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Volume 805: debated on Wednesday 16 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that any changes to the planning system will improve (1) building standards, (2) safety, (3) environmental impacts, and (4) the well-being of residents.

My Lords, our proposal for a reformed planning system is centred on encouraging more beautiful development in places, improving the quality of housing and green spaces, and increasing community engagement in ensuring development enhances the environment, health and character of local areas. We are also implementing fundamental reforms to the building safety system so that residents are, and feel, safe in their homes.

My Lords, I declare my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, chair of Heart of Medway Housing Association and non-executive director of MHS Homes Ltd. Planning decisions are here for the long term, so how will the Minister and his department ensure that developers’ interests are also clearly focused on building stable communities—on that community partnership he talks about—and building for a future that really will stand the test of time?

My Lords, there is a strong case for reform of a system that was first put into place some seven decades ago with the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. The focus is on ensuring a much more map-based system towards local plans and engaging with communities to work out whether those developments should take place. In that sense, the development community will follow.

My Lords, the latest English housing survey reveals that only 9% of our housing stock has key disability accessibility features. Disability in old age is frequent, and with the ONS estimating that one in four people will be aged 65 or over by 2050 it is vital that we cater for what we are going to need. Although the recently announced government consultation into this issue is welcome, can the Minister confirm that prior to any changes in planning law, the recommendations of this consultation will be fully implemented to ensure that the vulnerable are not left behind?

My Lords, I can assure the House that we will consider the needs of all residents, including the vulnerable and the disabled, in ensuring that we have the high-quality design and the beautiful and healthy places that they need.

My Lords, will the Minister ensure that in any changes to the planning system there will be an emphasis on recreational opportunities to deliver improvements in the quality of life, health and well-being of the population? The protection and provision of sports pitches and the promotion of dual and multiuse facilities where feasible is critical to achieving public health outcomes relating to diet, obesity and physical activity.

My Lords, my noble friend is, of course, a great champion for the importance of sport and recreation. I can give him those assurances. The National Planning Policy Framework encourages local planning policy decisions to ensure that developments create places that promote health and well-being, with a high standard of amenity for existing and future users.

My Lords, the Government are proposing that the usual planning requirement on housebuilders to provide some affordable housing will be removed from all new developments of up to 40 or even 50 homes for the next two years or so. Does the Minister accept that this change would lead to the loss of some 20% per annum of affordable accommodation from these planning agreements, as Savills has calculated? Does he agree that the loss could be far worse if housebuilders divide their larger schemes into two or more developments of fewer than 40 homes each? In rural areas, where most developments are, of course, smaller, will this not virtually wipe out desperately needed affordable new homes from this source for local people?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Best, is an absolute expert in social housing. I recognise that there is a proposed change and I encourage him to communicate with the consultation, which is ongoing until the end of October. We have committed to delivering a range of different types of affordable housing and have announced a £12 billion affordable homes programme to ensure the continued development of affordable housing.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chair of the National Housing Federation. I am anxious that the proposed changes to the planning system will undermine the already limited provision of affordable homes for rent, particularly, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, said, in rural areas. The White Paper’s revised method for calculating housing need appears to divert funding for new homes to prosperous areas. Will the Minister explain how this contributes to the Government’s levelling-up agenda? Will he work with the affordable housing sector to ensure that any reforms deliver for the communities that need these houses most?

My Lords, there is absolutely no intention to divert funding to prosperous areas from more deprived communities. I am meeting with the National Housing Federation later this week and I will take this up and make relevant representations to the department, but that is certainly not the policy intention of the proposed reforms.

My Lords, I declare my interest: I too am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The Minister referred to building beautiful and quality. The reality is that every single day, planning officers encourage, argue with, and even go to battle with developers to produce high-quality schemes according to their local policies. Will the Minister explain how things will be different with the nationally proposed, one-size-fits-all design codes? Does he not agree that the answer might be not government-devised design codes, but giving local councils more power to enforce their own?

My Lords, the approach is obviously to move to a more zonal system, although there needs to be a strong design code. The design codes and pattern books draw on the historical use of the Victorians to build beautiful homes, the likes of which we see in Bath and other parts of the country. The aim is to create a range of designs that will enable speedier planning. That is the benefit, rather than having an ad hoc approach to design.

My Lords, while there are many good things in this plan, it is essential that we retain the planning committee rights of local councils, which are so much more in touch with their communities than more remote groups. Local councils can see whether, for example, it is all right to add two extra floors to a house, but if that can just be done without any permission being sought as is suggested, that could be deadly for local people who suddenly find that that happens, and the next one does it and the next one. It really is important to leave the powers with local councils, which really care about their residents, and the residents feel closer to them than they do to a Parliament that often seems rather remote from them. Can I be assured that local councils will not be ousted in this matter?

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that local authorities will be essential in the process. They will continue to prepare the local plans and councils will have better, stronger tools to ensure good design and make the most of brownfield land.

My Lords, will the Government welcome the Architects’ Journal’s campaign on retrofit first? Far too often, developers favour demolition and rebuild when retrofit would have been more appropriate. This often has detrimental environmental effects such as emissions, detrimental social effects and sometimes dangerous safety outcomes. Will the new planning system favour retrofit as the first option wherever possible and ensure that in any replacement build or conversions, safety standards will really be effectively enforced?

My Lords, I am aware of the campaign for retrofitting, and it often has a place instead of demolition and rebuild. I will look at the campaign and make sure that is fed into our policy as it evolves.

My Lords, further to the right reverend Prelate’s question about accessible housing, does the Minister agree that category 2 housing should be the mandatory baseline for all new housing, as is the policy in London?