Skip to main content

Housing Targets: Planning System

Volume 722: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2022

I will call Gordon Henderson to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered housing targets and the planning system.

This is not the first time I have raised the subject of overdevelopment in my constituency. In the last 12 years, I have done so on a number of occasions, so I will not repeat what I have said before, except to emphasise the problems that excessive housebuilding has caused my constituents. Our local roads are congested and cannot cope with the level of traffic generated by the new housing. My constituents struggle to get a GP appointment, because there are not enough doctors to service the thousands of extra people who have moved to the area. Many of our local schools are over-subscribed, and new arrivals struggle to get school places for their children.

The huge increase in housing development in my area has been driven by my local authority, Swale Borough Council, attempting to meet the top-down housing targets imposed by the Government. In past debates, successive Housing Ministers have insisted that the Government do not impose targets, and that it is up to local authorities to determine housing growth after consultation with the Planning Inspectorate, which of course is a Government quango. An example of the outcome of such consultation is that Swale Borough Council submitted its most recent local plan, which had a housing land allocation for 776 homes per year, only for the Planning Inspectorate to reject the proposal and insist that the figure should be increased to 1,048 per year.

The irony is that, despite the massive increases in housing in Swale over the past 30 years—17,000 new homes have been built in that time—developers have not once matched even the 776 figure in the past 10 years. The problem with nationally imposed mandatory housing targets is that they are arbitrary and lack supportable evidence of need. Officers and members of Swale Borough Council believe that targets should be set at local and sub-regional levels, and should take into account an area’s ability to deliver them. They believe that the housing delivery test, buffers, housing action plans and housing targets have served only to increase pressure on local authorities, rather than to deliver more housing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate; he is making some important points. Does he agree that unless local housing targets are set according to local need, it is difficult to adequately provide the necessary infrastructure he referred to earlier—education, health and transport in particular? Will he join me in urging the Minister to consider that there should be a right of appeal for local communities against inappropriate housing applications? There is a right for the developer; there is not currently a right for communities.

I could not agree more, and I will touch on one or two of those issues.

Ministers have recently made a number of encouraging remarks about scrapping mandatory top-down targets, but there is little concrete evidence to suggest that that will ever happen. The lack of clarity is causing uncertainty, which is crippling the ability of Swale—and, I am sure, other local authorities—to put together meaningful local plans. In addition to the uncertainty over targets, producing local plans is becoming much slower, because the overall process is getting more complicated. Swale Borough Council believes that the difficulties will increase with the burden of the Environment Act 2021, other emerging legislation, including the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, and revised national planning guidance.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his excellent speech. Does he agree that the Government also need to take into account the post-pandemic world? Local plans have historically been more backward-looking, but people are now working more from home, so there is less draw to come to London or the south-east more generally for good, well-paid jobs. Does he agree that the Government should look to evolve local planning processes off the back of that?

Yes, I do agree. The Government should also take into account the amount of housing that has already been built in an area. There is no point expecting a local authority to deliver higher housing targets if it has already delivered 17,000 additional homes over a number of years, as is the case in my area. All we are doing is putting extra strain on the infrastructure.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this issue. Although it is the responsibility of the Minister, I want to express my support for the hon. Gentleman, as I always do in these debates, because we have a similar problem in Northern Ireland, where some 44,000 people are waiting for a home and 31,000 are in housing distress. The issue is massive for our constituencies. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not just about houses, but about the right type of housing—housing that has no mould or damp, and that families can live in? Does he agree that when it comes to building houses, homes must be healthy and suitable to live in, to ease the pressure on housing associations, which do their very best to help?

Yes, and I am pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman make his contribution. If he were not present for my Westminster Hall debate, I would fear that the world had come to an end; Parliament certainly would have.

It is noticeable that nothing has been done to address the problems faced by so many local authority planning departments. They face onerous new burdens with no increase or improvement in the resources available to them, partly because of a shortage of qualified planning officers. Planning resources are also inadequate at many of the statutory consultee organisations, such as the Environment Agency, Natural England, Historic England and National Highways, and that is leading to delays in providing the necessary input into local plans.

On the subject of National Highways, the agency is blocking housing developments in my patch for which planning permission has already been granted, by submitting objections on the grounds that the local road infrastructure is inadequate. However, it is inadequate because National Highways has delayed making the necessary improvements, and those planning objections are forcing Swale Borough Council to allow planning applications for other sites, because National Highways’ blocking action is suppressing delivery numbers. It is a typical Catch-22 situation. Ultimately, our local infrastructure, which includes roads, needs to keep pace with the delivery of housing, but statutory undertakers are simply failing to ensure that that happens.

The Government have also failed to prevent developers from land banking. I know of several housing developments in Swale where permission has been granted but no work has been started, and developers often sit on allocated land and then try to get permission for other sites based on the delay in housing delivery, for which they are responsible. The scandal needs urgently to be addressed, with a time limit placed on the implementation of approved schemes. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, too many loopholes allow developers to avoid delivering sufficient affordable housing because of supposed unviability.

Swale Borough Council believes that regional or sub-regional planning, such as at county level, would address cross-boundary issues, including reaching agreement on strategic planning matters such as infrastructure and housing, which the legal duty to co-operate, introduced in the Localism Act 2011, has simply not delivered. The council also believes that the way to solve the country’s housing needs is by building a new generation of large new towns across the country. The current policy is to deliver garden communities at a local level on a small or medium scale, but they are simply not large enough to deliver the major infrastructure improvements needed to sustain those communities, such as new roads, hospitals, schools, town centres and low-carbon transport systems, such as trams.

In the council’s view, eight or so major new towns across England would not only support the Government’s levelling-up agenda, but would address housing shortages, including affordable and social housing, deliver genuine place making and see developments take place at a level that benefits the whole country, without degrading locally important assets and landscapes, or placing additional burdens on already creaking local infrastructure.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing forward this debate. In Aldridge-Brownhills, we are faced with a huge number of houses being built across the constituency. He makes a powerful argument why we should abolish housing targets. Local councils know best; they know what is needed and the pressure on the infrastructure. Does my hon. Friend agree that one challenge is that the construction companies that start to develop often withhold the section 106 money and the planning gain money right until the end, so local communities feel a lot of the pain before they see any gain?

My right hon. Friend is right. Whoever sets the targets, whether at national or local level, when it comes to planning permission for development, there should be an insistence that the infrastructure is put in place before the housing is started. That can be done, but too often is not. I can give an example: we had a major development on the Isle of Sheppey many years ago, which subsequently led to 2,000 houses. At the time, permission was granted for only a couple of hundred, until such time as a new bridge and other new infrastructure was put in place. That has to be done far more often.

I have raised a number of issues today that are of concern to Swale Borough Council. However, the biggest collective grievance is the imposition of mandatory housing targets and the five-year land supply rule.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward the debate. My constituency neighbours his, and we in Rochester and Strood have seen the stresses and strains on local services and the planning department in order to meet unrealistic housing targets, which are particularly imposed on the south-east, where we are based. Does my hon. Friend agree that the targets should be designed at a local level, and that communities should be empowered to object to unrealistic developments that do not deliver the services that the people living in those communities demand?

I do agree. It is critical that local people have a say and set the targets, because unless there is local support for something, it will never work. Looking at it cynically, we might say that many local authorities are deciding to build houses in inappropriate places because they can blame the Government for the fact that they have to meet housing targets. If it was up to local people, that would not happen. From a purely cynical point of view, it would be better to let local people do that.

I genuinely feel that there is a tendency to go for the green belt and greenfield sites. I hope that, as part of pushing targets down to a local level, we can put a duty on Ministers to ensure that we explore every possible brownfield site first and that those are built on before we touch the precious green belt.

My right hon. Friend is perfectly right. I mentioned a number of developments in my area, one of which is on a brownfield site. We should be pressing to make sure that is done first, before we allow any other planning applications to be approved.

In thinking about mandatory housing targets, I urge the Minister and her colleagues to look sympathetically at new clause 21 to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which will be debated on Report, which would prohibit mandatory targets.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this debate on such an important topic and thank him the constructive way in which he has approached it.

As constituency MPs, everyone here appreciates that housing and the supply of housing really matter to every single community, and my hon. Friend will recognise that it is simultaneously a local and a national issue. Planning and the location of future developments is something that I know he cares incredibly deeply about, so I am pleased to have the opportunity today—in place of the Housing Minister, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer)—to speak to hon. Members about how we in Government are approaching housing targets and the wider planning system.

Without wanting to start the debate by immediately dampening expectations, I should say that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey will know that, given the Secretary of State’s role in the planning system, I cannot comment on the specifics of any individual plans or proposals, including those of the Swale local plan. On some of my hon. Friend’s specific points, I agree with him that the duty to co-operate has not worked effectively. That is why it is being abolished through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, although we are not proposing to go back to the pre-2011 system of regional spatial strategies, because they were produced by bodies that were inaccessible and unaccountable to local communities. I recognise that there are opportunities for more strategic plan making. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill enables spatial development strategies to be produced in all parts of the country on a voluntary basis, so that areas such as my hon. Friend’s, which work well together and would find such a strategic planning tool useful, can produce a strategic plan.

I am grateful to hon. Members from across the Chamber, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for sharing their concerns about housing targets, which I know are shared by Members from across the House, including many who are not present in this debate. My hon. and right hon. Friends will know that 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. That standard method for assessing housing need does not set a target. It is used by councils to inform the preparation of their local plans. Councils decide their own housing requirement once they have considered their ability to meet their own needs in their area.

That process includes factoring in local circumstances and constraints, and working with neighbouring authorities if it would be better or more appropriate for needs to be met elsewhere. It is a process that recognises that not everywhere will be able to meet their housing need in full. I am certain that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey will have seen that the Levelling Up Secretary recently confirmed that we plan to stick to the overarching target of building 300,000 homes a year. However, in the same breath he also affirmed our intention to be straight with people on the real challenges that areas face with building these homes—challenges with the costs of materials and increasing challenges with a tight labour market that constrains building.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey was right to highlight some of the issues that could arise from development in any area, such as increased demand on public services and more congested roads. We recognise the pressure that this creates, so the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill recognises it too.

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out her case. When it comes to housing, I think we all recognise that there are parts of our constituencies where regeneration could really work. Will the Government commit to ensuring sufficient money to remediate brownfield sites, which I believe will be crucial to meeting the housing needs of our local communities?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that point. She will know that there are existing funds available for brownfield development. The second round of that fund will be opening up imminently—I am glancing over at my officials and hoping for a nod—[Interruption]—I am getting a nod; excellent—in order for local areas to make the most of that to aid them in their brownfield redevelopment processes as well.

On infrastructure and the pressures on infrastructure, through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill we are looking to create a levy to ensure that infrastructure such as schools, GP surgeries and new roads are provided in a more effective, transparent and efficient manner.

That point has been made to me before by a previous Minister. It is all very well saying that the infrastructure levy will provide GP surgeries, but there is no point having the surgeries unless there are doctors to put in there. There has to be a recognition that no planning of houses should be allowed unless and until we are provided with the doctors we require.

I thank my hon. Friend for that important point. GP numbers is something we are all concerned about. That is why the Department of Health and Social Care is taking measures to recruit more GPs right across the board. That is part of the answer, but he is right to raise concerns on the specific planning issues, and I will pass those on to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) raised the issue of infrastructure and the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. As part of the Bill, local authorities will be required to prepare an infrastructure delivery strategy, which will make it clearer to communities what infrastructure will be provided and when.

I believe our focus is sometimes too squarely on the numbers side of the equation, which means that we lose sight of the end goal. Numbers do, of course, matter. Thanks to the steps we took with industry at the start of the pandemic, we were able to keep home building going. We built over 216,000 new homes in 2020-21, a figure that was just a small dip from the previous year. In the circumstances, that is quite incredible. Since 2010, over 2 million additional homes have been delivered, including over 598,000 affordable homes—something that I know is on the minds of people across the country, particularly younger people hoping to get on the housing ladder for the first time.

I appreciate what the Minister is setting out. In my constituency, because of the drive to meet unrealistic housing targets, we are having to close a successful working port to make room for flats. Companies such as ArcelorMittal and clean energy generation companies are being displaced to facilitate this drive for housing targets. Instead, we could look at the commercial development of the area and provide not only the infrastructure, but also the jobs for those who are going to live in those houses.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that. I had the pleasure of briefly visiting her constituency this morning and would be grateful for the opportunity to sit down with her and discuss this further, given the local nuances involved.

The house building figures we have seen in recent years have defied expectation. It is no secret that reaching 300,000 homes a year has been an uphill challenge. Our focus in Government is on accelerating delivery so that we can make the dream of home ownership a reality for more people.

We would all like the dream of home ownership to be a reality. In my constituency, one of the biggest concerns of residents is that, because the local authority is trying to meet the housing target that has been put on them, they are losing their green spaces, such as Coundon Wedge. This is having a considerable impact on the wellbeing of so many people who use green spaces like that. It would be great to hear whether the Minister would meet with me to look at Coventry’s figures, because currently the Office for National Statistics projections are completely off the mark.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising those concerns about her constituency. I would certainly be willing to sit down with her and discuss this further, although it might be worth me asking my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire instead, given that this sits more closely within her brief.

Back on house building, I said that it is important that we build the numbers, but crucially, and as I think today’s debate has highlighted, it is also about making sure that the homes are being built in the places where they are most needed—the places where people want to live and the places where people want to work. We want these decisions about homes to be driven locally, and we want to get more local plans in place to deliver the homes we need, and we will set out our approach on planning for housing in due course.

I know I am preaching to the converted when it comes to the need to modernise our planning system, and I think all MPs understand and get that we need a planning regime that is fit for 2022. That was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), who is no longer in his place, but who spoke about changes in working patterns as a result of the pandemic and how that should be reflected in the planning system. I will certainly raise that point with the Minister for Housing when I see her.

I also understand that Members are frustrated—they are right to be frustrated—that this has been under discussion not just for months, but for years. We need more houses, and that obviously brings with it an obligation on us in Government to be frank and straight with people that building more houses has implications, both positive and sometimes negative. In some places, it will cause tension, and in some places, it will be a source of relief, but it is our job to be willing to have that dialogue, regardless of how difficult it may be. I am not sure that Governments of all colours have always approached these kinds of conversations in the most productive way. The inconvenient truth is that, for the best part of two decades, demand has outstripped the supply of homes.

I am conscious of time, but very briefly, I think we all understand that we need more homes and more houses, but there is a really important point here about the need to take communities with us and to make sure that the houses are built in the right place, with the right infrastructure ready to support them.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her contribution and her passion on this subject, which I know she has spoken about for many, many years.

Through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill—I will talk about it quickly, recognising that I do not have much time left, so that might have to be the last intervention I take—we are planning to simplify the planning system and, in doing so, end outdated practices that slow down community regeneration. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey mentioned the amendments on the table, which will be debated in Parliament. I am certainly happy to sit down with him and discuss new clause 21 or recommend that the Minister for Housing does so, if she has not already. I hope that colleagues who have been constructive so far will support the Bill’s overall passage.

If we can get our planning regime right, we can unlock a huge amount of economic growth locally. We want to help local authorities to adopt and implement the best planning approaches for their areas. To achieve that, local authorities will need to be able to better attract and retain planners, as was raised by my hon. Friend, and we want to work further with the sector on that. He was right to highlight that as one of the major challenges facing authorities at the moment.

To incentivise plan production and to ensure that newly produced plans are not undermined, the Government intend to make it clear that authorities do not have to maintain a five-year supply of land for housing where they have an up-to-date plan. As Members would expect, we plan to consult on that. The new measures should have a minimal impact on housing supply, given that newly produced plans will contain up-to-date allocations of land for development, but that will also send a signal that the Government are backing a plan-led approach, provided that those plans are up to date.

I finish by thanking my hon. Friend once again for securing this debate and thanking all Members present for their helpful contributions. I am grateful to him for using this debate to press home the concerns that he and many of his constituents have regarding developments in Sittingbourne and Sheppey. There is no getting around the fact that we are in a difficult economic time. We face headwinds from all angles—energy, inflation and interest rate rises—and those have knock-on implications for everything that the Government do, but to my mind, they only serve to underline the need to build more homes and to give generation rent the chance to become generation buy. That is why we have to stand by our commitment to dramatically ramp up housing supply and our manifesto pledge to build a million new homes within the first term of this Parliament. I will leave it there because the clock is ticking, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate today.

Question put and agreed to.