I beg to move,
That this House believes planning works best when developers and the local community work together to shape local areas and deliver necessary new homes; and therefore calls on the Government to protect the right of communities to object to individual planning applications.
It was only last month in the Queen’s Speech debate that we warned the Government that they would reap a political whirlwind if they went ahead with their plans to silence communities and hand control over planning to developers. They felt the first blasts of that whirlwind in Chesham and Amersham, but it will not finish there because it is fair to say that the Conservatives’ planning reforms are not popular with voters. That is not because voters are nimbys, as Ministers rather offensively like to brand them, but because residents rightly want and deserve a say over how their own neighbourhoods are developed.
Under the Conservatives’ proposals, planning decisions will be taken away from democratically elected local councils and handed to development boards appointed by Ministers in Whitehall. These new quangos will help zone areas for development. Residents living in areas zoned for growth will find that they no longer have an automatic right to object to individual planning applications on their own doorsteps, no right to object to oversized blocks at the end of the street, no right to object to concreting over precious green space, and no right to object to new developments that overburden local infrastructure such as roads, doctors’ surgeries, schools or public transport.
I can quite understand why the hon. Gentleman wants to make a doomed bid for prosperous Tory voters in the south-east, but will he answer the question, on behalf of my children, young professional people working in London and the south-east: how on earth are they going to get on to the property market?
The point the right hon. Gentleman makes is important. If he listens to my speech, he will hear me go on to talk about the 1 million consented homes that have not been built, which all those people could be living in if the Government would address that issue, rather than tackle the wrong issue, which they seem intent on doing, despite the backlash from their own political supporters against their proposals.
Under the Government’s proposals, residents will be gagged from speaking out, while developers will be set loose to bulldoze and concrete over local neighbourhoods pretty much at will. These proposals are nothing less than a developers’ charter that silences local communities, so developers can exploit local communities for profit.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the Government’s proposals. I think that he should bring them here and table them in this House, because all that we on the Government Benches have seen is a White Paper. We have not seen the Government’s response to that. Perhaps he has.
It is pretty fair to say that a White Paper is Government proposals.
Why would the Government do something so desperately unpopular with their own voters, let alone with all the rest of voters? Well, since the current Prime Minister took office, donations to the Conservative party from major developers have increased by nearly 400%, according to analysis by openDemocracy. That money was an investment in expectation of a return, and here it is. The Prime Minister is paying back developers by selling out communities.
The Government’s proposals have been criticised by the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Town and Country Planning Association, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Local Government Association, the Countryside Alliance and even the National Trust, but they have also been criticised by Members on the Government’s own Benches. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), a distinguished former Prime Minister, says:
“We need to ensure that that planning system sees the right number of homes being built in the right places. But we will not do that by removing local democracy, cutting the number of affordable homes that are built and building over rural areas. Yet that is exactly what these reforms will lead to.”—[Official Report, 8 October 2020; Vol. 681, c. 1051.]
That was the former Conservative Prime Minister speaking about the Government’s proposals. The right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) says:
“Increasingly, it looks like the Government are not interested in what local people think at all. I urge the Minister to think about the impact of showing contempt for local democracy.”—[Official Report, 8 October 2020; Vol. 681, c. 1063.]
That was a senior member of the Housing Minister’s own party accusing the Government of showing contempt for local democracy. The right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) puts it like this—
“instead of taking away local powers, the Government should be looking at the number of planning permissions given that do not result in houses being built.”—[Official Report, 8 October 2020; Vol. 681, c. 1066.]
That is precisely the point I made in response to the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). They are all right—they are all absolutely right.
I used to co-chair the biggest regeneration strategy board in the country—it delivered over 5,000 new homes—and that experience showed me that regeneration works best in everyone’s interests when it is a strong partnership between councils, communities and developers. That is how we get new homes built where people need them. The best developers know that, too. They do not want to build in the teeth of local opposition; they want to work with the local community and build something that enhances the local area for the existing community as well as for newcomers and those who need a home.
There are real problems with the current planning system that need to be addressed. We are not building the number of new homes the country needs. The last Labour Government increased home ownership by 1 million people. The current Conservative Government, sadly, have reduced it by 800,000 people, and they have cut the amount of social housing being built by 80%. However, the problem with getting homes built is not the planning process; it is developers who do not build the homes once they have consent. The Government are refusing to tackle the real problem. Nine in 10 planning applications get approval, but according to the Conservative-led Local Government Association, over 1.1 million homes that received consent in the past decade have still not been built, which is over half of all homes approved by council planning departments.
One of the problems causing this situation is land banking. That is where a developer gets approval for an application to build new homes, but instead of building, waits for land values to rise so they can sell it on without having laid a single brick. Instead of a planning Bill that does nothing about this, we need new measures that incentivise developers to get these shovel-ready homes built more quickly, and since the Government have done nothing at all about this, we will bring forward legislation for the House to vote on.
Does the hon. Member agree that this is not about the number of houses, but about the whole infrastructure around housing applications —accessibility, connectivity, access to schools and green places? The planning system is not just about building the number of houses, but about building them in the right places with the right infrastructure around them.
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention, and certainly new homes need appropriate infrastructure to allow communities to thrive. That is one of the important reasons why local communities need a say over planning and development—a say that the Government are intent, unfortunately, on taking away from them. Regeneration cannot be something that is done to communities; it must be done with them. The current planning system does not work well enough, that is for sure, but the answer cannot be to carve local communities out of a say over their own neighbourhoods. It should be to incentivise developers to build the homes they have approval for.
The motion before the House is a modest proposal that simply invites Members to vote for what many Government Members say they believe in. It simply asks the Government to guarantee that residents will retain the right to a hearing over individual developments on their own streets, in their own neighbourhood or on their own local green space. We are asking for nothing more than what Government Members have already said they want. Their own Front Benchers clearly are not listening to them, so here is the chance for them to make the point more clearly. Members’ constituents would be astonished if their MP failed to vote for something that they say they support, so I urge Members in all parts of the House to come together this afternoon. Let us work cross party, across the Chamber, and take a stand for the communities that we all represent.
I am sure that the entire House enjoyed the performance of the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed), the shadow Housing Minister, although I have to say that the closest he came to accuracy, Madam Deputy Speaker, was when he addressed you as Madam Deputy Speaker. However, at least he gives me the opportunity to put the case for a transparent, engaging and modern planning system that will help to deliver the homes that we need, to give everyone in our country the chance, if they want to, to get on to the housing ladder.
Our planning reforms are a sensible set of proposals to address the failures of the English planning system, which was conceived almost three quarters of a century ago and which many accept is now too slow, too difficult to navigate and too off-putting for the broad mass of communities. Right now, it can take up to seven years to adopt a local plan. Only 41% of local authorities have an up-to-date plan and some have no plan at all, all of which puts much of their communities at risk of speculative development.
Talking about councils that have no plan, I refer the House to my Labour-led council in Bury. Does the Minister agree that while we want democratic engagement, the worst thing possible is to have that engagement and not listen to the people, as my council is doing to the over 10,000 people who want protection of the green belt, every single one of whom is being ignored?
I hope that my hon. Friend’s council does listen, and I also hope, for that matter, that the Greater Manchester Mayor listens. We have given them £75 million of public funds to invest in brownfield remediation. Let him use it effectively for his constituents in Greater Manchester.
Individual planning applications can take up to five years to determine, in addition to plans potentially taking up to seven years. The system is not fast enough and it is not consistent, nor is it clear or engaging enough. We are committed to improving the system, because our reforms will protect our valuable and beautiful green spaces, with vital protections for the green belt.
We are determined to bake in biodiversity net gain of 10%. We are determined to look at recovery networks and also to ensure that we introduce a future homes standard. We will make sure that, baked into these plans and beyond, the environment comes first and foremost. I shall say a few more words about that in a moment.
In Wycombe, in the especially treasured area of Gomm Valley, there was public consent for a plan to put in some houses that actually increased environmental amenity. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the public need the opportunity to say no, but the incentives to say yes, because they can see the gains for their community? May I also invite him to look at plans that I put forward in 2014 that would do just that?
We certainly want communities to have much greater involvement in planning, and I will certainly look at the proposals that my hon. Friend put forward.
Our proposals will deliver a simpler, faster, more transparent process, giving communities and builders, especially small builders, certainty over what development is permitted through clear land allocations in local plans. They will ensure that developers contribute a fair share to funding affordable housing and infrastructure through a new, more predictable, more transparent and faster infrastructure levy that will ensure that communities get the affordable homes—and the schools, clinics and roundabouts to support those homes—when they need them. And they will further empower local people to set standards for beauty and design through local design codes, putting beauty at the heart of the planning system for the first time. The proposals will bring a slow and cumbersome paper-based system into the digital age, with interactive maps at our fingertips and involving far more local people than at present.
One of the concerns in my constituency is flooding, and as the Minister knows, the Flood Re insurance programme is suitable only for homes that were built before 2009. Given that all these new homes are being proposed, what reassurance can he give people that they will still be able to have affordable flood insurance to go with them?
The hon. Lady is quite right, and we will look at the flooding issue as we further develop our proposals and bring them to Parliament. I recognise that this is a challenge; it is a challenge in my own constituency too.
One poll showed that 69% of people had no knowledge of or connection with local plan making. That is simply not good enough, and we believe that there is an appetite for change. Let me briefly come to some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Croydon North. We all know that he is trying to make a name for himself—quite some name—and we also know that he has one or two little hobby-horses. But like so many hobby-horses, they can turn into an obsession. He started out quite normally with an interest in planning and its rules, but quickly—all too quickly—it went downhill. He conceives himself as some sort of latter-day witchfinder general, a chief of the inquisition constantly in search of some heresy under every stone, and finding plots and conspiracy under every brick. I fear that his latest, albeit short, outpouring shows that the fantasy has gone a little too far. In just a few minutes, he has gone from acting like Tomás de Torquemada to being like David Icke. How long will it be before he runs off and jumps into his turquoise tracksuit and starts telling everybody that the world is run by lizards and that he is the godhead?
In the wording of the Opposition’s proposals, are they now saying that they oppose local development orders, which allow certain types of development to go ahead without a specific planning application, even though they introduced that legislation themselves in 2004? Are they also opposed to neighbourhood development orders, which also allow certain developments without specific planning applications? It sounds as if they are. In fact, it sounds as if they do not really know what they are talking about and that they do not have any firm, sound policies at all, which his predecessor, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), admitted in a private briefing.
I make this offer to the hon. Gentleman: come in to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, talk to our officials and let them explain how the current planning system rules for Ministers work. In that way, he can see for himself how carefully it is controlled. He may not take any notice—in fact, I suspect he probably will not—but at least he will have had the chance to listen, to ask some questions and possibly to learn.
There has been a good deal of discussion, in the House and beyond, about community engagement. I reassure the House that our proposals will not diminish the ability of local communities to take part in the planning process. On the contrary, they are designed to give communities more of a say, not less, with better information, easier means of taking part and, crucially, a clearer voice when it can make a real difference in the planning process.
Under our present planning system, when asked what they think of their local area, there are twice as many people who say that it has got worse as those who say it has got better. Under our present planning system, just 1% of the local population get involved in local plan making, and just 2% or 3% of local people get involved in discussions about local developments. That is very few—too few—yet with so little engagement, and often after months or years of tortuous wrangling, nine in every 10 planning applications end up being approved anyway. I do not think that those facts suggest a system that is really very engaging, still less one that is truly empowering. We can do better, and we will.
We are certainly open to the proposition; we are taking it forward anyway with our proposition for first homes. However, I suggest to the hon. Lady that it would be very helpful if, as I know she believes should happen, her own local authority got a plan in place to protect its community—her community—from speculative developments.
Our proposals will increase opportunities for local people to be involved in local plans, using a map-based system that will show clearly what building is proposed and where, what it will be, what it will look like and what kind of infrastructure will support it—real involvement, including in the development of local design codes. Through our new office for place, drawing on Britain’s world-class design expertise, communities and their local councils will be empowered to set local design standards, putting design and beauty at the heart of our planning system.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend, who is a doughty campaigner for his constituents. As he will know, we introduced a tall buildings policy in London in the teeth of opposition from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. We are certainly open to the prospect of such policies more broadly, beyond London; I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend about that policy opportunity.
Our plans will make it easier for local people to really influence the plan in their community and have their say on the future development of their local area, including the standards of design that builders must adhere to.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. We have talked about the huge importance of communities engaging in the planning process and of having a local plan, but does he agree that the most engaging way to get residents involved in the planning process is by rolling out more neighbourhood plans, so that the process can be devolved to the most local areas possible, whether they are areas of towns or villages?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising neighbourhood plans. We are keen to advance the opportunities that they afford to their communities. We are very conscious that they tend to occur in the south of our country or in the more rural parts; we are determined to roll them out into places further north and places that are much more urban, so that those communities too can benefit from the opportunity.
Our proposals will transform how planning and plan-making is done, taking us from an era of planning notifications on lamp posts to digital, interactive services enabling prop-tech companies to develop more engaging ways to visualise and communicate planning information, in turn improving everyone’s overall understanding of what is happening and where. Plans will be more accessible, presented in new, visual map-based formats based on machine-readable data accompanied by clear site-specific requirements. As I say, communities will be engaged at the earliest stages of the plan-making process to ensure that their views are fully reflected. To make sure that local authorities have the tools that they need, we promise a holistic review of council planning resources, because we want councils and their officers to have the scope and the skills to plan strategically for their communities, involving communities much more closely in their plan-making, the design of their communities, and the infrastructure to support them.
Fundamental to building a consensus around the new planning structure will be making better use of brownfield land and, in particular, investing in brownfield land registers. Land is our most precious commodity. We are all into recycling. Recycling our land must be the way to go. Does the Minister agree?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That policy point is enshrined in the national planning policy framework and we will take it further in our proposals. The £400 million of brownfield regeneration funding that has been made available by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, added to by a further £100 million, is all designed to add teeth to our determination to develop on brownfield first.
There will be a continuing role for the existing planning application process. As I have said before in this House, that system does not go away. Where applicants wish to vary from the local plan, they will need to make a full planning application in the usual way. Even where the broad principle of development is agreed through the plan, all the details will still need to be consulted on with communities and statutory consultees, and approved by officers or committees where appropriate. We are also looking closely at enforcement rules to ensure that where, such as in growth sites, the local authority has set up clear rules about development—which, by the way, will have had community consultation and agreement in the local plan—the authority has the tools and the ability to monitor and enforce those rules as development is built out.
The hon. Member for Croydon North mentioned build-out. We are very conscious that Oliver Letwin and, before him, Kate Barker produced a series of reports about build-out. We reckon that introducing this new, speedier process, which will aid small and medium-sized enterprises, will make it easier to bring forward plots of land with planning application for development much more quickly, and there will be more competition among developers. If people know that there are some up-front rules that they have to adhere to in order to build, there will be no necessity to land-bank. We are also very conscious of the points that have been made by many Members across the House, and those beyond it, about the importance of getting permissions built out, so we are looking closely at ways in which we can incentivise developers to continue to work closely with local authorities and with landowners to make sure that permissions are built out as rapidly as possible.
I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend recognises the issue of build-out rate, but he has also referred several times to the risks of speculative development. The risk is that if you do not deliver, you lose control of your plan and are therefore subject to speculative development, which no one wants because such developments are sited in places that have not been supported at all. Does he agree that one of the upsides of the planning system must be to give communities certainty about the number of homes going forward, lessening the risk of losing the five-year land supply by having speculative development?
My hon. Friend, who is an expert in this field, is absolutely right. As I said in my earlier remarks, too few councils have up-to-date local plans. That leaves their communities at risk of speculative development. By implementing our proposals, which will ensure that local authorities must have local plans in place within 30 months, we will help protect communities such as his and such as all of ours against speculative development.
Our reforms will also leave an inheritance of strengthening and enhancing our environment. They will mean that environmental assets are better protected, more green spaces are provided, more sustainable development is supported, and new homes will be, as I said earlier, much more energy-efficient. Our planning reforms will support the implementation of the 10% biodiversity net gain enshrined in the Environment Bill and capitalise on the potential of local nature recovery networks. We will also make the system clearer and more accountable.
Our reforms also include measures to protect and enhance the green belt, taking into account its fundamental importance when considering the constraints that areas face. We have made it clear in the NPPF, through Government investment and through our permitted development rights reforms, and we make it clear once again in our wider planning reforms: brownfield development must come first.
Under the current system, too often local planning officers advise that unless green belt is released, local plans will be subject to challenge and will lose once they are referred to the inspector. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that where local authorities can demonstrate that they have enough brownfield sites available for development for their own assessed housing need, the green belt in areas such as Dudley South will be protected?
My hon. Friend must have seen my speech, because I am about to move on to the matter of the green belt, which we will continue to protect, because our policy has not changed. We made a manifesto commitment to the green belt as a means of protecting against urban sprawl, and we mean to keep it. Local authorities should not develop on the green belt, save in exceptional circumstances, and local plan making should recognise the green belt as a constraint on numbers, as my letter to Members of Parliament in December last year made clear. For the record, we will not be accepting the recommendation in the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s report for a wholesale review of the green belt.
These measures and these commitments are important. They are a very important part of delivering the Government’s manifesto commitment to create the most ambitious environmental programme of any country in the world. We are clear that to help make home ownership affordable for more people, we need to deliver more homes, because by the age of 30, those born between 1981 and 2000 are half as likely to be homeowners as those born between 1946 and 1965. We need to take bold steps to provide enough homes in the places where people and communities need them.
At the last general election, we made a commitment to deliver the homes that the country needs—better-quality homes, of different designs and different tenures in the right places all around the country where they are needed. We have promised to extend the chance of home ownership to all who want it, and in any poll one cares to conduct, more than 80% of people—young people, less affluent people—will say that they want the opportunity to own their own home. They aspire to a stake in their community and their country, yet for far too many people that aspiration—
The hon. Lady says it is painful. Yes, it is very painful for those people who cannot get on the property ladder. It seems an impossible dream, because in places around our country, the average price of a home is many multiples of average earnings—in some places, it is 12 times the average wage. In other places there are just not enough appropriate homes for older people who want to step down the property ladder into more suitable individual accommodation.
If we are to keep our promise to those who aspire to own their own home or move into the right home, we must not only provide the right economic framework in which skills and jobs can thrive, and continue to deliver initiatives such as Help to Buy, right to buy and First Homes, which give people a leg up on the ladder, but we must deliver the homes people need. That is what we are doing.
We have delivered 1.8 million new homes since 2010. In 2020 we delivered 244,000 new homes across our country. We have an ambition to build—as do the Liberal Democrats, apparently—300,000 homes each year by the middle of this decade. That is in stark contrast to Labour’s lamentable failure to provide the homes this country needs. Under Labour, housebuilding fell to its lowest rate since the 1920s and the days when Ramsay MacDonald was the party leader—by modern standards he was quite popular. In London, Labour’s Sadiq Khan has built fewer than half the homes he promised, despite having an extra year in which to do it. In Labour-run Wales, so few council homes are being built that they could barely accommodate a Welsh rugby team.
We now have a new shadow Housing Secretary, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), who opposes the delivery of almost any building proposed in her constituency—something of a niche approach to home making. In truth—Labour Members do not like this truth; they cannot handle it—Labour does not like people to own their own homes. Labour Members do not want people, especially young people, to get on the property ladder. They do not like aspiration, they do not like capitalism, and they do not want our people to aspire to or to be capitalists. Well, we have something to say to that and it begins with a B. We say “Bolshevism” to that. Indeed, Lord Mandelson, one of Labour’s more successful and less bolshy people, says the same. When he returned from Hartlepool a few weeks ago, he said:
“I can see that people are proud of what they have achieved,”
He said that people are aspirational, and that they are not sure they have achieved that with Labour—a damning indictment of that party.
By contrast, Conservative Members are proud of those people, and we will ensure that people like them across the country achieve their aspirations under this Government. This Government are determined to level up opportunity the length and breadth of this country. From Redruth to Redcar we are determined to ensure that people are not priced out of their local communities. We are determined to get them on the ladder, because that is what they want. Just a week or two ago Sam Legg, just 19 years of age from Asfordby in Leicestershire, became the 300,000th Help to Buyer. He said that he could not have got on the ladder without Help to Buy and the support of this Government. If people like Sam and Megan, and millions like them all around the country, want to get on the property ladder, we must address the housing challenge head-on.
We know that introducing wide-ranging reforms excites real passion. It is right that those reforms are properly scrutinised by the House, and they will be; we are keen to ensure that our proposals are well considered and reflect the interests of every community across the country. We strongly believe that a modernised, transparent, engaging planning system that delivers better outcomes for local democracy, the economy, the environment and housing in a better and faster way is a long overdue reform. As we emerge from the pandemic, now is the time to drive those reforms forward: giving communities a real say in development; creating more beautiful places; making the very best use of brownfield sites to regenerate our cities and town centres; extending opportunity and security for millions; and delivering the homes our country wants and needs.
While the Opposition sink back into their comfort zone, extolling sectional interest and chained to Corbynite dogma, we will build the homes the country needs. We will build them back better and stronger. We will make sure that the banner of aspiration flies here.
I have had to cut my speech down.
I welcome this motion, following the publication of the report by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. The Minister will know that my Adjournment debate was a foretaste of what my constituents have had to put up with and what the future holds if the Government proceed with the as yet unpublished White Paper.
The Government’s hopeless response is to exclude the public even more from the process, instead of improving processes now. It is a developers’ charter that is becoming the people’s nightmare. The Select Committee’s report included an interesting statistic on the planning process, stating on page 112:
“63% said they were not satisfied with their experience. 61% said they did not think that the planning process was fair.”
The Minister will know the story of Narrow Lane, but I have to repeat it. In Walsall, we had a plan. We had the site allocation document—a document on how the land will be used. There was extensive consultation and it was approved by the planning inspector in 2019. Without any notice or consultation, Walsall Council’s cabinet decided that Narrow Lane was to be the location for a Traveller transit site. The site is on a junction, so there is poor air quality and there have been a number of accidents, including one two weeks ago, when an elderly person was knocked over.
The council’s cabinet agreed on the location without even looking at the site allocation document or referring to it in the background papers, and that is what is going to happen under the Government’s proposals: they will say that they have had the consultation with the local plan, but there will be no further involvement with our constituents and councillors, and the Secretary of State will be free to decide what they want, without local involvement. Here is the warning: the decision maker can depart from the local plan. Our constituents will remain helpless under these hopeless proposals.
The Government say that this is about housing, but 1 million homes have been approved but not built. Some are built on floodplains, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) mentioned, and there is no mention of climate change. Why does the Minister not mandate that every new build should have solar panels on the roof? There are serious concerns about making planning changes.
My next point is about transparency and conflicts of interest.
I am sorry to intervene so early and thank my right hon. Friend for taking my intervention. My point was about not just building on floodplains, but the importance of having flood insurance for all the new homes that are not currently eligible for the Flood Re insurance scheme.
I absolutely agree.
In our case, it was agreed in the SAD that the transit site would be placed on a site that was environmentally suitable, near to a settled community—everything to integrate that community—but it happened to be in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), who used to be a councillor on Walsall Council. The portfolio holder used to work for him, but he now works for the Conservative party, registering his interest only days after the scrutiny committee meeting. Our legal advice said that there was bias, just as there was with the approval of the £1 billion Westferry Printworks in Tower Hamlets. The Secretary of State has already admitted that that was
“unlawful by reason of apparent bias.”
I have asked the Minister to investigate the earlier decision of Walsall Council’s cabinet. I ask him again: could he please do so? If he is serious about making changes, could he also mandate that every planning committee has a compulsory recorded vote for every decision that they make, as that would increase transparency and accountability?
In conclusion, we need more consultation, not less, including with all civic society and historical associations. The Town and Country Planning Association said:
“All of these reforms have a common theme of removing local voices from the process.”
Buildings and places do not exist without the people who breathe life into them, just as we have seen during the pandemic. I urge the Minister to listen to local people, give them back control and end the people’s nightmare.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). I have to say that I thought what happened to her in her party’s reshuffle was deeply unfair, because—and I say this gently—I do not think she was the problem at all.
There is a sense of déjà vu pervading our proceedings today. As repetition is not a cardinal sin in this House, I shall again make the points that I have made on umpteen occasions, whether in this Chamber or in Westminster Hall. Unusually, I will look at the wording of the motion as the basis of my speech, because who could possibly disagree with the sentiments expressed in it? The problem is that we agree with the principle, but politics gets in the way. I suppose it is an occupational hazard of being here, as, indeed, it is a hazard in the adversarial nature of the planning system.
If I may borrow the phrase “work together” from the motion, I see that very much epitomised by the concept of neighbourhood planning, which I want to see strengthened still further and support entirely. For those in High Lane, Marple, Marple Bridge, Mellor, Mill Brow and Compstall in my constituency, those processes are not happening quickly enough and are not strongly protected enough in law. It is a straightforward way to involve people in the system and to make them buy into it, as it were, so that they can accept the new homes that it is necessary to build.
I also borrow from the motion the phrase “necessary new homes”. Yes, but is the 300,000 target the issue? After all, parties seemed to agree with that in their manifestos. It is necessary, I venture to say, to end land banking, as a number of Members have touched on. Having a million or so units with permissions but that are not being built seems to be at the heart of the problem that we face. I look forward to the Minister bringing forward concrete proposals to, as he said, “incentivise” them, but if incentives do not work, we should, quite frankly, use the stick as well.
It is also necessary to continue to promote brownfield developments. This is a success story for the Government. In Stockport, for example, they told us that there was room for only 7,000 units on such sites, but the Government then mandated the council to provide that register and, lo and behold, that increased to 12,000, so that shows that progress is being made in that area.
We are not nimbys—that is not an accusation that should be thrown at those of us who might have some scepticism about some of the ideas that have ventured forth. Nor, indeed, are we bananas—that is, “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody”. What we want to see is a planning process—although some people might disagree—that involves and engages people and delivers the housing that we most certainly need.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg).
The planning system is already well rigged in developers’ favour. We put trust and faith in a democratic process that has been eroded in much of the country. In my constituency, there has been a significant amount of anger, upset and deep concern caused by the planning system, particularly with regard to a site that is being developed for myHermes. Although there were a number of consultations before land allocation, understandably the vast majority of people were not even aware that a potential allocation was taking place.
The Minister for Housing, the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), said in response to my written question on this issue that
“previous studies suggest that only a small proportion of the public tend to engage in local plan consultations.”
We all know that people tend only to become aware and engage when an application is made and when a site notice appears, but this causes real upset when people do then engage and seek to share their views at the application stage, only to be told that the decision about the site has already been made. At best, it leaves people feeling ignored. At worst, it leads to a feeling of total disenfranchisement from local democracy. This is not the fault of our local councils; it is the process.
No, I am going to make some progress. However, the councils and the planning committees take the blame. Planning works best when it is a partnership. We need the right types of homes in the right places. Of course we need investment and new jobs, but just leaving delivery to the market will not deliver partnership and will fundamentally fail to meet people’s needs. With the brownfield remediation fund devastated by the Tories and a soft-touch approach to land banking and speculation, the inevitable consequences of this policy will be a further loss of valued green spaces without local voices being heard.
The reality is that the planning process is not a democratic one; it is a legal one. However, this situation is due to become far, far worse. With these changes, the Government will be ripping out the only democratic element of the planning process. The proposals are nothing short of a developers’ charter. As has been stated, since the Prime Minister became leader of the Conservative party, donations to the Tories from developers have increased by 400%. With these proposals, the Prime Minister is paying them back by selling out our communities. Some of those developers have even seen their individual planning applications personally approved by the Secretary of State against his own Department’s advice.
There is a reason why there is so much opposition to the proposals. Their introduction would be the greatest shift in power to big developers in the history of this country. We need a fundamentally new approach, not more market control. We need democratic control. The Government’s proposals will not deliver that. The developers and donors will be delighted, but it is our communities who will pay the price.
These were the words of Dickens:
“Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.”
I want to speak briefly about demand, supply and ownership.
Homes form the heart of a property-owning democracy, one that Britons want and deserve. Ownership kindles individual fulfilment and communal wellbeing, as it fosters feelings of responsible pride. Through beautiful building, desired homes can allow people’s dreams to come true. Yet fewer people own homes now as a proportion of the total than did 20 years ago. That is not acceptable, because we know that most people do not want it that way. Every poll taken, as the Minister said, suggests that people want to become homeowners. Our job is to help to make that dream come true. Owning capital is the heart of capitalism and homeownership is a vital milestone to communal enfranchisement, but they must be beautiful homes.
I want to talk about supply, because the supply of housing is not the same as building homes in which people want to live. It is right and proper that we should be inspired by the best of what has been. We should be no less ambitious for the next generation than Wren was when London was rebuilt after the great fire, or Pugin was when he designed the very place in which we sit. Let us be imaginative. Let us accept that all we build should inspire, should enthral. That is what the planning system needs to deliver: no more identikit soulless housing estates bolted on to the edge of settlements, but better, beautiful homes—homes of which we can be proud.
Let me say a word about demand. The problem is that we simply do not have enough houses to meet demand. That demand grows largely because of population change. The population is growing at an astonishing pace: it has increased by 6.6 million since 2001 and is expected to grow by a further 5.6 million by 2041. The problem of population growth is at the heart of this debate. Concerns about density, housing numbers and ecology can all be traced back to the fact that to house the expected 2041 increase in population, we will probably have to build a settlement greater than the size of Bedfordshire. That really cannot be reconciled with the current planning system. We need to control population by looking at the biggest single driver, which is net migration—it is not the time or place to discuss that here, because I have only 11 seconds left—so let me end by saying this. This planning reform can be regenerative and groundbreaking, but it will only be so if it has communities at its heart and beauty as its ambition.
Planning has a vital role to play in our response to the climate emergency, both in achieving net zero and in adapting to climate change which is already happening. It is critical in delivering the homes we need to end the housing crisis, and in delivering the infrastructure and services to support new residents. It is vital for economic development and the delivery of green jobs. At its most basic level, planning should be a framework for fairness. It should ensure that new development delivers what communities need, not what makes the most profit, and it should safeguard the things that they hold most dear. There is no doubt that our planning system is in need of reform, but this White Paper takes entirely the wrong approach. Locking communities and local councillors out of planning decisions on individual applications will not deliver more homes, better design, or zero-carbon development. It will create a developers’ charter for identikit places. Deregulating the planning system by expanding permitted development rights will mean that instead of protecting character and quality in our town and city centres they will be eroded, as shopping streets are pepper-potted with homes, and roofscapes become a mess of ad hoc two-storey extensions.
Instead of treating the planning system as inconvenient red tape to be swept away as much as possible, the Government should be seeking to make it fit for purpose for the challenges of the 21st century. From 2010, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition Government embarked on a bonfire of planning regulations, which removed many of the design standards intended to ensure low-carbon development, including the zero-carbon homes programme. That has resulted in more than a decade of lost time to deliver net zero, a decade in which new homes have continued to be built, which will now need to be retrofitted in the future when they could have been built to zero-carbon standards in the first place. The Government have been utterly negligent on low-carbon building, and making the superficial and subjective concept of beauty the core principle of their planning policy will do little to address that.
Our planning system cannot deliver the genuinely affordable social housing that we need without land reform. In the last Parliament, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to reform the Land Compensation Act 1961 to enable local authorities to purchase land for housing at an affordable price without having to pay enormous windfall profits to landowners. Such reforms would enable councils and housing associations to build the homes that our communities need without having to cross-subsidise them with private development.
In the short time that is left available to me, I urge the Government to think again and place climate change at the heart of the system, people at the heart of the process, zero carbon and genuinely affordable homes as the key priority for delivery, and land reform to stop windfall profits as a core concern.
I am very pleased to be able to speak in this debate today, not just because there are local issues that I wish to raise, but because planning policy reveals so much about who really has a say in deciding the face and quality of our towns and country in the years and decades to come.
There are natural tensions between residents, conservationists, people seeking new homes and the developers who stand to benefit. A fair planning system gives them all an opportunity to present their cases and to be heard equally so that provision can be made without exploiting or spoiling our landscape and heritage. If this developer’s charter becomes law, there would be no way for local people to object to bad or inappropriate proposals, such as those to build over Peel Hall in Warrington despite the valiant campaigning efforts over the past three decades by residents against proposals from Satnam. This vital green lung in our communities is beloved by residents and is a vital part of our area’s biodiversity.
Working with Warrington’s Labour council, I am looking at ways to make nature more accessible to residents, including bringing together the green spaces and nature reserves that ring the town through connecting cycleways and pathways to create a Warrington orbital park, and working with volunteers to clean up these spaces. I am also working with our vibrant creative sector to bring sculptures and other artworks to the parks to celebrate our local culture and heritage. All of this is now under threat.
The Government’s White Paper has not only nothing on the natural environment, but almost nothing on affordable rent or on net zero. It does not address wider infrastructure such as transport, retail or leisure, and simply puts developers in the driving seat of their cranes and diggers and gives them a green light to do what they like. I am not opposed to house building. Indeed, probably the largest volume of casework that I deal with relates to the lack of appropriate housing, especially affordable housing for large families and for constituents of my age looking to get on to the housing ladder.
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. We need more three and four-bedroom family properties in Warrington where people can have a good standard of living, but what developers want is to convert or build endless one-bedroom flats where they benefit from their highest profit margins while delivering the least for families and our community.
Communities should have more say on planning and development. They know what is needed locally, and systems work better where people are working together rather than being shut out. So why have the Government put forward such obviously terrible proposals, angering their Back Benchers and even their own voters, as we saw in the by-election last week? Could it be connected to the fact that developer donations to the Tory party have risen 400% since the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) became leader of his party? Scarcely a week goes by without stories emerging of the Communities Secretary weighing in on behalf of developers who have made big donations to him or the Conservatives.
We can see the threat to our green and pleasant land from these greedy, present plans. I suspect that the Government would like to drop these proposals, but that is difficult when they have been bought. If Ministers press ahead with this developers’ charter, they must know that it will be resisted in the country, even in areas they have taken for granted. I call on them to listen to their constituents, not their paymasters, and to drop the proposals.
The architecture of York is stunning. It is why 8 million people from across the world come to wind their way through medieval streets and snickets to stand before the towering Gothic architecture of York Minster in awe. The archaeology is rich and sensitive, and must be respected. It is the pride of our city that, beyond the walls, York’s housing, inspired by the Rowntree family to address poverty and inequality, set the blueprint for social housing, paving the way for the 1919 housing Act, with well proportioned family homes with gardens, first in New Earswick and then in Tang Hall.
Today, a city of inequality, where poverty once again suppresses the dreams of my constituents, is faced with a housing crisis. The low-waged economy means extortionate house prices, which are about to take a far more damaging turn through the alien York Central development plans. The developers’ charter that we are debating today is a fast track to procuring a city of luxury apartments that no one from York can afford. It will simply drive local house prices up, skewing the local economy and pushing local people further from their roots.
Those investors, who will spend over £500,000 a unit, will be the new commuters or, as we are seeing in other new developments, will turn their homes into holiday lets, Airbnbs and second homes. Homes England recognises that this development could turn York into a hen and stag party city, where local people fear to go. There is nothing beautiful about that—or about local families living in damp, overcrowded homes, where private landlords are fleecing them for every penny they have, or about the council failing to house people adequately. The plans also lack local consultation and scrutiny.
Let us contrast that with Labour’s vision of wanting to meet housing need with good-quality, sustainable homes, with gardens for families to enjoy, to meet local need and to rekindle the investment that the Rowntree family made. We want a family-friendly city, with facilities for children to play and for local people to enjoy. We want York Central to focus on jobs, to lift the low wages of York and give everyone a hope of a better, fairer future. Instead of more cars congesting our streets, we want cleaner air and better transport, cycling and walking.
This site will be the ruining of York unless it is forced to change direction, empowering local people and putting the economic opportunity and housing needs of York first. The power of the site is its rail connectivity. It could be the economic driver of the north. Instead, opportunities for jobs will be choked off by housing that fails local people. The Minister’s development charter will simply accelerate the plans of the greedy at the cost of the needy. It must be rejected today.
Like I think most Members, a substantial portion of my casework is on either planning or housing, so I am glad to participate in today’s debate. I would even say that I do not necessarily disagree with the thrust of it, although I ask Opposition Members whether they have actually spoken to any of their colleagues in local government.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way on this point. Does he agree that while Labour Members are expressing their faux outrage and are already attacking their inadvertently misleading attack ads, what they really need to do is turn lecture mode off and listening mode on?
I thank my hon. Friend for his clairvoyance, because I was about to say that the lived experience does not necessarily match the rhetoric, and nowhere is that clearer than in Andy Burnham’s love letter to developers, the Greater Manchester spatial framework. As Labour authorities were scrambling over one another to designate as much green belt as possible for development, one in particular stood out: Rochdale Borough Council, which volunteered to build more homes than were allocated. In fact, in the first conversation that I ever had with the council leader, he told me that he wanted to build as many unaffordable homes as possible. We thought that we had killed off the plan when the Conservative group on Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council voted it down, but now Andy has simply repackaged it and is trying to force it through again. Apparently, that constitutes listening to people.
We know that planning is a hot-button issue. Several hon. Members have mentioned the by-election result. I honestly congratulate the new hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green): it is a privilege and an achievement to get here. I take some issue with the way she arrived here, though. On Thursday evening, when I was trudging the streets of Chesham, I had the following conversations at door after door: “Oh, yes, I am a Conservative—I always vote Conservative—but I voted for the Liberal Democrats this time because they’ve promised to stop all the house building,” and “I voted for the Liberal Democrats this time because they’re going to stop HS2.” This is a party that talks about social aspiration, but they are the sort of people who make sure that they are not in the house when the cleaner is coming; a party that talks about the environment, but with a Range Rover in the drive that only ever does the school run; a party led by a man who criticised former politicians for becoming lobbyists, but who was a highly paid lobbyist when he was a former politician; a party that describes itself as democratic while trying to overturn the single largest democratic exercise in British history.
The simple fact of the matter is that simply telling people what they want to hear will never get the job done. We cannot just talk the talk; we have to walk the walk. I am cautiously optimistic about the planning Bill. In particular, I want to make it easier to build on brownfield, because we have an abundance of it in my constituency and a severe shortage of good-quality, affordable homes. In closing, I lay down a challenge to my council, because it is very keen on building. Instead of carving up our green belt, will it listen to what people are saying locally, as colleagues in Westminster have asked, and start developing the brownfield now?
It has been a pleasure to be part of this lively and informed debate, but I want to take a slightly different tack and focus on something very specific. The motion refers to delivering “necessary new homes”; I want to focus on the word “necessary”.
There is a section of our society who are always forgotten—in education, in adult social services and certainly in planning and home building—but whose numbers are growing: adults with learning disabilities and general disabilities. Where is the thought for them? Where is the thought for the number of homes and the housing needed for supported independent living? There is a huge shortage throughout the country, and people are getting desperate.
I refer particularly to constituents I have spoken to, a couple now in their 60s who have taken early retirement to care for their son, who is in his 30s. Their son has been known to social services and to the local authority since 1994, so it should not have come as a surprise to the local authority that he will need some form of accommodation as he gets older. His parents have done everything possible for him, but they are worried that as they start to age, they can no longer continuously care for him as they have done before. They have been trying since 2016 to find him some form of supported independent living, and none can be found. When I have liaised with the family to try to find them suitable accommodation, the stories they have told me of the difficulties they face are truly shocking. I will read just a little from an email that the mother sent me:
“This in itself is further evidence that housing for people like my son should not be subject to these vagaries and upheavals. I can only reiterate the need for a clear pathway for families so that these situations at the whim of the marketplace are avoided. Appropriate housing stock should be provided for vulnerable adults. For example a plot should be allocated on each of the new housing developments. Not just a care home for the elderly or a couple of flats bought up as social housing by housing associations, but properly designed units. Yes there would be a tiny reduction in the property of the big developers as the footprint of, for example, a 2 storey unit with 4 flats and a staff office would probably take up that of 1 large detached home. But I’m sure the good PR as a result would more than make up for that. Far preferable to being moved to out of county specialist provisions which can cost more than double that of an appropriate and more suitable ISL.”
I hope that as the White Paper goes forward, the needs of that section of society are at the forefront of the minds of the Minister and the Secretary of the State.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) and to speak in this important debate.
Planning is about reconciling conflicts, such as conflicts in demand and conflicts in pressures both for homes, which are critical, and for building for protection of the environment. It is about reconciling potential conflicts between individuals—between those who wish to develop and their neighbours—and it is also about shaping places and communities. I have a lot of sympathy for many of the Government’s proposed reforms. There is no reason why we should not use modern technology to make planning much quicker and much more interactive, and those things I welcome.
I think that we could also look to legitimately speed up the process in a number of particulars. First, I have long been frustrated—going back to the time when I was a planning Minister in the Department—by the slow way in which statutory consultees often respond. Frequently, they delay applications for months on end. That ought to be very much in the Government’s gift, since most of them are Government agencies. We really ought to be holding their feet to the fire to respond in a timeous fashion when they are required to do so. Secondly, if we can simplify the plan creation process, that too will be sensible. Thirdly, many builders that I know in my constituency—medium-sized builders in particular—are frustrated by the length of time it takes to negotiate pre-commencement conditions. Those really ought to be kept to the minimum so that we can get moving on site.
The other matter we ought to look at in this regard, and I welcome the Government’s proposals for larger-scale development, is a greater simplification of the community infrastructure levy and the way in which we capture planning gain. That is important, and, as yet, we have not quite got that right. Those, too, are things I welcome.
However, I do think that when we make those improvements and modernisations—nothing ever stands still and we can always learn, particularly in technological matters—we also need to recognise that that cannot come at the expense of the right of communities to have a say in how those very communities in which people live, have put down their roots and have a stake, are developed. I have a word of caution for the Minister about how we approach the role of the individual objector and the role of the local authority in the planning process. It is a democratic issue. We have to make sure that we are efficient, but not at the expense of local democracy.
This must mean that a lot of key matters are taken at local level. For example, in Bromley in my constituency, we have a significant town centre, and there is considerable pressure for more tall building in Bromley. In the right place, that can be done, and Bromley Council has shown itself willing to do so, but within certain constraints. We do not want to have a tall buildings policy dictated by the Mayor of London as part of a one-size-fits-all approach. We want to be able to decide for Bromley what the density levels and height levels should be in those areas. I have nothing against the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed), but we do not want the same height levels as our neighbours in Croydon, which we can often see from Bromley. That ought to be a matter of our democratic choice. I think that is an important matter, and provided we can get the balance right, I think we can find a sensible way forward.
The final thing I want to say—I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—is that we also need to have more planners. Good plan making requires dedicated professionals, particularly at local level, and we suffer from a real shortage of those. I hope the Government will work with the profession to deliver a workforce strategy to get more people particularly into the local authority sector, because all too often those who are good are lost to the private sector. I hope those are issues we can take forward constructively as we take this further.
The Labour party and I understand and accept that the planning system in its current form is problematic and needs to be reformed, but the plans this Government have presented just hand power over to the developers—those developers who have donated loads of money to the Tory party recently—and away from communities such as mine in Bolton South East.
The Tory Government’s proposals fail to address the wider issues that face our country. The climate crisis is more acute than ever, and without a concerted effort to integrate planning infrastructure and development, we will struggle to achieve our net zero targets. We need sustainable transport. Bolton South East has a disproportionate number of people who are reliant on public transport—70% of them do not have a car—yet none of these plans talk about integrated solutions for the community. It is only Labour with Andy Burnham in power in Greater Manchester that is leading the way on an integrated transport network and the public ownership of buses.
There are currently 1.6 million people on housing waiting lists, and the Government’s projection is to build 100,000 to 340,000 homes per year for the next 10 years, but these do not appear to be homes for social renting, affordable homes, retirement home or sheltered accommodation. There is a huge need for those types of accommodation, and I would encourage the Government to plan for those types of houses as well as those for first-time buyers. We need to concentrate on the people who are the most vulnerable economically and in many other ways. They need to be accommodated.
The new planning laws will be on top of the national planning policy framework introduced in 2012, which allowed green belt land to be used to build homes. We have seen that in my constituency, where a local developer, Peel Holdings, was able to get permission to build thousands of homes on the green belt even though it owned many brownfield sites that it had acquired over the years and that it could quite easily have built on. However, everyone knows that brownfield sites are more expensive. We need social housing, and there are brownfield sites in my constituency that could easily benefit from development, so I would like the Government to set a target to ensure that these houses are built. As the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) said, housing is required, but it is required in the right areas. We cannot have thousands of houses in the salubrious parts of a town or community while people in the inner cities or towns do not have homes.
I think everyone in the Chamber agrees that it is our duty to ensure that this country has the homes we need. It is our moral duty not only to the next generation but to the current generation, because having the right homes in the right places is key to our ability to remain a competitive country in an increasingly competitive world. If we lose that edge, we lose the means to pay for the excellent public services we all enjoy. Badly formed planning policy comes up time and again when we look at economists’ views of the challenges ahead for British growth and prosperity.
However, we also have a duty to ensure that those needs are balanced against the needs and legitimate concerns of existing communities, such as the ones I represent in East Surrey. Those who worry about flood risks, infrastructure constraints or house building harming nature should be heard, and solutions should be found. That is why I support ambitious approaches towards restoring biodiversity, including my campaign for a new “wild belt” designation and the Government’s plans to create new biodiversity units that will help us to create connected corridors that can be wildlife-rich. I notice that those plans have not been mentioned by the Opposition today.
I back local input to a strict standard of beauty and homes design, and increasing online access to local plans so that more people can have a say. We should also prioritise the next generation of local families and key workers for new affordable homes, and ensure that infrastructure needs are addressed. The Government are looking at these things, and I thank the Ministers for their ongoing conversations with me. I would like to see greater flexibility on what the right number of homes should be, based on local areas’ capacity to deliver. Combining all of this together would mean that we were increasing local input, not reducing it.
I have talked about the difficulty of achieving the balance between protecting existing neighbours and providing for future ones, but however hard that is, it is right that the Government are trying to grasp the nettle, and it is morally defunct of the Opposition to try to face two ways at once. We saw this in Chesham and Amersham, where the Liberal Democrats campaigned locally against their own national position on house building and HS2. We also see it in Labour’s motion today, and I have some sympathy with it, but Labour is trying to create division on the Government side of the House in the hope of making political capital while not contributing any ideas to solving a national problem. I wonder how that sits with the constituents they were elected to serve.
In 2008-09, when Labour was most recently in government, only 75,000 new homes were started—the lowest level of house building since the 1920s. In some of the areas where Labour is currently in power, where there are lots of brownfield opportunities, widespread support for house building—I should know: I used to be one of those offering support—and considerable Government funding, Labour is falling far behind. Sadiq Khan promised to build 116,000 new affordable homes by 2022; as of 2021, he has started fewer than half that number.
The problem is Labour, first in national Government and now in local government. Instead of working constructively together to ensure that this country has the homes it needs, Labour just tries to create division, sits on the fence and ignores its own record of failure.
Probably the most bogus claim made for the Government’s planning reforms is that they will lead to more homes. Exactly the opposite is true. Their reforms will incentivise the building of fewer, unaffordable, expensive properties rather than the more affordable homes we want. That was the message I heard when I was knocking on doors in Chesham and Amersham and in my communities in Cumbria over the past few days.
Yes, and the Government’s plan is to do exactly the opposite. Their plan is to allow developers to build a smaller number of executive homes that we do not need, rather than the larger number of affordable homes that we do need. That is against the will and wishes of many people who live in communities around London, in Cumbria and elsewhere in the country. Today, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green), my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I will—along with, clearly, many on the Opposition Benches—vote with the courage of our convictions to defend our communities, and we will vote for more affordable housing. My challenge to Conservative Members is: “Do you care for your communities? Are you listening to yours? If so, you should have the courage of your convictions and vote with us in the Lobby tonight.”
Let me say more about the planning reforms. It is about not just what is wrong with them but what is not in them. Yes, they will lead to fewer affordable homes and cut local communities out of the planning process—it is an insult to the electorate not to listen to them and allow them to have their say—but the reforms are also a colossal missed opportunity.
Let me share with the House something that is and has been happening in my community during the pandemic. Over many years in places such as the lakes and the Yorkshire dales, there has been a steady erosion of local affordable homes for our communities. We see our communities become ghost towns as a large number and growing proportion of homes in those communities become second homes and holiday lets, leaving us without a vibrant permanent population.
As any geologist will tell us, erosion can take aeons and aeons, and then sometimes a whole cliff will fall into the sea in one go. That is what has happened in the past 15 months: there has been a 32% increase in the number of holiday lets in the Lake district. Up to 80% of all houses sold in Cumbria during the pandemic went into the second-home market. Those are the figures. The anecdotal, person-by-person reality includes the woman I spoke to recently in Ambleside who pays £700 a month for her small flat in Ambleside but has been kicked out so that her landlord can charge £1,000 a week on Airbnb. That is what is happening: a kind of lakeland clearances whereby people are being moved out of Cumbria because people can make more money without there being a local resident population.
I plead with the Government and the Secretary of State; it is great to see him in his place now: when drastic things such as a pandemic happen out of the blue, drastic action needs to happen, and it needs to happen right now, this side of the summer. I suggest that the Secretary of State amends planning law to make holiday lets and second homes separate categories of planning use, so that local authorities and national parks can say, “Enough is enough: if we do not make changes, Ambleside’s community is potentially dying out, and Kirkby Lonsdale’s, Windermere’s and even Kendal’s will, too.”
I am determined that our communities should move out of this pandemic stronger and more vibrant. They should not find a situation in which there just is not a local community anymore. Rather than introducing planning reforms that undermine local communities, the Secretary of State has the opportunity to change planning law to protect them, to stop these lakeland clearances and to make our communities last well into the future.
I note what the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said about second homes, because we have a similar problem on the Isle of Wight.
I genuinely wish the Secretary of State and Ministers well on this issue. Our planning reforms should be community led, levelling-up led and environment led, and it would be great to see even more evidence of that, if at all possible. Communities help development to happen, as long as they can shape it. One initial study has shown that places with neighbourhood plans accept more development. Therefore, working with communities gets better results than treating them as the planning equivalent of a foie gras goose, with ever more housing shoved down them. Stripping away democracy, at whatever level, should be avoided by a Conservative Government.
When it comes to levelling up, I believe that the standard method is still a problem at the heart of this matter, and many red wall colleagues are beginning to realise this. In the words of one expert report, the current housing methodology
“systematically disadvantages poorer parts of the country, particularly in the North and Midlands”.
Simply put, we are actively depriving the red wall of investment, because the construction jobs, the infrastructure jobs and the household spend jobs all come down to the south-east. If this process continues reductio in absurdum, like some planning wheel of doom, it is a road to nowhere. We need a better system. I hope the Minister will take that and what others are saying here to heart.
As one of my hon. Friends said earlier, we need a recycling agenda. I suggest that the Secretary of State puts at the heart of that a tax on greenfield sites, to recognise the true cost of greenfield, and the money should go into major campaigns—a massive process—of cleaning up brownfield. It is a disgrace that 70% of finishes on the Isle of Wight are on greenfield. Why, when we have 35 potential brownfield sites? We need to do more with greenfield in the way of taxing it, then spending the money on brownfield. There are many more ideas, and I will be writing to the Minister this week about this, because it is such an important problem. We need to do more to prevent land banking, to ensure legal priority for brownfield and to provide more powers for compulsory purchase. We have 600 empty homes on the Isle of Wight. If the Minister wants to do something to help us on the Island, let the council compulsorily purchase long-term empty buildings and we will take 600 people straight off our housing list.
We need to get our planning right. Surely we have reached the end of using unsustainable, car-dependent, low-density greenfield sites. Our reliance on them must come to an end. We need clear principles, and I recommend these to the Secretary of State: planning should be community-led, environment-led, and levelling-up-led.
I am regularly contacted by constituents who are deeply concerned about the scale and pace of housing development across Newcastle’s outer west, and the long-term failure to deliver the infrastructure and amenities that residents of new housing estates were promised. I share their concern that the current planning system does not have people at its heart. Residents will find it incredible that the Government’s preferred solution is to give housing developers even more of a free hand, while imposing an entirely arbitrary cities uplift on Newcastle’s new-build target. Residents on new estates in Newcastle have all too often felt abandoned by developers, who seem eager to move on to the next lucrative round of house building long before new estates have the amenities and infrastructure needed to make sustainable communities.
The Government’s plans would take the planning system further away from where it should be headed. As the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee points out, the Government’s new planning proposals are essentially housebuilding proposals. Important non-housing areas are barely mentioned at all, while development and landowner interests are clearly favoured over those of local communities.
That is not where we should be taking our planning system. Local shops, employment, transport links, leisure and climate change are all key elements that should form a fundamental part of any cohesive planning system that shapes the communities our constituents live in.
I cannot profess knowledge of the situation in England, but Wales is very much pro development biased toward developers. Essentially, the first part of the process is the local development plan, and once the land is on that document, the planning application is a done deal. Is that the situation in England?
The problem is further compounded by the revised housing formula. After the application of the Government’s arbitrary cities uplift, the requirement of 1,400 new dwellings per year in Newcastle is 30% higher than the Newcastle and Gateshead core strategy and urban core plan’s average target for 2020-30, so I worry that the over-allocation of land for housing, particularly in a local authority such as Newcastle, where the boundary is tightly drawn, will further affect the availability of land for other commercial and community uses. Newcastle could be looking at a perfect storm emerging from the proposals, with accelerated house building alongside a radically reformed planning system that both reduces local say and lacks focus on the non-housing elements of the planning system, which are essential to creating sustainable joined-up communities. That is not the direction our planning system should be taking.
So many residents in my constituency have been left for years without the kind of amenities that most people take for granted, such as GPs, dentists, proper transport links, schools, or even a local shop. We cannot see the failure to deliver on infrastructure and local facilities, which has been problematic for many thousands of residents in Newcastle Great Park, replicated across Newcastle’s outer west, where thousands of homes are already being built and 1,000 more are in the pipeline. Ministers cannot pretend that housing can be built in isolation from much needed support structures, for both business and leisure. Such structures are key to ensuring that any planning system seeks to shape not just houses, but good communities and places for our constituents to live.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). She captured some of the concerns that my constituents, and I am sure those of colleagues around the country, have, in terms of having the house building, yet not having yet the infrastructure and facilities that ought to go along with it. I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will place those concerns at the heart of what he wants to do with the Planning Bill and ensure that that is improved on. We just have to help and support him in getting there in whatever ways we see fit.
Local planning and house building is almost the No.1 issue in my constituency. In so many ways, it aggravates and grates upon my constituents, whether it is the development at Hulton Park or Horwich golf course. People campaign hard and intensively against a development, and either they see the development go ahead, or the developers come back again and again with new alternatives. It is very frustrating. It is important to get clarity and certainty over which plans can go ahead: either we get the infrastructure and other support—whether schools, GP services or roads—or the plan is vetoed, so we have that certainty for local residents.
I welcome the Government’s strong agenda to develop and focus on brownfield sites, and the commitment of £75 million to Greater Manchester to focus on and get brownfield development first. David Greenhalgh, leader of Bolton Council, has done much to ensure that development in Bolton happens on brownfield sites first. The system does not always lend itself to his championing that cause, but he is leading the way. I welcome the commitment made by the Secretary of State’s predecessor to a spine road on Horwich Loco Works to enable building on brownfield sites. That is the kind of development we want to see and that the Government are championing and enabling.
Another problem in Greater Manchester—this was highlighted earlier—is that devolution plans for Greater Manchester to enable local leadership should have helped to deliver a plan for 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester, of which Bolton and Wigan boroughs would be two. Unfortunately, the Mayor, Andy Burnham, has not delivered on that. He vetoed the first version and did not enable it to be delivered. We are now on the third version, so it is causing a huge number of problems for many residents and it is not enabling the delivery of vital infrastructure. I would welcome it if the Secretary of State and the Housing Minister ensured, if the Greater Manchester spatial framework is not delivered, that the Bolton plan is.
If the Government’s contention is that the current planning system is flawed and needs reform, I can only agree. One problem is political interference. Last week, the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) persuaded the Secretary of State to call in a much needed development of 133 social and affordable homes that would benefit my constituents as much as his. Far too little social housing is being built. As Shelter points out, in the last five years, on average, there have been 6,500 social homes a year—a 10th of what is needed.
It is not just the number of homes that is lacking; good design, energy efficiency and space standards do not get much of a look in either. There is an inequality of arms between short-staffed planning departments and local residents, on the one hand, and well-resourced developers on the other.
If the proposed reforms addressed these and other inequities, they would be welcome, but they do not; in fact, they make them worse. Developers will dominate a system of decision making that sidelines or eliminates public consultation and the role of local councils. In place of section 106 agreements, there will be an infrastructure levy that aims, at best, to fund the current pitiful number of social homes, but there is no explanation of how it will do even that. The free-for-all allowed by permitted development means that we are building the slums of the future—badly designed, cramped, ugly and not fit for habitation. Neighbourhood planning is to go; so too are planning committees. Objections will not be heard in “growth” or “renewal” areas. These proposals are not about challenging NIMBYs or helping young people with families on to the housing ladder but about an increasingly corrupt relationship between the Conservative party and the major developers and builders: cash for profits; donations for deregulation.
I asked my local planning experts at the Hammersmith Society what they would like to see from reform. They pointed out that, on the one hand, public input without rights of appeal is already often brushed aside, while on the other, allowing third-party appeals could see development grind to a halt. A compromise might be for local planners to develop specific briefs for sites in consultation with design panels, setting out what is and is not acceptable, discouraging both the forlorn objection and the speculative application.
With the right approach from Government, both residents and developers may be willing to compromise, but the current proposals are a developers’ charter surrendering both town and countryside to those who, for their own gain, will ruin our collective past without benefiting our individual futures.
I support the Government’s passion for home ownership. They are right that we need to do more to extend that opportunity to a new generation. It was, after all, an opportunity that previous generations took advantage of, enjoying the pleasures that can come from owning one’s own home and doing with it rather more of the things one wishes to do.
I support the Government’s wish to bring forward more brownfield development, because there are still many sites around the country that could be tidied up and better used. I trust that, within that, the Government wish to ease the planning system sufficiently so that where we need to convert tired or redundant commercial buildings into residential properties there will be no great planning impediment in doing so.
I strongly support the wish of the Government to do something extra to make sure that developers with planning permissions build out the permissions they have under a proper local plan. In the borough of Wokingham, of which I represent a part, we have been afflicted in recent years by some landowners and developers gaming the system. Thousands of planning permissions are outstanding, and yet the local plan, which tries to protect areas, has been overwhelmed at times by people lodging appeals on land not within the local plan for development and inspectors deciding that we did not have enough land because of the slow rate of build against all the permissions that are there.
Above all, we need a planning system that can reconcile our wish to protect the green gaps, the green fields, the farms and the woods—indeed, to expand the woods—and at the same time to make enough land available for housing. The Office for National Statistics has shown that, in the year to March 2020, we welcomed some 715,000 extra people into our country. Although 403,000 of them left, that meant that there were still 312,000 extra people to house, and not all of those going freed up homes in the right place for the incomers. We need to have sustainable immigration. Of course we need to welcome people into our country, but they should expect decent standards of housing, and the gap is too large. We now have a backlog of demand and need, and if we keep inviting in hundreds of thousands of extra people, we are not going to catch up. I urge the Government to make things easier so that the trade-offs between environmental protection and more concrete for housing are not so difficult.
Finally, on levelling up, which I strongly support, over the years a large number of executive homes have been built in Wokingham and places like it, attracting people with great qualifications—people capable of commanding well above average earnings. We need to provide that kind of housing if we wish to attract companies and the investment to level up, and we should not put all that housing into the areas that have already been very successful.
The Government’s planning proposals are a developers’ charter, removing the right of local people to challenge inappropriate developments in their own street or neighbourhood. The importance of protecting that right and ensuring that the planning system involves local residents was abundantly clear to me last week when I met residents in West Kirby campaigning against an 18-metre high 5G mast on a residential street—a campaign I fully support.
The Government intend that new-style local plans will divide land in England into three zones: growth, renewal and protected. While residents will be consulted on these zones during the development of a local plan, once the plan is completed, they will have very little say—and in the vast majority of cases, no say at all—on what gets built in growth and renewal areas.
Protected areas, which will include the green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas, local wildlife sites, areas with significant flood risk and important areas of green space, will continue to be subject to the current planning application process. However, even if an area is designated as protected, that does not necessarily mean there will not be any development; it just means there will be no automatic planning permission. Clearly, under this Government, such areas are not safe from development.
People in Wirral West value the green belt very highly, and many are understandably concerned that Leverhulme Estates, which owns much of the green belt in Wirral, is arguing for the release of the green belt for building, despite Wirral Council’s commitment to a brownfield-only policy. People have contacted me recently with their concerns about seeing surveyors out in the fields around Greasby and between Thingwall and Barnston. They are worried that these green fields are at risk.
People in Wirral West want to see a clear commitment from Government to protect the green belt, as do I. The Government’s proposals offer no such thing. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s recent report “The future of the planning system in England” stated that:
“All individuals must still be able to comment and influence upon all individual planning proposals.”
That is a basic fundamental right, yet it is one that the Government want to take away from people. CPRE, the countryside charity, has expressed concern, saying:
“The Planning Bill looks set to prioritise developers’ needs over local communities”.
Wirral West residents have made their feelings clear. Many have written to me saying that the proposed changes, which would allow some planning proposals to proceed without approval by elected councillors, are bad news for local democracy, communities and our environment, and they are right. The Government should give local people and their elected representatives more say over the development of their neighbourhoods, not less. I therefore call on Members on the Government Benches to support this motion and send a clear message to Ministers that the right of communities to object to individual planning applications must be protected.
We in West Sussex are on the frontline of the debate on planning, squeezed between the coast and the capital. In my short time here, I have spoken many times against proposed developments on greenfield land at Adversane, Ashington, Buck Barn, Barnham, Mayfield, Kirdford and Wisborough Green. Today, we can add Rock Road, Storrington to that list, where Clarion Housing Group is trying to build on more than 30 acres of species-rich woodland, against the wishes of local people and the neighbourhood plan.
The homes that the nation needs should be built on brownfield land or in urban areas. A perfectly sensible national target for new dwellings is roughly one new dwelling for every 160 adults living in an area. That would be reasonable if everyone paid their fair share. In the south-east, London built only one new dwelling for every 400 of its people, and of that diminished figure, just one in 10 were sold to a conventional owner-occupier. The construction rate of tall buildings, which soared under Mayor Johnson, has plummeted by half. Under Mayor Khan, we see more foot dragging than on a bunioned millipede.
Faced with a hostile environment and weighed down by planning conditions and social housing mandates, it is no wonder that developments look to where the grass is literally greener. We do not even have to travel to London. The Green and Labour-led Brighton Council is proposing 16 developments on 28 green hectares when there is abundant brownfield land inside that city, so I congratulate the Conservative councillors there.
We must learn lessons from one of Aesop’s Fables, “The North Wind and the Sun”. I know that the Secretary of State, who is a very decent man, recognises the challenge, but blowing harder simply increases the level of noise and sees communities understandably pull their cloak tighter for protection. As we reform planning, let us instead bring out the sun and unleash a field of carrots that would put Beatrix Potter’s Farmer McGregor to shame.
Of all the problems that my constituents bring to me on a regular basis, it is planning and development that, time and again, possesses some of the greatest difficulties. The Government’s plans to take power from communities and hand them to developers will be nothing short of a disaster for our green spaces. Already, local people have too little control over which developments are built near to them. Communities such as Keresley in my constituency risk being subsumed into the city suburbs by plans that they did not approve and are now fearful of losing much of their unique village identity. Even when comparatively few homes are under construction, those scrutinising plans often lack the powers needed to ensure that new additions are in character with existing homes, with strict enforcement made virtually impossible by loopholes created by Whitehall.
In addition, local councils such as Coventry City Council are being forced to build tens of thousands more homes than residents require and, if they refuse, not only would yet more homes be foisted upon them, but those developments would be unleashed to sprawl outwards with zero control for those most affected locally.
Worse still, new developments often include little decent social housing and too often lack the local public services required to support new homes. Put simply, our planning laws are already widely unbalanced, and it is time that we put local people before the big developers’ profit margins.
As the Government craft their latest changes to planning policies, Ministers must at last take the time to engage with those affected by development—those who feel powerless in the face of mass building projects. When local voices are ignored, the result is the wrong houses built in the wrong places. Instead of lucrative estates constructed by Conservative party donors, Britain needs planning and development rules that listen and respond to local people and local needs. Handing power back to communities and their representatives in local government can unlock a brighter future for how we meet our housing needs. No community can be expected to support a development that it was powerless to shape.
Once, those on the Conservative Benches spoke of a property-owning democracy, yet now they seek to strip away the last few democratic safeguards in our planning system. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of families are left renting poor quality houses for sky-high rents, while others are forced to move away from the only community that they have ever known thanks to development designed to serve only property investors.
The Government are putting the profits of a greedy few ahead of the concerns of thousands whose communities are faced with bulldozers, so I call on Members from all parties to stand up to be counted against the Government’s proposals as they seek to permanently rob communities of the powers to shape their neighbourhoods and their own futures.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak today, because Britain needs more good homes. That is an undeniable fact. We witness it in the ever-increasing house prices right across our country. We witness it in the ever more cramped accommodation that too many families are forced to settle for. We witness it in the ever more expensive and dysfunctional rental market trap, which makes it so hard for so many people of my age to buy their first home.
The Government have sensible proposals on the table to allow communities to designate those areas that are appropriate for development and those that should be protected; to make building beautiful homes a top priority; to empower communities to set out the right design codes to ensure that new homes are in keeping with their surroundings; and to create an infrastructure levy to fund the new roads, schools and GP surgeries that these new developments need in order not to impose a detrimental effect on the existing community.
Like any constituency MP, I know just how hard it is to discuss matters relating to planning, but we are sent to this House to do the right thing for the country, and I am clear that this must mean cutting the ropes that are preventing us from building the homes that our people need. For too long, we have attempted to address what is fundamentally a supply-side problem with demand-side solutions. Frankly, that is the easier politics of the situation, though we owe it to the country to be honest that the fundamental issue is one of land supply. Even if someone is fortunate enough to own their own home, especially in the parts of the capital or the south where prices are so high, it is their children and grandchildren who are the victims of the impasse that our inefficient planning system has created.
We meet today in the shadow of the Chesham and Amersham by-election. I wish the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) every success in her new role representing that constituency and welcome her to this House, but this was an election won in the very worst spirit of pandering to nimbyism, denying the growing social injustice that we are witnessing and privileging the interests of the haves over the have-nots in our society. This may be all right for the Liberal Democrats, whose long tradition of saying one thing locally and one thing nationally has reasserted itself; it may be all right for a desperate Labour party whose speeches collectively today have been nothing more than a terrible mixture of, frankly, hypocrisy and innuendo directed at those on the Government Benches; but it is not a choice open to my party.
To govern is to be sent here to make the tough choices on behalf of the nation, and we have to face the reality that there is nothing inevitable about the broken housing market that we have at the moment. It is broken because we have lacked the political courage to fix it. That needs to change. The Government have come forward with moderate and pragmatic proposals to unlock more land for housing while protecting the legitimate interests of existing communities and looking after their areas. It is high time for us to take this forward and build the homes that Britain needs.
The planning process is part of our democracy. It is one of the reasons we elect local councillors and one of the reasons we have planning committees that are independent of party political leadership. Citizens in every community across the country have a stake and a say in what happens in their local area, but the Conservatives’ planning reforms pull the rug from under our local democracy and instead roll out the red carpet for the big developers, with the automatic granting of outline planning permission; statutory presumptions in favour of development; planning notices moving to online only; no real role for existing neighbourhood plans; still not enough action on net zero energy-efficient housing resources and low-carbon heat; proposals that do not go far enough to deliver more council and affordable housing; and, based on recent permitted development rights, high-street shops that can be converted into often low-quality housing, with limited standards on space, light or community structure, and mobile phone masts that can be seemingly plonked anywhere. All in all, it is a complete shambles.
Let me take a few examples from my constituency. In Horfield, a developer bought a large house on the corner of a street and is developing a complex of bedrooms with shared living spaces. Local residents with concerns were able to submit them to the planning process, but under these proposals, the development could have had its planning permission automatically granted. In Avonmouth, we have had a long-running battle with an over-concentration of low-quality waste processing sites. Each new application for such a site now receives very high engagement from local residents, but under these proposals, a statutory presumption in favour of development could now apply.
On the Downs, a proposal to convert an old toilet block into a new coffee shop required the publication of physical notices. Even in those circumstances, many local residents did know about them. Under these proposals, those notices will now just be online. In Lawrence Weston, we have a very successful local neighbourhood development plan, but under these proposals, all that hard work by local residents now stands for nothing, with neighbourhood plans being effectively closed down.
In Henleaze, a freeholder is trying to use permitted development rights to build more flats on top of existing ones. Leaseholders sought to buy the freehold to prevent a future development, but under these proposals, the cost of the freehold has massively increased because of speculative development, making it impossible for the existing tenants to afford it. The Government promised to revive high streets, but under these proposals, they are just closing them down.
Lastly, for the thousands of young people and families on low incomes, these proposals offer little hope. We need more council houses, more affordable homes, a route to home ownership where tenants can save for their deposit, and low-carbon, energy-efficient houses now, and we need to protect the rights of citizens to be a valued part of our local democracy. It is therefore evident that the Government need to get back to the drawing board.
In the last year, the Government have built roughly 244,000 additional homes for our people, the highest number for 33 years. While that is good news, in my view it is merely a step in the right direction. Even if we achieve the target of 300,000 additional homes a year in this Parliament, it will be nowhere near enough to even begin addressing the housing crisis.
In my constituency, as I have said before in the House, the average house price is around £300,000, which is nine times the average salary. It is absurd that most young people today cannot even aspire to get on the property ladder unless they have family help or inherit some money. It is not morally right and it is not sustainable, and this is not just about private ownership. According to Shelter, which I met a couple of weeks ago and am doing some work with, there are hundreds of thousands of people stuck in temporary accommodation across the country. Even in my constituency, the local council’s Homechoice website says:
“There is a severe shortage of homes in the South Gloucestershire area. Most applicants on the Housing Register will have to wait a long time for re-housing and many will not be re-housed at all.”
It is therefore absolutely vital that we increase supply.
The Government are investing £11.5 billion to unlock affordable homes across the country, but to really increase supply we have to reform and speed up the planning process, which is precisely what the Government are trying to do. We must make the system faster, simpler and more modern in order to deliver what we need. We have to make it accessible, using modern technology and data to make it much more efficient. That is why I am again disappointed to hear colleagues from all parts of the House trying to pre-emptively kill any reform to score political points and shore up support from people in their constituencies who are already on the housing ladder. We cannot keep using the excuse about the wrong houses in the wrong places to justify saying no to any new development.
These reforms will make planning and building simpler and more transparent. We need to make building homes on a much larger scale easier for everyone, from the smallest local builder to the largest social housing corporation. We have to plan to get the diggers moving, but we cannot ignore the fact that the green belt is strangling housing growth in some of our cities. There are many areas of our country that should be protected, but less than roughly 10% of the land available is built on, so we have space. We can build new towns, and we need to be more open-minded about what solutions might look.
As I have said before, the housing crisis is shredding the social contract. We risk condemning an entire generation of young people to a huge amount of student debt and no prospect whatsoever of ever owning their own home, and with renting becoming ever more unaffordable, to being stuck in shared housing for the foreseeable future. This must go beyond narrow party politics. This is our duty, as somebody said earlier. We are elected to come here and make tough decisions, but the right decisions, so we must increase supply and reform the planning system, so that we can build enough homes for all our people for the future.
I am so glad to speak in this debate, because if there was no problem in Cornwall with housing, we would not be having it. We need the planning White Paper to deliver the right housing in the right places for the right people, and we cannot get close to delivering on the Government’s levelling-up agenda unless we get the housing right.
This debate is about local involvement in planning, and local priorities are at the heart of this. I know that my local community in west Cornwall and on Scilly would rally behind house building if my constituents knew that local families would be provided with homes they can afford and can call their own. I ask the Secretary of State to take a careful look at the situation in Cornwall, where local people find it difficult to get on the housing ladder. The demand to live in such a beautiful place as ours has created great problems for people who already live locally. With the fresh administration on Conservative-led Cornwall Council and incentives from the Government to help first-time buyers, I am of the belief that we can fix this problem. With the planning White Paper, that is made even more certain.
The planning White Paper must and can sweep in three areas of opportunity, all of which are consistent with the Government’s levelling-up agenda, and they all depend on a robust local plan. The first is homes built for people who need them. In places such as Cornwall and other areas referred to this afternoon, we need to look carefully at how housing policy can ensure that the houses being built are available to local people.
Does my hon. Friend share my view that part of the housing crisis in Cornwall is very much driven by second and holiday home ownership? Does he therefore agree that it is time for the Government to look seriously at requiring planning permission for a home that will not be a primary residence?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention because I was about to come to that subject and credit him with that very idea. It is absolutely the case that we live in a beautiful part of the world; Mr Deputy Speaker, do come and visit, but please do not buy a house there—not until we get this sorted.
My hon. Friend is right that people want houses in our area—they want to have their bolthole there—but that has caused huge problems for communities such as Mousehole, St Ives and Porthleven in my constituency. We do not want to interfere in the market, but the idea right now is that we have some sort of planning condition for properties that are not going to be a primary residence.
This White Paper must sweep in stronger local communities, where family homes help the viability of the pub, the local post office and the local school. I have a situation right now in Coverack; its fantastic community school has years of history, yet there are just not enough children in the area to sustain it. We have a plan, but for the plan to survive it needs housing built for local families in the next three years.
Finally, the planning White Paper must sweep in opportunities for vibrant small and medium-sized enterprises that can provide apprenticeships and skilled jobs as these new homes are built and as existing ones are retrofitted for the benefit of our environment. We want to ensure that we live in homes that are healthy and safe, that provide the opportunity for young people to attain better in school and that are good for older people as they age.
I am glad to have been able to speak in this debate on this critical issue. I would be absolutely wrong not to stand up for my constituents and those in the rest of Cornwall who are struggling today to be able to live in the place that they call home.
These planning reforms are the biggest change to the planning system since 1947, yet this White Paper is a jumbled series of aspirations and statements that do not amount to a coherent document. It would fail the test that every local plan has to go through.
Liberal Democrats believe in community empowerment. I believe that the people of Bath and their elected local representatives understand the needs of our community better than Ministers or, indeed, those developers who just want to make a profit. Yet there will be no more local input into application development, nor into public hearings. The proposals are less strategic, less flexible and less democratic. What is more, there is no evidence that the reforms will actually make any difference to the number of homes being built. Local councils approve nine in 10 planning applications. In fact, the number of homes granted planning permission has far outpaced the number of homes being built. More than 1 million homes that have been granted planning permission in the last decade have yet to be built. If the Government are trying to address the housing crisis, this is completely the wrong answer.
Any review of England’s planning system must consider not only the delivery of housing, but the many roles that planning authorities play in creating great spaces for their communities: connectivity, accessibility, affordability, access to green spaces, schools and infrastructure provision. All those things contribute to ensuring quality of life in our communities, as, indeed, does the quality of housing we build.
Every new home should be built with the climate and ecological emergency in mind. Domestic heating accounts for about 14% of the UK’s carbon emissions. We cannot hope to reach our emissions targets without proper plans to decarbonise heating. Climate action begins at home. Rather than undermining local authorities, the Government should be directing their energy towards building greener, more resilient and more sustainable homes.
Planning continues to be one of the areas in which every local community gets involved and local democracy plays such a vital role in our community. The current proposals are an assault on democracy, and the emphatic Lib Dem win in Chesham and Amersham—fought on issues of local democracy—should be a wake-up call for this Government. The right of local communities to have a say over planning in their area must be protected.
It is a pleasure to have the chance to speak in today’s debate.
This is an emotive issue. For most people, a home is the biggest purchase they will ever make. Where we buy our home—our local neighbourhood—has a huge impact on our quality of life. Planning decisions affect our access to public services, jobs, retail and leisure facilities, and quality green spaces. To listen to the Opposition, I would think that we lived under a perfect planning system. Our planning system is decades old. Anyone who has served in local government knows how clunky it is and how little involvement local people have in planning decisions. Local neighbourhood plans take several years to draw up and even then they are not respected. In the ward I previously represented as a Wolverhampton city councillor, there was a clear local neighbourhood plan that was against any homebuilding on a local nature reserve—on the site of the Wolverhampton Environment Centre. The council has ploughed on regardless and has plans for a number of homes. Local people are still campaigning against the development, assisted by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson). As the Minister said earlier, only 1% of local people are getting involved in planning decisions, and I applaud the Government for their commitment to an easier system for local people to navigate. Online maps with design codes and the ability to really see what is suggested in a good level of detail will increase engagement.
I again draw Ministers’ attention to the issue of cross-border co-operation. My northern border with South Staffs is green belt and it is under threat. My constituents are gravely concerned that they have no say, and what suits South Staffordshire does not suit Wednesfield and Bushbury. As any development would add significant pressure on public services in Wolverhampton, I seek reassurance that the voices of people affected by large developments should be heard even across the county boundary.
As time is short, I will conclude by applauding the ambition of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and not just because it will be my new neighbour in Wolverhampton. Levelling up opportunity includes the opportunity to own one’s own home. This has simply been a pipe dream for so many of my constituents. Beautiful affordable homes helping ordinary working people to fulfil the dream of home ownership is absolutely the right thing to do. Building on brownfield land, and indeed investing in the National Brownfield Institute in my constituency, is the right thing to do.
There is so much to address around planning: making retirement housing a positive move that will free up family homes, ending land banking, innovative design and bringing empty homes back into use. Modernising the planning system is a difficult nettle to grasp, but it is long overdue as the current system has not been fit for purpose and it will not deliver the homes we desperately need.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate on such an important issue for my constituents.
Ministers are right to say that fundamental reform is needed. The current planning system is not fit for purpose. As I have said in this House before, it is too distant from the people it most directly impacts. That leads to developments that do not work for the communities who have to live there for years. For too long the system has been unfairly weighted in favour of developers. The Government’s proposals will not increase the ability of local people to have their say; they will dilute it. The proposed introduction of a Whitehall-appointed board of developers will lead to local people no longer having the ability to object to inappropriate developments. It will remove the right of local people and councillors to have a say at key points in the planning process. They will have little opportunity to influence the design of specific planning applications, as most design codes will be site-specific and so no longer subject to local consultation.
As an MP for a central London constituency with some of the highest levels of building in the country, every day I see the negative impact that unsystematic development has on communities in Vauxhall. We have hundreds of tower blocks going up that often block out daylight for neighbours. We see huge telecommunication masts placed in the middle of small streets in conservation areas against the wishes of residents. We see communities disrupted by the introduction of 24-hour businesses that bring little or no benefit to the area.
Planning can be viewed as boring or as a nimby subject. This is often because residents feel powerless to influence local decisions. I pay tribute to the community groups across Vauxhall who work hard to challenge some of the proposed developments, volunteering their time, effort, expertise and knowledge to read through pages of designs, attending consultation meetings and responding by focusing on the needs of the local community. Residents in Vauxhall understand and appreciate the need for growth and regeneration, but that must be done with the consent of the people who have to live with the daily consequences of planning decisions. Everyone wants to see local people and their local elected representatives given a bigger, not a smaller, say over planning decisions. I therefore urge the Government to rethink their proposals.
When it comes to planning, everyone except wealthy landlords gets a raw deal from this Government. Since 2010, the Conservatives have slashed funding for new homes, refused to regulate for higher standards, and given a free hand to commercial property developers. The number of Government-funded homes for social rent has fallen by more than 90%, the number of households stuck renting from a private landlord has risen by more than 1 million, and the number of young people who own a home has fallen by almost 900,000. According to Shelter, even before the pandemic half of all renters were only one pay cheque away from losing their homes, with no savings to fall back on. Since then, the Resolution Foundation has found that renters are 40% more likely to work in places that have been shut down by the coronavirus crisis.
The Conservatives plan to reward their developer donors by selling out communities with a new developers’ charter, which will remove powers from elected local representatives, thus silencing residents and tipping the balance of power further in favour of profit-seeking developers. The Government plan to scrap section 106 agreements and the community infrastructure levy, yet section 106 agreements between developers and local authorities result in almost 50% of all affordable homes for social rent. By scrapping section 106 and the community infrastructure levy altogether, the Government risk abandoning one of the chief engines of affordable living. The president of the Royal Institute of British Architects said that this could
“lead to the creation of the next generation of slum housing.”
Rather than making it harder to build homes that are fit for the many, the Government must rapidly increase the construction of council housing and genuinely affordable properties to urgently address the housing crisis. The soaring inequality and exclusion derive from the way land is owned and controlled. The Government make ideological choices to sustain this inequality as a direct attack on the working class.
In my constituency of Leicester East, overcrowding is a huge problem. There are pockets of areas close to Leicester General Hospital with populations of 2,000 living in an area 60,000 square metres in size. That is an average of 32 square metres of space, which is the equivalent of a single box bedroom, without front or back gardens. The UK average is 3,676 square metres of space per person, which is more than a hundred times the amount of space that working-class communities have in my constituency, yet the Government want to downgrade our much-needed and loved local NHS general hospital and sell off its land to property developers.
It is sadly not surprising that this Government act so overwhelmingly in the interests of landowners and landlords when we remember that many of them are in fact landlords themselves, catering for their property developer donors. The Government’s proposal is not about partnership with communities but about a land grab. Housing is a fundamental right, without which it is impossible to build a secure and happy life. The Government must recognise that fact and begin to work in the interests of all UK—
This is a really important debate about the role that local communities play in the planning process. As we have heard from Members from all parties, communities have their own priorities. In Bury, we have a thriving local debate about where we feel housing should be put and the type of housing we need in our area. Organisations such as Bury Folk Keep It Green are at the forefront of the debate. Thousands of my constituents in Bury hold the view that their priority is to protect the green belt, and there is a clear local view that people want their democratically elected politicians to protect it.
Let us look at the Government’s position. The recent response to the Government’s consultation on changes to the current planning system makes it crystal clear that
“meeting housing need is never a reason to cause unacceptable harm to such”
things as the green belt or countryside. Indeed, in that consultation response the Government go on to say:
“We can plan for well designed, beautiful homes, with access to the right infrastructure in the places where people need and want to live while also protecting the environment and green spaces communities most value.”
Why are we not in that situation in Bury? Why are the Greater Manchester spatial framework and other such documents being railroaded through, destroying the green belt in Walshaw and Tottington and at Elton reservoir? The reason is that my local Labour council will not put a local plan in place. How can planning exist in any way, shape or form when our local Labour council do not have a local plan? It is simply beyond belief that, since 1997, we in Bury have not had a local vision of how our communities should look. I implore Bury Labour: please, put a local plan in place that protects our green belt, rather than subcontracting the responsibility—
It is a pleasure to close this debate in which many Back Benchers have expressed their concerns, both about their local areas and about the Government’s stated intention to remove the community voice from local planning decisions. Unfortunately, time does not allow me to acknowledge all the excellent contributions to the debate.
The motion in my name and those of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) and others, states that
“planning works best when developers and the local community work together to shape local areas and deliver necessary new homes; and…calls on the Government to protect the right of communities to object to individual planning applications.”
We have brought it to the House because of the wealth of opposition throughout the country to the Government’s proposals, including from professional institutions, respected non-governmental organisations and councillors of all parties, including the Conservative-led Local Government Association, as well as the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee in its unanimous excellent report.
From the outset, the health and wellbeing of people and communities were at the heart of what became the town and country planning system. Planning is making decisions that are central to our lives and that impact on the generations that follow. It is not about churning out housing “units”. It is about delivering homes—enough homes for the full range of pockets and household types, particularly young people who want to get on with their lives. It is not just about building new estates. It is about place making, incorporating the social, transport and physical infrastructure that makes a place a community and ensuring that there are places of work, providing jobs, regeneration and growth. Planning is about deciding how we move towards net zero, how we enhance and improve our biodiversity, how we protect and enhance our natural environment, and how we build strong and sustainable local high streets.
Many of the challenges we face as a society and as a country will need to be tackled through the planning system. To do that, new development has to be planned and determined with the engagement of people and their elected local representatives, but the Government want to undermine local involvement—in fact, they want to undermine the whole planning system. The proposals in the White Paper, confirmed in the Queen’s Speech, are the next step in the Conservative party and its friends’ 10-year project to dismantle the planning system. They have been doing it for years, such as through permitted development rights and going back to delivering “slum housing”, as the Government’s own adviser described it. Instead of involving local communities in future development decisions, the Government want to limit that. The right to comment on planning applications would be abolished in the new growth areas, potentially in large parts of the country—[Interruption.] Well, which areas are going to be growth areas? It could be large parts of the country, affecting many constituencies.
Planning applications will be determined not by local elected councillors but by unelected planning officers. Even the delegation process will end. The Government’s ambition is to require all local plans, covering all of England, to be delivered within 30 months. That is way beyond the resources not only of most planning departments, but even of most community organisations that already comment on and are involved in planning matters. The task is just too great, the timescale just too tight.
Community engagement and discussion leads to better outcomes. When I speak to voters in my constituency, they consistently tell me that not only do they want truly affordable, good-quality homes, but they want the community services that go with them—sport and play areas, schools, more buses and so on. Hounslow Council’s planning decisions have delivered all of those, and more. The people are being sidelined because the Government do not trust the people. The Government justify tearing up our planning system by saying that they want to build more homes, but as we heard today, about 1 million homes have permission; they are just not being built out. The Government proposals risk ignoring the issues of quality, affordability or type of housing to be built.
There is a housing crisis—we accept that—but there is no doubt that the Government are delivering the wrong answer to the growing challenge. Too many young people are priced out of the community that they grew up in. The bulk of homes in recent years have been executive homes in the south-east or expensive London flats, all way out of the reach of local people. Defenders of the Government’s plans have said time and again that these proposals are the solution to the housing crisis, as though delivering all these homes would magically bring all house prices down to a level affordable to all young people across England. They know that the solution is far more complex than that.
I am sorry, but I cannot. You have told me, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I need to leave enough time for the Secretary of State.
Only in some places are prices low enough that young people can buy. Schemes such as Help to Buy are affordable in my constituency only to a few who earn City salaries or have a large chunk of money from the bank of mum and dad. From 2008, the Labour Government delivered the biggest affordable housing programme in a generation, with £10.8 billion in three years, but it ended with the 2010 election.
We need a planning and housing system that delivers well designed homes in genuinely mixed, well designed communities with proper infrastructure. The Government have had 10 years of tinkering and have undermined the planning system. They have allowed a free-for-all in town and village centres, where any shop can be converted into a flat without requiring planning permission.
No one on the Opposition Benches is suggesting that the planning system should be preserved in stone. It is ludicrously complex, and local plans take too long. There are elements that we welcome in the Government’s proposals—digital technology, a speeding up of the local plan process and a plan for every part of England. We agree, and the Government acknowledge, that there is a desperate shortage of planners with the range of skills needed. However, beyond the removal of public participation and the failure to address the housing crisis properly, so much is missing from the Government’s proposals.
Specialist housing, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) mentioned, protecting our high streets, levelling up, protecting and enhancing our natural environment, delivering net zero, mitigating the impact of climate change—the Government talk the talk on those objectives, but do not walk the walk. The specific proposals are not there, and we cannot support the Government without those details. It feels as if they are just not interested.
We need an effective planning system—an improvement on the current system, not its demise. Rather than removing the public and their elected representatives from the picture, the Government need to improve their engagement and retain their right to have a say over planning applications. They can start by giving planning committees back the power to determine whether shops, office blocks and warehouses should be converted into housing, and if they are approved—because some are suitable—to ensure that they make for good-quality housing.
There are developers that want to work with communities and councillors to develop good places that serve the neighbourhood. I have worked on community plans with just such firms, and they should be encouraged, but too many of the Government’s friends and party donors in the house building industry just see the planning process as a block on their mission to deliver “units” and little else.
We want a planning system that effectively mediates between public and private, between community and decision makers, between local and national—a system that is transparent, open and participative. We need more decent, affordable homes, but a home is more than bricks and mortar, and a community is more than a collection of houses miles away from anything and anywhere. The Government must listen to the people and their elected representatives, not their paymaster donors. We do not need a developers’ charter; we need a charter for communities and delivering homes.
The Government’s gagging of communities, removing the inconvenience of people and their elected councillors from decisions, is perhaps a new version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” If the Minister is unsure about the reforms, he could call a friend, but after last week’s by-election result, I have a feeling that his friend will beg him to withdraw these plans. He could even ask the audience, but some of the audience on the Benches behind him do not seem, from their contributions today, to be too keen to help him. That simply leaves him 50:50—plough on, or ditch these proposals.
The Opposition called this debate today to divide us, but I do not think they have succeeded. What we have heard, time and again, across the House is a very high degree of consensus. Member after Member, from either side of the House, queued up to say that this country needs to build more houses. Some said we have a housing crisis. Some said we have a generational duty to help young people and those on low incomes to enjoy the dream of home ownership, which so many of us—the vast majority of people in this House—have already achieved and are enjoying. Member after Member, including almost every contribution from the Labour party, queued up to say that the current planning system does not work. Some made extremely good and important points. The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) said that the single biggest issue she hears from her constituents on is the planning system and how it is failing to address the needs of her constituents. Yet we also heard from the Labour Front-Bench team an argument that we should do absolutely nothing—that we should not take forward any ambitious plans to reform the planning system at all.
The shadow Secretary of State spoke for nine minutes but said absolutely nothing. All he has managed to achieve with this debate has been to shine a light on the Labour party’s own derisory record on housing. Let us not forget that this Government, back in 2010, inherited levels of house building at the lowest they had been since the 1920s. Those of us who are just about old enough to remember that time recall when John Prescott was Secretary of State in my Department and they recall his flagrant disregard for the green belt, the needs of local communities and local democracy, with his failed approach to regional planning, which we scrapped when we came to power.
Those of us who see what Labour is doing today see how damaging and feeble their policies are. If we look at Wales, we see that, despite the rhetoric we heard today, the Labour party is developing 12 council houses—for the whole of Wales. In Croydon, the Labour borough represented by the shadow Housing Secretary and run by his closest friends and cronies, the local council has gone bankrupt and its housing company, Brick by Brick, has taken tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and has failed to deliver a single home. Its social housing stock is so disgracefully Dickensian that the housing regulator has in recent weeks condemned it. What has the hon. Gentleman said? He has said nothing at all. His Twitter account, which he loves to use to criticise the Conservative party, has fallen as silent as that of Donald Trump—he has said absolutely nothing. So we will take no lectures from the Labour party.
We also heard from the Lib Dems, who have mysteriously gone AWOL now, at the end of the debate. Days after winning a by-election, saying that they would campaign to ditch the planning Bill, they could not even be bothered to turn up to the end of the debate. We have heard the appalling, rank hypocrisy of the Liberal Democrats throughout this debate. Their leader went on TV at the weekend to declare himself a “yimby”, but that is very different from what he was saying to people on the doorsteps of Buckinghamshire in recent weeks. It is better to describe him and his party, in the term of my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), as a “banana”—build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.
Except in practice that is not what some Liberal Democrat councils do. The two Lib Dem Members who did turn up to speak in this debate, the hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), both represent areas with Liberal Democrat councils that are building twice the number of homes that the Government are asking them to build. I do not criticise those Liberal Democrat councils for trying to build homes, but if anyone is objectively concreting over the green belt or greenfield land, it is those councils that are choosing to build twice the number of homes that the Conservative Government are asking them to build.
Of course, it was the Liberal Democrat leader who voted consistently for HS2 and, when we were in coalition, voted for every one of this Conservative Government’s planning Bills from 2010 until he lost his seat in 2015, so the speeches from the Opposition Front Bench and the Liberal Democrats were, I am afraid, just embarrassing. Nothing was more emblematic of that than the graphic put out by the Labour party this afternoon, which showed some properties in the Cotswolds that Labour had taken from an article in a newspaper with the headline “Why £10 million country estates are the new £5 million estates”. How out of touch is that? We on this side of the House do want to build homes. We do want to help young people on to the housing ladder, and we do care about homelessness and rough sleeping, and tackling intergenerational unfairness.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, a great deal united the House in this debate, and six themes emerged, all of which are fortunately the chapters—the pillars—of the planning reform Bill. First is our united desire to see greater environmental protection—our categoric insistence that the green belt must be protected, in a way that the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, who is doing more than any other person in this country to build upon the green belt, does not seem to understand. We will enshrine those principles in the Bill.
Secondly, we will ensure that the Bill means a massive improvement in the quality and design of properties. We will bring forward the ideas of Sir Roger Scruton’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, so that new homes in this country are built to a dramatically higher standard.
I cannot, as I have only a few minutes left, but I appreciate that my right hon. Friend is at the vanguard of this issue.
Thirdly, everyone in this country wants to see more infrastructure built alongside the homes—the GP surgeries, the hospitals, the roads, the parks, the playgrounds. We will bring forward an infrastructure levy that gets more of the land value out of the landowners and the big developers and puts it at the service of local people. That will mean more affordable homes being built in this country than ever before.
We will also ensure that we tip the balance away from the big-volume house builders and towards the small builders, so that local entrepreneurs—the brickies, the plumbers and the builders in our constituencies—get a fair shot at the system.
I will not, because I have only a few moments left.
If the Bill were to fail, it is the big-volume house builders who would be celebrating. They would be opening the champagne bottles, and the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) knows that perfectly well. The current system is stacked in favour of the big boys and we are going to change that.
We also want to see more brownfield land built upon, more regeneration, more levelling up and more support for our high streets, which has never been needed more than it is today, and the Bill will deliver that. It will give local authorities more power for compulsory purchase to assemble land and regenerate those important and much-loved spaces in our communities, and at the heart of it is a brownfield-first policy for the whole country.
Lastly, we are going to ensure that there is more engagement and more local democracy, not less. We are going to ensure that the plan-making process is faster and better. We are going to ensure that plans are produced in 13 months, not seven years, and that millions more of our fellow citizens are involved in the plan-making process than they are today. As we have heard already, only 1% of the public even engage in the current system. We are going to ensure that many, many more people do so. We are going to ensure that neighbourhood plans have more teeth and that more of them happen across the country, not just in the most engaged and well-heeled places. We will ensure that they become ubiquitous and a key part of the planning system. And we are going to end speculative development, which does more than anything to lead to the corrosion of public trust in the planning system.
The benefits of our proposals are clear, and we are going to ensure that people across the House and across the country see and appreciate them in the months to come. Of course we are going to listen, because planning is inherently contentious. It has always been that way, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) said in his important speech, we are not sent here to tackle the easy questions. We are sent here to tackle the hard ones, and some of us—those of us on the Government side of the House, and potentially some in the Labour party—want to work together in the weeks and months to come to ensure that we build the homes this country needs, that we tackle the housing crisis and that we build those homes in a way that we can all be proud of for generations to come.
That this House believes planning works best when developers and the local community work together to shape local areas and deliver necessary new homes; and therefore calls on the Government to protect the right of communities to object to individual planning applications.