We have just extended the affordable homes programme—a total of £38 billion-worth of public and private investment, together ensuring that 275,000 new affordable homes will be built between 2015 and 2020. Council housing starts are at a 23-year high, and we expect the independent review into councils’ role in housing supply to report very soon.
Does the Secretary of State agree with me that greenfield sites can be very highly valued by local residents and are important for protecting natural habitats and heritage? As we look to build the much-needed houses, will he take steps to assist local authorities to make sure that brownfield sites and inner-city spaces are fully exhausted before any greenfield sites are built on?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right that local authorities should be looking to develop brownfield sites first. In fact, we are looking at that with the new starter homes programme that the Prime Minister announced today. We have also put in more money over the summer to encourage local authorities to develop those brownfield sites first and to make them more viable.
As my hon. Friend knows, Mid Sussex is making a great attempt to cope with the extraordinary demand for housing in the south-east. Does he agree that a rule allowing the Planning Inspectorate to accept housing development only when there is adequate housing infrastructure to support it would make a great difference to building in the south?
That is a very good point. It is important for local authorities and developers to ensure that the infrastructure is there to support housing development, and authorities will seek to do that as part of the planning process and, indeed, as part of their own local-plan process. That is another example of how important it is for local authorities to have local plans in place.
The hon. Gentleman has stood in the House in the past and argued in favour of that development, but he has now changed his position. He and I have not had a conversation about the matter, and I think that that is the right approach, given that it involves a quasi-judicial planning process and the application is still live.
Although both unemployment and homelessness are at an extraordinarily low level in North Wiltshire, we are being told that we must have thousands of unwanted new houses—particularly in the Chippenham area—followed by factories to give jobs to the people who will live in those new houses. While it is fine for houses to be built where they are needed, surely central Government should allow areas such as mine, where housing and jobs are roughly in balance, not to have them.
As my hon. Friend will no doubt appreciate, this Government ended the top-down approach adopted by the Labour Government, getting rid of the regional spatial strategies. It is now entirely for local authorities to make evidence-based assessments of local housing development needs, and then to consider how they can provide for them. Decisions should be locally driven, with local people in mind.
I have not seen the details of that case, but if the right hon. Gentleman forwards them to me, I shall be happy to look at them. In my experience, planning inspectors tend to challenge local authorities about their evidence bases. The national planning policy framework makes it clear that green belt constitutes an environmental constraint, and local authorities can use such constraints as evidence bases when it comes to what they can actually provide. It is for them to do the research, build those evidence bases, and make their case.
The Minister recently suggested that councils did not need local plans, and that there was no role for central Government if they failed to adopt one. As he knows, however, without local plans communities have absolutely no say in where new houses are built. If he is really serious about local people deciding, why does he think that councils do not need local plans, and why will he not back our proposals to make it a statutory requirement for every council to have one?
I am afraid that the hon. Lady has got the planning process slightly wrong. Obviously local authorities in all circumstances have a say in planning, which is a quasi-judicial process. Planning applications go through local authorities. As I have said, there is no need for a statutory rule, because it is in authorities’ own best interests to have local plans, which mean local involvement and local decisions about what development should be allowed and where it should be allowed to take place. If there is no local plan, those matters will fall within the national planning policy framework.