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Housing: New Homes

Volume 801: debated on Tuesday 11 February 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they intend to further their aims of (1) building 300,000 new homes each year for the next five years, and (2) making the planning system simpler.

My Lords, we have delivered more than 1.5 million new homes since 2010, with last year seeing over 241,000 net additions—the highest level delivered for over 30 years—but there is much more to do. We will review everything from planning reforms to housing zones, backed with more than £44 billion of support, over five years. To make the planning process simpler, we will publish a planning White Paper in due course. These actions, taken together, will see us deliver 300,000 homes yearly by the mid-2020s.

My noble friend’s Answer confirms that increasing the availability of housing is a complicated matter with many facets, two of which I probed. It is vital to look forward, to have a clear strategy and to deliver on it, and not to twist and turn. Does the Minister agree that policy on building and planning needs to go with the grain of economics and take proper account of incentives to the private sector, including to smaller builders? Does she also agree that one important factor on which UK Governments will be judged is their success in meeting voters’ aspirations to own their own home?

My noble friend is correct that economics and the prompting that the Government can give this sector are important. That is why local authorities must now have a five-year land supply as part of their reporting requirements. Within that, they have to identify small and medium-sized sites, because we have recently seen a decline in the number of small and medium-sized enterprises. We need to encourage those businesses and make funding available to them, because they are so important, particularly in training the next generation of the workforce and apprenticeships.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. What are the Government going to do about the crisis of planning permissions being granted but not a brick being laid? At the last check, there were well over 250,000 applications with nothing happening on those sites. If you have land and have received planning permission to build homes, but you do not take action, surely the Government should do something. If nothing has happened in 12 months, surely the Government should find somebody to build houses on these big sites.

The noble Lord is correct that, once planning permission is granted—which can take about two years—it is in everyone’s interests, including the developer and the local community, that the site is built on. Last year, we saw more than 375,000 grants of planning permission. The noble Lord is aware that in 2018 Sir Oliver Letwin was asked to review whether there was a hold-up of what is called the build-out rate. His main conclusion was about the absorption rate of bringing large numbers of units into the local market. He recommended that we diversify the type of units on each site, so they can be put on the market in smaller groups, appeal more widely and not affect the market price.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that many new houses are being built in flood-risk areas. Between 2001 and 2014, 250,000 new homes were built in such areas and currently the number being built in them is increasing year on year. Many of these houses are being built against Environment Agency advice. Although some are protected by hard flood defences, does the noble Baroness agree that two measures should be crucial to all new building developments; namely, the installation of sustainable urban drainage systems and, secondly, the removal of the automatic right to connect to often overloaded Victorian drains?

The noble Lord is correct to raise this issue, given the effects of the recent storm. Many communities are today living with the effects of flooding in their properties. However, it would be unrealistic to ban all development in flood-risk areas because around 10% of England and parts of London are viewed as being at high risk. These decisions need to be taken locally and carefully, and the Environment Agency is one of the statutory bodies that needs to be consulted on planning.

My Lords, one of the tools the Government are using is the housing delivery test. I believe it is designed to put even more pressure on councils to deliver even more development and I can see where the Government are coming from. However, the regime is forcing councils in already built up and congested urban areas to accept applications for large tower blocks ranging from 20 storeys to, in Croydon for example, 65 storeys in height. Do the Government accept that these developments are very unpopular with the public and do they recognise that these concerns are justified? Such buildings will impact on the townscape and the built environment, and certainly on quality of life. The jury is still out on the quality of family life on the 61st floor of a major tower block.

The noble Baroness raises an important issue that will be part of the planning White Paper: how do we involve communities in the planning process and is guidance to consult before a planning application sufficient, or should there be consultation before that? The housing delivery test mentioned by the noble Baroness is one of the tools the Government are using to hold local authorities to account for the part they play in delivering the number of houses needed in their local communities—and they are best placed to know that. The good news is that in 2018, two-thirds of local authorities had indeed delivered to the correct threshold under the housing delivery test, but we have promised to review it after 18 months, which I believe will be in August of this year.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that the last time a Conservative Government built 300,000 houses a year was under Harold Macmillan, when Ernie Marples built them for him? He found that private housebuilders were not capable of building at that rate because they had to depend on investment by local authorities and housing associations. Would she welcome that in this target?

My noble friend is correct about the rate of housebuilding, but given that we completed 241,000 builds last year, there is evidence that such a figure can be delivered. Housing associations, councils and small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as self-build and custom-build, all need to be part of this, with a particular emphasis on small and medium-sized sites. Some 10% of the land in a plan must be of less than a hectare in size, so we need to use all those means to deliver the 300,000 homes a year that this country needs, because 90% of young people want to own their own home.

My Lords, seven years ago the Government made a commitment, setting a target to build 160,000 public sector houses by 2020. That target has not been met. Given that the Government are, among other things, encouraging public sector bodies—hospitals, schools and local authorities—to surrender what is termed “surplus land” for housebuilding, why have they made such a mess of reaching that target?

My Lords, there is now a longer timeframe for the target of 160,000 homes to be delivered from public sector land use, but 51,000 homes have been delivered under that. It has not been for lack of effort by government departments. There have been complications in releasing some of the land, and some of the land has been repurposed by departments. For instance, the Department for Education has used some land for schools that is then not available for housing. It will take longer, but the Government take seriously their responsibility to meet that target.