Housing and Planning
Business of the House
Eric Pickles (Secretary of State, Communities and Local Government; Brentwood and Ongar, Conservative)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on housing and planning. The coalition Government inherited a legacy where house building had fallen to its lowest rates since the 1920s, and there was a top-down planning system that built nothing but resentment and a regime of regional planning quangos that created paralysis and confrontation. After six years of preparation, by the general election fewer than 60 councils had completed local plans. The result was no development, no regeneration and no community benefit.
This Government want to get the economy growing, to remove unnecessary red tape and to support locally-led sustainable development. In November, the Government published a comprehensive housing strategy to support a thriving, active and stable housing market. In March, we published a national planning policy framework that condensed 1,000 pages of central planning guidance into just 50. House building is up; it was 29% higher in 2011 than in 2009. However, there is much more to do. So, my Department is announcing a further series of common-sense measures to promote house building and support locally-led economic growth. The technical details were set out in a written statement that I laid before the House, but I will now summarise the key points for hon. Members.
Following on from Sir Adrian Montague’s independent report on supporting the private rented sector, we are providing £200 million of new funding to support institutional investment in high-quality rented homes. Thanks to the action we have taken to tackle the previous Government’s deficit, we are passing on lower costs of borrowing. We will be issuing a debt guarantee for up to £10 billion to support private investment in the private rented sector and in new affordable housing. We will support up to an additional 15,000 affordable homes through the use of loan guarantees, flexibilities and capital funding. We also intend to extend our successful refurbishment programme to bring an additional 5,000 existing empty homes back into use. The previous Government wanted to demolish Victorian terraces, through John Prescott’s pathfinder programme. By contrast, we are getting homes back into productive use. In total, we will invest another £300 million in these measures to support new affordable homes and to bring empty homes into use.
We actively want to support home ownership, which fell under the last Parliament, despite a Labour pledge to increase it by 1 million. We are extending our successful FirstBuy scheme for first-time buyers, with an additional £280 million of funding helping up to 16,500 first-time buyers to purchase a home. To free up more brownfield land for development and regeneration, we will accelerate the release of surplus public sector land and empty offices through a targeted programme of transfers from other Government Departments. We will work with local authorities and developers to unlock locally supported large sites. Just last week, we were able to unblock the Eastern Quarry in the Ebbsfleet valley, a major ex-industrial site that had been stalled for more than a decade.
We are working with local communities and councils, in strong contrast to the previous Government’s top-down plans for the so-called “eco-towns”, which failed to deliver a single home. But some councils need to raise their game, as they are failing to make planning decisions in a timely way. Planning delays create uncertainty, both for local residents and local firms. We will introduce a series of practical measures to help speed up planning decisions and appeals, and major infrastructure. Some complex developments take time to assemble, so we are allowing for developers to extend the duration of existing planning permissions. We will make it easier for developers to change unrealistic section 106 agreements negotiated at the height of Labour’s unsustainable economic boom; these are houses built on foundations of sand which are no longer economically viable after Labour’s bust. A development that is not built means no section 106 payments. Common-sense reform will result in more regeneration, more housing and more community benefits.
Sustainable development should go hand in hand with environmental safeguards, so I can confirm that we will protect the green belt, in line with our commitment in the coalition agreement. It has always been the case that councils can amend local green belt boundaries should they wish, and we support councils that choose to do so. They can introduce new green belt protection around new large developments. There is considerable previously developed land in many green belt areas. We encourage councils to make best use of that land, while protecting the openness of the green belt, in line with the requirements of the national planning policy framework.
If we are to protect our countryside, we need to focus more growth in our town centres. So we are introducing measures to make it easier to turn empty commercial buildings into housing. Our high streets will benefit from a greater resident population increasing footfall and supporting local shops. As a nation, we have great pride in our homes. We want to make it easier for families to undertake home improvements, such as building a new conservatory. So we will be seeking to simplify and increase permitted development rights for households. Cutting back municipal red tape in this way should provide a particular boost for small traders and builders. By contrast, the Labour Government wanted to tax conservatories with a council tax revaluation on family homes. The difference could not be clearer.
These practical measures build on the housing, local government finance and planning reforms already in play. They give more power to individuals, to communities and to councils. They provide new incentives to support local shops, local firms and local economic growth. They deliver sustainable development and get the business of building under way. I commend this statement to the House.