to meet England’s housing needs, noting that ‘there is space for at least one million homes on suitable brownfield land’.”
“The planning consultancy Lichfields has argued that brownfield land ‘can only be a part of the solution to the housing crisis’”,
which we have to recognise. It then says that Lichfields
“noted that suitable brownfield land is often not available in places where there is more need for new homes.”
For example, in Belfast, some of the land along the River Lagan lay derelict for ages, but all of a sudden, it is a lovely housing development. A lot of work was done around the River Lagan, so the properties on that land became very attractive, as they did in Belfast harbour and across other parts. Land may look derelict and as though nothing can be done with it, but we have to recognise that it can be.
I will conclude, because I understand that the timescale for speeches is about seven minutes, Ms Fovargue. We have to make sure that the community is always involved and that we bring people with us. What I want to say is: “You don’t go agin them—if you go agin them, you get nowhere.” That is important and it is what we try to do back home. I do have concerns and issues about planning in my area, so I urge the Government and the Minister to continue the process that they have started and to ascertain the best way forward to ensure that we make use of brownfield sites, yet do not leave that as the only financially possible solution.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing the debate and welcome the Minister to her place. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) for all the work that has been done to progress the housing agenda in the right way—in particular through new clause 21, of which I am a huge fan. I also thank everyone for their speeches today; I agree with most of what has been said.
Ultimately, we are talking about the balance between brownfield land and the green belt; it is important that we focus redevelopment on brownfield, not the green belt. We have an acute housing crisis in the UK—we need more housing—because the population is getting older, people are separating, and immigration is on the increase. We have to ensure that we have enough houses for people to live in, so there is no question but that we must build more housing. The issue is where and how we build it.
I am a fan of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. In effect, I am speaking in support of it. It will drive local growth and empower local leaders to regenerate their areas. It will regenerate the high street in town centres and give new powers for rental auctions and permanent pavement licensing. It will introduce compulsory design codes to ensure redevelopment reflects community preferences. We are giving powers back to the community, and that is really important. It will also introduce a new infrastructure levy to fund affordable housing.
On housing targets, I was never a fan of the terrible Lichfield formula, so I give the Government full credit for listening and overturning it. We now have advisory targets, which are the right thing to do. I am dead against mandatory targets, but if anything, I want to see the end of advisory targets too, because councils are best placed to decide what housing they need locally.
I commend the Government on their brownfield development programme. Some £1.8 billion was allocated in the 2021 spending review, including £300 million of locally led grant funding to unlock smaller brownfield sites and £1.5 billion to regenerate underused land, which is expected to unlock up to 160,000 homes. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), who spoke about permissions. We could build 1.2 million houses right now if there was the will to do so. Again, there is no need to go anywhere near the green belt.
That 1.2 million figure keeps being thrown around, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that that represents the total existing capacity? It is not an annual figure. The Government’s target remains, I think, 300,000 new homes each and every year.
My understanding is that 1.2 million is the overall figure. It is important to say that. That is what Government sources have told me, so I am inclined to believe it.
Bracknell is pioneering the nationwide move to use brownfield sites. Some £2.3 million has been allocated to Bracknell Forest Council to assist with three major projects: £1.6 million will go to redeveloping Market Street; £570,000 will go to redeveloping the depot site off Old Bracknell Lane West—importantly, 25% and 35% of those sites are for affordable homes—and £119,000 of public money will go to creating an access road to unlock a piece of tarmacked land that will be redeveloped into four single-person homes and two wheelchair-accessible homes. So Bracknell Forest Council is doing its bit, in line with the national agenda.
In Bracknell Forest in 2019 and 2020, a total of 1,688 homes were added, of which 1,200 were built. That is a 128% increase on the previous year, so I commend Bracknell Forest Council and Wokingham Borough Council for meeting their local plans. Those Conservative-run councils have a proud record of meeting local plans and delivering homes.
I will make a slightly negative point about residual land, however, which is important because my constituency area is deemed to be 41% built up—it is mainly an urban, built-up area. Surrey Heath, next door, is 31% built up, Wokingham is 23%, Windsor is 23% and Maidenhead is 18%, so Bracknell is already one of the most built-up areas in the south of England. That is important because we have to ensure that we are giving due consideration to the quality of life of the people who already live there. My loyalty as an MP is to those who live in the constituency, not necessarily to those who want to move into it. It is really important that we preserve constituents’ quality of life.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said—this is important—that we should not be building on farming or agricultural land, golf courses, school playing fields or any other leisure areas. The people we represent have to have access to those open spaces. .
Far from encouraging building on farming land, we should be holding developers and councils to account, and issuing them punitive fines if they are doing so. We have to protect what we have; we have to feed our population. I also want to see recognition of the residual land formula in the Bill. If a constituency has only a small amount of land left, let us value that land; let us look after it and make sure that we do not build on it, even if councils quite clearly have targets to meet—thankfully, now advisory—and as we know, section 106 money is quite attractive.
I will conclude to give my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills time at the end. My point is that building is fine in the right areas. Yes, we need more housing, but we must not build on agricultural or green-belt land. Our green and pleasant lands are very important; we must not cover them with dark satanic mills. Once they are gone, they are gone.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, and I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing this important debate on a subject close to my heart. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) made an excellent point early on in his speech about the true definition of “green belt”, and the difference between that and agricultural land, but I reassure him that my examples today are about the green belt. Really, though, my message is more about “brownfield first”, because that is what we need to ensure.
I first became involved in politics because of a community campaign to protect huge swathes of the green belt. I set up that campaign, and although it took eight years, I protected that swathe of green belt and stopped a motorway service station from being built. A number of years on, I am back here, once again talking about protecting the green belt. My message is that I will never give up.
All colleagues have spoken passionately about the need to build on brownfield sites first. Like others, I understand that there is a need to build more houses in this country, including in Erewash, and to support those, such as our younger generations, who want to become homeowners, but that should not come at the expense of the green belt. I welcome the Government’s initial steps in pursuing the “brownfield first” policy; I am also pleased that they will end the so-called duty to co-operate, which made it easier for urban authorities to impose their housing on suburban and rural communities. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) said, I am wary of the watering-down of that commitment. The Government need to do more, but I emphasise that green-belt land should only ever be built on as a last resort.
I am concerned that local authorities such as Erewash Borough Council are coming under increasing pressure to include green-belt land in their core strategy, partly due to unfair housing targets being imposed on them. Despite expressing my views to Erewash Borough Council, there are still plans to build 6,000 houses in the borough, the majority of them on the green belt, including around Kirk Hallam and Cotmanhay. I campaigned tirelessly to prevent those proposals from going ahead, but sadly without success. The description that the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) gave of the impact on his community mirrors the impact that such building would have on my communities.
We do have brownfield sites available across Erewash, as well as a considerable number of empty properties, mainly above retail sites in the town centres of Long Eaton and Ilkeston. Erewash has a proud industrial heritage, and there should be a planned approach to access those empty and derelict properties, with the option of converting them to residential properties. There are already some examples of that happening in Erewash, but not enough: the Poplar pub on Bath Street, which is the high street in Ilkeston, has now been replaced by housing and retail units. While it is always sad to see the demise of our pubs, that development will play its part in the redevelopment of Bath Street—so important for a thriving community—as well as taking pressure off our green belt. Maximising those kinds of opportunities first surely must be the strategy moving forward.
On 21 March last year, I wrote to the Secretary of State requesting a meeting, along with the leader and chief executive of Erewash Borough Council, to discuss the specific situation in Erewash. That request was passed to the then Housing Minister—that was a few Ministers ago—but I am still waiting for that meeting. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) to her place today; hopefully, she will be in post for a sufficient length of time for that meeting to take place.
Today’s debate has provided a welcome opportunity to raise awareness of why the “brownfield first” policy is the right path to choose. It is clear that building on brownfield land plays an important role in regenerating our communities across the country. I welcome the Government’s initial steps to pursue the “brownfield first” policy. Nevertheless, they need to fully commit to it and do more.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I also welcome the new Minister to her place and express a genuine hope that she improves on the 87-day average tenure of her four predecessors, not least because I have to meet the new Ministers once they are in post to decide how we might work together, which I certainly hope we can.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing this important debate and thank all other Members who have participated. In her thoughtful opening remarks, the right hon. Lady made an impassioned case for protecting the green belt and for prioritising brownfield development, and that point has been echoed by many other Members this afternoon. I doubt any right hon. or hon. Member would disagree with the notion that the Government should be doing everything possible to incentivise and encourage good development on brownfield sites, and to prioritise such development over that on urban green space and greenfield, wherever possible. Of course, “brownfield first” is far from a new policy concept.
As far back as 1995, the Major Government outlined proposals in their “Our Future Homes” White Paper to use the planning system and public investment to encourage more development in existing urban areas and less on greenfield sites, with an aspirational target of 60% of new homes on brownfield land. The 1998 planning for the communities of the future policy statement, published by the Blair Government, set out a general preference for building on previously developed sites first; the 2000 planning policy guidance note 3 specified a brownfield target of 60%, with the aim of promoting regeneration and minimising the amount of greenfield land being taken for development. That 60% brownfield target remained in place throughout the life of the Blair and Brown Governments and was carried forward by the Conservative-led coalition Government into the 2012 national planning policy framework.
In short, while the precise weight accorded to brownfield over greenfield has certainly fluctuated, every Government over recent decades, of whatever political persuasion, has ostensibly sought in one way or another to maximise the development potential of brownfield land. The succession of Conservative Administrations since 2015 are no exception in that regard.
All manner of initiatives have been announced over recent years to promote brownfield development, including the use of brownfield registers, the allocation of funding to unlock and accelerate development on suitable and available brownfield sites, and minor changes to the planning system to fast-track brownfield regeneration. The problem is that these recent initiatives have been and continue to be undermined by other decisions the Conservative Administrations have taken—or, in many cases, have failed to take. Let me give three examples.
First, there is the Government’s reluctance to reform biased spending rules. Leaving aside the issue of whether this Government are actually going to be able to spend the £1.5 billion brownfield fund, or whether the Treasury might claw some of that funding back, one need only examine the distribution of allocations from the Government’s brownfield land release fund over recent years to see that a disproportionate share of brownfield land remediation funding flows to local authorities in the south of England for no other reason than the fact that they are already relatively prosperous and have higher house prices.
If the Government were serious about delivering a more overt brownfield-focused policy, they could choose to direct more already allocated funding towards brownfield regeneration in those parts of England where urban brownfield land is relatively low value and the cost of remediating sites often prohibitively high, rather than channelling those funds into high-value housing markets where that further stokes land-price inflation.
Secondly, there is the Government’s general unwillingness to intervene to enable brownfield development. In those parts of the country where land values are relatively high, the existing incentives for brownfield land, including subsidy, are often sufficient. Instead, barriers to development in those locations more often than not relate to delivery, whether that be problems relating to fragmented land ownership or difficulties associated with site assembly.
Again, if the Government were serious about delivering a more overt “brownfield first” policy, they could act to ensure that brownfield development takes place in areas where local planning authorities either cannot or will not build out deliverable brownfield sites themselves, whether that be, as one hon. Member mentioned, by legislating for further reform of compulsory purchase powers or by overhauling Homes England to give it a greater role in driving brownfield regeneration and supporting local authorities with land assembly, master planning, infrastructure delivery and the brokering of local delivery partnerships.
The third example is the Government’s refusal to confront many of the underlying reasons why greenfield development is so much more attractive for private developers than is brownfield land. That applies in both high and low-value land areas. In many ways, the proliferation of low-quality, car-dependent development on greenfield sites that more often than not fails to meet local housing need is a direct consequence of the Government’s over-reliance on private house builders building homes for market sale to meet housing need. Again, if they were serious about delivering a more overt brownfield-focused policy and reducing greenfield market sale sprawl, the Government could take steps to ramp up social housing-led development on those brownfield sites with genuine viability challenges and limited prospects for market development, not least by more effective use of grant funding.
However—here we come to what is the nub of the issue in many ways—even if the Government did act in those and other ways to increase the overall quantum of brownfield development, the fact remains that brownfield development alone will almost certainly never be enough to meet the country’s housing need. The evidence on that fact is perfectly clear. There are simply not enough sites on brownfield land registers to deliver the volume of homes that the country needs each year, let alone enough that are viable, in the right location and able to provide the type of homes required to meet local housing needs and aspirations.
The CPRE figure is correct, but it is existing total permissions over a very long period. Analysis published by Lichfields last year makes it clear that even if every brownfield site that has been identified to date were indeed deliverable and were built out to full capacity, including by means of intensified density, the resulting development would equate to 1.4 million net dwellings over 15 years. That is just under a third of the 4.5 million homes that estimates suggest are needed in that period.
Put simply, even if the Government manage to boost rates of development on identified brownfield sites significantly, that will only ever be, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) argued in his contribution, part of the solution to the housing crisis, which is why previous “brownfield first” approaches ultimately had to incorporate requirements to ensure that local planning authorities maintained a sufficient supply of housing on deliverable sites, irrespective of whether that supply could be met in full by development on identified brownfield sites alone.
I am listening intently to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, which I welcome. On that specific point about brownfield, does he agree that unless sufficient protections are in place around the green belt and really push the “brownfield first” approach, all that happens is that brownfield sites remain undeveloped, developers continue developing on the green belt and we achieve absolutely nothing?
I agree with the right hon. Member. As I hope I have conveyed to the House, I think the Government could be doing much more to ensure that brownfield sites are built out and that we do not get speculative fringe development of the type that she refers to. They could do so by, for example, putting in place effective regional frameworks, and sub-regional frameworks, for managing housing growth. There is nothing there at the moment, and a series of Members just applauded the removal of the duty to co-operate, which, as flawed as it is, is the only mechanism in place to provide for that sub-regional housing growth. We will end up in a situation where we have no strategic planning mechanisms to go for growth, and I fear that, even with the changes in place, we will still get speculative development of the kind that the right hon. Member refers to.
I would like to make some progress, because I am conscious of the time. It is the requirement to maintain a deliverable supply of land for housing in order that objectively assessed housing need can be met that the Government, in their weakness, have fatally weakened through the proposed revisions to the NPPF. As I have argued on previous occasions, the Government clearly hope that England’s largest cities and urban centres will do the heavy lifting, when it comes to housing supply, as a result of the entirely arbitrary 35% uplift to urban centres being made policy, but we already know that most of the cities that that uplift applies to almost certainly will be unable to accommodate the output that it entails.
Therefore we are left with a situation where, despite a rhetorical commitment to “brownfield first”, the Government are seemingly not prepared to do what is necessary to maximise the supply of new homes on brownfield sites. Neither are the Government prepared to explore other ways in which brownfield-constrained local areas might meet local housing need, while avoiding development on urban green space and greenfield, for example by throwing the full weight of Government behind serious efforts to boost infill development in suburbs. And the Government are certainly not prepared—despite, as a series of hon. Members have mentioned, presiding over the progressive loss of large amounts of high-quality greenfield land over the past decade, often to haphazard and speculative fringe development—to consider how we might instead ensure that more of the right bits of the greenbelt are released by local authorities for development, that land value capture is maximised on those sites so that the communities in question can benefit from first-class infrastructure and more affordable housing, or that greenbelt land with the highest environmental and amenity value is properly protected, enhanced and made more accessible.
Instead, Ministers have taken the easy option, namely to amend national planning policy in a way that will ensure that fewer houses are built in England over the coming years. In the midst of a housing crisis, the fact that meeting objectively assessed housing need is seemingly no longer a Government priority is, I would argue, a woeful abdication of responsibility. As we will continue to argue, it is high time that we had a general election, so that the present Government can make way for one that not only is committed to fully exploiting the potential of brownfield sites, but serious about building the homes the British people need.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing this debate, and for the interest it has generated from colleagues from across the House and across our United Kingdom—it would not be the same without our friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I also thank colleagues for their kind words about my role, and the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) for his words of welcome. I very much look forward to having many exchanges with him, and I stress the word “many”. I am sure they will all be polite and constructive, yet probing and robust when they need to be. He has definitely eased me in very well today, and in a very kind way, although no doubt that will not continue. However, we have enjoyed today.
Let me start by saying that there is so much that we all agree on in this debate. We all agree that brownfield regeneration is absolutely vital. I again pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills for her tireless championing of this cause and her constructive engagement with the Government ahead of the Report stage of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. In her customary way, which we all know well, she raises so many practical points that her communities and residents have raised with her. That is a reflection of how she champions her constituents and the Black Country values that she represents so well in this House, and we all benefit from that.
We all know that redeveloping brownfield sites is not just better for the environment, but also holds the key to regenerating communities. The Government share my right hon. Friend’s view that, as I think every colleague has highlighted, we should do everything we can to protect our precious green-belt, greenfield, open-space and countryside land, while also making the best possible use of land that has already been developed—land that usually already benefits from mains drainage, power and road access.
That is exactly why the Government have pursued an unambiguous “brownfield first” approach to development. Indeed, I am sure my right hon. Friend will have seen that we have announced £60 million to help councils to free up their brownfield sites for regeneration and new homes. That is part of a much bigger pot of money—catchily entitled the brownfield land release fund 2—that is worth £180 million overall. This £180 million-worth of grant funding will help to accelerate the release of land for roughly 17,600 new homes by March 2028. The brownfield housing fund has already had a transformative effect on communities. Let me answer the challenge that the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich posed about how the funding is allocated across our country. In November ’22, we announced that 57% of brownfield land release funding was allocated outside London and the south-east, which is of course consistent with the Government’s levelling-up aspirations.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills will know about the incredible work done by our friend Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority. She also highlighted the work of Councillor Mike Bird, with whom she has worked closely. The West Midlands Combined Authority has been a trailblazer for brownfield redevelopment, using £153 million from the fund to unlock over 10,000 new homes on brownfield sites.
She will know about projects such as the Lockside scheme, which will see 252 well-designed, high-quality homes built at the old Caparo Engineering site, and the transformation of the Harvestime bread factory, which has already delivered 88 much-needed new homes and a thriving community. An added benefit of that development is that it has tackled some of the crime and antisocial behaviour that used to be seen at the site.
Colleagues raised a huge number of points; I will try to respond to them in turn, using the time I have available. The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) gave us a fascinating insight into the civil war history of his constituency, and highlighted the similarity of the challenges facing us all, no matter which parts of our nation we represent. He asked about biodiversity and rare species on sites where development is proposed. He will know that we are putting the protection of habitats at the heart of the planning system, through the introduction of biodiversity net gain from November 2023; developers will need to assess the condition of the land they propose to develop and ensure there is better biodiversity value after development.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for all the work she has done throughout the passage of the Bill, under my predecessor, particularly with reference to new clause 21. She is working to rebalance the planning system and I listened carefully to all her comments. We should have a meeting to discuss the issues in a huge amount of detail, with the kind assistance of my officials, who have been working on this for a lot longer than the 48 hours I have had to do a massive reading sprint of all the comments and debates; we will do better justice to the issue by having a meeting. Although she said she would be obstinate, she was also incredibly polite, so I look forward to many future discussions with her.
The hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) talked a lot about the brownfield remediation that is needed. The Government are reviewing the brownfield land planning system, and I am happy to write to her with more detail in response to some of her questions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) referred to the importance of food production—the food and drink that is produced in his constituency, and across the country—which is considered in the national planning policy framework. Again, I listened to his comments. He will know that the consultation is under way, and I invite him to join the meeting with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet, or on another occasion when we can discuss the issues in more detail. I understand the frustration of some of his constituents.
The hon. Member for Strangford reminded me of a very happy trip I made to the Mourne mountains and the beautiful scenery of Northern Ireland—[Interruption.] I do not want to interrupt his conversation, but he reminded me of the wonderful time I had. I went through his constituency to another part of beautiful Northern Ireland, so I have seen it for myself. Although the system in Northern Ireland is devolved, we have many similar challenges and we can all learn from working with each other.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) talked in favour of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill; I was grateful to hear his support. He talked about how it will regenerate high streets and communities, which we can all welcome. He highlights the importance of local plans to the quality of life of the people who already live there.
Last but not least, I come to my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup). I well remember her long record of campaigning and how she started her journey to this House. I have no doubt that she will never give up, as she set out in her motto. I hope I can assist her campaign by promising to set up a meeting with her as soon as I can; I am looking to my very helpful officials, who no doubt are scrutinising the debate closely.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills for securing this useful and constructive debate. Having been in the job for two days, it is an honour to be here discussing these issues that touch all our constituents, in every single community, no matter where we live. The Government have a mission to level up the United Kingdom and build beautiful homes in the places where people want to live. We all want homes to be available for our children—or in my case, my granddaughter. I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend; she talked about the excitement of first getting the keys to her new home, and that is the balance we seek to achieve in our work. We are thoroughly committed to working with all hon. Members across the House in that endeavour, and we will continue to build the right homes in the right places for the people who need them most.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for her speech, and Members from across the House who joined the debate. We have had a really good debate, representing many constituencies up and down the country, and showing that “brownfield first” and protecting the green belt is not just a southern or northern issue, but an issue right across the country that can play a really important part in the Government’s levelling-up agenda.
I gently say to the Minister that she should take a clear but strong message back to her Department, after 48 hours in the job. I am sure she is under no illusion that the clear message, as right hon. and hon. Members will agree, is that we are looking for a meaningful, stronger commitment from the Government when it comes to protecting the green belt, demonstrating the commitment to deliver on brownfield regeneration, and clarity on some details of the policy. There is real interest, passion and energy for this on the Back Benches.
We won some concessions in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, but the battle is not over. I will not be giving up; neither, I am sure, will many others. We know that we need housing, but it needs to be the right housing and in the right place, and regeneration generation is a key part of that. Let us get on and deliver it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of brownfield development and protecting the green belt.
Sunscreen Products: VAT
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of VAT on sunscreen products.
We should be united across this House in our efforts to beat cancer, and that means all cancers—not just the ones it is politically expedient to target. Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK, killing 2,300 people each year. It receives only a fraction of the political attention it deserves, especially when we consider that 90% of cases are preventable with adequate skin protection—that is more than 2,000 lives we could save each year.
In recent years, both melanoma and non-melanoma cancers have been on the rise across the UK, with around 16,000 new cases of melanoma diagnosed each year— 90% of which, as I said, could be prevented by staying safe in the sun. With Cancer Research UK finding that getting sunburnt just once every two years can triple a person’s risk of melanoma, which sunscreen plays a vital role in preventing, it is just common sense that we should work together to make sunscreen products that bit more affordable for our constituents.
With the support of several organisations and Members across the House, my VAT Burn campaign seeks to reform the value added tax charged on sunscreen products of SPF 30 and above—products deemed by the NHS to provide significant enough coverage to our skin if applied correctly. Removing VAT from sunscreen is not a radical idea; in fact, when asked, most people are surprised, if not shocked, that VAT is charged on sunscreen. It is not a novel idea; both the US and Australia have made sunscreen exempt from VAT-style taxes. But removing VAT is a necessary idea—one that should, can and must be done to promote sun safety measures and reduce cases of skin cancer. It would be an important step to demonstrate the UK Parliament’s commitment to sun safety and send a clear message to the public about the importance of sunscreen.
We should not stop there. As in Australia, removing VAT from sunscreen should go hand in hand with an awareness campaign. The Australian Slip, Slop, Slap campaign was a huge success, and there is no reason why something similar could not be replicated in the UK. This is not hard. As Australia and the US have shown, any barriers to implementing this policy change are surmountable. That is why there are two folds to my VAT Burn campaign: first, to reform the value added tax charged on sunscreen products; secondly, education and awareness around skin protection from the sun. I encourage colleagues present today and others to sign early-day motion 839, in my name, which calls on the Government to launch an Australia-style awareness campaign around skin protection in the sun and the risks of prolonged sun exposure.
Sunscreen products are currently treated and defined as cosmetics or luxury goods for VAT purposes, which, given their clear health benefit, is unacceptable and unjust, particularly with temperatures rising—although, I must say that sunscreen should not be worn only when we perceive it to be hot outside. It should be worn all year round, which is why I launched this campaign in February, on World Cancer Day, and not at a sunnier time.
I am incredibly passionate about this issue, and I will put front and centre the reasons why. People like me, whether because of background, class or opportunities, do not tend to end up in this place. For those who do, we end up in politics, I hope, to create positive change for us and for our communities, but most importantly, for our constituents. Not many 30-year-olds—nor Members of Parliament, for that matter—can speak from a position of experience of having survived melanoma twice. It would be a dereliction of duty to my fellow cancer survivors, my surgeon and my family if I did not use that experience to speak up for those who cannot.
I will clarify that VAT Burn seeks a VAT exemption for sunscreen products of factor 30 and above, with a four-star UVA rating and marketed exclusively as sun protection. I will be crystal clear that this exemption will not encompass products from the cosmetics industry, such as foundations including SPF, as those products provide little or—I argue—no protection from the sun.
The anomaly of sunscreen products being exempt from VAT is longstanding, and seems perfectly reason to question, given we are in a cost of living crisis and a climate crisis. Also, given the VAT relief provided to drugs, medicines, medicinal products and aids for the disabled, it seems logical that preventive healthcare measures should be exempt too. Many of my constituents will find it hard to believe that the like of Calpol and paracetamol are exempt from VAT, but not sunscreen products.
The Government line that sunscreen products are exempt from VAT when dispensed by a pharmacist simply does not hold up to scrutiny. First, only a tiny amount of the population receive sunscreen on prescription. Secondly, prescriptions are already free in Scotland, meaning that our constituents do not receive any benefit from that. The Government, I assume, will also argue that this policy will cost the Treasury too much money. But given that it is estimated to cost somewhere in the region of £40 million, which is only 0.03% of the total amount of VAT the Government receive, it is a tiny amount of money in the context. This is clearly not about the money; it is about the Government’s unwillingness to act.
We should not be talking about money, especially the money it will cost the Government. Instead, let us think of the lives that can be saved—those 2,030 lives per year that I mentioned earlier. Let us think of the effort saved by our NHS diagnosing and treating less skin cancers. The money saved within this vital public health service cannot be ignored. At the risk of pre-empting the Minister’s response, why does she recognise the merits of zero-rating some products, but not sunscreen? Do the Government value the protection of our skin from the sun? Do they see merit in an Australian-style awareness campaign? Will the Minister take the proposal to the Prime Minister, and share his views on whether sunscreen products should be more affordable to our constituents?
I understand that there are some reservations about VAT exemptions, because previous zero ratings have not produced savings for consumers. That is exactly why, as part of VAT Burn, I have a pledge for retailers and producers to sign up to. I can confirm today that Morrisons has agreed to sign up to it, and, given that Tesco already absorbs the VAT on sunscreen products, I feel confident that our constituents will see a saving when it comes to sunscreen, should the Government choose to back VAT Burn.
VAT Burn is the product of months of work. To be honest, I never wanted to get to this stage. When I submitted a written question pointing out the anomaly of VAT charged on sunscreen, I had hoped that the Minister would respond positively, and the UK Government would intervene to remove the VAT and quickly bring sunscreen into line with all other healthcare products. But that was not the case. I was told people should wear hats, cover up and sit in the shade, while the Minister curiously ignored sunscreen. Those are important measures to keep safe in the sun, but only alongside wearing sunscreen.
I organised a cross-party letter to the Chancellor, and 40 MPs from every major political party signed the letter. The Chancellor, at the time the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), reiterated the UK Government’s opposition to removing the VAT, citing the same arguments as before: sunscreen alone does not mean someone is safe in the sun. But no one ever said that it does; it is clearly just one part of the solution. When the Chancellor changed, and we had a former Health Secretary in post, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), I re-sent the letter. I hoped that someone with experience in health policy would see the sense in this simple change, but I received another stock rejection.
Whether it was parliamentary questions or meetings with Ministers, none of it has got us anywhere. That is why we are here today, and why the campaign is being covered in the media. It is why six charities are backing the campaign, and why I will keep pushing until we see movement on the issue—specifically, with a ten-minute rule Bill on VAT Burn on 23 February.
I touched very briefly on the organisations supporting VAT Burn. I place on record my thanks to each and every one of them for the great work they do to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of cancer and its impact. I thank the Teenage Cancer Trust, Skcin, Melanoma UK, Young Lives vs Cancer, Melanoma Focus, and, last but not least, Melanoma Action and Support Scotland—Scotland’s only skin cancer specific charity, based in my constituency of East Dunbartonshire.
It is also a workers’ issue. Too many workers spend prolonged periods of time exposed to the sun without adequate, or any, protection. I note that Police Scotland provide their officers with sunscreen if they spend prolonged periods of their shift exposed to the sun. If sunscreen were more affordable, more employers would step up and provide sunscreen products for their staff. This Government proposed to provide free sunscreen to all emergency workers. It would be useful to get an update on that from the Minister. No worker should be put at unnecessary risk of skin cancer due to a lack of sunscreen being provided by their employer.
This common-sense approach to zero rating sunscreen can help everyone. It almost feels daft that I have to stand here today and make a case for it. Let us agree to work together to make this simple change for the benefit of all our skin.
“It won’t happen to me”—that is what we all think. But then it does. It happened to me. Back in 2019, I noticed a blemish on my left arm. Knowing that both my parents had benign skin cancer, I decided to get it checked out. After a biopsy, my blemish was diagnosed as melanoma and I underwent surgery to remove the cancer. I was one of the lucky ones. The melanoma had not spread. I was not ill. I was discharged from the cancer specialist in 2020, free from melanoma. While I am left with an impressive scar on my left arm, the outcome could have been so different had I not been aware of the signs to look for and caught the cancer early.
One in 36 men and one in 47 women in the UK will be diagnosed with melanoma in their lifetime. Tragically, 2,300 people die from the disease each year. That number has included a business acquaintance of mine, who very sadly passed away in his early 40s, and BBC Radio Derby presenter Colin Bloomfield, who passed away at the age of just 33 in April 2015 after his melanoma metastasised to his lungs.
These deaths do not need to happen—86% of melanomas are preventable by adopting simple sun protection. That is why I back the call for sun protection of SPF 30 and above to be available VAT-free. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) on securing today’s debate and on all the work she has done on this issue.
The Government can do a lot, but they cannot stop people going out in the sun; they can do a lot, but they cannot change the weather. But they can remove VAT from sunscreen. We need to remove every possible barrier that could stand in the way of people buying a life-saving product. At the same time, such a measure sends out the message that the Government are serious about tackling all types of cancer. From an economic perspective, a healthy workforce is a productive workforce. The cost to the NHS of not taking action against a preventable cancer must be huge. We need to break down the silos in the NHS, between the NHS and the Treasury, and between all Government Departments, and look at the cost of not removing VAT on such a product.
As is often the case, each and every one of us needs to take some personal responsibility. They say that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. We should be taking the same preventive measures during the hot summer months here that we would if we were on holiday abroad. That includes seeking shade, wearing a hat and loose clothing, and keeping out of the sun when it is most prevalent. Through a combination of these actions, we will see a noticeable decline in cases of melanoma, which at the moment takes far too many lives, far too early, but the Government have a part to play as well.
It is pleasure to be called to speak in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) for bringing the issue forward. She and I have been friends for a long time in this House, and I am really pleased to see her in her role here. We share APPG roles and I deputise for her—not very well; she does it much better than I do. What a pleasure it is to be here.
I want to add a Northern Ireland perspective to this debate, as I always do. I fully support the hon. Lady’s request to reduce VAT on sunscreen products. Melanoma is a growing health problem in Northern Ireland. My office has six staff members, and three of them—50%—told me that they have immediate family members who had melanoma. One of the younger girls, who is in her early 20s, admitted that she used sunbeds until her father had third-stage melanoma. This is not a disease of the tropics. Perhaps because of our skin and where we are from, we take the sun a wee bit more aggressively than they do in the Mediterranean, for instance. We usually go boiled red to start with, and then when the pain is too much we move to the sunscreen, which we should have done at the very beginning.
It has been found that 86% of cases of melanoma can be prevented by adopting simple sun protection measures, including wearing factor 30-plus sunscreen. That is a very small thing to do, but the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire and for Erewash (Maggie Throup) and I are asking the Government to do something to incentivise that. We are not asking for a lot; we are just asking for a wee nudge in the right direction. The United States of America and Australia have already done that.
The incidence is increasing, and there are now more than 16,000 new cases of melanoma skin cancer each year in the UK. The problem is growing, and therefore the need is greater than it ever was. Of course, that does not take into account repeat diagnoses of melanoma—the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said that she got it twice.
In the 15-to-44 age group, melanoma skin cancer is the second most common cancer in males and the third most common in females. I find it difficult to comprehend why that is the case when all those people were taught the dangers of the sun in school. We were told to be careful when we go out—mum and dad told us that as well, but more often than not we ignored it.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, despite people believing they do not need to wear sunscreen in Scotland, Northern Ireland and other places across the UK, it is essential that they do? They are more likely to contract melanoma if they are pale and fair haired, or have red hair, which is common in our isles.
I’ve got a wee bit round the sides. I used to have a whole lot of hair. The hon. Lady makes a fantastic point, and it is true: we are of a fair skin, and that right away puts us in the target area.
We have the information, but for some reason the message just is not getting across. One in 36 males and one in 47 females will be diagnosed with the deadliest form of skin cancer in their lives, so we need to stop seeing sunscreen as a luxury, like a nice moisturiser. We should instead see it as an essential, like good nutrition or drinking water. If it is put in that category, the seriousness of what we are trying to achieve will be clear.
One way of getting the message across is to make it cheaper to purchase sunscreen. My speechwriter—a very busy girl—loves her holidays abroad. I think it is because it means she does not have to answer my calls for two weeks. She has no speeches to prepare, and of course she has no internet access due to overseas roaming charges. She never buys sunscreen before she goes because it is half the price in Florida—that is where they go for their holiday every year. She waits until she gets to Florida and buys enough to bring home and do the whole year back here, because the savings are significant. Hon. Members might say that is an Ulsterman or Ulsterwoman thing, but we do look for a bargain. If it is a bargain that helps our skin and protects us, that is why we do it.
In the US, sunscreen products have been exempt from VAT-style taxes since 2012. In Australia, they are exempt provided they are principally marketed for use as a sunscreen and have an SPF rating of 15 or more. The reason for that is that in Australia and America, sunscreen is seen as an essential daily living product. That is how they categorise it. Some of us have been conditioned to see it as a holiday item, but they see it as something they need to have all the time. Many people who have never gone abroad have melanoma. It is not a holiday problem; it is a lifetime problem.
Public polling indicates that many people find the cost of sunscreen too high, and with the current cost of living crisis deepening, that cost is likely to deter increasing numbers of people from buying sunscreen. The major retailers Tesco and Asda have recognised cost as a prohibitive barrier for people buying sunscreen, and Tesco reduced the price of its own-brand sunscreen by 20% in 2021 to offset VAT. In a consumer poll—such polls are good barometers of what people are thinking—some 57% of respondents said that the product was too expensive, and 29% claimed that they would wear it daily if it were a little bit cheaper. Incentivise it, make it happen and address the issue.
The call for VAT to be removed from sunscreen was part of a sun safety campaign in 2013. That is why I support removing VAT from sunscreens that are factor 30 or more: as Melanoma Focus has said, doing so will make sunscreen more affordable and send a powerful message from the Government about the importance of skin protection. We only have one chance for our skin: it will last us our lifetime, but if we have constant cases of melanoma, then unfortunately it might not last us for the right time. I further support the recommendation that that measure be coupled with a Government-backed cross-media awareness campaign akin to the Australian Government’s successful Slip, Slop, Slap campaign, which the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire referred to. It reminds me of one of those catchy 1960s tunes from when I was a wee boy—I am aging myself by saying that —but a campaign is significant.
With increasing temperatures in the United Kingdom from climate change, such a measure is becoming increasingly urgent. The hon. Member deserves great gratitude for bringing this debate forward, because—as others have said, and as those who follow my speech will say as well—this is an urgent subject. Removing VAT from sunscreen would not have been possible under EU rules, but it is now; there is nothing to restrict us, except those of us who live in Northern Ireland. I hate to say it, but in every debate I have, I have to temper everything with the Northern Ireland protocol. In Northern Ireland, we would not be able to take advantage of leaving the EU in this way, due to the protocol. However, that is a different issue for another day.
Melanoma Focus believes that if this policy were implemented, the reduction in VAT revenue would be offset by reduced melanoma skin cancer cases and therefore reduced costs to the NHS. That is a crucial factor: if we take action to ensure that people can protect themselves more by being able to buy sunscreen that wee bit cheaper, we can ensure that those people do not need ongoing healthcare, with its associated costs. That seems logical to me.
The hon. Gentleman is making a great speech, and I welcome his support for VAT Burn. On his point about the EU, there are little to no advantages of Scotland being outwith the EU, but while we are tied to this place and also outwith the EU, we can reform the VAT on products such as sunscreen. We will take that tiny little benefit that we can, and we appreciate it.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. We certainly encourage the Government to take advantage of opportunities to promote better health as a result of leaving the EU.
The “Getting It Right First Time” NHS review of dermatology highlights high and increasing demand for skin cancer treatment, with 200,000 surgical operations for suspected skin cancer carried out every year, and skin cancer rates doubling every 14 to 15 years. That is the main factor driving the request being made today. When it comes to health, those are the stark figures, and I believe they highlight the need for additional workforce to meet current and future pressures, and also suggest that we need to raise sun and skin awareness to reduce pressures on dermatology services.
In conclusion, I support the call to remove VAT from sunscreen. I say to the Minister, who knows that I respect her greatly, that we make that call today because we believe it is worth supporting. The Government have taken other steps when it comes to VAT—the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire referred to sanitary products. Removing VAT from those products was something that the Government should have done; they did so, and I welcome that. Today, we make another request.
It is not just a matter of listening; it is also about taking action to protect our people and our NHS, and the future of its services. Here is a figure for everyone— 85% of cancer is preventable. This is preventable, if we take some steps in the right direction. Let us take the steps in this place to prevent it right across all of this great nation, this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) on her excellent work in securing this debate and on her powerful speech. I also commend colleagues from all parties in the House for their speeches.
I want to make three brief points, first about the obvious importance of sun protection, secondly about the context of the cost of living crisis, and thirdly about the importance of investment in public health.
First, on sun protection, we have heard a persuasive argument today about the importance of protecting ourselves from skin cancer. Quite clearly, it is a threat that can be managed and that we can protect ourselves from, and the hon. Member is absolutely right to point that out. However, those 2,000 preventable deaths surely prompts a question for the Government: what is the state of their current public health work on this important matter? I hope that the Minister will be able to answer that in detail when she responds.
I also urge colleagues from all parties in the House to consider the context for families—who will perhaps have started thinking at this time about booking a summer holiday, or going away for a weekend or to the seaside at Easter—because we are living through the most serious and sustained cost of living crisis for 40 years. When families go to purchase everyday goods, they will see cost increases of around 20% for those goods in the supermarket, and there is a real issue with additional items possibly not being bought as a result. We need to understand that that is a huge risk. There have been many reports in the media of families paring back other products and services because they are under such severe pressure. I hope the Minister will consider that context and see the obvious additional importance of wise public health advice and any measures that are deemed necessary.
When we consider the cost of the summer as a whole for families, particularly those with two or even three children, which involves buying hats, sunglasses, loose-fitting clothing—as we heard earlier—and sunscreen, there are quite obviously considerable extra costs for the many families who are thinking about a summer holiday, either in the UK or abroad. Obviously, sunscreen is part of that cost, so the point that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire made about the cost of sunscreen is an important one.
Finally, I turn to the need for more investment in public health. It is noticeable that in this country we have a very strong tradition of public information campaigns, which have actually been very successful over the years. Some of us will remember campaigns such as Clunk Click, or other campaigns to try to prevent smoking or many other health risks. What are the Government prepared to do to try to prevent the risk of melanoma, perhaps through better advice, through the media and by directing Government information in a more effective way?
There is also a wider point about working with the health service and other public health professionals. It is a tragedy that since 2010, and certainly for the period immediately before the pandemic, there was a cut in Government spending on public health. In my opinion that is a tragedy, and sadly many important health priorities were allowed to drift in that time, including action to tackle smoking, and there may well be other important measures that were not supported, possibly including the battle against melanoma.
I am conscious of time, so to conclude, this is an important health issue, and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire has made an interesting point. This debate is also timely, given that this is the time of year when many families are booking holidays and considering what to do in the summer, and at Easter and in other holiday periods approaching in the spring. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, and I hope she will address a number of the points made today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I am delighted to participate in the debate and I pay tribute to my esteemed colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan), for her pursuit of this important matter and for her excellent, comprehensive and very powerful opening speech.
My hon. Friend, along with the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), came to Westminster Hall today to speak as a survivor. That gives what they say power and authenticity. When survivors speak, it is incumbent on us all to listen to the lessons they are trying to teach us. Whether we are in government or not, what they say matters and must be listened to in that way.
It seems odd to most people that suncream is not already classified as an essential healthcare item in the UK and, as such, is not exempt from VAT. After all, we know and have heard today in some detail that suncream plays a vital role in preventing serious health conditions such as skin cancer. In all honesty, I am not aware of anybody who wears suncream for cosmetic purposes; they wear it because the consequences of exposing themselves to the sun without sunscreen are extremely serious and potentially fatal. That is because it provides protection against harmful ultraviolet radiation. Importantly, it is strictly regulated to ensure that it provides sufficient ultraviolet protection for consumers, so there is no sense or logic in classifying it as a cosmetic product.
As we have heard, that is recognised in the US, where sunscreen is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and in Canada, where it is classified as a non-prescription drug, so there is international precedent for reclassifying the product as a healthcare item. The hon. Member for Strangford reminded us of those international examples and precedents for the change that everybody in the Chamber seeks.
The debate matters, and it is even more important when we consider that skin cancer is now much more common across the UK, where around 16,000 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed each year. Of the 16,000 people who are diagnosed, about 2,300 will die. Cancer Research UK concludes that being sunburnt just once every two years can triple the risk of melanoma, and statistics show that more than one in four skin cancer cases are diagnosed in people under 50. When we consider the cost of treating the growing numbers of people diagnosed with skin cancer, removing VAT from suncream should be considered as important preventive spend. I suspect that the Minister will tell us about the pressure on the public finances and the significant contribution that VAT makes to the public finances, but, like others in the debate, I find it unbelievable that simply removing VAT from sunscreen—that one act on its own—would create insurmountable fiscal challenges for the Treasury. It would make sunscreen more affordable, and that can only be positive when we think about the quest to reduce skin cancer cases and pressure on our NHS.
Some retailers, such as Tesco, have decided to absorb the cost of VAT on sunscreen, so that at the point of sale the consumer is spared that cost. It is worth noting that when Tesco made that announcement, in May 2021, consumers were outraged to discover that sunscreen was subject to VAT. There is a lesson in that outrage for all of us and for the Government: we are working in a situation in which the public believe one thing when the reality is entirely different. Of course, the public are using logic, which we all want the Government to use. The work that Tesco and other retailers have done is to be applauded, but it is a pity that the Government will not and have not taken the lead on the issue and shown that they understand the importance of making that important health product VAT-free.
Tesco made the decision to absorb the cost of VAT on its sunscreen products because, after it did some research, it discovered that 57% of adults think sunscreen is too expensive, 29% say that they would wear it daily if it was a little bit cheaper and 31% of parents—this is important in terms of the stats for melanoma—state that they cannot always afford to apply sunscreen to the whole family. That means that this is not really a debate about sunscreen; it is a debate about public health. It is hugely disappointing that the Government are content to leave this important public health concern to the discretion of retailers, who have taken a lead on the issue. It is important that retailers have done so when the Government have not acted, because we know how financially challenged households are at this time.
I do not want to second-guess what the Minister will say, but I suspect that she will say that high factor sunscreen is available on the NHS on prescription for certain conditions, and therefore is provided VAT-free when dispensed by a pharmacist. That point has been made to me in the past. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire said, that does not really help someone in Scotland; to be honest, it does not really help all the people who do not get it on prescription but who would benefit enormously from using it.
Removing VAT from sunscreen for everybody will help make the product just a little cheaper during these difficult times. More people would be able to stretch to affording it and would get the protection they need, and it would thereby help to prevent some of the 16,000 diagnoses a year of melanoma. We all urge the Minister to rethink. This is not a debate about the wider principle of VAT—we understand that VAT is levied on certain products. It is about VAT on sunscreen. When I have asked about the issue in the past, I have been told, in great detail, why VAT matters. VAT does matter, but the Treasury is well able to forgo VAT on this particular product, for the sake of public health.
The levy on this particular product has to end. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire said, that would logically go alongside a public health campaign on the importance of wearing sunscreen. Such measures would ultimately take pressure off our NHS. I urge the Minister to ensure that sunscreen is no longer categorised as a cosmetic item—that is just daft; it is ludicrous. We need to call it what it is. Sunscreen is an important weapon in our armoury for tackling melanoma.
It is a particular pleasure to serve in this debate with you, Mr Sharma, my parliamentary neighbour, as Chair. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) on securing the debate and raising this important health issue. I am pleased to be here on behalf of the Opposition and I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. People have spoken powerfully about the impact that skin cancer can have on people’s lives, and on friends and family.
There is consensus among hon. Members present about the importance of sunscreen products and their growing importance in our lives. While these products have perhaps historically been associated more with travel to warmer climates, the past year has demonstrated how susceptible we are to heatwaves and the intense periods of direct sunlight they can bring to the UK.
I echo what other hon. Members have said today. Organisations including Cancer Research UK have long made clear that the amount of UV exposure over someone’s entire lifetime is one factor that contributes significantly to the risk of skin cancer. According to the research, melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK, with 16,000 cases a year, of which almost nine in 10 cases are preventable. It is vital that people can access sunscreen products when they need them.
As we heard earlier, high factor sunscreen products are already available on the NHS prescription list for a few specific conditions, and are exempt from VAT when dispensed through pharmacies. However, we are only too aware of the crisis facing our NHS and the difficulties people can encounter trying to secure an appointment with an NHS GP. That may restrict access to prescriptions, especially in cases where a repeat prescription is not available.
In her response, it would be very helpful if the Minister could share with us any information she has on the number of people receiving sunscreen products as a prescription on the NHS, and how many receive their prescription free of charge. It would also be helpful if she could update us on the average waiting time to obtain an NHS GP appointment. I am sure that the Minister will also set out the Government’s position in response to the call from the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire. The Opposition appreciate that expanding the scope of VAT release is a complex consideration that can add pressures to public finances.
There is a wider point about the affordability of sunscreen and other products that consumers may need to buy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) said. As the cost of living crisis has deepened, costs for ordinary households have risen to record highs. The Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted that living standards will be worse at the end of this Parliament than they were at its start. It has also outlined that real post-tax household income is expected to fall by 4.3% in 2022-23—the biggest fall since comparable records began nearly 70 years ago.
Finally, I would be interested to hear from the Minister what discussions the Government have had with sunscreen product manufacturers and retailers to determine what steps can be taken to ensure that such products are affordable for consumers. I would be grateful if she could also set out what support those manufacturers have said they may want or need from the Government to help make sure this can be achieved.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) on securing the debate. We had a very interesting, helpful and detailed conversation in November, which was quite amicable, so I hope she will forgive me for saying that my recollection of our conversation is not that I said that people should wear a hat. I was merely pointing out to her that the NHS advice is that we should all wear appropriate clothing, particularly when we are in strong sunshine and in hot places. I think we all accept that sunscreen is but one part of our protection against the damage that the sun can do to us. If I remember correctly, she acknowledged that sunglasses, hats, appropriate clothing and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) said, staying inside during the hottest times of the year are all part of that jigsaw.
I very much accept that, and I genuinely welcome the debate. I particularly thank her and my hon. Friend the Member of Erewash for bringing their personal examples into the debate. It is very important as part of our national conversation—not just on this topic, but on all sorts of topics that the House rightly debates. When we do so, it does not always get the attention it deserves, but it is important that people can bring their experiences to the debate. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) brought the experiences of his staff and their families into the debate, underlining the point that has been made fairly and effectively about how common melanoma is in the UK and the particular impact it can have on people under the age of 50.
As one would expect, the NHS advises people to wear suitable clothing, to spend time in the shade during the hottest times of the day, and to wear high factor sunscreen with at least a four-star UVA rating. The hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) made an interesting point when he said that this is the time of year when a lot of people start to book summer holidays, whether here in the UK—I would always recommend the coastline of Lincolnshire for a holiday, unsurprisingly—or overseas. There is some interesting research that I looked into as part of my preparation not just for today’s debate but for the meeting I had with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire in November. Increased exposure to intense sunlight is thought to have increased because more people can travel internationally and to go abroad, and there is some thinking that that may explain the increase in the rate of melanomas since the early 1990s. It is important to note that, as although sunscreen is an important part of our defence, where we go and what we do when we go abroad on holiday also has an impact.
I am sorry to fulfil hon. Members’ predictions about what I would say, but the truth is that any Treasury Minister worth their salt would make the point that VAT is a broad-based tax on consumption. The 20% standard rate applies to most goods and services, including sunscreen products purchased over the counter. A couple of misconceptions about that seem to have arisen, which I will correct.
We do not have categorisations of cosmetic products for the purposes of VAT, or the Canadian categorisations that the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) described. Either products are bought over the counter, and will therefore have VAT charged on them, or they are prescribed by a doctor or other prescribing professional. Those are the categorisations. VAT applies to all products bought over the counter, including paracetamol and Calpol. In their examinations of patients, GPs carefully analyse whether families are able to buy products over the counter or need them to be prescribed.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran is right that the NHS can provide sunscreen on prescription in certain restricted circumstances. Doctors can prescribe sunscreen, which will therefore be provided without incurring VAT, to people who suffer from certain skin conditions characterised by extreme sun sensitivity, including porphyria. In addition, it can be prescribed to patients who have an increased risk from UV radiation because of chronic disease, therapies or procedures. The hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) asked for numbers; I do not have the numbers from either the Department of Health and Social Care or the NHS to hand, but I will happily provide them to the House of Commons Library.
There are no plans to change the VAT rating on sunscreen.
I will develop my argument, and then I will give way to the hon. Lady.
I know that hon. Members have said they suspect they know what I am going to say, but I cannot change the fact that VAT is one of the main forms of revenue for the UK Government. In the year 2022-23, VAT is predicted to raise some £157 billion. To put that into context, that it almost the entire cost of our NHS. That is how important it is as a revenue raiser for the Government so that we can fund the services we care so much about.
Against that VAT backdrop, we look at items that we want to zero-rate or exempt. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire mentioned period products; I am really proud that a Conservative Government removed VAT from period products. That is a definite benefit of our having left the EU. Starkly, evidence is emerging that such VAT cuts are not being passed on to customers by those who sell those products. I have asked for more details about that, because when Government change tax policy in order to try to help with the cost of living—
In a moment. It is important that those changes are passed on to the consumer, as that is the purpose of the policy. Our raw concern is that if relief is provided, not just with VAT but on other taxable items, it may not be passed on to the customer.
Colleagues across the House have rightly commended Tesco for choosing to absorb the VAT on sunscreen products within its profit margins. I stand with those Members and encourage other retailers to do the same, if this is a matter they care deeply about. While I am delighted to hear that Morrisons will promise to pass on the cut to customers if this VAT policy is changed, I gently point out that we would expect it to do that anyway; perhaps Morrisons should be encouraged to follow the lead of its market competitor Tesco. I know not, and I had better not get involved in competition between supermarkets. However, I would very much hope that retailers—I am sure they take a close interest in their customers’ ability to pay—will follow Tesco’s lead.
The Minister has made a number of points that I want to pick up on. While it is great that these larger businesses pick up and absorb the VAT, we cannot expect that of the small retailers, such as independent pharmacies, in our constituencies. I am thoroughly disappointed that the Minister’s response is living up to expectations, to be honest. Does she recognise that the Government previously committed to reviewing VAT on sunscreen products on the Floor of the House, when the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) committed to it?
There were a number of points there. First, the hon. Lady asked about independent retailers, and I fully accept what she said. I do not pretend that this is an easy decision or an easy policy area. My duty as a Minister is to weigh up the trade-offs implicit in deciding tax policy. We have to ensure that when we make changes to the VAT system, we do so fully understanding the potential consequences for other aspects of that system.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said that this change would represent a very small sum. The truth is, since the 2016 referendum, the Treasury has been encouraged to make changes to the VAT system totalling some £50 billion. Many of those changes will be commendable, and we will have a great deal of sympathy with why a Member feels compelled to make that case on behalf of their constituents. However, we have to make these difficult decisions as to which items are VAT-exempted or VAT-free and which are not, and that is why those products are so small in number.
The Minister is making a powerful case as to why VAT is an important source of revenue for the UK Government, and I do not think anybody would dispute that. But if she was to do as Members in the Chamber ask and remove VAT on sunscreen, can she tell us how much that one single measure would cost the Treasury?
It is very difficult to calculate. Because of the way multinational companies such as Tesco conduct their VAT returns, it is difficult to break it down. Our concern is, as I say, a practical one about the impact. Each and every time I get asked to exempt a product from VAT—this is a regular occurrence, I promise, and I completely understand why Members of Parliament would wish for such matters to be exempted—I have to conduct this trade-off. It is incredibly difficult. I very much understand the intentions behind the campaign, but this is the thinking behind why we have thus far had to say no. Of course, we keep it under review.
I completely understand the point the Minister is making about trade-off and balance, but will she commit to looking at the cost to the NHS of melanoma as a condition? That, surely, should be balanced out against the loss of VAT. Obviously, she will have to go to the Department of Health and Social Care for that, but let us look at that trade-off and that balance in more detail.
That is a very fair challenge. I keep talking about difficulties, but that is the reality of the decisions we have to make; while a lot of melanoma is caused by of exposure to the sun, even in this day and age, some melanoma will be due to sunbed use, which I know colleagues across the House will have great concerns about. Some melanoma will be from damage caused decades ago, when we were less aware of the risks of the sun, and some will have no link at all to sun damage. It will never be a straight swap.
I thank the Minister for her response, and I want to follow on from what the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) said. In my contribution I referred to 200,000 surgical operations and 16,000 new melanoma cases every year, and the scale of that results in a significant cost for the NHS. We are not criticising the Minister; she is doing what a Treasury Minister has to do. We are saying, very respectfully, that there is a cost to the NHS every year. That has to be part of the mathematics of the process.
This is a very long intervention, and I apologise for that. Given that Australia and the United States of America have cut VAT on sunscreen, has there been any discussion with the relevant bodies about what those countries achieved by doing so?
I do not know if there have been any discussions. I will ask, because it may be that my predecessors had them. In terms of comparisons with Australia and the United States, we have to tread a little bit carefully. With the horrendous damage that has been done to the ozone, Australia has a very particular problem with exposure to the sun, and we have to remember the strength of the sun there. I note what the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said about UVA and UVB being present in Scotland, but I do not think that anyone would suggest that Scotland has the same strength of sun exposure all year round as the sunnier parts of Australia.
I have been quite generous with the hon. Lady, so I will carry on. We have to tread carefully with international comparisons. On the broader point, I understand the argument, but we have a great deal of other extremely good causes that I have to look at carefully. It is the responsibility I have to bear. That is the thinking behind our approach to the VAT system.
I thank the Minister very much for giving way. The point that she was getting to prior to the previous intervention hinted at the desperate need for an awareness campaign. If she will not commit to reforming the VAT on sunscreen products, will she consider an awareness campaign around exposure of our skin to the sun?
I fear I may be treading on Health Ministers’ toes if I commit the Department to an awareness campaign. I have already written to the relevant Health Minister to ask what plans there are to help the public on this. Again, it should not just be the Government working on this. Any parent who has a baby nowadays will be told by medical professionals —I remember that I was with my little boy—how vital it is to protect infants, babies and young children with sunscreen, and, critically, to keep them indoors at the hottest times of the day.
There is work that schools can do to help with this, and, in fairness, an awful lot of them do. I do not know if the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire is aware of this, but when there are hot days, such as during the heatwave we had last summer, schools encourage mums and dads to put sunscreen on their children before they go to school and to top it up. I think there is a greater awareness of the risks than there was 20 years ago—even than there was 10 years ago, dare I say.
On the point about the cost of sunscreen, one of the best things that the Government can do is, of course, to cut inflation. Inflation lies at the heart of many of the issues that we as a country are facing. It is precisely why in his new year speech, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made, as his very first pledge to the British public, the promise to halve inflation. We want to cut inflation, because if we cut inflation, prices across the board begin to fall. The poorest, who are the ones hurt most by inflation, will then begin to see their money going a little further, helping them with the cost of living. As well as cutting inflation, we have to get the economy growing and we need to continue on our path of fiscal prudence. That is why I have set out the Government’s responsibilities when it comes to the administration of VAT and its importance as a single revenue raiser towards the cost of the public services that we care so very much about.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire asked about emergency workers. I will try to chase that one down. If I am completely honest, I was not at the urgent question, but I will get back to her on that issue. We take the point, of course, that people working in our emergency services are outside day in, day out. We absolutely accept that and we thank them for the services that they provide on behalf of us all. Whatever our disagreements in this Chamber, we can certainly agree on that.
In the fight against cancer, we are taking action to improve early diagnosis for all cancers. That is why the NHS long-term plan sets out the ambition for 75% of cancers to be diagnosed at stage 1 or 2 by 2028. A recent NHS campaign called Help Us Help You focuses on the barriers to earlier presentation across all cancer types and aims to address some of the underlying challenges to earlier diagnosis. That campaign ran during March and June of last year and in both months saw a 1,600% increase in the number of visits to the NHS website’s cancer symptoms landing page. In addition, the cancer programme has worked with the British Association of Dermatologists and NHS England’s out-patient recovery and transformation programme on a timed pathway for suspected skin cancers, as well as guidance on implementing teledermatology and community spot clinics. Both documents promote the use of technology and efficient pathways to prioritise and quickly diagnose suspected melanomas so that treatment can start as quickly as possible.
I conclude by thanking again the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire for highlighting this important issue and by thanking hon. Members from across the House for their contributions and, in particular, for sharing their personal experiences. I know that we all continue to advise the public to buy sunscreen but also to follow the other guidelines presented by our NHS to help to tackle skin damage. There is a need to protect people’s health against the very real risks that have been presented in this Chamber today.
I thank colleagues from across the House for their support for VAT Burn. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant), who is not in his place today, and the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) for sharing their personal experiences of melanoma. I also place on record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate in the first place.
I appreciate that the Minister has been generous with her time, both today and previously, but I must record my disappointment that VAT Burn is not a priority for this Government. A lot of effort goes into campaigns like this, and I thank my team, some of whom are here today, for the huge effort that they have put into this campaign so far. VAT Burn is not over; this is literally just the beginning. I will keep pursuing this issue, including with the ten-minute rule Bill that is coming up, as I said previously. I thank everyone for their contributions thus far and I hope that Members from across the House will continue to show their support at a drop-in event that I am hosting in the first week back after the recess. They can come and hold a pledge board and get a photo, and show their support for VAT Burn; and we can show the Government and the Minister just how important the strength of feeling on this issue is across the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of VAT on sunscreen products.