Thursday 26 January 2023
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
International Day of Education
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the International Day of Education.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. It is a huge honour to open this debate to recognise the importance of the International Day of Education, a day that is dedicated to raising the importance of education for all. As the UN Secretary-General said this week,
“education is a fundamental human right and the bedrock of societies”.
In my Chelmsford constituency, the vast majority of children and young people can access excellent education. In fact, in the Chelmsford district, 94% of our schools are graded good or outstanding by Ofsted. That is well above the England average, which is also high at 89%. Essex children outperform the national average in key areas such as early reading. Enriching out-of-school activities can also enhance educational attainment. During the school holidays, I am delighted that Chelmsford children from more disadvantaged backgrounds can also access enriching activities through the holiday activities and food programme, which I am deeply proud to have set up during my time as Children’s Minister.
However, during the pandemic, we saw so starkly in our country that when children cannot access school, their education suffers, as does their mental wellbeing. It is therefore good news that, on the whole, education for the children of Chelmsford and elsewhere across the country has now returned to what we consider normal, but that is not the case for so many children in other parts of the world. Currently, an estimated 222 million children are in need of urgent educational support across regions affected by emergencies and protracted crises. Some 78 million children are not in school or receiving any form of education. That figure of 222 million is an increase from 75 million in 2016.
The educational gulf is greatest in the world’s poorest countries. World Bank research from back in 2019 showed that pre-pandemic, 90% of children in low-income countries could not read proficiently. Education Cannot Wait’s report from last June reminds us that pre-covid, only 9% of crisis-affected early grade children achieved minimum proficiency in maths, and only 15% in reading, yet maths and reading are the vital building blocks on which all education is founded.
The covid pandemic further widened educational disparities, and girls are disproportionately affected. Nearly two thirds of the figure for global illiteracy is made up of women. The Malala Fund estimates that 130 million girls are out of school today. However, when girls are educated, it strengthens economies and creates jobs. World Bank research shows that, on average, women with secondary school education earn almost twice as much as those with no education at all.
Educated girls tend to be healthier citizens who raise healthier families. A girl who has been educated is much more likely to ensure that her children are vaccinated, she is less likely to marry young or contract HIV, and she is more likely to have healthy, educated children. Each additional year of school that a girl completes cuts infant mortality and child marriage rates. Furthermore, when girls are educated, communities are more stable and can recover faster from conflict.
Investing in girls’ education is good for our planet. The Brookings Institution calls secondary schooling for girls the most cost-effective and best investment against climate change. Research also suggests that girls’ education reduces a country’s vulnerability to natural disasters. Save the Children estimates that universal secondary education for girls could avert 50 million child marriages by 2030.
This year, on the International Day of Education, we have been thinking particularly of the 3 million girls in Afghanistan who were previously in education but are now out of school, because the Taliban will not allow girls to attend secondary school or university. The recent ban on female aid workers will mean that even more Afghan girls are denied their right to education, as the Taliban insist that girls can be taught only by female teachers. That will mean that yet more Afghan girls face forced marriages and poverty. I am therefore concerned to hear from Save the Children that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is considering ending its “Supporting Afghanistan’s Basic Services” programme, which provides health, education, WASH—water, sanitation and hygiene—and nutrition to around 300,000 people. We must not pull the rug out from under the women and girls of Afghanistan.
We know that in many developing countries, girls face extra barriers in accessing education. During my year as an FCDO Minister, I travelled to 15 African countries. So many girls told me at first hand about the challenges that they face: the fear of violence, including sexual violence, on long walks to school; the lack of water and sanitation, which can make it impossible for girls to attend school when they have their period; and the constraints on family finances, which so often mean that any money that can be scraped together for school fees is reserved for sons.
However, I also heard from these girls their determination to learn. I met girls who dreamt of becoming doctors, teachers and even pilots. I also saw the many projects that the UK has invested in to help girls to overcome these barriers. Girls told me about the mentoring project in Malawi, where young women who have completed their secondary education give advice to other girls and help them through their own school experience. I saw the joy on girls’ faces when I opened a clean water well and lavatories in Lesotho. I remember the seriousness of the young woman in Sierra Leone who explained how our project to reduce violence had completely changed the culture of her school, ensuring that girls could learn without fear. And the whole community—thousands of people—came together to celebrate the launch of the Shule Bora programme in Tanzania. That programme has a special emphasis on girls, children living with disabilities and those living in the most deprived areas. They came to celebrate because they knew what we know: when one focuses on helping the most marginalised girl to access education, every child is helped.
We should all be very proud of the UK’s track record in supporting education in developing countries, and especially, in supporting girls’ education. We have championed the campaign for 12 years of education for every girl. Each year, we host the Education World Forum, with delegates coming to London from across the world to discuss how to learn from one another and how to improve education standards in their countries.
During the pandemic, the UK co-hosted the Global Partnership for Education summit, raising $4 billion for education in some of the world’s poorest countries; our pledge was £430 million. During our leadership of the G7, the world’s richest countries committed to getting 40 million more girls into school and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10, with all that to be done by 2026.
Girls who are not in school do not have a voice of their own, so it is vital that the UK continues to lead from the front on girls’ education and to use our voice for them. I urge the Minister to make sure that all FCDO Ministers—including the Minister with responsibility for development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell)—continue to champion that cause. We need to champion it at the World Bank development meetings this spring, at the meetings of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women in New York in March and at other international fora. I also urge the Minister to work with other FCDO Ministers to publish, with urgency, the long-awaited FCDO women and girls strategy.
The UK is also a co-founding member of Education Cannot Wait. Its recent analysis indicates that 84% of out-of-school crisis-impacted children live in areas with protracted crises. The vast majority of those are in countries specifically targeted through ECW’s investments, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen. The war in Ukraine is pushing even more children out of school, with recent estimates—according to UNICEF’s report of 17 January—indicating that the conflict has impacted more than 5 million school-age children.
The FCDO tells me that ECW is already delivering quality education to over 7 million children across more than 30 crisis-affected countries. We will not reach the target that we have committed to of getting 40 million more girls into school without the work of ECW. All across the world, funding needs are growing due to conflict, climate change and the pandemic. Across UN-led humanitarian appeals, the education sector was funded at just 22% of what it needed in 2021—that is half what was achieved in 2018.
Next month, ECW will hold its high-level financing conference. If we are to help the 222 million children and young people to receive the education that they deserve—to unlock the potential of the world’s children —we must unlock the financial resources to make it happen. Governments, the private sector, philanthropic foundations and individual donors need to work together to find the resources. I know that our official development assistance budgets are tight—very tight—but UK leadership is key. If we step away from the promises that we have made to the children of the world, to the girls of the world, other donors may also step back and reduce or delay their investments.
Children across the world get just one chance at their education; they cannot wait. I therefore urge the Minister and the FCDO to dig deep into our pockets at the pledging conference next month and to make sure that Education Cannot Wait has the resources that it needs to deliver for our children.
It is a real pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). Much to my surprise, I found nothing in her speech to disagree with, but I promise not to make that a habit—just to reassure her and my hon. Friends. Two of the most significant points of substance that she raised were the importance of girls’ education, and investment in that, and continuing to build a global alliance for more investment in girls’ education.
I remember that in my time as a Minister in the Department for International Development, we began the process of putting substantial investment into girls’ education. I remember how proud I was—as I am sure other Members were at the time—that Britain was willing to show global leadership on that issue. I pay tribute to Gordon Brown who, since stepping down as Prime Minister and being appointed as the UN special envoy for global education, has continued to do everything he can to build support for that.
The right hon. Member for Chelmsford also made an important point about Afghanistan and the international community’s continuing outrage about the way in which women and, in particular, young girls are being treated there. She spoke of the need for her colleagues in the Foreign Office, if at all possible, to maintain funding for girls’ education, however difficult that is going forward.
There is one thing that the right hon. Member for Chelmsford did not mention—I think I understand why, but she will understand why I raise it. I think it would be an even better statement on education to have a separate, dedicated Department for International Development, able to champion the case for investment in education globally, free of some of the constraints that the FCDO is under.
I hope that the House will forgive me if I make some parochial points now about the importance of more education investment in Harrow, where we are blessed with remarkable headteachers and teachers, as well as impressive students. One of the great privileges for me as the Member for Harrow West is to have the opportunity to go into schools and see that the future of the community in which I have lived all my life and that I love very much is in the safe hands of such impressive young people.
Nevertheless, it is clear that many of the schools still face real financial difficulties and that the governing bodies face challenges in recruiting headteachers and teachers, not least in maths and science, and also, increasingly, in other subjects, including humanities and English. I am struck by the comments of the executive heads of some of the academies that operate in Harrow about how difficult it has been on occasion to get a field of sufficiently talented applicants for the position of headteacher. As I say, they do a remarkable job none the less, but it would be good to hear from the Minister—if not today, perhaps in a letter—the Government’s plan to address the recruitment crisis in education.
Local authorities also need more funding for special needs education, and that is certainly the case in Harrow. Mr Sharma, you may recognise that there is a continuing difficulty with the fact that teachers who are appointed to jobs in inner London get a significant pay increase compared with teachers working in outer London schools. There is little difference in the cost of living in inner London as opposed to in outer London. It seems to me that the discrepancy in pay between teachers in outer London and their compatriots in inner London, which has been around for a long time, needs addressing urgently.
My last substantive point is that I want to encourage the Government to take a fresh look at investment in supplementary schools. We are lucky to have the Foreign Office Minister present, because she knows a lot about the Asia-Pacific tilt to which the Government are committed. I am struck by the need for us to invest in teaching the languages of Asia and the Pacific. Given the global significance of the Indian economy in years to come, it seems even sadder that we are seeing a decline in the teaching of the languages of modern India, including Gujarati, Bengali, Persian, Punjabi and Urdu. Among GCSE students in this country between 2015 and 2021, we saw a very steep decline: there was a 77% drop in the number studying GCSE Gujarati, a 66% drop in the number studying GCSE Bengali, and a 37% drop in the number studying GCSE Urdu. If we as a country want the full benefit of the trade deal that we hope to sign with India, having people who can speak the languages of that great country is essential. Too much of the teaching of those languages is left to very dedicated people in temples, mosques and Saturday schools across local communities.
To be fair, the Government have invested in teaching modern languages. They have recently invested some £14 million in teaching Mandarin and some £5 million in teaching Latin. Why not have a similar amount of investment in teaching the languages of modern Asia? We need dedicated funding, and we need specialist training available for teachers in those subjects. Why not have a flagship school programme to back teaching in that area? Why not offer a bit of funding to support the Saturday schools that do so much to keep up the level of GCSE studies? Where is the academic research programme to support such a programme of investment in these vital community languages?
With that, I apologise to the Front Benchers and to other Members of the House: due to childcare reasons, I cannot stay for the full debate, but I will certainly read the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), the Minister and others.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on securing the debate. I thank her for making it possible for hon. Members who are passionate about this issue to make the case for every child in the world to have 12 years of quality education. Nothing could be more important, and nothing is less politically controversial, but because we all agree how important it is, it does not get enough debate in this place. That is why I am so sincere in my congratulations to my right hon. Friend.
Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of chairing the all-party parliamentary group on global education—more recently, I have been co-chairing it— and I was also a co-founding chair of the International Parliamentary Network for Education. Regrettably, I had to hand on those responsibilities when I was given the honour of chairing the Treasury Committee. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has embraced the opportunity that those marvellous groups offer to champion this important cause.
In my right hon. Friend’s powerful opening speech, we heard about the important ways in which enabling every child in the world to get a quality education could make our future so much brighter. Growing the world’s economies, making sure we are all healthier, and helping to tackle climate change are all powerful and provable implications of ensuring that every child gets a good education.
I will focus on those—particularly refugee children—whose education suffers because they have to flee conflict. I thank all the families in Worcestershire who have been so good about welcoming refugees from Ukraine into their homes. We are proud to have welcomed 1,000 Ukrainians into Worcestershire, and half of them are children who are being educated in our local schools. I thank the families, but I also thank the schools and teachers for welcoming those children into our educational settings.
I have a point for the Minister to take back to her colleagues at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. There is rightly a payment to the school when it takes in a Ukrainian refugee child. If the child moves to another school after a short period of weeks, that payment does not follow them, and that has led to a few problems. The up-front lump sum gets paid to the school that receives the child, but if they are there for only a little while, the money does not go any further. The Minister will probably not be able to respond today, but will she commit to write to me about how that could be better tackled in the system?
I endorse the points that were made about those poor girls in Afghanistan. There is not a day when I do not think about how terribly they are suffering from not being allowed to go to school. The medieval cruelty of the Taliban regime in preventing their daughters from being educated is appalling. We must speak out about it whenever we can, because it is only by keeping that focus that we can ever hope for the situation to change.
It is not just girls in Afghanistan, but millions of children in countries all around the world—including our own—who are missing out on education. It is particularly difficult to educate children in refugee settings, which is why I commend the work I saw at first hand when I was the Minister responsible for that budget in the international sphere.
The work done to help children get an education is often delivered very rapidly by Education Cannot Wait, and I want to highlight the opportunity for the UK to continue to show its global leadership in this area with the upcoming replenishment of the Education Cannot Wait budget. I am sure the Minister and her officials will be carefully studying the results that Education Cannot Wait has delivered in settings around the world. I hope that the data still show the good impact and powerful value for money that that funding produces, and that the UK can therefore lead on that important work and crowd in other countries to contribute to it.
To conclude my brief remarks on this incredibly important subject, I again thank my right hon. Friend for securing the debate. On behalf of my constituents, I also thank the Minister for the work the UK does to make the world a safer, healthier and more prosperous place by investing in education—not just in this country, but in countries that cannot afford to educate all their children. I urge the Minister to look particularly favourably on the work that is done for children in refugee situations by Education Cannot Wait.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on securing this important debate in recognition of the International Day of Education.
I am hugely honoured to be the Prime Minister’s special envoy for girls’ education. My role is to globally champion his message that providing 12 years of quality education for every single girl on the planet is one of the best ways of tackling many of the major issues facing the world today, such as poverty, climate change and inequality. Investing in girls’ education is an absolute game changer: if we want to change the world for the better, girls’ education is a great place to start. The child of a mother who can read is 50% more likely to live beyond the age of five, twice as likely to attend school themselves, and 50% more likely to be immunised. Girls who are educated are more able to choose if and when to have children, and how many children they have.
Girls’ education is, of course, vital for women and girls, but it is also extremely important in levelling up society, boosting incomes and developing economies and nations. Tragically, the pandemic has been one of the biggest educational disruptors in our history, affecting 1.6 billion learners at its peak in 2020. It also created a global education funding gap of $200 billion per annum. In poorer countries now, over 70% of children cannot read a simple text by the age of 10.
Many of those children are girls, many of whom will never return to school, or even start school, lowering their chances of future employment and decent livelihoods. Out of school, girls are at greater risk of violence, sexual violence, forced marriage, early marriage, female genital mutilation and human trafficking. All those factors are creating the very real risk of a lost generation of girls, and we must work hard and together to stop that happening.
We also need to work better and differently. The UK has played a leading role in education policy and financing: we put girls’ education at the very heart of the 2021 G7 summit in Cornwall, giving it the priority and profile—as well as the financial and political commitments—that it needs and deserves. We also agreed two new, ambitious global targets: getting 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10, and getting 40 million more girls in primary and secondary school in low and low-to-middle income countries by 2026.
At the global education summit in London, also in 2021, we raised a landmark $4 billion for global education with our international partners, which will help another 175 million children to learn. At COP26 in Glasgow that year, we made the important connection between girls’ education and climate change, showing how girls’ education can be very much part of the solution. That is because girls who are educated are much more able to participate in decisions, actions and leadership in relation to climate resilience, adaptation and mitigation.
We know that education interventions must provide more than just learning, and the UK will continue to be a gender equality leader, tackling the issues that prevent girls from getting to school and staying in school. No girl should have her hopes and dreams dashed because she has had to marry too early or become a mother due to a lack of family planning advice.
In my role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy, I have been able to travel extensively to see for myself some of our education programmes and how they are changing lives for the better. In Ghana, in the hills of Aburi, I sat in on non-formal community classes where young mothers brought their babies to school. In Sierra Leone, I saw programmes that focused on improved learning, but also on special measures to address violence in and out of school and other safeguarding issues. In Nigeria, I saw how our teams on the ground have adapted programmes to respond to covid school closures. They achieved that through community-based learning programmes, the recording of radio and TV lessons, and accelerated learning programmes to help children catch up. I had the opportunity to meet virtually with schoolgirls and teachers affected by the conflict in Syria. I heard how education was providing a real lifeline and a space for children to see their friends, rebuild their self-confidence and self-esteem and develop the skills they need to break the cycle of poverty, while also providing them with a sense of hope and optimism for the future. I was inspired by the dreams of one young girl who hoped to become an architect to rebuild Syria for the future, and another who wanted to be a social worker to protect children from violence. These girls are our future, and ensuring their right to safe, quality education is essential.
The weight of the challenge on girls’ education is significant, but our ability to make a change in the world —if we work together—should never be underestimated. We all must raise our game and rally the world behind the global targets that have been set and agreed. Achieving global targets requires a global response. Governments must prioritise education reforms, listen to civil society and not be afraid to partner with technical experts so that they can design their reforms around real evidence of what actually works. We need to urgently recover those learning losses caused by covid by focusing on foundational learning skills. Basic numeracy and literacy are essential for children to be able to stay in school and progress to higher levels.
We must listen carefully to our girls and hear what they say they want and need from their leaders—be it safer roads for walking to school, free sanitary products to help with confidence and school attendance, or separate toilets for privacy. Last but certainly not least, our global leaders need to speak out much more about the importance of educating our girls and to explain all the advantages for girls and women and for their children, their families, their communities and, of course, their nations.
I am very happy to participate in this debate, as an English teacher of 23 years before I was elected to this House. The International Day of Education is an important date in our calendar, and the theme this year is:
“To invest in people, prioritise education”.
I pay tribute to the hard work of the teachers in my constituency. I am currently undertaking my annual visit to my local schools, and I am always impressed by our young people’s political engagement, which is both impressive and refreshing. I pay tribute to them and the staff, who work hard to deliver education in my constituency.
The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 24 January as the International Day of Education in celebration of the role of education in peace and development. I thank the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for securing the debate. Education is a human right, a public good and a public responsibility. The right hon. Lady reminded us that illiteracy across the globe disproportionately affects women and girls, and that educating women and girls provides huge and lasting benefits to their communities and children, and helps to avert child marriage, which is important for the future and prosperity of developing countries.
I agree with the point the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) made about the FCDO doing international development work of such importance in this and many other fields. We really should be looking to restore the Department for International Development; everybody in this Chamber agrees that the FCDO does important international development work, but that merits a Department for itself.
The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) reminded us of the huge benefits of educating women and girls and of the vast scale—some might say the daunting scale—of the challenge. It is important that the international community works together to address it, if for no other reason—although there are many reasons—than the risk of violence to women and girls, which goes alongside being deprived of and facing barriers to education.
It is indisputable that inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong opportunities for all are inextricably linked to a country’s success in achieving gender equality and breaking the cycle of poverty that leaves millions of children, youth and adults behind. Today, 244 million children and youth are out of school, and 771 million adults are illiterate. Their rights to education and so much more are being violated. That is unacceptable.
UNESCO is dedicating this year’s International Day of Education to girls and women in Afghanistan who have been deprived of their right to education, and is calling for the immediate lifting of the ban restricting access to education. The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) said that global education commands agreement and support across the House—it is one of the rare occasions when we see that happening. I note her comments that children are being deprived of their education in far too many circumstances, both refugees and in a more general, global sense. The international community must continue to work to change that.
I want to focus on the situation in Afghanistan, which is alarming and bewildering to many of us looking on in the west. The Taliban regime is denying its daughters, wives and sisters access to any form of schooling whatever. Today marks 493 days since the Taliban banned teenage girls from school, and 32 days since it banned women from going to university and working in national and international non-governmental organisations.
Currently, there are 2.5 million Afghan girls and young women out of school, 1.2 million of whom were denied access to secondary schools and university places following the regime’s diktat about women in education. Despite international condemnation, the Taliban regime justified that step on the basis that some women had not adhered to its interpretation of Islamic dress code, and that conservative traditions must be protected. It is an interesting conundrum that repressing, diminishing and controlling women in that way is such a priority for the Taliban regime, despite the fact that 28 million Afghans require aid, with some 6 million on the brink of famine—some 93% of Afghans do not have enough food, according to the UN. Winter temperatures are plunging as low as -17°C, and even lower in mountainous areas, so making it a priority to deprive women of their education seems bizarre to anybody looking on.
Amid all that, Save the Children had no choice but to pause its aid efforts in areas where it could not operate without its female staff, because women are essential to the safe and effective delivery of its services. Can it really be true—I cannot believe that I am asking this question—that the Taliban would rather its people died of starvation than women be seen to undertake useful work to assist Afghan civilians?
Being a girl or woman in Afghanistan under the Taliban must surely be a frightening, marginalising and desperate experience. In essence, Afghan women are back to being invisible in public life, imprisoned in their home and, where applicable, ordered to cover their ground and first-floor windows so that women inside cannot be seen from the street. Women can have the end of their thumbs cut off for wearing nail varnish. In such a regime, where women are viewed as chattels and the possession of male relatives, of no value as human beings, robbed of their dignity and their identity reduced to the clothes that they must wear, how can we be surprised that such a regime explicitly forbids the education of its women?
It is heartbreaking to consider that in the 20th century, until the conflicts of the 1970s, Afghanistan was seen as a progressive country. Afghan women were first eligible for the right to vote in 1919, only a year after women in the UK enjoyed that right and a year before women in the US were allowed to vote. As part of that, how women’s rights to education in Afghanistan have been rolled back is remarkable and frightening.
No society can truly prosper socially, economically or culturally unless there is access to education for all on an equal basis. Until the Taliban in Afghanistan understands that, the international community must continue to stress it and to engage on the issue when possible. I hope that the UK Government will play a leading global role in that international effort. Access to education is such a basic universal human right that denying it to women in Afghanistan or anywhere based on gender is incompatible with all that is right and decent.
As we commemorate the International Day of Education, it is right and fitting that we dedicate this day in 2023 to girls and women in Afghanistan who have been deprived of their right to education. Only a regime that seeks to control and tyrannise would fail to recognise that access to education for all its people has no downside for that society. We see that depriving Afghan women and girls of education goes hand in hand with the loss of so many other rights.
I know that all right hon. and hon. Members will seek to show solidarity with Afghan women and seek to restore their access to education. That should be a fundamental red line in all international engagement with the Taliban regime. Without access to education, the lives of Afghan women will be poorer, their children will be poorer, their communities will be poorer, the once great country of Afghanistan will be poorer, the climate will be poorer and the world will be poorer—poorer in ways that are beyond measure. We must stand up for Afghan women and girls and for the access to education that they need and deserve, with all the opportunities and fulfilment that go alongside securing that education. That applies to women and girls not just in Afghanistan, but across the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I refer the House to my entry on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—I am the co-chair of the APPG on global education. I thank my friend, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), for securing this timely and important debate to mark the International Day of Education and for her excellent speech. As co-chairs of the APPG, we both care deeply about this topic and are working closely together to shine a light on the importance of inclusive and quality education for all.
As we mark the International Day of Education this week, it is staggering to note that 222 million children around the world are affected by emergency and protracted crises and in need of urgent educational support. This has grown from an estimated 75 million in 2016, as more children around the world are missing out on essential education time. We find these children facing some of the world’s foremost challenges, from the war in Ukraine and the repression of women and girls in Afghanistan to the impact of food insecurity in the horn of Africa and climate-related disaster in the Sahel.
Education is every child’s right. It is fundamental to creating a peaceful and prosperous world. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) emphasised the value of education for all. Labour recognises the importance of quality, safe, inclusive and free public education as the cornerstone of the UN sustainable development goals. Education saves lives; improves nutrition and health; reduces child, early and forced marriage; and leads to more equal, respectful and open societies.
On visits abroad, I have seen the scale of the challenges we face in global education, in particular for women and girls. As the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) succinctly put it, girls’ education is an absolute game-changer. She is absolutely right to make that point. Every day, girls face barriers to education caused by poverty, child marriage and gender-based violence, poor infrastructure, cultural norms and practices and fragility. Around the world, 129 million girls are out of school, including 32 million of primary school age, 30 million of lower secondary school age and 67 million of upper secondary school age. As eloquently pointed out by the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), in countries affected by conflict, girls are more than twice as likely to be out of school than girls living in non-affected areas.
This year, UNESCO has dedicated the International Day of Education to the women and girls of Afghanistan. What is happening there is an absolute tragedy: the Taliban’s barbaric ban on the participation of women in public life means schools and universities have been closed to Afghan women and girls, in violation of their fundamental rights and freedoms. Since the fall of Kabul, the Taliban has stopped 850,000 secondary age girls from attending school; as we have heard throughout today’s excellent debate, the impact of that ban is devastating. At the same time, the world has watched in awe as brave girls and women in Afghanistan have protested and demanded the right to go to school in the face of repression by the Taliban. Afghanistan can never flourish while half its population is relegated from public life.
We must pay tribute to all those fighting for their right to education, but they need more than warm words and solidarity. The UK must act by working internationally to hold the Taliban to account for its escalating crackdown on women’s rights and doing everything possible to support education for all in Afghanistan, including through the Global Partnership for Education, which is making up to $300 million available in support of education for Afghan women and girls. Can the Minister say what steps the UK Government are taking with the international community to support women and girls’ education in Afghanistan? More specifically, will she rule out reductions in UK funding to Afghanistan while negotiations between the de facto authorities and the diplomatic and humanitarian communities are ongoing?
The UK is, and continues to be, a vocal supporter of girls’ education. But it is fair to say that the Government need to translate that rhetoric into results. According to analysis by the ONE Campaign, an estimated 7.1 million children, including 3.7 million girls, lost their education due to recent cuts to the UK’s aid budget. Alongside cuts, we also have delays—most recently to the international women and girls strategy, which the Government confirmed last week has been delayed once again. We cannot allow ourselves to fail a generation of young people, and that is why Labour urges the Government to announce a strong and early pledge for the Geneva Education Cannot Wait conference next month.
Since its establishment in 2016, Education Cannot Wait has reached 7 million children and adolescents with quality education in some of the toughest crisis zones globally. UK funding has supported an estimated 1.5 million of those children, but the challenge has grown since then. Civil society, members of the public and many parliamentarians have called for the UK to pledge £170 million over the 2023-26 period: a 13% share of Education Cannot Wait’s fundraising target. That would directly provide 2.6 million children in an emergency or protracted crisis with quality education, 60% of whom would be girls. Can the Minister confirm whether the UK Government will commit to make such a pledge ahead of next month’s conference? If so, when can we expect the announcement?
It is imperative that the Government meet their own targets on providing quality foundational learning to the most marginalised, including girls and children with disabilities. Girls and boys in conflict zones, climate shocks and natural disasters, and refugee settlements deserve to learn to read and write, do maths and prosper as much as any other child, yet just one in 10 of the 222 million children affected by crises are meeting required minimum levels for literacy and numeracy. Such extreme levels of illiteracy and innumeracy are an early warning sign that global educational goals, and related sustainable development goals, are in jeopardy. At the current rate of progress, it will take at least 40 years to achieve the sustainable development goal 4 target on learning.
In 2019, over half of children in low and middle-income countries were living in learning poverty, meaning that they were unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10. In sub-Saharan Africa, that figure is closer to 90%. Behind those numbers, millions of vulnerable girls and boys around the world await our collective action. From inside makeshift refugee settlements, the damaged walls of classrooms, and communities torn apart by war and disaster, those children are holding on to the hope that education will allow them to realise their dreams of becoming doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers or whatever other profession they seek to achieve.
As we mark International Day Of Education, I want to end by sharing the thoughts of young people campaigning for their generation’s future. This week, I had the pleasure of meeting with the Global Partnership for Education youth leaders in Parliament as part of their youth action tour. The youth leaders are young people with lived experience from partner countries, and it was incredibly moving to hear directly from them about why we need to protect and increase education funding worldwide.
Another group of young people that I would like to highlight are Send My Friend to School youth campaigners. Each year, around 250,000 young people from across the UK take part in the campaign, meeting dozens of MPs. I have met their excellent campaign champions on a number of occasions. I am always inspired by the passion and commitment that they have for other children around the world, who are not fortunate enough to receive the kind of education that we do here in the UK.
I end with the following words from Jenson, aged 10, speaking on behalf of his classmates at Colne Engaine Primary School in Braintree:
“We think every child has the right to have an education. Reasons that stop children from going to school like natural disasters and disease, war and famine are not chosen by the children.”
Let that ring true in all our ears and urge us to act now as we celebrate International Day of Education.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for securing this debate to mark International Day of Education. I pay tribute to her work to drive progress on education around the world, both in her previous ministerial role and through her continued efforts as the new co-chair of the APPG on global education.
My colleague, the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), would have been delighted to take part in this debate, but he is travelling on ministerial duties. However, it is a pleasure to be able to respond on behalf on the Government. I am grateful to all hon. Members for their contributions. The strength of feeling about the importance of global education is clear and unequivocal, as it should be. Colleagues will be aware of my commitment to this cause, as the former Secretary of State in the Department for International Development who published our first strategy on 12 years of girls’ education back in 2020.
Education, especially for girls, is a top priority for this Government. Over five years from 2015, UK aid supported more than 15 million children, including 8 million girls, to benefit from a decent education. We continue to stand up for the right of every girl, everywhere, to access 12 years of quality learning. We know that that is the key to unlocking individual potential, as well as advancing prosperous, thriving societies and economies. In short, and as all hon. Members have said, it is one of the very best investments we can make. That is because not only do educated girls’ earnings increase significantly, but they are less likely to be subjected to child marriage and domestic violence, and more likely to have smaller, healthier and better educated families.
Too many children around the world lack these opportunities and face many barriers: poverty; a lack of safe and accessible schools; and the twin threats of conflict and climate change. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) has said, this is seen most shockingly right now for girls in Afghanistan. I reiterate the Government’s condemnation of the Taliban’s decision to prevent girls from returning to secondary school and women to universities. Through our joint G7 Foreign Ministers’ statement and the UK national statement, we have repeatedly made that clear, and we continue to lobby the Taliban to reverse those destructive decrees.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford has set out, about 244 million children are out of school around the world and more than half are girls. About seven in 10 children in low and middle-income countries are unable to read by the age of 10, and that generation could lose $21 trillion in earnings over their lifetimes as a result. Put simply, we face the real risk of a lost generation, and we cannot let that happen. That is why the UK is driving international action to tackle the education crisis.
In 2021, we hosted in London the global education summit, which raised an unprecedented $4 billion for the Global Partnership for Education. We put girls’ education at the centre of our G7 presidency that year and secured G7 endorsement of the two global objectives mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant): to get 40 million more girls into school and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10 by 2026.
We support developing countries to help children to learn in a safe, inclusive and sustainable way. Of course, that begins, just as it does in every school in all our constituencies, with strong foundations: basic reading, maths and social skills—the building blocks on which all children everywhere can make progress in school and reach their potential so that they have choices later in life. That is why the UK launched a commitment to action on foundational learning last year at the UN summit on transforming education. We are calling on all Governments around the world to prioritise those basics, especially for the most marginalised girls.
We also support girls and young women to make their way into higher education and training, to boost their employment prospects. As part of that, we launched the girls’ education and skills programme on International Women’s Day last year. That innovative partnership between Government and major global businesses was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald in her role as special envoy on girls’ education. I thank her for her relentless advocacy, her enthusiasm and the globetrotting that she does on behalf of the Prime Minister to bring these issues to light across the globe.
We want to continue to prioritise reaching the poorest and most marginalised girls, with a particular focus on reaching children affected by emergencies and protracted crises. On climate change in particular, the figures are bleak: 40 million children each year have their schooling disrupted by its impacts. For example, I met some children in the village of Mele in Vanuatu—a Pacific island literally the other side of the planet from here. I met them in December, and their school had been battered by sea storms unprecedented in the island’s history. That was a real, practical and destructive event for those small children, who had not experienced that in their lives before.
Those climate threats are creating the sort of disruptions that are absolutely destructive and will cause damage for so many more children, so our focus on helping developing countries to adapt and become more resilient to the climate shocks we know they will have to face will be critical to protecting those children who are in education and enabling them to continue their education. We are supporting education for the poorest through UK-led programmes in 19 countries. That is complemented by our significant investments through the Global Partnership for Education and Education Cannot Wait, which supports children through emergencies.
It is of course important to leverage financing. That is why we are a leading partner in developing the new international finance facility for education, which is focused on lower middle income countries to help girls into learning. Meanwhile, the UK Girls’ Education Challenge is the largest programme of its kind in the world. More than 1 million girls who were most at risk of dropping out are now staying in school and making progress, and over 150,000 with disabilities are able to attend school.
Our new position paper, which we published last month, is our road map towards addressing the climate, environment and biodiversity crises in and through girls’ education. I reassure colleagues that we will be publishing the new international women and girls strategy in the coming months, which will be framed around the three E’s of educating girls, empowering and championing the health and rights of women and girls, and ending violence.
Members have raised concerns about the reduction in the aid budget and its impact on education programmes. Colleagues are all aware that difficult decisions have been made to meet the 0.5% commitment, and to support those fleeing the war in Ukraine and insecurity in Afghanistan.
Will my right hon. Friend commit to writing to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to make the point that the money for Ukrainian refugee children in the UK, which I believe comes from the official development assistance budget, is not necessarily following that child if they move to a new school?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, of which I was not aware; it has not been brought to me in my constituency. I will take it up with the Secretary of State and ensure that we understand where those issues are, the size of the problem, and how we can ensure that, whichever schools are looking after those young people who are here from Ukraine, they can have the support they need.
We are prioritising our 0.5% aid spending in line with the priorities that we set out in our international development strategy, which, of course, includes girls’ education. The UK remains one of the most generous global donors, spending £11 billion in aid in 2021.
I reassure colleagues that, in relation to the Afghanistan crisis, FCDO officials are in regular contact with the NGO community to understand the impact of the Taliban ban on female workers. Where NGO partners have had to suspend activity, the FCDO is continuing to cover staff salaries and other critical associated operational costs, and we are encouraging UN agencies to do the same with their NGO counterparts.
As Members know, development is not just about aid packages. UK support to global education includes our valuable country partnerships, expertise, and power to convene others, such as through the global summit.
As colleagues have already said, and championed, we are proud to be a co-founder of, and leading donor to, Education Cannot Wait. Members have asked for details on the UK’s future commitment to ECW. The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, will announce the UK’s future contributions— I am afraid that I cannot steal his thunder—at the high- level financing conference in February.
I will end by reaffirming the UK’s unwavering commitment to global education, which remains at the heart of our work towards a more prosperous, stable and equal world. I know that all colleagues here today will continue to champion education as the most effective investment every nation can make.
I would like to take a couple of minutes to thank all the Members who have taken part in today’s debate.
It is clear from the work that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) did as a Minister, and the work that she has done as a Back Bencher to keep this issue on our agenda, how passionate she is. I thank her for reminding us that one of the reasons we do not talk about it enough is that we all agree about it. However, we must continue to highlight it.
In responding to my wonderful hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant)—who arrived overnight, not having had a night’s sleep, because she has been championing girls’ education on behalf of our Prime Minister—I want to get on the record all our congratulations for the announcement that we saw in the new year’s honours list. Often, people say that an OBE is about not only one’s own work, but the work of others—it is about a cause. But in this case she has been such a champion, for so many involved in the cause of making sure that all girls get 12 years’ quality education. I thank her for all she does; it was wonderful to see her name recognised.
The hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) made a really important point about languages. We often talk about the drop in European language learning, but he made an interesting point about the drop in other languages. If we want to make the world a smaller place and a better place, those languages are so important.
I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) not only for giving us a teacher’s perspective, but for using so much of her speaking time to focus on the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan. We absolutely need to make sure that women’s voices especially are heard on this issue. They do not have their own voice; we need to make sure that women’s voices are heard.
There is of course a special place in heaven for men who champion women’s issues, so I thank the co-chair, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), for his passion for this work and for co-chairing the APPG, and indeed for mentioning the work of young people in this country through the Send My Friend to School campaign. Those intergenerational links, us to them—but also across the younger generation—are vital.
I thank the Minister for also reminding us of her passion, which she has had for many years. I like the phrase she used—the UK “is driving” international action, not “has driven”. We all want to make sure that we continue in the driving seat to press this forward, leverage those partnerships and work internationally. We all look forward with great hope to what the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), will promise and pledge at the summit next month.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the International Day of Education.
[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.