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Housing: Planning Laws

Volume 785: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government, in the light of the comments by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 22 October about investment in housing, what steps they are taking to liberalise planning laws in order to make it easier for new residential properties to be built.

My Lords, in February, we published a housing White Paper, setting out how we intend to boost housing supply and create a more efficient housing market, including changes to the planning system to ensure we are planning for the right homes and building those homes faster. We have followed this with a further consultation, Planning for the Right Homes in the Right Places. Feedback from this and the White Paper will feed into a revised National Planning Policy Framework to be published early next year.

My Lords, this is very welcome as far as it goes. The problems are chronic, particularly in the south, with millions more people living here than was predicted 20 years ago. Can the Government increase the supply of homes by easing planning laws and being brave enough to do so in undistinguished pockets in the green belt?

I am grateful to my noble friend, and for her contribution to our debate on housing last week. She will be aware that there was a manifesto commitment to safeguard the green belt. The planning policy indicates that the green belt should be developed only where all other opportunities have been explored, such as brownfield sites and building at higher densities in urban areas. However, we go on to say that if at the end of that it is necessary, we will develop in the green belt. Some areas of green belt do not live up to their name; they are sometimes very unattractive pieces of land. We are consulting on local authorities in the White Paper; if it is necessary for them to encroach on the green belt, they should make complementary provision elsewhere to replace the amenity that has been lost.

I refer to my local government interest in the register. Apparently there are currently between 500,000 and 600,000 planning consents for houses, many granted years ago. What action will the Government take to ensure that these are used? Further, while I welcome today’s announcement by the Prime Minister that the Government will not cap housing benefit in the social housing sector, and the recent announcement of £2 billion for all of 25,000 extra homes over the next four years, will they remove the cap on council borrowing for new building, and if not, why not?

I welcome what the noble Lord has said about the Prime Minister’s announcement on lifting the local housing allowance cap on supported housing. That is welcome. We now need to move on to an agreed model for supported housing. On planning consents, the planning system granted consent for 304,000 new homes in the year up to March this year, which is up 15%. However, the noble Lord’s point is a good one. A third of new homes granted permission between 2010-11 and 2015-16 have yet to be built. That is where we need to focus. In the Autumn Statement last year, the Chancellor announced £2.3 billion of funding for housing infrastructure. That is to be focused on those sites where we have planning consent but, for infrastructure reasons, development is not taking place. We hope that will unlock sites for 100,000 homes in areas of greatest need. On raising the cap on local authority borrowing, he will see from Hansard, in my reply to last week’s debate, that there are circumstances in which we would consider lifting the local authority borrowing restrictions.

My Lords, I remind the House of my interests in the register. I do not think this should be about liberalising the planning system, but rather about making the current system work better. Is the Minister aware of the very recent study by the Royal Town Planning Institute, which shows that we need more, not less, planning for getting large sites right without the delays and compromises we see so often? Does the Minister agree with that statement because, if so, there is an issue about the resourcing of planners from planning fees?

There is indeed an issue, which is why we have decided that local authorities should be allowed to raise their planning fees by 20%, as long as the proceeds are then ring-fenced and ploughed back into the planning system. We are also looking at the so-called viability assessments, which sometimes hold up the planning process. The noble Lord will know that Ministers have powers to intervene where, for whatever reason, local authorities are dilatory in coming forward with local development plans.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is not only about planning but that local authorities need many more powers returned to them and more direct control over housing? Has he seen what is happening in London, where illegal letting is reaching huge proportions? I know that some people in council flats are subletting to illegal tenants without any notification, and probably without paying any tax. Councils need powers returned to them to be able to check these situations.

I am grateful to my noble friend. I believe that local authorities have all the powers needed where illegal subletting is taking place, which is a clear breach of a tenancy agreement. I hope local authorities would take prompt action where they believe that social accommodation is being misused in the way that my noble friend has just outlined.

Is the noble Lord aware that even though we all agree that additional housing is required, particularly affordable housing, half of all threats of damage or destruction to our precious and diminishing ancient woodlands are caused by housing development? In the light of the Government’s commitment in the housing White Paper to improving protection for ancient woodland, what practical steps is the Minister’s department taking to ensure that these much-needed houses will not be built at the expense of irreplaceable ancient woodlands and to make sure that the garden village initiative is not just a front for enclosing ancient woodlands in small zoos of concrete from which they cannot escape?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. She will know that in the housing White Paper we consulted on the irreplaceable habitats to which she has just referred. We will clarify the strong protection for ancient woodland and aged or veteran trees, which has been set out in the National Planning Policy Framework.

There is nobody standing on that side, so I shall carry on. The noble Lord mentioned the green belt. As he is aware, there is a peculiarity in relation to this in national parks, where many houses are disappearing from local occupancy and being turned into holiday cottages, whereby they escape the right-to-buy legislation and get 100% tax relief not only on mortgage repayments but on all furnishings, and do not pay council tax or a community charge. Will the Minister negotiate with local authorities in these areas to see whether we can manage this a bit more sensibly and provide residences for local people?

I agree with the objective that the noble Lord has outlined. I am very happy to open discussions with the Local Government Association on the specific issue that he raised to see whether there are any further measures we can introduce to meet the objectives we both share.