My Lords, with the permission of the House, I will repeat a Statement made in the other place yesterday by my right honourable friend Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The Statement is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, with permission, I wish to make a Statement on planning reforms that will help get our country building and deliver the right homes in the right places of the right quality. It cannot happen soon enough.
An entire generation are the victims of a housing crisis as prices and rents race ahead of supply. The average house price in England in 2017 was nearly eight times average income. Families in their early 30s are half as likely as their parents to own their home. This does not just hold these people back; it holds our country back.
For young people in this country, it is frankly disheartening when you do not see your hard work rewarded and see the dream of a home of your own—something your parents took for granted—remain just that: a dream. It is hard in these circumstances to feel that you have a stake in society, and we all lose out when that happens.
That is why this Government have taken action on all fronts to turn this situation around—efforts that are starting to bear fruit. We inherited a situation in 2010 where annual housebuilding had fallen to its lowest level in peacetime. Since then, we have delivered more than a million homes. And last year saw the biggest increase in housing supply in England, of more than 217,000 new homes, for almost a decade, the biggest annual increase in all but one of the last 30 years, with planning applications on a high and set to boost these numbers even further.
We have helped hundreds of thousands of people on to the housing ladder through Help to Buy. We are working to encourage landlords to offer longer tenancies and will promote more homes for rent on family-friendly, three-year tenancies in Build to Rent schemes. We are cracking down on rogue landlords and abuse of leaseholds, and taking steps to make renting fairer and tackle homelessness through earlier intervention.
We have launched a new, more assertive national housing agency, Homes England. We have launched an independent review led by my right honourable friend the Member for West Dorset on the gap between planning permissions granted and homes built. We are putting billions of pounds into the affordable homes programme and delivering essential infrastructure through the Housing Infrastructure Fund.
However, we know that there is a lot to do to deliver 300,000 homes a year in England by the middle of the next decade. Planning is an important part of that journey. Today, we are taking the crucial next step with the launch of consultations on the revised National Planning Policy Framework—the NPPF—and the reform of developer contributions. These measures set out a bold, comprehensive approach for building more homes more quickly in the places where people want to live— homes that are high quality and well designed, that people are proud to live in and to live next door to, and that are at the heart of strong, thriving communities—with much clearer expectations on local authorities and developers to deliver on their commitments, unlock land, fulfil planning permissions, provide essential infrastructure and turn those dreams of decent, secure and affordable homes into reality.
To that end, the revised National Planning Policy Framework implements around 80 reforms announced last year and retains an emphasis on development that is sustainable and led locally. But it also involves a number of significant changes. For the first time, all local authorities will be expected to assess housing need using the same methodology, which is a big improvement on the current situation where different councils calculate housing need in different ways, wasting time and taxpayers’ money. A standardised approach will establish a level playing field and give us a much clearer, more transparent understanding of the challenge we face.
But perhaps one of the biggest shifts is a change in culture towards a focus on outcomes achieved—the number of homes delivered in an authority’s area—rather than on processes like planning permissions. As it becomes easier to make plans more streamlined and strategic, this culture change will also encourage local authorities to work together to meet their communities’ needs.
We are also confirming the important protections for neighbourhood planning—plans produced by communities—that we introduced in December 2016 to guard against speculative applications. And we are going further, beyond the reforms that we previously consulted on. We are giving local authorities the tools to make the most of existing land, with an even stronger drive for increasing density, particularly in areas where housing need is high, and supporting councils to build upwards—but it will not be at the expense of quality, with high design standards that communities are happy to embrace remaining a priority.
These reforms also include more flexibility to develop brownfield land in the green belt to deliver on affordable housing need where there is no harm to the openness of the green belt. I know that even the mention of the words ‘green belt’ may cause some concern, but let me assure honourable Members that this is about building homes on sites that have been previously developed and not about compromising in any way existing protections that govern the green belt.
Our green spaces are precious and deserve our protection, which is why the Government are delivering on our manifesto commitment to give stronger protection to ancient woodland, demonstrating that you do not have to choose between improving the environment and delivering the homes we need; we can do both. So we are raising the bar across the board—for protecting our natural world and for local authorities to be more ambitious and accountable so that places such as London no longer deliver far fewer homes than they need. In areas such as the capital, where demand and affordability are going in different directions, it is especially important that there is less talk and more action, and it must be action that is more strategic and more realistic about housing need. Stronger leadership is needed to bring people together across sectors and boundaries.
That said, it is not all down to local government. Developers must also step up to help us continue to close the gap between planning permissions granted and homes built. In doing so, it is vital that developers know what contributions they are expected to make towards affordable housing and essential infrastructure, and that local authorities can hold them to account. However, we all know of instances where developers make these promises and later claim they cannot afford them. In truth, the current complex, uncertain system of developer contributions makes it too easy for them to do this and puts off new entrants to the market. This is not good enough, which is why we are proposing major reforms to developer contributions. As part of these reforms, areas will be able to agree a five-year land supply position for a year, reducing the need for costly planning appeals involving speculative applications.
I recognise that swift and fair decisions are important at appeal. To that end I will shortly announce an end-to-end review of the planning appeal inquiries process, with the aim of seeing what needs to be done to halve the time for an inquiry to conclude, while ensuring that the process remains fair. Going forward, we will continue to explore further significant reform of developer contributions, and there are other areas where we are considering pushing boundaries to really boost housing supply, including a new permitted development right for building upwards to provide new homes and finding more effective ways of supporting farmers to diversify and support the rural economy.
We will keep a strong focus throughout on making sure that we are exploring all avenues to meet everyone’s housing needs, whether that means implementing an exception site policy to help more people onto the housing ladder, giving older people a better choice of accommodation, giving planning authorities and developers the confidence to deliver good-quality, well-managed build to rent that serves a growing number of renters, or encouraging local policies for affordable homes that cater for essential workers such as nurses and police.
By giving everyone, whether they are renting or buying in the social or private sector, a stake in our housing market we give everyone a stake in our society. That is why I encourage honourable and right honourable Members and anyone who wants to see today’s generation enjoying the same opportunities as their parents to get involved and contribute to the consultations I have announced today. They will run until 10 May and I look forward to announcing the implementation of the National Planning Policy Framework in the summer. I am confident that the bold and ambitious measures we are proposing will have a huge impact, not just on the number of homes built but ultimately on people’s prospects and our prospects as a country, ensuring that no local authorities or developers can any longer be in any doubt about where they stand, what is expected of them and what they must do to help fix our broken housing market and deliver the homes that the people of this country need and deserve. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for repeating the Statement delivered in the other place yesterday. I draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interests as a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. It is a disappointing Statement, not in all of what it proposes to do but in how timid the proposals are and with the wrong focus.
Since 2010 the number of rough sleepers in England has trebled to almost 5,000 last year. The number of households living in temporary accommodation has risen almost continuously since 2010. The latest figures had 79,000 households in temporary accommodation, including 121,000 children, as I have referred to in this House before. Wage-to-mortgage differentials are making owning your own home, as the Statement says, only a dream. The ratio of wages to affordable rents in many parts of England means that in reality these are unaffordable for most people. Some of the measures in the consultation may make a difference but, as with all the Government do in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, it is too little, too slow and the actions never quite meet the rhetoric.
It is regrettable that, despite all of us agreeing that there is a housing crisis and that we need to build more homes, council housing and the contribution that additional council housing could make are not mentioned at all in the Statement. There is one reference to,
“in the social or private sector”,
in the concluding remarks. The solution to the housing crisis will not be found just within the planning process or with developers—affordable homes that in large parts of the country are unaffordable for most people, or increased permitted development rights, which further exclude the local community from the planning process and other measures. We need to allow local authorities to build council homes and housing associations to build more homes on social rents. It will make a real difference to the housing crisis; where people are on benefits it will help reduce the Government’s housing benefit bill; it will help take the heat out of the market; and it will contribute to delivering the improvements to housing that we all want to see in terms of the numbers and the quality of the homes built, with appropriate infrastructure.
Planning departments have taken a huge cut in recent years and the increase in fees that has been allowed is welcome but it is still not enough. Again, I have called many times for full cost recovery on fees. I have suggested that the Government should find one council to pilot full cost recovery but so far they have refused to do that. There are still more than 400,000 approved planning permissions where not even one brick has been laid. I agree very much with the comments of the Local Government Association chair, the noble Lord, Lord Porter of Spalding, who said:
“If we want more houses, we have to build them, not plan them”.
Can the Minister explain why his friend in the other place, the Secretary of State, returned money earmarked for affordable housing to the Treasury? We have a broken housing market, as the Government keep reminding us, so why is the department not making every effort to spend every single penny to build the homes we need? If one area cannot use the money why can it not be used elsewhere? Can the Minister tell the House what work the department has done to see where money could be spent quickly if it is returned from other areas?
Can the Minister give us some idea of the timescale once the consultation has finished? There are a number of consultations going on in the department at the moment—for example, on letting agents’ fees and electrical safety checks—which I have raised regularly. At some point will we get some real, concrete action? It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us.
With regard to achieving sustainable development, I warmly welcome the comments about protecting ancient woodland and veteran trees. That is very good. But can the Minister say a bit more about how the Government propose that we really do achieve sustainable development, particularly with those authorities that are under-delivering on housing in their own areas?
The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, is in her place. I recall our discussions about plan-making last year. Can the Minister comment on plan-making and permitted development—is there a conflict there? If we are increasing permitted development rights in local areas and a local plan has been agreed, is there a conflict? Perhaps the Minister could comment on that.
We all agree that we need to deliver high-quality homes. I am very conscious that Governments of all persuasions made some terrible mistakes in the 1960s and 1970s in the quality of the homes they built. I do not want to see us build homes that are not of good quality and in years to come our successors will have to deal with another problem with the quality of housing we have in our communities.
It is not in the Statement but the consultation includes the viability of town centres. We need our communities to be sustainable in terms of infrastructure, and town centres are really important. Can the Minister say a little bit about that? It is not just the planning; issues such as business rates are also important.
Finally, the consultation also talks about sustainable transport. Transport needs to be built into communities as well. I am conscious that we have a number of new towns. Ebbsfleet is one; I have asked a number of questions about that recently. There is some more work to be done to make sure that these new towns succeed.
I will leave my comments there and look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I draw attention to my registered interests as a councillor in the local borough of Kirklees and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The consultation document that the Government have issued details new changes and collates existing measures into an amended NPPF. The details will obviously be the subject of detailed debate at a later date. Today, we have the headlines of the general thrust of government policy on the planning process and housebuilding.
Over the past few days, the media have been full of rhetoric and what I regard as the unedifying spectacle of the Government in full blame-game mode. The blame is on local planning authorities for failing to allocate sufficient land and be efficient in the planning process; the blame is on developers for failing to build allocated sites. But planning for housebuilding depends on three key players: government, the local planning authorities and developers. All need to work together if housebuilding is to achieve the targets rightly set by government. Resorting to a blame game does nothing but create a negative atmosphere.
The Government must consider and be transparent about their role in the planning process. When local authorities develop their strategic plans, it is with clear expectations of housing numbers and site allocations set by government. Once this plan is signed off by councils, it is then inspected for soundness by a government-appointed planning inspector who can, and often does, recommend changes to the plan—recommendations which are difficult to refuse. So despite the rhetoric, it is the Government who are setting the broad requirements and enabling the loss of greenbelt land. Can I suggest to the Minister that some clarity of leadership in these matters would be more effective than exhortations and blame? Constructive leadership from government would be more effective in getting the minority of local authorities that have not succeeded in fulfilling government expectations to do so.
Moreover, despite their protestations, evidence shows that developers do land bank, waiting for prices and consumer confidence to rise. Developers are reluctant to build low-cost housing because profit margins are lower—thus not building all the house types in the numbers that are needed. None of this will change without government policy changes, so I welcome the proposal for an investigation into land banking, as long as it leads to actions that restrict it.
If this country is to provide an adequate supply of housing to meet individual needs, more fundamental changes are needed than are being proposed. Perhaps the Minister can respond to some of these issues. First, there is pressure on the south-east because the Government do not have an economic regional policy that draws investment away from the south-east. Developing one would be a significant aid to housing policy. Secondly, that word “affordable” should be abandoned in relation to housing. It is misleading because affordable is what it is not: it is just not as expensive. Thirdly, the National Planning Policy Framework should be amended to enable councils to specify in their strategic plans different housing types on each site allocation: for example—there is some reference to this in the consultation document—housing for older and disabled people. Councils must be encouraged to take responsibility for building homes for social rent. These changes are sadly missing from the consultation. Exhortations to use brownfield sites will fall on deaf ears if the Government fail to provide support for the remediation of sites which are severely contaminated—I speak from bitter experience in my own area.
Finally, perhaps the Minister will be able to explain the Government’s financial commitment to enabling development through providing funding for essential infrastructure. I am not referring to the infrastructure fund. Currently, government policy appears to be to pass on the infrastructure costs of the development that the Government want either to the developers via the community infrastructure levy and Section 106 funding or to local people through a new tax, the infrastructure tariff that I read is part of the proposals. Will the Government change their tune away from the destructive blame game to purposeful leadership so that we can get the housing that this country and its people need in the places that they need it in a sustainable way that does not take away precious green belt land?
My Lords, I shall respond to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and then turn to that of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. The noble Lord made a very wide-ranging contribution that went well beyond the Statement. I will endeavour to pick up the points, but a lot of his contribution seemed to be on what was not in the Statement, rather than what was, but I shall try to deal with the issues he raised.
First, his mention of rough sleepers enables me to thank local authorities and charitable workers for their magnificent response during the period of very cold weather we have just had. I know that my honourable friend the Minister, Heather Wheeler, has already spent time doing just that, and it is right that we do that. Some lessons have been learned and in that process we have been getting details of people who are rough sleepers, which will help tackle that problem. Let us be clear that it is unacceptable, and the Government have set out clear policies. We now have a Minister who is focused on the issue.
The noble Lord then turned to earnings in relation to affordability. He and others have used that phrase so I will use it, and it does describe the situation. This issue is crucial to the Statement and was dealt with in it, but I have to tell the noble Lord that the steepest earnings to affordability rise was in the Labour years, when it doubled, and the lowest peacetime build-out rates were also in the Labour years. I accept that we need to move forward and look at the issues, which we are addressing. As far as I am concerned, this is not about a blame game, and I will come to that point shortly, if I may, in answering the noble Baroness. This is about building more houses and a mix of houses and stating, once again, that the neighbourhood planning process is very much the right one. We took the Bill in question through to statute recently, and there was a consensus, largely. We are all committed to this neighbourhood approach, and I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Cumberlege, who was very much part of that process. We are still very much committed to it; it is central to what we are doing, but that does not mean that the Government step away and do not have a policy on housing.
The noble Lord asked when some of these consultations will be ending. There are not that many consultations out at the moment. Two are referred to here, one on the NPPF, which ends on 10 May. As the Statement says, we anticipate carrying that forward in the summer. The other one is on developer contributions. That also ends on 10 May, and we would not want to hang about when it reports. A consultation is out on build-out rates and land banking. It is not announced in this Statement as it is already in process. It is an independent review being carried forward by Sir Oliver Letwin. It will report this year, I am sure, but that is a matter for him. We will want to take it forward. The other review, which was widely welcomed, is on the house-buying process, but that is a somewhat different area.
The noble Lord referred to the policy on ancient woodland, and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who evocatively referred to,
“the cathedrals of the natural world”,—[Official Report, 17/1/17; col. 161.]
and knew the way to progress this area. I am very pleased that it is included. There is, no doubt, still work to be done, but it is important. This is the first time it has been mentioned in planning guidelines, and that is also true of housing for older people, and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, and others who helped on that. Design is also a central feature of this. Those three issues were raised and developed in the House of Lords, and I am very pleased that we have been able to carry them forward.
The noble Lord asked about the viability of town centres. The Prime Minister talked about that very issue and its importance when she launched this policy yesterday. This is something we want to carry forward: releasing property above shops and looking at whether empty shops are viable as homes if they are not viable as shops. They are very often near stations or other transport hubs, so we need to look at that, which is tied in with the issue of the future of our town centres.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, said she did not want a blame game and then proceeded to blame the Government—presumably starting from 2015 rather than 2010, when of course the Liberal Democrats were part of the Government. It is not about the blame game; it is about carrying the policy forward and ensuring that everybody does what they can to help with this issue. There are many things we can do, as a Government, as developers and as local authorities. In particular, the noble Baroness did not want us to blame developers. I hope we are not doing that, but she then went on to talk about the scandal of land banking, which sounded to me as if she was prepared to blame them. We want to look at that, and we have it under review. There is a genuine issue—I feel it too—with people who are keeping land and not developing it as they should, but that is part of the ongoing review. That was not announced yesterday, but some time ago, and is being carried forward.
The noble Baroness referred to a lack of regional policy. The policy on housing numbers is very much tied to each separate housing authority—to the price of housing in that area. The areas with the steepest prices are required to take the most action, in very broad terms, so this is integral to what we are doing. She referred to the need for housing for older people, which, as I have said, is in the National Planning Policy Framework for the first time ever. We need to work on it. She referred to the importance of brownfield sites, which I quite agree with. If she wants to address the issue of remediation, which she mentioned, I am very happy to talk to her about it and to look at it, but of course, we require local authorities to come forward with registers of brownfield land and to have a policy of building on brownfield first, before they look at green-belt land. The noble Baroness also talked about how we are looking to transfer some responsibility for delivery on to developers through the community infrastructure levy and Section 106—you bet we are. That exists at the moment, so I hope she is not suggesting we should take it away. We also have a policy of putting money in from the Government, through the housing infrastructure fund.
I do not want to indulge in the blame game. All the main parties in the Chamber have been in government since the war, including the Liberal Democrats, so blame can be fairly apportioned among political parties. This is about looking to the future and how we can deliver more houses in our country.
Is my noble friend aware that this is the first time for 25 years that we at least have a policy with hope for those who want to rent and those who want to buy? For those who want to rent, next to no council housing has been built in the United Kingdom for over 20 years—which covers the Labour Government, the Liberal-Conservative Government and the Conservative Government. On top of that, there has been no action on the ground on rogue landlords. Finally, every young couple wants to buy. They want their own home. My noble friend talked about a number of things that will be of enormous benefit, but missing from that list was a firm commitment on Help to Buy. Will that continue? Lastly, my noble friend knows that I take a particular interest in new towns and garden cities. I heard no mention of either of those two phrases. Will he confirm that they are firmly in the forefront of the Government’s thinking?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend. To deal with that last issue first, new towns are central to our delivery of additional housing. I know he has taken a particular interest in this issue so he will be aware of the progress referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, on Ebbsfleet, which is ongoing. He will know that we are committed to new towns and new villages in the corridor between Oxford and Cambridge, which he is particularly interested in. Within the foreseeable future we are talking about not just expanded towns such as Bicester, but at least five additional new towns as part of that delivery.
He referred to rogue landlords. We are doing work on that issue, as he will know, and some of the provisions of the Housing and Planning Act concerning registers of rogue landlords will be coming into force shortly, in April. Those who suffer at their hands will be comforted by that—I know it is an issue. Also, local authorities can levy civil fines on rogue landlords of up to £30,000.
The noble Lord referred to the importance of diversity of delivery, and to help for those who want to purchase their homes. That is important but we are committed to diversity. It is not just about buying a home of your own; many people do not want that but want to rent. We need—
If I may just finish—it is good to know that this subject has excited so much interest—it is important that we recognise that there is diversity of supply, and that is central to what we are seeking to do.
My Lords, there are no real initiatives on the cost of land but we know that agricultural land fetching £15,000 to £20,000 an acre sells with planning permission for £2 million to £4 million an acre, making huge profits for landowners. Why are the Government not taking action on these excessive profits?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that question because we are indeed taking action. The review of developers’ contributions, which is open until 10 May, is very much looking at the issue. In addition, of course, the housing formula policy in relation to building authorities should build the price down in the areas of the greatest expense. This is very much about all parts of the housing issue, including developers, playing their part. That is why we have this review—it is about ensuring that developers contribute fairly in relation to the prices they are getting for land and the sales they make.
My Lords, does my noble friend have any answer to the dilemma posed by the fact that any measure that might reduce the price of new houses and help first-time buyers would of itself run the risk of putting existing mortgage holders into negative equity?
My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point, the answer to which is, realistically, that we are reversing a process. The price increase process will slow and will halt over time, but I do not seriously think that we can expect large falls. We can see a levelling off over time.
My Lords, I remind the House of my interests in the register. I welcome the Government’s proposal to get tough on viability assessments and to close the viability loophole. I thank the Minister for his letter yesterday to Members about the Statement. Why is there only an expectation that viability assessments will be publicly available? If the Government plan to increase accountability, surely there should be a requirement to make viability assessments publicly available.
I wish to ask also about the absence from the Statement of social housing for rent. There have been previous discussions about the publication date of the Green Paper on social housing. It seems to be repeatedly deferred, yet the only way 300,000 new homes, nett, can be built each year is through empowering councils to build more homes—and that implies building more homes for social rent.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what were essentially two questions. The most important point is the assessment of viability but, if I may, I will get back to him on the transparency issue; it seems a fair point but I would like to have a look at it.
There are two specific reasons why we do not tackle the issue of social housing in the Statement. The Statement is talking about the housing need and housing delivery across the board; it does not seek to apportion it between different types of housing. However, as the noble Lord will know and I have repeated many times, we are committed to more social housing. As he has rightly said, a review is coming up. It has not been postponed: it is due in the spring—that is what I can offer him—and obviously, there will be more detail in it.
My Lords, the Minister referred to the need for a diverse mix of housing forms, and that is obviously a very good thing. He is very good at putting a gloss on government policy, but the fact is that since 2010 something like 60,000 social houses—council, local authority and housing association—have been sold off under right to buy, and only 10,000 new council houses have been built. When will we see a reversal of that policy and the expansion of a sector that is speediest in delivering new homes for rent at prices that people can afford?
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord very much for the praise, if it was such, which I am sure has done me a lot of damage on my Benches. He will know that the lowest delivery of social houses since the war was under the Labour Party. That said, we have committed to making more money available for social houses. It is about diversity, but I certainly will not make any apologies for the right to buy: it is a policy we have rightly championed because many people, possibly most, want to purchase their own homes, and anything we can do in that regard as a political party we should. I am sorry his party does not want to do the same. Yes, we need to deliver more social houses and we will do so: he can expect announcements on that.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of the unforeseen consequences of the right to buy on rural exception sites? These are small patches of land that landowners either donate or sell at a cheap price for housing and which they understood, when they gave it, was in perpetuity. The right to buy overrides that right. This means that young people in villages who cannot afford current prices are being forced into towns. They cannot work in their home locality and villages are now becoming dormitory towns for commuters, who can afford the high prices, or for elderly people. What is happening there? Because many of these village developments are fewer than 10 houses, what will the Minister do about the loophole through which builders can get away with not building affordable housing—housing at rents or prices that people can afford, as opposed to the rather euphemistic use of the word “affordable”—in future?
My Lords, I thank the noble Countess. The issue here is affordability for people in villages and rural areas. She will know that it was addressed, I think, in the Statement, but certainly in a previous answer I gave on the need to help people in farming communities to purchase homes in rural areas. It is something the Prime Minister gave voice to when she launched the policy and to which the Secretary of State, my right honourable friend Sajid Javid, is very much committed. We are looking at that issue but, again, I make no apology for the right to buy.
My Lords, my interest is already declared. Although everyone thinks—or most of us do—that it is marvellous that housing will be available, there is a hole in the bottom of the bucket where all existing leasehold properties are so much at risk and so fast being converted into tourist activities, that we have to more than counterbalance that. Why are the Government so unwilling to involve local authorities in some scheme to police that and keep such housing available for people to live in?
My Lords, without going into that issue in too much detail—not because I do not want to but because I know my noble friend has a specific Question on tourist activity tomorrow—it is possible to overstate the significance of tourist activity in encroaching on housing. If my noble friend will forgive me, I think she sometimes does that. There is an issue with compliance with the law, which is quite separate, but I have not seen evidence of such effects from tourist activity. We encourage people to take advantage of the sharing economy so that families are able to benefit from competitive prices. I think that is a good thing.
I thank the Minister for the Statement and for the very welcome increased protection for ancient woodland that has resulted from the useful dialogue we have had over the last year. I also welcome the toughening up of the viability assessment process. It is true that those developers and local authorities that insisted on transparency have done a great service to local people, who can understand some of the commitments included in those assessments. However, we must be very careful that the housing delivery test for local authorities does not bear down on them to the point where they are so desperate not to lose their planning powers that they simply abandon the prospect of the right home in the right place and focus instead on homes anywhere, at any cost to the environment. There is increasing evidence that local authorities feel that they simply must produce viable land commitments and local plans that deliver the housing target at the expense of environmental considerations. May I press the Minister to tell us what safeguards will be put in place to make sure that the housing delivery test does not become overbearing?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness once again for the work she did in championing the cause of ancient woodlands, including organising a visit for the two of us to somewhere east of Newark-on-Trent. That sounds like a novel by Alistair MacLean novel. It was a very useful visit, and I am glad we have been able to do something in that regard.
The noble Baroness welcomed the viability test. On the housing targets that she talked about, so that housing authorities do not feel that they have to deliver homes of substandard quality, let us say, because of having to reach the numbers, we have made the importance of design integral to the NPPF. As a nation, we have not been imaginative enough on this but, of course, we need to be realistic about the demands placed on local authorities. They can work on common ground with neighbouring authorities, for example, to deliver. They are obliged to look at brownfield first; we do not want them to use green-belt land, except as very much a last resort, and that has to be justified, just as it does now. All the safeguards are there, but it is something we will watch like hawks.
My Lords, quality is important and has perhaps been somewhat set aside in the Statement made so far. The homes that we build next year will still be here in 2030 and 2050, when the Climate Change Act and the sustainable development goals kick in. Is the apparent weakening of the new-build sustainability criteria in the draft NPPF just infelicitous, accidental wording, or does it represent a change in government policy?
My Lords, the noble Lord will be reassured to hear that quality is very much central to our thinking; it is one of the things that we are very proud of in the NPPF—that we have got that there. It is something that, as a nation, as I say, we have fallen down on before. We have quite separately from the Statement, as he will know, promoted self-build, which is normally associated with higher quality by its very nature. In the Chancellor’s recent Statement, made before Christmas, we provided help for smaller builders, which again is often associated with better quality. We are also doing what we can to promote pre-build modular design, which used to be called prefabs and are now of a very significant design quality. Those things will help to ensure that we deliver far better quality and consistent quality, knowing, as the noble Lord said, that these homes are here for generations and more.
My Lords, on the point that the Minister touched on, would it not be part of a seamless solution to make commitment and delivery central to the terms for developers being awarded licences and emulate, for example, the hydrocarbon industry in following the mantra, “use it or lose it”, with strict timing criteria agreed by all parties at the start of the whole process?
I am grateful to the noble Viscount. The “use it or lose it” mantra is a very good one. As I have indicated, this is being looked at by my right honourable friend Oliver Letwin, MP for West Dorset. He is leading this review and, I know, working hard on it. I am sure he will regard this as important and come up with some radical solutions on the work that we have given him.
My Lords, I remind noble Lords of my interests given in the register, especially as a landlord. Given that timber-framed homes can be built quicker than, and at half the cost of, traditional ones, and being carbon neutral they are better for the environment, what are the Government doing to encourage developers to build these homes, which are cheaper, more affordable and better for the environment?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for a very constructive suggestion, which builds on our discussion of the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell. He is absolutely right that it is important to learn the benefit of timber-framed homes. This type is used a lot in Scotland and many other countries. It is sometimes appropriate to look elsewhere, and this may be so for housing design. As he rightly said, they are carbon neutral, which helps with climate change issues. Giving help for self-build and encouraging smaller builders is also part of it. I thank the noble Lord and will take his points back to the department.
Is the Minister aware that, according to Oxford Economics, the number of dwellings in London rose faster than the number of households in the period 2001 to 2015, yet house prices continued to inflate? Does he accept that encouraging more housebuilding, necessary as it is, will not be sufficient to create a market that works for everyone, not just those who are asset rich? Will he discuss with the Treasury ways to reduce the attractiveness of housing as a speculative investment, working gradually and purposefully towards the removal of subsidies and tax breaks, taxing speculative foreign investment entering the UK housing market and penalising owners of empty homes, while doing more to increase the relative attractiveness of investments that actually increase productivity in the real economy?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that question. I am certainly aware of some of the problems relating to London. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, referred to money going back to the Treasury, and I think I am right in saying that £64 million was handed back to the Treasury by the GLA and the mayor. The noble Lord might not have been aware of that. In the recent Budget, we raised the cap on borrowing by councils by £1 billion in 2019, which will help. The noble Lord is right that these things cannot be done without finance, but I think he would accept that, in a market system, ensuring that we are building more in the areas of greatest need and highest prices will have a market effect and should deliver over a period of time, though not overnight.
What plans do the Government have on the holding of vacant sites and land banking? Would they consider enabling local authorities to levy a tax on unused sites, as part of the Government’s proposals?
My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an issue of some importance. As I indicated, the issue of land banking is being looked at by a review by Sir Oliver Letwin that predated yesterday’s Statement. We want to see what his conclusions and recommendations are and then carry it forward. I know that this issue concerns noble Lords around the House. We will obviously look at it in the round when we see what Sir Oliver’s proposals are.