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Housing Infrastructure: Essex

Volume 734: debated on Wednesday 21 June 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered planning and investment for housing and infrastructure in Essex.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to debate one of my favourite subjects, which is the planning system, and how investment can be forthcoming for development to support my other favourite subject, which is infrastructure—for the rest of us, that is road and rail transport in particular.

This debate is so important for my constituents in Witham, and for the wider county of Essex, because we have seen the most remarkable change in development. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) will respond on behalf of the Government. Even after having been at the Home Office, planning is certainly one of the most difficult and contentious issues. I have had the privilege of working with her previously, and I know that she is deeply constructive.

This issue matters to my constituents. My area is covered by three planning authorities—the districts of Braintree, Maldon and Colchester city—plus Essex County Council, which also has a say on planning issues, as well as town councils and many parish councils; one could almost describe this issue as semi-controversial locally. We are one of the fastest-growing areas in Essex. We border Chelmsford city as well as Colchester city. Our county council is the penholder for minerals and waste plans, and our local parish councils have neighbourhood plans in various stages of preparation. That is on top of the five-year land supply positions, local plans and other pillars that the Minister will be familiar with, including all the planning policies, spatial strategies, the national planning policy framework and changes to national planning laws. In Essex and in my constituency, garden communities were also once on the table.

Our councils have been constantly at loggerheads with developers over five-year land supply positions. Numerous planning applications go to the Planning Inspectorate, and decisions are sometimes felt to ride roughshod over local views. The Minister is familiar with all of that. We have also had the Secretary of State call in and recover planning applications and appeals using powers under section 77 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. We have seen developments approved outside of settlement boundaries against local wishes, and some sites have been deemed inappropriate in local plans.

The Minister and her dear officials in the Department no doubt have filing cabinets just on my constituency and the various pieces of correspondence that I have sent in. However, we are constructive. My constituents have welcomed development. I do not think they should ever be described as nimbys because, quite frankly, we have built thousands of homes over the last decade. We want to see a new wave of homes because we believe in creating the pathway to home ownership.

I will give some examples. Tiptree village has grown and continues to expand; anyone visiting would not deem it to be a village. Stanway has multiple sites being developed; it was once a village, but it is now almost a suburb of Colchester city. Witham town itself has expanded. Villages such as Hatfield Peverel are now being circled by developments. In Heybridge in Maldon, where I am going on Friday, 1,000 homes are being built. That site straddles the two constituencies of Witham and Maldon.

With all that development taking place—thousands upon thousands of new homes—the challenge is not just the house building, but what comes with it. The Minister and every single hon. and right hon. colleague will be familiar with this. Where are the roads? Where are the GP surgeries? Where are the schools? To be fair, we are getting schools through some of the developments. However, my councils and my villages are bombarded with planning applications for developments on green spaces outside settlement boundaries.

It is a fact that developers are highly resourced—they are tooled up, as the Minister and the Department will be only too aware—and can engage highly paid barristers. We have seen far too many speculative applications. Even applications that have been rejected in the past are back on the table. That has an impact on democracy, because it angers and frustrates local residents, who feel that people are riding roughshod over their views and that they cannot have a say. They wonder why their councils, councillors and perhaps even their MP seem so denuded of power. The Government are definitely aware of these issues—they are not new issues for them—so I would really like the Minister to provide some assurances.

There are five-year land-supply issues—there might be a small margin for councils if they have fallen behind or have a marginal land supply. The economic climate, with construction inflation and delays in the supply chain, has an adverse effect on councils, so we need to support them. It is not right to penalise councils in this way, with the risk of unwelcome development in communities. My local authorities are constantly raising these issues.

It would be wonderful if the Minister could provide details about what is being done to encourage developers to build out if they already have consents to build housing supply, and provide clarity on local plans from 30 June 2025. We are back in that famous cycle—the five-year land supply—and councils are struggling with the timeframe, the available windows and what they need to do.

Who can blame people for wanting to come and live in Essex, which is why it is so attractive to developers? Would my right hon. Friend reflect on an issue in my constituency of Thurrock? We have identified sites where we would like to build thousands of new homes, but they are subject to a permanent block from National Highways, because of the impact on the M25 and the Dartford crossing, with which she is very familiar. It is all very well having the road infrastructure, but when it is taken away for national purposes, we are not able to benefit from it. We can see the position, as she can, that because of the five-year land supply, new homes will be built on sites where we do not want them, although we have highlighted perfectly adequate sites where we do want them.

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Some of this speaks to planning policy with regard to neighbourhood plans and respecting the work that has been undertaken. I know her constituency relatively well, and am only too familiar with the Dartford crossing. Thank goodness we got rid of the tolls and everything else with a lot of joint effort.

This is a major issue, because local plans need to be fit for purpose. They should work for local communities, and national schemes should not override them. I say the same as my hon. Friend, and shall come on to infrastructure investment. I hope to see the Secretary of State for Transport at some stage, because in Essex we have a huge number of underdeveloped roads, including the A12—the A13 is in pretty good condition—and the A120, where work has been stymied because of national issues. At the same time, planning and development depend on those routes and roads receiving the investment that they need.

As the Minister will know, local plans, including neighbourhood plans, are important to the planning process, and are a blueprint for national infrastructure schemes. In the east, Transport East and the county council are working with the Government and other authorities on planning for population growth, infra-structure growth and economic growth, all of which are important and exciting things that we want to develop. A truly planning-led approach to planning and development is a win-win. People move in, and they have homes, jobs and so on. Essex, in my view, is one of the best counties in the country, and we are important for economic growth, as we are a net contributor to the Treasury. As a county, what we contribute we never get back, but we do want to see it come back from central Government, whether in sustainable planning policies or the economic growth and infrastructure investment that needs to be put in place.

The county council in Essex provides a great deal of support with regard to development and planning work on roads and highways, but there is not enough funding. At the same time we have the community infrastructure levy, section 106 and the new homes bonus, so how are we going to make this work for local communities? Parts of Witham, including the beautiful village of Hatfield Peverel and the great villages of Tiptree and Stanway, are traffic bottlenecks. The roads are untouched—they have been untouched for probably 40 years, perhaps longer—and the infrastructure contributions are simply not enough. The housing growth in Hatfield Peverel and further afield in the Maldon constituency reinforces the need for a bypass. We cannot have A12 traffic going through rural villages. That is just crazy.

Thus far, no housing scheme has produced anything close to the funding needed to pay for such schemes. I know that the Government are reviewing section 106 and the CIL process, and I would welcome an update from the Minister on that. We need to unlock all of that to get investment in our roads, in my case for the A12 and A120. For my constituency of Witham, those are the two major trunk roads with upgrade plans, but they have already faced delays. The A12 scheme has faced delays and is now progressing through a development consent order process, which is very controversial, I should say. Villages in particular are being impacted.

The A120 dualling scheme has been delayed. Under the road investment strategy, it has gone from RIS2 to RIS3. The scheme is necessary. The A120 was once one of the most dangerous roads in the country. I think it would be useful to hear from the Minister how the planning system and her work is integrating with transport. Linked to that, of course, is healthcare and education. Those are key aspects. The all-party parliamentary group for the east of England highlighted in its levelling up report some of the real deficiencies across the east of England, including Essex, showing that funding formulas used to calculate contributions for key services—health and education in particular—are simply inadequate. Patient-GP ratios in Essex are among the highest in the country. We are struggling, yet we have more people living in our constituencies with no access to health facilities. I would welcome an update from the Minister on that area.

I would like to touch on a very particular point about planning and raise the issue of class Q regulations for urgent development on Crown land. It would be very useful to know how the phrase “urgent development” is defined by central Government. I raise this because the Home Office is using this measure to develop a large asylum accommodation in Wethersfield, in the Braintree district, which my constituency neighbours. The wider impacts for Essex are absolutely enormous. I should just add, for the record, that my part of Essex already houses the largest number of refugees in the whole county.

I would like to pay tribute to everyone who does amazing work locally. It is the local councils that are doing incredible work, but I am afraid that they are not getting the support they need from the Home Office. I appreciate that it is not the Minister’s Department, though obviously she is familiar with the Home Office, but I would like to know specifically what the class Q regulations mean when it comes to taking over a site, in this case Wethersfield, and how the approach may differ from previous sites that the Government have looked at or worked on in the past. Linton-on-Ouse in Yorkshire was one of them.

In particular, I would like to know how there can be such an exceptional planning process that bypasses all concerns and considerations of local councils, local authorities and local residents. I should just add though that Wethersfield is a village. Residents are concerned about clause 103 in the most recent version of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, currently being considered in the House of Lords, which concerns urgent Crown development. The clause gives the Government the power to determine urgent applications on Crown land, which basically bypasses local decision making. I am not sure if local authorities across the country understand what the power will do. It will bypass local democracy, and I think that is a major issue. I would be grateful if the Minister could give an insight on that today. If she cannot, then she is very welcome to write to me on the specifics of this. I would not expect her to have the full details today.

Some of the detail on the use of class Q regulations and clause 103 will cross into our former Department—the Home Office. In particular, I am looking for assurances on how local communities can hold the Government to account, because currently their voices are being silenced. They are simply not having a say.

Democracy reigns in our country, and long may it reign, but within our local communities elected councillors need to be able to engage local residents in a strong way. There are many other planning and development issues that I could raise. I think that I have given the Minister an insight into the Witham constituency, if nothing else. I really look forward to not just hearing from her but working with her. I think she is one of the most capable Ministers in Government, and I have had the privilege of working with her. She has an important role in Government in terms of working across other Departments on these areas of planning, and delivering something that sometimes the Government do not do enough: integrating national policies across the board, so that we can demonstrate that the Government work on behalf of, and deliver for, the British public.

It is a huge pleasure to respond to my former colleague in the Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), and if you will indulge me for one moment, Dr Huq, to congratulate her from the Dispatch Box on her recent honour. She is now a dame, which is incredibly well deserved. I also thank her for her kind words about my work as a Minister. If I am a good Minister, it is because I learned it all from her. I saw her work as the Home Secretary, which is definitely the most difficult job in Government.

Back to matters connected to Witham, we share my right hon. Friend’s desire for the housing and planning system to work for absolutely everybody. We want to make this a country of home ownership. We are the party of home ownership, and we completely agree with her that we want to enable young people to buy a home of their own, and for families to have peace of mind that where they sleep is safe. Housing is at the heart of our efforts to level up growth across the country, including in Essex. That is the power of levelling up: it sees no community left behind. Essex is a thriving and growing area that contributes to the Treasury, as my right hon. Friend pointed out. It is one of the fastest growing parts of the country.

The Government are standing behind the ambitions of Essex and enabling it to unlock even more potential for its residents and people who would like to live there. That is why we have invested significantly in the renewal of town centres across the county. She mentioned a few of them, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). One example is the £85 million investment that we are putting into Harlow, Colchester and at Grays and Tilbury in the Thames estuary through the towns fund. A further £80 million will be invested in four levelling-up fund projects in Southend, Harlow, Colchester and Tendring. Essex is also the only county set to benefit from the creation of not one but two freeports: Thames Freeport in the south of the county and Freeport East in the north-east. I know that those will be huge economic drivers for the county.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham talked in huge detail about all the knotty issues connected to the planning system, and I fear that I will detain the House for too long if I elaborate at great length, so I will pick out a few key points. I will, however, happily respond to her invitation and meet with her, and with some of the groups that she mentioned, such as the all-party parliamentary group for the east of England, to discuss the matter in more detail. She is right in her central observation that we cannot do this in our Department alone; we have to bring together all the different levers of Government—Government funding, the Treasury, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and transport, as she specifically mentioned.

My right hon. Friend expressed the frustration of her constituents when they see development that is not in line with the local plan. That is why we are working to strengthen the role of local plans in the system through all the measures in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. That is absolutely right, because residents feel frustration when local plans are not in place, or cannot be enacted. Speculative development then comes in, leaving local communities feeling ignored. Communities in Witham are very fortunate to have such an effective champion, so their concerns are being heard here. That is why we are making changes to the planning system through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, including to strengthen the role played by neighbourhood plans, which are a valuable means for communities to shape their surroundings.

The national planning policy framework includes important protections for neighbourhood plans where speculative applications have been submitted and conflict with the plan. For instance, if a local planning authority cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of housing sites, which is currently required, a neighbourhood plan may benefit from protections. We are consulting on proposed changes to the paragraph 14 protections in the framework, which, as my right hon. Friend will know, will extend the time period that qualifying neighbourhood plans are afforded under paragraph 14 from two to five years, in recognition of the time it takes to produce a neighbourhood plan. We propose removing the requirement that a local planning authority has at least a three-year supply of deliverable housing sites and that its housing delivery is at least 45% of what was required over the previous three years. That will enable more neighbourhood plans to benefit from those protections, and I hope her residents will find that change reassuring.

The changes will empower local communities and place them at the heart of the planning system, and will remove barriers to building more homes. I will make a few remarks on the five-year land supply because, again, my right hon. Friend has effectively said how controversial that can be and how it can lead to developments coming forward in a way that does not come under the support of local areas. We propose removing the requirement for local planning authorities to maintain a five-year housing supply when they have an up-to-date local plan. We intend to make changes to simplify the policy as well as to clarify the use of historical over-supply in five-year housing land supply calculations. We will come forward with the outcome of our consultation analysis. That will provide yet more incentives for local authorities to work closely with their communities to agree local plans.

It is sometimes reported that we have dropped house building targets. That is not the case. I assure colleagues that we are absolutely committed to building the homes this country needs—the 300,000 homes that we need to be building. We are delivering them through a plan-led system with the consent of local communities that commands the support of Parliament, our colleagues and local democracy, which is at the heart of what we are doing.

I welcome the emphasis on local decision making—we all share that sentiment. The proposed Purfleet development in my constituency will result in 2,500 new homes on the River Thames, 45 minutes from the City of London, and they will sell like hot cakes. That is supported by the Government through the housing infrastructure fund and the development has been gifted the public land on which to build. The community wants it and fully supports the planning application, but National Highways is blocking it. What can we do to ensure a proper joined-up approach from Government so that the homes we need are delivered, because some other Departments are getting in the way?

My hon. Friend raises an issue that I do not have any personal knowledge of, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on a planning application. However, if she will allow me, I will investigate that issue and see what more I can do to unblock it in my capacity as planning Minister. If she is referring to the housing infrastructure fund, I may be able to assist her.

I will finish by raising the issue of the class Q permitted development raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham. The part 12 class Q committed development right permits development by or on behalf of the Crown for up to 12 months in response to an emergency. There are two key considerations. It must be an emergency defined as an event or situation that threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place, the environment of a place or the security of the United Kingdom. To make use of the right, the land must be Crown land. I am aware, as she is, that the Home Office has sought to use the right to provide temporary accommodation for asylum seekers. The House will need to forgive me because this is a live issue and it is subject to live legal proceedings. I therefore cannot comment on it due to fear of prejudicing this issue. My right hon. Friend has rightly brought the views of her constituents to this place, and I and other Ministers have taken note of them.

I would like to finish by thanking my right hon. Friend. It was an enormous pleasure and privilege for me to work with her for an all too brief period in the Home Office. It is a huge pleasure now to be working with her and other colleagues collaboratively to support her ambitions to ensure that Essex remains a fantastic place to live and work, and to be represented by her.

Question put and agreed to.