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Local Authority (Housing Allocation) Bill [HL]

Volume 823: debated on Friday 8 July 2022

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, the sun is shining on this Bill today. First, the RMT arranged a strike so that the date could be moved to today for me to present it, and yesterday the Prime Minister kindly timed his resignation to give a clear sign that the days of an overcentralising approach—which was the criticism policy-wise that I heard by far the most from Conservative MPs—would be adjusted.

This Bill provides an antidote to the centralised state by simply shifting power to localities. It does so by building on a tremendous government success. Governments normally want to shout out loud their great successes. This Government have one. It is not one they originated themselves—the origins of neighbourhood planning began in 2003, under Tony Blair. Nothing happened under the Brown Government, but David Cameron, in 2011, gave it a huge fillip and promotion, and it has continued ever since. There has been a consensual approach, both locally and nationally, but its great success has not been advertised.

I feel rather obliged to point out that I live in the district that has had the biggest single success, with the most neighbourhood development plans and the biggest percentage of its land mass allocated to them—which when it comes to housing and housing allocation is always rather important and sometimes controversial. In Bassetlaw—which is a small district of 120,000 people, and only just a little more than one parliamentary constituency—the 13 fully functioning, agreed-at-every-level neighbourhood plans have brought forward between them 1,133 new housing allocations. That is from a position of zero in the local plan.

Let us look at some of the villages. In Walkeringham, local people have agreed under the neighbourhood development plan that there should be 60 new properties in their village, yet every time there was any proposal when I represented Walkeringham everyone was up in arms about any planning application for any houses. A single house in Walkeringham was controversial; now they have agreed 60. Another small village, albeit slightly bigger, is Carlton in Lindrick, where the entire village went crazy over 90 new houses. It was a pretty horrendous time, even though I was on their side in the argument. The people of Carlton in Lindrick have now agreed 560 new houses. In the village of Blyth, the vast majority of the population came to public meetings that I had to block the prospect of new housing in areas that they and I regarded as totally unsuitable.

The argument put by the developers in all those cases was that there are national housing targets. The advice from council officers was: “You need to be careful, because if we don’t meet the national housing targets, the developer will appeal to the Secretary of State and, on the balance of probabilities, is bound to win, in order to meet the national housing targets.” Yet the village of Blyth, where we could not fit people in the room for repeated meetings to stop new housing, has agreed to 62 new houses. If we take the rest of the district—we are talking about only the rural villages, which cover about 15% of the population—that number will double with the neighbourhood development plans, some of which are nearly finalised, agreed and just need to be signed off. That is over 2,500 new dwellings from zero 15 years ago. I went out and argued the case across those villages: “If we give you control, you sort out the new housing and where it will be”, because you cannot have a neighbourhood development plan without more new housing. People were agreeing, and usually unanimously. There is more to be done on neighbourhood planning.

It is shame that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham is no longer in his place. I have not had enough time to promote how we should look in urban areas and towns for other ways of defining “community”. One example in Worksop in the Bassetlaw district is the priory church, where 12 years ago I attempted to get a neighbourhood development plan based around the church parish rather than the local authority parish. It was a little too early for most people to conceive. It is still a good idea. It still would work. It would still bring forward more rational development—more housing—to meet the housing needs of the country and of the locality.

If you give local people the power, they will agree the houses to be built—and the proof is in what has actually happened. We should give them more power, because people understand. They want new houses. Even more so, their children and grandchildren want more houses, new houses, better houses, nicer houses—sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller—in their locality, although many move to other localities. In every case across 90% of the landmass of Bassetlaw, which is as big as Greater London, the local people voted for more housing in their back yard.

Decentralisation works, and while giving the national state power over some issues is absolutely the way to do it, where possible, power should be devolved to the people and decentralised. I will not argue whether this is at the ideological core of what the Conservative Party has always been about, that it is a Liberal concept or that, as it was initiated by the Blair Government, Labour should take credit for it. All parties should be getting behind this. Give the power to localities. The localities will deliver the housing that the country needs. They will provide more than the country needs. The days of big arguments—of the developer backing the locals and the locals attacking everyone and getting disillusioned with politics because the big state and the big developer wins—will be minimised.

This is a good policy and a good opportunity for the Government. I am attempting only to be helpful to the Minister and to make him the most popular of all government Ministers, whoever the Prime Minister of the day is. I beg to move.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to tell the noble Lord that these Benches are fully supportive of what he is trying to achieve through the Bill. It is about 30 years since I came into local government, and his question about targets and who sets them is a hardy perennial. I declare an interest as the president of the National Association of Local Councils.

To start with targets, I wonder whether the Minister can confirm the status of the 2019 manifesto commitment of 300,000 houses by mid-decade. On 11 May, which seems about 100 years ago now, Mr Gove said on the “Today” programme:

“We’re going to do everything we can”

to meet the target,

“but it’s no kind of success simply to hit a target if the homes are shoddy, in the wrong place, don’t have the infrastructure required and are not contributing to beautiful communities.”

On this rare occasion, I think Mr Gove was spot on. One of the problems with systems based on overprescriptive central targets is that they fail to meet all those other objectives. All too often they meet the requirements of developers, not of people.

What was missing in Mr Gove’s list was affordability. The Government’s figures on affordable housing supply show that 52,100 affordable homes were completed in 2020-21, down 12% on the previous year. I assume that is a pandemic-related issue. Can the Minister say whether a new baseline will be reset from that or whether the Government plan to make up the shortfall?

There seems to be a fundamental disconnect between the question of housing targets, the planning system and an overall housing strategy. The planning system seems to grind on in its own way, somewhat disconnected from these wider issues. On Wednesday last week the Guardian reported:

“Green belt land may have been torn up for housing unnecessarily … the 2021 census suggested population growth in many areas has been overestimated—in some cases by tens of thousands of people.”

In other areas,

“estimates were far too low—by up to 16%”.

If we have centrally imposed targets, clearly there is a danger that the wrong houses will be built in the wrong places. We hear that the census may well be stopped; I hope the Minister can use his influence to prevent that, because it is really important.

The other element we are missing in this country is a comprehensive land use strategy to balance the land allocated for housing, agriculture, business and industry, recreation, transport, energy and all the uses to which land can be put. The Government rejected that when the noble Baroness, Lady Young, proposed it during the passage of the Agriculture Bill in 2020, but I gather they have warmed to the idea. That seems a really important part of this jigsaw. Broad policies for land allocation, combined with genuinely locally led housing allocations, in the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, would be a much more fruitful approach, providing the long-term planning framework but also flexibility as needs change.

I do not believe that this is a pipe dream. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mann, that neighbourhood plans have been immensely successful. As for who gets the credit, the legislation in 2011 was very much driven through by Lib Dem colleagues, but perhaps he is right and it is something we should all get behind. Research carried out by the University of Reading in 2020 showed that neighbourhood plans were allocating, on average, 39 units above what was suggested by the local authorities per housing site plan. Far from being nimby, when they are involved they accept and welcome more housing. It has proved fruitful, and I hope we can focus on making that better rather than diluting it with some of the extra paraphernalia proposed in the levelling-up Bill.

My Lords, it was really good to hear the noble Lord, Lord Mann, introduce his Bill. To me, it seems eminently sensible and practical as a way forward, so I assure him that we fully support it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, asked a couple of quite important questions, so I will swing in behind her on this and look forward to the Minister’s response. The first was on the housing targets; I know we have had questions across the Floor on this before. Alongside that is the issue of quality—of meeting the requirements of the people who will actually live in the houses, rather than just what suits the developers. That is an extremely important point.

The noble Baroness also talked about affordable housing, which concerns me particularly because of where I live in Cumbria—and I know it is exactly the same in other areas with high tourism. What tends to happen is that you have this huge problem of second homes or holiday homes, where local people, particularly young people, struggle to find houses they can afford because the prices are forced up by people from outside—who basically have more money—buying the houses. The other thing that happens then is that, because housing allocation is still required for the area, the houses get shoved around the edges, and you get far too much housing in areas where GPs, transport and so on really cannot cope, and then no housing in some of the smaller villages, as the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said, where people want to work and live in the area where their families are.

I was really pleased that the noble Lord talked about the fact that neighbourhood development plans have been created and have been working very successfully, and about how local control and oversight can make a real difference in delivering the building of new houses. That is what we need in some areas that are almost set in aspic, which is not what our villages should be like.

The Bill addresses important issues. It will ensure that targets for local housing allocations are agreed in consultation with local communities. As the noble Lord demonstrated extremely well, that is more likely to achieve the building of houses that are actually needed, in the communities where people want to be, rather than overloading certain areas because you cannot get planning permission in other areas.

We need to be much clearer about what we think our communities are, particularly in areas with national parks and other environmental concerns. It is not just about setting somewhere in aspic because it has been given national park status; it is about how you work with local communities to make their communities what they need to be. Housing has to be part of that.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mann, for sponsoring this Private Member’s Bill and for providing me with the opportunity to highlight this important matter, as well as to draw attention to the upcoming Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which is in the other place.

I start by saying that the Government will be opposing the Bill for a number of reasons. First, the Bill seeks to put into legislation matters that are more effectively addressed through planning policy. We would not want to constrain future ability to make appropriate policy adjustments in response to changing public needs or priorities.

Secondly, local planning authorities when preparing their local plans already establish their own housing requirements, informed by the standard method for assessing local housing need. It is for local authorities to choose how and where to meet their housing requirements in response to the needs of their communities.

Thirdly, neighbourhood planning provides a powerful set of tools for local people to shape development in their area to meet their community’s needs. I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Mann, gave a bit of background on how that approach to neighbourhood planning had its genesis in the Blair Government and was continued under the Cameron Government. Like all the best policies, it has had support from both parties in government. However, we should not exaggerate the impact of neighbourhood planning. In Bassetlaw, the contribution of the neighbourhood plan was only 459 homes, against an allocation of 4,057 homes. Therefore, while it is important, it is certainly not the silver bullet for the delivery of housing.

The fourth reason we are opposed to the Bill is that, through existing regulations and legislation, communities are able to comment on what a local plan ought to contain.

Finally, we have recently introduced our Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which will reform the process for preparing local plans so that it is simpler, faster and easier for communities to engage with. We are clear that communities must be at the heart of the planning process, and better engagement with them on planning matters is critical. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is taking real steps to address this. The Government are clear that, to help make home ownership affordable for more people and to help more people rent their own home, we need to deliver more homes.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, I say that the target of building 300,000 homes a year by the middle of this decade remains government policy; I made that point in response to a Question. But there is a recognition that we should not just have a drive for volume without thinking about quality. That is why there is a clear commitment that we want those homes to be built particularly on brownfield rather than greenfield developments. It is often cheaper for developers to build on greenfield, but we want more urban regeneration as well as more affordable housing. There is a commitment through the affordable homes programme to have a greater number of socially rented homes, up double from the previous period with 32,000 as the target, should economic conditions allow. So there is a commitment to more affordable housing, and a commitment to quality and not building on greenfield.

To get enough homes built in the places where people and communities need them, a crucial first step is to plan for the right number of homes. That is why, in 2018, we introduced a standard method for assessing local housing need to make the process of identifying the number of homes needed in an area simple, quick and transparent. I have to be clear that the standard method does not set a target for councils to meet. It is a method used by councils to inform the preparation of their local plans. Councils decide their own housing requirement once they have considered their ability to meet their own needs in their area. This includes taking local circumstances and constraints—for instance, the green belt—into account and working with neighbouring authorities if it would be more appropriate for needs to be met elsewhere. This recognises that not everywhere will be able to meet its housing need in full.

I cannot stress enough the importance of having an effective up-to-date plan in place. It is essential to planning for and meeting housing requirements in ways that make good use of land and result in well-designed and attractive places to live. The Government expect local authorities to work together to plan for and deliver the housing and infrastructure that our communities need. Without an adequate up-to-date plan, homes can end up being built on a speculative basis, with no co-ordination and limited buy-in from local people. That is the point the noble Lord, Lord Mann, made, and he is absolutely right. It is why we need these local plans in place.

Further to the local plan-making process, neighbourhood planning provides a powerful set of tools for local people to shape development in their area to meet their community’s needs. We know that over 2,850 groups have started the neighbourhood planning process since its introduction in 2012. However, despite all this, we acknowledge that the planning system has a poor record of community engagement and that it can often be adversarial. That is why the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will modernise our planning system and put local people in charge of it, so it delivers more of what communities want.

As noble Lords will know, the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill was introduced in Parliament on 11 May 2022. The Bill sets out to modernise our planning system and put local people in charge of it, so it delivers even more of what communities want. It will also give local leaders greater powers to improve town centres, bring land and property into productive use, and use the planning system to deliver the beautiful and sustainable homes that their communities want. It will reform the process for producing local plans so that it is simpler, faster and easier for communities to engage with. It will remove barriers to engagement and create a more democratic planning system, and local plans will be informed by a larger and more diverse range of community views. However, the introduction of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is only the first step. We will continue to work on the detail of regulations, policy and guidance—on the guidance, it is incredibly important that local authorities know where they have local discretion, as opposed to central discretion—and we will consult on a number of important provisions as we take this programme forward.

I take this opportunity to reassure noble Lords that the Government continue to listen to the representations of MPs, councillors and communities on the effectiveness of our housing policies. Alongside the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, we have set out a number of specific areas where we plan to consult further in the coming months. We will announce details of those, as well as any other consultations, to use the ministerial phrase, in due course.

In conclusion, the Government strongly believe that local communities should have a say in what development takes place and where. As I have explained, a number of provisions are in place to ensure that local communities can have their say about what development happens, and community engagement will be strengthened by the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill.

Local authorities can already set their own housing requirements through existing policy. It is important that we do not constrain the ability to make appropriate policy adjustments in response to changing public needs or priorities by putting into legislation matters that are quite rightly more effectively addressed through planning policy. The Government must therefore oppose the Local Authority (Housing Allocation) Bill.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions. This is the problem with the big state and Whitehall. The Minister just gave the figure of 431 houses out of the 4,500 housing allocation in Bassetlaw coming from neighbourhood plans. I will read the actual figures, because when the people in charge, who make decisions that they impose on local authorities, do not know the facts as determined by law, and then try to impose them on local people, then democracy, which we cherish, is undermined.

Here are the figures on completed plans. For Blyth Parish in 2021, the housing allocation was 62. For Carlton in Lindrick in 2019, it was 560. For Clarborough and Welham in 2017, the housing allocation was 38. For Cuckney, Norton, Holbeck and Welbeck in 2017, the allocation was 35. Elkesley in 2015 had 39. Lound had eight in 2022. Mattersey and Mattersey Thorpe in 2019 had 31. Misson in 2017 had 50. Misterton in 2019 had 187. Rampton and Woodbeck in 2021 had 21. Sturton in 2021 had 21. Sutton cum Lound in 2018 had 45. Walkeringham in 2021 had 66.

The total was 1,163, but those are completed plans. Built into the local housing plans are plans made “with review in progress”. I will not cite them all—there are too many, because neighbourhood planning has really taken off—but Misterton has 194; Hodsock and Langold has 227; Tuxford has 250; and the largest, Harworth and Bircotes, has already built more than 450 in its neighbourhood plan, never mind having it in its allocation. It has already built more than that and can build thousands. It is prepared to keep increasing, as the local plan goes on, to significant numbers. The last number I can recall is 1,130, but that area wants more. Mining villages want housing.

That is what local power is about: building houses and creating land for the houses. It is not the national state—Whitehall—telling people, “Here’s a number that we’ve created by magic. You’ve got to do this.” What happens then is that developers go for easy pickings. They go for the farmer’s field that they can build on and stick 300 houses where no one wants them and that are all the same. They build houses with five, six or seven bedrooms when local people need two or three-bedroom houses to live in, in their own communities. That is democracy, but it is also housebuilding.

If we are talking about specific numbers, it is important that the noble Lord understands that I was referring to data on the most recent figures for December 2021. That is a window of time whereas the noble Lord is referring to historic achievements in terms of neighbourhood plans. We are quoting different statistics at each other, which I think is confusing for people listening to this. I am happy to write on that point.

I am quoting statistics about how the local council is allocating land for housing where the numbers have been arrived at using the law in order to reach a target that the Government have arbitrarily set. If the local council had the power to set it entirely, as other local councils did, that council would not just have the housing allocations that were needed; it would have the houses needed in places where people wanted them and in a style that they liked, with popularity, with demand and with agreement. That is what happens with neighbourhood development planning: building is actually happening, of real houses with real people living in them. But across the country the Government are trying to create a national system where the Secretary of State and a few officials make up the numbers arbitrarily and force them on local people and local councils. We ought to reverse that. It is the heart of traditional conservative philosophy that you put power at the local level, which is why so many Conservative MPs support my approach. I beg to move.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 3.07 pm.