Housing and Planning
Business of the House
Hilary Benn (Leeds Central, Labour)
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his oral statement and for the fact that he graciously offered one after my urgent question had been granted. But, once again, Mr Deputy Speaker, we have major changes in policy being announced first to the media and not to the House. We also notice that the Secretary of State has been uncharacteristically silent in recent weeks, while the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor have all been busy changing policy that we all thought he was responsible for.
The Government know that we have a housing crisis, but it is a crisis of their own making. Housing starts fell by 10% last year and affordable housing starts fell by a catastrophic 68%—that was a direct result of the cut in Government funding for affordable housing, which the Secretary of State allowed to happen. The Chancellor has put the economy back into double-dip recession, those who are looking to buy are finding it hard to get mortgages or to raise the deposits needed, and house builders who already have planning permission are not progressing those developments because they do not think that people will buy the houses.
We support measures that will help growth and build more houses—including the debt guarantee—and help first-time buyers. Indeed, we have been urging the Government to bring forward investment in housing. Will the Secretary of State tell the House when he expects that the number of affordable housing starts, which was only 15,000 last year, will match the 54,000 starts achieved in 2009-10 by the last Labour Government? Will he also tell us how many families have benefited to date from the NewBuy scheme?
The fundamental problem is not the planning system and not section 106 agreements, which are very important in providing much-needed affordable housing. The Local Government Association reports that planning permission is already in the system for 400,000 homes—it is the Chancellor’s failed economic plan that is preventing them from being built.
On section 106, how many affordable homes does he anticipate will now not be built because of his proposed changes, given that the National Housing Federation said this morning that section 106 provides 35,000 affordable homes a year? Will any replacement homes that manage to be built be built on the same development sites so that we can have mixed communities?
The Deputy Prime Minister suggested on the radio this morning that at present developers have to wait five years before they can renegotiate section 106 agreements. Will the Secretary of State confirm that those agreements can in fact be renegotiated at any time if the parties agree and that a number of local authorities have been doing exactly that because of the current economic circumstances? What evidence will developers be required to produce to show that a scheme is not viable? Will he clarify whether the proposed changes apply only to existing section 106 agreements or also to new ones, given that only last month he announced that for
“all planning obligations agreed after
This morning, the Secretary of State has also just announced in his written statement—I notice that he did not refer to it in his oral statement—a bombshell that threatens local decision making on planning decisions. The written statement laid before the House this morning states that if an authority
“has a track record of consistently poor performance in the speed or quality of its decisions”—
we must ask who will judge that quality—the Government propose
“to legislate to allow applications to be decided by the Planning Inspectorate”.
Can he explain why, having consistently denounced centralised decision making, he is now proposing a fundamental change? This is not a technical detail, but
a fundamental change in which he proposes to take the power in future to decide whether he thinks that local planning decisions are up to scratch. If he does not, planning power will be taken out of the hands of local people. So much for localism. Does he not realise that that will cause alarm up and down the country, including among those on the Benches on both sides of the House?
We have read a great deal about the Chancellor’s wish to undermine the green belt, which is much valued by all of us. Will the Secretary of State clarify what is happening? The Chancellor says that it will change, but the Secretary of State says that it will not. Who is right? Why is this shambles occurring?
When does the Secretary of State plan to publish more details on the relaxation of permitted development rights? Will the current height restrictions be maintained? Will he confirm that that will not apply to conservation areas and that where article 4 directions are in place they will remain in place?
Having completed the biggest change in planning policy for a generation earlier this year and trumpeted its success, the Secretary of State, in an extraordinary spectacle, has stood up before the House and, in effect, told us that his planning system is not fit for purpose. When will Ministers stop casting around for somebody and something else to blame, finally admit that it is the Chancellor’s failed economic policy has led to a collapse in house building and change course?