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Housing: North Somerset

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Morris.)

I am very grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of housing and house building numbers for North Somerset. I will make some comments about the general situation, how we got to this point and elements that affect my constituency. Then, with your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) will add some comments about the situation in his constituency.

North Somerset, as it is now, had a population in 1971 of 139,924 residents. By 2018, that had increased to 213,919. We have seen an increase of more than 50% in our population since the 1970s. That has naturally been accompanied by a huge amount of house building in my constituency. That has particularly been around Nailsea and Backwell. There has been huge development and growth in Clevedon and, most recently, the development in Portishead, one of the most successful developments of a brownfield site anywhere in the country. Of course, Weston-super-Mare has seen its own dramatic growth in that time, which my hon. Friend will come to.

Our current adopted requirement for housing is 20,995 dwellings for the period 2006 to 2026, which is 1,049 per year, but—this is where reality breaks in—developers have not delivered anything like those numbers in that period. In fact, despite a large number of sites with full planning consent, only 808 dwellings on average have been produced per year in that period. Only in one year, 2007, did we exceed the target, and that was at the height of growth in Portishead.

I now come to the projected numbers. The previous joint spatial plan gave North Somerset a new target of 25,000 new homes over 20 years, which means 1,250 per year. Under the new methodology, however, with a target of 300,000 new homes per year nationally for each year of this Parliament, that has risen again to 1,365 dwellings per year.

That was already beyond the realms of what we believed possible, but to take us well into “Alice in Wonderland” territory, the Government’s new algorithm in the plan to get us to 370,000 homes nationally per year takes it to 1,708 dwellings per year for North Somerset, which is 25,620 over a 15-year period. That is more than twice as many as the market has delivered on average in that period. So we have these fantasy numbers that come from the socialist planning edict, rather than what the market has delivered for us.

The question is, where will those houses actually go? I am aware of the strictures about not using props, but I will explain to the Minister the little gift that I intend to give him at the end of this debate, which will show him a map of North Somerset plus green belt. By the time we add on the flood plain, areas of outstanding natural beauty, aerodrome safeguarded zones and the conservation areas, he might like to show me on the map where the 26,000 homes will go.

I could encourage the Minister to improve his colouring-in skills, but there is nothing to colour in on a map where everything is already completely used up. Perhaps we will see the Shard built on Yatton high street; perhaps Churchill will have its new skyscrapers. It simply is not credible to apply those housing numbers to North Somerset.

We are not nimbys. As I have said, there has been a 50% increase in the number of our residents, and therefore housing, over the period, but we need to safeguard the quality of life for those who already live there. The infrastructure in our area is creaking in terms of the number of schools and the GP services that we have. Our policing is overstretched and our roads leave a great deal to be desired.

In Wrington, one of the villages in the green belt where there has been some development, we have already seen problems with flooding and drainage that were entirely predicted; I raised the issue with the district council at the time. Road traffic access is a nightmare in a village where the infrastructure had already been degraded. In Portishead, our schools are already full. Yatton is used as the emergency route when there is a closure to the M5, which is a joke, because at the best of times it is effectively a single-lane road through a small village.

In Clevedon, there is an attempt to use our last bit of green belt in Clevedon East to build an overflow school. Long Ashton and Dundry in particular have the nightmare prospect of a huge housing estate being planned that will effectively take the urban sprawl from Bristol into North Somerset. The whole point of the green belt there is to stop urban sprawl and to stop Bristol moving south into North Somerset. We utterly reject the idea of some of those lovely villages having huge housing estates, which would be an eyesore as well as a burden on the local authority.

The Government have said that they want to increase the infrastructure budget, particularly in the north of England. I am absolutely, fully committed to that; it makes perfect sense to spread opportunity to all parts of the country. But if that is where the infrastructure spending is going to go, why are we increasing the housing supply in the south of England, where we are not getting the investment in the infrastructure? That applies not only to our constituencies in north Somerset but to many of the constituencies of my right hon. and hon. Friends, who took the opportunity in the Lobby tonight to say, “Speak for us when you are having your Adjournment debate.” We need to have house building commensurate with investment in the infrastructure. We cannot have the mismatch that we seem to be developing at the present time.

So what do we want to see in North Somerset? We need to develop brownfield sites, particularly in Bristol. The idea that there are cost issues should not be allowed to get in the way of building on the most appropriate sites where they are closest to the city environment with all the infrastructure that already exists there. We need to look, particularly in the post-covid environment, at change of use from offices and shops to more dwellings, bringing people back into our town centres and improving the life of our communities there. We want to get rid of North Somerset’s obligation to make up for unmet need in Bristol. Why should the residents of North Somerset have to pay the price, in terms of pressure on their infrastructure, for the failure of the authorities in Bristol to meet their own housing needs, especially given that there are brownfield sites yet to be built on?

We need to have—this is a more generic issue than just what we face in North Somerset—a methodology that is realistic. We need to have a clear link to local demographics, not some made-up numbers that are simply applied irrespective of the real conditions in our population. We must have a fact-based assessment of need in our constituencies. We must have a sensible view of the constraints already in place, including all the issues that I mentioned, including the fact that we have such a large amount of green belt, and the fact that we have the north Somerset levels, with some of the areas that would otherwise be used for planning being on floodplain. The clue to the impact on those areas is in the term “flood”, which is why we do not expect to see building there. We need to have to have the right type of housing. We want to see more affordable housing so that young people who grow up in North Somerset are not forced to leave and come back only when they have attained a much higher income later on in their life. We have a mismatch with our demographics. We need more young people to be able to stay and live where they grew up. We have to see housing targets and the type of house building that are in line with our environmental targets.

I believe that the Government fully understand the need for more house building across the United Kingdom, but we have already seen our share of development in our part of the country. We are constrained by the very elements that the Government themselves set down. We cannot build on green belt. We cannot build on floodplain. It is an accident of nature that we have the north Somerset levels. We cannot build in the protected areas: in areas of outstanding natural beauty or conservation areas. I invite my right hon. Friend the Minister, for some amusement over the weekend, to take back the map of North Somerset that shows all these elements included, and show me where 26,000 houses are meant to go.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), my parliamentary neighbour, on securing this debate and on making the case so eloquently and forcefully not just on behalf of his own constituents but on behalf of my constituents—and, as he rightly pointed out, given the various comments that we have both been getting in the Lobby during the votes just now, on behalf of a great deal more constituencies right the way across the country.

I want to pick up on a couple of the points that my right hon. Friend made—very briefly, because I want to leave time for the Housing Minister to respond. He is absolutely right to say that North Somerset as a whole has absorbed a huge amount of housing over the past 50 years. We cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as nimbys. We have taken an enormous number of houses. We are happy to take more if they are in the right places, because, as my right hon. Friend rightly points out, there are very many local residents who want their children to be able to afford to live locally—who do not want them to be forced to move away and come back only when they have made their fortunes, if they can. That is clearly not the right way to do it, and it is clearly not the right way to have sustainable and balanced communities either, so we want to be able to have enough houses for this to be affordable. Both my right hon. Friend and I, and many local residents, agree with the notion that, as a country, we have to build more houses, but the question is where we build them and why the existing system is forcing people to build in the wrong places and in the wrong ways.

My right hon. Friend is also right to point out that if we stick with the current approach, we stand absolutely no chance of delivering on the number of houses that are required. That is not because there are not enough places with planning permission or because there are not enough permitted areas where planning permission has already been agreed, but simply because the existing housebuilders have a business model which requires them to dribble out houses consistently over many years at no more than a pre-set rate—about 800 every year in our areas—in order to avoid deflating the cost of housing by building too fast and ruining their investments. So, if we do not change something soon, we will never get to the numbers that the Minister is rightly setting for the entire country.

Therefore, I urge the Minister to consider that Weston-super-Mare, perhaps some of the areas in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, and certainly central Bristol should be willing to take more homes in the middle of towns, rather than in the areas, which, as my right hon. Friend rightly pointed out in his nicely coloured-in map, are not available to be built on outside towns. Central Weston needs the investment; central Weston would be delighted to have more homes built in the right places. That points to one of the advantages of the Government’s latest set of proposals for permitted development rights with carefully constructed local council-approved planning guidelines.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) on securing this Adjournment debate. Does the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) agree that one of the issues about density of dwelling in planning, and one of the issues with the White Paper proposals, is that we will have less control over what sort of densities would get built out by the developers?

Actually, I respectfully disagree with that last point, because local authorities will be able to set development codes, which will be able to dictate the level of density, and they can also dictate the look and feel of the areas. As a result, places like central Weston and central Bristol, where development is on average two storeys tall, could easily—and in the case of central Weston, would gladly—absorb more homes if we were able to go up to four storeys tall. We are not proposing to emulate the Shard, as my right hon. Friend rightly points out, because that would be completely inappropriate, but we want to go up to four storeys, or maybe five at the outside. We want to build elegant townhouses and mews houses; the sort of things that we are proud to look at in parts of Weston already, and certainly in parts of central Bristol and parts of Bath. Such beautiful bits of architecture—more dense, but beautifully put together—could absorb all the homes if we were only able to do it. But the current system—the current method of allocating those homes—does not allow us to do it, because local authorities do not get credit if they start to allocate building in those areas.

Will my hon. Friend accept that his argument is further strengthened by the fact that the housing density in many of our cities in the United Kingdom is well below the level of housing density that is taken for granted in most cities in Europe?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and if we do it this way round we are using the existing infrastructure, rather than overburdening the already stretched infrastructure in our rural areas. It is greener, too, because people can live closer to work. If we start building yet more in rural villages—in my case, places like Churchill or Langford or Congresbury—we just create commuter towns and villages, and we add to the level of the commuting carbon footprint as a result. If people can live near where they work—which is much more covid-friendly as well—we stand a chance of creating greener, more sustainable communities, and ones where investment is desired. However, that does require the Government to change the process—to change the way they give credit for the sites that are thus created. That would ensure that the big volume builders, whose whole business plan is based around building on greenfield sites, do not get the only view of the situation, and town and city centre development becomes a route for councils to satisfy the housing numbers they are required to build.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) on securing this debate and on his, as ever, eloquent contribution. I am always keen to hear his views. I am also keen and happy to look at his maths, and happy to discuss what the colouring of the maps might be. I am grateful for the insights that he has given to us. The issue of housing, including housing numbers, is of great importance to many Members across the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who also spoke with great prescience and insight, and I am happy to discuss his ideas at some future point.

I think we would all agree that, to achieve the aims of our manifesto commitment of building 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s, we need to find the right balance, which is ambitious in its vision for the future of our planning system and house building, and fair. That is why we recently set out our long-term vision in our planning White Paper, “Planning for the future”, the consultation on which closed last week.

We believe that the proposals will create a reformed system that not only delivers the houses that we need, but puts communities at the heart of a process that encourages more community engagement from the very beginning, so that people play a fuller part in the proactive place-making of their environment. Right now, something like 2% of local populations take an active role in individual planning applications. That percentage can fall as low as 1% in the development of local plans.

The proposals will also encourage fairer contributions from developers—a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset—with a new infrastructure levy to fund critical infrastructure and affordable housing. The proposals will contribute to more beautiful homes and communities through local design codes, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, with pattern book approaches. They will also deliver stronger environmental outcomes, protecting our green belt and our precious green spaces.

At the same time as we launched the planning White Paper, we set out our proposals for the shorter term in our consultation on changes to the current planning system and local housing need calculation. As I said in the Backbench Business debate on the issue a couple of weeks ago, however, some of the numbers we have seen bandied around from the Commons Library or the Lichfields assessment are entirely speculative.

The consultation on the local housing need methodology closed on 1 October, and we are working through the feedback from it. I have heard today, in the Backbench Business debate and in discussions with right hon. and hon. Members across the Chamber, concerns that have been expressed about the proposed changes, in particular some areas that might see increased levels that they will find difficult to plan for.

We have tried to approach the process fairly, based on evidence, because the evidence shows that for too many people homes are simply unaffordable. That is why I should be clear that both the current and the proposed standard method have a focus on affordability, because it cannot be right that in areas where, historically, supply has simply not kept up with demand, people are prevented from living where they most want to, or where they most need to, in the places that perhaps they call home.

Indeed, it is a question of intergenerational fairness. We need to build more homes to help young people on to the housing ladder and also help some of the most vulnerable people in society—some of our elderly. We must consider the question of affordability. However, as I said, I have heard hon. Members, most recently my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset and my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, express concern about the effect that this might have on the geographical balance of our country—that there may be too many homes in the south and not enough in the north.

That is why we are looking at other levers, such as stock renewal—regeneration of places—where it is required, generally in the industrial west midlands and the industrial north. We are looking at all-important city regeneration, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare. We are committed, in the national planning policy framework and in our consultation proposals, to further brownfield development, and we are committed to reimagining our town and city centres.

That is why we have introduced permitted development rights statutory instruments that allow for the demolition and rebuilding of commercial property to make it easier to turn that into residential property. We have introduced changes to use classification to make it easier for town centres to accommodate more residential accommodation so that they can once again become the places they used to be before, perhaps, the 1970s and the 1960s—places where people live as well as work.

I am in no doubt that achieving the right balance is critical. We need to challenge the affordability issues that bedevil so many people in our country and the places that they want to live.

I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I am sure he wants to raise a point about North Somerset.

The Minister is very generous. I want to concentrate on that point about affordability. In his vision, does he see that there is a role for council house or council flat building? Surely, as the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) illustrated in respect of his area—and I am sure it is true across the country—truly affordable accommodation must be delivered through council house building as well.

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have made it easier for councils to build council houses. He will know that, through the affordable homes programme that the Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in September, over the next five years we will inject £12.2 billion into house building. We will build 180,000 new homes in our country, about 50% of which will be affordable and for social rent. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman raised that point, and I am pleased to have been able to make the point to him that we are building those affordable homes where they are necessary.

That is why we are looking at housing need now, considering carefully how all the elements of the formula that I described work together so that we can ensure that we achieve the right distribution of homes in the most appropriate places and address any perceived imbalances. We have consulted, as I said, on each element of the indicative formula, and we are reflecting carefully on the feedback we have received.

May I take my right hon. Friend back to what the market has actually delivered over time? Does he accept that if councils are given targets for housing that are utterly unrealistic in relation to the numbers that have been built over time, the Government are likely to miss their own house building target, because houses will not be built in those areas to the extent that the Government would like, and that the process can be self-defeating if the correct balance is not achieved?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. That is why I said that we are looking very closely at the consultation feedback that we have received. As part of the consultation on the “Planning for the future” White Paper, we have asked providers of feedback to consider how we can improve the duty to co-operate between local authorities so that we get the right sorts of homes spread over the regions of our country. We know that political geography does not always map easily on to economic or physical geography, so I recognise what my right hon. Friend says.

I will make a couple more points before the fickle finger of time points us towards the door of the Chamber. My right hon. Friend raised the issue of infrastructure. We recognise that the present system of infrastructure levy does not work. We have heard that 80% of local authorities think that the system of section 106 contributions is too slow, and negotiations between councils and developers cannot be relied on fully to provide what communities truly need, when they need it. That is why, in the White Paper, we have proposed a more widely set infrastructure levy. That will simplify the system and ensure fairer contributions from developers.

Crucially, we want to ensure that the levy provides funds up front for the required infrastructure—the schools, roads, clinics and playgrounds that local people expect to see if new, good-quality, sustainable homes are being built around them. We are consulting on whether the levy should be set nationally, or locally or regionally to take account of regional economies.

My right hon. Friend raised the question of build-out and land-banking. He will know that Sir Oliver Letwin produced a report on build-out a couple of years ago. He found no evidence of speculative land-banking, but we all recognise that developers do not always build out at the pace that we would like. Our proposals will help to achieve that speedier build-out, but I look forward to considering the ideas in the consultation, so that we can better incentivise developers to build out.

My right hon. Friend referred to flooding. He will know that we are considering carefully whether we need to make further changes to the national planning policy framework to protect areas at risk of flooding from unnecessary and inappropriate building. We should not lose sight of the Government’s successes over the past 10 years. There have been half a million additional new homes since 2010, and 240,000 of those were built in England last year alone. We can be proud of that.

I thank everybody who has contributed to this debate. We need to get this right, and that depends on what we build, and where we build. I look forward to reading the many contributions of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset and my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare to the two consultations that have just concluded, and look forward to further debates on this matter.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.