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Housing in Sittingbourne and Sheppey

Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 5 January 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered housing in Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

In a Westminster Hall debate, back in November 2016—I cannot remember who was in the Chair—I pointed out that Kent was being asked to take more than its fair share of the country’s new house building, and that unprecedented housing growth had put great pressure on our local infrastructure and services, particularly in my constituency of Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

Since that debate, I have raised the problem of unsustainable housing development in my constituency six times, but the only thing that has changed is that the pressure on Kent has got worse, with Sittingbourne and Sheppey being particularly hit hard. My constituency now has one of the highest patient to GP ratios in England, increasing health deprivation generally, a lack of school places and congested roads, particularly on Sheppey, where a problem affecting any of the main roads on the island leads to gridlock.

In the last 30 years, almost 17,000 new homes have been built in Swale, the majority in my constituency, which comprises two thirds of the borough, and there is more to come. As it stands, using the standard method of calculating housing need, from this year my local authority, Swale Borough Council, is being forced to provide housing land for an annual build number of 1,048, which is a huge increase on the target of 776 per year included in the council’s current adopted local plan.

Sadly, those figures demonstrate the irony of the Government insisting on ever increasing housing numbers, because despite the huge increase in housing development that we have already witnessed in Swale, developers have not once hit the 776 per year local plan housing target in the last 10 years. That begs the question: why are the Government expecting Swale to increase its housing land allocation still further, when developers have not yet used the land already allocated for housing?

One problem with housing targets is that historical housing numbers are a key part of the data used by the Government to determine future need. The assumption that past housing growth will automatically generate the need for more housing growth in the future creates an unsustainable cycle. Understandably, Swale Borough Council is very concerned that it will be unable to deliver the number of homes required by the Government’s standard method for housing need without considerable detriment to our area, either through damage to our local environment and other assets, or significant impact on our local infrastructure. I very much share those concerns.

Swale Borough Council is also of the view that if the planning system is to be genuinely “plan-led”, then the application of paragraph 11(d) of the national planning policy framework should be scrapped, because it does not take into consideration factors that hinder housing delivery that are beyond the control of local planning authorities and undermine the plan-led system.

Another irony is that despite all the developments that Swale has witnessed over the years, we are still desperately short of decent affordable and social housing in the borough. There are a number of reasons for that. The first is because developers are expected to fund any necessary infrastructure improvements, rather than the Government. That requirement has a negative impact on the local communities in which the developments take place. For a start, it pushes up the cost of development, which means that the number of homes set aside for social or affordable housing are often kept to the very bare minimum, if they are built at all.

If at planning stage the local authority insists on a higher percentage of affordable or social housing, it can make the development unviable, so councils tend to accept lower figures. A stark illustration is that just 12% of the homes built in Swale between 2019 and 2020 were classified as affordable. Where affordable houses are built, too often they are snapped up by local authorities outside the area, mainly London boroughs, because it is cheaper for them to buy a property in Kent than to build or buy homes in their own locality. Kent’s local authorities are priced out of the social housing market because they do not have the same financial resources as London boroughs. All the housing developments that we have witnessed over the past few years have done little to alleviate Sittingbourne and Sheppey’s own housing problem, because they simply draw in more people from outside the area.

Another problem with expecting developers to fund the necessary infrastructure is that the section 106 funding raised is never enough to meet the actual needs of the local community. An example of that is local road building. A development that comes with a section 106 road improvement to serve, say, an extra 500 cars will too often over time generate many more cars than originally envisaged. The local road network is then unable to cope with those additional vehicle movements. The only way to secure further improvement is by accepting even more development that will provide the necessary additional section 106 funding. That is another unsustainable cycle.

As I pointed out earlier, it is not just the roads infrastructure that has been impacted by all the new housing developments. In my constituency, schools have also been affected. We were promised a secondary school to accommodate the growth in population generated by the housing developments in north-west Sittingbourne. Sadly, there is still no sign of the school. We are now in the absurd position where every day, entirely due to a lack of school places, many children from Sittingbourne are bussed to the Isle of Sheppey, where there are spare places, for historical reasons I will not go into today. It means that almost 1,000 children from Sheppey travel in the opposite direction every day. That two-way flow of children increases pressure on our local transport network and is costly for parents and the local authority.

The new housing developments have also had a negative effect on our health system. As I mentioned, my constituency has one of the highest patient to GP ratios in England. That has led to many practices being oversubscribed, with patients finding it increasingly difficult to book an appointment to see a doctor, which is a problem I recently raised in the House. Although housing developers will often be asked to provide health facilities via a section 106 agreement, a medical centre is just a building and is of no use to anybody without the trained medical staff to run the practice, including GPs.

The problem in Kent is that we have an insufficient number of GPs to provide the primary care service that people expect and to which they are entitled. There are a number of reasons for that shortage, which I have highlighted in previous Westminster Hall debates, so I will not rehearse them again today. It is a serious problem that the Government must resolve before imposing any more housing targets on Kent’s local authorities, and on Swale Borough Council in particular.

The Government should also take into account the impact on our local environment when they decide how much land local authorities have to allocate for new housing developments. The reality in my area is that any new developments will increasingly have to be built on green fields, because most brownfield sites have already been used for new homes. Of course, developers prefer to use green spaces and farmland, and I understand the reasons why. It is mainly because it is cheaper than developing brownfield sites. However, using those green spaces destroys natural habitats, and creates light and noise pollution.

In addition, putting down more concrete and tarmac can exacerbate issues with water absorption and cause flooding, so even if housing is not built on a floodplain, it can destroy natural barriers that are necessary to soak up the vast quantities of water when there is heavy rain. It also puts pressure on existing sewers and storm drains, raising the risk of flooding and environmental issues with sewage. This is another element of local infrastructure that is too often given only second thought when the population is expanded by hundreds or thousands of people.

Frankly, many people believe that the current planning system favours large housing developers and ignores the needs of the ordinary folk who must live with the consequences of those developments. They believe that planning policy is driven by the Government’s desire to build hundreds of thousands more homes. It is difficult to argue against that belief. As an example, when Swale Borough Council submitted its last local plan, which set out what land was required to meet future housing needs, its calculation was based on local knowledge and had the support of local residents. As I said earlier, the council estimated that the housing need would be 776 homes a year. However, the Government rejected that local plan and insisted that the figure should be increased to 1,048 a year—a 35% uplift.

I believe that the same thing has happened to other councils in our beautiful county of Kent. I have a message for the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect, from my fellow residents—my fellow men of Kent and Kentish men: if he wants us to remain the garden of England, please stop the rooting up of our ancient woodlands, the cementing over of our fields and orchards, the polluting of our rivers and sea with sewage, and the contamination of our air with toxic fumes from ever-increasing traffic congestion. Large-scale development must not continue without the requisite investment in infrastructure—not just from developers but from the Government.

Building must not be allowed to disproportionately affect Kent and the south-east. The Government must accept that suitable land for development is finite, and that the concerns of local communities must be taken into consideration when imposing housing targets. The Government must not ignore the elected representatives of those areas, or treat them like nuisances when they point out that Government planning policies are wrong. Finally, the Government must, please, give us a planning system that works for and with communities, is fair and acknowledges the pressure that increasing Government housing targets place on areas such as Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

It is, as ever, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and certainly a great pleasure to respond to the debate brought to us by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), who is an industrious and doughty campaigner on behalf of his constituents in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, and across all of Swale borough. I think that he was being rather modest in his claims; I would say that he has raised this issue more than six times in the interests of his constituents.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we need a planning system that is speedier, more transparent and more fair, and that delivers the right homes, in the right places, with the right infrastructure that people want and can support. I think he would agree with me that the present planning system does not achieve those objectives. It certainly is not particularly engaging, as I think we all know. About 1% of local populations get involved in local plan making. That is almost literally only planning officers and their blood relations in a particular local authority. That percentage rises to a massive 2% or 3% when it comes to the engagement of local communities in individual planning applications—again, far too few.

On that point, I accept that only a very small percentage of people get involved in planning decisions at the planning stage, but the Minister will find, if he looks through the results of the last local elections in Kent, that they came out in their thousands to vote for the Green party against the Conservatives because of planning issues.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We want to make the planning system much more engaging so that more people get involved at an early stage and play a part in local plan making, so that they can say that the choices they have made are contributing to their community while ensuring that the infrastructure that they require locally is properly planned for. I will come to that in a moment.

My hon. Friend made some important points, which I will address. First, he mentioned the local housing need numbers for Swale. He will appreciate that, because I have a quasi-judicial role, I must not go into too great detail about Swale’s local plan. I am pleased that I may say that its latest iteration is progressing—I think it is about to go to section 19 and is well on course for update before the end of 2023. However, there are some misconceptions about how local housing need should be used. It is a starting point, not an end point. It is based on the 2014 Office for National Statistics household population projections. We took a view a couple of years ago that, particularly given the pandemic, local authorities needed consistency and certainty, so we chose not to change the local housing need calculations for all but the 20 largest cities in our country.

As I say, the housing need numbers, as calculated, are a starting point, not an end point. It is for local authorities to determine their building target for each year over the lifecycle of their plan, to be agreed with the planning inspectorate. Local authorities are able to identify constraints—such as green belts or areas of outstanding natural beauty—that allow them to land at a different number from that expressed in the local housing need calculations. It is very much for local authorities to determine the right number of homes that should be built in their community. As I say, we want more people to become involved in the formulation of those local plans.

My hon. Friend mentioned developers not developing on land for which planning permission has already been granted. There are different views about those numbers. Sir Oliver Letwin found a couple of years ago that land banking, as it is popularly described, is not a particularly prevalent issue. However, I recognise the concern of local communities and our colleagues about this particular challenge. That is why we have committed, as part of our future planning reforms, to look carefully at how we can, shall we say, incentivise developers to build out on the applications that already exist, rather than looking for more and more applications to be given on other sites.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the important issue of the small number of developers who have those permissions and who build the homes in our country that we need. We want more developers, and more SME developers, developing different types of homes in different places for different tenures. We know that in the last 10 years or so, partly as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, the number of SMEs developing homes has fallen by something like 40%. We need to encourage more small and medium-sized developers to develop, and not leave development in the hands of the so-called big six. Having a planning system that is speedier, more predictable and more transparent is a way of ensuring that those SMEs come back into the marketplace and develop the sorts of homes that we want to see.

My hon. Friend and I certainly want to ensure that the right homes are being built in the right places for people to live in. We believe in a property-owning democracy; we want people to have the opportunity to get on to the property ladder. I am pleased to say, as a result of work done by the Yorkshire Building Society—I think the announcement was made only today—that some 408,379 first-time buyers got on to the property ladder last year. That is a 20-year high in first-time buyers getting on to the ladder and a 35% uplift in the figures from the year before. As we emerge from the pandemic, which has affected all our lives, we want to ensure that we are building better, building brighter, and building more homes for people to buy to live in, to get a stake in the country and in their community.

We also have to ensure, as my hon. Friend rightly says, that we have the right number of affordable homes built. We have an affordable homes programme. It is the largest cash injection in the development of affordable homes in 15 or 16 years—some £12.3 billion, £11.5 billion of which is new money. We anticipate that, economic conditions allowing, over the next five years it will build 180,000 new homes, 32,000 of which will be for social rent. We have also allowed local authorities the opportunity—through removal of the housing revenue account cap on borrowing—to spend more money on social homes if they so wish. The Public Works Loan Board offers them loans at very attractive rates. We have also allowed them much more flexibility through the use of their right-to-buy receipts—partly as a result of the pandemic—to ensure that local authorities have the wherewithal to build the sorts of homes that they want to build.

However, I am very conscious of what my hon. Friend says about the section 106 system. It has some supporters, of course. A lot of big developers like section 106 because it tends to load the weaponry—to give the ammunition to the bigger developers, with the bigger bank balances and the bigger batteries of lawyers, at the expense of smaller local authorities. We want to rectify that imbalance in the system by introducing an infrastructure levy, which will be set by the local authority, so that it is very clear what the cost of development is going to be. It will enable greater land capture value to be obtained by local authorities, so that local authorities and local communities get the infrastructure that they want, up front in the development process and not way down the line, if it is built at all. The levy means that the playgrounds, health clinics or schools that local authorities and local communities need to support the homes that are proposed for development are built where, when and how they want them, rather than what happens under the present system, which is rather more uncertain.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the predilection, shall we say, of some local authorities nearer to where we are now than to his constituency to buy up properties in his constituency. I am very conscious of that issue. I say to him that we have provided very clear—indeed, unambiguous—guidance to local authorities that they should, wherever possible, place families and individuals within their own area. The guidance also that they should only be looking to secure housing outside their local authority as a very last resort.

I am grateful because this is a very important point that I hope the Minister will take on. I accept what he says, and he recognises the problem of London boroughs buying properties in areas such as mine. The boroughs pay for those properties and they pay the rent of the people they place there, but what they do not have to do, which they should, is fund the social services and education needed to look after those people and educate their children. Kent County Council taxpayers have to pay for that. That must be looked at.

I am conscious of the issue raised by my hon. Friend. I will make a couple of points in response. First, he is absolutely right that we want a system that provides the school places and GP clinic places. That is why we want to change from the section 106 system to the infrastructure levy, which we believe will provide those sorts of bricks-and-mortar services more rapidly. He also knows that we are investing more in the NHS. I will not go into great detail on that; it is a matter for my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care. However, he knows that we are training up more doctors and nurses. That will take some time, but we want to invest more in the NHS.

My hon. Friend should also be aware that, as a result of the affordable homes programme, over £4 billion have been provided to the Greater London Authority and the Mayor of London to build properties in London for Londoners. I call on the Mayor to get on and build those properties, for which he has the funds, to take the pressure off places such as Kent. My hon. Friend also mentioned brownfield sites over greenfield. We are clear through the national planning policy framework that brownfield should be used first wherever possible. We have provided funds to that effect, which he will know about, either for big or small investments, which allow local authorities to focus on the redevelopment of brownfield sites.

I also tell my hon. Friend that as a result of the Environment Act 2021, which is now on the statute book, there is a requirement on developers to ensure a biodiversity net gain of at least 10% where developments take place. Again, that will ensure that where development happens, not only is bricks-and-mortar infrastructure provided, but environmental infrastructure is supported and enhanced. I am conscious, Mr Hollobone, that my hon. Friend will probably want to say a few remarks, so I will give him the opportunity.

Order. In a half-hour debate, I am afraid that the Member in charge does not have the right of reply, so the Minister still has two minutes to make further remarks, if he wishes to do so.

Mr Hollobone, you honour me in allowing me further time to expostulate on the Government’s policies. We are conscious of the challenges that my hon. Friend raises. I am keen to ensure that the reform to the planning system that we have in mind will result in greater community engagement, the provision of infrastructure to give local communities the schools, school places and GP surgeries they need, an environmental support mechanism to enhance developments as they are brought forward, and more SMEs in the system to ensure new homes of different tenures, styles and types built in the places we need, so that we have a planning system which, while it will never be uncontroversial—there will always been controversies when it comes to individual developments—everybody understands, can buy into and can accept is fair, just and predictable. I look forward to further debates with my hon. Friend over the next several weeks and months, as we bring our proposals forward. I am grateful to you, Mr Hollobone, for your advice and guidance in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.