With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s housing White Paper “Fixing Our Broken Housing Market”, copies of which I have placed in the Libraries of both Houses. I had hoped, Mr Speaker, that this housing White Paper would dominate the headlines this morning, but it seems that someone else has beaten me to it. [Laughter.]
Let me just gently say to the right hon. Gentleman that I did make my statement to the House first. [Applause.] We should not have clapping, as Jason McCartney, a strict proceduralist, correctly points out. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman is in such fine fettle and good humour.
Touché, Mr Speaker.
Our housing market is broken. Since 1970, house price inflation in Britain has far outstripped that in the rest of the OECD. The idea of owning or renting a safe, secure place of one’s own has, for many, now become a distant dream. Over the past seven years the Government have done much to help. We have taken action on both supply and demand, and the results have been positive. Last year saw a record number of planning permissions granted, and the highest level of housing completions since the recession. Between 1997 and 2010, the ratio of average house price to average income more than doubled, from 3.5 to 7. In the five years to 2015, however, it crept up to just over 7.5—just a little but still heading in the wrong direction.
Behind the statistics are millions of ordinary working people. I am talking about the first-time buyer who is saving hard but will not have enough for a deposit for almost a quarter of a century, or the couple in the private rented sector handing half of their combined income straight to their landlord. The symptoms of this broken market are being felt by people in every community, and it is one of the biggest barriers to social progress that this country faces, but its root cause is simple: for far too long, we have not built enough houses. Relative to population size, Britain has had western Europe’s lowest rate of house building for three decades. The situation reached its nadir under the last Labour Government, when, in one year, work began on just 95,000 homes—the lowest peacetime level since the 1920s.
Thanks to the concerted effort of central and local government, last year 190,000 new homes were completed, but it is still not enough. To meet demand, we have to deliver between 225,000 and 275,000 homes every year. In short, we have to build more of the right houses in the right places, and we have to start right now. Today’s White Paper sets out how we will go about doing just that. House building does not just happen. Meeting the unique needs of different people and different places requires a co-ordinated effort across the public and private sectors. There is no magic bullet; rather, we need action on many fronts simultaneously.
First, we need to plan properly so that we can get the right homes built in the right places. To make this happen, we will introduce a new way of assessing housing need. Many councils work tirelessly to engage their communities on the number, design and mix of new housing in their area, but some duck the difficult decisions and fail to produce plans that meet their housing need. It is important that all authorities play by the same rules. We need to have a proper conversation about housing need, and we need to ensure that every local area produces a realistic plan that it reviews at least every five years.
Once we know how many homes are needed we need sites on which to build them, so the White Paper contains measures to help identify appropriate sites for development—not simply empty spaces but useable, practical sites where new homes are actually required. I can reassure the House that this will not entail recklessly ripping up our countryside. In 2015, we promised the British people that the green belt was safe in our hands, and that is still the case. The White Paper does not remove any of its protections.
Government should not be in the business of land banking, however, so we will free up more public sector land more quickly. We will increase transparency around landownership, so that everyone knows if someone is unfairly sitting on a site that could be better used. Moreover, people need a say on the homes that are built in their area, so everywhere must have a plan in place and ensure that communities are comfortable with the design and appearance of new homes.
The second area of focus is all about speeding up the rate of build-out. At the moment, we are simply not building quickly enough. Whether that is caused by unacceptable land banking or slow construction, we will no longer tolerate such unjustified delays. We will speed up and simplify the completion notice process; we will make the planning system more open and accessible; we will improve the co-ordination of public investment in infrastructure and support timely connections to utilities; and we will tackle unnecessary delays caused by everything from planning conditions to great crested newts.
We will give developers a lot of help to get building, and we will give local authorities the tools to hold developers to account if they fail to do so. Local authorities also have a vital role to play in getting homes built quickly, and I am therefore looking again at how they can use compulsory purchase powers. We will also introduce a new housing delivery test to hold them to account for house building across their local area.
Finally, the White Paper explains how we will diversify the housing market. At present, around 60% of new homes are built by just 10 companies. Small independent builders can find it almost impossible to enter the market. This lack of competition means a lack of innovation, which in turn leads to sluggish productivity growth, so we will make it easier for small and medium-sized builders to compete. We will support efficient, innovative and underused methods of construction such as off-site factory builds. We will also support housing associations to build more and explore options to encourage local authorities to build again, including through accelerated construction schemes on public sector land. We will encourage institutional investment in the private rented sector, and we will make life easier for custom builders who want to create their own home.
Together, these measures will make a significant and lasting difference to our housing supply. It will, however, take time, but ordinary working people need help right now. We have already promised to ban letting agents’ fees, and this White Paper goes further. We will improve safeguards in the private rented sector, do more to prevent homelessness and help households that are currently priced out of the market. We will tackle the scourge of unfair leasehold terms, which are too often forced on hard-pressed homebuyers. We will work with the rental sector to promote three-year tenancy agreements, giving families the security that they need to put down their roots in a community.
In the past few years, we have seen almost 300,000 affordable home units built in England. We have seen housing starts increase sharply, and we have seen more people getting on the property ladder, thanks to schemes such as Help to Buy. We now need to go further—much further—and meet our obligation to build many more houses of the type that people want to live in in the places where people want to live. That is exactly what this White Paper delivers. It will help the tenants of today who are facing rising rents, unfair fees and insecure tenancies; it will help the homeowners of tomorrow to get more of the right homes built in the right places; and it will help our children and our children’s children by halting decades of decline and fixing our broken housing market. It is a bold, radical vision for housing in this country, and I commend it to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for the customary copy of his statement just beforehand, but really, I have to say, “Is this it?” When the Housing Minister himself admits that the Government’s record on housing is feeble and embarrassing, we had hoped for better. In fact, we needed better. This afternoon’s statement will desperately disappoint millions of people struggling month to month with a cost of housing crisis.
I have to say that the statement was feeble beyond belief. After seven years of a Conservative Government, the Secretary of State says that we need to have “a proper conversation” about housing need, and his top priority is a “new housing delivery test”. How many times before have we heard Ministers say that they will free up more public sector land more quickly?
It is also clear today that we have not just a housing crisis in this country, but a crisis in the Conservative party about what to do about it. The huge 200-page Housing and Planning Act 2016 is not even mentioned today. We heard a boast beforehand of radical action on planning from the Secretary of State, but it has been stamped on by the Prime Minister today. We have heard of rows between Conservative Back Benchers and the Secretary of State, and that local councillors have resigned as a result of the right hon. Gentleman’s decisions. This White Paper is not a plan to fix the housing crisis, and it will do nothing to reverse the seven years of failure on housing that we have seen since 2010.
Let me turn to some of the areas where we needed strong action in today’s statement. The first is home ownership. There were 1 million more homeowners under Labour, but seven years under the Conservatives has seen home ownership falling, and it is in freefall for young people. Yet this White Paper confirms that the Tory party has given up on home ownership, because it waters down the promise to help those who need help to get a first foot in the housing market. I thus say to the Secretary of State: why not reverse the cuts to investment in new affordable homes to buy that has resulted in the number of new low-cost homes built falling to just 7,500 a year? Why not stop those earning over £100,000 getting help through Help to Buy, and make it available only to first-time buyers, not to second-time or subsequent buyers?
Secondly, there is homelessness. After being cut to record lows under Labour, the number of people sleeping rough on our streets has more than doubled, but we did not hear a single mention of that in the statement. Why can the Secretary of State not accept that this shames us all in a country as decent and well off as ours, and why will he not adopt the Labour plan to end rough sleeping within a Parliament?
Thirdly, we need action to help renters. How will simply working “with the rental sector to promote three-year tenancy agreements” help the country’s 11 million current renters? Why will the Secretary of State not legislate for longer tenancies, tied to predictable rent rises and decent basic standards?
Finally, there is the need to build more homes. The Government have pledged to build a million new homes by 2020, but last year the total number of newly built houses was still less than 143,000, while the level of new affordable house building has hit a 24-year low. We need to see all sectors—private house builders, housing associations and councils—firing on all cylinders to build the homes that we need. Why will the Secretary of State not drop the deep Tory hostility to councils, and let them build again to meet the needs of local people?
It is tragically clear from the statement that seven years of failure on housing are set to stretch to 10. We were promised a White Paper, but we have been presented with a white flag. This is a Government with no plan to fix the country’s deepening housing crisis.
Today, John Healey, as shadow Housing Minister, had a chance. He had a chance to adopt a cross-party approach, to behave like an adult—a mature person—and to help with the difficulties that have faced so many people, under many Governments, for more than 30 years. Instead, he chose to play cheap party politics.
I could respond in the same way. As I said in my statement, work began on only 95,000 homes—the lowest number since the 1920s—in a particular year, and I believe that the right hon. Gentleman was the Housing Minister at the time. However, that is not what people want to hear. People want to hear the truth. They want to hear Governments, and politicians more generally, recognise the size of the problem. They want them to recognise that at this moment, in every one of our constituencies, young people are staring into the windows of estate agents, their faces glued to them, dreaming of renting or buying a decent home, but knowing that it is out of reach because prices have risen so high. The vast majority of that rise in prices took place when Labour was last in power, more than doubling as a ratio to income, from 3.5 times to 7. But people also want to know what we are doing about it, and that is what is in the White Paper.
The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions. He mentioned home ownership. Home ownership declined as a percentage under Labour: it declined sharply, because not enough homes were being built. It is time the right hon. Gentleman took responsibility for that. He asked about homelessness. Just over a week ago, on a Friday, we debated the Homelessness Reduction Bill in the House. It was Labour shadow Ministers who tried to destroy that Bill by tabling fatal amendments, and the only reason they backed off was that they were begged to do so by housing and homelessness charities, including Crisis. That is where Labour stands on homelessness.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about renters. We have recognised in the White Paper that we should have a policy that meets the needs of not only those who want to own their own homes, but those who want to rent decent homes. Finally, the right hon. Gentleman talked about councils, and what he said proved that he had not listened to any of my statement. He came into the Chamber with a pre-written speech, not wanting to listen to any part of the debate. If he had listened carefully, he would know that what he wanted me to say was exactly what I said.
The truth is that the right hon. Gentleman had a chance and he flunked it. I do not think that many of his colleagues are with him on this issue. I sense that many of them want a cross-party approach: they want a Government to work with politicians on both sides of the House to deal with the issue once and for all. I certainly know, having dealt with many of his colleagues on local councils, that local Labour leaders are working with the Government because they have given up on this excuse for an Opposition.
There is much to be welcomed in the White Paper. It is essential for us to build new communities and new homes, but to build them in the right places. I am also pleased that the Government have decided not to relax the green belt rules further. The Secretary of State has rightly described those rules as sacrosanct. However, does he understand the deep anger that is felt throughout Sutton Coldfield, where the reasonable views of 100,000 people have been totally ignored by a Labour council during a deeply flawed process involving the unnecessary building of 6,000 homes on our green belt, and their frustration at the fact that the Government have not been able to stop that process?
I know that my right hon. Friend feels passionately about this issue, and I am pleased that he pointed out that the White Paper refers to the retaining of protections for the green belt. He referred to a particular case in his constituency. When local authorities have made a proper assessment of housing need and that assessment has been signed off by an independent planning inspector, it is important for us not to get in their way.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement, and for providing me with a copy of the White Paper. I must say that it is pretty thin. I have it here: this bit is the substance, and this bit is the consultation. However, it was good to hear the Secretary of State acknowledge the gap between the Tory Government’s rhetoric on house building and their actual record. It is always nice to observe a recognition of failure on their part.
We have embarked on another year, and we have yet another housing Bill, with no solutions in sight. We should contrast that with what is being done by the Scottish Government—[Hon. Members: “Oh no!”] The Tories would do well to listen to what I am saying, because we have a record of success. Having exceeded our targets for the previous Parliament, our Housing Minister, Kevin Stewart, has set a target of 50,000 affordable homes in the current Session. We already have local housing strategies and strategic housing investment plans—comprehensive five-year plans which each local authority is required to produce. The Secretary of State might want to have a look at the Glasgow SHIP, which was published recently.
In his statement, the Secretary of State mentioned building on brownfield land. It must be recognised that contaminated, derelict brownfield land may need significant Government investment to make it ready for use, and the £1 billion fund will not go far enough to deal with the contamination that exists. The statement referred to ways of achieving progress in respect of land planning applications. Quality is also important, as is place-making. We need only look at the example of North Kelvin Meadow in Glasgow. The local community felt that what was being proposed was not good enough, and had to take their objection all the way through the Scottish Government’s planning process.
The Secretary of State mentioned types of innovative house building. The Commonwealth games village in Glasgow was built through the use of such innovative methods, and there are other great examples in Scotland that show what can be done. I am glad to note that insurance issues are being considered, because they are incredibly important.
Finally, may I ask the Secretary of State to consult the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 for examples of good practice? Will he acknowledge the existence of the elephant in the room—the continual ideological pursuit of the right to buy, which is ruining people’s opportunities to gain access to affordable housing?
I want all the people of the United Kingdom to have access to decent homes, to rent or to buy, and that, of course, includes the people of Scotland. As the hon. Lady knows, my remit is only for England, and that is the focus of the White Paper. She mentioned a number of English policies, including the right to buy. We are very proud of that policy, whether it relates to council homes or to our commitment to housing association tenants. I think it right for us to support people who want to own their homes, as well as those who want to rent decent homes. However, there is one thing that both Scottish and English people require in order to have access to decent homes, and that is a decent income, which means having a job. I think that the situation would have been very different for Scottish people if the hon. Lady had had her way and Scotland had become independent.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing a Macmillan-like sense of urgency to tackling the housing crisis, which causes or aggravates most of the social problems we face. The first step is being honest about how many homes we need and where we need them, so I welcome his bringing forward a new standard methodology for assessing housing need. Can he reassure me that that will include the affordability of housing, so that it deals with the places where the pressure is most acute?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. The starting point has to be that every local authority makes a realistic assessment of need, and in order for it to be realistic, it must look at the market pressures locally, which of course include affordability.
I welcome the Government’s recognition that the housing need in this country cannot be met by building homes for sale alone, and that we also need homes that people can afford to rent. May I therefore seek two points of clarification? In the case of schemes that receive public money, will the Homes and Communities Agency, councils and housing associations be allowed to negotiate the right tenure mix for each scheme, including through funding being made available for social housing where that is appropriate? Secondly, on section 106 agreements, will councils now be free to negotiate with developers the right types of affordable housing in each scheme, and will the requirement to give preference to starter homes be dropped?
I always listen carefully to what the Chair of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government has to say, and he highlights an important issue. He asked two specific questions. On tenure mix and the use of public money, we will certainly make sure that that money is used to help promote homes that are available for rent, whether through the HCA or by working with councils and housing associations. We will also require all local authorities, when they go through their plan-making process, to think about the tenure and the mix that is required in the area, and to allocate accordingly. That will also stretch to when section 106 agreements are applied.
Mid Sussex District Council is keen to build homes, and many people in my constituency work diligently to produce neighbourhood plans, only for them then to be undermined by ruthless behaviour by some rogue developers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to deliver the imaginative vision he has outlined to the House today, we need to curb that sort of behaviour?
My right hon. Friend highlights the importance of neighbourhood plans. I know that he is aware of the current Bill going through Parliament, the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, which is strengthening that part of the plan-making process, but I think he will also be pleased to see in this White Paper the further steps that we are taking to achieve precisely what he wants: local communities being taken more seriously through their neighbourhood plans.
Constituencies such as mine will be stripped of desperately needed social housing by the proposals in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 for the forced sale of high-value properties. In the spirit of what the right hon. Gentleman is saying today and the White Paper, can he confirm that he will no longer proceed with that policy?
I cannot confirm that, because we are committed to allowing people who live in housing association homes the right to buy. We have started a process of pilots, as I think the hon. Lady will be aware; some 3,000 homes, I think, are involved in that. Once that is complete, we will decide how exactly to take the policy forward.
What lessons can we learn from the Netherlands and Germany, and how can we encourage land pooling, as in Germany, where local authorities work in collaboration with landowners to make serviced plots of land available so that individuals and families can bring forward their own self-build and custom house building schemes?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work he has done to promote self-build and custom build. That is certainly one lesson we can learn from the Netherlands and Germany, and I have seen some good examples in those countries. He also mentioned land pooling, and there are some fantastic examples in the Netherlands; I went to see them, and they were so good that I put them in the White Paper.
I hope the Secretary of State will forgive me, but I think he flatters himself if he thinks that even on a quiet news day this White Paper would have deserved headlines; it is an unambitious and disappointing paper. I want to pull out one particular aspect of it. The paper refers to a family outside London in the market for an affordable home as being on an average income of £80,000 a year. I wonder if I may respectfully ask what planet he is living on. Average incomes in my constituency are £26,000 a year. Does that not prove that what we really needed was a commitment to genuinely affordable homes and the building of 1 million new council homes? Will the Secretary of State instead commit the capital funding to do that, and to lift the borrowing cap so that councils can build again?
First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for turning up today? The answer to his question is more supply—whether it is council homes, housing association homes or private sector homes, we need more supply. That is the only way to tackle affordability.
Conservative-run Broxtowe Borough Council is doing everything it can to defend our green belt, but that is very difficult because the previous Labour-Lib Dem administration approved a plan for thousands of houses on our green belt. But the biggest problem the council has is that many small builders are having real problems getting access to finance, particularly because of the risk weighting. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to make sure that small and medium-sized builders have better access to financing, so that, when we can, we build those new homes?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. I have talked about the importance of having more small builders. With finance, one particular way that we are helping is through the new home building fund, launched in September with £3 billion of funding, much of it available to the small and medium-sized house building sector. There are also a number of other measures beyond finance in the White Paper to help that sector, and I know that when my right hon. Friend sees them, she will welcome them.
Does the Secretary of State have any special plans to deal with the very difficult situation in inner-city areas, particularly along the river, such as in my constituency, where we have owners coming from way outside this country and leaving flats empty for a very long time? Are the Government not prepared to buy up some of that land themselves and allow local councils to build truly affordable housing?
The hon. Lady might be aware that some of the type of land she refers to will be public land—it might be owned by different Departments or even local government—and there is a lot in the White Paper on what is called the accelerated construction programme, whereby Government can work together with councils and the private sector to develop more quickly.
More generally, the hon. Lady talks about empty homes, but in fact the number of empty homes in England has fallen to its lowest level since records began—the figure is just over 200,000; there is still more to do—and that is partly because of some of the changes we made to the new homes bonus, which gives local councils incentives to bring those homes back into use.
Conservative-run Forest of Dean District Council is working hard to get its local plan in place. It gives out planning permissions to get new homes put in place, but gets frustrated when developers do not build them, and then the same developers puts in speculative applications and argue that there is no land supply, because they are not building their own houses. I welcome what is in the White Paper, but what more can my right hon. Friend do to make sure those developers build the houses? As the excellent Minister for Housing and Planning Home Secretary has said, people cannot live in planning permissions, they need houses.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. He is right that many local authorities rightly get frustrated when they take those difficult decisions and then do not see the houses being built. There is a lot in this White Paper to tackle that. I gave one example a moment ago in my speech about compulsory purchase in the most extreme cases, but councils will also have new tools. For example, they will be able to put a time limit in place when they give a planning permission, so that it will expire if the developer does not create the homes in time. Also, completion notices will become much easier to serve, which will allow a local authority, when a developer has stalled, to end the planning permission and try again with someone else.
May I tell the Secretary of State that house prices in my part of the country are far removed from those in London and the south-east, yet many, many people are still unable to buy because of low wages? What they require first and foremost is decent, secure rented accommodation, which will come, in the main, from the public and voluntary sector. May I add that in all the years I have done this job, not one—literally, not one—person has ever asked me to be rehoused in the private sector?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need more decent homes for rent. However, this comes back to the same problem, whether in renting or buying, which is that we need a greater supply of homes, particularly for rent. There is a lot in the White Paper that will encourage what we are calling Build to Rent. When local authorities are plan-making, we want them to think about rented accommodation, but we also want to support the sector that will build homes specifically for rent.
I welcome the White Paper, which will enable families to secure a home or to feel secure in their present home. However, the lack of infrastructure funding in my constituency presents a barrier to development, with concerns around amenities, broadband and road and rail networks. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the housing infrastructure fund will provide vital new money to overcome those issues in areas such as Wealden?
That is right; my hon. Friend is right to focus on the housing infrastructure fund. It was announced in the last autumn statement, and it goes live in April this year. It is just one of the new ways in which we are trying to ensure that, when local authorities make decisions, the infrastructure can quickly be put in place to support them.
My constituents feel that localism is all but dead. Will the Secretary of State expand on how he intends to strengthen the planning laws to ensure that their voices are heard much more loudly than those of the avaricious developers who are trying to thwart the local plan and defy any remaining vestiges of localism?
We rightly follow a policy of letting local authorities set out their plans and determine what is right for their area, but it is important to ensure that that is not used by some authorities—it is only some—as an excuse for avoiding making tough decisions. We have a housing shortage in virtually every part of England. That includes much of the south-east, and I can think of areas in the north as well. We can tackle that only if local authorities are honest about their needs and if they plan on that basis.
People across my constituency will welcome the White Paper, which will make a huge change to people’s opportunities to buy their own home. I particularly welcome the changes in tenure that are set out in the document. Will the Secretary of State think about whether we also need to update the leasehold enfranchisement legislation to take account of the fact that our housing stock is moving towards mixed tenure?
Yes, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that I am doing that. The process has already begun, and I talk a bit about it in the White Paper. I am particularly interested in the possibility that abuse is taking place when people buy a stand-alone home—not a flat—on a leasehold basis. I have seen some of the agreements relating to how the ground rents work, and I am looking into the matter. A consultation has been announced in the White Paper.
House prices in Slough have risen by 39% over the past two years, which is faster than anywhere else in the country, and our affordability ratio is something like double the one that the Secretary of State quoted. What is he going to do for places such as Slough that are built up to their boundaries but are surrounded by Conservative councils that simply will not provide homes in their areas? We are now housing people who commute to London, but we cannot find homes that the local nursery nurses, street cleaners and other people that our community really needs can afford.
One thing that we can do better across the country is to take density more seriously. We need to use the available land that is not green belt much more efficiently. Many cities and big urban areas across Europe have managed density a lot better than we have, and the White Paper contains a requirement that, when local authorities put plans in place, they start to take density seriously. We will even be setting out indicative requirements for provisions that could really help in some urban areas.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, and the protection in the White Paper for greenfield sites and the green belt. I have a question on the issue of appeals. The Muxton ward in my constituency currently has three public inquiries taking place, and a fourth might be coming along. What further reforms to the appeals process could be introduced while ensuring that developers and local authorities can still use the right of appeal under planning legislation?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. People have a right to appeal, and many cases go to appeal in our constituencies, but frankly, some of them are frivolous cases that really should not be appealed. One reason why that happens is that there is currently no cost attached to making an appeal. It is free, so many people do it. That is going to end, and we have announced in the White Paper that we are introducing a fee.
Some councils have fallen short of meeting their housing need for years because their local plans have protected the green belt, limiting the supply of land. If that is also the Secretary of State’s priority, how is he going to achieve his ambition for safe, secure homes, particularly for families who do not want to live in high-rise flats, on the scale that he has outlined today?
Approximately 13% of the land in England is green belt. There is therefore a huge amount of land that is not, and that land should be the priority. We should use brownfield land, we should increase density and we should encourage better co-operation with neighbours. That should always be the priority. There are cases when a local authority decides that the tests for using the green belt have been met, and when that is properly done and the site has been inspected by the planning inspectorate, the local community can decide to build there, but that should not be the priority. The priority must be brownfield sites and better use of density.
If it is not in the interests of builders to sufficiently reduce price by increasing supply to the necessary extent, is not the answer to afford greater empowerment to the public sector?
There are lots of answers to that question. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is an important role for the public sector to play, whether indirectly through housing associations or through councils. There are excellent examples of councils with house building programmes. A diversity of supply is required, and the public sector has a role to play in that.
I am pleased that the Government have finally recognised that the housing market is broken, but I disagree with the Secretary of State’s prescription that supply is the only answer. In Manchester, we have built thousands of new homes and upgraded all the council homes to a decent standard, but far and away the worst-quality housing in Manchester is in the private rented sector. It is unfit for human habitation, infested, damp and dirty, and it is being paid for, by and large, by the taxpayer through housing benefit. When will the Government intervene in that broken market?
Whether homes are made available to rent or to buy, certain standards must be met. It is important that we apply high standards and that we do not have a race to the bottom. I beg to differ from the hon. Lady’s assertion, however, because Manchester also has a supply problem—[Interruption.] The No. 1 problem is a supply problem. Manchester, like so many other parts of Britain, has not built enough homes.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the White Paper encourages building up, not out, in urban areas? That should reduce the pressure on the green belt, regenerate urban centres, cut commuting times and make rents and mortgages more affordable. What assessment has he made of the number of new urban sites that could be released for housing in that way, and of the size of the corresponding fall in development on greenfield sites?
I can confirm to my hon. Friend that that is an important measure in the White Paper. I also want to congratulate him on his work to promote density. He has shared with me and others many examples from around the world of this being done properly. One thing that I am particularly interested in—it is in the White Paper—is making better use of our transport hubs. They often have huge car parks, for example, and much of that space could be used to create high-density housing in a location that people would find highly desirable, with the car parks being put underground. That is among the good examples from around the world, and I am glad that my hon. Friend is encouraging such plans.
Order. On my reckoning, at least 60 colleagues are still seeking to catch my eye. It will be almost impossible to accommodate them all, but I will be helped if people can confine themselves to asking one-sentence questions without preamble, and if the Secretary of State can continue to make his pithy replies. On the matter of simple, one-sentence questions, I call Mr Barry Sheerman.
The big lie at the heart of our housing policy is that we can create new houses on brownfield land. All the research shows that the brownfield land that is good for building has already been used. The fact is that we have to build on greenfield land to give people the chance of having a decent home. Why does the Secretary of State not have the courage to build on greenfield land?
A colourful one-sentence question, Mr Speaker. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Take Madrid, for example, where the housing density is more than four times that of London. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been to Madrid, but he would find that it is a perfectly beautiful, well-designed city that shows what can be done with density.
Pithiness from a philosopher perhaps? I call Sir Oliver Letwin.
I hugely welcome this well-balanced package, but may I invite the Secretary of State to be a bit more optimistic about the prospects for consensus? Did he notice, as I did, that despite the sound and fury the shadow Housing Minister remarkably did not actually disagree with anything in the White Paper?
The Secretary of State says that people yearn for honesty and truth. Travelling around my constituency, I am frequently shocked by the standard of the private housing stock. The English housing survey reveals that 29% of private rented homes are still non-decent. In the spirit of honesty and truth, why did the Government block Labour’s proposal to require landlords to let properties that are fit for human habitation?
The legislation already contains requirements and standards for housing, including for rented accommodation. If we start frivolously introducing unnecessary new regulations, that will just increase the burdens on house builders and push up costs even further.
Some of the large developments around Newark have gained a bad name with my constituents due to the common practice of large developers, such as Persimmon, selling freehold properties but then ensuring that residents pay rip-off prices for many years for management company rents, the cost of putting up a satellite dish, and so on. It is an outrageous practice that is hurting the working people of this country, so will the Secretary of State consider banning it?
There is an important link, and one example relates to skills. I mentioned earlier the importance of factory build and its promotion. That requires a different type of skill set, and the Government need to support that, but it will help more generally with the skills challenge. We will have a new immigration policy following our departure from the European Union, so we must think carefully about that and the link with the construction industry.
The majority of the new homes that my right hon. Friend has announced will be leasehold; many leaseholders are subject to abuse. May I ask that his consultation on the abuse and misuse of leasehold includes changing commonhold procedures so that they actually work, so that those with unfair conditions get stopped by the Competition and Markets Authority, and landlords gain nothing by trying to exploit leaseholders?
I can confirm that that is in the White Paper as part of the consultation on leasehold, which is partly due to my hon. Friend’s work in this area.
Modular housing will not be the panacea to this country’s housing crisis. Traditional house building will provide the majority of housing in the immediate future in which people want to live. There is no mention in the White Paper of the critical shortage of skilled people in the building industry, so how will the Secretary of State build and meet his targets without the people to do it?
No one is saying that modular homes and factory build will be the panacea, but they do have an important contribution to make. Traditional building remains important and that will remain the case for many years to come. Part of trying to get more skills into the sector involves the apprenticeship levy, which comes into place in April. I was proud to introduce it as Business Secretary and have already heard about construction companies’ plans to take on more apprentices.
The White Paper contains several measures to deal with that. There is no easy answer, but there can sometimes be good reasons, such as if a developer has another project to go on once it finishes the current one. Some developers do take too long to turn planning permission into homes, however, so the measures in the White Paper include changes to completion notices and the ability to attach conditions to planning permission. We are also consulting on a new measure for large developments to allow local authorities to take into account a developer’s track record.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is still Government policy that London’s green-belt is a priceless asset for both the nation and London? Will he further confirm that if a local authority ducks difficult decisions and fails to produce a local plan, it cannot short-cut its way out of that through a £2.5 billion development where the green belt is at its narrowest around London, earning a nice little £1 billion for the developer and the landowner?
It would be inappropriate for me to discuss a particular planning application, but I can confirm that protections for green belt are as strong as ever. In fact, the White Paper sets out for the first time much more clearly the steps that we expect a local authority to take before it even considers the green belt, including having to show that it has looked at all reasonable alternatives.
We are specifically consulting on the possibility of local authorities holding auctions using a compulsory purchase order, so they would not necessarily be buying land themselves.
In high-growth areas, such as my constituency, the key issue is ensuring that we have the infrastructure for schools, healthcare, transport and community facilities. Will my right hon. Friend please give us more details of how the infrastructure fund for housing will work in practice to provide and ensure that we have both housing and infrastructure?
The £2.3 billion fund, which was announced in the autumn statement, will be launched in April and will be run by DCLG. It will involve a bidding process, through which local councils and possibly other parties can bid directly for the necessary infrastructure. I am conscious that many colleagues are eager to get more details, so we will publish them as soon as possible.
My hon. Friend Lucy Powell is right that it is time to take much tougher action against absent private landlords who rake in housing benefit but do not reinvest a penny of that money into the upkeep of their properties. Councils should be given much simpler powers to issue CPOs when properties are below a decent standard. We should send a clearer message to landlords: respect our communities or get out of Greater Manchester.
The right hon. Gentleman will know what we want all landlords, whether offering rented accommodation or homes for sale, to meet certain standards, but the underlying problem is that one reason why landlords can sometimes extract a higher rent or set more difficult terms is the lack of supply of homes. That applies to Manchester as much as anywhere else.
I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State reiterate that the green belt is safe in our hands. In Stockport, however, the Greater Manchester spatial framework has proposed plans to build more than 4,000 houses on the green belt in my constituency. Will he reassure me, my constituents and the 3,600 people who signed my petition that the green belt is safe in our hands and that there are no plans to remove any restrictions on it?
We have made it clear in the White Paper that the green belt will retain all the protections that it enjoys today. For the first time, we have clearly set out what we expect a local authority to go through to demonstrate that it has looked at all other reasonable alternatives.
Can the Secretary of State confirm whether he remains committed to the definition of an affordable home as one costing up to 80% of market rent or £450,000 to buy in London? Can he confirm what now counts as a starter home? Will local authorities still be subject to draconian compliance directives if they fail to deliver them?
We want to see more starter homes being rolled out. A process has already begun that will include homes sold at a 20% discount, but it will also include other types of affordable homes for ownership.
My constituency is entirely green belt, apart from developed areas, and it provides vital protection against London urban sprawl. Can the Secretary of State therefore confirm that, if my local council makes a determination that it cannot meet its needs assessment without sacrificing the green belt, the plan must be upheld by planning inspectors?
My hon. Friend understands that I cannot talk about a particular plan or application, but I can confirm that we have thought very carefully about measures that will help areas, such as his constituency and mine, that have huge amounts of green belt. As part of that, we are asking all local authorities to do more to co-operate with their neighbours. One of the requirements in the White Paper is a statement of common purpose, which we will consult on. Every single local authority will be required to talk to its neighbours and come up with a statement of common purpose.
In Brighton and Hove alone there are 26,000 people on the housing waiting list, so why will the Secretary of State not lift the borrowing cap so that councils can start building again? He keeps talking about supply, and here he has a very practical way of doing it. Building on the green belt has risen fivefold in the past five years. How is he going to protect the green belt?
The councils asked for more borrowing powers two years ago so that they could build homes. We did that in last year’s Budget, and there is still lots of headroom—I think it is almost £300 million.
I welcome the philosophy of the right houses in the right places, but what advice can the Secretary of State give to my constituents who keep seeing Labour-run Kirklees building the wrong four-bedroom detached houses in the wrong places on greenfield sites with scant regard for school places, infrastructure and collection of section 106 money?
We expect all councils to come up with the right plans for their area. One of the tests that we apply is to ask the independent Planning Inspectorate to look at those plans, which cannot be adopted until they have gone through that process. When my hon. Friend looks at the changes, he will welcome how we have become more robust about that.
Nottingham City Homes recently won national recognition for Palmer Court, its newly built scheme for older people in Lenton, but across our city vulnerable tenants in supported housing are deeply worried by the proposal to cap local housing allowance. If the Secretary of State is serious about providing safe and secure homes, why does he not take this opportunity to drop that proposal?
One of the things the hon. Lady will find in the White Paper is a requirement for all local authorities to account in their plans for everyone in their community, including older people and disabled people. She specifically asks about how we can help supported housing, and there is an ongoing consultation. We are carefully looking at all the issues.
There is a wild west, adversarial, Lib Dem, lazy planning attitude in my constituency, and I welcome page 63 of the White Paper, which says that disabled people’s needs and older people’s needs will be considered. I also welcome the protection of ancient woodland because, at the moment, the only answer in Eastleigh is “out of space” development dropped on ancient woodland.
I agree with my hon. Friend on both counts. First, the words “Lib Dem” and “lazy” do go well together. Secondly, she is right about ancient woodland. She has spoken to me about that on a number of occasions, and in the White Paper I did not see why ancient woodland should have less protection than the green belt, as is the case currently. That is why we are upgrading the protection of ancient woodland to the same level as green belt.
Greg Mulholland is not lazy. He is hyperactive.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. For the Secretary of State to call anyone lazy when these few pages are the best he can do is pretty pathetic. It is also pathetic that he has done nothing in his term to ensure that the right houses are being built in the right places. Will he speak to Bramhope & Carlton and Pool in Wharfedale parish councils about why they are facing yet more development of greenfield and green-belt land for the kind of housing that is not necessary? Will he speak to local Conservative councillors who oppose his planning policies?
Not a day goes by when I do not speak to councillors across the country. What many of them will welcome today is the requirement for everyone to play by the same rules. They all understand the need for homes in their area, and I suggest the hon. Gentleman does the same.
I welcome the White Paper’s measures to combat homelessness, but part of the solution is direct commissioning of housing. The progress on direct commissioning is not very good so far. What action can my right hon. Friend take to make sure that that is speeded up so that homes are provided for the people who desperately need them?
I commend my hon. Friend’s work on homelessness, particularly through his Homelessness Reduction Bill, which is making its way through Parliament. He is right about the importance of commissioning, which has a role to play and is something that I am looking at carefully.
The National Audit Office estimates that the total Government spend on housing in the last financial year was £28 billion, but a staggering £20.9 billion of that total was spent on housing benefit. Is that not a demonstration that rents are too high and that even people in work cannot afford them? Did the Secretary of State give any consideration to reforming housing benefit when putting together the White Paper?
The hon. Lady will know that housing benefit has already been reformed, but she is right to make the link between housing benefit and high rents. Again, that is a symptom of the fact that for far too long we have not been building enough homes.
I warmly welcome today’s White Paper, which has a balanced, pragmatic range of solutions. Will the Secretary of State give consideration to situations where local authorities find themselves held to ransom by developers who refuse to make concessions in the section 106 agreement process and frustrate local communities by subsequently not delivering the infrastructure that they said they would deliver?
That is often a problem, and my hon. Friend makes a good point. In the White Paper he will see that we refer to some changes that will come about, following the consultation that has already happened, both to section 106 and the community infrastructure levy payments. I think that will help.
We desperately need new houses, but development is not always popular with the public. The key issue is infrastructure. The best proposal I have ever seen is building new garden villages and putting in schools, roads and infrastructure at the same time. The Government have had a pilot, but is it something that they will take forward?
What flexibility does the White Paper propose for places such as Milton Keynes? Milton Keynes wants to expand properly as part of the Oxford to Cambridge corridor, but housing developments are now being proposed to meet short-term housing targets that risk undermining the planning for long-term growth?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. When plans are put together, they should look at the long-term land supply—not just over the following five years but beyond that to the required need. Also, there should be more co-operation with neighbouring local authorities on putting together the plans, which is where the proposed new statement of common purpose will help.
I am glad the Minister eventually came around to realising the need to tackle land banking and developers sitting on properties, so the moves on completion notices and compulsory purchase are very welcome. But when will he start to listen to council leaders, who, despite his answer to Caroline Lucas, are still saying they need the borrowing cap lifted? They need the freedom to borrow more so that they can build more houses.
We have increased local councils’ borrowing ability, but where the most ambitious councils that have good, sensible plans want to come forward to do a deal with central Government, we are listening. That invitation is in the White Paper.
My hon. Friend helps me to highlight, again, the way in which we have tackled the green belt in this White Paper by keeping all its existing protections and demonstrating, for the first time, exactly all the hoops a local authority has to go through to show us categorically that it has looked at all other reasonable options.
I have looked at this issue carefully and I am not sure it makes the kind of difference my hon. Friend believes it does. Two thirds of housing demand has nothing to do with immigration; it is to do with natural population growth, particularly through people living longer, and that will have to be catered for regardless. Even if immigration was to fall to zero, we would still have a deficit of some 2 million homes and people would still be in overcrowded homes, so we would still have to keep building.
It will help York in many of the ways in which it will help across the country, for example, through the requirement for every local authority to undertake an honest assessment of need and plan on that basis.
My constituents are shocked at Lib Dem and residents association-controlled Elmbridge Borough Council’s proposals to allow mass development on the green belt by Surbiton. I therefore welcome my right hon. Friend’s protection of the green belt, but will he confirm that building on the green belt is and will remain possible only in defined exceptional circumstances?
I note with alarm that the White Paper says the Secretary of State plans to review the size standards, as we know from University of Cambridge research in 2014 that house sizes in this country are among the smallest in Europe. We do not want to move to building lots of rabbit coops that are not good for young families, so will he offer the House assurances that he will proceed with great caution in this area?
Yes, I can offer that assurance. This is why we are having this consultation; it is in response to some of the innovation taking place in the industry. It is right to look at this, but it is also important that we do not have a race to the bottom.
The ever-vigilant Speaker’s Secretary has just pointed out that from the Government Benches I called Mr Wragg followed by Mr Bone. It was not in any way calculated.
There are two parts to my answer on that. First, I point to our commitment to help with the creation of more affordable homes, both for rent and to buy. A lot of that will be through the support provided through housing associations, including the £1.4 billion of extra funding in the last autumn statement. In the longer term, we have the issue of pushing up supply, because that is the only way in which we shall tackle the affordability issue once and for all.
My constituency is the most heavily urbanised in Cheshire. Most of the available brownfield sites have been built on, there is little green belt land and there is pressure on school places and on the local roads. Will the Secretary of State or his Minister therefore meet me to discuss the specific problems that areas such as mine, particularly small urban areas, have in meeting housing demands?
I am sure the Minister for Housing and Planning would be happy to meet. The hon. Gentleman should know that we would not be able to discuss the specific planning issue, but more general discussions would be welcome.
The White Paper talks about sharpening the tools available to local authorities to deal with the massive gulf between the number of planning permissions given and the actual construction of homes. Are there any circumstances in which, if the local authority can provide evidence of land banking, my right hon. Friend would give it the power to levy council tax on unconstructed units if they were not delivered?
We have looked at this issue carefully, and we have to try to get the right balance. We need to respect the fact that there are legitimate reasons why the supply of any product would need to have a pipeline of inputs, including land, in the case of a house builder, but there is evidence of some firms taking advantage of that, as my hon. Friend mentions. There are many tools in this White Paper, and if after looking at them more carefully he thinks more needs to be done I will be listening to him.
If we are going to stop building on the green belt, as is proposed in Bury as part of the Greater Manchester spatial framework, does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way to increase the number of new homes will be to insist on higher density development on brownfield sites?
One way to increase the number of homes in brownfield areas is through density. This White Paper contains a lot on density and I know that when my hon. Friend takes a close look he will welcome it.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s determination to tackle the housing shortage, but he will be aware that housing need varies dramatically between provincial towns and rural areas, and London and the south-east. Can he assure my constituents that the policies and planning guidance will not be focused entirely on London and that there will be some allowance for local authorities to vary this in the more rural areas?
I can absolutely reassure my hon. Friend on that point. The White Paper contains a specific requirement on all local authorities to plan for the needs in their area, so if the demographics differ from area to area, as of course they will, that is exactly what will need to be catered for.
As a constituency neighbour of mine, the Secretary of State will know that people in Halesowen value the amenity of the green belt around it. Does he therefore agree that the approach to house building in the Black country should very much be brownfield first, focusing on the remediation of existing sites for house building?
Land availability is, in a sense, a side issue, because one impediment to expeditious planning consents is the capacity of the planning department and the fact that there is no fiscal incentive for planners to grant permission, which is why these things take so long. Linked to that is the capacity issue and whether planners have the skills, knowledge and experience to deal with large-scale planning applications. On that point, is it not time we reviewed the capacity of local authorities to increase planning fees?
My hon. Friend has talked to me about this before and has helped, along with others, including many local leaders, to make a strong case about it. We have listened and local councils will be able to increase their planning fees by at least 20%.
Local communities are often keen to support housing on exception sites if they feel the housing is for local need. Does the Secretary of State share their frustration that too often under the Housing Act 1985 those homes can then be swapped to somebody who does not have that local connection? Does he also share their frustration at the apparent easy waiving of section 106 agreements, whereby housing for local need is determined after a very peremptory examination of the market by registered social landlords and others, who may turn down people with a local connection who are living in private rented accommodation, whether or not they can afford to live in that accommodation?
It is important that the local connection rules are appropriate and are working as we have set out. My hon. Friend also makes a link to section 106 agreements; as I referred to earlier, we have not yet made the final decisions, but that matter is subject to a separate consultation and we are looking at how we can improve it.
The good news is that the vast majority of councils do have in place a valid local plan, but, of course, some still have not met their requirement. The biggest incentive on councils to do so is that while they do not have a local plan, the presumption in favour of development applies, and that is not fair on the local people they represent. People want to see a plan so that they can control where development takes place.
Yes, I can confirm that. My hon. Friend speaks with some experience in this area, and the evidence is that the 200-odd neighbourhood plans that have been adopted so far are on average leading to 10% more development than was necessary.
On page 25 of the excellent White Paper there is an expectation that local authorities will have to consider small windfall sites off-plan. I suggest that often it is medium sites that will deliver not only more housing but the community benefits that would encourage the community to welcome such sites. Could we increase their number?
I can highlight to my hon. Friend a requirement, which I think is on the same page in the plan, that would help on just that point. There is a new requirement that, from now on, when local authorities set out their plan they have to allow a minimum of 10% of the site for small and medium-sized builders. These have to be small sites and small plot sizes that will particularly appeal to small and medium-sized builders.
I was delighted to hear in January that Pendle Borough Council will be one of the first councils in the country to benefit from the Government’s £1.2 billion unlocking the land fund to bring forward brownfield land for starter homes. How will the White Paper further brownfield development in constituencies like mine?
My hon. Friend will find in the White Paper a requirement on all local authorities that, before they can look at anything other than brownfield, they must show that they have fully exhausted the brownfield opportunities in their area. They must look at all the viable areas, but also at things such as density, to get the most out of brownfield.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. He will find in the White Paper several measures to help to tackle just that problem—for example, the changes we have made to completion notices.
Starter homes offer a realistic solution to difficult-to-deliver brownfield sites and low levels of home ownership among young people. Bearing in mind the possible change of focus for starter homes, is my right hon. Friend still committed to delivering on the requirement under the Housing and Planning Act 2016 to deliver 200,000 of them by 2020?
We are committed to delivering at least 200,000 homes for affordable ownership, and that 200,000 will include the starter homes with 20% discounts.
Urban sprawl creates excessive pressure on local road infrastructure in my constituency, which means Daisy Hill and Atherton stations have to have increased capacity at their car parks. Will the Secretary of State do all he can to ensure that we build up, not out, especially within walking and cycling distance of established public transport routes?
There are specific measures in the White Paper to help to do just that, especially around urban transport hubs and other transport hubs, in order to get a greater density and make much better use of the land.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s White Paper. Will he assure me that it will ensure that developers have to pay attention to the character of the area around which they are developing? So many developments are so ugly, but people have to live in them and others are less likely to object if the development is beautiful.
My hon. Friend is right to make that point. The change we have made to allow local authorities to increase their planning fees will help with that. Collectively, that 20% increase is worth £75 million. Many local authorities have told me that they would like to hire more resources in their planning departments to help with design, and this change will help to achieve just that.
Thousands of homes have been built on brownfield in my constituency, but thanks to Labour’s excessive 70,000 housing target, we are now seeing swathes of green belt coming under threat. Does the standardised methodology for housing need offer hope to my constituents that we can have a realistic housing target review to meet housing demand?
I assure my hon. Friend that at the heart of the new methodology is a requirement to be more realistic and honest about the actual housing need in the area. Perhaps he will also be reassured by the words in the White Paper about making sure that, before anyone even looks at green belt, they have exhausted all other reasonable options.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. This comes back to the new requirement for local authorities to plan for every demographic in their area. I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend has met constituents whose children have left and who live in a large home and would love to downsize, but there is not enough choice in their local area. There is now a specific requirement in the White Paper to make sure that local authorities are planning for everyone, including older people.
I am most grateful to the Secretary of State and colleagues, whose pithiness enabled every would-be contributor to take part in the exchange on the statement.