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Volume 832: debated on Thursday 21 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that local authorities in England have sufficient resources to meet planned house building targets.

My Lords, the Government are committed to our ambition of delivering 300,000 homes a year. To ensure that local authorities have sufficient resources, we have laid regulations to increase planning fees by 35% for major applications and 25% for other applications. Subject to parliamentary approval, this fee increase will come into force before the end of the year. We have also developed a planning capacity and capability programme to support local authorities to address specific resourcing challenges.

I thank the Minister for that reply and welcome him to the Dispatch Box on what I understand is his first occasion answering Questions. Does he accept that statistics gathered jointly this month by Close Brothers Property Finance, the Home Builders Federation and Travis Perkins show that over 90% of respondents stated that delays in securing local planning permission and lack of resources in LA planning departments are the major barriers to building and development? Will he reconsider plans to ring-fence funds for planning improvement, as well as reinstating new housing targets, which are surely both essential to house our growing population and to help more people on to the housing ladder?

My Lords, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Lord for his public service over many years as a councillor in Bredbury, a Member of Parliament in the West Midlands and, indeed, chair of Stockport County Football Club back in the day. I accept that it is vital that local planning authorities have the resources they need to provide an effective planning service. We did consult on a proposal to ring-fence the fee increase, and I recognise that it is strongly supported. However, we are not taking ring-fencing forward as it would overly restrict the local authorities. In relation to housing targets, the Secretary of State’s Written Ministerial Statement published on 6 December 2022 confirmed that the standard method of assessing local housing need will be retained. National planning policy continues to expect local authorities to follow the standard method to make sufficient provision for housing and identify the sites that will deliver much-needed homes to meet the needs of our communities across the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Snape, rightly refers to the resources that planning departments need to draw up their local plan, but they also need the political will to deliver this. Last week the Housing Minister rightly rebuked Spelthorne Borough Council, which is under independent control, for not updating its plan for 14 years and failing to meet housing need. Will the Government take equally robust action against any council, of whatever colour, if it fails to meet the ambitions the Government have aspired to of 300,000 homes a year?

My noble friend and former Chief Whip is exactly right. He is a formidable campaigner on issues of home building. I pay tribute to my right honourable friend the Minister for Housing, who is absolutely right; the current Spelthorne local plan is nearly 15 years old, meaning that the policies in it will not be up to date. Withdrawing the plan from examination could lead only to significant further delay and additional expense while a new plan is prepared. Local authorities are more at risk from appeals and speculative planning applications being successful if they do not have a local plan setting out an up-to-date housing requirement, as the presumption in favour of sustainable development applies. Intervening in this plan will accelerate plan production, given that the current plan is submitted and an examination will ensure that an up-to-date plan is in place sooner, therefore preventing speculative developments taking place. Local plans should be reviewed every five years. The good people of Spelthorne should expect better from their local politicians of all colours.

My Lords, the Government are absolutely right to try to put more resources into the hands of local planning authorities, because that is what they desperately need to process all the applications. But with house prices falling and interest rates rising, a lot of big housebuilders are pulling back and reducing their output. They are selling off some of their big sites. Is this not the perfect moment, while prices are falling, to get a really big programme of social housing on the go? Let us have a real go at it now.

I agree with the noble Lord. Our £11.5 billion affordable homes programme will deliver thousands of new homes across the country, and a large number of these will be for social rent. Local authorities have a key role to play in increasing the supply of social housing; in 2021-22 they delivered nearly 800,000 affordable homes, which represented 13% of the overall affordable housing delivery and the highest recorded number of local authority completions since 1991-92.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Evans, to the ever-growing DLUHC team in your Lordships’ House. I grew up in a council house, so I know from personal experience that social housing should be treated as a national asset to be proud of, to invest in, to protect and to maintain. But local authorities have had little support under this Government to replenish our stock—the Minister outlined how much but it does not go very far. As over 1 million people are still stuck on social housing waiting lists, will the Government now look again at social housing policy and help local authorities to build more safe, secure houses?

I too was born and bred for 25 years of my early life in a council house. Local authorities do a good job, but the noble Baroness is absolutely right that there is more to do. The Government have done a good job on affordable housing, but local authorities of all colours could do a lot more on affordable housing and social housing in particular. The council housing that I was brought up in was of very high quality and is still there today. The communities that it develops are long-standing, and we need to maintain them.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his new role. Many local authorities and local planning authorities are in dire financial straits at the moment. Indeed, the Secretary of State has put a commissioner in to deal with the specific case of Birmingham City Council. In that case, the Secretary of State is setting the budget priorities of that local planning authority. What directive has been given to the commissioner by the Secretary of State to make sure that the priority of planning and housing development approvals in Birmingham proceeds at a smart pace in a timely and professional way?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his question on Birmingham and for the service that he gave to Hazel Grove over many years. I do not have a specific answer to his Birmingham City Council question because it is too recent and I do not have it in my pack, but I will write to him.

My Lords, as my noble friend the Minister will know, SME builders are having a difficult time and are being priced out of the market because of high interest rates and difficulty borrowing money and getting funding in the first place. Can he say exactly what is being done to support these builders? Without them, England would be worse off.

My noble friend is exactly right. SME builders bring some welcome colour and difference to housing design throughout the country, and it is very important that we have those independent SME builders. The Government are committed to supporting SME housebuilders: last year we launched the levelling-up home building fund, which is providing £1.5 billion of development finances to SMEs and builders to support them to build more homes. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is making changes to support SMEs, making the planning process faster and more predictable so that they can plan ahead.

My Lords, why do the Government not require solar panels on all new buildings, particularly new houses and social housing? I ought to declare an interest: I put solar panels on my house in Devon in 2009.

The noble and learned Baroness is absolutely right to point that out. There is currently no obligation on housebuilders in new developments but, as she rightly says, an increasing number of individuals are putting solar panels on to their own properties, as she has done. There is no specific requirement for all new housebuilding, but that does not prevent individual initiatives.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that your Lordships’ Built Environment Committee, of which I have the honour of being a member, is publishing a report today on the very Question asked by my noble friend? Will he guarantee to read the report in full? I think he will find that some of the comments and conclusions we have come to are slightly different from some of the responses he has given this morning.

I am most grateful to the noble Lord. I will not guarantee that I will read all of the report, but I guarantee that I will read the report if he wishes to send me a copy. I will then report back to the department.