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Planning Reform

Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered reform of the planning system.

The housing shortage that we face in this country is the great crisis facing the United Kingdom today. Since 1973, house prices have more than tripled in real terms, with the average house price today reaching over £284,000. Just in the last 20 years, the ratio of house prices to incomes has more than doubled. The average household faces paying more than seven times their annual income for a home to call their own; in 2000, it was three times their income. For the average individual, the statistics are even starker. The housing shortage means that the overwhelming majority of our young people simply cannot hope to afford a home. It means that people cannot move to be closer to work or to their family, and that people are stuck in cramped, unfit and often unsafe homes throughout the country.

The housing shortfall is strangling our economy and choking off the growth that we need to restore our economic fortunes. Put simply, the housing shortage is making us all much, much poorer. The only solution to this crisis is to build more homes. According to a Centre for Cities report, the UK has a shortfall of well over 4 million homes. Even with the Government’s target of building 300,000 homes a year, that deficit would take at least half a century to fill, and sadly we are nowhere near that number.

Evidence from around the world shows the power of home building to make lives better for people right across the income spectrum. In 2016, Auckland liberalised its planning system and precipitated a boom in housing construction, which resulted in significantly lower rents six years later. Across the Atlantic in the United States, new buildings attracting more affluent residents have freed up the homes that they used to live in, lowering demand and rents for homes across the entire market, even at lower income levels. A Swedish study found that the benefits of new housing are evenly distributed among residents from different income groups.

How we actually get to building more homes is clearly far from simple, but what we do know is that the planning system is not fit for purpose, so how do we reform it to get where we need to go? There is growing consensus across the House that the planning system is holding us back from delivering the homes that are needed. Fixing our outdated, top-down and restrictive processes must now be a priority for both main parties and, I hope, all parties in the House. But how do we do that?

The first and most important thing is to make home building more popular with the British public. When asked, people across the country broadly support the idea of new housing. The 2020 British social attitudes survey found that 58% of Britons want to see more home building, with only 25% inherently opposed, and yet, as colleagues will know, specific house building projects in one’s own constituency always seem to attract far more opposition. Some of that opposition is unthinking, knee-jerk nimbyism, and we should have no time for it, but not all of it is unreasonable. Despite the benefits of new homes, existing residents see very little immediate benefit when development comes to their home area. They do, however, experience real costs, ranging from crowded roads to overburdened GP surgeries, and sometimes they witness low-quality homes being unceremoniously dumped on the edge of their town.

I do not disagree with a number of my right hon. Friend’s points. One concern that people have at a local level in Suffolk, and more generally, about additional house building is that it very rarely comes with the additional infrastructure that he mentions. More houses are built, but more pressure is put on the local infrastructure—on schools, hospitals, GP surgeries and the roads. What does he suggest as a mechanism to change that, so that if people accept more house building, they actually get the infrastructure that is needed?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have seen that in my constituency, where a new GP surgery in Nunthorpe, a suburb in the south of the town, has changed people’s attitudes to new homes coming in. However, we need to institutionalise that sort of offer to residents. The planning system must deliver a worthwhile settlement that gives residents a reason to say yes to extra homes.

The Government have legislated for one important potential solution: community land auctions. CLAs allow local government to see a substantial share of the profits from new development, enabling local authorities to capture the uplift in value that comes from planning permission being granted. The value of agricultural land can rise by up to 80 or 100 times. The council getting their fair share of that increase in the underlying land value allows them to deliver benefits to local people, which they can then spend on the new infrastructure that my hon. Friend rightly says is essential to make new developments viable. Residents then get to see their fair share of the upside, too, while the country sees homes unlocked with more community support. I hope to see the Government press on and make the most of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 by getting trials of CLAs moving quickly, because they have huge potential.

“Decisions and policies are most trusted when the people making them are representatives of the people affected by them”—that quote is from a civil service training manual. Does the right hon. Member agree that we need to ensure that localism remains in the planning process?

I think localism as a principle of good Government is very important. I am a strong believer in the mayoral devolution of the kind that the Government have introduced in recent years. I will come to the hon. Lady’s question about how we can best address the balance between local and national Government. Local government can be a very good thing, but it can also become an obstacle to actually building homes anywhere at all, which is something we need to try to balance.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward. Planning rules on the mainland are slightly different from those in Northern Ireland. The principles that he refers to are important, so I sympathise with his comments, particularly about the time that it takes for a planning application to be granted fully. I have a close relationship in my area with the local planners through the council and also with numerous developers and builders, because there is a tradition of building in my constituency. The frustration about timescales is understood. Does he agree that one of the most pivotal ways in which we could reform our planning system is by ensuring that councils are funded adequately to ensure a more robust planning approval process? Councils have a key role to play; let us make sure they are part of it.

I totally agree. The hon. Gentleman is exactly right: councils need to have the planning departments to process the applications, and too often, as we know, good planners are poached by consultancies when they are needed in our local government system. The answer is to allow local authorities to capture more of the upside financially from new homes being built so that they can fund the requisite staff and expertise— I see the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) nodding—to do exactly what the hon. Gentleman refers to.

The right hon. Member will be aware that there is a Government-imposed cap on how much money local councils can charge big developers when they put in applications. That led to a situation in St Albans where the constituents of a district were subsidising big developers to the tune of £3 million a year. The Government have increased but not scrapped the cap, and councils can still not recoup the full cost of processing an application. Would he support a measure to scrap the cap altogether?

That is a very reasonable question. I would need to look at the detail of the policy to see whether simply raising the cap further or scrapping it would be the best solution to the problem. Do I accept entirely that we need to make sure that councils are not cross-subsidising the cost of development, but are incentivised to welcome good development? Yes, I do.

Another important piece of the puzzle is leasehold reform, and I thought that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Building Safety spoke brilliantly on that issue in the House last week. Although nominally owners, the relationship between leaseholders and freeholders often resembles that of a landlord and tenant. There is too little protection against drastically increased service charges and few incentives for freeholders to properly maintain a building.

Secure and fair property rights are a core Conservative principle. The Government are making great strides with the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill. It is absolutely right that we fix the balance and ensure that once people get on the property ladder, their home is truly theirs. I encourage the Government to go further, and I welcome the commonhold system whereby leaseholders all own a share of the common development, but we must address the fact that leasehold reform is vital.

We should also address the fact that new homes in Britain are too often of low quality. Poor-quality designs leave new and existing residents feeling that new homes are too often nothing more than ugly boxes, and we should look seriously at how design codes can ameliorate that. For example, we could allow individual streets or areas to vote on a design code for new housing. Establishing pre-set and pre-approved design rules ahead of time would allow everyone on the street to see a large share of the potential uplift, while significantly increasing the number of homes built. Design codes could also increase housing through densification, rather than relying on outward suburban sprawl, which would also reduce the potential dependence on cars and would allow more green space to be preserved.

As we have discussed, even if the public are on board, local authorities need to be as well. Councils are vulnerable to particularly vocal activism, even if it is a minority opinion among residents. Any reform will need to empower councils to take long-term decisions in the interests of their area, giving them the tools to get the right outcome from new development and incentivising them to say yes where appropriate, while ensuring that a few bad apples cannot shirk their responsibility to allow more homes. As you know, Mr Betts, our councils really matter.

I recently had reason to feel considerable frustration at my own planning authority in Redcar and Cleveland, when the chair of that authority made the baffling decision to delay the consideration of the proposed new British Steel electric arc furnace at Redcar. That reflects the power that councils can have for good or for ill, and we certainly want to ensure that their natural incentives are to welcome investment.

To do that, we need to ensure that development plans are brought up to date everywhere. These plans allow builders a measure of certainty when deciding where to construct new homes, but they are often not up to date. Unfortunately, the consequences under current law if an authority does not have an up-to-date plan are often trivial.

One possible remedy comes from California—the so-called “builder’s remedy”. Under that policy, if an area fails to plan for enough homes, it must approve any housing project that contains at least 20% low-income or 100% middle-income housing. That solution can be extremely effective. A few weeks of the builder’s remedy in Santa Monica resulted in more affordable housing being approved than there had been in the previous seven years. I certainly favour restoring a presumption in favour of development wherever an up-to-date local plan is not in place.

I would not be a Somerset representative if I did not mention the phosphate levels on the Somerset levels and moors Ramsar catchment area, caused by phosphates entering the water system. It is stymieing the building of new homes in parts of Somerset, so we no longer have that five-year housing land supply. That means that the local plans are effectively suspended, and the local planning authority is forced to approve inappropriate new housing development in areas where it would normally be refused. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in those circumstances, the local planning authority should be afforded better protection from the five-year housing land supply requirements?

I confess that I think the issues surrounding phosphate and nutrient neutrality need to be addressed—indeed, I commented on this with my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) this morning—by looking at the underlying causes of the problems and allowing mitigation measures to be put in place and counted forward so that homes can still be built where appropriate. That would mean that we do not end up in the situation where authorities either commission homes where they are not appropriate or do not commission homes at all. We need to resolve the Gordian knot of nutrient neutrality, because it is an irrational obstacle to building new homes. It is something that we have created through policy, and we need to resolve it through policy.

The Government have rightly said that development plans ought to prioritise building in cities. I welcome the exciting plans set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for major new developments in east London and Cambridge. That is precisely the kind of visionary development that we need and should welcome, and I think it will command broad support. Demand is obviously highest for homes close to city centres, where jobs are located, so those new homes often contribute disproportionately to economic growth. Building in cities also means that less money is required to support the infrastructure needs of new residents, and it is environmentally friendlier. Urban, dense communities inherently encourage lower usage of energy, because living in a smaller space means there is less to heat, and living in an apartment building means that there is natural insulation from other units, and so on.

Estate regeneration is also a win-win way to add more housing in cities and to deliver social justice. Too often, our post-war council estates are impractical and prohibitively expensive to rehabilitate. However, redeveloping an estate with new private housing that helps to cross-subsidise a wider improvement and redevelopment of social housing can result in a plan to deliver a really good outcome for all residents. Allowing tenants to vote on these plans would ensure that their rights were protected while providing new and renovated homes of a kind that is desperately needed.

However, although the brownfield-first policy is sensible, a brownfield-only policy cannot be, and no debate on planning would be complete without my referring to the completely uncontroversial subject of the green belt. The green belt was intended to prevent sprawl, but I would submit that it has done the opposite. Today’s green belt, which is three times larger than London itself, causes a leapfrog effect, whereby individuals wanting to live in London end up settling in distant commuter towns instead, which increases transportation and climate costs. Parts of the green belt—the disused car parks, the petrol stations and the dreary wastelands that make up what the right hon. and learned Leader of the Opposition rightly calls “the grey belt”—are far from the natural paradise that some would have us believe.

The green belt, in truth, has the best spin doctors around, encouraging a widespread misapprehension that it is all beautiful green land, when in fact 11% of the UK’s total brownfield land lies within the green belt.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that some of us do not give or accept that portrayal of the green belt? Some of us are very clear that there are brownfield sites and there are developed sites within the green belt, and most of our concern is about the undeveloped green-belt sites that have natural habitats.

In response to the hon. Lady’s point, I am strongly in favour of making sure that we can better enshrine the protections for the areas of genuine natural beauty and community amenity, rather than having a reductive debate that simply suggests that the entirety of the green belt is an untouchable verdant paradise, because it is not all like the front of a box of Yorkshire Tea; we all know that it is a mixed area of land. It was a crude line on a map drawn in the late 1940s, with good intention but adverse consequences today, and I would argue that we need to have a much more sophisticated debate about what is and is not tradeable in that context.

My own party needs to stop pretending that all of the green belt is valuable, which is bad policy and bad politics, and it is time that we started to look at releasing some grey-belt land to provide us with the housing that we desperately need. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame Siobhain McDonagh), who is a fellow PricedOut parliamentary champion and a friend, has done excellent work in pointing out that some of the worst areas of blight in her constituency are characterised as being green belt.

Of course, even where the planning system does allow developers to bring forward new homes, regulations that are too strict can still strangle supply and push up prices. Year after year, conditions and requirements are added at every level, driving up costs without necessarily delivering high quality. Perhaps the most egregious example of this comes from the Mayor of London’s London plan, where the dual aspect rules require every flat to have external windows on multiple walls. Clearly, indeed inherently, that is desirable, but it comes with a cost, and if it restricts the number of homes built, that intervention needs to be balanced against the wider social imperative of creating homes where they are most needed.

Minimum space standards are another example. While young people in other countries live on their own in flats of between 20 and 25 square metres, in the UK they are forced to live with strangers in overcrowded houses in multiple occupation because we have banned new flats of that size. Politicians need to be honest with the public and with ourselves about the options that exist in this area. In the middle of a generation-defining supply crunch, we cannot afford these rules. People would be much better off in small, modern and affordable flats of their own than in ageing, chopped-up homes built over a hundred years ago. We need to nuance this debate.

We also need to talk about tax. Our main real estate taxes often feel to those priced out of home ownership as though they add insult to injury. Stamp duty land tax and council tax both need fundamental reform. Stamp duty, as it is currently constituted, penalises people every time they move house, meaning that some households remain in homes that are too small for them when others remain in homes that are too large for them—in both cases for too long.

Council tax is regressive and unfair, and fails to compensate local councils properly for increases in land or property value, undermining the incentive to add more housing. Given that all parties are, frankly, terrified of the effects of a revaluation politically, and given that there has not been a revaluation since I was a child of seven, we need to look at fundamental reform of local government taxation. That is a major issue—I do not deny it—but at the moment it is worsening the planning system as well as acting irrationally in terms of the tax system. I submit that both those taxes should be replaced with a proportional property tax, which would save households an average of more than £500 a year and result in up to 600,000 extra new homes over the next five years.

I hope that this morning I have highlighted some easy, sometimes controversial but generally win-win solutions that we could use to help soothe our housing crisis. In the long run, there is no substitute for real root and branch reform of our planning system. Ultimately, I favour a rules-based system along the lines set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark when he was Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. It was unfortunate that the Opposition misrepresented those plans as a “developers’ charter”. If only they had been allowed to do anything of the kind!

Housing has an impact on every facet of our lives. Rising housing costs suppress productivity, increase wealth inequality, worsen climate change and increase homelessness. People need to be together. Bringing people physically together is a social good, but people need homes to do so. This is not an abstract debate; fixing the issue is a moral priority and it also ought to be a top political priority for my own party, as it always was under Prime Ministers as different as Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher. I do not know how we can make the case for popular Conservatism when in too many areas of England people cannot accumulate capital in their own lives. I certainly feel that is why major political change may be brewing in parts of the country that we have long called our heartlands.

One need only contrast the recent success of the Canadian Conservatives to see the amazing difference that embracing pro-home-ownership policies can deliver, even among the youngest voters. The UK is falling behind in the quest for higher productivity and better wages, and at the moment we are only making ourselves poorer by refusing to meet one of our most basic human needs—a place to live. The UK needs innovation, we need infrastructure and most of all we need housing. We will not get enough of it under the current system. That is why the time for talking is over.

We have made too little progress on effective planning reform over the last 14 years and it has become clear to me that politicians are not holding ourselves sufficiently accountable on the issue. That is why I am delighted to announce that PricedOut, Britain’s largest campaign for affordable news homes, will publish an index of Members of Parliament in England running for re-election, ranking their performance on housing, planning and infrastructure issues. That will serve as a guide to voters up and down the country at the next election, showing just for whom the issue is a priority. PricedOut has my support in bringing all of us in this House to account. The country deserves a more serious debate than the one we have had, and we need it soon, before lasting harm is done to another generation by our collective unwillingness to deliver the serious planning reform the country needs.

It is an honour to serve under your guidance this morning, Mr Betts. This is an important debate and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) for championing this issue generally and for raising some interesting points today, many of which I agreed with.

In my constituency the average house price is about 12 times the average household income. So much of the existing housing stock is not available for anybody to live in, make a home in and raise a family or work locally. Over the last 20 years we have seen a huge explosion in the number of second homes, owned by people from away. It is nice for them that they can do that, but they do not—bless them—contribute to the local economy to the extent that those who live there full time do. More recently, we have seen a real explosion in the number of short-term lets. That in itself is not so awful; but it is awful when we see how they have gobbled up the long-term rental market to get into that situation.

We see a decline in the number of homes available for people to live locally—wherever they are originally from—set down roots and contribute to our community. Those are evaporating, and the housing stock we already have is moving into usages that do not contribute to maintaining a full-time economy. That is miserable for families that are effectively expelled from the communities in which they grew up. It is also economically stupid, with hospitality and tourism being one particular sector we can list. It is our largest employer, but 63% of hospitality and tourism businesses in Cumbria are currently operating below capacity—not meeting the demand that is there, which is criminal in a difficult economic situation like this—simply because they do not have the workforce to contribute. That has an impact on health and social care. A fifth of care jobs in Cumbria are currently unfilled. There are a number of reasons for that, but the principal one is that the incomes that are paid in social care are not enough for people to have a home anywhere near communities in the lakes and the dales, in south and central Cumbria.

The housing crisis is real, and it is particularly acute in places like mine. We need action on both what we build that is new and what we do with the existing housing stock.

I very much agree with the diagnosis of the problem by the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and with some of what he said about potential remedies. I do not agree, however, that a free-market approach is the answer. Housing is not a normal market. To treat it like a normal supply-and-demand market is to misread the situation. If we have targets for additional housing, take away all planning controls, and allow people to build what and where they want, we will simply have a field day for speculators—people who buy homes not to live in, but as investments. The people who have something will get more, and people who have nothing will not get anything. We must understand that the housing market is not a normal market, and that the reason we are in this mess is in no small part down to the fact that we have treated it like a normal market. The problem is that, when it comes to the development of new housing, we have an insufficiently fettered free market.

For example, in Appleby, new houses are being proposed and are soon likely to be developed. As things stand, not a single one will be affordable. As somebody who has actively fought for new homes to be built—indeed, I have risked losing votes over it—that causes me great concern. I see estates of 100 houses being built, and perhaps 20 are affordable—although are they really affordable? Yes, the other 80 will sell—there is demand for them—but there is no need. I am happy to go into the trenches and fight for new homes to be built if they are needed, and I am even happy to be unpopular over it, but I am fed up of seeing developments that are basically a waste of bricks. They are very nice bricks, in a nice part of the country, but we do not need them. They will end up being second homes, investments or Airbnbs for somebody who does not need them.

Meanwhile, families who live locally are hanging on by their fingernails. As long-term lets are turned into Airbnbs and people are evicted, those families have to leave the area altogether, which is totally miserable. I have seen that happen right across my patch, from Kirkby Stephen and Kendal to Grange-over-Sands, Ambleside and Windermere: local families are evicted and expelled because of the move from long-term to short-term lets. When we build new homes, they have to meet those people’s needs, not the desires of people who have tons of money and live nowhere near Cumbria.

It is important that we begin to redefine what “affordable housing” actually means in planning law. Homes that are 80% of market value can count as affordable, so we could build a house just outside Kendal that is worth 500 grand, which goes for 400 grand. Well, I am sorry, but that does not help anybody—at least not anybody normal—and it does not help our local economy. Let us be clear that “affordable” should mean genuinely affordable; otherwise, we abuse the term, and it means absolutely nothing.

We need a rebirth of social housing. The right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland talked about Harold Macmillan, to whom we owe a massive debt for his support for the building of council housing. Whatever we call it—social rented housing or public housing—we need loads more of it. We need to build it not in the drip-drip, bottom-up way that is permitted at the moment; the Government have to act, not even as the developer of last resort, but perhaps as the developer of first resort. They need to start investing—backing local authorities and housing associations with public money, so that we build the homes we need in the places we need them. That would ensure that we have viable communities, and that families in areas such as mine can cling on—and not only cling on, but thrive and be centres of communities in the future.

The answer to the problem is not the removal of planning powers. Conversely, we need more. I am blessed to have three planning authorities in my constituency: the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District and the other beautiful bits, not in either national park, that are covered by Westmorland and Furness Council. We have seen empirically over the years that where we are really specific and prescriptive about the housing that we need in our area, particularly in the Lake district and the Yorkshire dales, we will get planners grumbling for months and years about the fact that we will only allow affordable, social rented, shared ownership or local occupancy housing to be built. Planners will grumble, but then they will realised that this is the only game in town, so they will build. That is how things work. The problem is that the lack of certainty will often lead to more speculation and land banking, actually achieving nothing.

Generally speaking, at any given time there are a million homes with planning permission that are not built. We realise that it is not the freedom in the planning regime that is an issue; it is sometimes not being specific enough. We need some specific powers. Local authorities should be given the power to enforce 100% affordability, particularly in areas such as ours, where there is extreme pressure on rural communities.

It is commendable that the Government are now moving towards turning short-term lets into a separate category of planning use, so that we can ensure that we maintain long-term homes available for communities such as ours. However, I urge the Minister to look again at something I proposed when the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill was in Committee, and on the Floor of the House, which is to make the same arrangements for second homes. Second homes should also be a separate category of planning use, so that we can have a limit on the numbers that there are in any given community to protect full-time occupancy of other housing.

As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has just left the Chamber, said, new powers are useless without a planning department that is well resourced. Planners are important and gifted people, and we need more of them. We do not need to be in a situation where they are beleaguered and run ragged by people who know if they break the rules they can get away with it. Enforcement is absolutely vital.

If we are going to build the homes that we need—and we desperately need to—we must be tight and clear about what homes we do need. We need to ensure that we build the homes that Britain actually needs—and that our community in Cumbria actually needs—not the homes that there may be demand for, and that people will speculate over and use as personal investments and land banking. We need to provide the infrastructure first, so that there is space for those homes.

Let us think of the communities that we most serve by building new homes. I think of Hawkshead, which has a brilliant primary school, but does not have the numbers that it should because we have not built the affordable, social rented homes that the community desperately need. I am committed to working with the school, the local community and the local counsellor, Suzanne Pender, to ensure that we achieve that in the coming months and years.

When we do see development, let us also ensure that we build infrastructure. Often we will see the water company saying that it does not need to invest in any more sewage infrastructure or additional capacity, and to just go ahead and build. Because water companies are a statutory consultee, the planners have to nod that through. We should hold the water companies to greater account when it comes to planning processes, so that they are not giving a green light to something that actually needed their investment—which is why they give the green light, of course.

People need a home that they can rely on and afford, that is safe and secure, and that is theirs for years to come; and in which to raise a family, if they choose, and to work from and retire in. That is an essential building block of being part of a civilised society. Without that kind of secure home, we are robbed of our basic freedoms. Communities are based on a range of people who have those freedoms, and who live and work them out together.

Our communities in the lakes, the dales and the rest of Cumbria, as beautiful as they are, will not survive unless we support the building of new homes that are genuinely affordable and meet the needs of local people. We also need to ensure that the homes that are built are used for what they were built for, and not just investments for those who will never live there.

In May of this year I will have completed 19 years of service as Conservative Member of Parliament representing my constituency. Reflecting on those 19 years, the current planning system and its ramifications are some of the greatest concerns for me and many of my constituents.

I want to highlight a very important infrastructure project in my constituency. As a Conservative, the thing that I am most interested in is value for money for taxpayers. We have been talking about Shrewsbury—a beautiful town in Shropshire with more listed buildings than any other town in England. Tourism is extremely important for us and is our No. 1 income generator, but Shrewsbury is a historic town built hundreds of years ago, and it is struggling to cope with the huge increase in house building and people moving into our community. We have been talking about completing the ring road around Shrewsbury for 50 years. I was approached some years ago by the late Graham Galliers, head of the Shrewsbury Business Chamber, who said to me, “The one thing you need to do as the Member of Parliament is to secure the funding to complete the ring road around Shrewsbury, because that is at the very centre of economic sustainability for your constituency.” I use my position in the House of Commons to lobby for funding for the completion of the ring road. Basically, 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock of the ring road has been missing for 50 years. Completing that part will free up the whole north- western segment of Shrewsbury, which is undeveloped, and its construction will be the catalyst for massive private-sector investment in that vacant north-western segment.

I was delighted when the then Secretary of State for Transport came to see me in February 2019—I repeat that date: February 2019—slightly more than five years ago. He came to see me in the Chamber and said, “Good news—you’ve got the funding for the north-west relief road.” That was five years ago. I live in Coton Hill in the centre of Shrewsbury, and I see the extraordinary congestion in my town. We are a small county town, but it takes over an hour to get from one end of Shrewsbury to the other because of the huge amount of congestion.

As I have said before, there is also massive construction. There is a huge flow of young professional couples leaving the Black Country and moving into Shrewsbury. Working practices are changing rapidly. Why live in Birmingham, Wolverhampton or the Black Country, when you can live in beautiful Shropshire and bring your family there and enjoy the countryside? People are starting to move to rural areas like ours and then commute intermittently to Birmingham and inner-city conurbations. That flow of people will only continue into Shrewsbury and Shropshire.

I secured the funding five years ago and, over the past five years, I have watched the ping-pong taking place between Shropshire Council—my democratically elected local Conservative council, which is elected by and accountable to local people—and the Environment Agency. Each side blames the other for the extraordinary delays taking place in trying to get this project through the planning process and for construction to start. In my frustration at what was going on, I said nothing for the first year, the second year and the third year, although I watched with increasing desperation and concern. Eventually, I said, “I can’t allow this to continue. I must intervene.”

I wrote to the new chief executive of the Environment Agency, Mr Duffy, who had previously worked as a civil servant at the Treasury. The Environment Agency shares the Home Office building right around the corner. I asked him in a polite letter whether I could meet him and bring some of my councillors and the portfolio holder for highways. Initially, I was told that he would see only me, that he refused to see my councillors. We went through a bit of an argy-bargy to ensure that, ultimately, the portfolio holder for highways and others were able to join me.

The discussions are all about the construction of a bridge over the River Severn. There is a segment of the north-west relief road where we need to build a bridge. Of course, as with many other construction projects, there is no alternative. The bridge comes relatively close to an aquifer from which drinking water is taken for the people of Shrewsbury, which is why, I am told, there are such significant delays.

I am going to say something controversial and a lot of people will disagree violently with me, but then again, that’s politics and that’s democracy. Do we need these quangos? Do we need the Environment Agency? Yes, of course we do. I see some snorting and guffawing from the Opposition Benches. We need the Environment Agency to work with us and our authorities on mitigating flooding. I chair a caucus of 38 Conservative Members of Parliament who have the River Severn flowing through their constituencies. We are working in a constructive way with the Environment Agency and the River Severn Partnership to try to lobby collectively for additional resources to tame Britain’s longest river.

I see relevance in that work, but do we need such a level of interference from an unelected, unaccountable organisation that clearly lacks transparency, to scrutinise a democratically elected council that is responsible for the people of Shrewsbury and can be thrown out by the electorate if it makes an environmental mistake? The council has hired some of the best environmental advisers and construction companies to try to build the bridge. Can we afford, as a nation, such a level of excessive engagement between the Environment Agency and a democratically elected council? I would argue that we cannot. I trust the local council with all its resources and good intentions, and with local councillors who are part of the community, who drink the water that we take from the aquifer, who are elected and accountable to the people. Can we entrust our councils to make decisions and build essential infrastructure projects for our constituents, or we do need this outside body?

What worries me more than anything else is that I secured £58 million for the road in February 2019. The end project will cost about £140 million or £150 million, and that is just my project in Shrewsbury. I think we will spend an extra £100 million on the project as a result of the massive delays. If that is being replicated across the United Kingdom, which I know it is—I have spoken to other Conservative MPs who have serious concerns about the lack of engagement from the Environment Agency—we really are creating massive additional costs that will be difficult to meet.

The lack of urgency is a concern. Mr Betts, I can show you a file 7 inches thick of my correspondence with the Environment Agency over the last five years on that one project. I am very unhappy with that, and I would like the Minister to know that I have serious concerns about the impact on taxpayers—my local, hard-working families who are paying their taxes. The lack of urgency and accountability from Mr Duffy and his officials on the matter is very disturbing indeed.

Last week, we had the positive announcement of an extra £244 million designated for transport projects in Shropshire, which we have got because High Speed 2 has been cancelled. I was a great supporter of HS2, because I was told that one of the reasons why we did not have a direct train service between Shrewsbury—the only county town in England without such a service—and London was “lack of capacity” on the network. HS2 was going to free up and build for future generations and increase that capacity. What the Victorians did was fascinating. They built not for themselves; they built for future generations. If we plant a row of trees, we are not going to benefit from the shade ourselves. We will be gone, but those who follow us will benefit from the shade. The Victorians understood that, and they built for future generations. The London metro system, which I use almost every single day, is a classic example of building for future generations.

I was very saddened that the Prime Minister ultimately decided to scrap the project, but I was also cognisant that there was no alternative, because the nimbys and people who campaigned against various aspects led to massive increases in costs. We have now benefited in Shropshire from an extra £244 million—thank you very much, Treasury. I will be spending that £244 million as quickly and as expeditiously as possible in Shropshire, but we have only got it as a result of the destruction of a major national infrastructure project by these environmentalists and nimbys.

The pendulum has swung too far away from Governments, councils and Members of Parliament—from people who are elected and responsible for delivering major essential infrastructure projects. The pendulum in our society has swung too far away from those in positions of responsibility and accountability. That pendulum has swung towards the environmentalists, the Environment Agency and the nimbys—we all have thousands of nimbys in our constituencies. We need to recalibrate this equilibrium to ensure that more power is brought back to engineers, architects, designers, planners, councils, Governments and Members of Parliament. Otherwise, we will sink—I want the Minister to remember this—into a quagmire in this country, whereby we cannot build essential infrastructure projects, and they will double, triple and quadruple in price. That is simply unacceptable, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister’s intentions are to streamline and improve the planning process so that examples like my north-west relief road do not occur in other constituencies in the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) for securing this debate. If I am perfectly honest, we have more in common that I thought we might. That gives me great hope, and I hope that we might continue to work together on the reforms about which we do agree.

The Liberal Democrats are committed to overhauling this broken top-down planning system. I supported amendments tabled to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act that would have given councils the powers to force land bankers to build or sell. Unfortunately, they did not go through. We also supported amendments that would have given local councils the power to regulate Airbnbs, something that is so important to my St Albans constituency. I have also been running a campaign to get the Government to scrap the cap on planning fees, as my constituents are subsidising big developers, and our planning department has been left woefully underfunded. It is really disappointing that those amendments were not accepted for the levelling-up Act.

Today, I want to focus on the failed top-down approach to setting housing targets. The Liberal Democrats have an ambition to build 380,000 homes a year, but by adopting a bottom-up approach we would ensure that they were built in the right places and were the right homes. We would require councils to start by addressing their local housing need and identifying any local constraints. The approach would include ensuring that 150,000 homes each year would be truly affordable for social rent, and I am delighted that that is supported by research from the National Housing Federation, Crisis and Heriot-Watt University.

I want to interrogate recent reforms to the national planning policy framework. I intend to challenge the Minister to clarify whether the reforms her Government announced in December have in fact been incorporated into the NPPF at all. I am sure it will come as no surprise to Members or the Minister that I take a keen interest in the proposals to update the NPPF. The Minister will know that I have tabled scores of parliamentary questions, secured debates, responded to various consultations and tabled amendments to the levelling-up Act. I have been clear that the current Government policy and the NPPF itself do nothing to solve the housing crisis. What they do is incentivise developers to destroy great swathes of precious agricultural land, natural habitat and green open spaces on the metropolitan green belt.

The root of the problem is the Government’s top-down housing targets, which are based on out-of-date population data and which councils are required to meet irrespective of any local constraints. There is no clear guidance in the new NPPF at all about whether those top-down targets or preserving undeveloped green belt space for future generations should take precedence, and that is quite confusing.

Let us look at the history of this issue. In 2015, the then Minister of State for Housing and Planning took steps to address it in a written ministerial statement. On permitting development on the green belt, he said that unmet need is

“unlikely to clearly outweigh harm to the green belt and any other harm so as to establish very special circumstances.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 95WS.]

There was a very clear instruction in that statement to local planning authorities and to the planning inspector that the protection of undeveloped green belt should be given more weight than meeting housing targets.

However, that ministerial statement was made nine years ago. There have been 12 Conservative Housing Ministers since then, and unfortunately not one of them has seen fit to incorporate that statement and that principle into the NPPF. That remarkable state of affairs has meant that the Planning Inspectorate has never been able to give that statement any weight at all when deciding on planning appeals. Nor has the Planning Inspectorate had the ability to apply that principle to its examination of local plans—in fact, the planning inspector said as much in a planning appeal heard for an application in Colney Heath in my constituency that has resulted in the wrong homes being built in the wrong place. As a consequence, many councils are not able to meet the top-down housing targets without surrendering undeveloped green belt land for development.

The Minister will know that in St Albans, we unfortunately have the oldest adopted local plan in England. Two previous drafts developed under Conservative administrations were rejected by the Planning Inspectorate. Since 2019, the Liberal Democrat administration has prioritised the local plan process. It has been put under the auspices of the leader of the council, and in recent months the district council has made significant progress by completing a call for sites, producing a draft local plan and completing a regulation 18 consultation.

The Government’s top-down approach has a real impact in St Albans, and that is the situation our district council now faces. The Government’s standard method produces a top-down target of approximately 14,000 homes that need to be built within the St Albans district. The Government’s approach does not allow for any reduction in that top-down target, even though we have been given a Government-imposed strategic rail freight interchange the size of 3.5 million square metres of green belt, equivalent to 490 football pitches, which could instead have potentially accommodated between 2,500 and 3,000 homes. Following the district council’s call for sites and the regulation 18 consultation, it is thought that only around 5,000 homes can be accommodated on brownfield or grey belt sites. Around 9,000 homes will need to be built on previously undeveloped green belt.

The district council is working at pace to put a plan in place, but the combined failure of the Government to embed that written ministerial statement into the NPPF and of previous administrations in St Albans to develop a local plan now means that the council is currently unable to defend itself and its communities from inappropriate, speculative development. As a result, developers have mostly won their cases by appealing to the Planning Inspectorate.

St Albans City and District Council remains unable to prevent the wrong houses from being built in the wrong place. For example, just in the last year 2022-23, most of the housing built in our district was four, five or six-bedroom executive housing, not the three-bedroom homes that we desperately need. After months of delay, hopes were raised that an updated national planning policy framework would finally address the scandal of local plans being required to meet those centrally produced, top-down housing targets, as produced by the so-called standard method. In St Albans, our council leader took the Secretary of State’s promises at face value, saying that that if the new national planning policy framework is changed, such that the protection of underdeveloped metropolitan green belt takes precedence over top-down targets, our draft local plan will change as well. But it seems to me that the changes to the NPPF actually make the situation worse.

The Secretary of State said on 19 December 2023 that the changes provide

“clearer protection for the green belt…In summary, the new NPPF will: facilitate flexibility for local authorities in relation to local housing need; clarify a local lock on any changes to green-belt boundaries…the Government are ensuring it is clear there is generally no requirement on local authorities to review or alter green-belt boundaries if this would be the only way to meet housing need.”—[Official Report, 19 December 2023; Vol. 742, c. 97-99WS.]

The Secretary of State said all of that, but I have read the new national planning policy framework and I am afraid that it says absolutely no such thing. Rather than softening the need to meet those top-down targets, the changes to the NPPF actually strengthen and reinforce the requirement of councils and their communities to meet them.

There are at least five examples that I can find. Paragraph 15 changes the requirement from “addressing” the targets to “meeting” them, which is a significant change in firming up the requirement. Paragraph 60 adds a new requirement that the overall aim of any local plan

“should be to meet as much of an area’s identified housing need as possible”.

Again, that is a significant firming up of meeting that top-down target. Paragraph 61 codifies the Government’s previous position that

“the standard method is an advisory starting-point”,

but the meaning of “advisory” is not clarified. It is widely understood in the planning sector that “advisory” does not mean that it is merely a suggestion, but it is actually a warning. It is a warning that, if that target is not met, the planning inspector will almost certainly throw out and fail any local plan that does not meet that target.

In paragraph 61, the accompanying footnote 25 restricts the circumstances that might permit deviation from the standard method to extreme examples, such as

“islands with no land bridge”.

It appears to deliberately stay silent on undeveloped green belt constraints. Paragraph 145 had, in the version that the Government put out for consultation, the strongest and clearest indication that

“Green Belt boundaries are not required to be reviewed and altered, if this would be the only means of meeting the objectively assessed need for housing over the plan period”.

Inexplicably to those who expected that revision to strengthen green belt protection, that change was scrapped altogether in the final version of the NPPF. Indeed, there is not one single statement anywhere in the NPPF—none at all—that indicates to the planning authorities or the planning inspector that more weight can or should be given to protect undeveloped green belt over top-down housing targets.

Planning professionals agree that, at best, the new NPPF brings nothing to green belt communities. It was reported that one very senior and respected planning barrister, who attended a Hertfordshire Infrastructure & Development Board meeting on 29 February, described the Government’s changes as nothing more than “window dressing”. St Albans City and District Council has proceeded with its local plan-making, in compliance with the previous version of the NPPF, in the expectation that the Government would honour their promise to give councils more power and the ability to protect parts of undeveloped green-belt land. It is clear that those promises have now been broken.

I am told that the Liberal Democrat administration has followed the advice of the Local Government Association, the Planning Advisory Service, the Planning Inspectorate, its own KC and external experts acting as critical friends. In effect, they have all told the council the same thing: “You must meet this top-down target or you are at risk of your local plan being failed.”

Without a local plan, communities in St Albans will continue to end up with our natural environment bulldozed over for inappropriate and oversized executive homes, with no way for the council to require developers to provide the three-bed family homes that our district so desperately needs. Indeed, the draft local plan that the district council has prepared has identified that more than 50% of the new homes in the area have to be three-bedroomed homes. Yet at the moment we have no way of ensuring that developers build them. There is now a limited window of opportunity for the Government to intervene and clarify whether St Albans District Council can move forward with the draft local plan that revises the top-down housing targets downwards, in recognition of local constraints.

To sum up, I have three questions for the Minister. Will the Minister confirm today whether the Government-imposed strategic rail-freight interchange, the size of 490 football pitches, which prevents the building of 2,500 to 3,000 homes, can be taken into account? Secondly, on 9 January, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Building Safety, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), responded to my written question on the issue of the green belt to say that the Government would consider whether updates were needed to planning practice guidance in due course. Can the Minister today confirm whether that consideration has been completed and, if not, when it will be? My third and final question is will the Government urgently provide updated guidance for local authorities and the planning inspector, making it clear that the protection of undeveloped green-belt sites—not the grey belt—can be considered an exceptional circumstance, which justifies an alternative approach to assessing housing need?

Since the new year, I have tabled 12 written questions asking for clarity on these issues. So far, not one of them has received a satisfactory response. Instead, I have been redirected back to the very statements on which I am trying to seek clarification. My constituents deserve straightforward answers on the Government’s intentions. I hope the Minister will take the opportunity to provide substantive responses today.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) on securing this important debate, and commend him for the characteristic clarity with which he set out his position in opening it.

I would also like to thank the hon. Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for their contributions. I did not agree with all their points, for reasons I may come to, but I certainly agree with the need to focus the planning system on prioritising genuinely affordable social rented homes, an issue the right hon. Gentleman knows I have spoken about at length, not least in the many weeks of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill Committee stage. I also agree with the importance of properly resourcing individual local planning departments, as was mentioned, which is a huge challenge at present.

I think the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland would accept that on most matters there is a profound political gulf between us. Yet, such is the mess that the Government have got themselves into with national planning policy, we have found common cause on a number of specific issues related to it. The most obvious point of agreement between the right hon. Gentleman and Opposition Front Benchers—although not the hon. Member for St Albans, I am sad to say—is on the need for enforceable housing targets.

The right hon. Gentleman recognises, as we do, that to get anywhere near the Government’s target of 300,000 homes a year, let alone the annual level of housing supply that England actually requires, we must have mandatory targets that bite on individual local planning authorities. As a result of the revised NPPF, published on 19 December last year, it is an unassailable fact that we no longer have such targets in England. Although it is correct to say that a small number of the initial proposals in the NPFF consultation were ultimately abandoned—for example, damaging proposed revisions to the tests of soundness—many others were implemented. Those include the softening of land supply and delivery test provisions, the emphasis on locally prepared plans providing for “sufficient housing only”, and the listing of various local characteristics that can now be used to justify a deviation from the standard method for assessing local housing need. As a result, the standard method is now explicitly only an advisory starting point.

The predictable result, as Ministers surely knew would be the case when they made the concessions in question to the so-called planning concern group of Tory Back Benchers in December 2022, is that a growing number of councils with local plans at an advanced stage of development, more often than not in areas of high unmet need, are scrambling to reverse ferret and take advantage of the freedom the revised NPPF provides to plan for less housing than their nominal local targets imply. The Government’s manifesto commitment to 300,000 homes a year thus remains alive, but in name only. It is abandoned in practice but not formally abolished, and no amount of protestations to the contrary by Ministers will alter that fact.

As the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland has rightly argued in the past, the decision to overhaul national planning policy in this way was, as he said, “disastrous”. It was, as we know, a decision made not in the national interest, but as a grubby concession to Government Back Benchers who were threatening to derail the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. It was nothing less than a woeful abdication of responsibility, and it must be undone. A Labour Government will act decisively and early to ensure that it is undone so that we once again have a planning system geared towards meeting housing need in full—that is absolutely a red line for us.

Where we respectfully part ways with the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland is on the issue of whether the post-war discretionary planning system is beyond redemption. As the right hon. Gentleman made clear in his remarks, he firmly believes that it is, and that it should be replaced by a zonal planning system of the kind proposed by the “Planning for the Future” White Paper published in 2020, but eventually abandoned. We might notice a trend here in the face of Back Bench pressure from the Government Benches.

We take a different view; while we do not dispute that after a decade of piecemeal and inept tinkering the planning system the Government are presiding over is faltering on almost all fronts, we believe that introducing an entirely new system is not the answer. Instead, we believe a discrete number of targeted changes to the existing system, coupled with decisive action to ensure that every element of it functions optimally, will ensure we significantly boost housing supply and deliver 1.5 million homes over the course of the next Parliament.

As I do not have an abundance of time, I will give just one example of the kinds of changes we believe are necessary to get Britain building at the scale required. It is a change that I think might solve some of the problems that the hon. Member for St Albans identified in relation to St Albans. There is no way to meet housing need in England without planning for growth on a larger than local scale. However this Government, for reasons I suspect are more ideological than practical, are now presiding over a planning system that lacks any effective sub-regional frameworks for cross-boundary planning.

The limitations of the duty to co-operate were well understood, but it at least imposed a requirement on local authorities to engage constructively, actively and on an ongoing basis to develop strategic planning policies where needed. Its repeal last year through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act, coupled with the fact that no replacement has been brought forward, leaves us with no meaningful process for planning strategically across boundaries to meet unmet housing need, given the inherent flaws of voluntary spatial development strategies.

Indeed, the Government have now even removed from the NPPF the requirement to help neighbouring authorities accommodate development in instances where they cannot meet their areas’ objectively assessed needs. If we are to overcome housing delivery challenges around towns and cities with tightly drawn administrative boundaries we must have an effective mechanism for cross- boundary strategic planning, and a Labour Government will introduce one.

That is just one example of the kind of planning reform we believe is necessary; others include finally getting serious about boosting local plan coverage. It is appalling that we have a local plan-led system where nearly three quarters of local plans are now not up to date—that cannot be allowed to continue. Another example is reintroducing a strategic approach to green-belt release, rather than the haphazard free-for-all we have had for the past 14 years.

The important point is that we should be focused on bold evolution of the planning system in England, not a complete dismantling of it. Not least because the painstaking creation of an entirely new system, after four years of planning policy turbulence and uncertainty in the wake of the 2020 White Paper, would almost certainly paralyse housing delivery and further exacerbate the sharp decline in house building that is now under way. Reform of the planning system, rather than a revolutionary reconstruction of it, is what is needed, so Labour remains committed to an ambitious yet pragmatic and achievable overhaul of the current system, and much-needed policy certainty and stability once that overhaul is complete.

As much as the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland might wish otherwise, it is patently clear that the Government have not only squandered the opportunity to make the planning system work as needed but, in caving in to the demands of their Back Benchers 15 months ago, have actively made things worse, as the planning application statistics released last week make clear. We need a general election so that they can make way for a Labour Government who will do what is necessary to tackle the housing crisis and boost economic growth.

It is a great pleasure to respond to this debate and serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) for securing today’s important debate and for his very eloquent presentation. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for his impassioned pleas on behalf of his constituency, and the hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and for St Albans (Daisy Cooper).

Let me make it very clear that this Government are absolutely committed to modernising our planning system and building more homes. In our manifesto, we had a commitment to build 1 million more houses, and we are on track to do that during this Parliament. We have an advisory target of 300,000. We have not achieved that, but—let me make this very clear—the highest four years of house building in the past 30 years have been since 2018, so our performance is strong.

The Minister indicated that the new NPPF uses the word “advisory”—the Government have always used that word. The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) said that is a softening of the targets, but the advice that my local council has received from the Local Government Association, the Planning Advisory Service, the Planning Inspectorate and its own KC is that “advisory” is a warning that, if that number is not met, the local plan will likely get failed. Will the Minister please commit to provide further guidance on what the Government intend by the word “advisory”?

We are very clear that we want 300,000 more homes to be built in England every year. What we have said is that we have an advisory starting point for each local authority. To answer the question that the hon. Lady posed earlier, the framework sets out clearly that, although changes to green belt boundaries may be made where exceptional circumstances are evidenced and justified, there is no firm requirement to do so. If there are exceptional circumstances, there can be development on the green belt.

I really want to make some progress.

We are absolutely committed to modernising our planning system. We introduced the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act to enable radical improvements in the way planning works. There are numerous measures in the Act, and future support in policy and regulation, that will modernise the system, making it more efficient, effective and accessible. Local leaders will have greater powers and the necessary tools to regenerate town centres and bring land and property into productive use. That will support growth, the delivery of quality homes and environmental improvements.

Underpinning that, the Government believe decisions about development should be driven by sensible local decision making, supported by digital tools to make engagement easier and bring the current system into the 21st century. More local plans must be in place—I agree with the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich on that point—to deliver the homes and infrastructure that people need, in the places where they want to live and work. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has set out his ambition for planning performance. It is now up to those who make the planning system work—local authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and statutory consultees—to expedite delivery. We are committed to building more homes, more quickly, more beautifully and more sustainably, and we must build homes in the places where people want to live and work.

The Opposition parties talk a very good game, but the proof is all in the delivery. I am a London MP, and it really saddens me that under the Labour Mayor of London, in 2022, London had the worst delivery of new houses of any area in the country. We can compare that with the west midlands under the Conservative Andy Street: he actually exceeded his targets.

I speak as an immigrant to this country—we left communist Poland in 1978—but does the Minister agree with me that getting levels of immigration down to sustainable levels will also help in the crisis affecting housing, because a lot of the pressure on the housing stock is coming from people coming from overseas to the United Kingdom?

We have to acknowledge that a lot of the settlement in the UK in the course of the last two years has been exceptional, whether it is by Hongkongers or Ukrainians. I agree with my hon. Friend on the arithmetic. If we have big levels of inward migration, we need the housing to house the inward migration, so I agree with him on the basis of the arithmetic—absolutely.

I am glad to hear the Minister recommit to the Government’s housing target of 300,000 homes a year. She says that the Government are committed to delivering that. Does it not concern the Minister that in the wake of the changes to the NPPF, councils across England—I think an example would be North Somerset—are using the exceptional circumstances test in the revised NPPF to determine lower housing targets than are defined through the Government’s standard method? That is to say that the NPPF will result in less housing than the standard method implies and that there is no way the Government can now meet their 300,000 homes a year target on that basis. She surely must recognise that.

We have been very clear that our target is 300,000, but we want local communities to buy into it. It is very much an objective. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland has laid out very clearly, we need the new housing, and that is why Government are committed.

Will the Minister join me in challenging the Labour party? It claims that it will come in on a white horse and resolve all of this. In practice, we have seen how the socialist Mayor of London has failed to build houses. Will my hon. Friend join me in expressing a reservation about the Labour party’s silence about that rather than questioning the failure of its Mayor of London to provide essential homes?

I agree 100%. The proof is in the delivery, and London in 2022 was the worst performing region for housing delivery. An independent review has been conducted of London housing delivery, and that makes it absolutely clear that the Mayor has failed to deliver housing. It is running at 15,000 new homes per year, according to his own plan, but the actual need in London is multiples of that. That is clear underdelivery, but let me make some progress.

I will take this as a final intervention, because I do need to get quite a few things on the record.

I am incredibly grateful to the Minister for giving way again. Recent interventions have shown that there is a huge amount of confusion and contradiction about what the changes to the NPPF actually mean. A cynic could say that the Government are saying one thing and doing another, but I think that it is really important for communities around the country that we have clarity. Will the Minister please commit to the Government actually producing further guidance on what they mean by “exceptional circumstances” in relation to the standard method, and will she please commit— I ask again—to providing further guidance on the definition of the word “advisory”?

I think I have been very clear in what I have said about the green belt. The green belt should be protected except for in exceptional circumstances, as has been set out.

Let me make some progress. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 will speed up the planning process, delivering a faster and more efficient system, and cut out unnecessary and costly delays. It will ensure that local plans are shorter, more visual and map-based, and built on open and standardised data. They will be concise and focused on locally important matters, with repetition of policies across plans eliminated. New mandatory gateway assessments will reduce the time spent examining plans. To ensure that plans are prepared more quickly and kept up to date on matters including housing supply, there will be a 13-month preparation timeframe and a requirement for councils to commence plan updates every five years.

To respond to the hon. Member for St Albans, I must put it on the record that St Albans has one of the oldest plans in the country. It has been designated. To be honest, I do not know how the Liberal Democrats can stand up and say they have a housing target of 380,000 a year when they object to every single development on the ground. I just do not get it.

Let me move on. We have had quite a lot of talk about nutrient neutrality. I must say that I was hugely disappointed that the Opposition in the House of Lords blocked the Government amendments in the 2023 Act that would have made a targeted and specific change to the law, so that there was absolute clarity that housing development could proceed in areas currently affected by nutrient neutrality. That was done at a cost of 100,000 new homes. It is unacceptable to talk the talk and not to deliver, and the Opposition did not deliver in the House of Lords.

No; I have made it quite clear that there are points I want to put on the record.

The Government continue to work to unlock housing in catchments affected by nutrient neutrality. To address pollution at the source, the 2023 Act created a new duty on water companies in designated catchments to ensure that wastewater treatment works serving a population equivalent to over 2,000 meet specified nutrient removal standards. Competent authorities are then required to consider that this standard will be met by the upgrade date for the purposes of habitats regulations assessments, significantly reducing the mitigation burden on development.

We are also boosting the supply of mitigation by making £110 million available through the local nutrient mitigation fund, to help planning authorities in affected areas to deliver tens of thousands more homes before the end of the decade. Funding will be recycled locally until nutrient mitigation is no longer needed, at which point it will be used for measures to help restore the relevant habitat sites. The fund has already allocated £57 million to eight local authorities, and round 2 of the fund opened for expressions of interest last week. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke), who is no longer in her place, raised nutrient neutrality. I want to make it clear that Somerset was allocated £9.6 million.

Building on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act, we consulted on a range of proposed changes to national planning policy to support our objective of a planning system that delivers the new homes we need, while taking account of important areas’ assets or local characteristics that should be protected or respected. We have revised the NPPF to be clearer about the importance of planning for homes and other development that our communities need. The revised NPPF provides clearer protection for the green belt, clarity about how future housing supply should be assessed in plans, and certainty on the responsibility of urban authorities to play their full part in meeting housing needs.

We have removed the need to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply requirement where plans are up to date, providing local authorities with yet another strong incentive to agree a local plan, giving communities more of a say on development and allowing more homes to be built. To make sure that we maximise the potential of brownfield sites, we are consulting on strong new measures to boost house building while protecting the green belt. Under those plans, planning authorities are instructed to be more flexible in applying policies that halt house building on previously developed land, permitted development rights are extended, and the planning authorities in England’s 20 largest towns and cities will be subject to a brownfield presumption when they fail to deliver.

The Government are clear that having plans in place is the best way to deliver development in the interests of local communities, and the revised framework creates clear incentives for authorities to get their local plans in place. Alongside that, the Government remain on track to meet our manifesto commitment to deliver 1 million homes over this Parliament. We have announced a £10 billion investment in housing supply since the start of this Parliament, to support bringing forward land for development, creating the infrastructure and enabling the market to deliver the homes that communities need, as well as supporting local authority planning capacity. This includes the £1 billion brownfield infrastructure and land fund, launched in July 2023, that will unlock approximately 65,000 homes and target at least 60% of funding to brownfield land.

I want to give my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, who secured this debate, time to sum up, so I will close by saying very clearly that the Government are committed to housing delivery and we are on track to modernise the planning system so that we can achieve that housing delivery.

I thank the Minister for her gracious comments about giving me time to respond. This has been a very good debate and, despite the proximity of an election, a remarkably consensual one about a number of the issues that we know we need to overcome if we are to build the homes we need as a country. Clearly, there are areas of contention and big challenges that require significant political courage to be addressed.

I will briefly give credit to those who have spoken. I agreed with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) about the importance of allowing local planning departments to be sufficiently resourced to do their job. I have more faith than he does in the ability of the market to fix these problems, but that is probably not an unusual distinction between us.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for attending the debate. I wish him every success with bringing forward the Shrewsbury ring road—the 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock segment. Although I concentrated primarily on housing in this debate, it could equally well be extended to infrastructure. We must allow ourselves to build what we need to succeed. The Government need to address some of the obstacles that have progressively accreted and stop us from doing things that we know are in the national and often the local interest.

I welcome the ambition that the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) set out for 380,000 homes a year, but that needs to be underpinned by robust methodology in terms of clear national targets. As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) said, local plans need to be up to date and we need to make sure that they are resourced appropriately so that they can be kept up to date. I count the shadow Minister as a friend in this place, and he is right that there are things that we need to do to give greater accountability for local authorities when it comes to their work. We obviously disagree on nutrient neutrality: I think Labour failed to put their money where their mouth has been when it comes to the importance of house building.

Finally, I thank the Minister. I welcome the fact that we are on track for 1 million homes a year. I would clearly like to see more of that home building and I look forward to discussing with her, as we approach the manifesto-writing process, how we can best deliver it.

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