House of Lords
Thursday 18 May 2023
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester.
War Widows’ and Widowers’ Pensions
My Lords, I declare my interest as a serving Army reservist. I am pleased to confirm that the war widows’ ex gratia payments scheme was announced yesterday for this group. The scheme will make one-off payments of £87,500 to members of this group, in recognition of their sacrifice. It addresses the inequitable situation for a cohort who, under the Armed Forces covenant, deserve special consideration. I take this opportunity to thank those who have tirelessly campaigned on the issue for many years for bringing this into sharp focus for us.
I thank the noble Lord very much for his Answer and his very welcome news for so many war widows, after so many years. He will know that the War Widows’ Association, senior members of which are below the Bar today, have given the Government’s announcement a welcome—a cautious welcome. They have asked that his department work with them into the future on matters of tax, terms and conditions, and the 13-page form that each of these quite elderly war widows will have to fill out. Can he also confirm the timeline for the new scheme as starting within this calendar year, as time is not on these ladies’ side?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for all her work on this issue, as well as that of my noble friend Lady Fookes. The Ministry of Defence consulted the War Widows’ Association on this proposal, and I pay tribute to the association and its members for their candidness in discussions with Ministers and officials on this. I can confirm that the scheme will go live in winter 2023—this calendar year—and that we will absolutely work with the association, and with Veterans UK, to signpost to all those eligible how to apply for the scheme.
While the ex gratia payment falls short of the full restitution of a war widow’s pension, which they would ideally like, it would be churlish indeed not to welcome most warmly this long-overdue and most welcome payment. Will my noble friend take into account the great age of many of these ladies and their frail condition? The government machine needs to get more of a move on than it usually does in these matters. Will my noble friend take as his motto a cry often heard in the streets: “When do we want it? We want it now”?
I greatly appreciate the comments from my noble friend. She is absolutely right; this issue has taken a long time to consider. I accept that it has taken too long but, in light of this week’s announcement, the important thing is that everybody works together to make sure that those who have missed out and those who are entitled to the scheme get it as soon as possible.
My Lords, I strongly welcome this long- awaited decision—and bully for the military covenant, which has been shown at last to have some teeth. For the avoidance of doubt, will the Minister confirm that widows in this class are those whose spouse died as a direct result of their service before 6 April 2005, and not just those whose spouse died on an operation for which a campaign medal was awarded?
I can confirm to the noble and gallant Lord that this scheme applies to all those who surrendered their war widow’s pension before the change was made to eligibility pre April 2015. Those eligible will be those whose spouse suffered death or injury on operational deployment or in a training exercise. If it was in service, they will be eligible.
My Lords, I too declare an interest as a vice-president of the War Widows’ Association. I was an RAF wife for 30 years and 24 moves. Like most wives of my generation, I was quite unable to have a career and contribute to my own pension pot. I was totally reliant on my husband’s contributions, so how cruel it was to cancel those contributions if widows, many of them very young, had the temerity to remarry. We are very grateful to the Treasury for this move, but can the Minister say how simple it will be and what advice and guidance will be offered to this dwindling band of ageing widows to enable them to access this money for the future?
I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her campaigning on this issue. I agree that, looking at this issue through the prism of today, how it was administered seems a cruel decision. However, that was not a choice specific to this cohort of people; it was across all public service pensions. Through the Armed Forces covenant, the tireless campaigning of the association and Ministers such as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence, we have sought to grip this issue and have taken the action that we have this week.
My Lords, these Benches also have a very long association with the War Widows’ Association. My kinsman the late Baroness Strange was the president of the War Widows’ Association for 15 years from 1990. The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, raised a very interesting point about tax. I wonder whether the Minister and the Government are going to take away with one hand what they have given with the other. Will these ex gratia payments be tax free?
My Lords, I join with others in very much welcoming the Government’s decision, which was announced yesterday and which the Minister has confirmed today. I also join with others in congratulating my noble friend Lady Crawley, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and the War Widows’ Association on the work they have done. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, in saying that the speed of implementation is really important. Can the Minister push the department and other parts of government to implement this as soon as possible? The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, frightened me, so I am sure she would have frightened the Minister to get on with it as well.
I totally agree with everything that the noble Lord has said. I can only reconfirm what I have said: it is essential that those who believe they are eligible to apply for the scheme make contact as soon as possible with Veterans UK, which can guide them step by step through the process to ensure the minimal delay. The money is there now, and we want to get it out to the people who deserve it.
My Lords, I thank and congratulate my noble friend the Minister. I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Fookes and the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. Would it not be a good idea if the Minister and his colleagues had a word with some other Ministers about another smaller but very deserving group of people: those who suffered from the Post Office scandal?
The noble Lord makes two important points. First, we estimate that around 380 people will be eligible for this scheme. Secondly, for those who do not apply and would be eligible but subsequently pass away, their descendants would not be entitled to it. However, if a potential beneficiary made an application and then sadly passed away during the process, the money would be paid out to their estate.
My Lords, the Government have worked out that 380 people might be eligible. The Minister suggested that those people should contact the War Widows’ Association or Veterans UK for information. Could the Government not do the decent thing and write to all those they believe to be eligible?
Health: Economic Inactivity
My Lords, long-term sickness is now the most common reason for economic inactivity among the working-age population. The number reporting being long-term sick or disabled as their main reason for economic inactivity has grown by 550,000 over the last four years to a total of 2.6 million people. We therefore announced a wide-reaching package in the Spring Budget to support disabled people and people with health conditions to work, building on our existing package of support.
I thank the Minister for his response, but our nation’s deteriorating health requires urgent, in-depth analysis. The increase of 500,000 people on long-term sick leave is estimated to hit our economic output and productivity by between £30 billion and £50 billion per annum. Add that to our annual benefits for inactive working age people, which has grown by £35 billion in the last three years. It is a vicious circle: less economic activity, less tax revenue, less funds for healthcare and soaring benefits bills. When will we see insightful data on what lies behind the record 2.6 million who are long-term sick linked to NHS performance, particularly preventative healthcare?
My Lords, the Prime Minister tasked my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to look at workforce participation working across government. The Government are focused on supporting those groups where inactivity levels are higher and so employment support is most needed, including the long-term sick, the disabled, welfare recipients, people aged over 50 and parents. To tackle rising economic inactivity due to long-term sickness, a wide-ranging package was announced in the Spring Budget to support disabled people and those with health conditions to work. New investment broadens access to additional work coach support for disabled people and those with health conditions, introduces a new supported employment programme and focuses on providing faster access to joined up work and health support.
My Lords, I welcome the Government’s incentives for occupational health in SMEs and the health and disability White Paper. Are the Government considering embedding occupational therapists within GP practices for those who are self-employed?
The health and disability White Paper published in March sets out plans to transform the future system to support more disabled people to start, stay and succeed in work. We will reform the benefits system so that it focuses on what people can do. But, on the noble Baroness’s specific points, to my knowledge, GP practices are innovating and introducing such measures—but this needs to be expanded further.
My Lords, it is great to see the noble Lord in his place. When I saw him sat there, I had déjà vu from his green Bench in the House of Commons—he is in exactly the same place to ask those Exocet questions. On his specific question, health can be linked to welfare payments, but it is also linked to unemployment because being in good-quality work benefits people’s health and well-being and that of all communities.
My Lords, when chronic fatigue, whether triggered by Covid or some other virus, contributes so substantially to the numbers of economically inactive people, can the Minister explain what progress has been made to find a treatment for these very severely handicapped patients? What are the Government doing to make sure that a treatment is urgently found?
The noble Baroness asks a difficult question that I cannot answer in full. But the Government are supporting disabled people and have done for over a decade now. It is important that people who can work should do so, including disabled people. But I cannot give a fulsome response to the noble Baroness’s question, so I will write to her.
My Lords, the data shows that there has been a significant and worrying increase in the number of people leaving work because of long-term illness and disability, and it is in everyone’s interest that everything possible is done to keep people in work as their conditions develop. In that respect, and following the previous question on occupational health, what are the Government doing to ensure that sufficient occupational health professionals are available to support all of the businesses that need them? Will this profession be part of the long-awaited workforce development plan that we are looking for from the Government?
The noble Lord is absolutely right to talk about data and how we can learn from it. It is currently difficult to quantity the direct effects of this, but it is indeed a factor. Data on employment rates suggests that those awaiting treatment were often already inactive before Covid, and it is therefore possible that longer waiting lists may be exacerbating this. But the noble Lord raised a good point, and I agree with him: that is what the Government will be doing, because it is important to take each patient on a case-by-case basis, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
My Lords, ONS data shows that, for every 13 people working, one is suffering long-term sickness—a record number of people not in work due to ill health. So could the Minister commit to expanding and tailoring specialist help for those who cannot re-enter the workplace due to long-term ill health? What preventative provision will be made to tackle the increase in mental health issues in young people and the increased incidence of back and neck pain, which are major contributors to the unprecedented numbers of people who are unable to work?
New investment in the Spring Budget broadens access to additional work-coach support for disabled people and those with health conditions, it introduces a new supported employment programme and it focuses on providing faster access to joined-up work and health support, including for mental health and musculoskeletal conditions—the two leading causes of economic inactivity due to long-term sickness. But the noble Baroness raises an important point: the Covid period exacerbated all of this, and the system is under pressure. As I said in my earlier answer, the best way to do it is to take each patient on a case-by-case basis to ensure that there is help and support into work. Jobcentre Plus is doing an amazing job on that, working with the health service.
My Lords, we know that food insecurity is associated with poor health outcomes. Professor Greta Defeyter found that, for every £1 invested in the holiday activity and food programme, there is a wider economic benefit of £11. Can the Minister confirm whether funding is available to extend that programme beyond next year?
My Lords, the nature of the conditions that are keeping people off work has changed substantially: the biggest cause used to be back pain, and now it is mental health problems. This has happened largely since the lockdowns, and it is not surprising: if you tell people that a terrible virus is out there, there will be more anxiety and depression. Will my noble friend the Minister consider the long-term impact on health and mental health before we take a decision of that kind again?
My noble friend raises an important point, and he is exactly right: mental health and musculoskeletal conditions are the main issue for long-term sickness. The Covid pandemic meant that a lot of us worked from home in a sedentary position—we were not built for that; we were built for activity. Work always pays, but it also helps with mental health in the long term, so the key is to get as many long-term sick people back into work.
My Lords, it is now well known that diet is the primary cause of not only early death but early ill health across the world. Some 60% of this country eats ultra-processed food as its main source of diet. It is not a coincidence that, in the last 30 years, we have seen ill health and a rise in mental health problems. This is new research, but it is powerfully backed by many scientists. Will the Minister consider meeting me and the relevant people to try to understand that, if we fed people well from the moment of pregnancy right through, a lot of this might be averted?
My Lords, is the Minister aware that, when I was on the cardiac ward of St Thomas’ some years ago, almost all of the other men were there because of complications of diabetes. The scale of the diabetes and obesity crises—they are linked—is one of the major problems of poor health in our workforce. Unless we have a more coherent food strategy—the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, suggested this—encouraging people to eat more wisely and perhaps increasing the regulation of food, we will not solve some of these problems of poor health in our workforce. Does the Minister agree?
Air Quality Strategy Consultation
My Lords, the Government published the Air Quality Strategy: Framework for Local Authority Delivery by the legal deadline of 1 May. Although we recognise that the consultation period for the draft strategy was shortened, almost 450 responses were received, including 97 from local government. We took into account these responses in the publication of our final strategy, and the document will drive the local action on air quality that we all want to see.
My Lords, local authorities are central to efforts to improve the country’s air quality, but the nature of this consultation exercise suggests that the Government think otherwise. Regardless of any prior engagement, does the Minister really believe that a period of just 10 days—starting immediately before Easter, during the school holidays and in the run-up to the local elections—was sufficient to allow councils to formulate their response and get it signed off internally? Will the department do the right thing and reopen this consultation to ensure that no one misses their opportunity to respond—or are the Government once again dodging any scrutiny?
The noble Baroness knows how I hate to see her disgruntled, so I will see whether I can make her gruntled. The consultation was open for 10 days, the department received 434 responses in total and 97 local authorities responded—but that was not the totality of it. We have engaged with stakeholders, including local government, since December 2021; we have run a series of nine workshops to gain views and input from a range of stakeholders; and more than 30 meetings were held with internal and external stakeholders, as well as over 200 stakeholders from community groups, NGOs, academia and local authorities. This Government consult like no Government have before; sometimes, I wonder whether we consult too much, but in this case I think we have got this absolutely right and created a strategy that reflects what people want.
My Lords, in relation to consultation and the London mayor, does my noble friend agree that the main cause of increased traffic congestion and the knock-on effect on air quality is the lack of synchronisation of traffic lights, which is driving not just London cab drivers but all London motorists to distraction?
My noble friend raises a point that cab drivers raise with me frequently. It is a serious point. As she knows, air quality is devolved to the mayor, who is ultimately responsible for the delivery of his policies. Undoubtedly, with ULEZ and other policies, this is causing tensions, but it is for him to answer. Our point is to help local government in all its forms to deliver. We are putting in money to assist local authorities in tackling air quality right across the country. London is the biggest challenge. That is why we work with the mayor when we can to make sure that we are achieving that in the capital.
My Lords, Cabinet Office consultation principles state:
“Consultations should last for a proportionate amount of time”
and should be judged
“on the basis of legal advice and taking into account the nature and impact of the proposal”.
Air pollution is estimated to be responsible for more than 64,000 deaths in the UK, costing in the region of £20 billion, as estimated by the Royal College of Physicians report, Every Breath We Take. Does the Minister really believe that nine working days is a proportionate amount of time to gather responses on air pollution, the biggest environmental risk to public health?
I cannot add in response to the noble Baroness more than I said in my reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, because I think that we have consulted very widely, not just during those dates that she cited but across the piece. Air quality is one of the key priorities. If the noble Baroness looks at our environmental improvement plan, she will see what we are asking to be delivered right across this country. She will see that it is a priority and that we are consulting in a variety of ways to make sure that we reflect those who have to deliver this, which is, in the main, local authorities.
My Lords, as we are told by the Government in their draft air quality strategy that they expect
“local authorities to … reduce PM2.5”
and that if action is insufficient
“we will consult on introducing a … legal duty on local authorities to take action”,
why are Conservative authorities in London are not only obstructing the taking of action to reduce PM2.5 but playing politics by attacking Sadiq Khan for implementing government policy on the congestion charge zone? Is that not just blatant hypocrisy?
That question reflects issues relating to politics in London that are particularly complex and the impact of the mayor’s ULEZ on people on low incomes who have to travel to the centre of London. The noble Lord makes the accusation of playing politics, but the Question is about consultation. What we are trying to do nationally is support local authorities, and sometimes what the mayor is trying to do is despite what the local authorities within his mayoralty are trying to achieve. That is a local question for London and not for our national policies.
My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that not only is it disastrous that there was such a short time for consultation but the substance of the document on which he was consulting is woefully inadequate to attack the problem? I speak as a former president of an independent organisation, Environmental Protection UK, which made a submission to the consultation. Is it time for the Government—and, in view of the electoral cycle, probably the main opposition party—to recognise that we need a new clean air Act and a central direction through a new clean air commission? Until the Government grasp that necessity, this problem will continue to afflict our people and contribute to the long-term sickness that we have just been discussing.
What I would say to the noble Lord, whom I respect for his experience in this area, is that running campaigns to create new laws sometimes misses the most effective way to deliver. The most effective way in which the Government in England can be responsible for this is to support the local authorities which have to do it. We are doing that with money, and we are doing it with policies that require them to hit certain targets—on PM2.5, on nitrous oxide and others. That is the best way to do it. If the noble Lord wants a piece of legislation that will deliver that, it is the Environment Act.
My noble friend talks about an issue which may well be the case in certain areas. Encouraging cycling, walking and the use of public transport is undoubtedly better for health, as the previous Question showed; it is undoubtedly better for the quality of life in our cities. On the other side, if you get it wrong, you make the problem worse. That is why local solutions are better, and it is why the Government’s policy provides resources and targets and why they will take further action if local authorities fail to deliver.
My Lords, I regret to tell the Minister that my noble friend Lady Hayman is still disgruntled. That is because he did not address the fact that the events for stakeholders that he described were poorly advertised and the notice was short. As a result, many stakeholders who would have liked to attend or to contribute to the consultation did not get the opportunity. Could he address that?
The number of responses was typical of the kinds of consultations that my department conducts. That 97 local authorities responded in full and that there were many other events, engagements and direct contact with local authorities and other campaigners meant that we ran a full consultation, and we have an air quality strategy that reflects that.
My Lords, the Minister’s throwaway remark about the possibility of there being too many consultations tempts me to ask him—and I declare my interests—whether the problem is not too many consultations but not enough follow-up and action when consultations have taken place? Could he look in particular at the consultation several years ago on energy-efficiency standards in the private rented sector?
I entirely understand the point made by the noble Baroness. Perhaps mine was born out of being slightly long in the tooth in this game, because when I was last at Defra, it was always the threat of infraction fines that delayed policy—“Oh, Minister, that may well result in us being infracted by Europe”. Now, I find very often that consultations are followed by consultations on consultations, and it is a way of kicking the can down the road. I am a firm believer in the right sort of consultation; I just want to make sure that we are delivering policy as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
Sudan: Civilian Population
My Lords, we are gravely concerned by the ongoing hostilities in Sudan. Innocent civilians are losing their lives and being subjected to the most terrible violence. The humanitarian situation has worsened dramatically, with the UN estimating that an additional 9 million people will need humanitarian assistance. Following the outbreak of violence, 740,000 people have been internally displaced within Sudan and more than 245,000 are now estimated to have fled to neighbouring countries.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and concur with the figures he has just given the House—that nearly 800,000 people have joined the already 3.7 million people who are displaced in Sudan and another 120,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries, some of whom will end up in small boats making dangerous journeys. Will the Minister agree therefore to provide a written response to the more than 30 recommendations in the recently published all-party parliamentary group report marking the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Darfur, in which 200,000 to 300,000 people died and 2 million were displaced, especially in the light of this week’s declaration by Genocide Watch of another impending genocide, and urgently authorise a formal joint analysis of conflict and stability assessment, or JACS, convening a high-level strategic discussion with our international partners to address this unfolding crisis in Sudan? Will he urge on the warring parties the need for a sustainable peace and a civilian-led Government?
My Lords, first, we welcome the Jeddah declaration of 11 May, which provides a degree of respite. The trajectory is moving in the right direction, but more needs to be done for a sustainable ceasefire. The noble Lord mentioned the work of the APPG, which I am well versed in. I know of the important work that has been done over the last 20 years. When I visited Darfur, I saw directly the impunity which prevailed regarding the crimes committed at that time. In a particular chapter of the APPG report, there is an extensive number of recommendations. I suggest that I write to the noble Lord outlining some of the steps we have taken, including those based on the recommendations we are considering.
My Lords, holding perpetrators to account for their actions is essential, both for the sake of those who have suffered so greatly in this conflict and to ensure that the people in charge know they will be held responsible. Does my noble friend the Minister support the call from Sudanese women’s human rights defenders and women’s groups, supported by the International Service for Human Rights, for the Human Rights Council to establish an international investigation mechanism with sufficient resources to investigate and document sexual and gender-based violence?
My Lords, as my noble friend is aware, I am the Government’s lead on, and the Prime Minister’s special representative for, preventing sexual violence in conflict. Tragically, we again see women and girls in Sudan being targeted specifically. On the issue of the Human Rights Council, my noble friend will also be aware that the United Kingdom, as penholder, led on the resolution, which we believe was practical and drew attention to the current crisis as it unfolded. It is probably the strongest statement we have seen from the HRC in this respect. I recognise the points my noble friend raised, and I assure her that the Government are very much seized of what more can be done in this area.
My Lords, the Minister has agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that the main loser is the people of Sudan. Does he agree that there is no real hint of compromise among the protagonists, both of whom see this as an existential problem—that there will be one winner and one loser?
My Lords, while I agree with the noble Lord to the extent that there can be no winners in this situation, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have both made clear, through direct interactions with the two parties and their generals, the importance of reaching an agreement—a ceasefire, in the first instance—to allow for humanitarian assistance and a sustainable peace between the two parties. We have seen some traction. We are working very closely with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I praise its efforts in this regard. We have seen the first agreement, which provides protections though international humanitarian law. Unfortunately and tragically, we are still seeing attacks on humanitarian workers. We are working with key partners, including the Quad, on this, and I will continue to update your Lordships’ House accordingly.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Alton raised the spectre of refugees—these people would be genuine asylum seekers coming from Sudan—potentially ending up on small boats. What discussions is the FCDO having with the Home Office about ensuring that people who are fleeing violence will be treated in a humane way in this country?
My Lords, our country has a long tradition of ensuring that we are a sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. I know that my colleagues in the Home Office are monitoring the situation very closely to ensure that we are able to respond effectively to this crisis.
My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the growing involvement of the Wagner Group in Sudan? We are only too well aware of its appalling track record on a great many issues, not least the treatment of civilians in conflict areas. How soon can we expect the Government to proscribe that repugnant organisation?
My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord will know that I cannot speculate on his final question. However, we are fully aware of the work of the Wagner Group from emerging reports about possible activities in Sudan and wherever there is a gap, as I have said before at the Dispatch Box. We have seen that the Wagner Group is operating very effectively in the Sahel too, particularly in Mali. There is an added element: this is not just an ordinary mercenary group—it does a deal with whoever is governing or controlling a particular area, so there is a direct economic benefit. I agree with the noble and gallant Lord that this is a very dangerous development, and we certainly do not need the Wagner Group emerging as another threat in Sudan.
My Lords, the Minister referred to the humanitarian crisis and the people of Sudan suffering. One area of deep concern is the desperate need for healthcare supplies. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent has 30 tonnes of surgical supplies in Port Sudan being held up by bureaucracy. How are the Government using our partnerships in the region to unblock those supplies to ensure that the needs of the people of Sudan are met?
The noble Lord is correct that supplies are being held up. Some of them of being challenged directly; even the most basic humanitarian support is being interrupted and aid workers continue to be attacked. With the exception, I believe, of the ICRC, there is no operational body on the humanitarian side. However, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary met this week with the new president of the ICRC, and we are working with near neighbouring countries, particularly Egypt, to ensure we open up key routes. We are also working with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and partners in the Quad to ensure that essential requirements are met, including humanitarian support and medical supplies.
My Lords, Sudan was already hosting over a million refugees—the second highest refugee population in Africa—before the current conflict. The majority of those were from South Sudan, Ethiopia and other neighbouring countries. The UNHCR has called for urgent new emergency funding to help deal with the crisis. Can the Minister say what is happening to the people in camps already reliant on the aid agencies, many of whom are fleeing and going to other countries? Is any help being received there? What is happening to the displaced population of refugees already hosted by Sudan?
My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that we are looking at our full humanitarian response to the crisis, including working with Sudan’s near neighbours. We have issued a new £5 million funding package as an immediate response to the crisis, and we are looking at what other funding we can provide. However, I will be very open with the noble Baroness about the challenge. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, highlighted, there are supplies and support, but it needs to get through to Sudan. As the noble Baroness will be aware from her own work, South Sudan is also reliant on that supply route from Sudan, which presents an extra logistical challenge. We are looking at announcing new measures, and the House will be updated.
My Lords, further to the excellent question from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, and the Minister’s response, would a refugee seeking to flee this dreadful conflict in Sudan be able to find a safe and legal route to the United Kingdom?
My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, we work with key agencies, including the UNHCR, to ensure that there is a validated process for those seeking refuge. During the crisis in Sudan, we also provided support for British nationals and their relatives—qualifying dependants—to leave Sudan. As I said in my answer to the noble Baroness, the Home Office is looking at what further response is necessary.
Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) (Amendment) Regulations 2023
Motion to Approve
Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill
My Lords, before I turn to the Bill, I pay tribute to Peter Brooke, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 1989 to 1992, who sadly passed away this week. I had the immense privilege of being Peter’s special adviser in the months before the 1992 general election and supported him before that as the Northern Ireland desk officer in the Conservative Research Department. He was, as has been pointed out, a man of profound personal integrity, learned, witty and unfailingly polite and courteous. Peter served as Secretary of State while the Troubles were still raging and—we should never forget—around 100 people a year were losing their lives as a result of the security situation. He cared deeply about Northern Ireland and, with infinite patience and determination, sought a better, more peaceful and stable future for all its people. His huge role in the origins of what became the peace process should never be underestimated. I am sure that I speak for everyone in the House in sending our sincere condolences to his widow Lindsay and the Brooke family at this difficult time.
I turn now to the Bill itself. It is, of course, with profound regret that I return once again to this Dispatch Box to bring forward legislation in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive. I am certain that noble Lords across the House will agree that this is not a position in which any of us would wish to find ourselves. In line with our steadfast commitment to the 1998 Belfast agreement, His Majesty’s Government remain committed to supporting the restoration of the Executive in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. In our view, a strong devolved Government, with elected representatives from across the community working together, is the surest foundation for the governance of Northern Ireland within our United Kingdom and the best outcome for all its people.
Last month, many of us came together, including Members of your Lordships’ House—including the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, on the Bench opposite—to reflect on the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement. We marked the progress that Northern Ireland has made over the past quarter of a century and the relative peace and prosperity that the agreement has brought. This anniversary remains an opportunity for all of us to recommit to building an even brighter future for Northern Ireland. Now is the time to decide how we want to move forward together, to create a better future for and deliver on the priorities of the people of Northern Ireland. That includes a more prosperous economy and better, more sustainable public finances and services.
On that note, and before I provide an overview of the Bill, I will say a few words on Northern Ireland’s public finances. As the provisions of the Bill will indicate, we are acutely concerned about the long-term stability of public finances in Northern Ireland. It was with considerable disappointment that, in the absence of devolved government, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland found it necessary, once again, to intervene and set a budget for 2023-24. I set out that budget in a Written Statement to your Lordships’ House on 27 April. As he has made clear on multiple occasions, the extent of the budget pressures facing Northern Ireland departments is, to put it mildly, extremely challenging. Departments are facing difficult decisions in the current circumstances. The Government recognise that, and it is one of the overriding reasons why we need an Executive in place to take some of these decisions and make choices on budget priorities.
As the UK Government, we stand ready to work with a restored Executive on these issues but, in the meantime, we have a responsibility to ensure that public services and management of public funds can continue. We will, in due course, introduce legislation that will put that budget on to a legal footing, if the Executive are not restored to do so. Members of your Lordships’ House will have the opportunity to debate in more detail those allocations if and when we have to introduce that legislation.
Today, though, I will focus on the Bill and its provisions. The Bill is of course a short one and I will seek to be brief in recognition of that. I once again express my sincere thanks to the Benches opposite for their continued co-operation as the Government seek to bring the Bill forward at the requisite pace. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for the constructive manner in which they and others intend to approach this legislation.
The Bill does three important things. First, it continues the provisions relating to decision-making for Northern Ireland civil servants which Parliament passed last December through the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022. These provisions, which clarified the decisions that civil servants in Northern Ireland departments can take in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers and an Executive, are due to expire on 5 June. Through the Bill, these powers will continue until the Executive are reformed. That will avoid a governance gap arising if an Executive are not in place by 5 June. As before, senior officers will be required to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State; the Government published an updated draft of that guidance on 10 May. We would, of course, welcome any representations that noble Lords or others may have on that guidance before we finalise it.
The second main provision of the Bill—and the more novel provision in this legislation compared with previous Bills—is to provide for new powers for the Secretary of State to explore, with Northern Ireland departments, options for budget sustainability including further revenue raising in Northern Ireland. Alongside commissioning advice, the Bill will allow the Secretary of State to direct consultations to be held by Northern Ireland departments on those matters. These powers are, again, time limited and will apply only until an Executive are formed. These measures are deliberately focused on official advice and consultations on budget sustainability. Final decisions on any implementation are best taken by locally elected representatives; the Bill does not give the Secretary of State any power to direct implementation of any such measures.
Finally, the third thing that the Bill does is to ensure greater political oversight of the management of public money in the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Bill does that by providing for Northern Ireland department accounts and associated documents to be laid in the House of Commons, in the absence of the Assembly. In previous absences of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the law has provided for that scrutiny to fall to Parliament, and the provision in the Bill will do that again. This provision will be active only for this and any future periods where there is no functioning Assembly, on the basis that public bodies must always be scrutinised for their good management of public money.
In conclusion, the measures in the Bill will ensure a continuation of the current governance arrangements in Northern Ireland, should there be no Executive when they expire next month. However, these measures are not, and cannot be, a substitute for devolved government in Northern Ireland. We acknowledge that the current arrangements are by no means desirable—to put it mildly—particularly in the context of Northern Ireland’s difficult financial position. I also recognise that the Bill is not a long-term solution to the wider issues with which Northern Ireland is grappling: they are matters for a newly reconstituted Executive and Assembly to address. The marking of the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement has reminded us all of the importance of making the institutions in Northern Ireland work, and work for the entire community. His Majesty’s Government believes that having an effective and functioning devolved Government is crucial to showing that the union itself works for the whole community in Northern Ireland. That is why the restoration of the Executive remains our top government priority in Northern Ireland. We will continue to do everything that we can to make that happen in as short a timeframe as possible and, as we do that, we will keep these arrangements under review. For now, I commend the Bill to the House.
My Lords, we certainly agree with the Minister when he says that it is regrettable that the Northern Ireland Assembly is not up and operating—but we all know perfectly well why. My party gave much notice—in fact, I think that we gave 13 months’ notice—in this House and elsewhere that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive were on life support. Now the whole thing has collapsed due to these red lanes, green lanes and border controls. We are no longer strictly a part of the United Kingdom in the same sense as Scotland and Wales.
But the main point I want to make today pertains to Clause 2 in relation to advice and information on options for raising public revenue. The Government are right to be alive to the fact that Northern Ireland needs more public revenue, but the implication of this is that the way forward is through local means. That, however, is to distract attention from the key point at issue. On 2 May, the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council published a report that uses the Holtham formula to calculate what needs to be spent in Northern Ireland in order for needs to be met on the same basis as they are in England. Crucially, the Holtham formula for defining need per head of population is not a random assertion but the result of a government commission that the UK Government have already accepted for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Using the formula, the Fiscal Council demonstrated that in order for needs to be met in Northern Ireland on the same basis as England, Northern Ireland needs to receive £124 per head. Crucially, however, the Treasury block grant transparency document shows that spending per head in Northern Ireland for the spending review period of 2022 to 2025 is £121 per head. It is, therefore, no surprise that Northern Ireland is currently in the midst of a very serious funding crisis, with Stormont departments having to make cuts right, left and centre. Today, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK to be in receipt of below-needs block grant funding. Northern Ireland thus finds itself in a similar position to Wales in 2009-10, but, rather than just being £1 below need for one year, Northern Ireland is £3 below, and not just for this financial year but for the last financial year and for the next financial year.
If we extrapolate for the three-year funding review period, the Fiscal Council report demonstrates that we are currently underfunded to the tune of just over £1.2 billion. The critical point in all this is that after Wales went below need for funding in 2009-10, the UK Government responded in a way that established three critical precedents. First, they accepted the Holtham formula as a definition of need. Secondly, they introduced a 5% transitional needs adjustment for Wales, whose purpose it is to slow down the Barnett squeeze up until reaching the Holtham formula definition of need. This applies when funding per head has not fallen below need. Thirdly, it introduced a Barnett floor for Wales on the basis of the Holtham formula definition of need to introduce a complete needs adjustment at the point where funding per head reaches need and threatens to go below.
In making that arrangement, the UK Government have agreed that it would be wrong for funding per head ever to fall below need, and made provision to prevent this ever happening again. The Government are now duty bound to afford the people of Northern Ireland the same courtesy. As we have already fallen below need, this should result in a full needs adjustment backdated to the beginning of the spending review period. In recent weeks, the Government have sought to press the DUP back into government in various ways. I ask that they reflect very carefully about the implications of trying to use the current funding crisis as a means of doing so. The reason we had to withdraw from Stormont is that we were not prepared to settle for, and thus effectively cement in, a second-class citizenship in which we no longer have the right to stand for election to make the laws to which we are subject and in which we are forced to be presented to the rest of our home economy as if we are a foreign country. I do not think it would reflect well on the Government to do that and I do not think it would be wise.
Finally, in the normal sense of events there would be an opportunity to ask the Minister for a meeting between Committee and Report to discuss the need for a comparable Barnett floor provision for Northern Ireland to that which exists in Wales. However, there will be no time between Committee and Report, as all remaining stages are to be taken on one day, so I will take this opportunity of asking for such a meeting to discuss this ahead of the remaining stages.
My Lords, I support the Bill, but I want briefly to echo the words of the Minister on Lord Brooke and the major contribution he made to the affairs of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
There is no alternative at this moment to the appearance of the Bill, which I think I can say safely that the whole House regrets. I welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee in the other place is taking a closer look at the general question of Northern Ireland funding and the longer-term problems of the financing of Northern Ireland. I note with great interest the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, that there may be lessons to learn from Wales: I think we should listen carefully to what he said on that.
As I said, there is no alternative at this moment, but of course there could be an alternative in quite quick order if the DUP were to take up its share of the co-premiership of Northern Ireland. Our briefing note from the Library is absolutely excellent—it is of very high quality—but it refers to the DUP taking up the deputy premiership as if it were, like the deputy premiership in the other place, a subordinate position, whereas of course Northern Ireland is a co-premiership and it is worth just making the point that the DUP would have half a share of the co-premiership were it to take up that position. Indeed, I remind the House that, on the basis of its previous work in this respect, it actually delivered 10 years of stability to Northern Ireland—something that is all too casually forgotten.
I conclude by briefly referring to the words of the Foreign Secretary at the Select Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, on the working of the protocol. That committee, which has done important work, will soon, I hope, be the Select Committee on the Working of the Windsor Framework. The Foreign Secretary stressed the way in which, if the DUP returned to government, it would not lose agency, it would actually gain agency. At this point, it is a passive spectator with respect to realities which, however objectionable, are actually not going to change.
It is worth remembering that we are on a road and on a process. The Theresa May iteration of the withdrawal agreement that arrived in this House contained absolutely no reference to the existence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Johnson iteration changed that, and it has been changed much more again by the new Windsor Framework. It is perfectly clear that the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly going forward in handling the relationship of these tricky problems—and they are tricky problems, to which there is no perfect solution—is now considerably enhanced. Parliament as a whole has moved very substantially on what is called the democratic deficit: indeed, the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, has laid a lot of emphasis on that.
I remind the House that the brake which has been introduced in the new arrangement is a new development. It is increasingly clear, from listening carefully to the debates, that it is not disputed on any side that it is of significance. There is an argument, given the totality of developments, about how important it is, but there is no argument any more about its specific effectiveness, on either side. That is one of the few points of clarity in what I think has been a very confused debate in Northern Ireland which has not focused enough on the exact details of what has been before the people of Northern Ireland over the last few weeks; it has become increasingly clear.
I draw brief attention to the unilateral declaration by the UK Government on the democratic consent mechanism in Article 18, posted on 24 March of this year on the EU website and noted by the EU. This again raises a whole space for political play in dealing with the possible difficulties that might well arise. Of course, ultimately there is a simple reality. As Lord Trimble did twice, with my total support, if it turns out that undertakings have been given—for example, the apparent undertakings in the very important White Paper the Government have laid out—and if the DUP enters the Executive and it turns out that the undertakings, or the apparent basis on which the DUP is entering, are not correct, there is the option of actually withdrawing again. Nobody can dispute this. Lord Trimble effectively did it twice. It is not very nice and I would deeply regret seeing it happen. I deeply regretted it being done twice in a different era, but it was actually the right thing to do and it sustained the process in the end. But it is indisputably an option.
So the alternatives are either to be a passive recipient of things that cannot be changed or to engage in genuine political debate about the future.
My Lords, the Minister said it was with profound regret that he was bringing forward this Bill; I think we all share that sentiment. I do not want to repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, said, but it is important that we remind ourselves why we are here: we are here because the United Kingdom Government decided that Northern Ireland could be treated differently, and our citizenship is being eroded in many ways. The internal market has gone and all the hype about the Windsor protocol, as I would call it, is being exposed more and more. Therefore, we are here through the Government’s own making, and because they are not committing to the whole of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union—which was what was on our ballot paper in Northern Ireland as well.
Of course, we have to go ahead with this Bill; it is important. However, I think we should also remind ourselves that the 1998 devolution process, which we have been commemorating recently, is inherently unstable. It may have enhanced peace, yet there have been over 150 terrorist murders in that period, mostly killings between terrorist groups and each other. None were caused by the state, although around five involved the deaths of security force and prison staff. You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given the ceaseless list of 1970s legacy cases going through the courts in Belfast—every week there is another one—all of which are trying to rewrite history by reallocating blame for killings from the IRA to some element of state forces. It is really important that your Lordships realise and remember that.
A working Executive could do various things. They could agree on dividing up the money from the block grant. However, as we know in this House, any issues which require the two communities to yield on their particular hard and fast views mean we in Parliament end up legislating time after time: on legacy, abortion, gay rights or welfare reform—anything that is really controversial ends up here. We need to remember that as well.
The 1998 consociational structure means that Stormont operates on two tracks that do not meet. Local government works because it operates more on a committee system that cannot be boycotted easily. We see, and it is quite sad, that the Government, having changed the date of the local council elections to today, then put Northern Ireland legislation on the agenda for today. My personal view is that we should be strengthening local government in Northern Ireland, increasing the numbers of Members of Parliament, and doing away with and abolishing the whole Stormont set-up.
The current Secretary of State will not remember it, unlike the Minister, but when David Trimble twice pulled down the Executive over decommissioning, or the lack of it, he experienced the same wave of outrage that we hear in the media in Northern Ireland about what is not happening and Stormont not sitting. Today that rage is compounded by the strategic budget cuts. I believe that Northern Ireland needs the same focus on the Barnett formula, and how it works, that Wales got—it really is time for that. People in Northern Ireland are not stupid. They know that some 98% of government spending in Northern Ireland will proceed, regardless of whether Stormont is sitting or not. The financial situation is dire, and of course some of that happened under Stormont. The Sinn Féin Finance Minister could not get his budget through Stormont, so the idea that if we all get back to Stormont tomorrow the finances would be sorted is rather silly.
We have a legislative lockdown, but with only the minimum of law changes needed to keep the show on the road and to stop the lack of money supply actually wrecking sections of the economy. However, I feel the Secretary of State has perhaps decided that punishing the Northern Ireland people is the way to get devolved government back. We have seen senior civil servants—who I am sure are taking soundings from government Ministers—choose the most conspicuous cuts, such as this week’s cut to nurse-training funding, to frighten the public. I am sure this is being given the green light by certain people in certain positions. That health cut is going to inflict a major workforce shortfall in three years’ time, when those nurses who should have been graduating and entering the local profession will not do so—and of course there is a huge shortage of trained nurses in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
There is some common sense in the Bill. Clause 2 gives powers for the Secretary of State to direct departments to provide advice or information, and even to oblige them to carry out a consultation. There might be a seed of a possible return to what I think would be a more sensible solution, and that would be a form of direct rule.
I know the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, on the Front Bench, will probably have a different view, but I think the Orders in Council system could have been a better way. We are going to find it extremely difficult to get Stormont set up and working well. It is time we started to think about that and to realise that Northern Ireland does need the direct attention of this place, and not treat devolution as some way of getting rid of it. We need to remember that while we have the Windsor protocol we will not have devolution.
My Lords, I share the regret expressed by the Minister and other Members that we are discussing this Bill today. It is deeply unfortunate that this legislation is necessary. However, rather than repeat the argument about how we got here—I am no fan of either the Northern Ireland protocol or the Windsor Framework—I wish to concentrate my remarks on the perilous financial position the people of the Province now find themselves in.
His Majesty’s Government have committed to bring forward a separate Bill to put the draft budget recently set by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the statute book. That budget could have been part of the Bill before us today, but I am pleased it is not because it at least holds open the possibility of a change of approach from Mr Heaton-Harris.
I know the Secretary of State is a fan of sport, and indeed a qualified football referee. However, I do not know if he is a poker player. If he is, I would not expect him to be a particularly successful one. It is perfectly obvious to see what he is attempting to achieve, both by publishing his draft budget and by his comments surrounding its content.
To be fair to Mr Heaton-Harris, I understand his frustration at the lack of a functioning Executive and Assembly at Stormont. It is a frustration held by a great number of people in Northern Ireland, albeit for an assortment of different reasons. However, I do not believe it is right for him to place such fear and worry in the minds of so many individuals, families and organisations across the Province because of the failure of politicians in Belfast and London, and indeed Dublin.
According to the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council, Stormont departments—now run solely by unelected civil servants—will be expected to find £800 million in cuts and revenue-raising measures as a result of what has become known locally as the “punishment budget”. The fiscal council calculates that the draft budget amounts to a reduction of some 3.3% in real terms this year. That is a much harsher cut than that faced by Whitehall departments, which have been handed a 0.7% real-terms budgetary reduction.
In education—I declare an interest as my wife is a retired principal of a leading primary school in south Belfast—schools in Northern Ireland are facing a 2.7% cut in funding. In contrast, the budget for schools in England is due to rise by 6.5%. I fail to see how that is in any way justifiable, particularly in the wake of the pandemic and the challenges pupils in Northern Ireland, as indeed elsewhere, have had to face.
There are other areas of grave concern for me regarding the Government’s planned budget cuts, but I will highlight just two. First, on policing, speaking at the end of last month, Assistant Chief Constable Bobby Singleton told the BBC that the PSNI expected to be hit by a budget cut of £150 million. He said this figure was based on indications he had been given by the Department of Justice, which, as the Minister confirmed to me in a recent Written Answer, is responsible for its funding. Given the recent and thankfully failed attempt by dissident republicans to murder DCI John Caldwell, and the increase in the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland from “substantial” to “severe”—a decision taken by MI5, independent of Ministers—I believe the cut to PSNI funding is particularly ill-advised and a reckless path to tread.
His Majesty’s Government have had few achievements to proclaim over the past few months, but one has been meeting their target of recruiting 20,000 additional police officers in England and Wales since 2019. Meanwhile, earlier this year in Northern Ireland, the chief constable announced plans to reduce numbers by 6% to just 6,700 officers, making it the smallest force it has ever been. Given the ongoing terrorist threat and the time it takes to train new officers, that is an appalling state of affairs which is neither acceptable nor sustainable.
I also want to speak about health. Here in England, barely a day goes past without another story in the media about the dire state of NHS waiting lists, but waiting lists in Northern Ireland are by far the worst in the entire United Kingdom. In figures released in March, 122,267 Northern Ireland patients were on waiting lists in the in-patient and day case categories, with 66,302 waiting a year or more for their surgeries. Further, 6,000 had been waiting for five years or more—long before the world had even heard of Covid-19. Yet, in the Secretary of State’s draft budget, NHS funding in the Province is due to rise by a mere 0.5%, far below the increased amounts for health in Great Britain.
I also have deep concerns about the problems faced by community pharmacies in Northern Ireland, many of which are struggling to stay afloat because of a range of problems, including the Northern Ireland drug tariff and the delayed implementation of the community pharmacy commissioning plan for Northern Ireland. Rather than go into the intricacies of the situation on the Floor of the House, I politely ask the Minister to meet with me and representatives of community pharmacies in the Province to hear their concerns directly. I hope that is an invitation he will accept.
Finally, today is local elections polling day in Northern Ireland. As politicians, we are more aware than most that it should be a day of excitement and hope for a better future. However, given the political vacuum people in the Province have found themselves in once again, there is no sense of optimism. Local voters face the prospect of a continuing absence of accountable political leadership, a seemingly endless stream of funding cuts to key services and little prospect of respite any time soon. Even the levelling up fund, which many local community groups and sports clubs were hoping would enable them to do something positive for their areas, allocated only a minimal amount for Northern Ireland in round 2 and left numerous applicants significantly out of pocket because of the expense of putting together their professional bids.
The Bill is before us today because His Majesty’s Government were left with few other options. However, if and when a budget Bill is brought forward, I hope Ministers, including the Prime Minister, will have the foresight and wisdom to look again at the figures, particularly in relation to health, education and policing. I accept the need to reform how Stormont operates, but in the depths of a cost of living crisis I appeal to the Government to do the right thing by protecting the people of Northern Ireland from the perils that the current draft budget graphically exposes them to.
My Lords, I shall not detain the House long nor repeat everything that has already been said, because it would be quite unnecessary. I have great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and I agree entirely with what he said: there is no alternative to this legislation. That is unfortunate but true.
I think this is the first occasion on which we have debated Northern Ireland business since the death of Lord Carswell, a former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. I raise his death and pay tribute to him because I remember being here during the Brexit debates, which were long, monotonous and varied, when he spoke about his childhood in Belfast and how he could bicycle down from Belfast to Dublin and never saw a border or a border guard. That was in his lifetime. We talked a lot of nonsense about how there might be a hard border in Northern Ireland, but there has never been a hard border across the island of Ireland. Friends of mine spent many years trying to stop illegal border crossings, mostly smuggling and terrorist-related, across the internal border, and they completely failed.
One should remember what Lord Carswell said because this is partly behind the whole issue about the Windsor Framework. My view is that the Windsor Framework is flawed but it is the best deal we will get. In addition, we live in the art of the possible; that is what the Windsor Framework is. In politics, much as we might wish to, we do not always get our own way on everything. I deprecate the fact that the European Union should have anything to do with a sovereign part of the United Kingdom, but that is the situation we are in.
To move on slightly to the broader issue, I very much deprecate the fact that Sinn Féin is the largest party in the Assembly now—or it would be if the Assembly was sitting. I hate it. Sinn Féin was always described as the political wing of the IRA, and I think it still is. Because of that, it sticks in my craw that anybody should vote for Sinn Féin, although a lot of very decent people do. The IRA is now somewhat romanticised in Northern Ireland, but in fact it is a bunch of ghastly, murderous thugs, and we should remember that—starting with Gerry Adams, who, not in this world but perhaps in the next, should answer for the deaths of people such as Jean McConville. However, I say to my fellow unionists that we live in the world as it is and we are in the art of the possible.
I will not digress too far, but after 1997, many people in the Conservative Party wished to go back and say, “Why didn’t these stupid people, the electorate, vote for us?” Finally, however, we worked out that you do not blame the electorate—you blame yourselves for why people do not vote for you. I say to my fellow unionists, we have to change. The world changes; we all have to change—unbelievably, I am less hard-line than I was. I say to my fellow unionists that we need political leadership to understand how to get the electorate’s confidence back, and political leadership to go back into the Assembly so that we have an Executive in Northern Ireland. For all its defects, that is the best way forward.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap and make one point, which is about the relationship of science to the Bill. I begin by associating myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Caine, about Lord Brooke. It is right that his contribution and the work he did over many years is acknowledged in a debate of this kind.
Science, and the science community in Northern Ireland, needs an Assembly as much as any other community. Much excellent work is done on science in Northern Ireland, as well as elsewhere in the UK. It was no coincidence that on the recent visit of the President of the United States, he went to the University of Ulster to open the new premises, because good work is done in Ulster, as well as elsewhere.
I have reason to share the view of the scientific community that it needs a working Assembly. For many years, in a former capacity, with colleagues in the science community, I used to organise the science event known as “Science and Stormont”, which was held every year in Stormont with a working Assembly. Science is a refreshingly non-partisan area of endeavour, and at those meetings, year after year, representatives of all the major parties would come to this event to speak: we would have a sort of round table. Sometimes we went to listen to the Assembly in action later. These were very successful events and they mattered to the scientific community in Northern Ireland.
I understand entirely why the Bill is necessary, and I support it. Beyond that, I simply wanted to use my moment to make the point that science really matters, and science needs a working Assembly, and I very much hope that it will not be too long before we see that.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, on the unusually important but not often raised issue of science in Northern Ireland and the role that Northern Ireland can play in that regard. I, too, begin by paying tribute to Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville for the invaluable work he did in paving the way towards the peace process. I was very moved by the Minister’s comments—I know he used to work for him—echo his sentiments and send my condolences to Lord Brooke’s family.
This has been a very interesting and, in terms of recent debates, relatively short debate. No doubt many colleagues are back in Northern Ireland today for the local election polling day. As ever, I thank the Minister and his private office for the very courteous way in which he consulted all parties ahead of Second Reading. As is customary and has been said by all noble Lords speaking in this debate, we support the need for the Bill but deeply regret that it remains necessary. One can but hope that with the results of the local elections in Northern Ireland at the weekend will come an end to this continued state of political paralysis and limbo. The continued absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly is hugely to be regretted and is having an extremely negative impact on ordinary people’s lives. It is causing financial, governance and constitutional issues that are of concern to us all.
A Northern Ireland friend told me this week that her mother had a fall last Thursday afternoon and ended up at A&E at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald. There were 165 people in the queue ahead of her, including children with broken bones, and nine ambulances were waiting outside. In Northern Ireland, as perhaps elsewhere in the UK, the NHS is in a state of crisis and, for as long as there remains no functioning Executive and Assembly, there is little or no opportunity to take major healthcare or other public sector decisions. The state of limbo is equally resulting in an inability to promote educational reforms, to move forward and make progress in dealing with the legacy of the past or to take long-term economic strategic and budgetary decisions for the future.
This is all the more tragic because there are potentially very positive economic opportunities for Northern Ireland. A major trade conference is planned for September and the US envoy has offered to bring a trade mission to Northern Ireland, but without a functioning Executive in place it will be hard to take full advantage of these opportunities. While praising the continued hard work and dedication of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, does not the Minister agree that this continued state of limbo is putting the Civil Service in a very awkward position? Although the Bill seeks to put sticking plaster over some of the difficult public sector finance issues facing Northern Ireland, does the Minister agree that the definition of public interest, as set out in the Bill, is ultimately a subjective political judgment?
It is not our intention on these Benches to table amendments to the Bill before us today, but I would like to ask some follow-up questions on reviewing public financing stemming from the amendments tabled by my friend Stephen Farry MP and the Alliance Party in the House of Commons last week. If the Minister is unable to give an immediate response to these questions, perhaps he would consider giving a more detailed response later in a letter.
First, would the Minister consider commissioning a report to provide an assessment of expenditure costs stemming from duplication as a result of divided communities, and its impact on public finances in Northern Ireland? Secondly, does he agree that it would be useful to engage with the Treasury on options to provide an “invest to save” fund to support the transformation and sustainability of public finances in Northern Ireland? Thirdly—an issue raised by other noble Lords already—will the Northern Ireland Secretary engage with Northern Ireland departments and the fiscal council in relation to the Barnett formula and a needs-based review?
The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement reminded us all that progress is made as a result of political leadership and courage, often at the highest level. The signing, welcome on these Benches, of the Windsor Framework agreement was also clearly driven by the Prime Minister. I appreciate that there are a great many other issues currently facing the Prime Minister, but does the Minister agree that finding a way to end the continued impasse and bring back a functioning Executive has to be a key priority for the Prime Minister and his team in the weeks ahead? If that does not happen and the current stalemate continues, can the Minister tell us what thought has been given to how and when the Government will decide that, for the sake of the people of Northern Ireland, enough is enough?
My Lords, obviously, I join the Minister and other Members of your Lordships’ House in referring to the work of Lord Brooke. Peter Brooke was a man of huge decency and integrity. He was a colleague of mine in the House of Commons, and obviously a very effective Secretary of State in the sense that he actually progressed the peace process. Also, and sometimes forgotten, he was a very effective chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee. He will be missed. He played his part in Northern Ireland history; there is no question about that.
We of course agree with the necessity of the Bill. It has a very innocuous name, the Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill. What it actually means is that we are going to carry on with a sort of direct rule until we can resolve the problems with regard to the restoration of the institutions. That is not good, of course—we deeply regret it and I will come to that in a second—but with regard to the Bill, particularly on the issue of finance, there are important questions that the Government have to address. They have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and others. There is a case—I speak as a former Finance Minister for Northern Ireland—for a re-look at, reform of and rethink of how the Barnett formula applies to Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, quite rightly referred to Northern Ireland, in the formula sense, being underfunded. He referred to the position of Wales, which I know a little about. It is quite interesting to reflect that the settlement changed for Wales because of the work that was done and the pressure that was put on the Government by the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government. Would that have happened without devolution? It might have done, but I doubt it. A sitting Government in Cardiff and a sitting Parliament could address these issues in detail and then negotiate with the United Kingdom Government. Therefore, the issue which the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, referred to is best addressed in the context of a restored Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland.
I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, that we could exist without an Executive and an Assembly in Northern Ireland. If we completely forget about the Good Friday agreement and the peace process, with a Parliament in Edinburgh and a Senedd in Cardiff, it would be impossible not to have a devolved Parliament in Northern Ireland, irrespective of the peace process. We must live with that, and we should, because it is the only answer to the problems of Northern Ireland. Every time a Member from Northern Ireland gets on their feet in the Commons or in this House, ultimately it is not good enough. Those people in the Assembly in Belfast are elected directly by the people of Northern Ireland to address the specific issues which are devolved to Belfast. The Minister knows that there are dozens and dozens of huge decisions which cannot be taken by civil servants. It is totally unfair, in a modern democracy, to put on the backs of people who are unelected the burden of having to make huge decisions which only politicians can decide, particularly regarding finance.
Obviously, we still understand the problems that the Democratic Unionist Party has with the settlement in Northern Ireland regarding the European Union. However, the Windsor Framework is a real step forward and should be the basis of proper negotiation to arrange a settlement. This morning I was looking, yet again, at Section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act1998, which I had the privilege of steering through the House of Commons a quarter of a century ago. It says specifically that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and will only cease to be so if the people of Northern Ireland so decide by a majority. I cannot see that happening for some time to come—who knows?—but that is what it says. The principle of consent—
I thank the noble Lord for giving way and I agree with that part of the 1998 Act. I am sorry for going on about a very simple thing, but it is the kind of basic thing that makes people in Northern Ireland feel very left out: duty-free. Why can people flying from Belfast to anywhere in the EU not get duty-free, when you can fly from the rest of the United Kingdom to anywhere in the EU and get it? I got an answer recently which almost implied that part of the reason was because you could fly from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland. Of course, as the noble Lord knows, you cannot fly from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, but that is just a simple thing that sets us apart.
I do not think that in any way alters the position that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. The noble Baroness will recall, because she comes from Northern Ireland and lived the early part of her life there, that there has always been a difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain in certain respects. For example, livestock and agriculture have always had to be checked as they came across the Irish Sea, for various reasons. There was a separate Government for decades in Northern Ireland which imposed various restrictions, but that in no way affected the fact that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, so long as the people in Northern Ireland decide it should be. I do not underestimate the problems that have arisen, frankly because of Brexit. Without Brexit, this dilemma would not be in front of us, but we have to live with it. It seems to me that the Windsor agreement is a good start.
There are elections today in Northern Ireland. We will not know the outcome for another day or so. The marching season will soon be upon us. The recess is not far away. However, that should not stop the Government from planning for proper structured negotiations with the political parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government, so far as they affect the agreement. There should be a big role for the Prime Minister in the weeks and months ahead to work with parties in Northern Ireland to get a settlement. Despite the problems which we have had in Northern Ireland over the last two years regarding the protocol and the difficulties about the suspension of the institutions, there is no doubt from when we celebrated the Good Friday agreement some weeks ago in Belfast and elsewhere—and I do mean celebrated—that there has been a huge change. The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, said quite rightly that, tragically, there have been 150 deaths in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years, mainly as a result of terrorism. However, that must be set against the 3,500 people who perished in the 25 years before the Good Friday agreement. That is the real measure of where we are in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who participated in this debate, which was relatively short by our recent standards. I thank noble Lords for their kind words about my late colleague, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, and for their general support for this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, referred to the title of the Bill including “Interim Arrangements”. When we were discussing this, I was very keen to avoid calling it “temporary arrangements”, given that everything in Northern Ireland that has had “temporary” attached it over many years has assumed an air of permanence.
I am also grateful to the noble Lord Murphy of Torfaen for reminding the House of Section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which makes clear that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and will never cease to be so without the consent of most of its people. Speaking for this Government, I would not want the current constitutional position to change. Regarding his point about the restoration of the institutions, and echoing other noble Lords across the House, including the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, I assure all noble Lords that, irrespective of the calendar, our focus will remain very firmly on restoring those institutions which, as I said at the outset, are in the best interests of the union and of the people of Northern Ireland.
I politely disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, who argued for the strengthening of local government and effectively the abolition of Stormont, which would be a fundamental change to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is not a position that the Government can support. We remain firmly committed to the agreement and to the institutions across all three strands that the agreement establishes. Our priority is to make the agreement and the institutions work for the good of the people of Northern Ireland.
Unsurprisingly, a number of noble Lords focused on the current budget situation in Northern Ireland. As I said in my opening speech, if there is no restored Executive, it will be our intention to bring forward a Bill at the appropriate time to put the current budget allocations on to a legal footing. We will have a further opportunity to discuss the budget at that stage. However, picking up on one or two points, we recognise that the current situation is unsustainable and that Northern Ireland departments, in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, will have to face very difficult decisions to live within their budget, but these are unavoidable.
I heard my noble friend Lord Rogan and the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, refer to the “punishment budget”, as some people have described it—but it is not a description that I accept for one second. The budget reflects the reality of the fiscal situation in which Northern Ireland currently finds itself.
It is for that reason that, over many years, the Government have recognised the unique challenges that Northern Ireland faces. I recall that the spending review in 2021 was the most generous since the restoration of the devolved Government in 1998-99. It gave Northern Ireland the possibility of multiyear budgets, as opposed to the single-year budgets that have bedevilled us over a number of recent years. Sadly that proved not to be possible.
In addition, we have seen billions of pounds of extra spending through the Stormont House agreement, the fresh start agreement, the confidence and supply agreement, and New Decade, New Approach. It is difficult to sustain the argument that Northern Ireland has been systematically underfunded by the Government. As the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, reminded us, public spending per head in Northern Ireland is still running at about 20% higher than the United Kingdom average.
However, I recognise that there is a discussion about the funding formula, which the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, raised in some detail. To echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, that discussion would be far better taking place between the United Kingdom Government and a restored Northern Ireland Executive. In the spirit of openness, I am of course more than happy to have a conversation with the noble Lord about these matters. Likewise, I am happy to respond positively to the invitation from my noble friend Lord Rogan to meet the pharmacists in Northern Ireland.
A number of noble Lords again raised issues with the Windsor Framework. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, feel very strongly about this. I gently remind noble Lords that the House of Commons approved the Windsor Framework by 513 votes to 29, and your Lordships by 227 votes to 14. It clearly represents the settled will of Parliament that the framework be carried forward and implemented. In our view, it delivers stability for the people of Northern Ireland, protects Northern Ireland’s place in the union and restores the balance of the Belfast agreement.
I agree with my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Bew, who made a powerful case in saying that the framework increases Northern Ireland’s agency. He referred to the role of the Stormont brake; it gives the Assembly a very powerful role in determining future EU legislation and regulations. For that brake to be effective and to be operated, we need a functioning Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. I referred also to the institutional reforms raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey.
The issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, reflected a number of amendments that were put forward in the other place in the name of her sister party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. She raises important points, such as the costs of division in Northern Ireland, which are substantial and need to be addressed, and the transformation funds. I will write to the noble Baroness in more detail, but my initial reaction is that it is wrong to commit the Secretary of State to exploring any particular options at this stage. The Bill gives my right honourable friend a degree of discretion around this and it would probably not be right, as the Alliance Party was trying to do in the House of Commons, to put some of these things into legislation. But I am very happy to discuss these issues further and to write to the noble Baroness.
The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, also referred to the position of civil servants under the legislation, as did the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen. I agree that it puts them in a very difficult situation, and these concerns have been voiced within Northern Ireland itself. We are asking a lot of civil servants under this legislation. In our view, this approach is unfortunately necessary. It strikes the right balance between ensuring that governance can continue while giving parties in Northern Ireland the time and space to form an Executive. I entirely agree that this is not a long-term fix; it cannot be a long-term fix or a substitute for the proper re-establishment of a functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland, in line with the Belfast agreement. On that note, I beg to move.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill
Committee (13th Day)
Relevant documents: 24th and 31st Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee, 12th Report from the Constitution Committee
Clause 124: Infrastructure Levy: England
Debate on Amendment 313 resumed.
I remind the Committee that we are still debating the group beginning with Amendment 313, if any noble Lord wishes to speak on amendments within that group.
My Lords, I am sorry to move ahead of my noble friend. The amendments in this group go to the heart of an issue that has been of much concern among providers of social housing: will the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill lead to more affordable housing—in particular, more social rented housing—or will the replacement of Section 106 agreements with the new infrastructure levy mean fewer new affordable homes? As the Minister has noted, the Government hope and expect the new infrastructure levy regime to result in
“at least as much, if not more”—[Official Report, 17/11/22; col. 1076.]
social housing. Most of the amendments in this group are trying to make sure that this aspiration becomes a reality.
The big picture is that the Government have maintained their overall target of 300,000 homes per annum, and repeated studies maintain that about a third of this total should be social housing—that is, housing affordable to the half of the population on average incomes and below. At a time of widespread concern that poverty and health disparities have worsened, housing policies can cause wider inequalities in society or be a means of reducing them.
The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill has profound implications for housing, because it directly affects the amount of social housing required by the planning system from private sector housebuilders. Currently, half of all affordable housing—with its range including higher-cost rentals, shared ownership and so on—comes from the obligations on housebuilders. Within the total for all kinds of affordable housing, the requirements on housebuilders have achieved over half of all the new social rented—in other words, genuinely affordable—housing in recent years.
Following the helpful opening speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, in our previous session, we come to the first amendment in this group, Amendment 326, which addresses how the infrastructure levy can bolster, not diminish, the production of affordable homes. This amendment was eloquently introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, and is supported by the noble Baronesses, Lady Watkins and Lady Thornhill, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. It would give local authorities the right to require a specific proportion of the infrastructure levy to be delivered on site, in kind, not in cash.
This is an important amendment. It would ensure that new affordable homes are built, whereas a cash payment could end up being used for some other purpose elsewhere. It would mean that new developments will comprise a mix of homes for those on different incomes, rather than the social housing being segregated on a separate, less attractive site and therefore stigmatised. It would achieve a bigger bang for the infrastructure levy buck, because it is cheaper for the developer to build affordable homes themselves than to provide cash for others to build elsewhere. It would represent a speedier route to getting affordable housing built out: it avoids the delays of a payment being made by the housebuilder at the end of the project, with the levy receipts being accumulated and a new development being planned and finally built elsewhere some years later. It would meet local affordable housing needs in places where land for development is particularly hard to acquire and where no other sites may come available for the foreseeable future. It can also help with cash flow for SME builders, who then get guaranteed sales to a social landlord up front for a proportion of their development, easing their borrowing pressures. So, in strongly supporting this amendment, I would hope that councils would mostly use this power to specify that developers must normally fulfil their obligations entirely through on-site provision of social housing.
Amendment 327, from the same team, would exempt schemes of 100% affordable housing from having to pay the levy. Amendment 328 from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, proposes the same exemption but where 75% or more of the homes are for affordable housing. Exemptions for affordable homes, whatever their proportion of the total built, must be right; otherwise, local authorities will be collecting infrastructure levy from a social housing provider and then refunding the same body to enable it to provide the affordable housing.
Amendment 344, from the noble Lords, Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Shipley, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, alongside me, seeks to get the infrastructure levy set at the level needed to fulfil the demand set out in the local plan. This is very similar to Amendments 332 and 333 in the names of noble Lords, Lord Etherton and Lord Thurlow, which seek to make sure that the infrastructure levy is set at levels which will satisfy the requirements established by the strategic housing and market assessments. Their amendment proposes that these assessments should become compulsory. This is echoed in Amendment 334A from the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, which would achieve the level of affordable housing set out in the local plan, and her Amendment 349, which follows this up with a requirement for the infrastructure levy to then be spent on achieving this. Amendment 334 from the earlier team spells out that the infrastructure levy must be sufficient to maintain or exceed current levels of affordable housing. So, we are all singing from very similar hymn sheets.
This brings me to my final two amendments in this group. Amendment 350, with the noble Lord, Lord Young, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, stipulates that 75% of the infrastructure levy raised should be spent on affordable housing. That is a smaller percentage than the proportion of Section 106 funding currently spent on affordable homes. Research by the University of Liverpool for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has shown that 78.5% of Section 106 support goes to affordable housing.
Of course, the infrastructure levy will replace not only Section 106 contributions but the community infrastructure levy. However, this is not charged by more than half of local authorities and, where it is, it has a far smaller value than the Section 106 funding. Even when adding together the community infrastructure levy and Section 106 contributions as the comparator with the new levy, two-thirds of the total value of these two development contributions still goes to affordable housing. Bearing in mind the importance of upping the numbers of affordable homes, 75% of infrastructure levy is surely justified.
Amendment 359 would require 50% of the affordable housing to be for the truly affordable social rent housing. Social rents are the rents that currently apply to most council and housing association properties, as clarified in Amendment 323 from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. Social rents invariably pass the test of genuine affordability and are controlled by the Regulator of Social Housing. But, at present, only 12.5% of new affordable housing is available for letting at these rents, which means that less than 4% of homes built by the housebuilders are affordable to those on below-average incomes. Of course, more social rented homes require more subsidy up front than shared ownership or other forms of affordable housing. However, in the longer term, the extra cost will be recouped in lower housing benefit payments. Moreover, the Government’s expectation is that the new infrastructure levy will raise more than its predecessor obligations. More social rented housing is the very best way to spend that extra funding.
In conclusion, I must thank Shelter, the National Housing Federation, Homes for the North and Homes for the South West, among others, for their invaluable input to these amendments. The proposals from so many noble Lords are going in the same direction, addressing the core question of how the Bill can help efforts to increase the amount of social housebuilding. For Report, we clearly need to bring together these variations to produce a consolidated set of amendments.
It may be difficult to feel a great sense of urgency when we hear that the Government are planning to introduce the infrastructure levy gradually over the next decade, and when so much detail will not be known until the National Planning Policy Framework’s new guidance is revealed. But the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill’s introduction of the levy will deeply affect affordable housing production and definitely deserves legislative attention.
I hope that the Minister agrees that this is an opportunity to ensure that the new IL regime has a strong, positive impact in securing more, and definitely not less, urgently needed social housing. I commend these important amendments.
My Lords, I will speak to my Amendments 332, 333 and 341. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, for co-signing them. I entirely agree with much that the noble Lord, Lord Best, said. A whole variety of the amendments in this group are aimed at the same principle: how best to increase decent and affordable housing, particularly social rented housing, for those who so badly need it.
Amendments 332 and 333 concern the setting of infrastructure levy rates under new Section 204G of the Planning Act 2008, to be inserted by Schedule 11 to the Bill. Currently under that provision the only requirement in setting the infrastructure levy rates is to have regard to the desirability of ensuring that the level of affordable housing funded and the level of funding provided by developers is not less than before. That is simply not good enough.
As we all know, there is a critical shortage of affordable social housing. The Minister acknowledged this, most recently when answering a Question in the House on 25 April concerning the National Housing Federation’s report, Overcrowding in England, published on 19 April, particularly its finding that one in six children lives in overcrowded conditions. Shelter has reported that over 1 million households are waiting for social homes, and that last year 29,000 social homes were sold or demolished and fewer than 7,000 were built. It also says that there are now 1.4 million fewer households in England in social housing than there were in 1980. These are shocking facts and statistics.
Amendment 332 provides, as noble Lords will see from the Marshalled List:
“A charging authority must prepare and publish a Strategic Housing and Market Assessment specifying what affordable housing is needed within the area of the charging authority … The charging authority must publish a new Strategic Housing and Market Assessment every three years”.
Amendment 333 provides:
“A charging authority must set rates of IL at a level which, in conjunction with the exercise of such other powers as it possesses, is likely to provide not less than the amount of affordable housing specified in its Strategic Housing and Market Assessment over a three year period”.
The Bill would then continue as it currently does, ensuring that there is no lesser level of funding than before. I have specified a period of three years but would be very happy to discuss with the Minister and others whether that would be appropriate.
It would then be necessary to amend new Section 204N, which requires the charging authority to apply the infrastructure levy in funding
“the provision, improvement, replacement, operation or maintenance of infrastructure”,
which is a term defined to include a wide variety of things, from schools and medical facilities to open spaces and the mitigation of climate change. Those are all very worthy causes, but affordable housing is only seventh out of the 10 matters in the definition of “infrastructure”. There is no provision for prioritising one type of infrastructure over another, while the greatest need is plainly for decent and affordable social housing. To have the right and ability to live in a decent home is one of the most basic human rights. Giving priority to the need for affordable housing—more particularly, affordable social housing—is the purpose of Amendment 341, which would introduce into new Section 204N a cross-reference to new Section 204G as we propose that section should be amended.
My Lords, I add my voice to Amendments 332, 333 and 341 from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, concerning affordable housing, which lies at the root of the Government’s responsibility to their citizens. As we have just heard, it is the duty of government to provide safety and security to its citizens and a roof over their heads. That responsibility includes, at the very top of the list, the needs of the homeless. It is important to remind ourselves that the definition of homeless here includes many of the most vulnerable in our population. They are citizens too, but current circumstances may cause them to question that.
Successive Governments have repeatedly failed to replace council houses sold into the private sector, and this reducing inventory of low-cost housing, however defined, continues against a background of increasing homelessness and need. The Government must somehow finance more affordable housing. These amendments, taken together, will assist in that objective.
As we have heard, Amendment 332 is imperative in that a strategic housing market assessment must be available to planning authorities and to the higher authorities that sit above them. It must also be regularly updated. Amendment 333 links the housing need assessment to the IL and, when combined with other available funding, aims to meet the assessed need.
On day 13 of Committee, we continue to battle our way through the more than 500 amendments, many of which seek a share of the infrastructure levy. They are all worthy claims. I was heartened to hear the Minister say, I think in responding to Amendment 290, that the IL will be prioritised towards local infrastructure. However, local infrastructure is a wide canvas, and we have just heard from the noble and learned Lord that housing was at number seven—way down the list of priorities.
We must not forget that these three amendments lie at the heart of the Government’s responsibilities to their citizens: a place to live in relative safety. This is a crisis, and it is in the Government’s gift to prioritise it in the Bill by adopting Amendment 341. I ask the Minister to agree to these amendments to prioritise affordable housing as a fast track to solving the crisis.
My Lords, I support the amendments in the names of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, and the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow. I declare my rural interests.
My particular angle of support relates to the importance of the provision of sufficient rural affordable housing, which is a huge gap in housing provision, as identified in two reports from the APPG for Rural Business and the Rural Powerhouse, of which I declare my membership. These reports concentrated on levelling up in the countryside and the impact of the cost of living crisis in rural areas.
Citizens Advice and others have pointed to provision of rural housing being a growing problem and a significant barrier to the rural economy, as the average house price can be up to 10% of average earnings, compared with 7.4% in urban areas, excluding London.
Navigating the planning system has always been a problem in rural areas, and larger building providers have been the most successful. CPRE, the countryside charity, has pointed out that successful housing applications tended to be in a very narrow segment of the market—the upper to middle end, which does not favour renters, first-time buyers and affordable housing.
The Government are prioritising the development of brownfield sites, which is certainly laudable, but 87% of these are in urban areas and often in the south-east. However, the economic impact of small developments and, in particular, affordable housing in rural communities can make a huge difference in supporting businesses and communities in terms of employment and other activities. It would also assist with the growing problem of rural homelessness, as identified by Shelter and other charities.
These amendments make strategic housing and market assessments of affordable housing compulsory, and influencing the rate of the infrastructure levy would be of great benefit to the sensible provision of affordable housing in rural areas.
I want briefly to refer to the clause stand part notice tabled by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham and I for a probing purpose. Clause 126 has the effect of retaining the community infrastructure levy in London and Wales, but I will not talk about Wales. We are leaving Wales out of it for these purposes. The clause retains the community infrastructure levy in London, alongside the introduction of the infrastructure levy. I understand that that is essentially because the mayoral CIL has been used for the provision of Crossrail and is expected to do so for years to come.
However, it has raised in our minds a question to ask my noble friend the Minister about whether the community infrastructure levy, which of course does not provide for affordable housing, can live alongside the infrastructure levy for a number of years. The technical consultation, which is to be concluded on 9 June, does not explain how the respective contributions are to be assessed in a combined fashion because they apply to different parameters of the development. That leads to the assumption that with a 10-year transition we are looking at many places across the country with a combination of community infrastructure levy obligations that have arisen in relation to developments over a number of years and past developments, alongside the introduction of the infrastructure levy. The technical consultation, to my reading, does not help us understand how these two things are going to be meshed together. Of course, many noble Lords tabled their amendments in this group before the technical consultation was published. It answers some of the questions, but not all of them, and I think this is one question that it does not quite answer.
Another question occurred to me while reading the technical consultation in relation to affordable housing. It does not yet provide certainty about whether contributions under the infrastructure levy may be regarded as an improvement on the situation where developers are able to negotiate or renegotiate their liabilities under Section 106. Developers are not engaging in negotiations simply because they can and therefore they do and local authorities do not give way simply because they ask for it. Circumstances change.
I am always burned by the fact of the October 2008 crash. In the space, literally, of weeks, the economic viability of many large-scale development projects changed dramatically. If you look at any system, including this system, and it cannot meet the test of what you would do under those circumstances, I am afraid it does not help. Renegotiation of the contributions is one solution. It might be said that if the market price and the gross development value of a large site crash in the way they did in October 2008, the infrastructure levy crashes as well. The problem then is: how is the affordable housing going to be funded? How is the other infrastructure to be funded?
I do not have answers to all these things, but my noble friend and I will perhaps have an opportunity in the next group to talk a bit more substantively about the infrastructure levy and what we might do about it, but that does not answer the question. If affordable housing presently often suffers by being a residual after other Section 106 obligations have been met, and if under the infrastructure levy it becomes, in effect, a right to require and it is elevated above other requirements, there will be a great deal of difficulty in local communities about the fact that there are many other obligations that the infrastructure levy has to meet that may not be able to be met if the gross development value comes down or if, for example, the affordable housing right to require and the tenures that have to be provided lead to a much higher cumulative discount needing to be paid. We have to have some flexibility built into the system, and the risk at the moment is that that is not presently available in the way that we have understood it in the past. We can strengthen local authorities, and in the next group I hope we can talk about how that might be possible.
My Lords, Amendments 313 and 317 propose to make the levy voluntary for local authorities or to introduce it through a pilot system. I acknowledge that the reforms we are proposing will need to be implemented in a sensible manner. There are problems with the existing system, but it is important that we do not introduce new issues. We want to ensure that the new levy delivers at least as much affordable housing as the existing system, and that is why we are currently consulting on the levy and intend to consult again on the draft regulations. We want input from across the private and public sectors, and we will consider the feedback carefully as we proceed. As I mentioned previously, the new levy will be introduced through a process of test and learn and a phased-out programme. I hope that this will provide the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, the reassurance that further piloting powers are not needed.
In terms of introducing the levy as a voluntary system, we are seeking to create more certainty across the whole system of developer contributions. We recognise that the levy must be introduced carefully to ensure that it will deliver the intended results. That is the purpose of the test and learn. However, if we do not aim for a unified system, we will dilute the potential benefits. I hope this provides the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, with sufficient reassurances to withdraw Amendment 313.
Amendments 364 and 364A are concerned with how the Government will assess the delivery of affordable homes under the new infrastructure levy. Given the length of time of the proposed rollout, requiring an assessment of the levy 120 days after the Bill is passed, as proposed in Amendment 364, provides an insufficient amount of time meaningfully to assess the impacts of the levy, but I reassure the Committee that during the rollout the Government will work closely with stakeholders to monitor the impacts of the levy. That includes monitoring our commitment to deliver at least as much, if not more, affordable housing.
In addition, the department has commissioned a scoping study to develop an approach to the evaluation of the planning elements of the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill, which we expect to report following Royal Assent, and the full evaluation informed by the findings of the scoping study will then be commissioned. I hope this gives reassurance to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and that she will feel able not to move her amendment.
On Amendment 364A, first homes were a 2019 manifesto commitment and are already successfully established in the market through a grant-funded early delivery programme. Outside that programme, the first homes discount is funded by developers as part of their contribution through planning obligations. The Government currently publish information about the delivery of first homes through both the early delivery programme and planning obligations in our annual affordable housing supply statistical release, and I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that we will continue to do so. We will work closely with local authorities throughout the phased test-and-learn implementation programme to monitor the Government’s key objective to maintain affordable housing supply. This will include but will not be limited to first homes. I hope I have provided the noble Baroness with sufficient reassurance not to press that amendment.
Turning to Amendments 327, 328 and 330, Amendments 327 and 328 concern exemptions for sites that are entirely or majority affordable housing. I reassure noble Lords that the intent behind these amendments reflects the Government’s intent, and we are testing this approach through the current consultation. It is our intention that through the new right to require, a local authority will be able to stipulate that a developer delivers a certain proportion of its levy liability as an in-kind, onsite contribution. The more affordable housing that is delivered, the more of the levy liability will be offset, and for sites with a high proportion of affordable housing the levy will be entirely offset. In any event, new Section 204D(5)(h) in Schedule 11 to the Bill already contains a power for levy regulations to make provision about specific levy exemptions or reductions.
It should be noted that all development, including development that is exclusively affordable housing, will be required to deliver the infrastructure that is integral to the functioning of the site. We propose to retain the use of planning conditions and a restricted use of Section 106 agreements to secure such matters. The agreed approach will be set out in levy regulations, and we will further consult on the detail of the regulations in due course. It is also important that the new infrastructure levy can support new farm development, and the Bill as drafted ensures that that will be possible. As I have said, section 204D(5)(h) already provides powers to make provision to exempt or reduce levy liabilities through the regulations.
Our consultation explores where national exemptions and reductions to the levy are appropriate, and we will carefully consider all feedback that we obtain. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, that an exemption for buildings or infrastructure used for agricultural purposes will be considered as part of that process. While the Government are sympathetic to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, we do not consider it appropriate to include such express provision on the face of the Bill. These matters are better dealt with in regulation. On that basis, I kindly request that this amendment not be pressed.
On Amendments 322 and 323, it is correct to raise the importance of the new levy in supporting the delivery of affordable housing for social rent. The levelling-up White Paper committed to building more genuinely affordable social housing, and the approach taken through the levy includes the right to require, which will help us to deliver on that objective. Both amendments seek to limit the definition of “affordable housing” to social rent homes only. That would remove the ability of the levy to fund other types of affordable housing, and it is important that the infrastructure levy can fund the full range of types of affordable housing. That will ensure that the levy can better cater to a wide range of housing needs.
We are also proposing, subject to the outcome of the consultation that we published before Christmas, to make changes to the NPPF to make it clear that local planning authorities should give greater importance to planning for social rent homes when addressing their overall housing requirements in their development plans and making planning decisions.
Lastly, it would not be appropriate to link the definition of “social rent” in primary legislation to specified directions on the rent standards, as these directions will be updated to reflect changes in circumstances. That is why any such detail is best set out in regulations. For that reason, I hope the noble Baronesses, Lady Armstrong and Lady Hayman, may feel able not to move these amendments.
Turning to Amendments 321 and 345, the Government recognise the role that Section 106 agreements play in supporting affordable housing delivery. However, those agreements can be complex and costly. Over 80% of local planning authorities agree that they can cause delay to development coming forward. Also, developers often negotiate down policy-compliant levels of affordable housing on viability grounds. That creates an incentive to overpay for land, in the expectation that contributions can be negotiated downwards. The design of the levy is intended to combat those issues. The new levy regulations will introduce a right to require for affordable housing contributions. That means that local authorities, not developers, will get the final say on the proportion of affordable homes delivered as an in-kind contribution. I fear that accepting the amendments would bake in uncertainty, protracted negotiation and delay so that we would not be able to secure positive results from the new system of developer contributions. With that explanation, I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, will feel able not to press her amendments.
On Amendments 356 and 357, the infrastructure levy will be a non-negotiable charge on the final gross development value of a completed development. It will be responsive to the market, reducing the need for negotiation. However, we acknowledge that site-specific infrastructure and mitigation are important. That is why the Government are proposing to retain Section 106 in some very limited circumstances—for instance, to secure integral infrastructure such as sustainable drainage, and to allow the negotiated in-kind delivery of infrastructure on large sites. We are consulting currently on these circumstances before we develop regulations.
I think I have just said that we are currently consulting on what will be in those. I would prefer to wait until after that consultation and then we will know what is going to be in them.
Amendments 332 and 333 seek to require a local authority to prepare an assessment of its affordable housing need and for the infrastructure levy rates to be set at a level that will meet this need in full. We must recognise that the total value that can be captured by the levy, or indeed any system of developer contributions, will not necessarily match the costs of meeting the entire affordable housing need of an area. Revenues will depend on the value of development that comes forward, and that will not always match need.
Nevertheless, new Section 204G(2) in Schedule 11 requires that charging authorities, when setting their rates, must have regard to the desirability of ensuring that affordable housing funded by developer contributions equals or exceeds present levels. That will ensure that affordable housing need is accounted for when levy rates are set. Furthermore, charging schedules will be subject to scrutiny by public examination to ensure that it does.
I want to make it clear that the list of infrastructure issues is not in priority order. Although affordable housing may be seventh on the list, that does not make it a priority. That list is also not necessarily complete.
As noble Lords will no doubt be aware, strategic housing market assessments or similar documents are currently part of the evidence base used to prepare a local plan. These are required as a result of national policy contained in the National Planning Policy Framework, rather than in primary legislation. Under the new system for preparing local plans, local authorities will continue to be required to prepare evidence regarding different types of housing need, including affordable housing. That will inform not only the local plan but the infrastructure delivery strategy.
I agree that it is important that the levy is based on up-to-date evidence of affordable housing need. It is the intention that local plans, charging schedules and infrastructure delivery strategies are prepared together. However, during the transition period, this may not always be possible. That is why our preferred approach is to use regulations and guidance to set out how evidence-based documents, including evidence on different types of housing need, should be considered. I hope I have given reassurance to the Committee that the provisions in the Bill will enable levy rates to be set with proper regard to affordable housing need, and that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, will feel able not to press his amendment.
Amendments 334 and 334A have the commendable purpose of ensuring that the levy meets its aims of delivering at least as much affordable housing as the current system, if not more, or otherwise addressing locally identified need for affordable housing. The Bill allows regulations to make provision about matters to be considered by charging authorities when setting rates, including the desirability of ensuring that affordable housing funded by developer contributions equals or exceeds present levels. This will ensure that affordable housing need is accounted for when rates are set but, if the Government are overly prescriptive about requirements, the development of an area could become unviable. That is because affordable housing need may exceed what can be captured through the levy. In such circumstances, rates would need to be set at such high levels that neither affordable housing nor market housing would come forward.
The Bill has been drafted carefully to enable local authorities to find the right balance when setting rates and capture as much value as they can while maintaining viability. As I have said, local authorities’ infrastructure levy charging schedules will be subject to public examination, meaning thorough scrutiny of how and why levy rates are set at a particular level. The infrastructure delivery strategy will also be subject to examination, alongside either a local authority’s charging schedule or its local plan. We envisage that the infrastructure delivery strategy will set out the proportion of levy payment that an authority will require to be delivered in kind as affordable housing. I hope that this provides the noble Baronesses, Lady Warwick and Lady Taylor, with sufficient reassurance not to press these amendments.
Amendments 340, 341, 344, 344A, 349 and 350 are all concerned with how local planning authorities should spend levy proceeds. With regard to Amendment 340, the infrastructure levy is an important tool to support sustainable development objectives at the local level. There is an existing requirement for local authorities, when exercising any function in relation to local plans, to do so with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development. This is set down in Section 39 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and will remain in the new plan-making system.
To create sustainable development and successful places, it is important that the infrastructure is appropriately planned for. Contributions from developers are a key tool in mitigating the impacts of new development, alongside wider government funding. The Bill provides a flexible framework to allow local authorities to decide which infrastructure projects they spend the proceeds on. When making such decisions, the Government expect local authorities to fulfil their functions by having regard to all their legal requirements in the round—for example, contributing to the achievement of sustainable development.
I turn to Amendments 341 and 344. As I hope that I have impressed on the Committee, we have designed the levy with the aim of delivering at least as much affordable housing as the current system of developer contributions, if not more. Should the levy generate more revenues than at present, local authorities would be able to choose to direct those additional revenues to meeting their local affordable housing need. Nevertheless, local authorities will need to balance this objective of affordable housing delivery with the levy’s other objectives, such as supporting the development of new roads and medical facilities. We think it is right that local authorities, which know their areas best, are best placed to make local decisions in balancing funding for matters such as affordable housing and other local infrastructure need. I hope noble Lords will therefore feel able not to press these amendments.
Amendment 344A proposes that the new infrastructure levy will be spent on retrofitting existing homes with measures to improve their energy efficiency. I applaud my noble friend Lord Young for raising this important point. The Government have set a new and ambitious target to reduce final energy demand from buildings and industry by 15% by 2030. That includes improving the energy performance of existing and new buildings. The programme is underpinned by £6.6 billion of public spending in this Parliament, with a further £6 billion to be provided between 2025 and 2028. In this way, there are already excellent measures proposed to address the important issue of retrofitting buildings.
In addition, we have already accelerated our work on the future homes standard, to require that new homes built from 2025 will produce 75% to 80% fewer carbon emissions than homes built under current building regulations. Where they wish to do so, local authorities could take further action to support these aims under the levy. The existing drafting of the Bill makes it clear that the levy can be used for the improvement, operation and maintenance of infrastructure. It is also explicit that affordable housing is a kind of infrastructure; facilities for the mitigation of, and adaption to, climate change are also explicitly referenced as infrastructure.
It would be open to local authorities to interpret these measures and allow retrofitting of homes as a form of levy spend if they considered that a priority having balanced other local infrastructure needs. If there were any doubt or lack of clarity, we would also be able to make further express clarifications through regulations or statutory guidance. I hope I have provided noble Lords with reassurance on these amendments, so that they do not press them.
Amendment 349 is concerned with the way in which local authorities intend to use the infrastructure levy to meet identified housing need in preparing and publishing their infrastructure delivery strategies. An infrastructure delivery strategy will set out how a local authority intends to spend its levy receipts, including the proportion of levy receipts that will be attributed to affordable housing through the new right to require. I have explained how this will be informed by evidence prepared to support the local plan in relation to different types of housing need, including affordable housing. New Section 204Q(12) allows regulations to make provisions for this.
However, as I have also explained, the total value that can be captured by the levy—or indeed any system of developer contributions—will not necessarily match the costs of meeting the entire affordable housing need in an area as specified in a local development plan. Therefore, local authorities will need to consider and balance the delivery of affordable housing with the levy’s other aspirations, such as schools, roads and medical facilities. Much of what I have set out also applies to Amendment 350.
In relation to addressing any funding gap between what can be secured via the levy and what remains outstanding in affordable housing need, there are other sources of funding to deliver affordable housing. For example, the Government’s £11.5 billion affordable homes programme will provide tens of thousands of homes across the country. Annually, grant funding delivers around half of all affordable housing in England.
The second part of the noble Lord’s amendment, which is equally important, deals with transparency to communities about levy funding. I believe the Bill, as drafted, will deliver substantially more transparency to communities regarding the use of developer contributions. The new infrastructure delivery strategy will make it much clearer for communities to understand what infrastructure will be provided in their areas and when. Our technical consultation seeks views on the content and drafting requirements for the infrastructure delivery strategy. I hope the noble Lord feels able not to press his amendments given these reassurances.
Turning to Amendments 326 and 358, I have explained how local authorities will be able to require developers to pay a portion of their levy liability in kind through on-site affordable housing. We already have powers in the Bill to make provision in the levy regulations for this right to require and we are consulting on how it will operate to ensure that we get it right. The powers which we have are in new Section 204R(1) and (4). We can use these powers, along with other levy powers, to make detailed provision about the operation of the right to require in the levy regulations.
The Bill provides necessary enforcement powers in new Section 204S inserted by Schedule 11. Provision will be made for enforcement mechanisms in regulations. This will ensure that developers pay and deliver what they owe. Failure to pay infrastructure levy liability, including through the provision of affordable housing via the right to require, could result in enforcement action. For example, we will be able to impose restrictions on occupation, financial penalties or surcharges and more severe measures, including criminal prosecution. We are testing the right approach to enforcement through our technical consultation.
Moving on to Amendments 359 and 361, I have explained how, under the right to require, local authorities will be able to require developers to pay a portion of their levy liability in kind through on-site affordable housing. The noble Lord, Lord Best, is also concerned with the tenure of affordable homes delivered on-site. I have already set out why the definition of affordable housing has been drafted in the way it has in new Section 204A, and why it would not be appropriate to link the definition of social rent in primary legislation to specified directions on rent standards.
Amendment 361 is linked to Amendment 359. It proposes that regulation-making powers in relation to the earlier amendments should come into force within a year of the enactment of this Bill, and that any such requirements should not affect extant planning permissions.
As we propose to deal with issues such as the tenure mix of affordable housing secured through the right to require in levy regulations and guidance, these provisions are not needed. However, they make an important point about how we will manage the transition to the new system, which we need to address more generally, not just in relation to specific amendments. I confirm that the approach that we will take is broadly in line with the approach that the noble Lord put forward via this amendment. We will apply the new levy provisions to new planning permissions that are granted only after a local authority has introduced the levy in its area. For planning permissions granted prior to the introduction of the levy in an area, the existing developer contributions system will continue to apply. We have set out our proposed approach to the transitional arrangements as part of the consultation on the levy, which closes on 9 June. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Best, therefore feels able not to press these amendments.
The introduction of the new infrastructure levy is important to creating a more transparent and streamlined developer contributions system which will enable the timely provision of infrastructure and the delivery of on-site affordable housing. Recognising the magnitude of these reforms, we propose to take a “test and learn” approach to introducing the infrastructure levy, as I said. This approach will mean that the community infrastructure levy—CIL—and Section 106 agreements will need to continue to be used in local planning authorities that have not yet transitioned to the new levy.
Therefore, Clause 126 is important because it will provide for CIL to be switched off in England, subject to necessary savings and transitional provisions. This clause makes necessary consequential amendments to Part 11 of the Planning Act 2008 on commencement of the new levy, in order to restrict the application of Part 11 to Wales and, in Greater London, to the Mayor of London only. This will be important to preserve the existing legislation in relation to Wales and, for the Mayor of London, in Greater London.
Secondly, this clause will ensure that, when the new levy is fully implemented, it will be mandated to apply to all local planning authorities in England, switching off CIL for England subject only to necessary savings and transitional provisions. Once an infrastructure levy charging schedule has been adopted in an area, it will be necessary to switch off the ability to use CIL in that area, apart from for developments granted planning permission prior to adoption, where CIL can still be collected. Without such an approach, we would limit the possible benefits of the levy and of moving to a new national system.
One final aspect of the clause to note is that it allows the Mayor of London to continue to use CIL in Greater London, which will ensure that continuing funds can be obtained to borrow and repay loans taken out for the Crossrail project, up to 2043. For these reasons, I commend the clause to the Committee.
I have spoken for an awfully long time because this was a big group. I have probably not answered all of the questions, but, because of timing, it is better that I write a letter at the end, when I have read Hansard.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who took part in this debate—over two days, because we had a previous day on this group. When I introduced our amendments, I said that a number of issues remain in relation to the provision of affordable housing with the infrastructure levy, and that a great deal more clarity was needed about how the infrastructure levy, Section 106 and CIL will fit together to deliver the affordable housing we all know we will need. I am not sure we have that clarity yet.
I am grateful to the Minister for, once again, giving a detailed response to this group, but it is clear that we have not yet got to the point where we understand the relationship exactly. The Minister referred to consultation, but some of us find it difficult to understand why that is taking place while the Bill is going through the House. Had we known the outcome, it would have provided the evidence base needed to back up what is in the Bill. So we will wait to see what the consultation says.
The redefinition of “affordable housing”, which was referred to time and again in this and other groups—the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to it—is an important point and I hope we will come back to it. The Minister mentioned the juggling or balancing act that local authorities will have to perform with housing and other infrastructure. It has always been incredibly difficult, but with the housing crisis being where it is, I suspect it will get ever trickier. So there is still a lot for local authorities to do.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, made a key point about implementation of the infrastructure levy over a long period, so I hope we can get some clarity before Report on what that means. How long will it take and what will the relationship be between Section 106, CIL and the infrastructure levy? Will they taper off or will they be switched off on a certain date?
In the earlier debate on these amendments, my noble friend Lady Warwick made a powerful speech about the housing element. She pointed out that 4.2 million people are in need of social housing, and gave the startling fact that
“nine in 10 local authorities failed to build a single council house last year”.—[Official Report, 3/5/23; col. 1656.]
This threw into sharp relief the challenges associated with the infrastructure levy.
My noble friend also spoke about the delivery mechanism for Section 106 and the “right to require” commitment from the Government. The Minister has given us a bit more detail about that today, which is helpful, but we will want to carry on looking for that. Since my noble friend had raised it, I was very grateful to hear from the Minister about the exemption where sites have 100% affordable housing.
In our previous debate, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich said that, in its current form, the infrastructure levy gives rise to the possibility of the amount of affordable housing being reduced. As we get to Report, we need to keep a close eye on whether we have mechanisms in place to make sure that delivery either stays the same or, I hope, increases under the infrastructure levy and is not reduced, because I think that is what we have all been aiming at. The right reverend Prelate supported the infrastructure levy being able to meet the levels of affordable housing set out in local plans. That is a key issue and the subject of amendments in this group.
The noble Lord, Lord Foster, stressed the definition of affordable housing and raised the issue of agricultural buildings, referring to the earlier confusion there has been on that subject. He also mentioned Section 106 for biodiversity net gain. The Minister said that Section 106 would be switched off. I think that some of us would be keen to understand whether that means that the infrastructure levy will then be entirely responsible for funding biodiversity net gain, because, at the moment, that sits with Section 106.
I was pleased to hear the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Best, supporting infrastructure levy in kind rather than in cash to achieve social housing and the exemptions for affordable homes. He too mentioned the need for strategic housing market assessments. It is important that those assessments continue to take into account travel to work areas—I have raised this point before. Many areas with very tight boundaries need to consider their housing market assessment as not being entirely within their own boundary area, which I hope can be the case.
I echo the thanks given by the noble Lord, Lord Best, to some of the organisations that have sent us very helpful information that has supported not just this debate but other debates on the Bill. They include Shelter, the National Housing Federation, Homes for the North, and Homes for the South West. I add London Councils, from which we have had incredibly helpful support, to that list.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, referred to the issues of how to increase the amount of social rented housing and the questions raised before relating to the National Housing Federation’s very stark report on housing overcrowding, which was released at the end of last month. I certainly agree with him that safe, secure, affordable housing should be a basic human right. We have raised this not only in debates on the Bill but at other times in your Lordships’ House.
The noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, reminded us to think of the most vulnerable in our community and referred to the number of council houses sold. At a housing conference I attended earlier this week, I pointed out that previously in my borough 30,000 out of 38,000 homes were council homes; we now have 8,000 council homes, and that is as a result of right-to-buy legislation. Right to buy is arguably not wrong in itself, but the funding for those social homes was not replaced. That is where the issues with it came.
The noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, also raised an issue I had raised previously about how the infrastructure levy was to be divided between housing infrastructure and other infrastructure. It has been another key topic of the debate, and I am really worried about it. The Minister discussed retrospective fitting for energy-efficiency measures, but I am not sure about any of these mechanisms. We have government funding now but, even if we had an infrastructure levy, the bill for my local authority for retrofitting the 8,000-home council housing stock we have is about £240 million. As government grant funding is coming through at about £1 million, it is unlikely that the infrastructure levy will fill that gap between £1 million and £240 million. Even if it did, it would take a very long time to do that, so there are big doubts about what we will be able to achieve through IL.
The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, raised the key issue of rural housing. We have had previous discussions about the difficulties for rural areas to provide housing for local people in their areas. It was the subject of earlier debates on second homes and Airbnb in rural areas, and it continues to be a real issue. He also made a very good point about the availability of brownfield sites in rural areas. We may have them in some urban areas—we do not have them in all—but they are much less likely to be available in urban areas. I was very pleased to hear the Minister’s commitment to agricultural buildings. That is clearer now, but it does not touch on the issue of housing for rural areas; some of those issues are still outstanding.
The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, with his clause stand part debate, is requesting clarity again—which is essential—on how these things will work together. I am sure that it will be the subject of future discussions, as we require some certainty on contributions to the infrastructure levy and viability; I do not think those issues are resolved yet. On viability, he mentioned the 2008 crash, when many developments lost huge amounts of their value from the CIL overnight. That happened again in autumn 2022, when many regeneration schemes, for example, were severely impacted because the value of the CIL that had been negotiated would no longer meet the cost—and we have seen that inflation has increased, if anything, since then. What happens to infrastructure in these circumstances is a real issue; it is something we need to think through as we go to Report.
I am sure that the Minister will have felt the strength of feeling in the Committee in relation to the importance of ensuring that we can achieve something in relation to affordable social housing—although we did not need a new definition for that—through the infrastructure levy. Those 310,000 children cited in the National Housing Federation report as having to share beds with their parents need us in a position to influence this legislation, to make the right decisions on how we will use the infrastructure levy to tackle those problems. I am sure we will come back to these issues around housing and the infrastructure levy on Report but, for now, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 313 withdrawn.
Debate on whether Clause 124 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, we remain with the question of the infrastructure levy in this part of the Bill. The purpose of debating the question of whether Clause 124 should stand part is to allow for a debate on the principles of the infrastructure levy. Curiously, it seems we will have a debate on the principles after we have discussed some of the detail—but let us not worry too much about that; we will no doubt return to all these subjects on Report anyway.
Although this is the levelling-up Bill, this clause is the not-levelling-up provision in it, since the Government’s technical consultation said that the infrastructure levy could lead to a possible increase in
“geographic inequalities already evident in the current system”.
We therefore cannot treat the infrastructure levy as tackling one of the central issues we face: that, while there is a large amount of development value being created in some parts of the country that can fund infrastructure and affordable housing, whether it does or does not, in other parts of the country it is not available at all.
That is exacerbated by the gross development value as well as the simple fact that, in some parts of the country, there is a relative dearth of brownfield sites—for example, in the east of England, my own area. That means that when development takes place on greenfield sites, the gross development value—netting off the build cost and existing use value—can be large. In many other parts of the country, there are more brownfield sites and, by the time you have calculated a lower gross development value and taken off the build cost and existing use value—both often higher for a brownfield site—you are left with very little of the gross development value available for the infrastructure levy.
There will, I am afraid, be a serious potential conflict between the purposes of the infrastructure levy. The community will look at it and say, “This will provide our schools, healthcare infrastructure, flood defences, open spaces and sport and recreation facilities” and all sorts of other potential benefits, looking at the amendments, as opposed to affordable housing. Under the existing system, two-thirds of developer contributions go to affordable housing. We do not know, but the pressures will, if anything, be higher rather than lower. That may lead to a very serious constraint on the amount of infrastructure levy available for the purposes that the infrastructure delivery strategy sets out.
I do not pretend that there is a completely different and better answer than what the Government are proposing. However, I am a bear of very simple brain; at Second Reading, I referred to the simple proposition that, on one hand, you have Section 106, by means of which developers are required to provide the infrastructure—in my view, they should also provide the affordable housing that is to be integral to the site they are developing or that is consequent directly upon that site—and, separately, there should be an infrastructure levy or community infrastructure levy.
I find it slightly surprising that the Government, having addressed the problems associated with the community infrastructure levy—it is not country-wide and it is based on pounds per metre squared, or a floor-space calculation, rather than on gross development value—did not do what struck me as the sensible thing: to rewrite aspects of the community infrastructure levy while retaining its basic structure, and make it mandatory for local authorities to introduce one. Instead, they are sweeping it all away—but not entirely. All sorts of definitions of the community infrastructure levy will be retained. The CIL will go on for years in relation to all the developments that receive planning permission before the infrastructure levy comes into place, as we just heard.
The infrastructure levy also does not sweep away Section 106 at all. This is supposed to be transparent and streamlined; I am sorry, but I do not find it to be that. There are three routes. There is the core levy routeway but, when you delve into that, there is a delivery agreement within it that is, to all intents and purposes, Section 106 retained. The infrastructure levy is not sweeping away Section 106 or the negotiable aspects. If the Government really want to set—I understand why they would—what is effectively a minimum level of contribution from developers in relation to a development that goes towards integral infrastructure as well as wider infrastructure requirements, why not just do that and directly relate the Section 106 contributions to the total of the infrastructure levy—or the community infrastructure levy under the current system?
We have a series of difficulties. The current system, with gross development value, will have serious potential issues. For example, how will these viability assessments be done, by whom and how many times? The Government themselves are contemplating a viability assessment at the application stage—the indicative one—then another provisional one post commencement but prior to the completion stage, and then a final adjustment. Reading the documentation, the implication is that each of the viability assessments is an incremental change on the previous ones. What we know, and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, kindly agreed with me on this, is that the viability assessments can change dramatically. There is nothing in the structure of this that looks yet at what those implications might look like.
For example, I did a simple calculation. I will not bore noble Lords by showing my workings, but it seemed to me that if you get a 10% reduction in the gross development value of the project, given that the build cost may be the same or even higher, the existing use value will not have changed for the project and the percentage—I used 40% for these purposes—for the infrastructure levy is applied, a 10% reduction in the gross development value could lead to a 40% reduction in the developer’s profitability.
We may shrug our shoulders and say, “Developers make too much profit”, but I am not sure that all of them do. I am not sure that we should be sanguine about the risk associated with developers measuring the downside possibilities and deciding not to undertake developments in anticipation of some of those downside risks eventuating. We need the development. We need the homes. We have too many provisions, certainly in the National Planning Policy Framework consultation and in the Bill, that may not lead to building more homes. We run the risk of building fewer homes, and we have to avoid that risk.
I am sorry to be unhelpful to my noble friend on the Front Bench; I just think it would have been much simpler for the Government to say that the CIL should be mandatory and that local authorities can structure their charging schedule by reference to pounds per metre squared or to gross development value. They could even have given developers the option to choose one or the other, one of which is committed to and paid up front and the other of which is dependent on the final development value. Why not go down these simpler routes, rather than constructing this complicated set of different routeways? We even have an infrastructure in-kind routeway which is, to all intents and purposes, for very large sites, the biggest sites, such as in my area. I remind the Committee of my interest as chair of the Cambridgeshire Development Forum. We are building settlements of 10,000 homes or more and the Government are suggesting that those will exceed the threshold, which will mean that they will be on the infrastructure in-kind routeway and that it will effectively be a negotiated Section 106 agreement in total anyway.
I just feel that we could have done this in a much simpler way. This stand-part debate may serve no purpose at all other than to ask whether it is too late to think about doing things in a simpler way, rather than trying to sweep the CIL and Section 106 away, then reintroducing much of it but putting it into a more complicated and riskier scenario, as the infrastructure levy appears to me to do.
My Lords, this may be the third occasion on which we have discussed the infrastructure levy, which simply illustrates how important a part it will play in future development if it is passed. I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said about the proposal for an infrastructure levy. It seems to me that there are too many variables in the infrastructure levy to give certainty to local communities, planning authorities and developers.
Growth development value on large-ish or medium-sized sites which are going to be developed across a number of years—300 houses over eight years, maybe—can significantly change in that period, as can the viability of the developer, because of lots of external factors. I had a lot of sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, when he asked why we have this complicated system where viability assessments take place at various stages during the development. How can the change that will inevitably happen during a development period provide with some certainty the affordable housing a local area needs, for instance? One of the huge risks of the infrastructure levy is that, rather than increasing the number of affordable homes that are built, it will reduce it, because of the risks to local communities and councils, and to developers, across the planned period.
From what I have heard from the Minister, the purpose of the infrastructure levy is to provide more certainty for developers and to take away the requirement to sign legal and Section 106 agreements. However, it does not—we heard in the earlier group that we are retaining Section 106 for some aspects and deliveries. At the heart of this issue is the challenge of how local infrastructure, as part of a new development, is funded, who funds it, and what qualifies as infrastructure. Planning authorities will have the unenviable task of determining the proportion of infrastructure levy to subsidise housing against mitigating the impact on the community for school places, GP surgeries, open spaces, biodiversity, green spaces, play areas, and so on, all of which will have to be funded through the infrastructure levy.
I have said already that one of the risks of the infrastructure levy is the uncertainty that will be created. As I understand it, and maybe the Minister can help explain it, when a local plan is being developed, the infrastructure delivery strategy will have to be determined at the same time. That leads me to some questions. Where does the infrastructure delivery strategy fit in relation to local plans that have been agreed and are being implemented? Does a new one have to be developed on the back of the long and painful process of developing a local plan? Do we have to have another infrastructure delivery strategy on top of that, bearing in mind that local plans are in existence for 10 years? How does that fit in, because when local plans are developed, they will have had in mind a previous regime for funding infrastructure?
I have another pertinent question. As rates are going to be set by local planning authorities and councils, they will inevitably reflect local economic circumstances. The example of the rates agreed for community infrastructure levy—albeit that excludes Section 106—is informative in this regard. In a Yorkshire metropolitan authority that I will not name, of the charges for CIL that were calculated, the charge per square metre for the highest of the three tiers was £80. I then looked at a district council in Hampshire, where financial circumstances are better, and the highest tier there was £235 per square metre. It concerns me greatly that there should be a huge differential between a relatively poor Yorkshire metropolitan council area and a relatively well-off area towards the south of the country.
The differential rate is so large that I do not see how councils in the north, or areas where it is more difficult to extract funding from developers because of land values, will be able to fund the levels of infrastructure that are required. The risk is that those areas have less funding from the levy to implement affordable housing and all the other public services that normally come out of development, whereas better off areas could provide better facilities. That is one huge risk, and a worry for me.
I have some questions on that for the Minister—I hope she will be able to answer them. I read through the technical paper on the infrastructure levy but I could not see anywhere where the department had done some calculations as to what the rates are anticipated to be in different parts of the country. I am sure the department will have done that, otherwise you would not make this transformational move. It would be good to hear from the Minister what those acceptable estimated rates are. Currently, as we know, about 66% of funding from CIL and Section 106 goes on affordable housing. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us what proportion of different rates across the country it is anticipated will be spent on so-called affordable housing.
I come to my third question. Developers are interested in maximising their profits—quite rightly, as they have commercial interests. They will find ways, as they do with Section 106 and CIL, to challenge the requirements through viability assessments. The best thing that could happen is that those assessments disappear. Perhaps the Minister can talk a bit about that. If all this is to be dependent on viability assessments, the prospect of raising more funds for subsidising housing and community benefits out of development schemes is more pie in the sky than reality.
The trouble with all this is that, as with many other parts of the Bill, there is insufficient information to make judgments about whether the efficacy of the new powers as against existing schemes—which are known, tried and tested—will work.
The big question for me is that the Government are hoping that the infrastructure levy will fund more so-called affordable housing, which, certainly in my authority, is now required to be in perpetuity: the 20% reduction in market value has to be passed on by a covenant on the house in perpetuity. You get a better bang for your buck from that, so I ask the Minister whether this, too, could be a requirement of any infrastructure levy subsidy of affordable housing. There are more questions than answers, and I look forward to what the Minister has to say.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, for initiating this clause stand part debate, because in the way we do business in your Lordships’ House, amending existing Bills, it is always worth taking a step back and asking whether we need to do this at all. He has generated a very interesting debate, and in the other groups on the infrastructure levy, it has always been worth holding in our minds whether this is the right way to do it, or whether we should go back to what we have already. That is always worth doing.
The local government community would welcome some clarity on the whole issue of developer contributions. The LGA has been quite supportive of the infrastructure levy, with some qualifications, but wants clarity on what quantum we are expecting to get from it, as well as what is expected to be achieved by it, because we are in danger of making it into the motherhood and apple pie of local government funding, and it certainly will not achieve that.
This is even further complicated in two-tier areas—I have the scars on my back to prove it—where the district council is the housing authority and is looking for substantial contributions to housing, but the upper-tier authority has a duty to press for funding for education, highways, flooding and all the other things that upper-tier authorities look after. It is important we understand the weighting of those various voices in the infrastructure levy process, because otherwise all the pressure on infrastructure will raise viability questions once again. The noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, who is not in his place today, previously raised issues about emergency services and whether they warrant consideration for infrastructure levy. These are questions we are rightly looking at as we go through the Bill.
Our provision in the first group was for pilots, and we would have preferred that they were carried out before the Bill came to the House, which would have enabled some testing of the efficacy of the infrastructure levy before we went down this route, but that is shutting the stable door. I should be interested to hear the Minister’s responses on how long the transition period will be and what will be done to test this out as we go through the process.
The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, asked why, if what the Government are trying to achieve is a minimum contribution levy, they do not just do that. I should be interested to hear the Minister’s answer to that question. It is a really good point that, if we must assess this at planning, post-commencement and at final adjustment, what happens if there is significant inflationary pressure, a market crash or whatever between those stages? If it works one way and the final adjustment ended up being a further contribution in cash from developers to make up the difference, that is one thing; if it goes the other way, however, and the viability at the planning stage is greater than what is achieved at the final adjustment, what happens then to the difference? There is quite a lot still to be thought through on this.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, for raising the question, but the local government community is quite keen now to have the issue of developer contributions resolved. If the infrastructure levy is going to do that, that would be a good thing, but there are many more questions to answer before that happens.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lansley for tabling these amendments.
As we have discussed, infrastructure delivery strategies will help local authorities to plan for the vital infrastructure that is needed to support sustainable development in their area. The infrastructure levy is designed to be a more effective and streamlined system than CIL and planning obligations. Unlike CIL, the new levy will be a mandatory charge which all relevant authorities will be required to adopt. This is an important step in reducing the complexities of the existing system and ensuring uniformity. Also, it ensures that all local authorities benefit from the levy receipts for their local area over time. The levy will be designed to be responsive to market conditions, meaning that local authorities get a fairer share of the uplift in land value that often occurs between the grant of planning permission and site completion to fund local infrastructure.
My noble friend Lord Lansley asked what happened if there was a 10% reduction in GDV which resulted in a 40% reduction in developer profit. As the final liability is based on the gross development value, if the sales value falls, the levy liability will also reduce—that happens similarly at the moment anyway.
The infrastructure levy will be able to fund the provision of affordable housing, largely replacing the operation of the Section 106 agreement. At the moment, the Section 106 agreement is what delivers most of the affordable housing and is often hard fought by local authorities. This will be a much more stable way of delivering affordable housing. The new right to require will mean that local authorities can stipulate the affordable housing that they require to be delivered in kind as part of that levy liability.
My noble friend Lord Lansley also asked about regional inequalities. We can only capture the land value uplift that is there. We expect to capture more in high-value greenfield areas, obviously, and this is what happens in the existing system—you cannot do that any other way.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, also brought in the point about the infrastructure delivery strategy and existing local plans, which is an important issue. We must accept that we are making a big change here. An assessment of infrastructure need will be undertaken alongside the local plan. In the long term, we expect these two parts of the delivery strategy will be brought together, but during transition they may have to be undertaken separately. We are talking about long-term here, and we expect those two plans to be together eventually and as soon as possible.
The issue about regional inequalities is really important. This is supposed to be a levelling-up Bill. If there will be more inequalities in the infrastructure levy in different parts of the country, then it is hard to see how it will help the Bill to do its job in terms of levelling up. It will exacerbate inequalities, not help to level them up.
I am not sure that is right. To take affordable housing, in an area with lower housing-cost needs and where housing is of lower value, you cannot expect the same infrastructure levy for houses and land of £150,000 to £350,000, so you must get that balance right. However, with levelling up, we would expect the values to come up and level as we go through the levelling-up procedure.
The noble Baroness makes a very interesting point, but the problem is that construction costs are not as widely differentiated as land costs. This means that an area with a low level of levy will not be able to build an equivalent number of homes to an area with a high levy. The mismatch between costs and income will be the problem.
I take that point. We have talked about the different rates from different development typologies, and we expect local authorities to set different rates. As the noble Baroness said, they do that with COUNCIL for different development types. We have published research that shows the range of possible rates for different case study areas, and I have put the results of that research in a letter.
For all these reasons, the Government are introducing the new infrastructure levy through the Bill and it is the correct thing to do for the country. There are too many local communities that, with the CIL system and the Section 106 system, are not getting what they deserve from the developments in those areas. So a new system, however difficult it is or however long it takes to deliver, has to be the right way to go.
I will look to the evidence but, as I have clearly stated many times, we are expecting the same if not more housing, particularly affordable housing, from this infrastructure levy. I just say to my noble friend Lord Lansley, as I have said before, that we are not getting rid of Section 106 agreements, but will use them only in very restricted circumstances. The main issue from this is that affordable housing comes out of the Section 106 system and into the infrastructure levy system. When the whole country moves to the infrastructure levy, it will make affordable housing a much more important issue when it comes to how we use developer contributions in the future.
I move on now to government Amendment 361A. This makes three consequential changes to other Acts of Parliament to ensure that the new infrastructure levy will be treated in the same way as CIL in relevant legal contexts. First, Section 101(6) of the Local Government Act 1972 requires that a local authority’s functions in relation to levying rates may be exercised only by that authority—in other words, those functions may not be delegated—but CIL is not a “rate” for this purpose. This means that a local authority may delegate its CIL functions.
Amendment 361A replicates this approach in respect of infrastructure levy functions. I emphasise, however, that the Bill contains important safeguards for democratic accountability. For example, new Section 204K(6) makes it clear that a local authority may approve its infrastructure levy charging schedule only at a meeting of the authority and by a majority of the members present.
Secondly, Section 70 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provides that “local finance considerations” can be a material consideration when determining planning applications. Local finance considerations include CIL, which can therefore be a material consideration when a planning application is determined.
Government Amendment 361A treats the infrastructure levy in the same way, allowing infrastructure levy receipts—anticipated and received—to be taken into account when determining planning applications. This does not override the primary aims of the infrastructure levy to support the development of an area by providing infrastructure, including affordable housing, or its meeting of other purposes, as set out in regulations, in a way that does not make development of the area economically unviable.
Under Section 70 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, a Minister can make secondary legislation permitting local authorities to contract out certain functions. However, under Section 71 of that Act, rights of entry, search or seizure cannot generally be contracted out, with the exception of the use of such powers in connection with CIL. Amendment 361A replicates this approach in respect of the infrastructure levy. Any powers or rights of entry, search or seizure included in infrastructure levy regulations could similarly be contracted out, provided that a statutory instrument under the 1994 Act was made to that effect. This will allow us to permit through regulations that, for example, an authority could contract out the full range of levy enforcement measures if a developer refused to pay its full levy liability.
I hope that noble Lords will agree that these amendments, comprising three technical, consequential changes to legislation, are an important means to ensure consistency across legislation and to ensure that the infrastructure levy is workable and effective and treated in the same way as CIL.
Finally, I move to the question of Clause 124 standing part. As noble Lords will understand, the framework for the new infrastructure levy is contained in the new Part 10A that will be inserted into the Planning Act 2008 by Schedule 11 to the Bill. New Part 10A largely replicates existing legal provisions contained in Part 11 of the Planning Act 2008, with some necessary amendment.
We have discussed many of the key principles of the infrastructure levy and, by building on the legislative framework of the existing system, the new levy seeks to address deficiencies within the current system. The Government acknowledge that this is a substantial change to the system. That is why we have published the technical consultation. The output of that consultation will inform the preparation of draft regulations, on which the Government will consult further. The test-and-learn approach will allow us to evaluate and monitor the levy carefully, ensuring that we can devise a system that works in practice and produces the desired effects. I hope that this provides some reassurances that the infrastructure levy is worth pursuing as part of the Bill.
I am conscious that there were a number of questions and issues raised, particularly by my noble friend Lord Lansley and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. Because of timings, I will look at Hansard tomorrow and, if there is anything further that I can add, I will write a letter.
Clause 124 agreed.
Amendments 314 to 318 not moved.
Schedule 11: Infrastructure Levy
Amendments 319 to 355 not moved.
355A: Schedule 11, page 365, line 22, at end insert—
“(ea) may make provision treating CIL as if it were IL,”Member's explanatory statement
This amendment enables IL regulations made under new Part 10A of the Planning Act 2008 (as inserted by Schedule 11 to the Bill) to make provision treating the charge known as the community infrastructure levy under section 205 of that Act to be treated as if it were the charge known as the infrastructure levy.
Amendment 355A agreed.
Amendments 356 and 357 not moved.
357A: Schedule 11, page 365, line 38, after “obligations)” insert “(including provision about obtaining sums under subsection (1)(d) of that section for use in connection with IL)”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment enables IL regulations made under new Part 10A of the Planning Act 2008 (as inserted by Schedule 11 to the Bill) to make provision about the use of the power under section 106(1)(d) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to obtain sums for use in connection with IL.
Amendment 357A agreed.
Amendments 358 to 361 not moved.
361A: Schedule 11, page 366, line 36, at end insert—
“Local Government Act 1972
1A In section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972 (arrangements for discharge of functions by local authorities), after subsection (6) insert—“(6ZA) Infrastructure Levy under Part 10A of the Planning Act 2008 is not a rate for the purposes of subsection (6).”TCPA 1990
1B In section 70(4) of the TCPA 1990 (determination of applications: general considerations), in paragraph (b) of the definition of “local finance consideration”, after “payment of” insert “Infrastructure Levy or”.Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994
1C In section 71(3) of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 (functions excluded from sections 69 and 70), omit the word “and” at the end of paragraph (h) and after that paragraph insert—“(ha) sections 204R and 204S of the Planning Act 2008 (Infrastructure Levy: collection and enforcement); and”.”Member's explanatory statement
This amendment makes amendments to a number of Acts in consequence of new Part 10A of the Planning Act 2008, inserted by Part 1 of Schedule 11 of the Bill, which makes provision for a new Infrastructure Levy.
Amendment 361A agreed.
Schedule 11, as amended, agreed.
Clause 125 agreed.
Clause 126: Restriction of Community Infrastructure Levy to Greater London and Wales
Amendment 362 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Clause 126 agreed.
Amendments 363 to 364A not moved.
Clause 127: Community land auction arrangements and their purpose
364B: Clause 127, page 158, line 34, after “the” insert “sustainable”
Member's explanatory statement
This means that the objective of CLA is to support ‘sustainable’ development.
My Lords, we move on to Part 5, “Community land auction pilots”. This was not in the Bill when it went through Committee in the other place so it has not really had any proper scrutiny.
We are asking: why legislate for pilot schemes? Once again, as I mentioned under the part of the Bill concerned with the infrastructure levy, surely it makes more sense to run pilot schemes before legislation is brought forward, not to put them in the legislation. For example, although we on these Benches were very unhappy with the introduction of voter ID, as the noble Earl the Minister knows, at least the Government spent a couple of years running pilot schemes on it before bringing the legislation forward. Can the noble Earl explain the thinking about the process that is being followed, in this case, of putting pilots in the legislation instead of running them before the legislation comes before us?
As we all know, currently, when planning permission is given for new homes, the land in question can increase in value by over 80 times. The vast majority of this goes to the landowner and other players, with very little being captured by the local authority. Community land auctions would give councils the tools to capture much more of the value uplift, which they can then spend on local priorities such as improved infrastructure and better public services. In theory, this sounds like a really good idea but, as always, the devil is in the detail. We need to understand properly how this would work in practice. What will the impact be on developers and how will they react? What consultation took place between the Government, local authorities and developers before this proposal was put in the Bill?
Under Amendment 362, in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock, the objective of community land auctions would be to support sustainable development. I am not going to go into all the reasons for that again now. We have had lots of discussions about why it is important that the Bill focus all the time on the sustainability of the development that will take place as a result of some of its provisions, so I do not need to highlight that any further.
Under Amendment 365, in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock, any relevant combined authority would be given the report to scrutinise. It is very important that we enshrine liaison with local authorities as part of the Bill, and I hope we will be able to do that.
There is also a stand part debate on Clause 127. I will be interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, discuss the purposes and mechanisms of community land auctions. It would be useful to hear about the relationship between community land auctions and the plan-making process, and how they will fit in as the process takes place. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to the proposition in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Lansley that Clause 127 should not stand part of the Bill. My noble friend and I are job-sharing for much of this section of the Bill.
This clause deals with pilots for community land auctions, which aim to give local authorities the ability to benefit far more greatly from new development than they do under the current system, even as proposed in the Bill. Basically, it takes the principle behind Section 106, the new homes bonus, CIL and the infrastructure levy a stage further, but in doing so it risks compromising the integrity of the planning system by moving more towards the sale of planning consents.
The Explanatory Notes to the Bill are normally quite helpful, but the 10 lines on the background to CLAs, on page 126, do not explain what is going to happen. As I understand the proposal, a landowner can name the price at which he is willing to sell his land to the council—it would probably be agricultural land, but it could be industrial land—which then has an option to purchase the land at that price. The price will be somewhere between the current value and the hope value with planning consent. The local authority then develops its plan, and if that land is deemed suitable for housing development, it buys it at the option price and resells it to the developer, pocketing the difference. I assume the Government hope that many landowners will take advantage of the scheme so that the local authority has a choice and the ability to choose best value. I think it clear from that scenario that the local authority has a financial incentive to designate land for development over which it has an option, in preference to land over which it has no option but which may be more appropriate for development. I will return to that in a moment.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, said, this clause was not in the original Bill; it was shoehorned in at a relatively late stage in November, along with street votes. Noble Lords who were in the Chamber at the time may recall that I was less than enthusiastic about street votes, and indeed they received a sceptical response from the House. So, we now have two policies that seem to have gone straight from a think tank into primary legislation without the normal careful scrutiny that one associates with planning reform, overtaking on the way many oven-ready policies on leasehold and rental reform or repeal of the Vagrancy Act, which was originally in the Bill but now dropped.
It is actually quite difficult to get information about community land auctions. I googled it and discovered that apparently the only place that has them is Hong Kong, but all land there is in public ownership so it is not really a good comparator. They have been championed by Tim Leunig, a respected economist, when he was at the CentreForum think tank in 2011-12; he is now a senior policy adviser to the Secretary of State at DLUHC. Tim Leunig gives an illustration of his proposal that will strike terror into the heart of my noble friend Lord Lansley. He says that
“were Cambridge to allow a million new houses near the city—like America’s Silicon Valley—it could give current adult residents around £700,000 each. Again, that should be a vote winner”.
I see my noble friend wondering what he is going to do with all that money. One of the articles that Tim Leunig wrote making the case said that
“it will kick start the economy. Every extra house we build creates at least three jobs. Building an extra 300,000 would boost employment by around a million jobs … The government says that it will pilot this scheme; we should hold it to its word”.
The date of that article was 4 January 2012, and indeed in his 2011 Budget George Osborne announced that he would pilot a land auction model. However, as far as I can see, no progress has been made, perhaps because the proposition did not withstand critical scrutiny.
The only other reference that I have been able to find in this country is from 2017. The Government announced a task force to investigate a new way of paying for infrastructure projects, such as new public transport. It asked the task force on funding infrastructure to look at the so-called development rights auction model of land value capture. I have not been able to find its conclusions so perhaps my noble friend can shed some light on what happened to that task force.
I am reluctant to condemn out of hand proposals to capture more effectively the windfall gains made from planning consents, but I think this House has a responsibility to scrutinise with particular care policies such as this that simply have not undergone the normal critical scrutiny. We need to look at the risks and ask why it appears that no one else has adopted this policy.
An obvious risk is that it could distort the planning system. Local authorities, which are under enormous financial pressure, could stand to make large windfall gains from land that is less suitable for development. They will be announcing the winner of a race when they have backed a particular horse. The policy risks contaminating the integrity of the planning system and producing suboptimal sites for development, and I suspect that my learned friends will be considering the possibility of judicial review.
I can illustrate the risks from my former constituency, North West Hants. In 1996, Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council and Hampshire County Council bought 2,000 acres of agricultural land just outside Basingstoke. Now, 3,500 new homes are being built on that site, begging the question of whether ownership may have influenced the planning decision.
I wonder how many landowners will be tempted by the scheme. It works only if there is a proper market. Will they go through the hassle of submitting options? What inquiries have the Government made of landowners to see whether they will play? If a landowner thinks the land is suitable for development, why should they not wait and pocket all the money instead of sharing the windfall with the local authority? Most of them are able to take a long-term view of their interests. What happens in an area where there is only one major landowner, or there are not very many and they can easily collude on the option price or decide not to play?
Then there are some technical questions. How does this interact with Section 106 or the infrastructure levy? Does the developer have to pay that as well, or has the planning authority already secured its share through the auction? What has been the response of the LGA or the TCPA to this proposal?
Another issue was raised by my noble friend Lord Lansley and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, in responding to the last debate. When I first became a local councillor in 1968, there were few sources of revenue for the council. We had the rents and the charges as revenue that we generated locally; there were the business rates and domestic rates; and there was the central government grant. We are now moving progressively towards a different system of funding local government with Section 106, the infrastructure levy and, potentially, community land auctions. In the old days, we had something called rate equalisation, which recognised that some local authorities had fewer resources than others. Given that factor, which is central to levelling up, I wonder to what extent central government is going to have to inject some sort of equalisation into this new scenario of the infrastructure levy and community land auctions.
To take the Cambridge example that I mentioned a few moments ago, would central government really stand back and allow one local authority to make such a huge gain, or would it say, “We need to share this benefit more generally”? Can my noble friend say, in winding up, in addition to addressing the consequences of moving down the CLA route, what the Government’s proposal is to make sure that this is a levelling-up Bill? My noble friend said in winding up the earlier debate on the infrastructure levy that it will capture more in high-value areas. Yes, of course it will—and so will this. How are we going to make sure that the whole thing does not go against the grain of levelling up?
I hope I have not been too unfair on the proposal. We need fresh thinking, but the job of this House is to scrutinise legislation. That is what we need to do with Clause 127.
My Lords, I cede everything to my noble friend Lord Young when it comes to experience and wisdom in this matter, but I am very attracted by the idea of running the pilot proposed by the Bill. It has long seemed to me deeply inequitable that when it comes to property development, the landowner gets so much for the uplift and the community gets so little. We very much need to explore and try out ways of setting that right, and this seems an excellent thing to try. I share my noble friend’s reservations that aspects of it may turn out not to be right, but that should not prevent us having a go. My amendment just says that if it proves to be a success, and I shall keep my fingers firmly crossed that it is, it would seem foolish to let it die after 10 years without giving Parliament the opportunity to let it continue.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, very much for the best explanation of community land auctions that I have heard. I have searched the internet to find a good explanation but have heard the best one this afternoon from him.
The issue is how we capture for local communities the uplift—a very large uplift in many cases—in land values once planning consent has been given to a site. This is one way in which it could work and it has some attraction to it. However, living as I do in West Yorkshire, where land values are not like those in Surrey, Hampshire or Berkshire, the inevitable consequence of community land auctions is exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Young, said: to the well off, more shall be given while to the least well off, little shall be given.
As far as I can tell, this will exacerbate regional inequalities. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, said, this is a levelling-up Bill. Living where I do, I was really looking forward to lots of proposals in it to reduce regional inequalities, but this is one example of where it will do the opposite. Somehow we have to find ways of extracting the very considerable uplift in land values once planning consent is given for housing.
Where I live, we still have many former industrial sites in need of costly remediation, and those land values will not be there for a community land auction. The provision will work only on greenfield sites, which is contrary to what we are trying to achieve. It will increase regional inequalities, which is contrary to the purpose of the Bill. If we can find a better way of extracting land value once planning consent or planning allocations have been given, that is where we should go. I am not convinced that this is the way, interesting though the proposal is. “Let us see the evidence” is what I would like to say. I know we are going to do a pilot, but somebody somewhere in the department has done some thinking and provided some evidence. Let us see it before we make a decision on this, because otherwise it is a dive into the unknown.
My last point is that there have not been good examples recently of local authorities getting involved in commercial practice—in fact, the contrary is the case. That is where this would take us: local authorities bidding for and buying land at a certain value and then hoping that, once they sell it on with planning consent, the extra can be extracted. That is putting a lot of faith in the commercial expertise within local authorities, which I am not sure they have. If I was putting a bet on developers and landowners against local authorities, I know which one would win.
My Lords, in addition to the levy we have been debating, the Government are interested in testing other mechanisms that could improve land value capture.
Community land auctions are an innovative process of identifying land for allocation for development in a local planning authority’s area in a way that seeks to optimise land value capture. Their aim is to introduce transparency and certainty by allowing local planning authorities to know the exact price at which a landowner is willing to sell their land. The crux of our approach is to encourage landowners to compete against each other to secure allocation of their land for development in the local plan by granting a legally binding option over their land to the local planning authority.
The competitive nature of community land auction arrangements incentivises landowners to reveal the true price at which they would willingly part with their land. If the land is allocated in the local plan upon its adoption, the local planning authority can sell the CLA option, keeping the amount that the successful bidder has paid and capturing the value that has accrued to the land as a result of the allocation. The successful bidder must then pay the price set out by the original landowner in the option agreement to purchase the land. The detailed design of community land auction arrangements will be set out in regulations that will be subject to the affirmative procedure. In a moment, I will address my noble friend Lord Young’s clause stand part notice but, for now, I hope that that is useful background, by way of introduction.
On Amendment 364B, I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that sustainable development remains at the heart of our approach. Piloting authorities will decide which land to allocate in their emerging local plans by considering a range of factors, which the Government will set out in guidance. Unlike conventional local plans, when allocating sites, local planning authorities will be able to consider the financial benefits that they are likely to accrue from each site. How, and the extent to which, financial benefits may be taken into account will be determined in regulations. Importantly, the existing requirement to prepare local plans, with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development under Section 39 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, will remain.
We are not altering the existing local plan consultation and examination process. Piloting authorities will still be required to consult on the proposed land allocations in their draft local plans, before they are submitted and independently examined in public in accordance with the local plan preparation procedures, as modified by Schedule 7 to the Bill.
On Amendment 365, the Secretary of State is required to lay a report before each House of Parliament on the effectiveness of the pilot within the timeframe set out in Clause 134(2). There is a requirement to publish this report, which means that it will be publicly accessible and available to any combined authority that was involved in the pilot.
The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, asked about whether there had been prior consultations. We will consult on community land auctions shortly, and taking part in the pilot will be voluntary for local authorities. We need the powers in the Bill to enable the pilot to happen.
I appreciate the thought behind my noble friend’s Amendment 366. However, as community land auctions are a new and innovative process for identifying land for allocation for development, our view is that it is right that the Bill makes provision for them to be piloted on a strictly time-limited basis.
If community land auction arrangements are deemed successful, and if there is ambition to extend the approach, further primary legislation would be required to implement them on a permanent basis. As we do not have the evidence about their effectiveness yet, we think it right that the Bill does not include provisions that could make CLAs a permanent fixture. Instead, the Government will take a decision at the relevant point in the future, based on the evidence. I hope that, with those reassurances, my noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, will feel able not to press those two amendments when they are reached.
On Clause 127 as a whole, my noble friend Lord Young questioned the relationship between community land auctions and the plan-making process. I stress to him that it is essential that community land auctions are compatible with plan-making and that they dovetail within new and existing frameworks in the planning system. Sites that are allocated through the community land auction process will still need to secure planning permission in the normal way.
My noble friend asked whether community land auctions amounted to a process of selling planning permissions. The answer is no. CLA arrangements will be the means of identifying land for allocation for development in a local plan. Local authorities will be required to consult on the proposed land allocations in their draft local plan before the plan is submitted and, as I mentioned, independently examined. My noble friend described the process as, in essence, handing out money to people. Local authorities will need to spend the levy in line with the requirements in the Bill, which sets out that it should be spent in the same way as the infrastructure levy.
My noble friend also asked what happens when there is only one landowner. Community land auctions will be a voluntary pilot scheme, as I mentioned. We are not proposing that they should be mandatory everywhere. We confirmed in our May 2022 Bill policy statement that there will be a requirement for two rounds of community engagement before plans are submitted for independent examination.
Clause 127 requires that any directions given or regulations made under Part 5 aim to ensure the overall purpose of community land auctions arrangements, which is that the costs of supporting the development of an area and the costs incurred in achieving other specified purposes should be funded wholly or partly by owners or developers of land. As I have explained, introducing this clause will allow the Government to test the effectiveness of community land auctions in practice through a pilot scheme. The provisions allowing for the community land auctions pilot in the Bill will expire 10 years after CLA regulations are first made, and we will seek local planning authorities which wish to participate in this pilot to volunteer to do so.
I hope that I have given my noble friend sufficient assurance. However, I will carefully examine the remarks that he made and the questions that he asked. If I have not covered those points sufficiently, I undertake to write him, but I hope that, for now, he will be content for this clause to remain part of the Bill.
My Lords, maybe it is because it is Thursday afternoon, but I am slightly more confused now than before my noble friend gave his reply. He said that the land would be within the development plan, but he also said that it is an innovative way of identifying land for development. Those two statements do not seem to agree; there is a contradiction. I do not think that my noble friend answered my noble friend Lord Young’s point about the distortions that this can cause to a potential development plan.
It is perhaps true more in the south of England than in the north, where land values are cheaper, but if a landowner gets in cahoots with the local authority and says, “I will sell you my land at X”, knowing very well that his chances of getting planning permission are zero, would that not encourage the local authority to alter the development plan to benefit itself and the community rather than doing planning in the old-fashioned way, which was to develop with a holistic view of the area?
One thing I am not certain about is where local authorities will get the funds from to buy that land, particularly in the expensive south-east. I wonder whether my noble friend can help me on that.
My Lords, the process will not be as my noble friend has described. The simplest way I can describe this is that community land auctions will be a process of price discovery. In the current system, local planning authorities have to make assumptions about the premium required by a reasonable landowner to release their land for development. For Section 106 agreements, this manifests itself through viability negotiations between the local planning authority and a developer. As these can be negotiated, there is a higher risk that, in effect, higher land prices lead to reduced developer contributions, rather than contributions being fully priced by developers into the amount that they pay for land.
For the community infrastructure levy and the proposed infrastructure levy, a levy rate is set for all development within certain parameters. When setting rates, the local planning authority has to calculate how much value uplift will occur on average, and has to make assumptions about landowner premiums and set a levy rate on that basis. The actual premium required by individual landowners will not be available to local planning authorities and will vary depending on individual circumstances. If the local planning authority makes an inaccurate assumption about landowner premiums, they may either make a lot of sites unviable by setting too high a levy rate, or else they will collect much less than they might have done otherwise by setting too low a levy rate.
Under the CLA process, landowners bid to have their land selected for allocation in an emerging local plan, as I have described, by stating the price at which they would willingly sell their land to the LPA for development. The offer from the landowner, once an option agreement is in place with the LPA, becomes legally binding. The LPA can either exercise it themselves, thereby purchasing the land, or auction it to developers. The competitive nature of CLAs incentivises landowners to reveal the true price at which they would willingly part with their land. If they choose to offer a higher price, they risk another piece of land being allocated for development, in which case they will not secure any value uplift at all.
I do not want to prolong the debate unnecessarily, so I will respond to my noble friend in writing on the other questions I have not covered.
I am very grateful to my noble friend the Minister for the very patient way he dealt with the argument I put forward. I will take him up on two points. First, he said that the Government will consult local authorities about this. Surely, before introducing primary legislation on a major planning system, they should consult the local authorities first, rather than after the Bill has gone through. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I think he said that when the local authorities were drawing up the plan they could take into account the financial benefits. I think that is moving towards what he subsequently deplored: namely, the sale of planning permission.
The extent to which those financial benefits can be taken into account will be set out, as I mentioned, in regulations. My noble friend makes a fair point, but parameters will be set around this. On the issue of prior consultation, which the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, also raised, one can take two views: one is to go through the process that my noble friend advocated, and the other is to say that the integrity and workability of the scheme is such that we can afford to come to this House and the other place first before launching a pilot. Our view is that it will be perfectly satisfactory to take that course.
My Lords, this has been a very interesting discussion. This is probably one of the cases where there is less clarity at the end of the debate than there was at the beginning. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Young, for once again giving a very forensic and detailed analysis of the subject and for raising all the key issues that sit within it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, said, it was a very clear description of community land auctions.
On the issue of consultation, I remind the Committee that the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, in answer to an Oral Question earlier today, said that we are in danger of doing too much consultation. In this case, it would have been helpful if councils had been consulted before this proposal was put forward in primary legislation, because some of the issues raised in the debate would have come up immediately—they are quite obvious to those of us engaged in local government.
I have great sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Young, said. There is a queue of things that many of us feel should be in this Bill, including renters reform, leasehold reform, repealing the Vagrancy Act and so on. They did not get across the line and put into this primary legislation; yet here we have a fairly unformed idea, which has not been tested, which is in the legislation. That process is a bit mysterious to some of us.
The potential for contaminating the planning process is a key issue that needs to be thought through carefully. How would it look to the public when they go to a local plan inquiry, for example, if they find out that the council has already done a deal with the landowner over a particular site and they have no say in whether that will go into the local plan, because there is already a financial deal between the council and the landowner? That is a tricky one to get over. We have to think carefully about where, in the end, we are going with this.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, raised a very important question about where the money is coming from. Local councils are not exactly swimming in cash at the moment, so how will they find the cash to buy up this land to do the developments on?
The question of how this helps levelling up is also key. There will be significant differences in land value in different areas of this country; that has been the case for centuries and remains so. It will be the reverse of levelling up if it works in the way explained to us, and it could exacerbate inequalities, not improve them.
The noble Lord, Lord Young, spoke about local authority funding and how it used to work in, I think, 1968. Of course, things have changed a huge amount since then. There is now no government grant for many local authorities; some still get a bit, but there is not much for many of them.
We now have a tariff and top-up system for non-domestic rates. Is the intention that, if you have different land values in different parts of the country, community land auctions will be subject to a tariff and top-up system? Who pays for that?
We therefore have a lot more questions on this issue. I am sure that we will come back to it but, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 364B withdrawn.
Clause 127 agreed.
Clauses 128 to 133 agreed.
Clause 134: Parliamentary scrutiny of pilot
Amendment 365 not moved.
Clause 134 agreed.
Clause 135 agreed.
Clause 136: Expiry of Part 5
Amendment 366 not moved.
Clause 136 agreed.
Clause 137 agreed.
Clause 138: Power to specify environmental outcomes
367: Clause 138, page 169, line 26, leave out “may” and insert “must”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment will ensure that climate and other key environmental considerations, including the need to improve the condition of protected sites, will be included in the new EOR regime.
My Lords, I have a number of amendments in this group. I will not go into detail on all of them but will talk about our concerns about this part of the Bill and home in on a number of them.
Part 6 gives Ministers the power to amend or replace 17 systems of environment assessment with a new environmental outcomes regime. Changes to these technical systems will have significant environmental impacts on the ground. Environmental assessment provides the critical processes that ensure that nature, climate and heritage considerations are properly considered in the planning system and that help protect sensitive sites from damage. Given the potential for environmental harms—or benefit, of course—to arise from these changes, we believe that detailed parliamentary scrutiny is essential. We are concerned that, as drafted, Part 6 largely freezes Parliament out from shaping the process that is going to have significant impacts for net zero and for nature’s recovery.
The bulk of the detail of the environmental regime, including the outcomes that it will be built around and which actual projects it will apply to, are all going to be set by secondary legislation. In the words of the Office for Environmental Protection, the body set up by the Environment Act to scrutinise environmental policy,
“its potential environmental implications will only become fully apparent through ‘EOR regulations’”.
We believe that giving the Secretary of State Henry VIII powers to reshape all systems of environmental assessment is unsatisfactory and inappropriate, considering the climate and ecological emergency that we are living through. My amendments would require Ministers to set higher environmental ambitions in primary legislation and allow for greater parliamentary scrutiny of any subsequent EOR regulations. This would enable parliamentarians to ensure that the new processes lift rather than lower environmental standards, something that Ministers have often declared they want to see.
My Amendment 372 would ensure that the central aspect of the EOR regime—the nature of the environmental outcomes it will strive to deliver—is fully set out in primary legislation. Currently, the lack of detail in this area is such that climate is not in fact mentioned at all within the EOR scope set out in Clause 138. Perhaps the Minister will explain why. Friends of the Earth has observed that we
“are left to hope that Government will, at some later stage, include the protection of the climate as an environmental outcome”.
A consultation on the EOR published by DLUHC in March sheds little further light on this baffling omission of climate from this Part of the Bill. The consultation suggests that climate change will be inherent in the consideration of the factors listed in Clause 138 and adds that Ministers can always use secondary legislation to update it if required. Does the Minister agree that such a relaxed approach to the consideration of climate impact within environmental assessment is inappropriate in a climate emergency? My Amendment 372 clarifies that protection of the climate from the effects of human activity should be a core environmental outcome, set through primary legislation.
My Amendment 371 adds further essential details to the description of other outcomes—for example, the need for natural environment outcomes to include improvements to the condition of protected sites. Adding these core environmental aspects to the Bill will then embed them into the EOR regime right from the start and allow their detailed application to be further considered through proper scrutiny.
My Amendment 377 would strengthen the non-regression safeguard in Part 6 and ensure that the EOR regime will not be weaker than current systems of environmental assessment. The current safeguard set out in Clause 142 is far from robust, because it gives the Secretary of State the power to actually weaken standards in the EOR regulation, as long as they are satisfied that the overall level of environmental protection will not be less than before. The Office for Environmental Protection has highlighted that this “overall” wording allows for highly subjective assessments to be made by Ministers, with declines in crucial standards potentially being offset by strengthening of standards that a Minister alone feels has the same weight. For example, a Minister could balance weakened standards for the condition of protected sites with improvements in standards for environmental data collection, allowing the weakening of protected sites to proceed, to the detriment of nature.
My Amendment 377 replaces this weak safeguard with a stricter legal test, requiring no diminution of environmental protection in any one area. This provides a higher bar to shape EOR regulations and for parliamentarians to assess them against. It also echoes the wording of the non-regression clause—Section 20—in the Environment Act 2021. This robust non-regression test should also be applied to this Bill. I hope the Minister agrees. The Government have already responded positively to one set of amendments to Part 6, and we thank them for that.
My Amendment 369 and Amendments 375 and 376 tabled by my noble friend Lady Taylor of Stevenage highlight that, due to confused drafting, Clauses 139 and 141 would undermine the mitigation hierarchy, which is a keystone in environmental protection in the planning system. We very much welcome government Amendments 373A, 373B, 373C, 373D, 373E and 373F, which were tabled in March to address this. Will the Minister and her department look again at how this responsive approach could be extended to ensure that the EOR regime has climate considerations and that there is a robust non-regression clause built into it?
The process for scrutinising the regulations that will implement Part 6 needs to be enhanced. Currently, the Bill sees EOR regulations subject only to the affirmative procedure, which, of course, precludes amendment and almost always leads to the regulations being passed. Given the significant environmental impacts that EOR regulations will have, we believe that a more thorough and constructive form of scrutiny is required. My Amendment 388 will achieve this by requiring EOR regulations to be made under the super-affirmative procedure. This means we have an additional 60-day period for amendments and will allow for meaningful input into the detail of the new system.
It is important to highlight that a number of the environmental assessment systems that EOR could replace were originally set through primary legislation. Detailed parliamentary scrutiny and potential amendment of replacement regulations are clearly appropriate and commensurate with the need to get right the detail of vital climate and nature policies. In a letter to Peers following Second Reading, the Minister suggested that scrutiny concerns were unfounded, as the Government’s EOR powers were tightly constrained by their commitment to consultation with the public and public authorities. Public consultation is welcome, as long as it is for longer than 10 days, as I said earlier, but it does not provide a constraint on ministerial power. It is also no substitute for proper parliamentary debate.
Together, my amendments constitute a repair package for the EOR proposals. Currently, they constitute a ministerial power grab, with the Government asking us, once again, to trust they will do the right thing with the considerable powers that Part 6 confers. These amendments will provide a legislative underpinning to limit this leap of faith, embedding high environmental ambition in the Bill and enabling meaningful parliamentary scrutiny of any additional detail. I urge the Government to carefully consider the case for these improvements to Part 6 of the Bill, so that it meets the minimum scrutiny standards we expect of such significant policy changes. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment 384. Before I start, as there has been some gap between my appearances in this Chamber due to health issues, I remind the Committee of my conservation interests as laid out in the register. My amendment is supported by the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, Lady Willis of Summertown and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. I was very grateful to those noble Baronesses for moving some amendments in earlier stages of Committee when I was not able to because of health issues.
I begin by making my view very clear. The laws that are meant to safeguard our most important nature sites, such as the habitats regulations and the Wildlife and Countryside Act, can be improved—in fact, they should be. However, they should be strengthened to take better account of climate change and extended to cover more projects and land-use choices. They should take better account of damaging off-site activities such as upstream pollution and should be stricter in prohibiting planning applications in the most sensitive areas. Laws such as the habitats regulations have been shown scientifically to be effective and industry has backed them for the certainty that they give over and over again, but they are not perfect.
However, that is not the question before us today. The question is whether we should give Ministers carte blanche to replace existing systems of environmental assessment with environmental outcomes reports. Instead of specific proposals for improvements, we are being asked to sign off powers that could fundamentally change our most important environmental protections. The wide-ranging powers in Part 6 could allow a less environmentally responsible future Government to seriously weaken the habitats regulations and environmental impact assessment. I support several of the amendments to these clauses in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Taylor, which try to circumscribe the powers to ensure that they cannot be used to weaken environmental law.
I will focus on my amendment, which deals with the habitats regulations. These are the laws that protect our most vulnerable habitats and species. They give a higher and more effective level of legal protection than other protections, such as being a site of special scientific interest. My noble friend the Minister may repeat the line in the environmental outcomes report consultation that said:
“The Bill does not include powers to reform assessment under the Habitats Regulations. The powers in Clause 149 … mirror the position under the current system to allow for co-ordination between the processes and joint working, with a view to avoiding duplication”.
However, I am not convinced that that is a true reflection of the effects of this legislation. Clause 149(2)(d) clearly gives Ministers powers to make regulations
“disapplying or otherwise modifying any provision of … the Habitats Regulations”.
The Office for Environmental Protection agrees that the powers could affect the habitats regulations. In its evidence to the Public Bill Committee, it said that
“on our reading, the Bill does provide for HRA to be replaced for ‘relevant consents’ and ‘relevant plans’ by the EOR process”.
I would be interested to hear my noble friend’s view on the difference between reforming and modifying a law.
My amendment aims to make the Government’s intentions clear in law. It is true that there is sometimes duplication between the habitats regulations and other environmental impact assessment requirements. Industry has become very used to this and I understand that it is not an obstacle to development. Applicants simply submit one combined assessment. On the other hand, the uncertainty brought by the prospect of changes to the habitats regulations could create a problem for industry. Respondents to the recent National Infrastructure Commission report were clear, for example, that a bespoke system of assessments in England could be a problem for business.
However, if the Government are determined to tidy up this instance of duplication, I hope my noble friend will find my amendment a helpful and simple solution. It would ensure that environmental outcomes report regulations can replace habitats regulations requirements only if they are functionally the same. This would take away any risk that a future Government would weaken these essential environmental laws, while clarifying the Government’s intention to reduce duplication. I hope my noble friend will agree to this simple solution.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and I am sure the entire Committee will join me in saying that we are delighted to have him back with us. I also commend the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for the huge amount of work that has gone into this. So much is having to be filled in from the Opposition Benches and indeed the Back Benches on the other side, because this is such a skeleton Bill.
We have not only a shortage of birds, mammals and insects, but we are running into a shortage of Henry VIII metaphors. We have Henry VIII on steroids with rockets strapped to his boots—I have run out of additions to that one. The Bill as before us now would put into law an extreme right to Ministers to do whatever they would like. It is interesting to be having this debate in the context of the just-completed Report of the retained EU law Bill, because then your Lordships’ House expressed very clearly a desire to see non-regression in environmental regulations, but we need amendments such as these to the Bill to deliver the will that the House has expressed.
This group also made me think of debate on the economic crime Bill, where we were recently discussing the issue of freeports. There is a great deal of fear and concern in the community that these are places of open slather, where businesses will be allowed to do whatever they like and destroy whatever they like, where all the rules are taken away. As the Bill is written, that is what environmental outcome reports will effectively be doing: taking away EU-derived protections and leaving nothing written down in their place.
I will not run through it in detail, but if any noble Lords have not seen it, I point them to Wildlife and Countryside Link’s excellent report going line by line through a number of the amendments and explaining their importance. I pick out a couple of points. Amendment 372 concerns the climate. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, we are in a climate emergency, and how can that be missing from this crucial Bill? We are supposed to be talking about a levelling-up Bill. These changes to environmental protection around the country seems a long way from levelling up, but that is where we are. If we think about the protection of nature and the impact of the lack of nature on public health, people’s well-being and communities, it is of particular interest to communities generally seen to be in need of levelling-up support.
I particularly pick up one element of Clause 141: the fact that it destroys the mitigation hierarchy. The environmental mitigation hierarchy starts with “avoid”: do not trash things in the first place. We are one of the most nature-deprived corners of this battered planet and should be absolutely avoiding environmental damage. At the moment, we are doing the opposite. I think of how often my social media feed and my email queue are full of desperate people saying, “How can we be cutting down this ancient tree to build one house?” or, “How can we be destroying this hedge when, with a bit of initiative and creativity, we could leave the hedge and build some houses as well?” There is so much we are not doing, and the way the Bill is written allows open slather to that.
I just note one point on Amendment 388, which introduces a super-affirmative procedure for regulations. It is an inadequate backstop: it is a backstop, but not nearly good enough. We need to write the essential protections into the Bill. That would mean that the Committee is following the desire that the House expressed at Report on the retained EU law Bill.
My Lords, I will speak to three amendments in my name in this group: Amendments 378A, 378B and 386A. They are designed to try to ensure that this part of the Bill works effectively, and I hope will be regarded as helpful by my noble friend on the Front Bench. Not everything I have had to say has always been helpful, but I hope this is—it is all intended to be helpful, of course.
I remind the Committee of my registered interest as chair of the Cambridgeshire Development Forum. In that context, members of the forum from BDB Pitmans helped me with the construction of these amendments. Amendment 378A relates to Clause 142(3), which provides for informing the public and for “adequate public engagement” to take place in relation to the exercise of functions under this part. The effect of this new provision could be to extend public consultation requirements to the exercise of permitted development rights, because of the use of “proposed relative consent”. These are consents.
The present situation does not require such consents to be the subject of such a consultation requirement. In the legislation as it stands, adequate public engagement does not imply no public engagement. This would therefore increase the burdens on utilities, for example, in exercising a consent for a permitted development right in relation to telecommunications, highways, rail, et cetera. Amendment 378A would enable the Secretary of State to disapply the requirement where it would impose a disproportionate burden on development. Alternatively, page 174 mentions
“proposed relevant consent or proposed relevant plan”
in relation to “adequate public engagement”. If “proposed relevant consent” was replaced with “EOR regulations”, it would serve the purpose perfectly well, and save the problem that might otherwise arise.
Amendment 378B relates to Clause 142(1) on non-regression. It is a pleasure to welcome back to his place my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge. We have heard from him about the
“overall level of environmental protection”.
This is defined by reference to the European Union law when this Act is passed. My Amendment 378B would enable the Secretary of State to take into account, in exercising this responsibility to maintain the level of environmental protection, any urgent need for energy resilience. It is worth remembering that Section 20 of the Environment Act 2021 provides for environmental legislation to be introduced with a statement that
“will not have the effect of reducing the level of environmental protection provided for by any existing environmental law”.
There is then in that section a statutory provision enabling the Secretary of State to make
“provision that is different from existing environmental law”
“might provide for the same or a greater level of environmental protection”.
Why then is there no equivalent provision in relation here to the making of EOR regulations? The inflexibility of this provision is particularly illustrated by the prospect in the European Union of the introduction of a streamlined environmental assessment process for low-carbon technologies. I have reflected this in the phrase
“urgent need for energy resilience”.
This would enable Ministers to take account of such a process to advance low-carbon technologies and not be tied specifically to a level of environmental protection defined by current environmental law. I encourage my noble friend to consider either my amendment or something similar to the provision in Section 20 of the Environment Act 2021.
Amendment 386A refers to Clause 150, which makes the consequential amendments to this part. It is about the proposed repeal of Section 71 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which is what provides for environmental assessments. As it stands, that section will be repealed two months after this Bill passes into law. Existing environmental impact assessment regulations will then subsist from that moment until such time as the EOR regulations can be made, following the entry into force of those regulations.
But how long is the gap? How long will it be between this Act coming into force and the making of the EOR regulations? It could easily be well over a year and possibly two. For the greater part of that period, no power would remain to amend the environmental impact assessment regulations, pending the environmental outcomes reports regime. The EOR power is not able to amend the EIA regime until that stage.
My Amendment 386A would link the repeal of Section 71 of the TCPA 1990 to the first making of EOR regulations. That would therefore enable the current regime to be amended, if need be, before the point at which the EOR regulations first used create a new power that would be able to amend the existing EIA regulations or introduce EOR regulations. I commend those amendments to my noble friend.
My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment 372A in this group. Previous speakers have invested a huge amount of time in devising alternatives and improvements to the existing legislation, and I support their efforts very much. My amendment is much more basic and straightforward, and based less on research and more on intuition. It says that no new standards should be set lower than those in force at the time that the Bill comes into law. It is just a very basic, no-steps-backward amendment.
I am well aware that Clause 142 is, at least in essence, saying the same thing, except that it has a get-out clause, which has already been spoken to. It balances one sort of harm offset by another sort of good, all to be decided by a Secretary of State. That is not a no-steps-backward provision at all.
This kind of issue, the discretion being given to Secretaries of State, has come up on several previous days. We have had many earnest assurances from noble Lords on the Front Bench that there is every intention of maintaining, indeed increasing, the level of protection. It was said just this morning in relation to council houses; we are going to have more social provision, not less, as a result of the changes, and we are to trust them. Well, I am sorry to tell noble Lords that there is still a degree of uncertainty in the minds of many of us about how those promises will be delivered.
I have to say that Conservative Governments have proved quite transient things. We have had four Secretaries of State since this time last year and at least three fundamentally different approaches to housing targets and the levelling-up Bill. At least one key feature of the levelling-up mechanism set out in the White Paper was scrapped only this week—the regional levelling-up director posts—at, apparently, a saving of £144,000 a year for each of them.
There is a right royal battle under way, on and off stage, among senior Conservatives, aimed at setting our country free of all the enveloping red tape that stifles innovation and money-making. That is a paraphrase, but I hope not an unfair one. Mr Rees-Mogg, Mr Redwood and the Home Secretary are all hoping for a return to one or other of the alternative models of levelling up that Conservative Governments have played with over the last 12 months. Those versions have had lots and lots of levelling up, none at all or several mixtures in between.
So I ask noble Lords and the Front Bench Ministers opposite: what is the future of environmental outcomes reports? What guarantee is there that standards will not be allowed to drop, or perhaps even required to drop, in future, as red tape is cut and industry set free to make money and innovate? The current safeguarding guarantees are time-limited, fundamentally, to the assurances given by Ministers in Hansard. Based on the last 12 months, that level of protection is somewhat transient, and Clause 142 has its own get-out, as has already been pointed out.
If you look out of the window and see big clouds rolling in, you know that it is sensible to take your umbrella with you when you go out. That is common sense, not paranoia. If you look out the window and see big blue clouds rolling in from Bournemouth, or this weekend from Westminster, it makes even more sense to have your umbrella with you. My Amendment 372A is that umbrella. Yes, I want to see the other amendments in this group adopted, but surely we have to secure in the Bill the standards that we already have. That is why I have tabled Amendment 372A.
My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment, which has been coupled with this group. We are now moving on to Part 6 of the Bill, which involves Scotland. We have heard about all these doubts and areas that need to be cleared up, which are even more worrying for devolved Administrations.
My amendment is to Clause 143, “Requirements to consult devolved administrations”. I declare my family’s interest, as noted in the register, in that we own land in Scotland. We are fortunate; it is not a big area in Scottish terms, but it includes part of a national park, a nature reserve, a site of special scientific interest and special protection areas. As the Minister pointed out in an earlier debate, this is the section of the Bill that is most likely to affect devolved competencies. There can be no doubt that the Bill is causing much concern in the UK’s devolved Administrations, and we have just been hearing about the extent of the existing Henry VIII powers. Anyone who has spent any time in this Chamber knows that we are allergic to Henry VIII powers, and I hope that my noble friend can assuage us on the extent to which they will be included.
In the earlier debate on Clause 83, my noble friend rejected my proposed amendment. That issue only involved powers regarding planning data. Clause 143, as drafted, is a mirror of that text:
“The Secretary of State may only make EOR regulations which contain provision within Scottish devolved competence after consulting the Scottish Ministers”.
My Amendment 382 provides that, following the consultation, the Secretary of State must report the outcome and provide reasons. This is surely a necessary step for transparency and to maintain the trust between the parties on an ongoing basis. Consultation implies that all will put their cards on the table; agreement, as we all know, is harder to achieve. My noble friend may like to say that we would carry out these steps anyway. This amendment as drafted does not give any more power to devolved Assemblies but just gives them the comfort of knowing exactly where they stand.
It was further encouraging to hear my noble friend say, in his reply to an earlier debate, that
“the Government are continuing to work with the devolved Administrations to understand whether there is scope to extend the EOR powers to provide a shared framework of powers across the UK. Once those discussions have concluded, the Government will bring forward any necessary amendments to both Part 6 and Part 3 to reflect the agreed position between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations”.—[Official Report, 22/3/23; col. 1803.]
A shared framework of powers is precisely what this amendment is aiming to achieve. There is always the danger that, without achieving this framework, and with one party withholding consent, the outcome might go against any changes at all.
The Scottish Parliament’s legislative consent Motion for this measure was tabled on 27 July 2022. As I mentioned before, the main one of the three committees to give it consideration was the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee. In its report, brought out on 22 December, it could see some elements of the Bill that it welcomed. But, after taking evidence, it concluded that:
“Environmental Outcome Reports would lead to a significant change to environmental assessment in Scotland. However, the UK Government has not provided sufficient clarity around how they will operate in practice.”
Similar concerns were also highlighted by both the other committees in the Scottish Parliament. After consideration, all were still not prepared to grant approval.
The Government have introduced quite a raft of amendments to the Bill already. It would be interesting to know whether some of these are the fruits of their intergovernmental discussions, but we are still a long way short of achieving an agreed framework. Can my noble friend say whether that is still their aim?
My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment 384, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and to which I, like the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Willis of Summertown, have added my name. It is a pleasure to see the noble Lord in his place once again. He has set out his case for this amendment extremely well, as always.
Environmental outcome reports are key to monitoring our environment and the effect that we, the population, are having on it. We have had debates during the passage of the REUL Bill on the habitats regulations and the importance of ensuring that the regulations surrounding habitats are protected and would not run foul of the sunset clause on 23 December 2023, which has now, mercifully, been removed.
Habitats regulations are the strongest in our planning system, precluding nearly all development that could harm a site protected by the habitats regulation. EOR requirements, the detail of which will be set only by secondary legislation, could be weaker. Therefore, the habitats regulation requirements could be swapped out for weaker EOR actions.
Clause 149 deals with the interaction of the EORs and the habitats regulations, and Amendment 384 would insert at line 6 of page 178 the words:
“Where any requirements made by EOR regulations and environmental outcomes (specified or otherwise) deriving from those requirements are the same as those for existing environmental assessment legislation or the Habitats Regulations”.
This would provide certainty that the interaction between the EORs and the habitats regulations are dovetailed together, ensuring that there are no gaps. It would also ensure that, where there is the possibility of duplication and overlap, this is addressed.
We have heard a great deal about environmental regression in the Chamber over the last few weeks. The Minister will therefore be aware that this issue is causing concern among your Lordships. This amendment seeks to prevent this from happening. I hope she will agree.
My Lords, having listened with care to what has been said on these amendments on this important part of the Bill, I will make a couple of comments.
I listened with care to what my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge said on habitats. These are hugely important areas. There are two points that I hope my noble friend on the Front Bench will take into consideration. The first is that land varies very quickly, within a matter of feet in some instances. Although one wants the designation, one also wants the flexibility within that designation to get different solutions where things, and farmers, are slightly different. That flexibility within the overall framework is terribly important.
There is one aspect of the habitats directive that I hope my noble friend will look at in particular. Under the directive as it stands, no experimentation can take place within that area. On upland heather, it is hugely important that we do experiments, strictly controlled, in order to determine which is the best way of managing that fuel load. If we cannot do that within an area subject to the habitats directive—the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has had an application to do an experiment turned down by Natural England because the habitats directive will not allow it—we are putting at risk areas within that directive and the wildlife within them. I hope my noble friend will look at that in particular.
I support the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, on her Amendment 374, but I would wish to make one small alteration to it, if my noble friend were to accept it: it should be “scientific data”, not just “data”. That is hugely important.
I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, will agree with me on this next point. The definition of environmental protection relates to the level of activity, but what about the level of inactivity? The noble Baroness spoke at length recently, and quite correctly, about flooding, and I spoke about wildfires. Both of those can be caused as much by activity as inactivity, so could my noble friend tell me whether, within her definition, action can be taken where there is no activity, because that also puts wildlife and habitats at threat? I hope my noble friend can answer me on those points.
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their thoughtful consideration and hope that, in addressing the points raised, I can demonstrate how the new system of environmental outcomes reports offers a real opportunity to protect the environment.
On Amendment 367, I welcome the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for the setting of outcomes, but the proposed amendment would have unfortunate consequences. Changing a discretionary power to specify environmental outcomes in regulations to a mandatory requirement would require each regime to set environmental outcomes for every element of the definition of environmental protection.
Perhaps I should add a bit of detail as to how the outcomes will be set. The Government have committed to public consultation to ensure that the public and stakeholders have the opportunity to shape them. Regulations specifying environmental outcomes pursuant to Clause 138 will also be subject to parliamentary debate and scrutiny via the affirmative procedure. We will work across government and with key stakeholders to develop our outcomes, which will cover a range of environmental issues. In addition to the commitments in the 25-year environment plan, other strategies will be considered—for example, the clean air strategy, the UK marine strategy and the Government’s wider environmental targets.
We want to make sure that outcomes are deliverable by developing comprehensive guidance to demonstrate how plans and projects are contributing to the delivery of outcomes. As the current legislation covers a range of assessments with different environmental contexts, it would not be appropriate to require regimes to set outcomes for every area in the definition as not all would be applicable.
Amendment 368 seeks to include social outcomes as part of the EOR framework. As noble Lords will be aware, environmental assessment was originally established to provide an additional level of scrutiny to environmental concerns, which were often overlooked in decision-making on development. This need is greater now than ever before. It is important to remember that EORs sit within wider planning and consenting systems, which include extensive democratic processes, where social considerations are already well represented. Our current consultation includes questions on the role of EORs in considering impacts on local people.
Amendments 368A, 369A, 370 and 371 relate to the definitions of environmental protection and the natural environment. The Government are clear that the definitions in Clause 138, which draw on the definitions in the Environment Act 2021, will allow the Government to consider all matters considered in the existing assessment processes and are capable of capturing the substance of the proposed amendments. For Amendment 368A, the existing definitions already include cultural heritage. For Amendments 369A and 370, the definition of environmental protection includes “protection of people”, which would allow the Secretary of State to consider health-related matters.
Amendments 369A and 372 seek to include climate change in the definition. We are absolutely not relaxed about climate change. Our consultation sets out the challenges of addressing climate change through assessments, and reforming environmental assessment provides us with the unique opportunity to go further for the environment. These reforms allow us to consider the role that environmental assessment should play in addressing crucial issues such as climate change and the challenges of transitioning to net zero. Under the current system, these matters are often dealt with in a reactive, inconsistent and ineffective manner, generating paperwork but not the change we need to see. Additionally, climate change is not a single issue but a network of interconnected considerations. Subsection (3)(c) already includes
“natural systems, cycles and processes”
to ensure that matters such as climate change can be addressed. Many of the indicators to be used in the assessment will also relate to climate change.
Amendment 371 seeks to specify protected sites in the definitions. We are confident the definitions are sufficient to ensure that protected sites will form part of the new system.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, for tabling Amendment 375, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for Amendment 369 on the mitigation hierarchy. For the first time, we have legislated to include the mitigation hierarchy in law. We have brought forward an amendment to bring the hierarchy more in line with current practice.
On Amendment 372A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and Amendment 377 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, we recognise the need to maintain the highest environmental standards, which is why we included a clause setting out our commitment to non-regression. The drafting of Clause 142(1) mirrors the provisions of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement to ensure that we abide by our previous commitments. We have also included significant duties to consult and given Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise regulations through the affirmative procedure. The Bill requires public consultation and regard to the environmental improvement plan when setting environmental outcomes. They will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny via the affirmative procedure and to our overarching commitment to non-regression, so I hope that my noble friend the Duke of Montrose’s concerns are assuaged.
Amendment 373, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, seeks to link EORs to baseline studies. Baseline studies will remain a key means of measuring the effect of development on the environment. Given recent catastrophes, such as bird flu, we intend to modernise the process to meet the challenges of the 21st century. For this reason, we wish to preserve flexibility in how we shape assessment. We will work with experts to agree methodologies and set these out in regulations and guidance.
Amendment 374, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, would limit the power to make regulations on certain processes as these would need to be linked to “available” data. It would also limit the power to make regulations about the gathering of necessary data. This would be contrary to our commitment to non-regression in Clause 142.
On Amendment 378, the 17 UN sustainable development goals are crucially important. However, as the noble Baroness will be aware, the purpose of environmental assessment is to ensure that environmental issues are not overlooked in favour of the social and economic drivers of development activity. We feel it is important to maintain that focus to ensure that environmental issues are not sidelined exactly when they need our attention most.
Amendments 378A and 378B, proposed by my helpful noble friend Lord Lansley, seek to build greater flexibility into the new system. I reassure him that we intend the EOR process to be as streamlined as possible so that it is useful in informing decision-making. Although we indeed recognise the importance of energy security and resilience, it is vital that we fulfil our commitment to non-regression.
On Amendments 379 to 381, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, and Amendment 382 from my noble friend the Duke of Montrose, which mirrors the position in Amendment 181, I assure noble Lords that, in bringing forward environmental outcome reports, the Government are committed to respecting the devolution settlements. We are in discussions with the devolved Governments on how these powers should operate, including extending them to provide a shared framework across the UK. Interoperability between different regimes and competences will be fundamental as we develop our regulations.
On Amendment 383 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, I can confirm that greater accessibility is at the centre of our reform agenda. We want to ensure that everyone is better able to use these reports to understand the impact of development on the environment, including decision-makers. The Government will develop prototypes and templates to make sure that the reporting process is more accessible. These will be tested as part of our commitment to user-centred design.
I thank my noble friend Lord Randall and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for tabling Amendments 384 and 385, which allow me to address concerns about how these powers relate to the habitats regulations. The intention of Clause 149 is to ensure that as we transition from EIAs to EORs, projects are not required to meet the requirements of both the old and the reformed systems. I recognise that the drafting of this section has left certain Members with concerns that the powers could be used to remove the protections of the habitats regulations. To reassure on this point, use of the powers in Clause 149 must be in line with our commitment to non-regression. I hope that this provides some reassurance. They could not be used in a way that reduced the overall level of environmental protection. As we bring forward regulations to implement the new system, it is important that the equivalent legislation for the old system cease to apply and be properly removed from the statute book. Clause 149 provides the necessary powers, meaning the new system will replace the old system and operate effectively.
Turning to Amendment 386A in the name of my noble friend Lord Lansley, in principle we agree that it is wise to retain the ability to amend the existing system. However, it would not allow changes to the numerous EIA regimes that EOR will replace, nor would it allow changes to be made to the strategic environmental assessment regulations. It is unnecessary to keep this power as we have no plans to make any amendments to the EIA regime ahead of EOR implementation, which will be brought forward as soon as possible. It would also not be appropriate to retain the power to amend TCPA EIA regulations when we would not be able to do so for the other EIA regimes or for the regulations for strategic level assessments.
Turning to Amendments 388 and 389 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, the Government have made broad use of the affirmative procedure and have included a number of duties to consult on future EOR regulations. For these reasons, the Government do not feel that the super-affirmative procedure is necessary.
Lastly, my noble friend Lord Caithness made the point that no experimentation should take place within the area of a habitats directive. It is a good point, but I shall need to consult Defra in order to give him a proper response. Similarly, on any other points made by noble Lords that I have not addressed, I will look through Hansard and provide a full response in writing.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her thorough and detailed response. I also thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and those who expressed support for my amendments and what I am trying to achieve with them. It is good to see the noble Lord, Lord Randall, back in his place; we wish him well.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, asked whether I agree with him on inaction and action. I absolutely agree.
My amendments are designed to ensure high standards and protection, including of the climate. If the Government are not relaxed about climate change, as the Minister said, I do not understand why this is not part of the Bill and cannot be included. Having said that, my main concern is the Henry VIII powers the Bill confers. We will read Hansard and consider whether we want to return to this issue. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 367 withdrawn.
Amendments 368 to 372 not moved.
372ZA: Clause 138, page 169, line 37, at end insert—
“(e) protection for chalk streams in England so as to reduce the harmful impacts of excessive abstraction and pollution and improve their physical habitat”Member's explanatory statement
This amendment will ensure that the impact on chalk streams of relevant projects is explicitly considered, avoided wherever possible, or mitigated.
My Lords, I apologise that I have not participated at Second Reading or earlier in Committee on this landmark Bill, but I am grateful for the opportunity to move my Amendment 372ZA, which seeks to secure greater protection for our wonderful chalk streams, which I believe play a uniquely important part in England’s landscape and natural environment. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, for adding her name in support of the amendment. I declare an interest as the owner of a short stretch of the River Rib, a chalk stream in Hertfordshire. I salute the hard work and commitment of my right honourable friend Sir Oliver Heald, Member of Parliament for North-East Hertfordshire. I declare another interest, in that I am the president of the North-East Hertfordshire Conservative Association, which has recently adopted Sir Oliver as its parliamentary candidate at the next general election. Sir Oliver’s work to improve the environment, particularly the quality of the eight chalk streams in his constituency, is supported by very many of his constituents, of all political persuasions.
In his speech in another place on 25 April, my right honourable friend observed:
“The Government have taken powers in the Environment Act 2021 and the Agriculture Act 2020 that would enable a catchment-based approach to tackling the range of issues involved in river quality. The water plan, which has been released recently, shows where the investment would be, with fines imposed and money reinvested in improving water quality. One of the main recommendations was to have some sort of protection and priority status for chalk streams”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/4/23; col. 619.]
Some of Hertfordshire’s chalk streams are in a worse state than others. I am fortunate in that the Rib, where it runs past my house, has never run dry, although abstraction undoubtedly contributes to a worryingly reduced flow in midsummer. Some 85% of the world’s chalk streams are in England, and the remainder are in northern France and Denmark. Many of the rare and beautiful habitats that our chalk streams undoubtedly provide suffer a daily onslaught of pollution and over-abstraction.
I welcome the Government’s decision to support the chalk stream restoration strategy published by Catchment Based Approach’s chalk stream group. CaBA is supported by and works with all the major stakeholders, including environmental NGOs, water companies, local authorities, government agencies, landowners, angling clubs, farmer representative bodies, academia and local businesses. Its chalk stream restoration strategy, published in November 2021, sets out how England’s chalk streams can be restored to a near-natural state.
A 2014 review of England’s chalk streams found that 77% failed to meet the required classification of good ecological status as assessed by the Environment Agency, 75% had been significantly modified from their natural state and 55% were at risk from over-abstraction. The primary recommendation of the chalk stream restoration strategy, entitled the “one big wish”, which is supported by all the organisations, companies and agencies involved in the report’s development and by the consultation responses from stakeholders, is for
“an overarching statutory protection and priority status for chalk streams and their catchments to give them a distinct identity and to drive investment in water-resources infrastructure, water treatment … and catchment-scale restoration”.
The Government’s response so far to the one big wish reads:
“Defra is currently looking for opportunities to deliver on this recommendation. The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill provides an opportunity to consider how stronger protections and priority status for chalk streams can fit into reformed environmental legislation”.
In addition, chalk streams have been given priority status in the stormwater reduction plan. Is the intention still to use the REUL Bill to achieve this goal? Does the Minister agree that, as this Bill already deals with the reform of some relevant retained EU environmental legislation affecting planning decisions, my amendment provides a good opportunity for the Government to achieve their stated objective of protecting chalk streams? It would ensure that the impact on chalk streams of relevant projects is explicitly considered, avoided where possible, or mitigated.
An enhanced status for chalk streams, including within the planning framework addressed by the Bill, would drive the investment and resources that have been severely lacking, not only for chalk streams but, as the report by the Environmental Audit Committee of another place made clear, for the protection and enhancement of biodiversity more broadly. It could mobilise resources from several sources, including the option contained within the ELM scheme for chalk stream investment.
Noble Lords may wonder why my amendment covers only chalk streams, as other types of rivers and streams are also in great need of investment. An integrated approach to restoring all types of habitat and associated species through the restoration of natural ecosystem function, particularly natural catchment function, helps to deliver multiple biodiversity benefits alongside a wealth of natural capital associated with restored aquifer recharge, tackling pollution at source and natural flood management, as argued in a Natural England report in 2018.
Nevertheless, the chalk stream restoration strategy argues that the global rarity of English chalk streams provides a potent justification for singling out this river type among others. There are other justifications—for example, the fact that chalk streams are under particular stress because many of them flow through a highly developed landscape; they have been particularly stressed by the myriad ways in which their channels have been modified over time; they have distinct biodiversity, cultural and heritage value; and, for hydrological reasons, they are far less capable of self-repair than higher-energy rivers. Very few chalk streams enjoy protected site status, and an additional degree of protection would act as an exemplar to show how such an integrated approach can be used for these streams, ultimately showing the way for natural recovery of all rivers, streams, fens, lakes and other freshwater habitats.
There is a wide divergence of outcome to be shown with abstraction. All the designated chalk streams have abstraction targets within the CaBA chalk stream group target of no more than 10% of catchment recharge but, on the most extreme examples of the “ordinary” chalk streams, over 50% of the effective catchment recharge—in other words, the rainfall that sinks down into the aquifer—is abstracted, and in dry years that becomes all the effective recharge for those aquifers.
To take another example: on the few designated chalk streams, between 75% and 90% of sewage works remove phosphorus through advanced tertiary treatment. That proportion falls to between 18% and 30% on the ordinary chalk streams. This is why all the partners in the CaBA chalk stream group identified a higher status of protection as key to delivering the aims of the strategy.
The chalk stream restoration strategy sets out a comprehensive and interconnected series of recommendations, covering a range of actions across the catchment needed to restore chalk streams to ecological and functional health. They encompass abstraction reform, water quality, species and habitat improvements in both variety and abundance, land management and development. The Government have shown a commitment to support the recommendations of the report, subject to consideration, and to the suggestion of a specific category of protection. There is a need to ensure that the Government deliver on those commitments. Incorporating my amendment into the Bill would support that aim. I beg to move.
My Lords, I very much support what my noble friend has just said, having grown up in that part of the country and spending many happy decades fishing there. I just ask my noble friend the Minister, if he is going to give special consideration to chalk streams, to end the discrimination against Sussex. In particular, my local chalk stream should be included in the list, which it is not at the moment. The fact that it is called the Lottbridge Sewer should not be enough to exclude it.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to support every word that the noble Viscount has just said—a rare event.
I have recently joined a group of people who meet monthly to assess the health of the chalk stream that runs through their village by counting river flies, and the experience has been a real pleasure. There is nothing as satisfying as seeing a healthy ecosystem, and luckily theirs is.
However, as the noble Viscount has pointed out, chalk streams are extremely vulnerable. In fact, the amendment should not be necessary at all because we should automatically be protecting the health and well-being of our chalk streams. So I very much support the amendment. I hope it comes back again and again and we vote on it—or perhaps the Minister will snap it up as a good thing to do.
My Lords, I too am not always in agreement with the words of my noble friend, but I strongly support the amendment.
The key point is that chalk streams are more vulnerable than almost any other water because they are concentrated in areas of considerable development and they are subject to considerable abstraction and the results of sewage disposal. There is therefore a particular reason for isolating them as opposed to other things.
The crucial reason is that we are fortunate enough to have the majority of the chalk streams in the world. Britain needs to be very careful about protecting those few things that we have almost uniquely. I have to say to the Government that, awful though the REUL Bill is, this subject is clearly not going to be part of it, so this is an ideal opportunity to make that statement.
I fear that I know precisely what the civil servants will have said to the Minister. First, they will have said: “First of all, we really need a wider range of things here. We need to apply this much more carefully because otherwise people who will not be covered by this will object”. Secondly, they will have said: “It’s very difficult to isolate chalk streams when we are not covering this, that and the other”. Thirdly: “There will be other opportunities to do this in other legislation”. Fourthly: “This is a very big Bill already and we don’t want to burden the system with anything more”. Fifthly: “This particular amendment doesn’t cover all the chalk streams that ought to be covered, and therefore it would be better to wait until we can cover them all”.
There may be other things that civil servants will have told my noble friend, but I suspect that those are the first five. I suggest to him that this is the moment in which he does not listen to, “Better not, Minister”, and puts in, instead of that, “Be off, civil servant!” We need to have this. It is not perfect, but if we wait for perfection, we will do nothing. I just hope that the Minister, in whom I have great confidence, will be able to say, “This is a sensible thing to do and I can’t really think of any good reason for not doing it”—and therefore will do it.
My Lords, briefly, I join all those who have supported my noble friend’s amendment. I think that if my noble friend the Minister were sitting on the Back Benches he would probably have added his name. We know he has a difficult task but we wish him well in his endeavours.
My Lords, how sensible it was of my noble friend Lord Trenchard to degroup this amendment from the previous group, which already had 29 amendments in it. This is far too important an issue to be wrapped up in a comprehensive debate.
We should not be in the position of having this debate today. One of the reasons why we are is that the NRA was abolished. When we privatised water—I had the privilege of taking the Bill through this House—we set up the National Rivers Authority. There is nobody better at protecting species or habitat than former poachers, so we put into the National Rivers Authority those who had been in the water authority; one day they were the enemy, and the next they were the best gamekeepers you could possibly have. Under the NRA, there were distinct improvements within the water industry and it was a pity that it got amalgamated into the Environment Agency. It lost its focus and its speciality, and then of course the Environment Agency’s funding was cut.
Having said that, I thank the Government for what they have done. Credit must be given to them: they have a water plan and a storm-water reduction plan, and they have now given powers to Ofwat to consider the environment, which is a huge step forward. They have supported the catchment-based approach and, in particular, they are supporting the national chalk stream restoration group.
We have been in a similar position many times before. There have been lots of reports and discussions, but maybe—just maybe—this time we might get it right. Everybody is on the same page and singing the same song. They are supported by the Government, who have said that the door is slightly ajar. Let us barge through it now and do something for these chalk streams.
The restoration group, as my noble friend Lord Trenchard said, is there to drive progress by government and regulators, water companies, landowners, NGOs, river associations and individuals passionate about their rivers. Are we not lucky still to have people such as Charles Rangeley-Wilson, who is chairing the group and has given hours of his life to chalk streams? The Government must make better use of this input. We are so lucky to have those individuals, and I thank them.
I reiterate what my noble friend said about the one big wish. This amendment is designed to help push that one big wish through into beneficial action for the chalk streams. They are hugely important. I have to admit that they were not important in my life until recently; I was much more concerned about the tumbling rivers in the north of Scotland than chalk streams. But how we manage chalk streams is the litmus test of how the Government are going to handle all the difficulties around improving the environment.
One of the big problems in chalk streams is sewage, which has been in the headlines nearly every day for many months now. We had a “sorry” from the water authorities yesterday on this. If you go to Dorset to walk along the banks of the River Lym, you will see notices saying to keep out, as there is E. coli in the river. That is unacceptable in this day and age but sewage is not the only problem. It will be quite easy, now that the cost-benefit analysis has changed, to put in tertiary sewage works at Evershot and at Toller Porcorum on the upper reaches of the River Frome. That is not a problem.
More of a problem is going to be the septic tanks. A lot of villages, as well as individual cottages, houses and farms, are still within the catchment area of chalk streams and all with septic tanks. Those tanks cause a huge amount of problems, particularly in dry weather. The summer months, when the water flow is low and sewage tanks which are not up to standard are disgorging into the drains or waterways, are the real problem. It is an underestimated problem but it will be a huge one for the Government to have to tackle.
Besides that, the Government will have to tackle us humans in a different way. They have to be prepared to say to us humans: “You cannot fill your swimming pools, you cannot water your gardens or do the abstraction that you did”, as this is only going to be compounded because of climate change. In parts of France—we have not even got to the really hot part of the summer—locals are being told that they cannot do things with water that they have always taken for granted. This is going to be a hugely difficult message to get across, but we need to change our habits for the benefit of the environment. I hope that my noble friend will continue to push on this, but he needs to get the message across that everything being done, which will be costly, is for the environment and we have to adapt to it.
My noble friend will have to take on farmers too. There cannot be, within the catchment areas, fallow fields for much longer. There cannot be maize or salad crops grown, unless there is an immediate crop coming along, because if there is a fallow field you will get run-off and sediment. Noble Lords may have seen the news recently from parts of Italy, where there has just been six months’ rain in one and a half days. The run-off from that has been horrendous. If run-off gets into water—into chalk streams—that causes huge problems. It causes sediment on the base of the stream, which makes it much more difficult for the trout to spawn. If the trout have spawned and you get sediment, you are going to suffocate the eggs. The farmers are another challenge that the Government have to take on.
Another challenge is the highways department, as an awful lot of sediment comes off highways. I see that one particular recommendation from the chalk stream restoration group is about highways, but it alarms me that it has a nasty red cross beside it, where it says there is no action at all yet. Can my noble friend tell me what action he is taking to berate the Department for Transport and local authorities, so that they make arrangements such that the sediment which comes off the roads does not go unfiltered into our precious chalk streams?
There might have to be arguments with those who support beavers. I am a supporter of beavers in the right place, but in most cases beavers and chalk streams do not go together. What the beavers will do will slow down the water, increasing the sediment. It comes back to the problems that sediment causes, which I have just been describing.
Then of course there is water abstraction in its widest sense; I have talked about that a little. The NRA was tackling that hard, and I pay tribute to more individuals: people such as Richard Slocock, who stopped the River Piddle in Dorset being a dried-up bit of river. He worked with the NRA and the Piddle has now become one of our classic chalk streams again. Sir John Betjeman, when he was at Marlborough, was filled with glory by the sight of trout in the River Kennet. When I was at Marlborough, the trout did not have quite the same effect on me. But very close to where Sir John Betjeman was filled with glory, my noble friend Lord Benyon on the Front Bench—Richard Benyon, as he then was as Minister for Agriculture—stood on completely dry land in the middle of that river and later remarked in the House of Commons that the Kennet
“was as dry as the carpet”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/12/11; col. 405.]
that he was then standing on.
In 2019, 60% of the chalk streams in the Chilterns area dried up in the drought. We are going to have to rely increasingly on aquifers to support our chalk streams so that they provide the flow of water. We all need to change. It is not a difficult remedy; it is very easy. Three particular things matter when it comes to healthy chalk streams: water quantity, water quality and good physical habitat. You cannot have that physical habitat without water and for that you need the aquifers.
It surprises me that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, did not put her name to this amendment. I question whether Labour is quite as supportive of this as I hoped it might be.
If I were a fisherman on one of the Dorset rivers now with the mayfly hatching, I would have caught a most wonderful trout at the end of my line.
I say to the noble Baroness that I was alarmed, because I know that, in her heart of hearts, she is very supportive of this. However, her boss Keir Starmer said that he wanted to develop on green land. As my noble friend Lord Deben has just said, our chalk streams are going through highly developed land already. Which side of the fence is the Labour Party on? I hope the noble Baroness will reply.
I will ask of both Front Benches the question I was going to ask of my noble friend the Minister. Are they prepared to give the commitment to our chalk streams that the chalk streams demand? To remedy the chalk stream problem, it is not a question of days, months or years, but of decades, and an awful lot of interests have to be tackled. Unless we can get reassurance that all the parties across the House have that commitment, our chalk streams will not be in the health they should be
My Lords, I support Amendment 372ZA in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, to which I have added my name. The noble Viscount has introduced his amendment and covered the subject fully, and I agree with all his comments.
Many in this Chamber will remember during the passage of the Agriculture and Environment Acts the debates on the importance of chalk streams, so ably led by my late noble friend Lord Chidgey. If he were here, he would certainly be taking part today. No doubt he is looking down from above on our deliberations today and wishing us well.
Chalk streams are a vital environmental resource and should be protected. Those noble Lords who watched David Attenborough on the “Wild Isles” television programme recently will know that 85%—I hope I have remembered that correctly—of the world’s chalk streams are in the UK. That does not mean that, because we have plenty, we can ignore them; quite the opposite. It means we must preserve them at all costs.
A year ago, my husband and I moved from our beloved Somerset to Hampshire, partly to be nearer our family. I have discovered, for the first time, the beauty and tranquillity of the county’s chalk streams—the crystal-clear water, the soft babbling sound of the water running over the riverbed and, often, the bright green watercress growing on the edge of the water and the riverbanks.
However, this idyllic description is not the sight that meets the eye in all parts of the country. Many chalk streams suffer from pollution, as the noble Viscount has said, making the waters discoloured and smelly. There have been numerous questions and debates about the effects of foul-smelling sewage discharging into our waterways. Many chalk streams suffer abstraction on a grand scale and the flow of the river is diminished as a result. As we all know, it is often the rate of flow of a stream that helps to keep its waters clear.
While there is currently a chalk river priority habitat in place which recognises their international rarity and biodiversity, this is not protecting them from sewage discharges. However, the chalk stream strategy also has an important part to play. Today’s announcement by the water companies that they plan to tackle the problem of sewage overflows by 2030 through massive investment in sewer upgrades is to be welcomed, but I fear it may be a little while before this is effective in protecting our precious chalk streams, especially from future development pressures.
Clause 138(c)(e) is the ideal place for this amendment to be added to achieve the desired result we are all looking for. I am extremely grateful to the noble Viscount for raising this vital issue and I hope the Minister will be able to accept this amendment. All speakers have strongly supported this amendment and I agree completely with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Deben. Chalk streams are an invaluable asset and must be protected and preserved, so that future generations of children and adults can enjoy them to the full.
My Lords, I am delighted to see the Minister in his place because it gives him the opportunity to make me gruntled again. If he is doing the next two groups, I am beginning to think I should set him a weekly target to ensure that I am never disgruntled again with any of the things he is dealing with.
To be serious, this is a critical environmental issue. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, for tabling this amendment and for his excellent introduction. I also join the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, in her tribute to Lord Chidgey. He was deeply committed to this issue, and I think we should recognise that.
As we have heard, England has 85% of the world’s chalk streams, and they are at risk. They are very, very precious, and I really do not think this should be a political issue; it is something we should all be getting behind, and we should all be supporting their protection. As at the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said, they are more vulnerable than other waterways. There are many reasons for that, and we have heard many during the debate: agricultural pollution; sewage pollution; the decline of native species, particularly invertebrates; the introduction of non-native invasive species; development; population growth; and the fact that we simply use and waste far too much water. On average in Britain, we use more water per head per day than most other European countries. Most pressing are the low flows and the chronic abstraction, which noble Lords have talked about. We have also had issues in recent years with not having enough rainfall to support the levels of abstraction, even though people have been given warnings about the damage that that can cause.
As noble Lords have said, we support the reform of the abstraction licensing system, which is currently allowing too much water be taken from our chalk streams. We need to look at more robust infrastructure to support that, dealing with the ongoing strain of an unpredictable climate and rising populations. We need greater investment in storage capacity, and water metering needs to be managed more and developed.
One of the recommendations of the chalk stream restoration group—it is really good that the Government are getting behind it and supporting what it is trying to do—is that chalk streams should be given overarching protection and priority status. That is the one big wish we have heard noble Lords talk about. If there is anything the Minister should take from this debate and previous debates on the Environment Act, for example, it is that the Government really must give chalk streams a status that reflects that they are not just locally precious but, as we have heard, globally unique. This amendment would provide those protections. We support it and I urge the Minister to get behind it. If the Government cannot do anything today, I urge them to bring something forward.