[Martin Vickers in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of planning policy.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. I will not talk for too long, but I want to raise some issues relating to planning policy, especially after the productive and fruitful discussions that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and I had with the Government.
For years, we have needed a planning system that is community-led and environment-led, and that drives regeneration. For years, we have not quite had the opposite, but we have certainly not had a policy that is as focused as it should have been on community, the environment or, frankly, levelling up and spreading wealth around our wonderful country. Indeed, in many ways the definition of “sustainability” has been the opposite of what it is in reality. Much development has been truly unsustainable, as many communities involved in bitter battles against distant developers know. There are residents’ groups on the Isle of Wight, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend and across Britain that have despaired at the top-down, developer-led process, which seems so often to have ridden roughshod over the wishes of local people and the genuine needs of communities.
That is why last year we built an alliance of a hundred likeminded Conservative colleagues and tabled 21 amendments to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, as well as negotiating with Ministers and officials over a one or two-week period to secure what I hope is a workable change, and indeed what I think will improve planning considerably in this country. These are some of the things that I would like to touch on for the Minister today.
I will just say what we are against, because it seems to me that, unless people want a free market in housing, which in reality we have not had since world war two, they are described as nimbies. I find that level of argument pretty depressing, shallow and empty. I think what we were against—certainly, what I was against—was a couple of things.
First, there is the planning or development industry’s addiction to greenfield, soulless, low-density, car-dependent, out-of-town development. Those sorts of developments —we see them a bit on the Island, but we see them especially in the home counties and counties such as Cambridgeshire—are socially bad, as they are not designed around communities. Effectively, they are soulless housing estates, plonked down in the middle of nowhere, or where the developers can get planning permission. They are also environmentally bad from a transport point of view, because they are almost entirely car-dependent. These isolated, car-dependent developments are truly unsustainable, because we know that detached houses are the most un-climate friendly form of housing. They are land-banked by large developers and are often built against the wishes of local communities.
The second thing that we found really difficult was the structure of the industry. There is sometimes a more sustained approach in the industry towards keeping share prices high than there is towards actual development. That is one of the problems. Because we have become over-dependent on private developers, we have effectively become hostages to their agenda. Yes, they build houses—that is their business model—but it is also their business model to keep prices high, to keep the value of land high and to limit the supply of land, because that is how they keep their share prices high, their profits high and, frankly, their bonuses high.
We have not had enough in the way of council-led affordable housing. I am a big fan of affordable housing and council housing, and I very much want the Isle of Wight Council to get on and develop its own council house company again. But because we have been dependent on private developers, we have something like 1 million outstanding planning permissions, including over 400,000 planning permissions on brownfield sites, which are just land-banked by the big companies, because then they can plan for profits for years to come. If we want to build more, we need a slightly different system from the one we had, or at least one where councils and housing associations can build more and have access to more land. I will come to that in relation to Camp Hill on my patch.
As a result of so much of the pressure for housing moving down to the south-east—in places such as the Isle of Wight, but it is perhaps even worse in the home counties—we have skewed infrastructure spending away from the north and towards the south and the south-east. Again, because the infrastructure is there, that drives jobs and growth. We have a never-ending funnel—a never-ending hoover—of people from not only city centres to the suburbs but from north to south. That is bad for our country.
To give a snapshot of the £866 million allocated by the housing infrastructure fund up to 2018, half of it was directed to London, the east and the south-east, while the combined authorities of Liverpool, Manchester, Tees Valley, the West Midlands and the West of England received only £124 million. That is about a quarter of what was given to London and the south-east. At that time, over three quarters of the £2 billion allocated went to projects in London and the south-east. Up to April 2020, it was estimated that the same fund spent up to £700 million on roads for garden communities.
There is a problem in that, because so many of the planning permissions are given in the south-east on greenfield sites, that skews investment and the infrastructure spend. The reality is that that makes levelling up and investing in the great cities of the north and the midlands much more difficult. I will come on to that, because there are some fascinating pictures of declining populations.
After intensive negotiation with the Secretary of State and the Minister—it is a pleasure to see her here—we now have a much better deal that puts planning in a much better place. Before I turn to the wider issues of what I think we achieved with that, I will raise three issues with the Minister in relation to the Island. First, we would love more compulsory purchase powers. I know that the Minister will tell us that there is a compulsory purchase review out with the Law Society, which is looking at how we can make compulsory purchase more efficient.
In coastal communities, and maybe in levelling-up communities—if I dare describe them as such—we need that compulsory purchase power. It is way too difficult for us and our councillors, whether they are Conservative, Labour or independent, to do the right thing. There are too many buildings on the Isle of Wight that stand empty for years, especially those that have an impact on our communities, for example in Sandown—funnily enough, I was talking to the Mayor of Sandown less than an hour ago about post offices.
The Grand Hotel in Sandown has been empty for years. It is a gorgeous art deco building next to what used to be Sandown zoo—it is opposite the beach and next to the dinosaur museum. It should be a really important site for us. That building has stood empty for years. The Royal York Hotel in Ryde is owned by the same guy. Those buildings stand empty, and there are many others. With the Ocean Hotel I will be careful what I say; I do not think there are proceedings live at the moment, but at the very least there has been extraordinarily unethical behaviour in relation to that building—it may indeed be criminal. It is empty and, because of the legal disputes surrounding it, it may well lie empty for years. It is slap-bang in the middle of what should be Sandown’s tourism high street.
The more help that Government can give us, the better. They should give compulsory purchase powers to councils such as the Isle of Wight, so that it can force the sale of the Grand Hotel, the Royal York Hotel in Ryde or the Ocean Hotel—so that it can say to the owners of those hotels: “You have six months to a year maximum to develop, otherwise we force a sale.” We would use those powers to put those properties on the market, to be bought by people on the condition that they put forward planning within a specific timeframe and start realistically developing and completing within a specific amount of time. That problem is replicated across coastal communities and in some of our most deprived communities, up and down the country.
Secondly, I know the Minister will say that this is not her responsibility anymore, but I plead for quicker decision-making powers by Government. I give the example of Camp Hill—the third of our prisons on the Isle of Wight. The Minister was formerly Justice Minister, so she is probably bored of hearing about Camp Hill. I am bored of raising it. It has been nine years without a decision. The Americans put a man on the moon in less time than it has taken the Government to decide what to do with Camp Hill. I was thinking, half in jest, that if I set up as a squatter in Camp Hill, I would probably have ownership rights before the Government decided what to do with it, and if I could claim ownership of it, I could give it to the council. Can we please have a decision on Camp Hill?
We do not have many brownfield sites on the Isle of Wight—I think we have about half a dozen. Hopefully, the Minister will have some news about the greenfield funds, which I think she may have announced or will announce, but we will certainly be putting in for more money to clean up brownfield sites, because we have so few. Camp Hill is a really big potential brownfield site for us, and we would love to get access to it. I know the Minister is the Minister for housing and not a Justice Minister, but if the Government can sell that site to the Isle of Wight Council at a price that we can afford—in much the same way as they did for the Columbine Building, which is the hub of our shipbuilding industry in East Cowes—we can do good things with it. It is a brownfield site near Newport, and we can use the land to build decent, affordable housing for Islanders young and old, rather than having to rely on speculative greenfield sites outside our towns and villages. I urge the Government collectively to have better and quicker decision making.
Thirdly, and specifically for the Island, the Secretary of State and his adviser kindly suggested that they would write to me to confirm two things as part of our negotiations last year. The first is that, from now on, there is an expectation that exceptional circumstance is assumed for islands. My understanding from the negotiations is that exceptional circumstance for islands would be specifically mentioned in the footnotes of the national planning policy framework, or NPPF, and that that would be almost the expectation. We do not have a bridge—we are not Anglesey; we are separated by sea—and it costs 30% more to build a home on the Isle of Wight than elsewhere, because of the cost of getting material over by ferry. We have a restricted industry on the Island that builds between 200 and 300 homes a year. A target of 500, 600, 700 or 800 would be crazy and unachievable, because we have only ever built that sort of number on two occasions in the last 50 years, so it would be incredibly helpful if we could see the letter on exceptional circumstance.
That was my understanding—it was very accurate, I hasten to add—of the conversation that we had. The letter was also going set out what emergency powers the Government have to deal with unscrupulous caravan park owners and the planning lawyers who advise them, who game the system to build caravan parks and concrete over sites of special scientific interest on coastal islands, in very special areas of the Island or the country, and in areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks. I think there was going to be some suggestion about what the Government could do on that.
Those are three very specific issues, which I hope the Government should feel positive about. First, we want the Government to be ambitious on compulsory purchase, because it is so important to so many parts of the country that when property developers do not do the right thing, we can force the sale of sites, especially high-value sites that have a significant impact on our communities and our economy. Secondly, can we please have quicker decision making, specifically on Camp Hill? The council and I really want to build affordable homes on that site for folks on the Isle of Wight. Thirdly, I remind the Government of the letter they promised me on exceptional circumstance and caravan parks.
More generally, I thought we had some great discussions at the end of last year, and we still have targets. I am just so fed up of hearing that Back-Bench MPs are docile sheep who trot through and vote for anything, or that we are an ungovernable rabble. Actually, the planning debate that we had showed this place working at its best. We respected the Government’s agenda, the Government listened to Back Benchers, we had a negotiation, and we reached a better state afterwards than we had before. We were vocal about what we believed was right, the Government were vocal about what they believed was right, and we negotiated our way through. The Government avoided an unnecessary rebellion; we respected the Government’s position, and the Government listened to us. That is neither MPs being docile sheep nor MPs behaving like some rebellious rabble; it is Back-Bench MPs, especially, doing their job, and Government Ministers doing theirs. I actually thought it was a pretty good process.
Anyway, the housing targets remain, but they will be advisory, which I think is where they should be. We need to take a pragmatic, reasonable approach to examining the true housing numbers, and where there are genuine environmental constraints, councils will be able to propose a reduced housing number. Again, I point to the Isle of Wight as a really good example of that, because we have finite space. By way of example, I remind the Minister that in many areas of the south and south-east, the population has increased dramatically—I know that is happening in her patch. Over the past 60 years on the Island, we have increased our population by nearly 50%; it is about 50% in 50 years.
At the same time, there has been a decline—not a relative decline, but an absolute decline—in the populations of Newcastle, Sunderland, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Stoke. We have had two great trends over the past 50 years: a move from city centres to suburbs, and a move from north to south. A lot of the pressure in constituencies such as mine is due to the decades-long lack of investment, or lack of an attempt to drive prosperity, in many of those great cities. Newcastle is a fantastic and exciting city, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool likewise, yet they have all had declining populations since the late 1950s and 1960s. If we could reverse that trend and make those cities hubs that people will want to go to, because that is where the jobs and prosperity are, that would take pressure off communities such as ours, as the Minister knows.
The more we can get levelling up right, the better it will be for all of us, and the less pressure it will put on our communities. That means that more infrastructure money then goes back to northern communities and midlands city centres, which is where it should be in the first place. It seems entirely obvious to me that if one is developing a brownfield site in an existing community, the infrastructure spend is probably going to be lower. Widening single-track Victorian lanes in the east and north-east of the Isle of Wight—which is what is having to be done in my patch—costs a lot more than if it were happening in Liverpool and Manchester, because the infrastructure is there already. The more we invest in inner-city centres that have high-density populations, the better it is for those city centres, for Government services, and for communities such as mine.
The Government are also going to modify the existing five-year land supply rule to pretty much get rid of it. They are going to kill off the tilted balance, thank God—I think that is an incredibly pernicious thing. Again, rebalancing the economies of greenfield and brownfield use to regenerate empty buildings, disused sites and town centres seems to me economically, socially and environmentally important; it just seems to be an incredibly sensible thing to do. If there is more money for brownfield site clean-up, Isle of Wight Council will be very excited to hear it, so if the Minister has anything to say about that today, she is very welcome to say it.
I have gone on for a little bit longer than I thought I would, so I will wrap up.
I think we are in a good place regarding all the things that we negotiated. Obviously, we need to see them in the national planning policy framework, so I just want to check—I am sorry; I have been doing so much in the past week or so—is the new NPPF out now, or is it going to be out? We were promised that those changes would kick in come the new year. Have the changes in the NPPF happened yet, or is there going to be a date by which they will happen? Clearly, the Isle of Wight is now making its Island plan, and wants to use the exceptional circumstance assumptions that have been confirmed to it by Government, for which it is grateful.
We look forward to supporting the levelling-up agenda and the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, so that we make sure that we get housing where we need it in the United Kingdom while respecting communities such as mine. We need housing for local youngsters and other local people. On the Isle of Wight, that means housing for Islanders of all ages. Some people are downsizing, and a lot of people are first-time buyers who are looking for affordability criteria of 60% of local rates, rather than 80%.
As much as is possible, we need to get housing associations on the Island building. I would pretty much rule out private sector housing estates. If we are to build housing on the Isle of Wight, it needs to be affordable, and for Islanders. If people want to move to the Island, they are very welcome to; that is what the back of the Isle Of Wight County Press is for, where there are all the ads for property. There is lots of property for them to buy on the Island. We do not need to build for people moving to the Island; we need to build to make sure that there are homes for young people. We need to engage housing associations. The more support there is for housing associations, and for building in existing communities, on brownfield sites, the more we can keep everybody happy. We can then build for our young people while respecting communities, who will not feel under attack from the threat of settlements being built on the greenfield around them.
The deal that we struck with the Minister and the Government is not perfect, but it is much better than what came before. I look forward to working with the Government on making a success of it.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely)—my good friend—on bringing forward this really important debate. I commend him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for the excellent work that they have done on the issue for a significant time. Most of that work was done behind closed doors, as critical friends of the Government. It allowed me, as a Government loyalist, the space to contribute positively, in a small way, to making sure that the legislation was exactly as we wanted, without been seen as disruptive or disloyal.
As I have said many times in this Chamber, I come from a local government background. I was a councillor for 17 years before being elected to this place. Actually, there was a bit of overlap because of the pandemic. In that time, I spent many years on planning committees. Most recently, I was chairman of a planning committee in Epping Forest. I was a dual-hatter: I was also a county councillor in Essex. During my tenure as county councillor, I was responsible for strategic planning. In all those years in local government, I thought that local plans were better than what preceded them: the regional development agencies, which were part of a clunky, top- down model imposed on our communities from Whitehall. Although the local plan process remains emotive and, I would argue, quite difficult, it is part of a journey, and part of the future legislation, which will improve the process.
I commend the Government for listening to the constructive criticism and feedback that people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight have put forward. Top-down numbers are helpful, but they should not be a stick with which to beat local authorities. I am happy for provisions on the five-year land supply to be removed. I always thought that they were a tool that unscrupulous developers or applicants could use to put development in the wrong place. I think I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say that politicians are always conscious of unintended consequence. No politician, whatever their party, wants to put forward bad laws or policies. When it comes to encouraging councils to ensure a pipeline of future development, a hard five- year deadline would open up a massive can of worms; unscrupulous developers from around the country would get involved. Both my authorities’ planning departments were a bit under-resourced, through no fault of their own, which meant that they were in some ways swimming against the tide, and finding that increasingly difficult.
My constituency of South West Hertfordshire is a beautiful part of the world. The Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty is to our west, and we have the border with London to the south. We have the best of all worlds: we have very good transport links with London, but we retain that village feel. We are about 80% green belt, so pretty much wherever we look, we see prime green belt, farmland and trees. Part of the joy of representing South West Hertfordshire is that, waking up in the morning, I am more likely to hear a bird than cars. That is not to say we do not need further investment in transport—and I will continue to bang on about the train network and the tube in the south—but it is a nice place to live. As a conservative with a small C, part of my role as the elected Member of Parliament is to retain what we love about the community. Pressures that we experience in the home counties and London, particularly pre pandemic because of the draw for better-paid jobs, mean that we will continue to have these debates on local planning issues.
It is great to see the Minister in her place. My plea to her is to try to future-proof the local planning process. With the way people live their lives post pandemic, the south-east is less of a draw, because they can have a well-paid, good job with future career prospects without moving down to South West Hertfordshire or London. My generation, including a lot of my friends from the midlands, was drawn down to London. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for regeneration and development, I had a meeting with Birmingham City Council yesterday. After hearing about the exciting plans in that part of the world, I think that if I were an 18 or 20-year-old from there now, I would not necessarily see the bright lights of London as the real draw. People can still have a good quality of life, with reasonable house prices and a good work-life balance, and live in a vibrant community with lots of future plans.
I represent half of the area covered by Dacorum Borough Council and most of the area covered by Three Rivers District Council. The two councils did a poll back in 2020, asking residents to name their favourite thing about living in South West Hertfordshire. Over three quarters of respondents across both council areas said it was the parks and open spaces. The silver lining of the pandemic is that people have really appreciated what is on their doorstep.
As someone who still commutes into London every day, I may be a rare breed. A lot of people are still getting back to working full time in their office space, after being perfectly set up over the last couple of years to work from home. Avoiding a two-hour commute there and back, which I have to do most days, is a draw. However, as well as saving on the commute time and transport costs, the quality of life aspect is important. Planning, by its very nature, should be focused on the health and wellbeing of communities. As a Conservative councillor, my view was that when planning is done badly, not only does it create an eyesore, but the negative aspects of poor development lead to unhealthy outcomes, which mean an additional burden on the state in future years. As a Conservative, one of my values is offering value for money. Where we can reduce the cost burden for future generations, we should be proactively doing that. The way we do planning is very much part of that mix.
Apparently, 1.2 million homes are lying dormant on brownfield sites. I referred earlier to the significant green-belt aspect of my community. Although there is always a draw to do what is easy—that is, if there is a piece of grassland, build on it—that does not mean it is the right thing to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight spoke about renewed emphasis on getting brownfield sites back into use. That is absolutely the right theme, which I hope my Government will continue to push.
Some of the regeneration in our communities is to do with not necessarily new homes, but the quality of what people see outside their windows. For someone driving to the local shops, being next to a derelict site where nothing looks to have happened for five or 10 years has a subconscious bearing on how they feel for the day. Although new development is a pain in the short term, people feel the benefit of those brand new hospitals or schools, or additional classroom space. That is what the planning process is meant to do. It is meant to make the next generation living in that area have an easier life than the previous one.
Strategic planning is absolutely required. We have had piecemeal planning, which we see occasionally from planning application appeals. Inevitably, those have led to a can of worms, with developments in the wrong place. They might make a lot of money for the developer at the time, but they have a significant impact on local authorities, especially when trying to offer a support network such as social services or NHS nurses, which have to go to out-of-the-way places that can be the wrong sites for such developments.
From January last year to September, across all the Hertfordshire councils, about 12,000 applications were received, with about 11,500 decisions taken and, of those, 85% granted. The planning application process therefore does not seem to be the issue or a bottleneck. Planning remains complex, which it needs to be, with a lot of expertise required—I applaud the Government’s drive for digitisation, because more people will engage in the process—but there should be more motivation to do the right thing, although I do not yet know how to do that. Putting in an application just to increase the property value, without developing it—I know loved ones who have done the same—might be helpful in the short term, but it is a false economy as regards what is available or in the pipeline to be developed.
In the south of my constituency, Three Rivers District Council is Liberal Democrat-controlled. For many years, since I was elected, I have pushed it to continue the momentum to get a local plan in place. As the constituency Member of Parliament, I would argue that the council is probably using the change in the forms in planning legislation that we are looking to make as an excuse not to get on and do it. In the north of my constituency, Dacorum District Council is Conservative-controlled, and it is just getting on with its plan, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) said at Prime Minister’s questions. While that is difficult, it is absolutely the right thing to do.
My plea to the Minister is that where we think councils are using the situation to do the wrong thing, we need, whether by a quiet word, threats of sanctions or whatever—I do not know what tools she has in her armoury—to encourage such councils to get on and do their plan, because sitting one’s head in the sand is not the solution for planning. We need to have those mature, if typically emotive, conversations and for decisions to be made. Politicians are elected to make decisions, even when they are sometimes difficult to make.
The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is in a good place. There is more to do, but I would not expect that to happen in this piece of legislation. I am sure future legislation will be coming down the pipeline through the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
The demand for housing in this country cannot and should not be ignored. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight spoke about start times, and that is a big issue in my part of the world. While people will remain emotive about new development, typically such new homes are for the local community. When people move out of mum and dad’s home, where will they live? In my part of the world, it means they have to move significant distances away.
Brownfield land is very much there, and we need proactively to get it back into use, even more so than now. The counterpart to that is some green-belt land. The Government should encourage regular reviews of green belt, because it has various spectrums—if it is prime arable land, absolutely we should retain it in the green belt, but if a site is on the edge of settlement, has been dilapidated for 20 years and is of no help or environmental benefit, we should identify it and make better use of it. With the right plan and policies in place, we can maximise the benefits of planning and keep our green spaces safe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this important debate. It is important because planning policy impacts on everyone, and everyone has a view on it, whether that is negative or positive. Generally, it impacts on everyone’s life.
I will pick up on some of the absolutely valid points made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) about the fact that a lot of planning policy has to be community-driven. Sometimes, it has to be generated at the grassroots level, rather than top-down. As has been said, it is incredibly important that planning policy is community-led. It has to consider the environment and relate to the needs of what is required within a specific community. It is important that we develop houses that meet and enhance the health and wellbeing of the communities we all represent.
I take a keen interest in planning policy because I studied architecture at Newcastle University and, in my year in industry, worked for a great company up in Newcastle that was involved in master planning exercises for housing regeneration schemes. One of the schemes we got involved with was in a deprived area of Sunderland, Southwick, and looked at how we could enhance a community through the quality of build of houses being developed. Indeed, I remember when I was at university, I did my dissertation on Byker and how the built environment can support communities. That is absolutely what planning policy should be about.
There are a few issues I want to cover in my contribution. I will consider local plans and how we can ensure that the infrastructure we all like to talk about—whether that is roads, GPs, schools or parks—is supported and there to enhance people’s quality of life with regard to housing. I will also touch on affordable housing and what an industrial strategy looks like when we are talking about employment use, and I will finish by talking about telecom masts.
My constituency of Keighley and Ilkley is going through a review of its local plan. Our local planning authority, Bradford Council, is looking at the local plan and will be putting it out for its second consultation in the not-too-distant future—I have been informed that that will happen shortly. One of the inevitable challenges is the drive to increase housing numbers across the whole of the Bradford district, which contains many different settlements, including not only Bradford city itself, but Keighley and Ilkley, which as towns are very different from the city. The complexity lies in the different make-up of those settlements and where the need is in those settlement areas.
Through the first consultation on the local plan, it became clear that the local authority seems to have an incredible will almost to offload some of those housing numbers to the easy wins—the easy wins being most of the outlying areas in the greenfield or in green-belt areas where it might be easier to get those planning applications through at a later date. The local plans are being developed at the moment that will create the next 15-year housing strategy, which will, we hope, be adopted later this year.
The concerns I have raised constantly are that the plan does not focus enough on prioritising brownfield development. We must refocus on those brownfield sites. Yes, they are more complex to develop—they may have contamination issues, issues with highways, challenges from some of the old mill settlements and so on—when trying to create a clean slate to drive that private inward investment into some of those sites. However, that has to be looked at because, unless we actually have a brownfield-first priority, we run the risk of not only reducing the soul of a settlement where those brownfield site holes in a settlement have been identified, but not actually developing houses where that need is identified.
My concern is that, in several of the towns I represent, the housing numbers that have been proposed are dramatic. They are way over and above the need identified for those settlements. In some of the discussions I have been having with the local authority, I hear that it has allocated the housing numbers to those settlements based on the deliverability factor—that is, it knows it can deliver x houses in those settlements because can build it on greenfield or take green-belt land out of the green belt for housing, rather than having a proper focus on brownfield first.
I will give some examples. There is Silsden—I should declare an interest, because that is the town that I live in. It is in the middle of the constituency, and it has had a proposed increase in housing numbers of about 580. Silsden is a relatively small settlement that has grown and grown; as we speak, we have an application from Persimmon Homes for 140 houses, to which I have put in an objection. We have had a Barratt Homes development; we have had Countrywide looking at putting in a development; we have Linden Homes currently building on site; and Skipton Properties has recently built a housing development.
My hon. Friend is making a great speech, and I thank him so much for being here. Is not one of the problems with these big property companies, apart from the fact that they land bank, that they are interested only in really big sites? Since the great crash 10 or 15 years ago, a lot of the medium-sized and smaller building companies have gone out of business. We need to motivate smaller companies, or find financial incentives for developing smaller sites in a way that is much more acceptable to smaller towns and villages. That is better than Persimmon Homes, which, apart from anything else, has a dreadful reputation for the quality of its build, just plonking down 100 homes here or 500 homes there, and almost taking over and swamping the village.
That is exactly the point that I want to come on to, because Silsden is being inundated with houses. A live application for 140 houses is being considered by Bradford Council. I am completely opposed to it, but it is one of about six planning applications made over a period of time, and some of those houses are still being built. The point is that there has not been a sensible conversation about the impact on infrastructure and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the quality of the build.
The road infrastructure going through Silsden is not great at all. I drive through Silsden weekly, and the roads are tight and narrow. The pavements are not wide enough, let alone the roads. There are no conversations about the school, the GP services and the other facilities that the town needs in order to stay vibrant. Settlements sometimes need to grow organically; growth must be driven by the requirements of individual settlements. There sometimes needs to be a focus on brownfield sites first, or on development of niche, smaller sites, which could be grown at an organic speed and delivered in line with settlements’ need.
In Ilkley, the average house price is somewhere around £420,000. That is very high, but local plan proposals suggest that Ilkley needs to grow by another 314 houses. I am constantly pushing back, because the community and I need to see the requirement for Ilkley to grow by that number of houses over the next 14 years.
Just down the road, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), Burley in Wharfedale has grown hugely recently—by about 700 houses. The implications for the GP service are huge. It has been a real challenge to unlock money, whether through section 106 or the community infrastructure levy, to improve the infrastructure. I have been helping out my hon. Friend with that.
I will come on to the quality of the build, which my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight made a really good point about. I have mentioned Harron Homes in this Chamber before; the quality of its build has been shocking, and it is not great to say that. I will give another example. About 50 houses were built—again, in Silsden. Other Members from across West Yorkshire have made this point in this Chamber before. The site was finished, in the developer’s eyes, yet there were huge snagging issues. The road was not even sorted out; in fact, sewage from the site had to be disposed of by a lorry that came in and emptied the tank, because the connection with Yorkshire Water were not sorted out. How can we ensure more enforcement against property developers when build is not of the quality that residents, and we representatives, expect? What can the Government do to put more pressure on developers to enhance the quality of houses, and of the master planning of the community that is being developed?
That brings me to industrial strategy. Inevitably, when it comes to planning, everybody likes to talk about houses, because that is quite an emotive issue, but I agree with the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight made about the use of compulsory purchase powers. On North Street in Keighley, there are many empty buildings with fantastic architecture. How do we use compulsory purchase powers to unlock those sites, and force the owners to change them into housing, or get them into some sort of community use, so that they do not sit empty year after year? Those sites could be used by the town.
Dalton Mills is a fantastic building. It is an old mill—one of the biggest in Keighley—that has been redundant for many a year, although “Peaky Blinders” was filmed there. The quality of the site has deteriorated over many years, and last year there was a big fire— 100 firefighters and 21 fire engines came. The building unfortunately suffered a huge amount of fire damage, although the façades seem to be structurally sound. It is a unique site just outside the centre of Keighley, but we are unable to unlock it because the landowner seems aloof—we cannot get in touch with him. We cannot get traction with some of these key sites. How can we unlock them, in planning policy terms, using compulsory purchase powers?
Let me turn to the speed at which local authorities operate. In order to drive growth and job creation, we want light industrial units in appropriate places, but it takes too long to get the planning applications through the system and get those units built. I have been shown many examples in Keighley. About four years ago, a planning application was submitted to the local authority for eight or 10 light industrial units. It did not get any traction from the local authority until the early in the covid period. During the covid period, the units got built and occupied, and now those businesses are flourishing. The demand is there; we just need to increase the speed.
Of course we want to drive better connectivity, but telecom masts have to be in locations where they do not have an adverse impact on the beauty of a village, and they must not be too close to residential units. There needs to be a mechanism for putting pressure on organisations such as Clarke Telecom that drive some of the applications. We must ensure that they look at where the best sites are. I will give three examples.
Unfortunately, a telecoms mast was approved in Addingham. It has a huge impact; it does not look good on the drive into the village. There would most definitely have been a better site for it. Putting it elsewhere would not have affected connectivity. All the residents of Addingham are impacted when they drive into the village and see that ghastly telecoms mast. An applicant applied to put a telecom mast on a site in the middle of Ilkley that was not even part of the public highway; they just thought they could get away with it. They had to withdraw the scheme, which will now be reconsidered. I put a lot of pressure on them. There was an application for a mast on a roundabout in the heart of the beautiful village of East Morton. We want to drive connectivity, but we do not want random applications for masts all over the place, with applicants seeing what they can get away with. That is not acceptable.
We have covered loads of points. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight for securing this debate, because planning policy without doubt impacts all our constituents. Everyone is incredibly passionate about it.
The Government are absolutely going in the right direction, and I commend them for listening to the many concerns that I have raised about housing numbers. The key point that I want to reiterate before I close is that planning policy has to be driven by need. What we need, rather than local authorities aiming policy at quick wins, is to create housing where it is needed, and a “brownfield first” policy.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this important debate, and on the clarity with which he set out his position. I thank the hon. Members for Keighley (Robbie Moore), and for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), for their contributions.
The Opposition are in complete agreement with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight on the need to reform planning. After a decade of piecemeal and largely inept tinkering, the planning system that the Government are presiding over is faltering on almost all fronts. It is failing to meet the housing, amenity and infrastructure needs of many, if not most, local areas; failing to play its full part in addressing various national challenges, from the climate and environment emergency to improving public health; and failing to sustain what little public trust and confidence it still enjoys. There is no question but that it needs to be overhauled.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight will not be surprised to learn that the Opposition agree that action is required on several of the planning issues that he identified—indeed, I would say that action is long overdue. Let me address a number of those in turn. The first issue is land banking. We appreciate that developers require a pipeline of planning consents to manage capacity in the face of inherent uncertainty, and that reference to 1 million outstanding planning permissions is therefore an overly simplistic and, in some ways, inaccurate critique, but Labour agrees that developers regularly make use of current and strategic land banks to game the planning system. That represents a serious problem, and robust measures are required to address it, as well as build-out rates more generally; certainly, we need much stronger forms of intervention than the useful, but ultimately inadequate, set of measures in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill.
The second issue is brownfield land, which has been alluded to a number of times. Labour recognises that there are simply not enough sites on brownfield land registers to deliver the volume of homes that the country needs each year, let alone enough that are viable and in the right location. However, we absolutely support the prioritisation of brownfield land development, and agree that much more could be done to facilitate good brownfield development, not least by overhauling and repurposing Homes England.
The third is compulsory purchase. We are in complete agreement on the need for local planning authorities to have greater compulsory purchase order powers, and we have been clear at every stage of its passage that we support the CPO provisions in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, including those introduced in Committee on compensation in relation to hope value. Indeed, we have repeatedly urged the Government to go further and implement the proposals outlined in the second part of the compulsory purchase compensation reforms consultation, namely to disapply section 17 of the Land Compensation Act 1961 in certain circumstances and enable local authorities to acquire land at or closer to existing use value in order to increase the number of financially viable developments and expedite regeneration schemes on them.
The fourth is community participation, which has also been mentioned several times. Labour absolutely agrees that meaningful public participation in the planning system is essential. We believe that where it takes place, it helps to improve outcomes, and we want to see much more of it, particularly when it comes to engagement in the preparation of local plans. The problem is that the legitimacy of the planning system has been severely damaged in the eyes of the public over the past decade as a result of a series of changes, not least of which is the progressive extension of permitted development rights since 2013, and the slum housing—putting it bluntly—that it has so often been used to create. That has left communities with much less say over development in their area than they previously enjoyed. Various measures in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill undermine the status and remit of local planning, and deny or frustrate the right of communities to be heard, and that will only compound the problem. It was regrettable that members of the Conservative planning concern group ultimately chose not to join us in resisting them.
Where we fundamentally part ways with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight and his colleagues in that group is on the importance that we attach to, among many other laudible objectives, ensuring that the planning system is explicitly focused on meeting objectively assessed housing need. For all the rhetoric about seeking a fairer planning system, in recent months, what the hon. Gentleman and his group have convinced the Government, in their weakness, to adopt is a proposed national planning policy framework that will provide local planning authorities with myriad different ways of avoiding delivering the homes that people need. Whether it is the emphasis in the revised NPPF on locally prepared plans providing for “sufficient” housing only; the softening of land supply and delivery test provisions; the ability to include historical over-delivery in five year housing land supply calculations; or the listing of various local characteristics that would justify a deviation from the standard method, taken together, the proposed changes will give those local authorities that wish to take advantage of it the freedom to plan for less housing, irrespective of whatever target nominally remains in place.
It is true that the proposed changes to the NPPF are only being consulted on, but we know that they will almost certainly be enacted. The effect of the signal that they have sent, as was surely intended, is already evident; numerous local plans have been paused, explicitly on the basis that the proposed changes justify a review. Local plans have been mentioned at several points in the debate, and in her response, the Minister will no doubt highlight the need to bring forward more. We absolutely agree. It is an indictment of this Government’s performance that after a decade of plan making, 59% of the country still does not have an up-to-date local plan. Although the proposed changes to the NPPF may well increase local planning coverage across England, they will almost certainly do so on the basis of numerous development plans that will not meet the needs of their given housing market areas in full. The Government are making the entirely arbitrary figure of a 35% uplift to urban centres policy by placing it in the NPPF. They clearly hope that it will mean that England’s largest cities and urban centres will do the heavy lifting on housing supply, but most of the cities that it applies to cannot, or will be unable to, accommodate the output it entails.
The hon. Gentleman agrees with us on some things, and disagrees on others; that is fair enough, but does he accept that the UK has some of the least dense cities on the planet? We are a very crowded, small island, and we need to increase density in our cities. The most attractive places in our inner cities tend to be those with the highest density, so high density is not a problem in itself. Actually, forcing higher density creates better-quality services, because it builds a market for those services. This is an incredibly sensible thing for the Government to do.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Let me be clear: I take no issue whatever with the drive to densify already developed urban areas, but as I argued, the cities and urban centres to which the uplift applies are pretty clear that they cannot, or will not be able to, accommodate the levels of housing supply that it entails, not least because of the constraints imposed on them by a number of the proposals in that NPPF consultation—I do not know whether he is aware of that, or how involved he was in the negotiations that he mentioned—and the absence of any effective means of managing cross-boundary housing growth.
The net result of all these changes, as I think everyone here knows full well, is that the Government have consciously accepted that fewer houses will be built in England over the coming years. That decision entails a deliberate shift from a plan-led system focused on making at least some attempt to meet housing need, to one geared toward providing only what the politics of any given area allow, with all the implications that entails for the housing crisis and economic growth. These latest politically driven changes leave national planning policy, and the planning system as a whole, more confusing and contradictory than ever.
Local planning authorities remain under-resourced, overwhelmed, demoralised and consequently unable in large part to process applications at pace. England’s planning structures remain dysfunctional; they are utterly incapable of managing housing growth at a strategic scale. Not only does the system as a whole lack a clear and overarching purpose but the unifying thread that ran through the 2012 NPPF—namely, the presumption in favour of sustainable development—has now effectively been jettisoned.
So I conclude by returning to my original point of agreement with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. The planning system is indeed crying out for reform, but not the reform that he and his colleagues are pursuing and the Government have conceded to. Instead, it requires reform that the present Government are now incapable of delivering. It is high time that we had a general election, so that the present Government can make way for a Government who are serious about ensuring that the planning system and national planning policy are designed to meet housing need and boost economic growth.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this debate on an incredibly important topic, which I know Members from across the House feel very strongly about. It touches all our constituents; indeed, it makes a significant difference to their daily lives. It is an issue that we have debated extensively in recent months, both in the main Chamber and outside it, and I am very pleased to have had a number of conversations with my hon. Friend and other colleagues who are here today, as well as with many other Members who are not present, in order to hear all their views and take them into account. I think that has left us with a much better Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which will secure the futures of our constituencies in terms of building houses that people want, and in the right places.
It has been a pleasure to work with colleagues from across the House, and I think that what we now have is a system that is shaped around the interests of communities, whereby we will have beautiful designs in keeping with local styles and the character of an area, and developments and buildings that people want and welcome.
It is really important that we have local plans in place. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), talked about these plans and he quite rightly said that at the moment only 40% of areas have a local plan, which means that speculative developments are imposed on communities. What we seek to do through the Bill is to secure a significant culture change in our areas, so that people do not resist development but seek it and indeed want it because it brings benefits to their area. I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman said, namely, that we are damaging the system; in fact, we will enhance it.
Many Members talked about community buy-in, which is at the heart of our Bill. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) got it absolutely when he said that it was important to retain our local communities, that we had vibrant communities across the country, that we had green spaces and that people recognised that these open areas were important. Indeed, they are essential to people across the country. He also quite rightly highlighted the issue that has developed in relation to the five-year land supply and the speculative development that has come from that.
All Government Members talked about community buy-in. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight talked about the bitter battles among communities and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) talked about the need for development to be community- led, which is at the heart of what we want to do at the moment.
Indeed, two words sum up what we want; they are “local consent”. If we want a planning process that can endure, communities must be at the heart of it. We must hear their voices; we must listen to what they say; they must be involved in the process; the plans need to be shorter; and the documents need to be more accessible. And at the same time as communities shape local plans, we are clear that communities will retain the right to comment on individual applications.
We want all of this to be done more in digital form, so that people can access plans and engage with them, including commenting on them. We want to harness social media and digital channels such as email, so that we can increase visibility of and access to plans, and that is what we are doing through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill.
I just want to make clear my point about commenting on planning policy. It is really important, in terms of transparency, that people can see, as a planning application is lodged, what other people are commenting on. Does the Minister agree with me that it is frustrating that Bradford Council, my local authority, has decided to take the step of removing from public view any comments that the public make on a planning application? It will not allow members of the public to see those comments and is using GDPR, as the reason for doing so. Yet other local authorities enable all their residents to see all comments that are made on planning applications. I wonder whether the Minister might comment on that.
The Minister is being generous with her time. In terms of the drive towards digital viewing, can she reassure me that, for those constituents who are not digitally enabled, there is still alternative provision for them to look at plans and offer their feedback?
Of course. This issue always crops up when we talk about digitalisation. Of course we need to ensure that access is available for anyone when we digitalise. This morning I was in Buckinghamshire looking at a programme to digitalise its planning processes. It is very concerning that some statistics show that 50% of planning applications are invalid. This is a significant waste of councils’ time and of people’s time. It is blocking up our system and making sure that local planning officers cannot concentrate on getting things through the system.
I would like to turn to the question of the character of an area, because that is something that we have set out in the NPPF and that needs to be carefully considered. I did not know and was very interested to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley was an architect. I am sure that his skills will come to the fore as we introduce our design codes around the country. We are bringing them in to ensure that development is appropriate for the community, is well designed and looks good, so that people welcome the development that comes into their area.
Many Members, but particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, also mentioned infrastructure. It is absolutely critical that we get infrastructure into communities, so that they see that development is not just about housing; it is about schools and GP surgeries and might be about other infrastructure as well. Some of the measures in the Bill will ensure that we get infra- structure faster. People might have an ability—will have an ability—to borrow up front. They might have an ability to ask for instalments—I am talking about funds from the developer up front. They might—they will—have the ability to ensure that they get an uplift. What happens is that the land value is x and, once planning permission has been given, the land value increases significantly, to x plus y. Why should the local council not get the benefit of the uplift as well?
Many Members talked about brownfield. Brownfield is extremely important. The Government encourage the reuse of brownfield land. National policy sets out that planning policies and decisions should make efficient use of land and give substantial weight to the value of using suitable brownfield land within settlements. We have taken a number of measures to support the redevelopment of brownfield land. For example, we require every local authority to publish a register of local brownfield land suitable for housing; we have introduced permission in principle to speed up housing-led development; we have revised permitted development and use class rules, to make the best use of existing buildings; and we have uplifted housing need in our most populated cities and urban areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight talked about brownfield land funding money. We have introduced a number of funding initiatives, including the £550 million brownfield housing fund, the £180 million brownfield land release fund 2 and the £4.3 billion housing infra- structure fund.
I am also pleased to say—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight knows this—that three sites in the Isle of Wight were successful in their bids to the brownfield land release fund in October 2021. They were awarded nearly £950,000 to release local-authority-owned brownfield land for 71 homes.
I was interested to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley talk about the brownfield land that should be developed in his constituency. As someone who grew up in Leeds, I am familiar with many of the areas that he mentioned. Of course, local authorities must think carefully about the land that they are proposing for development, with a particular view to, and eye on, brownfield land.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight mentioned compulsory purchase orders. He will know that we have already taken some steps in that area, with the Government’s high street strategy, which was published in July 2021, and through further measures in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. He rightly mentioned the Law Commission report and foreshadowed my reference to it. The Law Commission is undertaking an exercise to consolidate compulsory purchase law, to make it easier to understand, and to review CPO powers.
The shadow Minister talked about land banking. That is something that we are absolutely tackling in the Bill. He will know that we have set out measures so that developers have to set out trajectories of when they are going to build. He will know that we are taking steps to enable local authorities to take into account further planning permissions that are put forward on the same site. They can take into account, as a matter of discretion, whether the first set has been built out or not, and we have also already said that we will be going further.
I will touch on the discrete measures that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight mentioned. He raised some specific planning decisions in his constituency. In view of the quasi-judicial role that the planning Minister has, I will not comment on any particular applications, but I completely understand his general point about the importance of Government acting speedily.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the NPPF consultation. He asked what stage we were at, and asked about exceptional circumstances. I would just reassure him that we launched the consultation on 22 December, and, within that, there is reference to the Island in the exceptional circumstances test. We will make it clearer that the outcome of the standard method is set out as an advisory starting point. However, we will also give more explicit indications on planning guidance and the type of local characteristics that may justify the use of an alternative method, such as islands with a high percentage of elderly residents or university towns with above-average numbers of students. Those are part and parcel of the consultation, which we will be considering in due course.
On the issue of caravans, I know that officials are looking into the points that my hon. Friend raised, but I think there are some particular issues relating to the planning permissions under which they were originally granted. However, I am very happy to discuss that matter further with him.
I will reiterate the overarching point about the planning measures that we have taken, which I touched on at the beginning of my speech. We still have a commitment to building homes and are still working towards a target of 300,000 homes a year. It is absolutely essential that young people get on to the housing ladder. However, we are trying to change the nature of planning to ensure that people get homes where they want them, that they are beautifully designed so that people want them, and that they are surrounded by the infrastructure that communities want and need. If we change that culture in our planning system, people will start to welcome development and we will not have this constant resistance to new housing.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight again for securing the debate, for using it to press home his individual and national concerns, and for his constant engagement over the last few months. Building homes is central to how we level up the country, and we need to build them in the right places—in the south, but absolutely in the north. It is how we create economic growth, and we need to do this in the right way. I and my Department, together with the Secretary of State and hon. Members across this House, are continuing to work towards a planning system that we can all be proud of.