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Planning Permission and Housing Need: Wealden

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2022

I will call Nusrat Ghani to move the motion, and I will then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered planning permission and calculation of housing need numbers for Wealden.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I welcome the Minister to his new role, and I look forward to working with him intimately in helping Wealden put together its housing plan.

It is a huge honour to represent Wealden in Parliament. It is a joy to live in one of the most beautiful parts of our country, and our communities are excellent. During covid, I established the Wealden Heroes Award, which the Minister may want to reflect on. It showed the fantastic work that so many of our residents did for each other in the communities we wish to serve.

Before there is any confusion, let me point out that Wealden District Council covers more than my constituency, even though we share the same name. To continue the confusion—mostly to confuse the Minister—my married name is also Wheeldon, but I go by Ghani in this place. Many assumptions are made, but my constituency covers Forest Row, Wadhurst, Crowborough, the glorious Ashdown Forest, Mayfield, Uckfield, Fletching, Horeham, Hailsham and all the villages in between. They are watching, Minister, so I had to point out all of them.

When and where new homes are built is always controversial, but I fully recognise that our country and county need more homes and that a level of development is inevitable. My case work reflects that. I work with businesses that want homes for their workers, and with domestic violence victims who need social housing. I work with older residents who want to downsize, and with younger families who want to stop renting and buy their first home. I will never forget that, a few years ago, the fantastic Fletching Primary School was struggling because of the lack of kids coming in. We also did not have many young people in the area. When I speak to health practitioners serving Wealden, especially nurses, one of the big issues is that they just cannot afford to move in.

In Wealden, we are realists; we are not nimbys. Wealden District Council is already going above and beyond in order to accommodate the requirement set by the Government. However, the numbers are just too high. They ignore our environmental constraints and expect Wealden District Council to pick up the slack for failing neighbouring councils, which I will expand on as I go on. Wealden is presently working with the Department to put together its housing plan, and the Minister will know that I have been working with the Department since 2015—seven long years to try to resolve Wealden’s housing plan. I hope that today’s debate will help Wealden and the Minister to put that in place.

One of the big points that I need the Minister to respond to is about the population growth calculation. I am deeply concerned about how the statistics are used by the Department. Based on the Department’s standard method, Wealden’s share is 1,221 new houses each year. However, the standard method uses Office for National Statistics population projection data from 2014 that show that between 2021 and 2031, a total of 212,739 new houses are needed each year for the whole of England. However, the corresponding figure in the latest data, which are for 2018, shows a reduction of 161,048 houses per annum—a reduction of 24%. According to the 2014 ONS projections, Wealden’s share was 872 houses per year, whereas the 2018 projection is for 598 houses per year, an even larger reduction of 31%. Ignoring the reduction just does not make sense, and I hope the Minister can confirm what data the Department is using. If there is not the population need for the homes, what is the justification for the Department’s data and the pressure on Wealden District Council?

According to current targets, 24,500 houses are scheduled across Wealden District Council between 2018 and 2038. To put that into context, 24,500 homes is equivalent to approximately one home for every 2.8 already in the district. Let us just think about how that would ever make sense, because I do not know how such numbers are meant to stack up. From 2017-18 to 2019-20, the requirement for new houses for Wealden went up from 499 to 1,236—an increase of 226%. Those targets are incredibly high and one could even say slightly absurd considering the jump. I hope the Minister will explain to us how the targets are set.

Notwithstanding the large increase in deliveries of new houses, Wealden Council was unable to deliver the quota demanded by the Department, as it achieved 83% for the housing delivery test. Wealden was therefore penalised with an increase to its five-year land supply by a buffer of 20%, resulting in a five-year land supply figure of 7,440. Moreover, planning applications are often granted but not built out for a number of years. Although Wealden did achieve 83%, it has approved many more houses than that, and it is essential that those approvals are also included in the overall numbers.

At Wealden District Council, more than 7,600 permissions have been given for new homes, but not all of them are being built right now. During the past two years especially we have seen understandable delays in construction due to the disruptions of covid and supply chain issues. The projected completions within five years currently amount to 3.6 years’ supply. We need to ensure that all homes that have been granted consent will count towards the forward targets and the five-year land supply as well. Over the last seven years, along with the council, I have repeatedly asked the Department to respond to this point, which will help Wealden council put together a more realistic housing plan, where the numbers will not be bounced around, which would stress constituents out even more. I hope the Minister will respond to that as well.

We talked about Wealden achieving just 83% of the housing delivery test, but only one authority in East Sussex has avoided continued Government sanctions for failing to meet the housing targets. Four out of the five local planning authorities in East Sussex have failed to deliver the housing requirement in the years up to March 2021. Hastings Borough Council and Rother District Council fell below 75% of their target, building an average of less than 200 dwellings a year, which compares to the 800 that Wealden is doing at the same time, yet those areas receive additional Government support for infrastructure, whereas Wealden does not, because they traditionally fall into the metrics of deprivation. I hope the Minister can explain why, when a council achieves 83% compared with 75% in neighbouring authorities, it is further penalised and does not secure infrastructure funding. We need to have the right incentives in place for good councils.

We are incredibly excited about the levelling-up fund and all the funding that will come to our county. We have projects—I can see my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) is here—and funding for Hastings, Newhaven, Seaford and across the Lewes constituency. That is great for the county, but we want to see further investment in our roads. The levelling-up White Paper highlights planned investment for the A27 at Lewes, improvements to the Brighton mainline and a new hospital for Eastbourne.

As East Sussex MPs, we meet up every Tuesday afternoon under the auspices of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) to make sure that we co-ordinate our funding. Although we appreciate the funding for the county, as I pointed out, Wealden builds above and beyond all of its neighbouring local authorities but tends to receive the least funding, and that has to be re-evaluated. A local authority that builds more homes than its neighbouring local authorities should be prioritised for funding, not penalised because it does not meet the traditional metrics of deprivation. Wealden should be rewarded for the homes that it is building.

I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne will forgive me as I make my next point. Eastbourne also has an increasing population, and it tends to build higher-storey homes, but it constantly argues or complains that it does not have the space to build outwards, so the pressure falls on Wealden.

I thank my hon. Friend and very dear parliamentary neighbour for giving way. I commend her on her tireless campaigning for Wealden to ensure there is sustainable and appropriate development. I know the pressure that Wealden is under, and part of that is because of Eastbourne, where we are constrained by the sea and downland, so it is challenging to deliver on the numbers. I rise in the name of that small part of my constituency that sits within Wealden District Council. Because of the beauty of the constituency, which my hon. Friend has described—much of it areas of outstanding natural beauty—Willingdon, Jevington and Wannock are often subject to planning applications—disproportionately so—and recently a very unpopular Mornings Mill application was kicked out. Does my hon. Friend agree that for development on that scale, without the infrastructure coming down the line, such as the road development she has mentioned but also, notably, GP practices, we simply cannot deliver on those numbers?

My hon. Friend and neighbour makes a very valid point. I am going to ask the Minister to consider putting in forward infrastructure funding before developments are fully developed, to ensure that our communities benefit from the new homes that are coming. Of course, Eastbourne has the sea, but it could also—I urge my lovely neighbour to consider this—build up so that we do not have to build out into the area of outstanding natural beauty in Wealden.

Moving across the county, we have the Pevensey levels and the South Downs in the south of Wealden, which cannot be developed, and then we have areas of outstanding natural beauty in the north of the district, including Ashdown forest—the home of Winnie the Pooh—which restricts growth. We therefore have a lot of pressure on areas such as Horam and Hailsham in the Low Weald, which tend to bear the brunt of housing applications. I hope my colleague and neighbour, the hon. Member for Eastbourne, will agree that it is unfair that Wealden has to shoulder local needs elsewhere in East Sussex and absorb the numbers we need for Eastbourne, Hastings and Lewes because those towns are unable to deliver their fair share. I hope the Minister can recognise the pressure that Wealden District Council is under and can try to not only deliver greater funding but support its need to push back unnecessary development proposals.

My hon. Friend’s point is well made, but does she agree that the dynamic she described around population growth applies equally to Eastbourne, where we need to see a significant fall in the numbers we are expected to build? There will then be every expectation that we can meet our own need and do not need to look to neighbours to bring forward these homes. The population forecasts that apply to my hon. Friend’s constituency have equally cast far greater numbers in my patch.

The ONS data is the crux of the problem that we need to resolve. If the population growth is not as it has been tracked, then we need to re-evaluate the numbers that local authorities have to set their targets to, so I agree with my colleague. Hopefully, we will continue to meet every Tuesday to hash out planning for the foreseeable seven years as well.

I will now turn to infrastructure, which does not neatly sit within the Minister’s Department, but I wish him to understand the pressure that the district is under. The scale of growth that the Government are asking for has to be accompanied by meaningful infrastructure funding, which also helps alleviate the pressure from new homes arriving in any area. We have major road arteries such as the A22, A26 and A27 connecting Wealden to the rest of the south-east, and they are in dire need of upgrades.

Our rail network is similar: I look forward to the Minister visiting Wealden, when he may have the joy of travelling on the Uckfield line—if he googles it, he can just google the “misery line”. Let me explain why: it is unreliable, and it is a real dinosaur. It operates one of the country’s last diesel trains on a single track. It is completely unfit for this day and age, and it is already under pressure before the new homes have arrived. I am told that it is the most polluting line in the country; I have yet to check that figure, but we desperately need it to be electrified, and I will continue to campaign for that.

As my neighbour the hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne has mentioned, there are concerns about healthcare and dental care provision. We have a particular aging population, and because of the area we are in, we also have pressure on sewerage and water. We need greater broadband and of course we always need greater transport investment as well.

As I have mentioned to the Minister, after seven long years of meetings, it would be good to try to get to a point where everybody is comfortable. We were really pleased that we were able to host a meeting with the Secretary of State last year to make sure that Wealden District Council was given the support it needed in putting together its plan. We want its plan to pass and to be successful. I would not be able to represent Wealden today without the support I receive from the district council leader, Bob Standley; the deputy leader for planning, Ann Newton; the chief executive officer of Wealden District Council, Trevor Scott; and all the fantastic councillors.

It is not just Wealden or our county: a lot of councillors are under huge pressure to deliver to meet the housing need, given the stress that it creates in local communities. Ann Newton in particular has received a lot of unnecessary abuse for just being the public servant trying to deliver for East Sussex.

These are my asks of the Minister: first, let us make housing targets advisory, not mandatory. Let us link Government funding, whether the towns fund, school funding, infrastructure, jobs and healthcare, to councils that build homes. Let us incentivise them; let us adapt the proposed infrastructure levy to ensure that infrastructure is provided before homes are built—the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne.

Let us help last-time buyers, as well as first-time buyers, by examining measures to encourage elderly homeowners to downsize by providing a stamp duty exemption or reduction. Let us reduce rates on the top end of stamp duty. People cannot afford to move when their circumstances change, because they simply cannot afford the stamp duty. Let us outlaw gazumping. Let us improve schemes to help housing associations, and Wealden Council, which has its own housing company, to develop and build bungalows. Let us have “use it or lose it” planning permissions. Let us prioritise low-carbon house building.

Lastly, and mostly importantly for Wealden, let us adapt current rules to fix situations where a council has given planning permission for sites that are not developed, but the council then faces Government censure when developers are at fault for refusing to build out those permissions. Let us include permissions granted for new homes in the housing number allocations. As mentioned, Wealden District Council has given 7,600 permissions for new homes; they have not all been built yet, but they are on their way. Will the Minister ensure that those are not only allocated within overall targets but go towards the overall five-year land supply, as well?

Those are a lot of asks for the Minister, but it is incredibly important for Wealden to get this right. It is the last Conservative council in the county and we are keen to build—properly and in an environmentally friendly way—homes that people want to move into. We can do that only with the support of the Minister, and I look forward to welcoming him to my constituency.

It is a pleasure to serve, for my first time in this role, under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) for securing this important debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for her interventions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden described her constituency as a beautiful area and listed the many communities that make it a unique place to live. I was particularly interested to hear about the Wealden heroes, and I think we all want to say thank you to our constituents, up and down the country, who have done so much during the pandemic to help those who needed support.

My hon. Friend is an assiduous Member on this important issue of building the houses we need in a way that gets the community behind it. I was interested in the debate between my two hon. Friends, which demonstrated clearly and visually the difficulties I will face in my role, with contrasting viewpoints about how to deliver these houses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden will know that, due to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s quasi-judicial role in the planning system, I am unable to comment on the merits of a specific plan, but I can provide some general comments. Having an effective, up-to-date plan in place is essential to planning for and meeting housing requirements. Each plan is subject to a public examination in front of an independent inspector who examines plans impartially to ensure that they are legally compliant and sound.

Getting an up-to-date plan in place, backed by evidence and produced with community involvement, will stand local planning authorities in good stead in determining planning applications and at any appeal. To get enough homes built in the places where people and communities need them, a crucial first step is to plan for the right number of homes. That is why, in 2018, we introduced a standard method for assessing local housing need, to make the process of identifying the number of homes needed in an area simple, quick and transparent. The standard method shows the number of homes needed in a local planning authority and is the first step in deciding how many homes an area should plan for.

To help enable the country to deliver 300,000 homes a year, in December 2020 we changed the formula to increase the need by 35% in 20 of our most populated urban areas to maximise use of existing infrastructure and to support development that reduces the need for high-carbon travel. All other local authorities in England, including Wealden, saw no change compared to the previous method, so, in effect, continued to calculate their local housing need in the same way.

Following the 2020 consultation, the Government concluded that the 2014-based projections would continue to be used to calculate housing targets. Household projections are not just a measure of how many houses are needed to meet demand; the ONS has been clear that lower household projections do not necessarily mean fewer homes needing to be built. The standard method is used by councils as a guide when they develop their local plans. That means that councils decide their own housing requirement once they have their local need, with the expectation that the inspector should also consider the local circumstances and the constraints that really matter to local people. The council should also consider working with neighbouring authorities if it would be more appropriate for the needs to be met elsewhere.

I want to add that I know that Councillor Standley and Councillor Newton of Wealden District Council are doing their utmost to deliver the homes they need for their areas, and I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden that the Department will continue to support the work of her council, now and into the future.

Building the homes this country needs is at the heart of the Government’s commitment to levelling up across the United Kingdom. The planning policy framework still expects local authorities to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply against the housing requirement. Therefore, following consultations with communities, local authorities need to get a local plan in place and allocate appropriate sites. When a local authority finds itself unable to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply and engages the presumption in favour of sustainable development, that does not mean that planning permission is automatically granted. Each case is considered on its merits, and only planning matters may be taken into consideration. When any adverse impacts of granting approval would significantly or demonstrably outweigh the benefits, or if national policies protecting important assets provide a clear reason for refusal of an application when assessed against the national policies taken as a whole, the application should be refused.

For as long as local authorities fail to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply, they will be more at risk of appeals and speculative planning applications being successful. That said, we are reviewing the planning system, including the role of the five-year housing land supply policy, and considering its alignment with and support of the levelling-up agenda.

The housing delivery test is a scheme that is designed to encourage authorities to focus on supporting the build-out of deliverable schemes with planning permission, but also to be realistic about likely rates of delivery from sites in those plans. It aims to offer greater transparency on the actual housing delivery in an area and to ensure that communities’ local housing need is being delivered in a local planning authority area. It therefore does not necessarily just measure permissions.

The Government are clear that developers should build out permissions as quickly as possible. That is an area in which I am taking a personal interest. When planning permission has been granted for new developments or when sites are stalled or experiencing delays in being delivered, it is for local authorities and developers to work closely together at a local level to overcome the barriers, as they are best placed to achieve that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden talked passionately about infrastructure, and contributions from developers play an important role in developing the infrastructure that new homes require. Local authorities can obtain contributions by charging a community infrastructure levy on new developments and by negotiating section 106 planning obligations with a developer. According to its 2021 infrastructure funding statement, Wealden District Council collected over £5 million in community infrastructure levy in that year, plus over £3.4 million from section 106 agreements.

I know that my hon. Friend has called for the Government to explore the whole issue of the introduction of a new infrastructure levy, which will replace section 106 planning obligations and the community infrastructure levy. The proposed levy will be simpler, more transparent and more consistent. I would like to reassure her that I recognise the importance of the timely delivery of infrastructure through developer contributions. That will be an important consideration in the design of the new levy. In my constituency, I know people feel frustrated that often the infrastructure comes way too late, or perhaps not at all, to meet the demands.

My hon. Friend kindly invited me to visit her constituency; I will be delighted to do so at some point, although she did not quite sell it with the misery line. Even so, I would be more than happy to come.

I thank, again, both my hon. Friends for fighting for their constituencies and for raising this important topic for debate. The Government recognise that we need a modernised planning system. We are considering how best to take forward proposals for changes to the planning system. An announcement on next steps will be made in due course. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden also previously suggested that numbers for local authorities reflecting the housing an area needs should be advisory, not mandatory. I want to take this opportunity to reassure her that I have heard the concerns loud and clear, not just from her but from many colleagues in the last three weeks.

My hon. Friend also raised the important point about older people. She may be interested to know that we are developing an older people’s taskforce to see what we can do to help in that important area. She raised the possibility of a stamp duty reduction for last-time buyers. She will be aware that that is a decision for the Treasury and is a bit beyond my purview. I sincerely encourage her to have a constructive debate with our Treasury colleagues on that issue.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to speak on this subject again. As the new Minister in the Department, I am keen to understand the issues in her area and in other areas around the country as we try to find a planning policy and system that works for the whole country, delivers the houses we need for our local people and ensures we have the economic prosperity that that will bring. I look forward to working with her over the coming years.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.