Motion to Take Note
That the Grand Committee takes note of the Report from the Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment (Session 2015–16, HL Paper 100).
My Lords, in the unavoidable absence of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, who chaired our committee very ably, it has fallen to me to introduce this debate, with the leave of the Committee.
The intention behind ad hoc Select Committees is, in paraphrase, that they examine subjects which fall across policy areas, are timely, lend themselves to making best use of the expertise in the House, and can be accomplished in a short time. The subject of our report, which was published on 19 February last year, certainly fulfilled that remit. It was widely greeted as long overdue. To my knowledge, there has not been a national discussion on the development and future of the built environment as a whole for many years, if ever, despite the fact that our built environment is under unique and massive stress and constant change and shapes every aspect our lives. I am very grateful that so many noble Lords who were not on the Select Committee are here this afternoon. That shows how widely this subject appeals to noble Lords.
There have been foresight studies, housing reviews and endless partial reviews of planning, which are still going on, but there has been a complete failure to think in the long term about how to improve our urban and rural environments, make them more resilient, balance the use of scarce resources and future-proof housing and planning so they serve people of all ages and get the best for the future. At the same time, unlike the majority of countries in Europe, we have no national spatial strategy, and regional planning was abandoned in recent years. Our capacity to plan intelligently is further compromised by the fact that planning departments are being cut to the bone, and our inquiry was made more urgent by a housing market in crisis and extremely ambitious housing targets.
The credit for this inquiry lies with my noble friend Lady Whitaker, and I was very happy to support her initiative. We took more evidence than most Select Committees. There were 1,900 pages of written evidence. We foraged far and wide over complex and profound issues. For the coherence of the final report, we must thank our special adviser, Professor Matthew Carmona. We had an outstanding team: an outstanding clerk in Matthew Smith and excellent support from our policy analyst Simon Keal and our committee assistant James Thomas. We could not have been better served. Above all, we are in debt to the generosity of our witnesses who came from all quarters of housing and planning and who gave unstintingly of their time and expertise, whether they were environment experts, politicians, housebuilders or whatever.
What we wanted to achieve and, throwing modesty to the winds, what I think we have achieved, was to frame a public debate not on housing, although that certainly was a central feature, but on the wider context—in shorthand, on place-making. We asked our expert witnesses: why we seem as a country, to borrow the term recently used by the British Academy, which is engaged in a similar review, to be so “place blind”; why there was so much ugly and careless building when we had so much talent and resource to build better; where the consistent and new challenges are; where the pressures on the system are worse and how they can be reduced or removed; what are the essential ingredients of a healthy and sustainable community; and how could the role of central and local government be changed so that more impact is made, more ambition is created and more leadership and drive are shown?
The answers we received were that it is possible to build better and to manage environmental change without building fewer homes or creating dysfunctional communities, whether that is expressed, for example, in terms of putting a priority on mandatory design requirements; by achieving carbon neutrality and sustainable drainage; by making lifetime homes mandatory in new housing developments to match the needs of an ageing society; by using the assets of our spectacular historic environment proactively to create character in place; or, indeed, by putting the health and well-being of the community at the heart of place-making. We were ambitious for change because our expert witnesses were ambitious and unanimous that this is within our grasp as a country, and they offered many common solutions. The public and professional responses to the report have been swift and positive. The president of RIBA, Jane Duncan, for example, welcomed the report, anticipating that the,
“House of Lords will now get to work with our members and other professionals to ensure that these important policies are adopted by Government”.
We hoped that the Government would respond in similar spirit. I am extremely sorry to say that we feel they have not. We worked hard, for example, to ensure that our report was out in time to inform debates on the then Housing and Planning Bill. The usual period of reply is two months. We waited nine months for a reply to this report. We received it in November—a record delay and a record silence from government. But what is really striking and, for me, saddening, is the tone of the response when it finally emerged and the failure of the DCLG to engage with the scale, the urgency and the spirit of the report. I feel that it failed to respond as seriously to us as we tried to do to the scale of the challenges we were addressing. With the exception of a very few instances where the Government commit to consider a recommendation—and the commitment is usually of a partial nature—the department has simply ridden over the evidence or the argument, whether it concerns a failure or possibilities for positive change.
This is what some of our experts have said in response to the Government’s response:
“Unsurprisingly the response is mainly a defence of existing Government policies, and to that extent disappointing. There are some glimmers of hope … Other areas of agreement with the Select Committee are so well camouflaged that they could easily be overlooked. To avoid a legacy of a poor quality built environment for decades to come, the Government needs to do a lot more to prove that place quality really is one of its priorities”.
I believe that that is a measured comment. I am sorry to say that the routine response throughout the report is to tell the Select Committee what it already knew was happening—for example, explaining policy positions which were often the starting point for our recommendations; or providing a defence of the need to go no further on the grounds that what is being done is sufficient. This can only reinforce the sense we got from our witnesses that they were concerned that the Government genuinely lacked the courage to address the systemic failures of the present system and the necessary, though difficult, solutions that were being put forward, the necessity for adapting to climate change being only one example.
There is nothing easy about finding solutions to these problems. The issue we have is that we searched this report to find a serious engagement with them. It is no pleasure for me to criticise the DCLG. I have a great affection for my old department, and I know how well and how hard officials work. I know the present Minister inherited the situation but it is important that we are truthful in our response, because we have to learn from what we have missed in this exchange.
I turn now to a few specifics. I know that other noble Lords will want to speak on many other aspects of the report, so I will concentrate on just three issues: national policy-making, local policy-making and housebuilding.
Underlying the whole report is the need for the Government to set a much more ambitious role for integrated place-making, to make good the defects that come from the divorce between planning for the economy and for transport, health, environment and culture. In short, we need to move place-making from the periphery to the core and make it the driver rather than the receiver of policy. To that end, we argued, first, for an audit of where policies overlap; secondly, for a clear national policy statement about the role of place-making in government and the divisions of responsibilities; and thirdly, for the creation of a new post, a chief built environment adviser. The role of this adviser would be to promote and monitor the integration of policy-making and to be the champion of quality. We suggested this person should be supported by a small strategic unit, which would make up in part for the loss of the excellent work that was done by CABE until it was scrapped in 2011.
This recommendation has been warmly received and widely debated as an essential measure if there is to be any shift away from departmental silos and low expectations. The Government have responded by insisting that there is already strong policy co-ordination across departments, Cabinet committees and task forces and over the transfer of architecture from the DCMS to the DCLG. I do not think that anyone who has ever served on a Cabinet Office sub-committee has any illusion about there being a spirit of co-ordination. It is largely there for departments to state their existing positions. There is no direct response to the recommendations that the Cabinet Office should review areas of overlap, or that a high-level policy should be published. However—and this is the most positive response in the entire report—the Government have offered to consider—no more—the existing role of the chief planner taking on responsibilities of a chief built environment adviser. They said:
“We will look at developing the Chief Planner role to include discussing and facilitating communication and implementation of policy on the built environment and to identifying and sharing good practice”.
I hate to sound churlish, although I know that I will, because this would be a good but very modest step; but, in truth, the chief planner has a very specific and major job to do. What we are talking about is a new way in which to galvanise bringing together the built environment concerns across government—more than telling other departments what is going on in the DCLG. Can the Minister tell us today when we can expect to see the new job description of the chief planner, and what will it consist of? When will it come into effect? Will it, for example, as the RIBA has suggested, require the Government to publish an annual report providing for high-level monitoring of quality and delivery, and establish priorities for research, policy and action? Will it require the postholder to facilitate a single cross-cutting policy for the built environment? Finally, does this mean that the Government have rejected the recommendation for a separate high-level post altogether?
As for local government, we were clear in the report that the capacity of local authorities,
“to plan proactively and engage with communities is vital in delivering this vision, wellbeing, prosperity and a stronger sense of place. We would like to see the planning profession regain the status and prestige it deserves”.
That is a very significant recommendation, which goes to the heart of many problems. Showing confidence in what planning can creatively achieve is long overdue. Planning is usually cast as the villain, particularly in frustrating housebuilding; indeed, what we have seen in recent years has been a marked acceleration of the deregulation of the planning system in the rush to build as many houses as possible as quickly as possible, which is precisely where the cause for concern over quality is rooted.
We are not going to disagree in our committee that the response must be on local and neighbourhood determination, but there is, and must remain, a prime role for local plan-making as a whole and for maintaining the right balance of development and sustainability. We have to have a guaranteed supply of qualified planners for the future as well as the present. That was precisely what was reflected in the stream of evidence that we received of the impact of budget cuts, the haemorrhage of experienced planners and conservation officers and the huge pressures to prioritise housing development over everything else. That concerns everyone with an interest in good place-making, from developers to Civic Voice. This is precisely why we made recommendations to increase the supply and training of planners, and on the necessity to look for alternative ways in which to fund planning services.
The Government made no response to this crisis in planning. What we were told was that there were a number of existing sector-led initiatives, and on the funding evidence, the Government referred us to the consultation on fees which closed last April. These are inadequate responses to profoundly worrying questions. When our proposals were essentially so practical, why were they rejected? What exactly are the Government planning to do to address the problem of capacity?
Finally, when we suggested the need for more incentives to promote greater co-operation between local authorities, the Government referred us to existing NPPF policy around the duty to co-operate. Since then, we know that there is more in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill—but those are not incentives; they are more like sticks, and it is not clear how they will be enforced. They do not compensate for the lack of spatial planning at regional or sub-regional level, where you can really form a policy.
The greatest test will come in relation to housing supply and quality, and it is here that the Government’s response has been particularly revealing. Three crucial issues which influence the speed and delivery of new houses were identified in the report but sidelined in the Government’s response: housing finance, land-banking, and viability.
The committee observed, on the basis of a wealth of evidence, that the Government were unlikely to meet their housing targets and increase housing supply significantly by relying on the private sector. The sector agreed. The committee recommended, in all logic, that the Government should review the impact of borrowing restrictions so that local authorities could play a greater and essential role. That is hardly novel or radical. RICS, to cite only one body, agreed with us. It said:
“Put simply, more needs to be done to tackle the housing crisis. We wholeheartedly agree that the private sector alone cannot solve the problem”.
The Government explicitly rejected these recommendations.
Likewise, on land-banking, if noble Lords look at pages 70 and 71 of the report they will see that in September 2015, for example, 251,000 homes were granted permission but only half—124,000—homes were actually built in 2014-15, and they may have been inherited from the previous year. This is about land values increasing and profits accumulating, not problems with the planning system. The committee concluded that the Government must consider helping to,
“accelerate the delivery of housing on sites with planning permission, such as permitting the charge of equivalent council tax rates … subject to safeguards”.
The Government failed to acknowledge or address this recommendation, just as they have historically failed to agree that this is an issue. Perhaps the Minister can tell me, having read the evidence, how the Government intend to deal with the reality of land-banking and the failure to build new housing on sites for which planning permission has been given.
On the impact of the development viability test as set out in the NPPF, witnesses told us that it was proving a gift to developers, who are often able to argue successfully that their proposed scheme would become unviable if they were required to provide affordable housing or other planning obligations. We recommended that the Government revise the NPPF to reduce the unreasonable use of viability assessments and introduce a nationally consistent methodology. The Government rejected the first recommendation, although it is modest and logical, but they have said that they will bring forward a more standardised approach post the 2015 spending review. That is good news, but that is now over a year ago. When can we expect these proposals? Will this be mandatory?
I conclude by quoting the Town and Country Planning Association, which commended our report for focusing,
“on the quality of places that we create, rather than just housing”.
It hoped that,
“the government heeds the advice from the House of Lords”.
As I set out in my introduction, the committee feels that the Government have for the most part not heeded its advice, but resorted to a defence of the status quo. But we live in extraordinary times: a rapidly ageing population; climate change; new technologies that will change the places we live and work; highly stressed and dangerously polluted cities; failing transport systems; increasing demands for clean energy; and a huge, unmet need for affordable housing. Put that against the background of Brexit and there has never been a greater need for facing up to the future, and for ambition and leadership.
Planning can do so much more and so much better than it is allowed to do. The Government have taken three times as long as they usually do to think about a response to our report. Would that they had used that time to develop their thinking of how to promote greater confidence, greater competence and more leadership. These issues will not go away. I just hope our report will serve as a resource of clear thinking and wise advice. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare the interests I have in the register. In particular, I own Hutton-in-the-Forest in Cumbria, which is a grade 1 listed building, and around it some houses and land. I am also a trustee of a number of similar estates, a chartered surveyor, a board member of the Historic Houses Association, president of the Ancient Monuments Society and president of the Lakeland Housing Trust.
I am not quite sure whether it is my noble friend Lady O’Cathain or the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, whose comments I join about the Government’s response to the report. Let us be clear: they have taken a very long time and the response is very flimsy. We have waited for the gestation period of an elephant and the Government have given birth to a mouse. It is all a bit disappointing.
I want to focus the main thrust of my comments on two things: first, some aspects of what is going on in the north of England; and secondly on historic buildings. I start with some general points. Like the noble Baroness, I think there is great value in an overview of some of the problems to be considered in more detail in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere regarding the built environment, and associated topics and political problems. I entirely concur with the thrust of the report that a decent built environment—and rural environment, for that matter—is a huge contributor to people’s health, general well-being, sense of well-being and quality of life, and as such, should be encouraged and promoted as part of the country’s infrastructure, using that word in its widest sense.
It is not simply a matter of money, although money has to be spent properly and judiciously. Caring, taking trouble, expertise, design, skills and thought are all essential to making the difference between the good and the bad. Having said that money is not the only consideration, we have to recognise that land and buildings are wasting assets and they have to be refreshed regularly to remain in good heart. Over the years this country has wasted an awful lot of investment in the environment—indeed, wasted it on a heroic scale—by failing to look after things. After all, look at the amount of slum clearance we have had over the years and the amount of urban redevelopment and so on. I sometimes flippantly say that I think neglect destroyed more of Britain’s cities during the previous century than the Luftwaffe ever did.
There are two root causes of this, which we did not touch on all that much in our report. The first is rent—using the word in its strict economic sense—and the second is taxation. Rent is important because buildings have to generate a certain amount of money year in, year out, to cover the cost of the maintenance. If that is not happening, you are storing up trouble for yourself. Secondly, our personal taxation in this country is based on 19th century income tax legislation, which was designed for a completely different world, where people’s lives in many cases were very different. It seems that the effect of the rules in various parts of the taxation system is actually to discourage maintenance of the built environment. There are remarkably few incentives to do that. It does not seem that difficult to imagine ways of gathering tax from people to the same levels as they are currently taxed now, in a way that does not chill looking after the fabric of the nation. This applies to both owner-occupied property and let property, be that housing or other. They both have a place in contemporary society and neither should be given priority over the other. Here again, it is maintenance and looking after things that are so important.
Of course, clearly there is a need for new housing and other development but, equally, it is important that what we have should play its full part in the life of the country, and that cannot happen if things are not looked after properly. If no stitch is being put in, there is nothing to prevent having to spend nine later.
If one looks at some high-profile conservation and historic restoration projects and the impact of tax—whether it is income tax, corporation tax, VAT or the impact of gift aid on charitable giving—it is clear that the state is footing a very substantial part of the bill. This bill has been vastly inflated by the failure to get to grips sooner with the problems; for example, the restoration of Wentworth Woodhouse or Apethorpe are welcome and very much in the national interest, but they probably cost the taxpayer several orders of magnitude more than was necessary. Some of your Lordships may have seen the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, in today’s Times about the problems that this Building we are now sitting in is causing the country and how by doing nothing the cost of the work that needs to be done has hugely escalated.
The systemic response to this should be to devise a system where things are done quicker, which means in real terms you are spending less money. If owners do nothing—whoever those owners might be—the displacement theory so beloved of the Treasury does not automatically mean in some magic way that just because it looks roughly the same the following year, somebody else has picked up the bill; rather, trouble is being stored up, with damp and dry rot, which get worse on a geometric, even logarithmic, scale. I do not think that the arrangements we have surrounding the built environment are at all conducive to that built environment being properly looked after. It goes without saying that a decent planning system is a necessary precondition of a decent urban environment, but by itself it is not sufficient.
I should like to remark briefly on the north of England, where I live. A number of aspects thrown up by the current debate across society about the built environment are different in the south compared with the north, and particularly so when comparing the north with the south-east. Of course, it is the south-east that dominates most of the discussion at present.
Some parts of the north are very prosperous and some are the opposite. In Cumbria, where I live, housing in the Lake District is very expensive, while the west coast of that country is absolutely at the opposite end of the spectrum. In the Lake District there has quite properly for many years been a “house for locals” policy. I chaired the planning committee of the Lake District planning board for four years in the 1980s. The nature of the housing market there is such that demand is effectively limitless. That drives up prices way beyond the ability of many people to conceive of buying houses, despite living and working there, which means that housing for local people has to be provided principally through leasehold.
On the other hand, I hardly exaggerate when I say that in west Cumbria you can scarcely give houses away, even though it is only 20-odd miles from the Lake District. Here, there is much greater scope both for owner occupation and development but the problem is that there is no money. One reason is that there is not much going on, which means that there are not the jobs and so on to support housing, although it is a place where it might be in everybody’s best interests if it were promoted.
An important point is that you cannot completely decouple work and home. Jobs cannot simply be created out of the ether by building industrial buildings—it is much more complicated than that. It is important that a way is found of applying the right economic conditions. If we want to move people out of the south-east, it is a matter of providing not only housing but work. Of course, there have been initiatives for promoting industrial and other activity in the north of England, many of them associated with the northern powerhouse project, but in the eyes of the political commentariat they have been more or less overshadowed by the problems here in the south-east.
If we go back to the central matter of the built environment in the most general terms, I think that everyone is looking for the same thing, albeit perhaps nuanced a bit differently. Quite understandably, ways to achieve it, be it decent housing or the City Beautiful movement, can be contradictory and, in turn, conflict with another important matter—preserving the environment. At the end of the day, this is where judgment and the political process have to step in to resolve the difficulties.
However, my plea is that we must not be dazzled by the big scheme and the flashy—and there are going to be plenty of those about—so that we lose sight of the dull detail that is the necessary counterpoint to all this. I refer to cleaning gutters, repairing roofs and painting windows, which all mean that over a period less and less of our environment will be rotten. If these slightly dull things are ignored, the rest quickly becomes futile. In short, it is good to be boring.
My Lords, with the experienced and patient chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, who is not able to be in her place, and the expertise of our two clerks, Matthew Smith and Simon Keal, and their team, as well as the expert steer of our distinguished adviser, Professor Carmona, to whom I am also personally grateful for recent advice, this committee tackled a huge subject, untouched by Parliament in its entirety since the great Town and Country Planning Act 1947.
Underlying our recommendations was the point that as a nation we have not recognised the power of a good place; that is, its landscape and setting, its services and amenities, its transport and communications, its infrastructure, including green infrastructure, as well as its buildings—all the elements of the built environment which conduce to well-being, prosperity, health and social cohesion. The Government say they acknowledge this but their response does not reflect it. Basically their view is that either they are doing what we ask already or that it does not need to be done. It is a piecemeal late response.
That response characterises the background to the need for our inquiry largely in terms of the housing shortage. We did not intend to duplicate the many studies of housing problems. We looked at housing as one part of what a national policy for the built environment should be. Of course, it is a crucial part, and we acknowledge the Government’s prioritisation of housing, but we were after a larger vision.
An integrated approach to the whole of the built environment has been made urgent by the housing crisis and the need for infrastructure investment, all against our harsh economic climate. But our key recommendation, a chief adviser for the built environment, is reduced in the Government’s response to a beefing-up of the post of chief planning adviser. This completely ignores the pivotal point of our recommendation, that the chief built environment adviser should stand above and bring together all relevant departments in pursuing a coherent place-based vision for our built environment. This would produce far better co-ordination between departments, under the leadership of a chief built environment adviser who would champion quality, commission research, recommend policy, and promote and share good practice across and beyond government—not in planning alone, not in housing alone, but spanning the full remit of the built environment. This emphatically is not the same as the job of the chief planning officer located squarely in the DCLG.
The support of a Cabinet Office housing task force, as my noble friend Lady Andrews has said, is not an adequate response to this proposal. Among other deficits, it ignores the small strategic research unit, which would enable the chief built environment adviser to ensure that their guidance was leading-edge and evidence-based, and took account of innovations elsewhere. Nor does it take in the need for an annual report to Parliament and wide consultation on high-level policy for architecture and place quality, or for monitoring and review.
Shortly after our report was published, the Government published a new construction strategy—an improvement, but one which still falls short of the national leadership we asked for. We wanted planners and policymakers to take more systematic account of health impacts. Here, it is fair to say that the Government have taken much on board, but again they slide back from showing real national leadership, leaving improvements to a “locally led approach”.
One note of hope is struck by the Government’s assurance of continuing discussion of,
“the future resourcing of planning services”.
What more can the Minister tell us about this? The lack of capacity among planning authorities is, after the lack of explicit national leadership, the greatest obstacle we have to creating better places. We took some very penetrating and important evidence from Finn Williams, among others, on this point. I have seen a recent report on the recruitment and retention of planners in one region which calls attention to a quite alarming lack of essential skills. I echo my noble friend Lady Andrews’s view of the key role of the planner—once honoured, now degraded.
The Government pretty much ignored our recommendation on the better integration of transport in the work of the National Infrastructure Commission, and other recommendations on its work. Before its establishment as an executive agency, what consideration have the Government given to our recommendations as they prepare its public remit letter? I remind your Lordships that the Government’s National Infrastructure Delivery Plan 2016-21 is so far completely unrelated to any vision of towns, cities or places in general. It is an example of the lack of joined-up thinking we deplored. There are whole areas where the Government have seemingly ignored the weight of the evidence we produced: for instance on the need to improve the operation of article 4 directions, in order to safeguard employment, to make it easier for people to live near their work and to integrate local economies.
There are others where the Government are on the same wavelength as our recommendations: the provision of homes for our increasing older population; accessibility for them and for people with disabilities; the review of CIL; the importance of vibrant streets, especially high streets; a proactive strategy for making the most of the historic environment, so cherished by local people; and the excellent Great Place scheme. We are encouraged that the Government intend to take our views into account in their response to the consultation on permission in principle. But even here, the Government’s own warm words do not amount to a coherent vision within which policies could be ordered and prioritised. And not enough of the measures we thought essential to improve housing policy have been taken seriously. What, for instance, has happened to the better operation of viability assessments for the affordable proportion of new housing? The RTPI’s report last May on place, poverty and inequality points the way to energising the relationship of good places to social regeneration through housing policy, and this is what the Government really do not get the measure of in their responses. They would have done better to pay attention to the distinguished institutions which signed the Place Alliance commentary on our report.
I have only been able to touch on a few of the extensive areas we surveyed, with the help of brilliant and authoritative evidence; but under them all lies the key recommendation for national leadership in the design of place-making. The Government have missed the opportunity to do something imaginative about this, to our national detriment.
My Lords, the title of the committee’s report says it all: Building Better Places. Our focus was not only on the Government’s focus of building more homes, which we all accept are desperately needed, but on going beyond that, to the spaces beyond the houses—to the houses collectively together, where we create spaces where people want to live and grow, helping them express themselves and their creative understanding of themselves in shaping those places, and allowing them to develop relationships with their families and with others in the community by creating better places. That objective can be lost, as we have seen it lost in the dialogue we hear in the media and in this place every week as we talk about the need for more homes. Our committee correctly responded to that by focusing on the bigger picture of creating spaces for people to grow.
Another thing that our committee did so well was to focus on the issue of the resources at our disposal in this land. We have limited land and limited water and are facing the growing problems of climate change and the need to adapt our proposals for infrastructure and homes in order to respond to those challenges. We are trying in this report to look at the bigger picture and to remind those involved in the political debate of the need to focus on our limited resources.
A number of other committee members are here today so I shall pick up on only three issues. However, I strongly echo the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, that the Government’s response was, at best—to put it politely—disappointing. The committee made a number of extremely welcome recommendations that the Government, to their discredit, lightly tossed aside too quickly.
The first issue is the need to make homes sustainable and to look at the carbon emissions for which they are responsible. The climate change committee has said that if the Government do not tackle this issue, we as a country stand absolutely no chance of meeting our carbon-emissions target. We know from the evidence the committee received that tackling the carbon efficiency of our homes is the cheapest way of addressing the carbon-compliance issues facing us as a country.
The committee clearly disagreed with the Government’s decision to remove the zero-carbon homes policy and the code for sustainable homes. It contended that the decision was likely to add to long-term housing costs through a reduction in energy efficiency, and the committee heard no evidence that it would lead to an increase in housebuilding. The Government’s response was:
“We need to build more homes and these should be sustainable, but we do not need to make building those new homes more difficult than necessary”.
Your Lordships will be familiar with that brush-off: we got it in the consideration of the then Housing and Planning Bill. Pressure from your Lordships forced the Government to commit to review the progress made on sustainable buildings. I serve notice to the Government that noble Lords will be looking with keen intent when that review is made public in March.
In the meantime, this is about not just new homes but the majority of our homes—the older properties we have—and making them carbon efficient, ensuring that we build trust and confidence among home owners to ensure that they take the necessary steps to make their homes carbon efficient through retrofitting. To that end, I welcome the Government’s report, commissioned last July from Peter Bonfield, on ensuring that we build up trust and confidence among individuals to ensure that their homes are retrofitted. That report was published last year. There was a foreword by the Minister in the other place, which I very much welcome, but it did not clarify the specific resources the Government will make available to Peter Bonfield and the industry as they rightly take forward those recommendations to ensure that we can retrofit houses in future.
The second issue I want to tackle is sustainable urban drainage. We have systems that mimic natural drainage systems, which use permeable surfaces, green roofs, ponds and wetlands, and underground storage. They provide an alternative to piped drainage, which is often over capacity, and help reduce the likelihood of surface water flooding, which puts more than 3 million of our homes at risk. The evidence the committee received, including that from the Government, suggested that high-quality sustainable urban drainage systems can be a cost-effective alternative to conventional drainage options and contribute to flood-risk mitigation, as well as water quality, amenity and biodiversity.
However, the key barrier to delivering those good-quality SUDS is not cost or practicability but lack of policy clarity, uncertainty around adoption and ongoing operation and maintenance, and loopholes in the rules requiring SUDS to be built. A variety of adoption and funding arrangements are currently used, with different requirements across the UK. This was recognised by the committee, which recommended that,
“the Government takes a more proactive approach to the provision of Sustainable Drainage Systems”.
Your Lordships may be interested to note that, since the publication of our report, Wales is powering ahead to end the policy stalemate. It already has a completed draft report from its consultants. After a battle with your Lordships on the then Housing and Planning Bill, Section 171 of the subsequent Act required the Government to review the law and policy relating to sustainable drainage in England. That review is currently under way, due for completion by spring, led by DEFRA and the DCLG.
The Minister down the other end described the terms of reference in the Public Bill Committee of the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, but the terms of reference have not been published; nor have the Government issued a public call for evidence. It is limited to a Civil Service exercise and private industry round tables. Ministers have so far declined to meet water policy experts and NGOs; nor am I encouraged by the announcement today of the Government’s response to the EFRA committee’s excellent report on flooding, published in November. The Government have made it quite clear that they intend to take no further strategic decisions on planning to deal with issues around flooding. That gives me little hope that the review will lead to anything, but we leave the door open in the hope that Ministers may see that steps need to be taken.
On 2 February—next week—CIWEM and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust will publish new research highlighting the shortcomings of SUDS policy in England and proposing simple changes, supported by the Landscape Institute, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Institution of Environmental Sciences, which all responded to the committee’s call for evidence. Will the Minister meet me, along with water, construction and architectural experts, to ensure that the forthcoming review takes account of these findings? By strengthening requirements for SUDS, as outlined in our report, and clarifying the mechanism for adoption and maintenance, the Government can improve the flood resilience of the new homes that we need in an affordable way, without delaying housebuilding objectives.
Time is short—I was going to cover the issue of neighbourhood planning. As the Minister will be aware, we will address that issue at some length in the upcoming Committee on the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, but I put it on record that the committee, which took evidence from previous planning inspectors, came out in support of a limited community right of appeal. That is a very important initiative that the committee decided to go with. The committee felt strongly about this, not only on the basis of the evidence but on the point that I made at the beginning—this is about building better places for people. If we can involve local people in shaping the communities they want, not only will we get more houses but we will have communities where people can grow and citizens can ensure that their talents can flourish, and better communities in future.
My Lords, it is essential that more homes are built to support the population of the United Kingdom. Parliament’s own publication estimates that a minimum of 230,000 new homes need to be built each year, a level of building not sustained since the 1970s, and two to three times above the current levels of supply. Some 81,000 households were estimated to be homeless or in temporary accommodation in 2013-14. It is young people in their late teens and 20s who are most unable to afford rents, particularly in the private sector. The gap between average household income and house prices continues to rise, further reducing affordability for many households. Therefore, as affordable new-build housing is essential, the quality and effort put into designing the living environment and communal space becomes even more important. It is particularly relevant that different types of housing are integrated as much as possible, so that different types and groups of people meet each other in the course of everyday life, rather than being shut away behind gates or stigmatised. Derwenthorpe is a good example of integrated housing provision on a very large site.
Community is not just about buildings and streetscapes—it is about the people who live and interact in a particular locality. As the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government recently said, government,
“can build … homes … but alone can’t build communities … a sense of belonging or force people to love thy neighbour as thyself”.
Archbishop Justin in his speech on the debate on shared values on 2 December 2016 spoke of the importance of intermediate groups and institutions, saying that that was where,
“democracy is founded and our diversity preserved and nurtured for the common good ... Intermediate groups are where we build social capital, integrate, learn loyalties, practices and values, learn to disagree well and learn to build hope and resilience”.—[Official Report, 2/12/17; col. 417.]
Newly created settlements that do not allocate sufficient physical space for these intermediate groups and institutions to be formed will struggle to become cohesive communities in their own right and are more likely to fail to integrate into existing communities.
Church congregations make significant contributions to strengthening existing communities, and contributing to building new communities. This can be achieved through formal, organised activities and events, such as regular social gatherings—coffee mornings or lunch clubs—particularly for those of whatever age who are at home alone during the day. After-school clubs, activities for families, children and young people all help to bring people of all ages together. Services such as Messy Church, cafe church and other new approaches help people to engage with faith and get to know one another at the same time. This contribution to the creation of social capital in a settlement, both bonding and bridging, is done most effectively when working in partnership with organisations and groups that already exist or are forming in the community. However, it is the informal networks of friendship, good neighbourliness and participation in other groups and organisations by congregation members that make the most significant, but often hidden, contribution to building community. Research into the relationship between congregations and social capital shows that it is church members who are the glue that holds communities together, with the impetus to bring people together, thereby addressing isolation and loneliness, but also building community where it has not existed before.
The National Planning Policy Framework states at paragraph 55:
“To promote sustainable development in rural areas, housing should be located where it will enhance or maintain the vitality of rural communities”.
New developments to be built under the NPPF must be sustainable environmentally, economically and socially. It is not clear if enough attention has been paid to the social aspects of some new developments. New-build communities need to be linked to existing housing in the area and provided with safe, joined-up pedestrian access and cycle routes. Streetscapes and the shape of developments all have relevance to linking new and existing residents. Developments that turn their backs on their neighbours, or are turned in on themselves, are not conducive to building cohesive and resilient communities. Her Majesty’s Government have endorsed the findings of the Select Committee to encourage developers to use the Manual for Streets. Again, this is to be welcomed.
On this theme, providing access to much-needed services is also part of building community. This is not just medical care, shops and schools—important though these are—but multi-use spaces, such as cafes, pubs, community halls or places of worship. The provision of green space and playing fields, as well as play areas, makes a large contribution to individual and community well-being. Green infrastructure makes an important contribution to sustainability, as well as community building. It is a missed opportunity not to specify minimum standards for this. Leaving decisions solely to local planning authorities risks losing the potential for fully integrated land use.
The health of people living in places with new-build housing would benefit from the use of health impact assessments—HIAs—which is strongly recommended by the Select Committee. In their response, the Government have endorsed this approach, particularly for large-scale developments where the local planning authority considers it germane. It would be appropriate to point out the value of HIAs to mitigate negative impacts and maximise the potential gains in health, and to encourage more widespread use of this tool, beyond larger-scale developments. Public Health England supports a free service for HIAs to be developed. The recognition that, particularly for large-scale development through the National Infrastructure Commission, engagement with local people ensures the maximum sustainable benefits resulting from the new development is welcome. We look forward to the more consensual approach to development promised by the establishment of this body.
The strengthening of neighbourhood planning, supported by the Neighbourhood Planning Bill debated on 17 January 2017, is welcome, particularly the proposal to take into account in planning decisions neighbourhood plans that have been approved but not yet passed by a local referendum. Communities formed from existing and new-build housing will be cohesive only if existing communities have a say in how the new development is built.
My Lords, I want to say a few words about something that nobody has so far mentioned, and that is trees. I want to say a few words about the balance between the built environment and the green environment, between buildings and trees. I appreciate that the committee’s brief was to examine the built environment, but given the importance of trees, I am surprised that they received so little attention.
I do not blame the members of the committee; I suspect the problem arises from their terms of reference. Perhaps we need a Select Committee on Trees in the Built Environment—it would make more sense, I think, to me. In the committee’s summary, neither the word “tree” nor the word “green” appear. It does, however, recommend that we appoint a chief built environment adviser. I suggest that perhaps we need a chief green environment adviser.
This is much more than a matter of emphasis on the relative importance of soft and hard landscapes. Trees are not just an optional adornment but must be seen as an integral part of the whole planning process, from start to finish. A big, concentrated push is needed to turn the general acknowledgment by everyone now that trees are vital to our health and well-being into a reality, and to give trees and the professionals who understand them the recognition and standing they deserve. There is no shortage of organisations and individuals with the knowledge and experience to bring this about. I was surprised by how few of these were called to give evidence and, to be frank, how many environmentally related organisations—
I hesitate to interrupt the noble Lord, since what he says is extremely congenial, but I would like to draw his attention to our slightly jargonistic term “green infrastructure”, dealt with at paragraph 217, which is emphatically meant to include trees. I could not agree more with what he said, but we did look at it.
If I erred, I apologise hugely, but I was looking at the summary that the committee produced and there is no mention of it there. But I take the point that the noble Baroness makes. I was surprised by how few of these experts were called to give evidence and, to be frank, how many environmentally related organisations which could have mentioned the importance of trees failed to do so.
It can be done. Long before I became a Member of Parliament, which was a long time ago, I was involved with the building of Milton Keynes. There great trouble was taken to identify any trees that should be kept and looked after properly during construction, and a massive tree-planting scheme was planned and carried out on completion. On a smaller scale, when the Clore extension was added to the Tate Gallery, I was retained to ensure that no damage was done to the London plane trees nearby. They are still there, and they are as healthy as ever.
We really need to think about what we are doing to London. If you stand by the Tate Gallery, admire the balance between the Tate and its surrounding trees and then look across the river at what is being built there, I am sure that, like me, you will be filled with trepidation and concern. The Woodland Trust is one of the organisations deeply concerned about these issues and I can do no better at this stage than to finish by quoting at some length from its briefing for today’s debate:
“Central to the Woodland Trust’s submission and the subsequent report was that a more coordinated, cross government approach is needed on the built environment. The Government’s response fails to recognise this and persists in … continuing the business as usual approach through the Cabinet Office despite mounting evidence that this is not working for the built environment … Environmental matters should be firmly embedded into the built environment as well as the natural environment so it is critical that every opportunity is taken to ensure cross departmental cohesion”.
It goes on to say:
“Of particular disappointment to the Trust is the Government’s insistence that it is not appropriate to set minimum standards for green infrastructure provision. This is despite the recommendations of the Lords Select Committee and mounting evidence showing that access to the natural environment is critical for everyone’s wellbeing”.
Finally, it says:
“In not accepting the thrust of this very well evidenced report the Government response is missing the opportunity to improve the wellbeing of over 80 percent of the UK’s population who already live in the urban environment. We hope that the Housing White Paper demonstrates that further thought has been given to its recommendations”.
I hope the Government will listen to those points and, having listened to them, will act.
My Lords, the Select Committee report is a very good one indeed. It is a comprehensive analysis of the challenges that we face as we aspire to a high-quality built environment. The Select Committee rightly castigates the Government for their lack of ambition and of political leadership and for the incoherence of policy across Whitehall. The committee has an unequivocal commitment to high-quality design and place-making, and something that I like very much about the report is the unabashed commitment to beauty in ordinary lives.
“Ideas of beauty are among the noblest which can be presented to the human mind”,
wrote John Ruskin, and noble Lords on the Select Committee have written their report in that spirit. They found opinion research showing that 81% of people think that everyone should regularly experience beauty in their lives—one is left wondering who the 3% are who disagree, but I assume they are volume housebuilders. Sadly, the B-word is not in the Government’s lexicon.
The committee, of course, recognises that planning must not obstruct growth and that we need, rather urgently, to have more houses in this country—but it says not at any price, and in this it is surely in tune with the values of the British people. I fear that the Government are not in tune with those values. I was dismayed to see the reference at paragraph 102 in the Government’s response to “UK PLC”. What a spiritually demeaning metaphor for our country. The Government make no apology for having sacrificed on the altar of productivity their policy on zero-carbon homes. Of course, good design makes for good productivity.
The committee discusses the crises of planning: both the crisis of the planning profession and the crisis of place-making capacity. The status and the numbers of planners available to local planning authorities have declined, and there are insufficient skills available. I believe that it is the case that there are now more qualified planners working for developers than working for local planning authorities—the gamekeepers have become poachers. Long gone is the era when the Buchanan report, Traffic in Towns, reissued as a Penguin book, was a bestseller and when the planning profession appealed to the idealism of the ablest in their generation.
It is fair to say that there was a period in the 1960s and 1970s when planning perhaps became too arrogant a profession, and indeed sometimes prone to megalomania. Wholesale redevelopment imposed upheaval on communities of a kind that bred great resentment. Estates were too often poorly designed and constructed and then poorly maintained. So there was public hostility to the planning profession and to planning, and it is incumbent on planners to have a little humility, as I am sure they do as they think back on those times.
We then had the cult of the free market, with the disempowerment of planners, local authorities and the public sector in the 1980s and 1990s, a period when developers more or less ran riot and when much development was anarchic and dispiriting. In places where there was money, degraded building environments were created, while the places where there was no money were left behind, with repercussions that we now feel in the life of the nation. It is one of the factors behind the Brexit vote—although let me say, in favour of Brexit, that it will allow us to have our own, rational policy on VAT where heritage is concerned.
We are entering a period of new politics with a different ethos, and I am very pleased that the leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of this country is telling us that public intervention may be benign. I hope that this is a prelude to the rehabilitation of planning. However, there is a very long way to go. The report tells us of 46% cuts to planning departments between 2010-11 and 2014-15. The government response seems to be in denial about many of the criticisms in the report. Paragraph 20 tells us that the Government consider,
“that there is strong policy co-ordination on matters that affect the built environment”.
The Government pay lip service to the duty of leadership but in the response they dump the responsibility on the chief planner. Unless I missed it, there is nothing at all about raising the qualifications and status of planners. I do not think that they responded to the excellent recommendation from the Select Committee that there should be bursaries for planners and that we should look across the channel to the ambitious policies in France to ensure that there is a strong planning profession and a strong role for planning.
Paragraph 64 of the Government’s response blandly and disingenuously evades the issues of funding for local planning authorities. It states:
“The Government acknowledges that local authorities need to give planning the priority it needs, to support and safeguard the quality of both existing and new environments. We agree with the thrust of this recommendation but while the Government are continuing to discuss the future resourcing of planning services with a range of interests, it is for local authorities to decide how to deploy their resources to deliver a quality service for their communities”.
I do not think that that is good enough. Indeed, implicit in government policy and in the response is a contempt for planning. As my noble friend Lady Andrews said, we have no planning at a national level, and we now have no regional planning. It is true that the Government introduced neighbourhood plans in the localism legislation. They seem to be an excellent thing, but those neighbourhood plans have to be part of a larger jigsaw. The National Planning Policy Framework is a vapid and vague document—a boneless wonder unstiffened by any detailed planning policy guidance.
The Town and Country Planning Association, like the Select Committee, advocated a humane and socially responsible approach in its report Planning out Poverty and in its Planning4People manifesto. It has inveighed against what it terms,
“weak, deregulated planning policy that is dominated by economics, not people’s needs”.
Where is the vision for housing? There is none that I can see on the part of the Government. The vision of the volume housebuilders is one of meanness, mediocrity and exploitation, as they hoard land to keep supply limited and prices high. However, some people have a vision and I should like to quote from Lynsey Hanley’s wonderful book Estates:
“The true test of a successfully housed population”,
“when everyone has a home that suits their circumstances, regardless of tenure: affordable, solid enough to last but fluid enough to adapt to the identities and habits of its inhabitants, easily accessible and capable of conferring feelings of security, steadiness, civic pride and self-worth”.
That is a fine statement, but the configuration of policy at the moment is very far from that. The whole thrust seems to be to build houses fast and not to mind if they are trashy. We see this impetus coming in Help to Buy, in the policy on starter homes, where any capital gain in the future will accrue to the lucky starter and not to the community, and in the obligation laid on housing associations to sell their properties.
Where can we hear the call for quality and beauty? Not in this miserable, downbeat government response. There has been a retreat from the proper ambition of government. In 2000, the Labour Government published Better Public Buildings, with a foreword by the Prime Minister. I should like to quote Tony Blair. He said:
“I have asked ministers and departments across government to work towards achieving a step change in the quality of building design in the public sector … leaving behind a legacy of high quality buildings that can match the best of what we inherited from the Victorians and other past generations. And I am determined that good design should not be confined to high profile buildings in the big cities: all of the users of public services, wherever they are, should be able to benefit from better design”.
He went on:
“Over the last few years Britain has benefited from a host of new landmark buildings, many of them funded through the lottery. Now we need to apply the same energy and imagination to improving the tens of thousands of everyday public buildings which play such a vital role in our lives”.
That point about the duty in our own time to create a heritage for the future was very powerfully made in the quotation in the Select Committee’s report from Sunand Prasad, the former president of the RIBA, who has been such an eloquent and consistent advocate for the best values in architecture. There is a barbarism about current policy. The DCMS has been cut out of any responsibility for architecture, and the Government seem to have forgotten, if they ever knew, that Sir John Soane, who created great plans for Whitehall, which were marvellous designs, even if they were not eventually carried though, said that architecture is the queen of the arts.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, which I co-chair and of which my noble friend Lady Andrews is an invaluable member, heard a plea at a recent meeting from a distinguished planner, Andrew Simpson, who asked us to accept that planning is an art. If that proposition raises eyebrows in our time, it certainly would not have done in Renaissance Italy when, for example, Rossellino and Alberti, acting for Pope Pius II, designed the new city of Pienza, when Michelangelo replanned St Peter’s and the Capitoline Hill for Pope Paul III and when Vespasiano Gonzaga, an enlightened prince and a follower of Vitruvius, designed Sabbioneta. They were great artists and great patrons, and for them of course town planning and place-making were an art.
Pienza and Sabbioneta are now world heritage sites. They were conceived as ideal cities. We have garden cities and new towns. I am not aware that on the occasion of its 50th birthday Milton Keynes was awarded world heritage status, but perhaps it will get a statue of the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, as a consolation prize. The great thing about Milton Keynes is that the people who live and work there like it, which is perhaps the most important consideration of all. It is fashionable among some cognoscenti to sneer at Poundbury, but it is a serious, creative effort to establish a place which is good for the people who live there and will continue to be good for the people who live there in future, and it should be praised. I praise the Government for promising 14 new garden towns or villages.
I was much taken by an article in the Times on 19 January by Clive Aslet, the former editor of Country Life. He said that the great obstacle to good quality development is the cost of land, because developers then say they have no money left to spend on quality design. He suggests that private owners and charities which are going to be there for the long term should not sell their land but should develop it themselves. As they will not have to spend money on land, they will have the resources to spend on the premium—a small premium really—that good design costs, better materials, more generous space and more green in the local environment. He recommends that local authorities should set up housing charities and use compulsory purchase powers to buy retail parks and other desolate and failing developments. Since then, I have been very pleased to see that the owners of Blenheim Palace, Burghley House and Rockingham Castle have said that they want to develop on their estates housing of a quality that they and their tenants in perpetuity will find consonant with the remarkable architectural traditions of those great houses.
Of course, we can build fast if we are clever, but we must always seek to build well and to build for the long term. The additional cost of investment in the near term is abundantly rewarded by better value for money over the medium and longer term. I wonder whether the Government could not have a role in developing new accounting conventions which would better incentivise and encourage all concerned to build for the longer term and not simply to seek immediate reward. When Jane Duncan, the current president of the RIBA, spoke to the all-party parliamentary group, she reiterated the RIBA’s call for post-occupancy evaluation. She suggested that architectural prizes should not be given until a building has been up and in use for at least five years, and that prize juries must get away from their obsession with the image of buildings and the iconic building and preoccupy themselves more with the reality of buildings—how they work for the people who live and work in them. I was surprised that in their response the Government said nothing about their Better Public Building Award, which is a great lever for good and has been used as such. It is strange that in their discussion of prizes they said nothing about that.
The committee deplores the destruction of CABE. I declare an interest as the Minister who established CABE and I still grieve for what has been done to it. The Government rather jauntily want us to think that CABE, as a subsidiary of the Design Council, is still doing a splendid job but, as I understand it, all the witnesses to the Select Committee said that it had been a very bad mistake to downgrade CABE. I see it as an act of political vandalism—a tribute offering to the Treasury, with its institutional philistinism. The Treasury is a curious case of group psychology. I do not doubt that Treasury officials, as individuals in their private lives, are members of conservation societies, where they live in Stoke Poges or Hassocks, but when they turn up to work at Great George Street a dark night embraces them. When I was Minister, I did not have any difficulties with what was then the DETR, now the DCLG; my difficulties were with the Office of Government Commerce in the Treasury, whose values were exclusively economic and commercial.
The report describes very well the achievements of CABE. I would add that it was remarkable value for money and did not leach taxpayers’ money, as the government response suggests. I pay my tribute of praise to the leaders of CABE: two chairs, Sir Stuart Lipton and Paul Finch; and two chief executives, Jon Rouse and Richard Simmons. The series of guidance publications issued by CABE—and, I believe, drafted by Richard Simmons—were of remarkably high quality, and the training programmes that CABE initiated were so valuable. It brought design review to almost all parts of the country, and at almost no cost, because CABE persuaded architects to give their services to design review more or less pro bono as a matter of civic responsibility.
I very much support the committee’s view that CABE should be reincarnated, and I strongly endorse its endorsement of the recommendation from the RIBA that there should be a new office of chief built environment adviser created in government; a unit, which would be the new CABE, based in the Cabinet Office; and an annual report on the built environment to be presented to Parliament. The Government are willing to look at this but suggest that it can all be done by the chief planner. The chief planner has very great personal merits and is much committed to good design but you need an architect, I think, with that imaginative and expert range—whether it is a new Sir John Soane, Rick Mather or Sir Terry Farrell.
Finally, I am very pleased that stress is laid by the Select Committee on the essential link between the built environment and health and well-being. That was well understood by the post-war Labour Government, when Aneurin Bevan was Minister for Health and also responsible for housing. The APPG that I co-chair will draw strongly on what the report has said on this matter. I support its view that there needs to be closer integration between planning policies and health policies, and more use of health impact assessments and health indicators as evidence. I very much endorse what it says about green infrastructure, as my noble friend Lady Whitaker has just insisted. I would add that we want to see much greater use of natural materials in construction. Of course, part M of the building regulations should not fall below the lifetime homes standard.
The Government recognise the case for seeing an important connection between the quality of the built environment and health and well-being—for example, in the context of obesity—but I stress that it is in the field of mental health that this can yield so much. We need environments that support health and help to heal not only the individual but society. When the sun shines, it lifts our spirits. When we are in a beautiful built environment, we feel better. We are happier, saner and more secure—we are more optimistic, and our lives are better.
My Lords, I am grateful indeed to the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, not just for introducing this excellent report but for initiating, alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, the ad hoc Select Committee that produced it. Thanks go also to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, for chairing the committee and steering it through to its eminently sensible recommendations for easing the nation’s acute housing problems.
The special value of the more than 50 recommendations in the report is that they not only address problems of housing shortages and affordability but highlight the dangers of sacrificing quality—in relation to design, accessibility, and environmental, health and heritage factors—in the quest for quantity. On that theme, I note that last year’s report on quality in housebuilding from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment drew attention to a recent deterioration in build quality and customer service and satisfaction. This is likely to be compounded by growing skills shortages, which of course could worsen after Brexit.
I see no reason why the Minister should not in principle welcome almost all of the committee’s recommendations. No doubt he will note that a number are already being pursued, including in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill. Tantalisingly, he may tell us that the committee will find more to approve in the forthcoming housing White Paper. Thanks to the significant changes of emphasis from Mrs May’s new team of Ministers, some of the least acceptable aspects of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 have now evaporated. Those of us who spent many long hours arguing about that legislation have happily overcome the frustration of thinking, “Why didn’t the Government get the point earlier?”.
In choosing from the committee’s cornucopia of important suggestions, time permits a brief word about just a couple. I declare my housing interests, as on the register, including as a vice-president and immediate past president of the Local Government Association, a vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association, chair of the Property Ombudsman Council and co-chair of the APPG on Housing and Care for Older People.
My first issue concerns the committee’s call for new housing that will attract older people who want to downsize from bigger family homes. After a decade of promoting this issue, I hope very much that the White Paper will come up with some incentives to kick-start new building by the private and social sectors for our ageing population; for example, the stamp duty exemption advocated so persistently by the APPG on Housing and Care for Older People would actually benefit the Treasury by unlocking a chain of three other property sales on which stamp duty would be paid, if stamp duty is exempted for a pensioner downsizing.
I noted in a report published just yesterday by the Council of Mortgage Lenders that there are still only half the number of home moves each year compared with the levels in the years before the banking crisis. The CML says that low housing market turnover is pushing up property prices and leading to inefficient occupation of housing, with more people in homes that are too small, or too big, for their needs.
A government-backed “help to move” package for older buyers—like Help to Buy for younger ones—plus financial advice akin to that available to those thinking about their pension pots, could achieve the tipping point for downsizing. Attractive, accessible, energy-efficient retirement accommodation, as the Select Committee’s report notes, could also mean huge savings to the public purse by preventing or delaying the need for residential care and by facilitating earlier discharge from hospital. It would mean fewer accidents at home, a reduction in premature winter deaths and, indeed, in many areas, in isolation and loneliness. At the same time as improving physical and financial well-being for our later years, incentivising new retirement housing would open up those much-needed opportunities for younger generations to upsize.
I think time permits a second dip into the Select Committee’s box of first-class recommendations, so, secondly, I note the committee’s call for,
“much greater co-ordination and integration across the multiple Government departments that effect and respond to the built environment”.
My anxiety is about the clash between housing policies from the Department for Communities and Local Government and welfare policies from the Department for Work and Pensions. I was delighted to see that the Select Committee covering the work of the DWP in the other place has just got together with the Select Committee that covers the DCLG to look at the constraints on rent levels that the former department is imposing on supported and sheltered housing. It is vital that the DWP’s measures do not undermine the work of those at the sharp end who are catering for older citizens and people with special needs. The DWP has already achieved savings to its housing benefit bill by requiring social landlords—housing associations and councils—to cut rents by 1% plus inflation for each of four consecutive years because 60% of these rents are paid by housing benefit. These social rents are already well below market rents, and this compulsory rent reduction is simply a tax on the resources of social landlords. The expected 12% rental loss over four years sucks money out of social housing, making it more difficult for these social landlords to create the high-quality built environments that the committee advocates. Is it too late to stop these rent cuts before the four years are up?
My greatest concern in this clash between the aims of these two government departments relates to the private rented sector, where the DWP has limited the rent it will cover—the local housing allowance—to a figure that is slipping further and further behind the open market rent. Already two-thirds of private landlords are not keen to take in anyone in receipt of housing benefit, and landlords terminating shorthold tenancies for those on the lowest incomes, principally those in receipt of some housing benefit, already constitutes the most common reason for people becoming homeless. Below-market caps on rental payments add another, very significant, deterrent to landlords accepting those who need help paying their rent. Such tenants already struggle with deposits and rent in advance, and payment of the housing benefit direct to the tenant rather than to the landlord is further increasing the risk of arrears.
There are something approaching 800,000 households in receipt of benefit in the PRS, yet in areas of shortages, which now means not just London but most of southern England and hotspots elsewhere, landlords seem very likely to replace all those whose rent is being covered by housing benefit—or, to be technical, increasingly by the housing element of universal credit—with tenants who are able to pay the full market rent. Out goes the single mother with young children to make way for the two-earner household or perhaps the three students. The DWP may be hoping, Canute-like, to turn the tide, buck the market and expect private landlords to accept rents that, in real terms, go down each year. This approach might have some effect in areas of very low demand, where tenants requiring housing benefit are a big part of the local market, although squeezing rents in these areas where properties are often of low quality could mean landlords cutting back on overdue repairs and maintenance. But mostly the DWP’s approach will simply mean landlords not accepting any tenant who relies on housing benefit, including of course many households in work but on the lowest wages. This means accelerating the numbers of those with nowhere to go in either the private or the social housing sector.
I am looking forward to piloting the excellent Homelessness Reduction Bill—the Private Member’s Bill supported by the Government that should be with us in a few weeks’ time—through your Lordships’ House, but I see a real need for DWP welfare policies to be better aligned with DCLG housing policies if we are not to see escalating homelessness and the massive cost that would bring. I congratulate the ad hoc Select Committee on this extremely good report, and I suggest we use its recommendations as the yardstick against which we can judge the merits of the eagerly anticipated housing White Paper next month.
My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lady O’Cathain for her excellent chairing of the Select Committee. It was a great pleasure to serve on it under her leadership. I, too, thank the superb committee staff for all their help throughout, and all the witnesses. I found the government response to the Select Committee report mixed. This is a pressing, controversial issue, reinforced by steady press coverage. It is therefore a shame that the report was not treated with more urgency. I will cover just three points today.
The first is Nigel Atkins’s written evidence covering the French approach, which had ideas that took the debate outside the United Kingdom, and some positive suggestions. I recommend that anyone interested read his evidence. His main conclusion is that the French co-ordinate public expenditure to allow local government to administer local neighbourhood plans. They have a well-oiled social housing sector, essentially financed by deposits from the national savings bank, but the finance is not released until 40% to 50% of the project is presold off-plan. We could also take a look at the Grand Paris project. I applaud our Prime Minister’s public wish to solve the housing crisis in this country.
Secondly, the committee concluded—I reiterate the thoughts of my noble friend Lord Inglewood—that the places we create have a profound effect on the quality of life, behaviours, health and experiences of the people who live and work in them. This includes mental health and stress, especially when the infrastructure does not work. I would like the Government to take this into account. I stress the important role played by historic buildings, townscapes and landscapes, too. The Government should publish a proactive, long-term national strategy for managing the historic environment, which should be considered an asset rather than an obstacle to successful future developments.
The Government did not explicitly accept or reject the recommendation for a national strategy. Instead, their response detailed the work being undertaken by the Government, Historic England and the Heritage Lottery Fund to promote the historic environment. The committee also recommended that the Government should review the rates of VAT charged on repairs to listed buildings and examine the economic rationale for reducing the rate.
Thirdly and finally, I suggest to your Lordships a few relevant ideas put forward by Sir Roger Scruton in a broadcast from which I quote freely. He reminded us that the UK is the most densely populated country in Europe after Malta, surpassing even Holland. Take a trip through the Dutch countryside, however, and then a trip through the countryside of England, and it would seem to be quite the other way round.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before we stopped I was talking about density. Holland is chock-a-block with houses, roads, businesses and unsightly business parks. At night, the whole sky is ablaze with light pollution, and you always feel in range of traffic noise. England, by contrast, offers green trees and woodland, country lanes between quiet villages, landscapes in which the dominant feature is a church steeple or a country house, and a night sky in which you can still see the stars. For miles on end, the place seems inhabited only because the fields and hedgerows, gates, walls and copses remind you that there must be people looking after and caring for it.
Ours is a country whose inhabitants have loved it not merely as a means for their economic purposes, but for its beauty and as an end in itself—not entirely, of course, but sufficiently to impede the worst of the destruction that might have come from the Industrial Revolution and the successive population explosions, through one of which we are living now. When the Industrial Revolution threw the future of the countryside into doubt, people began to combine in order to protect it. The Lake Poets agitated against such industrialisation. Octavia Hill was instrumental in founding the National Trust in the 1890s, so setting the pattern for popular movements, trusts and societies devoted to the cause of England’s built environment and beauty, which is so important. I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, when he talked about beauty and quality.
Then emerged a political force with the Town and Country Planning Association in 1899, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and 100 smaller civic initiatives encouraging people to lie down in front of the bulldozers. The green belt principle followed and the end of ribbon development. Now, we have the dynamic Historic England. I am pleased that at paragraph 115 of their response the Government reiterate their commitment and support for Historic England, which is so important to us today. The English countryside and our built environment are icons of our national inheritance—a symbol of what we are. They were a source of inspiration in the art and literature of the two world wars, they have been at the heart of our children’s stories, and they form the background to everyone’s dream of retirement.
The committee was concerned about the application of quality design, quality architecture and beauty. As Sir Roger Scruton says, post-war development in our cities has been a disaster. Thanks in part to modernist building types and their advocacy by the architectural profession and in part to socialist dogma, whole areas of our cities were torn down, cut in half by dual carriageways and replaced by tower blocks, without streets or shops or meeting places. The result was the loss of communities. The policy was justified by arguing that by building high you increased the density of the population. That argument is provably false. Research carried out by the organisation Create Streets has established beyond doubt that the traditional terraced street laid out in the familiar way achieves greater population density than the normal high-rise estate, while opening the way to shops, theatres, schools and places of worship, so forming the hub of a settled community. We came to this conclusion many times in our meetings.
As for London, the most beautiful parts of which are now mutilated with clunky gadgets designed by modernist nerds for faceless multinational predators, we can only hope that our new mayor will appoint some architectural advisers who are better than the last ones before it is too late. As we know, every proposal for development will be greeted by protests from existing residents who lose the amenity of a quiet neighbourhood or a beautiful view, and the developers and planners will be quick to dismiss the protesters with the nimby label—“Not in my back yard”. However, people do not, as a rule, want to stop development. They want to make certain that development, if it occurs, looks right—not nimby but bimby, or, “Beauty in my back yard”, which is known as the marriage council for the built heritage. Time and again, we heard from experts that public consultation begins when the land has already been chosen, the density of housing has been settled by the accountants and just a few weeks remain before permission is granted. The community is asked for its opinion only when it is too late.
That is the root cause of many protests. The solution is to make certain that the community is involved from the outset. Existing residents have a greater investment in the character of the place where they live than any developer possibly could have. All the real choices—the aesthetic choices—should be theirs. Luckily, this is now feasible. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales’ Prince’s Foundation has developed a toolkit devoted to promoting “beauty in my back yard”. This lays out a step-by-step process, whereby communities, planners and developers can work together for a result acceptable to all.
The foundation has discovered, not surprisingly, that people choose styles, details and street plans that are fitting and harmonious extensions of what they already have. They come up with just the kind of scheme for rural housing that Create Streets now advocates for towns. Sadly, the committee never managed to visit Poundbury, a highly successful building project. I see in the newspaper today that the Duke of Marlborough and other large landowners are to develop similar projects.
The advice from Sir Roger, which marries easily with our recommendations for a solution to our housing problem, is to demolish the high-rise estates, create streets in place of them and provide all planners and local communities with bimby toolkits.
My Lords, I join others of your Lordships in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, on securing this debate on the Select Committee’s report just four weeks short of its first birthday. I also congratulate my noble friends Lady Whitaker and Lady Andrews, whose idea it was to establish the committee in the first place.
The report was launched during the passage into legislation of the controversial Housing and Planning Bill, much of the impact of which will rest on secondary legislation still to be concluded. If I have one reservation about the thorough and challenging analysis of the problems reflected in the report’s title, Building Better Places, it would be that some might be inclined to infer that the problem—and the report’s recommendations —relate to future development, whereas the issues it addresses are already with us.
The report lists five “F” characteristics by which the quality of local places should be defined, namely that they should be friendly, fair, flourishing, fun and free. It defines the last as being “safe, accessible and democratic”. I would list three more Fs, which are matters of a different kind that need to be addressed because they threaten those positive objectives—namely, flooding, fuel, and fracking.
All three of these issues pose challenges to local communities, self-evidently in relation to flooding, as to which there is still insufficient investment in flood prevention. I do not suppose the chair of the Local Government Association—I ought to refer to my interest therein—will have been telephoned by the Secretary of State, as I once was by my noble friend Lord Prescott when he was Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment and York was suffering floods. He telephoned me from Downing Street to ask if I knew where to obtain sandbags.
Fuel emissions greatly threaten health. It is shameful and dangerous that in London they have apparently already exceeded what would have been a safe level for the whole year. There are also very real concerns over fracking, where the Government have effectively taken over from the relevant, democratically elected authorities the responsibility for deciding whether it will be permitted.
Any policy for the built environment needs to address these issues, though of course they are not wholly the responsibility of the Department for Communities and Local Government. The Government’s response to the report, which took nine months in the gestation, is, as others have mentioned, somewhat disappointing. It suffers from being a report from only the DCLG, it seems, whereas it should have been produced jointly with other departments, particularly those with responsibility for health, transport, business and culture, as well as what was the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the responsibilities of which have transferred into the business department.
The tone of the response is too often one of complacency. Given the Government’s failure to react to concerns raised by the committee—for example, relating to the permission in principle measure in the then Housing and Planning Bill—we should not be surprised. Of course, along with the formal response, we also have legislation in the form of the Neighbourhood Planning Bill and, as I have reminded the Committee, secondary legislation under the Housing and Planning Act, with the housing White Paper apparently imminent. I hope that it will reflect some of the concerns raised by the committee, notably around carbon emissions and energy efficiency for new and existing homes. The response to the committee report in these matters referred briefly to “looking at a range” of options in relation to the latter and,
“working with industry to carefully consider”—
their split infinitive, not mine—
“future policy options”,
which suggests a trip to the long grass. Has anything happened relating to this issue in the last year?
Rather feebly, on the committee’s suggestion that they should encourage local authorities to set minimum standards for green infrastructure and management in local plans and planning decisions to promote,
“wider recognition of the fact that Green Infrastructure is an asset, and offers wider economic, health and social benefits”,
the Government regard it as inappropriate,
“to specify minimum standards … as this is a matter for local discretion”.
Coming from a Government who have not hesitated to intrude on local discretion in matters ranging from fracking to the levels of council tax to the number of council newsletters that might be published, not to mention their call for weekly bin collections and their imposition of the bedroom tax and forced reduction of council rents, that is a pretty unconvincing argument.
What is much worse, however, is the cavalier dismissal of the report’s recommendations relating to the provision of what it describes as “long-term affordable rented housing”. Incredibly, in the midst of a housing crisis in which affordability is defined not by what people can afford after meeting their everyday living expenses, but by the arbitrary measure of 80% of the profit-making rents in the private rented sector, the Government refuse even,
“to review the impact of borrowing restrictions on local authorities’ ability to deliver housing”.
On the contrary, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, reminded us, and as we may already be aware, the increase in council rents that the Government are imposing will reduce councils’ capacity not only to build but even to maintain the existing housing stock.
The Government’s reply, amazingly, boasts about the building of all of 8,620 local authority dwellings in 2016. As I have mentioned in the Chamber more than once, Newcastle City Council alone built 3,000 homes in the year I was first elected to the council in 1967. Of course, there is huge pressure to build and no current willingness in the Government to encourage significant local authority building. I acknowledge, incidentally, that the last Labour Government did not build anything like enough new council houses, but they did at least invest heavily in maintaining and improving the existing council stock.
Unless I have missed it, the report does not deal with the role of the private rented sector at all, which includes some 35% of council homes acquired under right to buy and subsequently sold. Will the Minister tell us what, if any, work has been done to assess the condition of these properties, the rents that are charged and their impact on local communities, not least in terms of the rents being levied and the insecurity of tenure? The noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to the local housing allowance and the impact that that would have on housing provision and, indeed, homelessness. Certainly, in the ward that I represent in Newcastle, there are too many such properties that are badly managed such that they have a negative impact on the community. Is it too much to hope that the housing White Paper will address this issue and, in particular, make landlord licensing schemes easier to create than at present?
On a different front, the committee expressed concern about what it described as a significant challenge to our high streets. The Government’s response appears to be somewhat complacent, citing evidence that high streets are recovering from the impact of the global crash. But it is surely becoming clear that online shopping is growing rapidly, as Amazon and the like expand their operations, even looking to effect deliveries not just by underpaid, exploited, part-time workers, but by drones. Do the Government intend to examine the implications of these developments, not just for the high street but for those who work for the industry, whether as genuine employees or as zero-hours contractors or the like?
There are other issues which need to be addressed if we are to secure better places, whether in our existing cities, towns and villages or in new developments. One matter that the report does not significantly address, and has not been significantly addressed yet this evening, is the nature of housing construction that is going ahead. As many of us have pointed out repeatedly, the space standards of new housing in this country compare very unfavourably with those on the continent. That is a matter the Government ought to address. But there are also issues of public transport, which is a key problem in many areas, whether it takes the form of bus services or fragmented and, in many areas, dysfunctional rail networks. We also need to ensure that access to health provision, including pharmacies and recreation, is available, and that education, children’s play and the needs of an increasingly elderly population— I hardly need to declare my interest in that—are reflected in planned developments.
Many of these areas will be ones in which local councils will need to play an important role, but given the current and projected levels of cuts forced on local government by the coalition and the present Administration, already severely impacting on staffing and, as we have been reminded, particularly on planning departments and thereby the capacity of local government to deliver existing services, it really is difficult to see how the eminently sensible proposals of the committee, let alone those that I and other speakers raised, can reasonably be expected to be implemented. In future the Government need to respond to reports of this kind more quickly, thoroughly and effectively so we can see aspirations translated into the life of communities.
My Lords, I was very pleased to be invited to serve on this ad hoc Select Committee. Its scope tied in with my activity as a property professional and my involvement with the APPG for Excellence in the Built Environment, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Best. I also declare my vice-presidencies of the LGA and the NALC, and I am an owner of several historic buildings.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for her introduction to the debate, and to her and to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, for conceiving of the committee. I too pay tribute to our excellent chairman, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, who kept us in order, despite some strongly held, persistent and vocal views. I echo the appreciation from the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for our special adviser and our excellent clerical team. They were absolutely first class.
One thing one learns quickly in this House is that, however knowledgeable one may be as a practitioner in matters to do with the built environment, there are always others from other backgrounds who can effortlessly surpass one’s own knowledge and experience. So it has been for me in this very highly qualified group. Indeed, I suspect that I learned more on occasions than I contributed, and I am very grateful to my fellow committee members for that indulgence. I echo the noble Baroness’s comments that, for all the expertise and devotion to task, it feels as if the effort has rather sunk like a stone, almost without trace. I will address only a selection of what is a very broad canvas indeed.
We all aspire to successful built environments. They are the backbone to our sense of place, our feelings of inclusion and safety and the public-spiritedness of our nation. Old and historic or brand new and flashy, they underpin our work/life balance, quality of life, productivity, individual and family financial security, and human aspiration. Our national residential real estate inventory depends on this success, and with it our banking and finance systems. The quality of the built environment is, in short, a key economic driver, even if its definition escapes accurate codification.
The Government’s response disappointed me. Paragraph 20 claims that there is,
“strong policy co-ordination on matters that affect the built environment”.
I have not really noticed that. Paragraph 23 goes on to state:
“The planning system supports good design and place making”.
Really? I acknowledge that it does not militate against them, but to suggest any proactivity is a trifle far-fetched, given the dearth of resources available to local authorities and the overwhelming pressures to build more houses. One cannot help feeling that, just as it was on the last occasion we were under such housing pressure, pursuit of numbers may well come at the expense of quality, as has been mentioned by others.
I remind the Committee that the Built Environment All-Party Parliamentary Group, of which I am a vice-chair, also reported, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, noted, on build quality last year. In the last two years, I have had to advise, on a professional basis, on solutions for excessively poor acoustic insulation in one new residential construction and woefully inadequate thermal insulation in another. I do not believe either was a one-off situation, even if it cannot necessarily be described as systemic. The recommendation that there should be a chief built environment adviser to government should have been an easy one for the Government to accept.
We risk causing damage in a number of respects. One has only to look at the dynamic of government insistence on more houses as compared with many communities’ natural wish to ensure that they do not get lumbered with more than their fair share, or more than they are capable of absorbing without destroying their own essential sense of place. It is not difficult to see that outcomes here can be capricious. As someone who advises on development land, I can safely affirm that the process remains the preserve more of the bully than of the conciliator.
I have always regarded successful built environments as much as a social condition subsequent as a design construct. The new towns of the 1950s, devised on the then innovative “neighbourhood concept”, often took decades to bed in socially and become settled communities. Meanwhile, care for the surroundings suffered. Some locations never came good: bleak post-war tower blocks with a rat run of galleries, passages and landings wrote their own social and environmental epitaphs nearly from day one. Yet some other, low-rise developments that might have been likened to rabbit warrens—I have come across a few—very often were highly successful and well regarded by occupants. Success levered in occupier commitment, care for appearance and maintenance, and regular reinvestment. Not all successes continued to be so, but the failures seldom, if ever, recovered, and it is these failures that affected the health and well-being of occupants.
Critically, this depends on, and is underpinned by, the people who make the community, and their willingness to be helpful, considerate, good neighbours, and so on. Insert one problem occupier, and it is easy to see how that can unravel and the cohesion being lost through such things as loutish behaviour, noise, antisocial activity and perhaps crime. I declare an interest in that I am married to a community mediator, so I hear some of this across the kitchen table. Just as there are, and should be, incentives to invest, renew and better one’s home and its environment, so there should be incentives for others, who may not be quite so inclined, to at least tolerate and accord with that basic instinct and aspiration of the community. There probably needs to be a better process for mediating out some of these problems. It is not about deprivation: I have come across plenty of wealthy, well-educated but undeniably loutish and antisocial types in high-value locations. As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York said, there is social capital at stake here, and that has economic worth.
On the physical scale, the first question that seldom seems to be asked is where it would be most convenient for people to live, work and transact their daily lives. This is not the same as municipalities and communities deciding where the least worst place is to put housing development. The entire concept has to have a human scale, be inherently convenient and function well. Just as medieval settlements were based on strategic locations with access to materials, transportation, alternative means of getting about, trade, communications and perhaps defensive qualities, so we need multiple advantage as a backcloth to planning built environments, not just to assume that advantage can be created on the drawing board.
The next question is about optimising space. An environment must, to some degree, uplift, inspire and be durable, and not compromise lifestyles through inadequate living space, poor external spatial attributes or disregard of relationships to on-site or off-site amenities. The green space and trees mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, would certainly correspond with that. Constructing a block with minimal-sized accommodation for, perhaps, first-time buyers risks building in a societal monoculture. We have seen what excessive uniformity does from examples in the past. I seem to recall them being called,
“little boxes made of ticky tacky”,
in the 1960s. Now, one of my children refers to much modem urban flat development as “white boxes”. Are we building the modern versions of an overnight bivouac or are we creating homes to which people relate emotionally and about which they have a feeling of contentment beyond designer-box ticking? Does development cater for future lifestyles, for singles, couples, families, extended families, those with disabilities and those in old age? Some claims for lifetime status are more than a country mile from the facilities and infrastructure necessary to make it a reality. The lifetime homes approach will be built only at a rate that hugely underestimates the core importance of this concept to the well-being of society, besides which it appears at the moment to be a planning optional extra.
Do our developments have durability at their heart, or do bits fall off? Is maintenance made difficult through inaccessibility? Are repairs rendered troublesome because the designers did not think hard enough about what could go wrong? What about repairing parts of the structure if things do go wrong? Look at basic service components— electrical controls, tap washers, locks, draught seals and extractors—that cannot be replaced because there is no maintenance built into the design and no obligation on anybody to provide matching spare parts for the normally expected life of the component. Repairing them or retrofitting becomes expensive and disruptive. It is a poor reflection on the corporate social responsibility of providers and specifiers.
What about the wider environment in respect of the protection that communities need for the longer-term putting down of roots? Do open spaces get built over and low-rise dwellings become overshadowed by tower blocks or other environmental degradation? In short, does accommodation provide comfort, convenience in use and reassurance in terms of its effect on the human psyche, or does it confuse and unsettle, become threatening or even risky? Such failings may not be a cost that falls on the public purse, but it falls on the nation none the less. In other words, it is a cost that occurs somewhere. Often residents in older parts of larger town and cities are literally miles from the nearest green space. Not very long ago, planning departments in my part of the country were saying that it was okay to build on urban playing fields and green space and to provide a replacement on the urban fringe.
I do not believe that there is adequate co-ordination of many of these factors between government departments, between them and local government or between either of them and local communities, let alone with residents. I do not believe there is anywhere near adequate spatial planning at neighbourhood level or post-construction evaluation by government. Most of the Government’s response to our report seems to be explaining how they have enabled others to do various things without any notion of their own role in making sure that it is actually delivered. This approach is much too diffuse, fragmented and unco-ordinated; it lacks an insistence on minimum standards, as other noble Lords have said, and this matters. The Government aimed to provide 1 million new homes between 2015 and 2020; they are well behind target. They also said that the population will grow by 4.3 million in the next 10 years, which must mean in excess of 200,000 homes a year, every year for the next 10 years. Our report is entitled Building Better Places. Even at this build rate, it is a very small proportion per annum compared to the necessary maintenance, management and upgrading of the existing housing stock, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, of perhaps 24 million homes. A good proportion of them have poor thermal insulation, expensive or obsolete heating systems, wasteful combined drainage arrangements and environmental challenges due to traffic and air pollution, yet they are rich in the embedded energy of what is already there, and a good deal of them have considerable character and charm.
I move on to one other recommendation that we made about new construction methods—namely, modular or offsite construction. I have seen some of this in action, mainly around lightweight steel-framed construction, and it is very impressive. I also have professional experience of timber-panel and timber-frame construction. It can clearly provide a partial answer to a yawning skills gap, is less weather sensitive and has the potential for better quality control, in the sense it is not being done in outside conditions. The argument against it seems to be that it is currently much more expensive than comparable traditional build, but I am certain the cost will come down with volume as it rolls out. The second problem is that the market apparently likes traditional build. For “market”, one might read mortgage lenders. Although I cannot be certain, I suspect that it is their concerns that fuel this sentiment. European neighbours with harsher climates have no such concerns, so I think we are missing a trick here in not rolling this out more. But I suspect it is never going to be the major component of housing.
I have learned one thing about modern, and particularly very energy-efficient, construction with intricate installations, which is that it is extremely demanding of design performance and build quality. It matters if the potential for the occasional peril—the leaking roof, the burst pipe, flood, fire or tempest—is not factored into the equation at the design stage. All buildings should have a degree of flood resilience. It does not matter whether they are in a particular flood area or not, because it can happen for other reasons than conventional flooding. They should be relatively incombustible and not designed so that a dead pigeon in the rainwater outlet can cause tens of thousands of pounds of damage. There should be space around for maintenance and repair, as well as of course for visual and other amenities. I despair that after four years, some of the buildings with so-called maintenance-free cladding go green with algae, which has to be expensively washed off with biocides. That does not match my idea of sustainability criteria, even if the solar panels on the roof of the building mean that they are net contributors to the electricity grid.
The fact that these things are still going on reinforces me in the belief that the Government need to take the recommendations of this Select Committee rather more seriously than currently appears to be the case and to understand that a strong economic rationale sits behind this.
My Lords, I was pleased when this committee was formed after the debate on the Farrell report published in 2014. I commend the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment and am pleased that the Government have finally responded. Curiously, both the report and the government response rather emphasise the challenges but do not report much on some of the recent achievements of the UK in urban development, of which my noble friend Lord Howarth reminded us. The UK can be proud of some of the new developments in Liverpool and the Docklands area. There is Canary Wharf and the Olympic legacy—which was a world first—as opposed to Olympic achievement, with new buildings, structures and green spaces. Regrettably, as other noble Lords have mentioned, pollution is as bad in the UK as elsewhere in Europe, and we need to do something about that.
The new urban transportation systems in our big cities are a considerable achievement. I declare an interest as a professor at UCL and a director of a small company, CERC, which provided environmental modelling for the Beijing and London Olympics. Overall, as the report and the government response emphasise, there are many deficiencies in the UK’s built environment. The Select Committee’s report suggested solutions, but the government response is not optimistic.
One of the challenges is dealing with old buildings, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, emphasised. I declare an interest as a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and I am very pleased that the Minister is also from Trinity—he is wearing the tie. Many of the college buildings are from the 1830s. The college has recently restored the rooms on the cold, damp staircase where I used to live as a student with an open fire. It has become a technological first, which people are coming to see. It uses the latest building materials, such as thermally insulating and water-resistant bricks, which are much more effective and energy-efficient than standard materials. These methods are spreading, which is exciting, but regrettably many of these new building materials are imported, and efficient heating and ventilating techniques are not being used in most of the new housing developments in the UK.
We debated the lack of ventilation in restored buildings when the coalition Government’s Green Deal energy plan was introduced. The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Marland, admitted, I think, that he had never heard the word “ventilation”, but it was certainly not in the Bill. It is a very important aspect. The German technique for ventilation is becoming standard. Other countries in Europe, with their excellent low-cost housing, continue to beat the quality of UK housing. I saw that when I was a Cambridge city councillor in the 1970s and visited Karlsruhe, which was followed by a rather humiliating visit to Cambridge by the German councillors, when we had to explain why things were as bad as they were. We blamed it on the Treasury, of course, as Treasury cuts made it very difficult to have the kind of decent buildings that our continental friends were used to.
One hopes that newly replanned housing, with newer technology where appropriate, which many universities and institutes are now looking at, will have more efficient heating and ventilation, reducing net carbon emissions, which are a strong feature of the report. Will the Minister tell us about progress? Will he also tell us about the greater use of UK-constructed building materials and new techniques?
An important role in the development of UK building has been played by the Building Research Establishment. It was a premier laboratory, and many of us worked there, but a couple of years ago it was privatised. I am afraid that when that laboratory and other government laboratories were privatised or run down, many of their classic reports were destroyed and put into tips. It is said that the BRE thought that it would earn more money by repeating earlier studies if it threw away the previous ones.
This report and the government response underline the housing problems associated with flooding in urban areas, as other noble Lords have mentioned. The Environment Agency recently had an exhibition in the House of Lords showing improvements in the forecasting of floods, particularly those in hilly terrain, which is quite complex. However, the ground floors of many houses in villages are flooded quite often. It may take many months for the bricks in the houses to dry out, and it may take even longer where the insulation in cavity walls has become saturated. Sometimes the walls and others parts of buildings have to be rebuilt.
There are technical solutions using better materials and designs, but the training of many building employers and employees is inadequate in comparison with other European countries, as set out in paragraph 352 of the report. Do the Government have a plan to improve technical capacity in the housebuilding industry, and will the new technical capacity and different legal or financial structures, such as in France, lead to a rate of housebuilding comparable with the rate in that country?
However, I have to criticise strongly my German colleagues. I am not sure that they are my colleagues; the Green Party used to be colleagues. However, they have been destroying some of the green environment in that country by digging for brown coal because they do not like nuclear. France has nuclear energy, so it has very low carbon emissions and maintenance of green areas.
The other important point in the report is about housing and planning regulations. Those relating to cities need urgent alteration to prevent large numbers of houses and apartments being empty for a part or the whole of the year. That is a particular problem in parts of Westminster. Will the Minister explain how this housing and planning deficiency is to be dealt with?
Finally, perhaps the Minister will answer the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, who asked about the real explanation for the deficiency in housing. Is it because there is an oligopoly of a few major companies and landholders combined with a supply chain of providers of UK building materials that excludes the availability of advanced materials? Is the DCLG looking into this endemic problem? I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, first, I declare my vice-presidency of the Local Government Association. I congratulate the committee on its wide-ranging report and on the depth of its analysis. It demonstrates the need for the ad hoc committee to have been established. As a number of speakers made clear, it has been a long time—11 months—since the report was published and it took until November for the Government to reply. I hope that the Minister will be able to indicate why the delay occurred.
One benefit is the content of the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, which has clearly drawn on some of the committee’s conclusions, not least in strengthening the status of neighbourhood plans. I hope that the work of the committee will also be reflected in the forthcoming housing White Paper, which I understand is due next week, and which I hope will address issues of housing supply, type, tenure and genuine affordability. A number of the issues that we hope will be in the housing White Paper were clearly identified by the committee.
As someone who was not a member of the committee, I found the report particularly strong on drawing together all the elements and responsibilities needed for our built environment to be genuinely better. It has done it, for example, in its recommendations on design standards, lifetime homes, sustainable urban drainage, zero-carbon homes, our historic and cultural environment, and the future of town centres, among many others. It is particularly strong in its identification of the need to join up departmental thinking across Whitehall. The noble Lord, Lord Best, gave a very good explanation of the problems that can arise when you have the Department for Work and Pensions managing welfare policies and the Department for Communities and Local Government in charge of housing policies. The two need to be complementary.
The report challenged government policy in a number of areas. One example is the charging of VAT on repairs and maintenance but not on materials used in new buildings. I find that very hard to explain to people. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, identified very clearly how it can be a disincentive to maintaining buildings when costs are higher than they need be. A number of noble Lords spoke about the problems caused by short-term decision-making. This has bedevilled planning and development for a long time. Decisions tend to be driven by short-term political need, and when that happens, the problems tend to be solved on the cheap or more cheaply than they otherwise would be. This can lead to poorer-quality materials and design, negative impacts on public health, and buildings which are not sufficiently resilient. I hope that the Government will take on board the committee’s view that they need to think longer term because it is a huge problem when they do not. I was particularly concerned to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Best, about the report into the recent deterioration in quality standards in housing.
A big strategic problem that the committee identified is the confusion about the role of planning in terms of both place-based planning and the nature of the planning profession. Just over 40 years ago, I was first elected to Newcastle City Council. In those days, we had a chief planning officer and large number of professional planners whose job was to plan an area—a place—not simply to operate as gatekeepers for the appropriateness of planning applications. In the past decade or more, that concept of planning being about shaping a place seems to have been reduced in standing. I hope very much that we can get back to the concept of planning being a shaper of place. Given a number of the Government’s policies, one of which is the new industrial strategy based on places, I hope that the importance of planning will be well understood in delivering those new policies.
A few years ago, I chaired a commission on urban living on behalf of the University of Birmingham. There were a number of conclusions to our report, but one related to the role of planners as a profession. We said that:
“There should be a radical upgrade in the role of planners to promote creative, long-term, thinking on urban sustainability and resilience, and to enable more organic growth within that strategic framework. In this role planners should act as integrators of urban practitioners and other urban stakeholders”.
“To do this effectively, city planning departments will need greater skills and capacity, and the creative talent once prevalent in city planning departments needs to be attracted back”.
There is a whole range of proposals and recommendations in the committee’s report around bursaries to attract good planners, and so on. I was very struck by the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, that planning is an art, and when one goes back to medieval Europe, one can see the origins of that statement. I hope very much that the Minister may feel able to look more carefully at the future of the planning system.
We heard about the reductions in staffing levels. I am particularly concerned that those reductions, of around one-third of professional staff, are impacting on the ability of local planning authorities to do their work as well as they would wish. It is therefore very good to read the committee’s conclusion that there should be a localised planning fees regime to make up the underfunding of local planning authorities in respect of assessing planning applications—never mind the broader place-making role that local planning authorities should have.
The Planning Advisory Service and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, working with the Local Government Association, have together estimated the deficit to be around £150 million a year. I think the Minister for Housing and Planning has indicated that the White Paper may address that funding gap, as the Minister here may do, but clearly, in the context of the cuts that are taking place to local government funding, finding alternative sources of income matters. If the planning service is to be done properly, in line with the recommendations of this report, the ability to raise additional fees seems very important.
Local areas want to do more for themselves. In this respect, the Local Government Finance Bill will lead to greater self-sufficiency and extra incentives to grow business rate income, since 100% of business rates will be kept locally, as opposed to 50% now. In addition, that Bill, which is now in the other place, will give some authorities, notably the Greater London Authority and mayoral combined authorities, the ability to raise a levy on business rates to help deliver infrastructure. There are important further measures to allow business improvement districts, after a vote, to levy property owners—not just occupiers—for the purposes of regeneration and growth. Business improvement districts across the country have demonstrated their worth, and as a system of voluntary taxation it is particularly commendable that so many have been a success. They enable investment in the public realm, in sustainability and design, in public access for all, and in a whole range of measures that would not otherwise have happened because of the financial problems of local authorities. Because there is a direct connection between the payment of the tax—after a vote—and the work undertaken, people feel much more inclined to contribute their money.
Finally, reference has been made to the briefing from the Royal Institute of British Architects, which I read this morning. I thought it was extremely helpful, partly because it confirmed some of my concerns. I agree entirely with what it said about CABE, which I recall being established. It was the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment—those words matter. There clearly has been a downgrading of CABE, which is a bad mistake. It gave excellent value for money. When I led Newcastle City Council for a number of years, I valued the support and advice it gave us in development policy.
RIBA has given the Government recommendations on a chief built environment adviser, a design review, standards and ensuring that we do not have, as it says, a,
“fractured nature and inconsistent quality of design review across the country”,
which is what we seem to have. It has also raised the issue of viability assessments. I hope the Minister might pay particular attention to this. RIBA says that planning practice guidance encourages transparency but,
“developers may opt not to disclose their viability assessments to the public on grounds of commercial confidentiality”.
That is when they are required to build affordable housing and they claim it would make a new development financially unviable. RIBA’s recommendation that,
“the Government should legislate that viability assessments should be treated transparently, except where doing so would cause harm to the public interest to an extent that is not outweighed by the benefits of disclosure”,
should be taken very seriously.
I agree with a number of speakers who have said that the Government’s response is not enough. My noble friend Lady Parminter talked about this being about spaces for people to grow. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, talked about the report being a resource of clear thinking. It is indeed that.
My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my declaration of interests. I am an elected councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Like other noble Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, on securing the debate. I also thank my noble friend Lady Andrews for so ably introducing it in the unavoidable absence of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain.
Like my noble friend Lord Beecham, I pay tribute to my noble friends Lady Andrews and Lady Whitaker for suggesting the creation of this Select Committee. I also thank the whole committee for their work and the clerks and advisers. It has resulted in an excellent report, though we have to improve the system so that these reports are discussed by your Lordships sooner after they are published. That, of course, places a responsibility on the Government to consider and publish their response in a timelier manner. This is not a problem reserved to the DCLG; it is something I have observed time and again during my time in your Lordships’ House, although, as my noble friends Lady Andrews and Lord Beecham highlighted, this is a record delay for a department’s response. Perhaps the Minister can explain why it has taken so long for the department to issue its response.
As my noble friend Lady Andrews and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said, a discussion on the built environment is long overdue and very welcome. The challenge of the built environment is one that has been with us before, is here today and will be with us in the future. It is of course more than just housing, but housing, as the report highlights, is the big issue at present. We had the controversial Housing and Planning Act 2016, and noble Lords involved in those discussions in the Chamber are here today. That Act did little to help get more homes built and is still in some difficulty in the department. The Neighbourhood Planning Bill is still in your Lordships’ House, and, for all the hype, I do not believe it will get a single home built any quicker. The noble Lord, Lord Best, outlined the benefits of providing new retirement homes for the well-being of the population and the savings they could bring to the public purse. The Government ought to do more of that. I also agree with his remarks about the tax on social landlords, which the Government created with the year-on-year rent reduction, and the problems created by the DWP—where properties are at a premium and benefits are not—which are real issues for people.
We await the publication of the housing White Paper—we are told it could be next week—and we will see what flows from it. I am sure we shall be debating it carefully in your Lordships’ House. My noble friend Lord Beecham outlined the serious problems we have with the number of properties in the private rented sector that are not being properly maintained. I agree with his remarks about space standards and the need to build larger homes. The abolition of the Parker Morris standards in the early 1980s has not been a good thing in terms of providing homes of a good standard and size. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, made points about low-rise housing and how it works well to build communities—even if they are, as I think he said, rabbit warrens. The noble Earl’s words have a lot of resonance for me. I am a councillor in Crofton Park, where we have the Ewart Road Housing Co-operative. It certainly fits the description of being a rabbit warren, and knocking on doors trying to deliver leaflets there is not easy, but equally, it is a very well-run co-op, a very stable community and a good place to live. Young and old people live together, it is a very nice place and it is great to be working with the people who live there.
There have been a few welcome announcements from the Government recently. I have said many times before that we very much welcome the comments from the new Housing Minister, Gavin Barwell, about building homes across a range of tenures, and that is what is needed. The report quite rightly points out that the private sector has rarely achieved more than 200,000 homes per annum and that we need to get local authorities and the public sector building again to meet the challenges before us.
As I have mentioned before, I grew up on a council estate very near to where the committee had one of its site visits in Southwark. My parents moved there when I was two, from private rented accommodation that was not suitable for a family. I always think of myself as lucky to have lived in a property that was warm, safe and dry at a rent my parents could afford. They were both in full-time employment, and they looked after their family there. They worked from the day they arrived in this country from Ireland, until they retired. I think that was very important.
The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York spoke of the importance of building communities, creating social capital and good neighbours. I agree very much with his remarks. We have to get back to the situation where councils and housing associations are allowed to pay their full role in dealing with the crisis before us and there is a greater role for the co-operative sector. The Select Committee has offered helpful suggestions on taking this forward, and there needs to be a fundamental change in policy emphasis from the Government.
The Government’s silence on the proposals from the Select Committee in respect of speeding up the delivery of housing is incredible. Land banking is a huge issue, particularly in parts of London. We need to do something about that. When we get to the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, I hope we will be able to do some work on that.
We need to change our reliance on the private rented sector and the absurdly named affordable rent model. Affordable rent—certainly in parts of London—is totally unaffordable. We need to change that if we are to deliver the new homes we need. I live in Lewisham, in an area called Ladywell. It is a nice place to live, but it would not be described as one of the most expensive parts of London. Even there, people can be asked to pay up to £2,500 per month to rent a modest terraced house just like the one I live in, but my mortgage is considerably cheaper. That is a really big issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, spoke about the importance of trees and their vital role in our health and well-being. Again, where I live we have the Brockley Society. It has a tree committee and plants trees. You can buy a tree and plant it in the street. The tree outside my house is one that my wife and I bought some years ago. The area is now filling up with trees. It is important we act to ensure we have trees in our areas.
The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, made absolutely correct remarks on the importance of the built environment to people’s health and well-being, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings. When I was very young, in the 1980s, I recall meeting the chair of the old Southwark Council housing committee, Councillor Charlie Halford, who told me how proud he had been in the early 1960s when it was announced that all these council homes were going to be built all over the borough. Now, of course, we know how quickly that all went wrong. My noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport spoke of the specific problems in relation to the planning and design of council estates. Many people still live in those estates today, and it is an issue, with billions and billions of pounds of public money spent dealing with the problems that have been created. My noble friend Lady Whitaker spoke of the power of a good place and its setting, services, transport, infrastructure and communications, which are, of course, conducive to well-being, prosperity, health and social cohesion.
It is important that we do not make the mistakes of the past. We need to build well and for the long term, as my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport said. We need to build more homes—I think we all agree with that—but they must be of good quality, well designed and take advantage of all the things we know and can do when building homes today to high standards. Sustainable drainage systems and zero-carbon homes are two matters we could not persuade the Government about during the consideration of what is now the Housing and Planning Act 2016, and they are good examples.
The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, made points about creating better places and space for good people to grow. I very much agree with her comments about the need to tackle climate change and to recognise that we have limited land and limited resources. We need to tackle the carbon challenge and ensure that our homes are carbon efficient. I visited a council estate in Walsall some years ago and saw the benefits of retrofitting homes: they were warmer, the carbon emissions were dramatically reduced and the residents’ fuel bills were cheaper. We must meet the housing challenge by building homes that will not become the problems of future local authorities and future Governments because corners were cut in the dash to build. My noble friend Lord Hunt of Chesterton referred to flooding and the need to build using better designs and technical solutions, but as my noble friend also said, we need the technical expertise to deliver those solutions.
I very much want to see new homes built across a variety of tenures to high standards, with no cutting of corners that will have to be addressed in future years by future councils and future Governments. The committee was right to highlight in its report the real concern about place-making, along with sustainable planning for the long term and the delivery of high-quality, good design standards. I agree very much with the comments of my noble friend Lady Andrews about the lack of a spatial strategy and the real problems we have created by cutting planning departments to the bone. It would be welcome if these specific issues could be addressed by looking at planning fees and cost recovery, which the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, also referred to. I also agree with my noble friend’s remarks about the planning system and the risk to quality posed by deregulation. My noble friend Lady Whitaker commented on the lack of capacity in planning departments, which again I very much agree with.
I am a trustee of the United St Saviour’s Charity, and we are in the process of building an almshouse for the 21st century in Southwark. We are very clear that this building must be well designed. We have appointed leading architects and are taking the time to ensure what we build will fit into the community, deliver high-quality accommodation for the residents, improve the street scene and be a local community asset. The community will be able to come into the almshouse, to the community cafe, while other areas will be exclusive to residents. It is an example of meeting a desperate need in the borough while equally making sure we get the design and the quality of the building materials right and, through that building, an almshouse that will serve its purpose, benefit the whole community and continue to do so for many years to come. This is a good example of where a local authority, working with a local charity with significant funds, is able to provide the leadership required to deliver a much-needed community project. As the report again points out, this is the sort of step change we need to get building going.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the Government’s response to this report, which is generally not a great response, is the rejection of the idea of appointing a chief built environment adviser to integrate policy across central government departments, act as a champion for higher standards and promote good practice. That is a matter of much regret, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, will advise us in detail of why the Government have taken that view. In conclusion, I thank the committee for its excellent report and look forward to the response from the noble Lord.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, who is not in her place, for chairing this committee and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for very ably introducing this debate and for the work she did in setting it up. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, who was also instrumental in that. I thank all members of the Select Committee for the report they have produced. It is thorough and insightful and raises important issues, many of which have been aired this afternoon.
I start by apologising for the delay in publishing the Government’s response. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for giving me a free pass and saying it was not my fault. I am grateful for that. As a Government, we felt it important to hold back our response until the completion of the parliamentary process of the Housing and Planning Act, of which much mention has been made, and subsequently there was the referendum, the change of Prime Minister and so on. Nevertheless, the delay has been far too long and I repeat my apology.
This has been a wide-ranging debate in which the point was made that this is not a simple issue. It involves many other government departments. I shall give just a quick sample of some of the issues raised: salaries and Amazon drones were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham; the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and other noble Lords mentioned woodlands; a sense of place was mentioned by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York; and educational issues, health issues, crime and anti-social behaviour, cultural issues, energy and climate change and air pollution were also mentioned. A series of very complex issues were looked at in the round, and I do not think we can home in. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, asked: what is the reason for our inability to tackle some of these daunting problems? I do not think it is a simple issue, as noble Lords would be the first to admit.
We had some passionate speeches this afternoon, as we did in last week’s debate on the Second Reading of the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, and I thank noble Lords who participated today as well as those who spoke last week. I will attempt to deal with as many of the points raised today as possible. Where that is not possible, I will write to noble Lords to pick up any points that I fail to address. I will try to cover offers or requests for meetings as I go through the points but if I miss any, we will pick them up in a letter.
Some of the issues mentioned regarding the Neighbourhood Planning Bill are being looked at during the Bill’s passage. The Bill’s Committee stage starts next week and we will look at many of the issues in the National Planning Policy Framework, for example, and in planning policy guidelines. The noble Lord, Lord Best, raised a point about the need for housing specifically for older people. That will be the subject of a government amendment, as we have indicated. Many of the issues will be tackled in that Bill.
Noble Lords mentioned the housing White Paper. We are expecting it shortly, although not necessarily next week, which I think is unlikely. We hope to have it before Report and I am certainly pressing for that. The White Paper will touch on resources—an issue that some noble Lords raised in a point well made—and variety of tenure, which the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned. He welcomed the action taken by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Planning and Housing, Gavin Barwell. We have moved on that to encompass a broader range of tenure, and that will be reflected in the housing White Paper, so many of the issues that we have touched on this afternoon will be encompassed in it. As I think I indicated when we met last week on the Bill, it is intended that soon after the White Paper is published there will be a meeting which the Secretary of State, I hope, and the Minister of State, certainly, and I will attend to offer conversation with noble Lords on the content of the Bill and the way ahead.
I turn to one of the points with which the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, opened the debate, referring to the enhanced role of the chief planner. I think that she welcomed—at least in part—the Government’s response on this, in which we said that we would look at it in the context of the chief planning officer. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, was perhaps not quite as warm in his congratulations, and I recognise that there is some work to do there. I would like to look at the way forward on that, perhaps at a separate briefing meeting with Ministers. I am sure that it does not need legislation. Some very fair points have been made about the importance of design and I would like to see what we can do around that. We will have a meeting on that in due course following the housing White Paper—we have a lot going on at the moment.
I very much welcome what the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York said about the importance of delivering more homes. I appreciate that we are looking at the importance of community here as well, but we must not lose sight of the key importance of delivering more homes, which in all fairness we are beginning to do, as I think the statistics show. There is much still to be done and it is right that the housing should be appropriate for the young and the old and so on. People were very fair in acknowledging that the Prime Minister has shown an intention to make this a key issue. My noble friend Lady Rawlings and the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Howarth, welcomed benign intervention—I think that is how the noble Lord put it. It is a key priority for the Government to deliver more housing. It is crucial to what we are seeking to do, admittedly within the context of ensuring that we do many of the other things that were raised in the debate by noble Lords.
The reforms that we have introduced are bearing some fruit. In the year to 30 September 2016 the planning system had given permission for 277,000 new homes—up 9% on the previous year. As I said, there is no complacency there—there is much to do—but at the same time I do not think that we should beat ourselves up too much by thinking that we are going backwards. We are not; we are moving forwards on the number of planning permissions being granted and the number of houses being built.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, spoke about council housing, although in fairness I think he said that the Labour Party had nothing to be proud of on that front in 13 years of government. That is certainly true. I think that the last year for which we have records is 2015. If I am wrong, I will pick it up in the letter. There were nearly as many council house starts in that year as had been delivered in the 13 years of the Labour Government. Therefore, the statistics speak for themselves on that issue.
It is now the job of the Government to make sure that we continue the momentum and do more to drive up housing supply. That is the intention and it is certainly behind much of the thinking on the Neighbourhood Planning Bill. I do not share the pessimism of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that this will not deliver a single new house. It is not a silver bullet but I will be very disappointed if it does not help with the procedure of delivering more housing. However, I do not pretend for one minute that it solves the issue; it is much more complex than that.
I move on to design, which was a feature of many contributions. Quality is certainly important and the Select Committee has set out some challenges. I have mentioned the importance of the chief adviser for the built environment, and we will certainly have a look at that within the context of what is possible. Again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, for his support for 14 garden villages. It is actually 14 garden villages and 10 garden towns, so the plan is for 24 locally led communities in all—for example, at Ebbsfleet, Bicester, Didcot, Basingstoke, Aylesbury, Otterpool Park in Kent, Taunton, and Harlow and Gilston, as well as in north Essex and north Northamptonshire. Each place is unique. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, also kindly said that some design is very effective. The Olympic Village, Canary Wharf, Albert Dock in Liverpool and so on have been testament to good design.
I slightly part company with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. Design is very important but I do not think that it is achieved just by legislative means. It is very rare for anyone on the Opposition Benches these days to mention Tony Blair, but I am happy to do so. He recognised that there had been success with Victorian buildings and so on, and that is absolutely right.
I agree once again with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth—there is a dangerous love-in here—on Poundbury, the work at Blenheim and at Rockingham. I shall see whether we can get more information on that, and perhaps use it as an example for the garden villages. We are working with the garden villages and garden towns on how they can deliver on design, which is clearly important. I also just briefly pay tribute to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales in the context of Poundbury. He is mocked by some, but is often a pioneer, as he has been on climate change, as well as on the importance of forestry—well ahead of the rest of us. That is probably true of architecture as well.
Local communities are taking advantage of the neighbourhood planning process to help shape development in their area through the neighbourhood planning support programme, which is central to what we seek to do. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, was right again about the Better Public Building prize, which we should value as an important contributor to what we are doing. If there are other points there that I need to pick up, I will seek to do so.
I have mentioned how much of this work is cross-governmental and involves other government departments. I shall try to pick up issues involving the DWP, such as rents, which I think were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and say where we are precisely on them in correspondence, if I may. I have also mentioned resourcing, which was touched on by the noble Baronesses, Lady Andrews and Lady Whitaker, the noble Lords, Lord Howarth and Lord Shipley, and many others. It is a point well made, and I hope we will pick that up in the housing White Paper and it is something we can do as we move forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, touched on the importance of skills. The Government have set out wide-ranging reforms to technical education in the post-16 skills plan. Built environment professional bodies, such as the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, and the Royal Institute of British Architects, also have an important role in anticipating future needs and trends and in supporting the development of skills and capacity in the sector. We work with them. Institutes of technology, registered with professional bodies, have the potential significantly to maintain—I am not splitting the infinitive—and enhance the skills needed to deliver a sustainable built environment. They are also very important in what we do.
I shall just touch on improvements to streets, highways and the public realm, on which many noble Lords made contributions. My noble friend, Lady Rawlings, talked about a sense of being and the pastoral vision of England, making the very valid point that much of England is still very green and very pleasant. We must ensure that we capture that for future generations in a way that perhaps has not been done in other countries. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York touched on the importance of a sense of being, and that again is captured by ensuring that we have a pleasant community and by touching on all the important needs—cultural, environmental, health, access to churches and religious buildings. All this demonstrates what a complex area this is. We are working with Public Health England on many issues, and I shall just single out two authorities we have worked with successfully. We have worked with Haringey and Bradford on hot food takeaways, and are doing work on paths, cycle routes and green spaces, which are also important.
This may be an appropriate point to pick up some green issues. Reference was made to the Bonfield review—I think the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, raised it. In another ministerial role, I was part of that process, and know just how much Peter Bonfield did on that. This is industry-led, so we are looking to industry to take much of it forward, but in conjunction with government. I shall certainly cover that in the letter. I think that I had a kind invitation from the noble Baroness to meet with her and some other people in relation to urban drainage, and I am very happy to agree to that if we can find an appropriate date and time.
Heritage was touched on by many noble Lords, and it is very important, as are woodlands, which I will come to. My noble friend Lord Inglewood and the noble Lord, Lord Best, talked about the importance of protecting our heritage in the context of our sense of being, and part of that is done by government. Reference was made to the preservation of Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire. Part of that work is being done on a voluntary basis, along with government support. Calke Abbey near Ashby-de-la-Zouch is a National Trust property but I think that the Government stepped in with some tax relief on that. The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, who has not taken part in this debate, has referred to issues concerning the building that we are in, with well-made points about the need to act swiftly. I absolutely agree with him.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, who, sadly, cannot be with us today, has made some very valid points about woodlands being the cathedrals of the natural world. That is an issue that I hope we will look at in the context of the Bill. I very much welcome her initiative on that, and it is something that we need to look at. Those points were echoed by my noble friend Lord Inglewood, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy.
My noble friend Lady Rawlings was perhaps indicating the link between the voluntary and government sectors when she mentioned the work of Octavia Hill. On a recent visit to Wisbech I was pleased to be able to visit her birthplace, or at least the house that she grew up in. I realised what a visionary she was. Anyone who has had an office in Millbank will know from the blue plaque inside the building that she resided there too for a while. She was a Victorian woman who made a massive contribution to national life.
Sustainable urban drainage and flooding was an important issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. We tightened up planning policy in relation to SUDS in 2015 so that housing developments of 10 or more dwellings have to show sustainable drainage. I shall be very happy to look at that with the noble Baroness at the meeting or otherwise to see what can be done.
I have the figures somewhere for flooding, although not in front of me. I think that of recent successful applications more than 99.7% have complied with flooding advice. We are not quite at 100%, so I do not want to be totally complacent, but in all honesty I do not think that that is a bad tally. However, I am sure that we will engage on that again during our discussions on the Bill.
There is now a statutory requirement on local authorities to have registers on brownfield land, and we expect those to be in place in 2017. We have funded more than 70 local planning authorities to pilot the preparation of brownfield registers of appropriate places for building. They are not the full answer to the various problems that we face but I am sure that they are part of it.
Modern methods of construction were raised by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and we are doing work on those. I have a feeling that our view is that they are not more expensive in the end, not least because of mass production and the fact that there is no need to have experts on site, as things are produced off-site. I will make sure that that is covered in my letter, but we are doing work on that through the affordable homes programme 2016 to 2021, Build to Rent and housing zones programmes. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, also raised this issue, and it is something that the department is very keen on. I will try to cover the point about UK materials and suppliers, because that is also something that we have been looking at in the department.
I want to pick up on one other point. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for the commercial for the Homelessness Reduction Bill, which he is kindly taking through the House with government support. It is an important contributor to what needs to be done, and certainly whatever we can do to expedite it as a Government, we will do. I encourage people to support that important piece of legislation and I congratulate my honourable friend Bob Blackman in another place for the work that he is doing on it.
I am very grateful to noble Lords for engaging so passionately on the issues, and I repeat my apology for the late response. The report makes a massive contribution to the debate and I look forward to continuing the engagement. This is not the end of the story and I will not be going away, so let us try to follow up these issues. As I have said and as I think noble Lords will accept, this is a highly challenging area, not a simple area, as successive Governments have seen. However, it is one that we are grappling with, and the Prime Minister has certainly placed it very much at the forefront of what she wants to do. Once again, I thank noble Lords for their engagement.
My Lords, I am very grateful indeed for the Minister’s response. I will just pick up a couple of points, as the time is getting on. I thank everybody who has spoken in this debate, both those who served on the committee and those who did not. It has been a rich and wide debate, bringing up issues which we did not address in detail but which are extremely important, not least the questions of how we preserve the historic environment and how we make the most of our woodlands.
The noble Lord’s response was, frankly, more energetic and positive than the response of the department earlier, and we really appreciate that. We also accept the apology for the delay. He reflected on how diverse and how complex this area is, which is precisely our point and precisely why we think there should be an effort to ride over this and create something where somebody has the responsibility of taking charge of bringing this together. That would be in the spirit of what the Prime Minister is trying to do by way of making a more interventionist strategy inside government.
The response on the chief built environment adviser is extremely welcome, and we will certainly want to talk to the noble Lord about that. He has set several tests for the Government now, because there are several hostages to fortune in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, the housing White Paper and several other things he mentioned, which will create an opportunity for many of our recommendations to be tested out and put into practice. He has offered us the opportunity for an ongoing conversation, which we will absolutely want to take up.
I want to pick up one other thing, which derives from something my noble friend Lord Howarth said. Essentially, when we build quality, we build efficiency. There is absolutely no contrast between getting beautiful things, beautifully made—whether it is places or housing—and delivering the best possible outcome for people and for the country as a whole in terms of building communities. That is really the fundamental point that we are making in the report: we can have it, people deserve it and an intelligent, humane and thoughtful Government can provide it. I am very grateful to the noble Lord and we look forward to more conversation.
Committee adjourned at 6.42 pm.