May I start by congratulating the new Minister, Michael Fallon? I believe this is the first time in 20 years that he has been back at the Dispatch Box, so we look forward to his contribution. Unfortunately I will not be able to compare it to his last contribution—I am afraid we were not allowed to watch television at school.
I pay warm tribute to my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn. He completely disembowelled the Government’s case for the Bill in forensic detail, which was very pleasing indeed to watch. He was not the only one who pulled the Bill apart; he was joined by the Liberal Democrat Members for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). I look forward to them joining us later in the Lobby.
Today’s debate has been important. We meet only weeks since the Third Reading of the Government’s Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which they heralded as their flagship for growth. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills said that the measures in that Bill would
“help make Britain one of the most enterprise-friendly countries in the world.”
It feels very much like Groundhog day: another week, another flagship Bill that the Government insist will drive the recovery and our economy. However, this Bill is a knee-jerk and shambolic reaction by the Government to their summer panic over the lack of growth and their response to the failure of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, with its rag-bag of measures labelled as “growth”—or, as my hon. Friend Grahame M. Morris put it, the Secretary of State was trying to sell this Bill like a fishmonger shouting, “Please buy my rotten fish.” As with the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, this Bill shows again that the Government have all the wrong priorities. They are consistent, though—promoting measures with no evidence to underpin them, with no consultation responses to guide them and not much support from anyone to add force to them. I have been eagerly awaiting the Government’s evidence in this debate, but I have yet to hear it.
We may finally be returning to some economic growth from this Government, but as the Prime Minister himself said earlier this year:
“If you could legislate your way to growth, obviously we would. The truth is you can’t.”
He is right. Calling this a “growth” Bill does not make it so. There is nothing in the Bill to address the root causes of the Government’s economic failure, or indeed the housing crisis. Instead, there are a number of ways in which the Bill could damage the planning system, housing delivery and local communities, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have pointed out. Even the construction industry has said that there is no point in this Bill. It was revealed over the summer that 60% of construction industry leaders who were surveyed said that the main deterrent to investing in infrastructure was a
“lack of clarity from the government”.
This Bill will only compound that uncertainty, as the construction sector continues to shrink. That is a very worrying trend, which has sparked fears that the construction sector will lose much capacity in the longer term. However, I repeat: the Bill does nothing to address the root causes of the catastrophic downturn in construction. The key point is that builders are not building because banks are not lending and people are unable to borrow and buy. Mortgage lending fell again this month, with 6% fewer people securing mortgages than in the previous month and half as many as in what would be termed a normal year.
Whatever happened to the Government’s much vaunted localism agenda? Again, I refer the House to the super contributions by the hon. Members for Cheltenham and for Mid Dorset and North Poole, who have said that they are against the centralism agenda in this Bill. This is the Government who came to power on promises of returning power to local people. In fact, one pre-election policy green paper stated:
“Localism holds the key to economic, social and political success in the future,” but in this Bill, for “localism” replace with “centralisation”.
The Bill’s focus on planning is misguided and the measures will not tackle the real barriers to growth. That assertion is backed by research—not that the Government ever use research or evidence—that shows two things. First, there is a building backlog of 400,000 new homes that have planning permission but have yet to be built by developers. Secondly, approval for residential and commercial applications is at a record 10-year high, with 87% of such applications being approved in 2011-12. Mr Ruffley mentioned commercial development earlier.
The Bill suggests that the only way to support recovery is to centralise the planning system. Clause 1 would enable developers to ask for their applications to be decided by the Secretary of State when a local authority has been designated as having been stripped of its planning status. This is where we come to the Secretary of State’s bombshell. He professed earlier that Hackney was the worst-performing authority in the country, but he could not say whether it would be designated for these purposes or what criteria would be used to determine whether it should lose its planning status.
According to Hackney’s figures for the past year, 42% of applications were determined within 13 weeks, with 80% of minor applications being dealt with in eight weeks. Of the 59 planning appeals, 17—or 31%—were allowed. Let us compare that with the figures from the Minister of State’s own local authority, Sevenoaks. There, 62% of applications were determined within 13 weeks, but less than 74% of minor applications—fewer than in Hackney—were determined in eight weeks, and 35% of planning appeals were allowed. Simply by comparing Hackney with the Minister’s own council shows us that it is above the average in this regard.
I therefore challenge the Secretary of State to tell the House whether the average is now to be determined as the worst. Will the 200 or so authorities that are below the average be designated as failing, and if so how will their planning powers be removed? I suggest that Members on the Government Benches look at the tables that have been produced and, as my hon. Friend Tristram Hunt encouraged them, to ask the Secretary of State whether they will be worse off or better off than Hackney. If Hackney is indeed the worst, their own local authorities could be under the control of the Secretary of State very soon indeed.
There would also be no right of appeal if the Secretary of State were to take charge of such local authorities. I wonder whether he is familiar with the decision by the First Minister of Scotland to call in a planning decision for the first time in the Scottish Parliament’s history, following what was seen as the wrong judgment being made by the democratically elected planning committee in Aberdeen. This of course involved the Trump golf course development on the shore near Aberdeen, and it was an example of centralisation over proper local accountability. The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole, Nick Herbert and my hon. Friend Mrs Glindon have all said today that the Local Government Association believes the Bill to be a blow for local democracy.
We know that Ministers dropped Labour’s ambitious plans to establish universal broadband for all by the end of 2012. We now have chaos and incompetence at the heart of the Government over plans for this major piece of infrastructure that could drive growth in this country. The Bill’s measures on broadband will result in a free-for-all of building in areas of outstanding natural beauty. They will not drive the economic growth that we need. We support a more efficient planning regime, but the duty of the Secretary of State to “have regard” to natural parks is not what is holding back the roll-out of broadband in this country. We have seen no evidence to substantiate the claim that the “have regard” duty is an obstacle to broadband and mobile roll-out.
On the section 106 provisions, my hon. Friend Bill Esterson was right to mention the survey carried out by the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central, which showed that five times as many social homes for rent had been built in Labour authorities than had been built in Conservative ones. It has been estimated that some 50% of affordable housing is delivered through section 106 agreements, which oblige developers to make a contribution to community benefits as a condition of receiving their planning approval. So why have the Government singled out affordable housing contributions as the most disposable of the many section 106 categories? Getting rid of these will simply mean fewer affordable homes at a time when more are needed. [Interruption.] I hear a sedentary intervention from the Treasury Bench, saying that this is not correct, but let us listen to David Orr—I know that some of my right hon. Friend and hon. Friends have already mentioned his quote—the chief executive of the National Housing Federation. He warned that the abolition of section 106 would
“wipe out at a stroke 35,000 affordable homes a year”.
I am more likely to believe the chief executive of the National Housing Federation than the Government, who have come forward with proposals on the basis of no evidence whatever.
It is also the case that a strong section 106 agreement helps to reduce land values, which is part of the problem in this country when it comes to development. There is absolutely no evidence to support the Prime Minister’s claim that there are a significant number of sites that have planning permission but are not going ahead because there are too many obligations to build council homes.