I beg to move,
That this House
has considered housing, planning and the green belt.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this debate and the Minister for attending. He is a new Minister, so I absolve him of all blame, and I wish him well in his new role. I look forward to working with him constructively on the issues that I am about to raise. I also thank the 33 hon. Members who supported me in obtaining this debate. It demonstrates how much interest there is in the subject.
I have chosen three topics for debate: housing, planning and the green belt. I have long had an interest in these areas—protecting the countryside was one of my motivations for entering Parliament in the first place—but my interest and concern have been heightened by my constituency experiences, so although this debate is not about my area entirely, I will seek to offer examples from Tewkesbury to illustrate my points. I know that other hon. Members will feel free to do similarly.
As with most things in life, we must always seek to find a balance. In this instance, we must ensure that everyone has a decent home to live in, while also recognising that we are not the owners but merely the custodians of the countryside, who have a duty to pass it on intact so that future generations can enjoy all that it has to afford in the same way as past generations. I fear, however, that we are in danger of failing to achieve that balance.
Let me begin with housing. This Government, like previous Governments, have committed themselves to building more houses in order to address the so-called housing crisis, and, as reflected in the name of the most recent housing White Paper, to fix the “broken housing market”. I want to challenge, or at least put in context, the Government’s characterisation of this crisis. I also want to ask whether it is accepted that what is happening in London, and possibly in the wider south-east, is somewhat different from what is happening in many other parts of the country.
I am concerned about what seems to be a belief that supply is the sole answer to the so-called housing crisis. I believe that there are several factors at play, and I shall say more about that later. I would argue that the issue is not the availability of housing as such, but its affordability. Even with that in mind, however, I am not convinced that increasing supply will substantially drive down costs. I have done some research on the matter. According to evidence given to the Redfern review by Oxford Economics, supply is unlikely to bring house prices down except in the very long term. Even boosting UK housing supply to 310,000 homes per annum brings only a 5% fall in the baseline forecast of house prices.
I think that we need to look beyond the issue of building more houses to what sort of houses we are building. As I will explain later, the planning system is producing four and five-bedroom houses, which are often out of the price range of first-time buyers, when what we need are two-bedroom houses, bungalows for older people, and housing that is accessible to people with disabilities.
There is no doubt that housing in London is very expensive, and London has that in common with major cities across the world. Hotels are also expensive in London, as they are in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong and many other international cities. However, that is not necessarily because there is a shortage of houses or hotels. It could be said that the UK would be better served not by attracting more and more people to live and work in London, but by spreading the wealth-creating sector and financial opportunities across the country rather than allowing London to act as a magnet. Members should not get me wrong—London is a fantastic city, probably the greatest city in the world, and I want to do nothing to diminish its status—but we should not think that what is happening in London must automatically shape policies across the UK, because sometimes the problems are different.
The Government seem to be describing the housing situation as broken and in crisis on the basis of their analysis of the fall in property ownership among young people, and there has indeed been such a fall. Home ownership among 25 to 34-year-olds has fallen from 59% just over a decade ago to 37% today. Moreover, house building has fallen by 40% since the 1980s. I recognise that there are problems in the housing market, but, again, to reduce them to an issue of supply is an over-simplification.
My analysis suggests that the falls in ownership and house building have in large part been caused by the crash in 2007-08 and the financial fallout from it. Before 2007, we were living in an artificial financial boom. Personal debt was increasing, and some companies were offering applicants mortgages that were worth up to 125% of the value of the houses that they were seeking to buy. Self-certification of income also still existed. All that changed with the crash. Mortgage applicants then had to provide documentary evidence of income, and, while the fall in interest rates should have helped buyers, the affordability of a house was assessed not at the prevailing mortgage rate at the time, but at an assumed rate that would be reached should interest rates be increased.
For example, at the moment the standard mortgage rate is 4.5% and there are many better offers than that available, but applicants are assessed on the basis of whether they could afford to pay their mortgages if rates reached 6% or 6.5%. As was the case 40 years ago, significant deposits are now required by lenders before they will release the mortgage. That has brought about a very significant change.
I am not saying that the Government’s insistence on stronger capital bases for banks is a bad thing; nor is such a requirement a tightening up of lending practice. What I am saying is that it has had a significant impact on the ability of young people to buy their first houses. The fall in ownership, particularly among young people, and the fall in the number of new constructions did not come about because of a change in planning guidance in 2007-08, because there was no such change. These falls came about because of the change in the financial position of banks and building societies. We therefore have to be careful that we do not respond to a change in lending practice with an easing of planning regulation.
We also need to recognise that at the same time as describing the housing market as in crisis and broken, the Government have set up an inquiry into why developers land bank, which is something of a contradictory position. Estimates suggest that 320,000 homes granted planning permission over the past five years have not been built. In my constituency, I have seen developers having to obtain an extension to their planning permission because they have reached the end of the statutory five-year period before starting to build. Developers will not deny themselves the profits that would come from building on land for which they have planning permission without good reason, so perhaps we ought to consider that they might be failing to develop the land because there is not quite the demand for housing in some areas that is assumed.
The determination to build ever more houses has led to some councils being persuaded that they need to build on the green belt in order to meet what is assumed to be their assessed housing need. That points to a confusion and contradiction in green-belt policy. The Government’s planning guidance states that the green belt should not be developed other than in “exceptional circumstances”, yet it fails to describe what constitutes “exceptional circumstances”. The housing White Paper goes on to say:
“Green Belt boundaries should be amended only in exceptional circumstances when local authorities can demonstrate that they have fully examined all other reasonable options for meeting their identified housing requirements.”
However, crucially for the point I am making, planning guidance also says:
“Unmet housing need…is unlikely to outweigh the harm to the Green Belt and other harm to constitute the ‘very special circumstances’ justifying inappropriate development on a site within the Green Belt.”
Planning guidance is going around in circles, because in effect it says that the green belt should not be built on unless nowhere else can be found to build the houses, but that unmet housing need is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt in importance.
This confusion and contradiction in planning guidance, along with the assumption that we have a housing crisis across the whole country, has led to proposals to build around 10,000 houses in my constituency on green-belt land, including 1,000 on land which floods. Indeed, in 2014 the then Prime Minister David Cameron visited my area to look at those very fields that were flooded, as well as the roads and some houses. I can assure the House that he did not visit to look at dry, green fields, yet permission has been granted, on appeal, to build on that very land.
I apologise for arriving a little late for this debate; I was talking about the Cotswolds national park, which I know is close to the hon. Gentleman’s heart. He will be aware that, under the Government’s new methodology for housing needs, Tewkesbury is expected to take an additional 21% increase and Stroud a 39% increase. Does he share my concern? I do not know where this methodology has come from or what the implications are, but it will cause a lot more grief in the Stroud and Tewkesbury areas.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am hoping that the housing White Paper, to which I will return in a minute, will attempt to clarify matters. As he will be aware, a lot of planning applications are assessed against the five-year land supply, particularly on appeal, but there is no methodology for calculating that five-year land supply. That is another problem in the planning system that I hope the Government will be able to correct.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, with whom I share a local authority, for giving way. He is making a good point: this is a regional problem. Figures from the Office for National Statistics on household growth in Gloucestershire show that our local planning authorities are building, or planning to build, enough houses to cope with the population growth. There is a significant problem in London and the south-east, but it is not consistent across the UK. My hon. Friend makes that point very well.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and Gloucestershire neighbour. That is exactly the point that I was seeking to make.
Why are there so many proposals to build houses on the green belt, particularly in my area? In the joint core strategy that is being drawn up by the Tewkesbury, Cheltenham and Gloucester planning authorities, Tewkesbury is looking to cover the unmet need of Cheltenham and Gloucester. However, contrary to planning guidance, the green belt is being compromised in order to satisfy the undoubted duty to co-operate, and this is creating confusion.
Why is Tewkesbury Borough Council doing this? It is because it feels that it must, and I have some sympathy with its position when I read the details of the planning inspector’s report, which again illustrates anomalies in the planning guidance. The inspector states in her report:
“Taking full account of constraints and the outcomes of cross-border exploration, removal of land from the green belt is needed, so far as is justified, to contribute to housing provision and the five-year supply”.
She goes on to say:
“I find that the adverse impacts of removing land from the green belt would not significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits of contributing towards housing and other development needs”.
Here we see clear evidence of the confusion in the planning guidance with regard to protection of the green belt. The inspector is insisting on building on the green belt and on the floodplain in order to meet housing numbers, yet the planning guidance clearly states that unmet housing need is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt in importance. I am aware that local planning authorities have the right to change the designation of the green belt at the plan-making stage, but that is not the point. The point is that there is a contradiction in the planning guidance.
I am aware that the Government have introduced a White Paper to consider the housing crisis and the broken housing market, but having read through it, I do not think that it is likely to address the problems of the market or the inconsistencies, contradictions and confusions in the planning system. Nor do I think that it will restore a sense of democracy to the planning process. Indeed, the wishes of a significant proportion of my constituents have been completely disregarded in the outcome of this process. We often hear the Government referring to the importance of local decision making, but the existence of the Planning Inspectorate makes a mockery of that, and does not help us to provide the houses that we need.
Does my hon. Friend have the same problem that we have in Wokingham and west Berkshire, where a large number of planning permissions are granted but the builders do not build enough homes? On appeal, extra homes are then granted in places that do not fit in with the local plan or the infrastructure provisions.
I am not familiar with the situation in my right hon. Friend’s area, but I know that the appeals system does not seem to work to the benefit of local communities.
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman’s description of his constituency, and it reminds me of my own, which is hemmed in by green belt and also has floodplains. I entirely agree that there is a lack of democracy in the system. Local residents feel that they have no say over wide patches of changes to their villages and towns, and the local authorities feel compelled to carry out actions against the wishes of their own constituents. I commend the hon. Gentleman for making that point; he is entirely right.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I welcome her support.
Guidance on the provision of affordable housing requires councils to assess the need based on local circumstances, but such housing is not being delivered in practice. The housing White Paper outlines that that the Government intend to amend the policy framework to introduce a clear policy expectation that housing sites deliver a minimum of 10% affordable homes, but that is not sufficient to address the issues that the planning system is failing to sort out, particularly for first-time buyers. As I see it, it will still be producing the wrong types of housing—perhaps large three-bedroom houses, but also four and five-bedroom houses—when many areas, including my own, need affordable two-bedroom houses. Such homes are more likely to be within the price range of younger people, thereby addressing the problem that the Government identified in the first place: a fall in ownership among young people.
In support of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, does he think it significant that the Campaign to Protect Rural England estimates that just over 10% of all the houses built on the green belt since 2009 are actually affordable?
I was not aware of that figure, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention.
I was speaking about home ownership among young people, but the provision of two-bedroom houses would also help older people who are perhaps looking to downsize after retirement, which would free up larger houses. Yet that is not happening at the moment.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the biggest problems is that developers can get out of their obligation to build affordable homes by using viability studies? They can submit a planning application, pick the executive homes that they want to build and then, halfway through, they can produce viability studies and say, “Whoops! We cannot afford to build affordable homes.” Will the hon. Gentleman call on his Government to do something about this shambles?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. The Minister is here and listening to all these points, which I am pleased to say are consistent with my speech. However, I am being glared at by Madam Deputy Speaker because I have spoken for longer than I had intended, so I will wind up my remarks.
I will conclude with the following suggestions. The Government should accept that London’s housing issues are not the same as those facing the rest of the country, that affordability and a change in lending practice is a significant factor in falling ownership levels among young people and that merely increasing the supply of houses will not address that. We need to ensure that more affordable houses are built for both younger and older people. Planning guidance for green-belt land is confused and needs clarifying. Decisions by the Planning Inspectorate often do not reflect Government policy or planning guidance, and its existence is an affront to democracy in itself. The housing White Paper needs revisiting to ensure that we build the right houses in the right places to give the younger generation a real prospect of being homeowners, while also protecting the countryside. Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for the time today, and I look forward to hearing what other right hon. and hon. Members and the Minister have to say.
Order. The hon. Gentleman picked up on my hint. As Members can see, many people want to speak, so I will start off by introducing an eight-minute time limit.
I want to focus on my constituency and to raise the issue of how the Government keep sending mixed messages about what has priority in local plans, how many houses should be built and the amount of business that should be put in place.
I live and was born and brought up in the Halton area. Halton Borough Council is putting out a local plan for public consultation. I and many of my constituents do not agree with it, but the council tells me that, given the Government’s current rulebook—the national policy planning framework—it is impossible for the local plan to meet the NPPF requirements without going into the green belt. If the Government are serious about their commitment to protecting the green belt and delivering sustainable growth, they need to provide funding for infrastructure—which they do not; they have a fund, but I have not seen anything coming through in any significant numbers in Halton—for land assembly and for remediation. Halton has also been told that it has to consider economic growth, but how can it do that if it does not have enough brownfield land? So the Government force it to use the green belt. Should Halton be using the green belt? Is that an exceptional reason to do that? The Government talk about exceptional circumstances. Paragraph 79 of the NPPF says:
“The government attaches great importance to Green Belts. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open;
the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.”
That is what most of my constituents feel about their great green belt.
Does my hon. Friend agree that urban sprawl happens not only beyond town boundaries but within towns, where green space may be a green lung within a built-up area?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and that is the situation in Halton, where we are losing the green belt within the town while our boundary is being pushed closer to neighbouring authorities.
The hon. Gentleman has sketched out two alternatives: brownfield sites or urban sprawl. Does he accept there is a third alternative, which is to go for greater density within towns and cities? Greater density uses existing infrastructure far better and, provided it is done within planning and design codes, can be a great deal more acceptable to local people in gaining local consent for development.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but it is for local authorities to decide on density. It is also important that people have decent-sized gardens. One side effect of having greater density is the lack of gardens, or a reduction in their size.
Halton is currently considering its local plan. The current planning policy states that it must plan to meet its objectively assessed need, which is calculated at 460 new homes net a year during the life of the plan. The Government need to understand that Halton is a special case. The borough has significant constraints in the form of COMAH sites—control of major accident hazards—and flood risk. The borough is hard against its green-belt boundaries, and all brownfield sites in Halton are allocated to housing or employment. There is only green space and green belt left, apart from 60 hectares of land that is too contaminated to be used for either housing or employment. Will the Government assist Halton with funding to decontaminate that land, rather than force us to use the green belt?
The “Planning for the right homes in the right places” consultation states:
“The housing White Paper contained a number of proposals to reform planning to achieve these objectives. It reinforced the central role of local and neighbourhood plans in the planning system, so that local planning authorities and local communities retain control of where development should…go.”
“The Framework makes it clear that inappropriate development may be allowed only where very special circumstances exist, and that Green Belt boundaries should be adjusted only in exceptional circumstances—” is it an exceptional circumstance that we have no land left on which to build unless we build on the green belt?—
“through the Local Plan process and with the support of local people.”
That is the important point. Do local people have the final say, or have the Government put some other consideration in the framework and advice that says differently?
Local people do not want the green belt to be built on, so they want to retain control of where development should or should not go. Halton has run out of land to allocate for housing, yet there is still this requirement to maintain a continuous five-year supply of housing land to meet the housing delivery test.
In his answer to my parliamentary question this week, the Minister said there
“is not a local housing target.”
The fact is that no inspector in his Department would allow any council to say, “We are not going to build any housing because we have no land left other than green belt.” The Minister can tell me that is not true and that the inspector will not impose it. I understand there is not a target, but inspectors will be working to a very clear policy framework. I am interested in what he has to say about that. Many local authorities have much more green belt than Halton. Surely there is a balance to be struck for an area such as Halton, which has urban developed land taking up the great majority of space.
Halton was really where the chemicals industry was born. It was a huge area for that industry, which provided many jobs. That was important, but the industry left a huge legacy of contaminated land in Halton. Few local authorities will have to deal with the scale of pollution that Halton Borough Council has faced. It has done a good job since 1974 in dealing with that legacy and ensuring that a lot of that land has come back into some use, but the council does not have the funds to remediate the contaminated land that is left and the Government must recognise that in their future guidance.
If things continue to follow the same path, we will have little green belt left for future generations to enjoy in my constituency. As we know, such land is very important in terms of enjoyment, exercise, mental health and so on. It is therefore very important that urbanised areas such as Halton have these spaces. I know that the new guidance is being worked on and the first stage of it will be coming out in spring, but the Minister must answer what the defining factor is for our local authority and for our local community, who has the final say and what is the strongest weight to give to a particular argument. He and his Department, in the guidance, have consistently given out mixed messages about what should be taken into consideration, but they do not make it clear what should be given the greatest weight. Should it be what is important to the local community and what they want, or is it the guidance that the Government have sent out for the inspectors to deal with? We do not want inspectors coming to Halton and saying that, because the council has not done what they think it should have done, it should go back and reconsider or even that it should have powers taken away from it. The Minister really needs to address that.
My constituents do not want green belt land to be built on. We have suffered a massive legacy of pollution and contaminated land. Our council has worked hard to deal with that, but we are entitled to enjoy our green space and our green belt in Halton as much as anyone anywhere else is.
I wish to mention one final thing, which is the leasehold issue. A number of my constituents have faced a situation where developers have left them with leaseholds that cost them an awful lot of money. The Government say they are going to bring forward some plans to deal with that, but what are they going to do for those people who have already had the problem and have the legacy of it? I hope the Government will make sure they do this retrospectively and help the people who have been conned by the developers, in that they have been charged very high rates for their leasehold. I hope the Government will see to that.
In conclusion, it is very important that the Minister listens to what Halton is saying. I am happy to meet him so that he can see what the specific challenges are in Halton, which many other authorities will have faced.
This is the first time I rise to contribute to a debate since my recovery from cancer and my return to active duty. I hope that you will therefore forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I divert for a moment to thank right hon. and hon. Members of the House, from all parts and all parties, for their kindness in the time I was ill. You know all too well, Madam Deputy Speaker, that Whips can sometimes come in for a bit of a bad rap, but I would just like to put on record the unstinting support that our Whips Office gave me while I was ill. In particular, I wish to single out my right hon. Friend Julian Smith, who, as Deputy Chief Whip, was constantly inquiring after my health and making sure I had everything I needed, and my current Whip, my hon. Friend Mark Spencer, whom I hope will always be my Whip and my friend.
I need to warn the Whips Office that, like many people who recover from a serious illness, I have returned a slightly different man, with a slightly different perspective. I have returned with a determination no longer to draw a veil over awkward truths and no longer to avoid thinking clearly and speaking openly about the mistakes we have made. The truth is that, for 20 years, Governments of all parties and politicians of all stripes have failed to build enough new homes to meet the housing needs of our fellow citizens. We have done that even though almost every single one of us in this House knows that happy feeling of living in a home that we own. In all our constituencies, for huge numbers of the people we represent, the dream of home ownership has turned into a tantalising mirage—a nightmare which they can never hope to get out of. We have failed through a combination of cowardice, complacency, laziness and incomprehension.
The roots of this problem lie in a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of our housing market and house building industry. We talk of them as if it were a free market and all the problems that emanate from it are a result of free market operation, but that is not the case. This is a market in which the Government have made the most extraordinary intervention. Back in the 1930s, the house building market used to generate, in a country with a much smaller population, well over 300,000 homes every year. That was a free market, but the problem was that it led to unstoppable urban sprawl, as cities reached out into the countryside in a never-ending way.
As a result, as a Parliament and as a people we decided to introduce the Town and Country Planning Act 1932 to constrain that sprawl and introduce some order into the development process. That was an extraordinary intervention. We went from a situation in which someone could buy a plot of land, put up a few homes and sell them, to a situation in which the right to develop land was nationalised. The landowner has no innate right to build anything on their land. They have to apply to the Government for permission. That is an intervention that I support. I believe that the British people were entirely within their rights—as my hon. Friend Mr Robertson is entirely within his rights—to want to defend the precious English countryside, but we need to acknowledge the effect of that intervention and be willing to embrace the measures to ensure that we nevertheless build enough homes for our people.
In France, they have a planning system, yet every single year they build 300,000 or 400,000 homes and they have very much less in the way of house-price inflation than we do. In Germany, they have a planning system, and every single year, routinely, they build 300,000 or 400,000 units, and they too have managed to avoid the UK’s curse: house-price inflation.
It is fantastic to see my hon. Friend back in his place, making his customary important points. Does he accept that in Cherwell we too have a planning system, and we are still able to build three houses a day on average, because of positive local leadership? We just have to work harder to make sure that we have the infrastructure to back that up.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. The new Minister for Housing, my hon. Friend Dominic Raab, will discover, as I did when I was planning Minister in the same Department, that Cherwell is one of the most progressive authorities on house building and sets an example that many other authorities could do well to study.
When we have made an intervention of the kind we have by nationalising the right to build and introducing a planning system, we need to follow through with the kinds of interventions that the French and the Germans allow themselves, to ensure that land prices do not become the constant fuel of ever-rising house prices, that major house builders are not in the business of eking out their supply as slowly as possible to keep prices as high as possible, and that every year we build enough truly affordable housing units—housing that people on average and below-average incomes can afford to rent or buy. That is something that is achieved in Germany and France, and it is something that we comprehensively fail to do.
There will be some on these Benches of the more pure free market cast of mind who would rather that we scrap our planning controls and revert to a system of the 1930s. If we were to do that, it is true that the number of units that we would build every year would go up, that house prices would fall, and that more people would be able to own their own homes. It is also true that we would have cities merging with one another and that we would lose huge swathes of precious English countryside, and I simply do not believe that the British people would wear it. The alternative therefore is for this party in government, which believes in the free market and in free enterprise, nevertheless to grasp that further state intervention is necessary if we are to have a house building industry that delivers enough homes for our citizens.
I know that there will be other hon. Members who would like to say more about some of these ideas, but the key interventions that we need to make are these. We need to give ourselves the power to acquire land at a price that is fair to the community as well as to the landowner. Why should landowners benefit from the fluke that gives them planning permission to build on their land when none of their neighbours receives it? Why should the taxpayer bear the cost of the infrastructure—the roads, the sewerage and the schools—that makes land developable in the first place? We need to revert to the situation that led to Milton Keynes and the other new towns, where we were able to acquire the land at a reasonable price, a small multiple of its agricultural land value, and then use the uplift in that land value to fund the infrastructure that the community needs.
We also need to intervene with major house builders to ensure that they build out the sites with planning permission on the schedule that they agreed with the planning authority. My suggestion for how we enforce this is to ask them to offer any sites that they had refused to build out to any other house builder to build on. This is such an important subject, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I hope to return to it in future, but I thank you for your time.
We constantly hear the same lines about the Government promising to fix the housing market, yet after their seven years in government, it is no secret that we still have an enormous housing crisis in this country. Last year, the number of affordable homes built in this country fell to the lowest level in 24 years.
New policies introduced by this Government have weakened the previous Labour Government’s brownfield-first policy. In fact, under this Government, as of July 2017, 425,000 homes were planned to be built on green-belt land. That represents the biggest yearly increase in proposed development on green-belt land for two decades. To add insult to injury, since 2009, only 16% of houses built on green-belt land outside local plans were deemed affordable.
It is worth pointing out that under the previous Labour Government, 2 million more homes were built and we had 1 million more householders owning their own homes, but since 2010, under this Government, the number of homeowners aged under 45 has fallen by 900,000. There was also the biggest investment in social housing for a generation. On average, Labour councils have built around 50% more homes than Tory councils since 2010.
It is clear that the Government’s Housing and Planning Act 2016 fails to get to grips with the crisis of home ownership. It is simply no good trying to twist this around and placing the blame on those in local government. If that were true, Coventry’s local plan would not have been approved by this Government.
There are issues in my constituency, particularly in the Kings Hill and the Cromwell Lane areas of Coventry, and I have raised those issues many times. In fact, the situation is now so bad, and there is such serious concern, that a new residents association has been formed in the Westwood ward, which covers those areas. The Government now say that they believe that there is a better way to calculate housing numbers. According to the new plans, even more homes will need to be built each year, but those plans are based on incorrect Government numbers. Many residents groups in my constituency have protested against these developments, and I have spoken in defence of the Kings Hill area for many years. The Government seek to provide different formulas and figures. The current figures for Coventry make huge assumptions about students, but the idea that they all stay and live in Coventry after university is simply not true.
Nationally, the big four developers account for more than 75% of the plots with planning permission, but getting developers building on existing sites is far more important than allocating them yet more land. There need to be firmer consequences for developers that are land banking so that we ensure that their existing commitments are met before further land is released. Incentives should be introduced to put an end to a slow build-out rates and developers must start building the homes that communities need. The Government say that they listen to communities, but the communities are overruled, as has happened in the Kings Hill area of Coventry that I just mentioned.
Brownfield sites have the potential to deliver more than 1 million homes, so the Government need to reassess the possibilities that they offer. That is crucial, because 70% of the housing proposed for land to be released from the green belt will be unaffordable for local communities. The Government must understand that this is about not only the sheer number of houses being built, but the types of those houses. This needs to happen urgently so that we can end the housing crisis and give this generation the homes that they deserve.
I have asked the Minister to meet me on two or three occasions, but those meetings have been postponed. I hope that, this time, the Minister will meet me and some of the residents from the areas I have mentioned.
Yesterday I was at a planning inquiry in my constituency. It should have been a situation in which a planning inspector signed off a neighbourhood plan produced by a village, but the process has in fact been stopped because of incompatibility with the local plan. It has to be said that the neighbourhood plan had not started quickly enough; nevertheless, it has been stopped.
In response to views expressed by the planning inspector, Mid Sussex District Council has proposed a 500-house settlement to the north of the village of Hassocks. The cumulative effect of that new development and others would be to increase the size of the village by a third. There are huge local concerns about the adequacy of infrastructure, the decision to locate the settlement at the proposed site, the loss of countryside, the closure of a green space between two villages and so on, but the important point is that the parish council was preparing its neighbourhood plan, and it was proposing an increase in the number of houses. Neighbourhood plans have delivered more houses than expected. The parish council proposed a limited number of houses in that location, but 500 was completely out of kilter with the number it expected to produce, and the site of the proposed new settlement is not in the location that the parish council wanted.
During the inquiry, a huge number of members of the public were listening to the evidence given by not only elected representatives, but a vast array of QCs representing an equally vast array of house builders. Members of the public were not allowed to speak, but every time they just said, “Hear, hear,” or disagreed with a point in the way in which polite members of the public in West Sussex do, they were told to be quiet. They were silenced. A reform that was introduced under the Localism Act 2011 and that was designed to empower local communities—giving them the decision about where housing should be located—has suddenly regressed to the old-fashioned planning by appeal process, with decisions taken by the planning inspector and the public literally silenced. I suggest that we need to hold faith with the principle of giving communities more control over where housing goes.
In reality, more housing than expected was produced by the process of neighbourhood planning. I think that those on all sides can agree with the principles of empowerment, of taking responsibility, and of putting decision making into the hands of the local community. Upsetting neighbourhood plans undermines those principles and this very powerful reform.
We should understand why this has happened: developers have been gaming the system, and continue to do so. Developers, by not using planning permissions, have driven down the five-year land supply so that we have a planning free-for-all whereas we should have a planned system. Developers have conspired—I use that word advisedly—in Mid Sussex, as they have in other districts in my constituency, to delay putting local plans in place so that they can maintain that free-for-all, yet cynically they have not built.
My right hon. Friend refers to the power of the local voice. I am sorry that my voice has gone a little, but I will still speak up for local people. That local voice needs to be heard in planning. My area falls within the Stockport local plan area, but that, in turn, falls under the Greater Manchester spatial framework. For four years, one of my villages has been trying to set up its own neighbourhood plan. The community has done a lot of work, but it is now worried about how its neighbourhood plan will fit in, as two other plans are being put in place. There were indications in “Planning for the right homes in the right places” that this would be addressed through a different methodology. Does he agree that we need to keep that approach?
Where possible, we need to respect neighbourhood plans. Of course the local planning authority retains the position of a strategic planning authority, but we should not allow developers to bust neighbourhood plans by cynical means, which is what has been happening.
It is important to note that the housing that is now being built in West Sussex is far in excess of the level that was envisaged 12 years ago, when I was first elected to the House. The objectively assessed need for local authorities is now 61% higher than it was under Gordon Brown’s draft south-east plan, and it will be double that when the Government bring in the new housing need figures. New houses are being built. However, it is important that permissions actually translate into new homes.
I welcome my hon. Friend Nick Boles back to his place. I agreed with almost everything that he said. We can all agree about the importance of building more houses. He gave us his framing of the fundamental problem, and I agree that returning to the free market is not the answer, and nor is saying that we should hold to the current system, which is clearly not delivering. Somewhere in the middle, we have to identify a more radical reform that will allow us, as he suggested, to capture the uplift in the value of land between what it would be as ordinary land with an agricultural market value, and land with development potential, which suddenly becomes worth millions or tens of millions of pounds per acre. We have to think hard about how we do that.
I want to deliver a warning. Putting into the hands of local authorities powers of compulsory purchase that give them the ability to confiscate land at not the market value, but an assessed value that is far lower, might indeed have the effect that my hon. Friend suggests. While we must explore such ideas, that might also create wholesale property blight across the country, inconveniencing not just the owners of agricultural land, but communities more widely. I look at the effect of a proposed new town in my constituency, which is in the same district of Mid Sussex, but also falls into Horsham district. Neither local authority wants that, but it has been relentlessly promoted by a developer that does not even have an options on the land, against the wishes of the local community and the local councils. That has created an enormous blight on a large swathe of this part of Mid Sussex, because people are fearful that a new town might come and therefore the value of their properties is affected.
If we are to investigate such a reform, we have to be very careful to draw a distinction between previous powers exercised by Government in relation to compulsory purchase for new towns such as Milton Keynes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford set out, and the idea that we could somehow translate those powers to local authorities in a way that was not carefully constrained. That needs much more careful thinking, but it is undoubtedly the germ of an important idea.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we will need new thinking if we are to increase supply in the way that is necessary. We are not France or Germany. We have a much smaller country, and there are huge pressures on infrastructure, but reform might help to deliver infrastructure for local communities.
We need to produce more affordable housing, but we should try to apply the principles we latched on to a few years ago with the Localism Act, through which we gave communities the power to decide where they wanted housing and the responsibility to exercise that power. That yielded great results, because it meant that communities that had previously said no to developments started saying yes in a very positive way. We should be careful about principles that rely on such state intervention, control or indeed confiscation that they would be anathema to the public and many Conservative Members.
The profits of the top five UK house builders have risen by 388% in the last five years, sometimes at the expense of the people we are trying to help on to the housing ladder. One area in which developers’ profits have come first is commuted sums for grounds maintenance and other communal services. It seems that the idea of a developer paying the local authority a commuted sum to cut the grass and maintain common parts has had its day, and I am not clear whether the blame for that lies with local authorities asking for too much money, or developers not being prepared to cough up the funds in advance. I suspect they would blame each other.
The net effect is that more and more homeowners are having to pay twice for the maintenance of open spaces: once through a management fee; and once through their council tax. Of course, council tax pays for a lot of things, but something as visible and obvious as grounds maintenance leads people to ask why they face a double whammy. My suspicion is that if developers can save themselves half a million pounds, they have a big temptation to cash that and let the customer pay further down the line.
Not only is there a double payment, but the system is inefficient and lacks accountability. If the grass does not get cut on the verges in most parts of my constituency, either a local councillor or I will hear about it and respond, but it is not so easy to get a response when dealing with a private company.
The most high-profile example of how developers shift costs on to consumers is the leasehold scandal. How much have developers pocketed over recent years by selling the freeholds for new estates to investment companies? I hope the message is now getting through to them that that racket has to stop and that they will be ultimately be responsible for their misdemeanours. I am pleased that Ministers have indicated a willingness to act, although I am sure that they are aware of the frustration felt by many who are trapped in unsellable homes, for whom the Law Commission report feels like a lifetime away.
I know that developers have effectively been put on notice that they should not sell any more houses on a leasehold basis, but there are reports that that is still happening. Can the Government issue supplementary planning guidance to local authorities to say that selling properties on a leasehold basis unnecessarily would be a reasonable ground for refusing planning permission?
Members will have heard countless stories about leasehold and an industry that is out of control. Now is not the time to recount those, but suffice it to say that although there are some positive examples of responsible developers, I have little confidence overall that the industry has the right moral structures in place to deliver the houses that we so desperately need. We need answers to how these feudalistic practices were allowed to start in the first place.
One of my constituents suggested to me that breaking up some of the bigger house builders might improve competition in the market, deliver a better deal for people buying homes, and enable us to deliver more homes. I would be interested to hear the hon. Gentleman’s views about that suggestion.
That is an interesting point. Over recent years, the number of developers has contracted. The sums involved and the years of advance planning needed to build some of these developments tend to favour the bigger builders. I am not sure how we would go about achieving that, but it needs to be looked at.
The Communities and Local Government Committee should also consider this issue because developers—big and small—must explain how their duping of customers was allowed to start in the first place, how much profit they have made from this scam, who drew up the leases that nobody will now sign, how many properties were made leasehold needlessly, what role lenders and solicitors played in allowing through leases that nobody will now sign, and exactly who the beneficiaries of these leases are? Until we know the answers to these questions, we cannot be sure that the new homes we need will by owned with no strings attached by the people who buy them.
I want to say a few words about enforcement, because the rules of the planning system have value only if they can be effectively enforced. The significant funding cuts that local authorities have experienced in recent years are bound to have had an impact on the number and extent of enforcement activities that a council can undertake.
The classic example is the Mostyn House development in Parkgate in my constituency. Originally, the site was a boarding school in a listed building, but once the school ceased, the site was certainly an attractive one for developers to consider—and so they did. The site is now an impressive mix of new builds and apartments woven into the fabric of the old school, but it suffers from one major disadvantage. Despite some people having lived there for over four years, there is still no planning permission in place.
The reason for that is that revised plans were submitted halfway through the redevelopment, and despite the best efforts of the local authority enforcement officers, the developer, P. J. Livesey, constantly drags its heels, with the result that there is a list of outstanding works as long as your arm. From what I understand, the developer has a similar patchy record elsewhere in the country, but it seems to be able to get away with it, because there just is no capacity to follow through enforcement consistently.
As Mostyn House is a listed building, it is a pretty technical job to keep on top of it all. Fortunately, however, some of the residents have a surveying background, so they have been meticulous in logging the issues. Despite that, P. J. Livesey has still not met the required standards, and I wonder where we would be if we did not have such proactive and knowledgeable residents.
What about bringing roads up to an acceptable standard so that they can be adopted by a local authority? There is an estate in my constituency that people started moving into almost a decade ago, and the developer—in this case, Bellway—still has not done the necessary works that would enable the local authority to adopt the roads. I do not blame the local authority. It has set out what needs to be done, but it does not have the resources or the time to constantly chase the developer, which has now sold the homes and moved on. What is the incentive for the developer to go back and complete the work it should have done?
I am pleased to say that, after many years of stagnation, there is a significant amount of house building in my constituency, particularly on brownfield sites, but very little of that housing is affordable. That is because the permissions were all granted some time ago, and the developers used the coalition Government’s rules on viability assessments to argue that it was not cost-effective for them to keep to their affordable housing obligations on individual sites. They plead poverty as they tell us that the requirement to build affordable homes means they cannot maintain their 20% profit margins.
As a result, no affordable housing is currently being built on just about every development site. Most developers sought release from their obligations three or four years ago, and many have only started building in the past six to 12 months, so it is quite clear that the affordable housing requirements were not stopping developments from proceeding. There is more than a suspicion that developers have played the system to maximise profit and had no intention of proceeding with their buildings previously. We have had empty sites for three or four years longer than needed, and an opportunity to build much-needed affordable housing has been lost.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that private sector house builders build when—and only when—it is sufficiently profitable to do so. That ought to be an axiom, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees with that. Does he therefore agree that part of the solution ought to be to provide a much wider range of genuine choice to potential consumers—people who want somewhere to live in the affordable space and homeless people, as well as those in the purchasing market—so that private sector developers cannot exercise an oligopoly, as they currently do?
That is an interesting point. At the moment, developers will build at the time that suits them best, and will build the types of property that suit them best, but that is not necessarily what suits the demand best. That is something I hear regularly in my surgery, and it is probably still the No. 1 issue raised there. I am pleased that my local authority, Cheshire West and Chester Council, is now building some council housing, because there is huge demand for it in my constituency. This is the first it has built for nearly 40 years, although, unfortunately, that has taken the borrowing limits under the housing revenue account to the limit, so we need that cap to be lifted.
Most disappointingly, once those properties are built, we will still have less council housing in my constituency than we did a couple of years ago. That is due to the huge increase in right to buy applications in recent times—who can blame people for taking advantage of 70% discounts?—but that policy is short term in the extreme. It is the Government’s stated aim that every council property sold under right to buy should be replaced, but the reality is that that one-for-one replacement is actually running at a rate of about one replacement for every five properties sold.
Is there any wonder? Recently, a three-bedroom semi in my constituency was sold under right to buy for £27,000, and do not forget that the council will get only a third of that money to replace the house it has just lost. The average cost of a semi-detached house in my constituency is about £148,000, so Members can do the maths and see that this policy is completely unrealistic and needs to be changed.
To conclude—a number of Members have talked along these lines today—I would like much greater political direction and oversight over the house building industry. After all, those involved are the people who will build the homes that we all need. At the moment, they quite understandably organise their affairs to maximise their profits, but housing is part of our infrastructure and a roof over our head is a fundamental right. We cannot just rely on the market unfettered to deliver that.
Order. Due to the number of Members who wish to speak, the time limit will have to drop to six minutes. Hopefully, we will not have to drop it again.
It is a pleasure to follow Justin Madders in this important debate.
It is fast becoming a cliché to talk of a broken housing market and building for the future, but those rather trite phrases disguise both the difficult problem that we have in not having built enough homes for some time and the significant challenges that remain for the house building industry.
I want to make it clear that I am not against building and development. We of course need to provide new homes to meet the housing shortage, but that should be done in a way that is sensitive to the local environment and sensitive to the wishes of local communities, which in my assessment has hitherto been lacking.
I shall confine my remarks to the specific consideration of housing and green belt policy in Greater Manchester, but the principles could apply equally to other parts of the country.
The pithily titled Greater Manchester spatial framework, commonly known as the GMSF, is the Greater Manchester combined authority’s land management plan for housing, commercial and industrial use over the next 20 years. It will have a profound effect on the shape and character of local communities, and will impact on the lives of many thousands of families for generations to come.
I, and others, have serious reservations about the draft GMSF in terms of the methodology for calculating overall housing targets, the scale on which it proposes to release swathes of green belt for housing development, the lack of sensitivity and awareness it displays towards the character of existing communities, and the scant regard to additional infrastructure required to support new, large-scale housing developments.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the target population increase in GMSF ought to be wholly reconsidered, especially in the light of Brexit, whereby we will have more control over our borders?
There are many flaws in the statistical methodology of the GMSF that I would like to unpack, but unfortunately perhaps, or fortunately for the House, I do not have the minutes in which to do so. However, my hon. Friend is spot on.
Further to that, to give an example, the draft framework proposed that 4,900 hectares of Greater Manchester’s green belt land be built on, representing a net loss of 8% of green belt-land across the area. In my constituency, proposals included a development of 4,000 homes on fields around the village of High Lane—essentially trebling the size of that village, with little regard for the burden of increased traffic on the road network and the increased pressures on public services.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for giving way. I appreciate the points he is making, particularly about the green belt, because, as he knows, in my constituency 8,100 homes are planned to be built on the green belt. That is not sustainable or wanted, which is why more than 3,000 people signed my petition on that very point, which I presented to the House.
The constituents of Cheadle have a doughty campaigner in my hon. Friend. We think we have it bad in the Hazel Grove constituency with the proposals for 4,000 homes. The figure is more than double that in Cheadle, which is beyond the pale. Her constituents are fortunate to have such a vigorous representative in this House.
As my hon. Friend alluded to, in the last Parliament we presented petitions to the House on behalf of thousands of our constituents who are opposed to the massive scale of development on green-belt land and urge instead the development of brownfield sites. I also had the pleasure of introducing a Westminster Hall debate on the matter, which was well attended by colleagues from all parts of the House, including the current Mayor of Greater Manchester. That demonstrated the concerns over the spatial framework right across the region.
Since then, the combined authority has undertaken a public consultation on the Greater Manchester spatial framework, which received an astonishing 27,000 responses. While many of those recognised the need for new housing, concern about the allocation of green-belt land for that development was the single biggest issue raised in the consultation. Concerns over the environment and infrastructure were also raised. The massive response to the draft framework rightly prompted a fundamental rethink of the plan. Work is under way on a second version, which is due to be published in June 2018 and will be subject to a further 12-week consultation. The grass is long on the green belt in my constituency, but I hope that the combined authority have not put the plan into the long grass.
While we await the second draft of the GMSF, I have a few suggestions that might make the revised plan more acceptable to the public. I hope that the Minister will put some of them into practice when considering national planning policy. First, we need a vigorous “brownfield first” policy. Brownfield sites that have had development on them before should be prioritised for the building of houses, rather than the green belt. That not only protects the countryside, but encourages the regeneration of our towns and makes best use of land where the necessary infrastructure already exists. In Greater Manchester, there is at least 1,000 hectares of brownfield land spread over 400 sites that has not yet been fully developed for housing. That is more than enough to build at least 55,000 homes and it is probable that more land of that nature can be found.
We must also look for ways to optimise the density and quality of new housing developments, without eroding the green belt. After all, the green belt is an important barrier against urban sprawl. It encourages us to build upwards and not out. That allows people to live nearer their places of work and does not extend commutes, which in turn reduces the strain on local roads and transport infrastructure.
The Government recently conducted a consultation on the new approach to calculating local housing need, to which I submitted evidence. If the Government wish to proceed, I believe that the most significant policy change that should be implemented is for the new approach to calculating housing need to be considered at county level, rather than at metropolitan borough level. In the case of my local area, it would be considered by Greater Manchester rather than Stockport. It makes more sense to look at overall demand at a broader county level, rather than at borough level, especially in light of the devolution to city regions, combined authorities and metropolitan mayors, which look after other infrastructure and services.
Furthermore, members of the public do not necessarily observe and are perhaps even unaware of council boundaries as they go about their daily lives. They often live in one borough and work in another, and they may travel through several others to get from one to the other. The more artificial boundaries that form the basis of planning policy, the more divorced decision making is from reality. Critically, my proposal would allow flexibility to improve how local authorities work together to meet housing and other needs across their respective boundaries. Just because one borough has higher levels of employment or property values, it does not necessarily follow that it has more sites to build houses on.
In conclusion, the strength of local opinion is clear. The voices not only in my constituency but in neighbouring constituencies and from colleagues across the House are clear: the green belt should be safeguarded and previously developed urban land should be prioritised for housing instead. I recognise that the housing White Paper proposes to make it clear that green-belt boundaries should be subject to change only where the local authority can demonstrate that it has
“fully examined all other reasonable options”, including the proper use of brownfield land. Indeed, any changes to green-belt designation should be made only as part of a wider local planning review process to ensure that there are opportunities for community consultation. Giving neighbourhood plans greater legal authority in planning law would be one means of achieving that. I commend the comments of my right hon. Friend Nick Herbert and hope that those on the Treasury Bench were in listening mode for his submission.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Wragg, who is a Greater Manchester MP. I too will discuss the Greater Manchester spatial framework, but I rise to appeal for balance in the pursuit of new housing and the need to protect our green-belt land. Local communities are not mean about the need for new homes in Bury. Grandparents want the best opportunity for their grandchildren to be able to own or afford housing. As has been said, this is about affordability and not just over-supply.
What we do not accept is the universal, one-size-fits-all approach taken by a Government issuing targets to regions without an appreciation of the place itself. Too often, planning lacks a democratic voice and feels too much like a developer’s charter, and the Government have tipped the planning regulations against communities such as mine. I am proud to have stood at last year’s election promising to help to rewrite the Greater Manchester spatial framework. I am clear that by working with our new Labour mayor and the leader of our Labour-led council, Bury now has a voice at the planning table, listening to the concerns of residents across Bury North.
Let me put a Bury case here. Of the some 2,000 people who responded to a survey in my constituency, 90% want local decisions, not Government diktat. New homes are needed, but they should be proportionate to a pre-determined agreement on green-belt land. Bury has the lowest proportion of brownfield sites, so targets handed down to us from London that take no account of the imbalance of green belt and brownfield land are wrong. They need to be adjusted. It cannot be that equal shares for housing targets are applied across a conurbation, when in some areas there is an abundance of brownfield sites, unlike in Bury.
The default to building homes must begin with brownfield sites, as was established under the last Labour Government. In the absence of such sites, we should continue with urban areas that are better supported with infrastructure and local services. Again, the concerns are that the 25-year spatial framework lays out the need for homes and housing while there is no corresponding plan for the local public services. The Government target for homes has been issued at a time when Bury has lost £120 million from our ability to prepare public spaces, services, networks and local government budgets. Our schools are over roll and bursting at the seams. Our waiting lists are heavily populated, roads are brimming with traffic and potholes are minor sink holes, in some cases.
A Government that hands out plans for homes should first accept the need for local community voices to protect the green belt, where there is already considerable reach into that land, and then offer some sight of their plans to ensure that an appropriate level of infrastructure, public services and local government budgets can be associated with those plans. The Government’s consultation on their new methodology for calculating housing need for localities is yet to be declared. We anticipate that it will be used to tweak yearly targets up, so we have no open door to local authorities questioning the housing targets based on the limitations of their area. To date, the Minister has ignored council requests and my requests, which I repeat here, to meet us to understand the Bury-specific issue on this point.
The Government targets ignore our needs. The original GMSF is to be rewritten, but it still sits within the framework guidance that the Conservative Government stipulate. The current set-up pits Tory Government numbers on housing with Labour leaders in Greater Manchester, working with local MPs such as me to protect green-belt land and minimise the impact of these housing targets on an ever-dwindling local government and public services budget.
Let me end by saying that for every resident in Bury who is unhappy that these numbers are far too high and who feels that green belt should be protected, there is a housing developer who is lobbying very hard, and quite possibly donating to the Conservative party, to argue that—[Interruption.] They don’t like it up ’em. Those developers are arguing that the numbers are far too low to meet the Government’s target. In Bury, we spoke with one voice and kept the walk-in centre open. Another promise I made at the election was to make the case to protect as much green-belt land as possible from development as a result of arbitrary targets imposed on Bury by this Government. Under their terms, 12,000 units are required in Bury by 2035, but approximately only 5,000 of them can be accommodated on brownfield.
In closing, I wish to propose some solutions. We should allow local authorities to enforce their own affordable housing policies; force developers to develop brownfield first; set dates by which sites need to have been completed; and allow councils to borrow more to mass build.
The case for the green belt was put very powerfully by former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion. He said:
“Since about 1940, the population of Los Angeles has grown at about the same rate as the population of London. Los Angeles is now so enormous that if you somehow managed to pick it up and plonk it down on England, it would extend from Brighton on the south coast to Cambridge in the north-east. That’s what happens if you don’t have a green belt.”
In a densely populated island, the green belt enriches our lives in many ways. It provides a precious opportunity to reconnect with the natural environment and spend time with friends and family outdoors. A substantial part of my constituency is in the green belt, and protecting it will always be one of my highest priorities. When media reports in advance of the Budget indicated, therefore, that the Government were considering dismantling green-belt rules, I argued strongly against this and raised it during Prime Minister’s questions. Thankfully, my right hon. Friend’s answer confirmed her support for green-belt protections, and no plans to rip them up appeared in the Budget after all.
We must build more homes in this country, but we do not have to sacrifice the green belt to do it. The Conservative council in Barnet, for example, is delivering more new homes than any other borough in London, and its main means of doing so is through regeneration of the borough’s major estates. It is in the process of delivering 27,000 new homes under a 15-year plan adopted in 2012. In 2015-16, 1,460 new homes were built in Barnet—4.7% of the total for Greater London. Across its regeneration projects, the council is meeting the affordable homes target of 40%. I support this regeneration programme and other projects, such as the Victoria Quarter development in New Barnet, which is being taken forward by social landlord One Housing on a former industrial site.
Like my Conservative colleagues on Barnet Council, however, I am unhappy about plans brought forward by developers for high-density development squeezed into low-rise suburban areas where it is completely inappropriate, so I have been part of a number of successful campaigns against the demolition of houses to make way for blocks of flats. I am opposing plans for tower blocks of luxury flats in North London business park, which were rejected unanimously by Barnet’s planning committee, and I am fighting against proposals to build on the agricultural fields at Whalebones in High Barnet. I also oppose the planning application being considered this week for Barnet House in Whetstone. Barnet House hit the national news when the owners of the block proposed to use permitted development rights to convert it into hundreds of tiny flats. Described by some as dog kennel flats, some would have been only 16 square metres. Thankfully, the proposal was defeated, but I remain concerned about the scale of the plans that have replaced it.
I appeal to the Government to restrict or abolish the permitted development rights that allow the conversion of offices to residential use without a planning application. They deprive local residents of a say in whether such developments go ahead and mean that the people profiting from the development do not have to make any contribution to the services or infrastructure needed to support the new homes because no section 106 or other contribution can be obtained. This is a particular problem around the Station Road area in my constituency and was raised by residents when I was knocking on doors only a couple of weeks ago.
Another grave concern, I am afraid, is the Mayor of London’s development plan. If this draft plan is approved, not only will it remove protection for gardens; it will actively encourage building over them, which would make it far harder to resist the kind of garden-grabbing development that Barnet Council was recently able to turn down for Crescent Road in New Barnet. The housing density matrix seems to have been completely removed from the London plan. If that goes ahead, there will be no limits on appropriate density in particular areas, which will place huge pressure on councils to approve denser and taller development. The targets for the building of family-sized affordable homes which were introduced by the last Mayor are also to go. The current Labour Mayor wants to prevent new developments within reach of public transport from including parking spaces, which would inevitably displace cars into surrounding streets, thus adding to the problems already faced by my constituents.
The draft London plan was described by a Conservative Member of the London Assembly, Andrew Boff, as a declaration of war on the suburbs. That is strong language, but there is no doubt that the Mayor’s London plan is further evidence that Labour does not care about the suburbs and does not understand them—which is another good reason for Barnet to re-elect its Conservative council on
My party has long campaigned for 300,000 new homes to be built every year. There is a compelling social reason for that. Millions of people are now priced out of ever buying a home, and for the lucky few, the only opportunity comes with money from their parents or a direct subsidy from the state. Even then, eight out of 10 new homes are out of the financial reach of working people throughout the country.
The housing market is broken. It is a market built for the few and designed to exclude. The lack of housing is a crisis that is denying people—especially young people and the most vulnerable, in my constituency and across the country—a place to call their own. It should not be a luxury to own a home; nor should it be a luxury to have a secure tenancy. Building 300,000 additional homes every year would at least begin to reverse the decades-long failure to match demand with supply. The Government, however, have only one solution, which is to leave house building to the private sector. The interests of private house builders are simple: high profitability sustained over a long period. That means the slow release of property on to the market, land banking, and—as has already been discussed this afternoon—the building of five-bedroom homes rather than affordable housing.
There is an alternative to that business model. Local authorities and other public organisations must build homes on the basis of different priorities: not profit, but social need and public good. Last Christmas, one in every 111 children in the UK was either homeless or in temporary bed-and-breakfast or rented accommodation. The private sector benefits from that financially, but the private sector does not solve a single problem.
I have raised the subject of social housing, built by the public sector, many times in the House since my election last June, but the Government have not reciprocated. When I talk about the need for social housing, they respond time and again by talking about affordable housing, which is built by the private sector with some levels of public subsidy. According to research by Shelter, such housing is unaffordable for eight out of 10 working families. It gets worse. In my constituency, the local authority has just shown all developers how not to include affordable homes in their planning applications, and have set an example of how to get around their own planning obligations to provide affordable housing.
The Government’s Budget in November made some noises about empowering councils to build social housing. My party has long called for the housing revenue account borrowing cap to be lifted to allow councils to borrow in order to build social housing again, but my local authority, Bath and North East Somerset, transferred all its social housing stock more than 20 years ago—a move that the Government have encouraged many other authorities to adopt. There was nothing in the Budget for local authorities such as mine. Although the Budget announced the lifting of the cap, it will be lifted only in areas of high demand, and the process will not start for two years. A council’s ability to borrow will be conditional on the whims of the Government, and on what they deem to be high demand. The Government say that they will allow councils to borrow to build, but councils such as mine which have given away their housing stock have little to borrow against, and will have to continue to go cap in hand to the Government.
In conclusion, the private sector is not going to fix the housing crisis. The state can embark on a big social housing building programme, and I hope the Minister is listening. The worsening problem of homelessness, as well as individuals and families living in temporary accommodation, is not going to be solved by the private sector. The solutions are there for all to see, but the current position of the Government is blocking any progress. I call on the Minister to listen: the public sector must build again.
We need to balance two things. On the one hand, we need to restore affordability and the dream of home ownership. In this country, house price inflation has been higher than that of any other OECD country over recent decades. Home ownership among young people is collapsing and the proportion of their income that private renters spend on rent is more than three times higher than it was in the 1960s and ’70s, so increasing the supply of new housing is important.
On the other hand, we also want to preserve the important views and green spaces that we treasure. We want to get away from the broken model of speculative, fly-by-night development that we have in our country. In my constituency people are furious when they spend two years working on a detailed neighbourhood plan only to see a developer swoop in at the last moment and build exactly where they did not want to see building. They are furious when developers, to get their road adopted, instead of spending any money, choose to rip out all the trees they planted when it was built. They are furious when developers tell them no new homes will be built next to the house they are buying, only to find that not only are new homes going to be built, but that the developer wants to drive massive trucks down their cul-de-sac to get there. We are trying to balance two different things, therefore.
I agree with my hon. Friend Mr Robertson that increasing supply is not the only thing that matters, but it clearly does matter. France has roughly the same population and growth rate as us, but it builds twice as many homes as us and as a result house price inflation is half the rate it is here and half as many people have problematically high rents.
We need to increase housing supply, therefore, but we will never do so unless we address the reasons why people are concerned about development. The main three are as follows: first, we build in the wrong places; secondly, we build without having the economic and social infrastructure new homes need; and, thirdly, there is often no offsetting benefit for nearby residents. To solve these problems, we must not merely tweak the current system, but move to a different sort of planning system. We must get away from our passive, developer-led system and move towards a more active European system, in which the state plays a leading role in assembling land and deciding where new development happens. We must get away from sequential development—where we tack more and more development on to the end of every village, as in my constituency—and move towards an emphasis on new planned settlements where we can properly plan for new infrastructure.
That is the vision, but how do we get there? First, we need to capture more of the gains from planning gain. At present, we capture only about 25% of the massive uplift in land values that happen at the stroke of a planner’s pen when planning permission is granted. If we had more of the gains of development capture, we could pay for better quality development, better landscaping in new development, and more social infrastructure and benefits for the community.
I am therefore glad that the Government are looking closely at how we capture more of the gains of development for the community. We need to do that in the way we do it all over the world, and in roughly the same way as we did for the new towns. I agree with my right hon. Friend Nick Herbert that there must be no question of expropriation or of not paying people the value of their land. On the other hand, I agree with the proposals of the excellent homelessness charity Shelter to reform the Land Compensation Act 1961 and compulsory purchase order law in order to provide a reasonable price for the landowner and for the community.
I would like us to do what they do in most European countries and in places such as Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, where the Government play the leading role in assembling land. Local and central Government buy land, give themselves planning permission, sell the land, and use the profit to pay for quality development for community.
We must capture the gains of development for the community and then directly address the three causes why people oppose new development. We must get away from sequentialism and tacking things on. I notice that, in a number of cases, planning inspectors have struck down really good locally led proposals for new planned garden villages and garden towns, and we have to stop that. One village in my constituency was going to have a nice piece of separation land between it and the new houses, but in the name of sustainability, that has been turned round and we are now going to have new homes right next to existing residents. Nothing could do more to annoy local residents and increase opposition to development.
Secondly, we need more infrastructure. If we think about the great new planned places such as Milton Keynes, we realise that people do not have to live on main roads, because we can plan a sustainable new community and we can plan for the infrastructure that is needed. Thirdly, I would like to see more community benefit for people who live right by developments. As a localist, I do not believe that central Government should impose a particular number or proportion on the affordable housing that should be built in my constituency. That should be a matter of local discretion, and my local councillors and my local community would like to see less of the community benefit being spent on new social housing in the countryside and more being spent on benefits for existing residents, such as new doctors surgery places, new school places, new parking places and new roads, as well as more landscaping. Those are the things that people want to see.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to do more to share best practice on how the new homes bonus money is spent, to ensure that residents are aware of that gain and that they can relate the gain to the cost of having a development on their doorstep?
I strongly agree with that. Too often, the different systems—from section 106 to the new homes bonus—do not allow the people who are most negatively affected by a development to see the gains from that development.
We clearly need to reduce the demand for new housing as a speculative investment or an investment asset. Unless we do that as well as increasing supply, we will never solve the housing crisis. We need to increase the supply of new homes, and the way to do that is not by pushing new housing down people’s throats and imposing things on them but by having a system that looks at the reasons that people oppose new development and that addresses the underlying concerns. In that sense, I am pleased to agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs and also with my hon. Friend Nick Boles.
It strikes me that now is the time to act. We have had enough speeches and articles, and enough wringing of hands. What are we going to do to build more houses for the people who need them? In this country there are currently about 128,000 children in homeless families living in temporary accommodation, 86 of whom live in a converted warehouse on an industrial estate in my constituency. There is no single solution to this long-term problem. There are many, but I would like to suggest just three to the Minister that I think are practical, easy and quick, because this has to happen quickly.
First, we need modular homes. Let us go back to the prefab. We have wonderful designs for modular homes in my constituency, including the Y:Cube set up by the YMCA, which provides units at a cost of about £56,000 a year. They have a 60-year life, and incredibly low gas and electricity bills because they are so well insulated. They can be put on small sites and, because of the way in which they can be plumbed in and connected up, it is always possible to get the land back at a later date. This can be done. The private and the charitable sectors are actively doing this now, and we can do it on small sites because the buildings are constructed in a factory rather than on site. One company that I met a few months ago, Ilke Homes, can provide three houses per day once the foundations are built. That is a solution that can be provided quickly.
Secondly, at the moment, public bodies such as local councils and health authorities have an incentive to sell their sites to the highest bidder. Many councils of all political persuasions hide behind the need to get best value. I suggest to the Minister that we need to change the planning framework in order to ensure that public bodies give first preference to residential development involving social and mixed developments.
Thirdly, we have been talking about the green belt but, as we all know, the green belt is not always the green belt. The term does not necessarily apply to areas of outstanding natural beauty, parkland or “lungs” in cities. It can apply to the tatty bits of land that it is hard to believe are part of the green belt. I was amazed to discover that there are some 19,334 hectares of undeveloped green-belt land around train stations in London. If we were to develop only those sites, we could build 1 million new homes. Rather than sticking to one side of the argument or the other—building private housing or building public housing—we need a solution and we need it now. I offer just three, but there are many more and I could have a chat with the Minister over a cup of tea at any time.
I first dipped my toe into this sort of water quite some time ago as a councillor in a small, unknown local authority in south-west London. We swept in and made huge changes to the staff and the attitudes. In the planning department, for example, we introduced planners who thought laterally, took a positive attitude and worked with local developers and local people, bringing in imaginative programmes and buildings.
My constituency is on the edge of London. It remains a beautiful constituency: 90% of it is green belt, sites of special scientific interest, areas of outstanding natural beauty or similar. Most of the constituency falls within the Mole Valley District Council area, but the western wards form part of Guildford Borough Council’s area. In developing its local plan, the district council is trying to meet its housing numbers with potentially spectacular developments adjacent to and around Leatherhead. To do so successfully, it will need to build imaginatively, higher and more densely. That is understood and expected by most people, including many Leatherhead residents. Of course, there is the usual small group, living in aspic, who want only low-rise housing and everything to be essentially the same. Whatever the eventual outcome, however, it is obvious to me that the local team, led by Councillor Simon Edge, is prepared to think outside the box, so I have real hopes.
I spent a period as a Minister in the then Department of the Environment and one of the things that I discovered was the variation in local authorities. Some are excellent, high quality and low cost and work with local residents, but some will not budge. When it came to planning, some local authorities—I will not name them—killed any hope of development and they are still there. Hopefully, Mole Valley council will not do that. Guildford council, which has put its draft plan out for consultation, is a complete contrast. Some 57% of the housing that it intends to develop lies on current green-belt land and several thousand of the houses are in the Guildford wards of the Mole Valley constituency. The plan has been out for consultation in some form twice and the protests were gigantic.
Three of the plan’s main sites lie adjacent to a section of the A3. Those who use the road will recognise the section from Guildford to Hook as one of the most consistently overloaded roads. The A3 crosses over the M25 at junction 10, which is the busiest, most accident-prone junction on the M25. Plans are in hand to improve the junction dramatically to meet current demands, but not the demand that will result from Guildford council’s plans. The council leaders should look to the surrounds of the town itself and use their imagination to build higher and denser quality housing.
I visited my old borough of Wandsworth to see how the council is handling the demand for homes. It has more homes under construction or in planning than the rest of inner London put together. That has been achieved through exciting, often iconic developments and a combination of compact development, quality development and height. In desperation, I sent the leader of Guildford council a photograph of one of the more spectacular iconic towers. It is stunning. It is tall—it is far too tall for Guildford—but it is an example of how tall can be made to fit. However, my thoughts and those of many others have been rejected by the leadership.
The inquiry on the plan will be a battle to save the green belt. I hope that the Minister will look over the shoulder of the inspector at each of the local plan inquiries. It is an opportunity for that inspector—and there are some very good inspectors—to assess the quality of the council as well as the quality of the local plan. If the local council is raiding the green belt as an easy option, rather than moving back in and around the towns, the plan should be heavily rejected and the council should be sent back to think again.
I congratulate Mr Robertson on securing this debate. The contributions have been excellent. I often meet constituents who bemoan the quality of our debates. I always tell them, “Don’t bother watching on Wednesday lunch time. Switch on the BBC Parliament channel on a Thursday or Tuesday afternoon and you’ll get an entirely different impression.”
What has been interesting is how many of the issues that have been raised on both sides of the House have parallels. Listening to Nick Boles and Nick Herbert, I was struck by how statist their solutions appear, which I strongly encourage. I remember two or three years ago when my right hon. Friend Edward Miliband first mooted the idea of seizing land off developers who are not getting on with building. It was seen as positively communist. It appears that, all the way from Doncaster to Grantham, the centre ground of politics really is shifting. I encourage much of that.
It is important to recognise that Governments can free space for the private sector to develop, but the rules of the game are the rules of the game at the moment. Given those rules, it is useless for us to come to this place and complain that developers do not build houses from which they cannot make a profit. We need to understand that. If we rely entirely on the private sector, we will get houses built and developed in areas where those houses will be profitable. London authorities will build houses at an amazing rate, but nothing like the same numbers will be built in towns in the north, where there has not been the same sort of investment in infrastructure and where a variety of other things have not been done. We will not see anything like the same numbers built and we will not get them built on brownfield sites.
In Chesterfield in 2005-06, a housing development was being built on the old Bryan Donkin site. The developer went bust about a third of the way through the development. That huge brownfield site remained unbuilt for the next seven or eight years. Therefore, there is no point our coming to this place to bemoan the fact that developers, which are companies that are ultimately there to make a profit, are not building on sites on which they will not make a profit.
What has been lacking from this debate is the sense that housing and planning are just one part of this whole thing. We need to talk about skills because, if there are not enough trained people in the construction industry to get more sites built, there will be an impact on the cost of labour, which will have an impact on the number of houses that are built.
Transport is incredibly important. The north has huge potential, but we need to improve the transport infrastructure. When 10 times more is spent on transport infrastructure in London than on transport infrastructure in other parts of the country, it is unsurprising that everyone wants to move into London, where they can move about easily, and not into areas where they cannot move around so easily.
There has been a lot of talk about the green belt and that is sometimes misleading. Whenever I fly over Britain during the day while travelling overseas, I look down and see that Britain is a green and pleasant land—I fly over field after field before coming to a town or city. If we are to build these houses, the public sector needs to have a role because the public sector can build even in times when building is not profitable.
I would like to see the Government address the issue of right to buy. I am not against right to buy but, unless councils can borrow and know that they can build new houses without the prospect of having to sell them at a discount three years later, local authorities will not build those houses. Local authorities have a role to play in this and I would like the Government to recognise that.
I would like this debate to recognise the importance of transport and local infrastructure. We have heard about the objections in many areas to developments, but often when people are objecting they are concerned about the impact on schools, roads and local health services. Infrastructure needs to be a part of all this discussion, as do skills; we need a much wider debate.
In the final minute available, while touching on the planning issue, I also wish to discuss the issue of Traveller sites. In Chesterfield, we have a local plan, which is currently under consultation. The council has identified two sites for Travellers already in Chesterfield, but it has been told it needs to identify two more. There is a huge amount of public concern about that. Four sites in my constituency—in Grangewood, Newbold and Inkersall—have been consulted on and I know there are two such sites in the constituency of Lee Rowley. The pressure that is going on councils is unfair. There is also pressure on constituents, who are, for understandable reasons—I would be concerned for exactly the same reasons—very concerned about this. If we are going to see local authorities put in control of their areas, we do not need to see them forced to have sites such as this, as is currently happening in Chesterfield.
It is a pleasure to follow Toby Perkins, who rightfully highlights the importance of skills and training for the next generation of people going into the building industry. On the 100th anniversary of universal suffrage, we also need to encourage more women to look at opportunities in the building trade.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Robertson on securing such an important debate on housing, planning and the green belt, about which every constituency across the land has many common concerns. If we get this right, we can create wonderful neighbourhoods and communities with the right level of green spaces, and the right sort of housing and infrastructure. If we get it wrong, however, as we too often do, we lose those valuable green spaces, because they are the places that developers choose first to build upon. We are then left with the brownfield spaces that have been left behind, which are the blots on the landscape and the areas that people in local communities want to see developed first. One of the principal intentions in developing a green belt was not just protecting green spaces, but ensuring that inner-city brownfield sites were developed before those green spaces were taken up.
There is currently too much urban sprawl, which leads to all sorts of problems. It leads to the distinctive identities of communities, villages and towns merging into one, whereby they become an endless suburbia. It works against public transport, because where there is urban sprawl, it is difficult for buses to follow routes that will make enough money so that they can to keep running. It also means that people are a long distance from railway stations, meaning that they cannot get on a train, and if they are able to, they probably have to drive to the railway station, thus creating congestion and other traffic problems. Developers, councils and railway authorities also too often do not put in parking spaces at railway stations that will enable people to park up safely, which creates all sorts of problems for local residents because their streets are congested with all the cars.
We see across Greater Manchester that many of the new developments that are permitted, often by Labour councils, are not mixed housing that all people in the community can take advantage of. They are often executive estates, which are not there for the local community. That needs to change, and something that ought to drive that change is devolution to Greater Manchester. There is a huge and wonderful opportunity for Greater Manchester to have a vision about how it develops its planning and housing and, within the Greater Manchester spatial framework, ensures that housing, planning and protecting the green belt are all married up.
I would like the Minister to clarify something. I understand that the Greater Manchester spatial framework involves individual councils coming together to agree how many houses will be built. Wigan Council agreed its allocation of 16,500 houses, but then voluntarily chose to have an additional 3,000 houses on top of that. That goes against the wishes of local residents, who were already complaining about road congestion before Wigan Council sought to impose an additional 3,000 houses. That is the council’s choice—it referred to its ambition to have those extra houses.
The Greater Manchester spatial framework will enable council leaders and mayors to work together to create a vision for development, but the first vision offered was an abysmal failure that was rightly torn up due to popular demand. The tearing up of that first framework has in turn delayed the Greater Manchester spatial framework mark 2, and that delay has enabled developers to target and cherry-pick greenfield spaces such as the Bowlands Hey and Leigh Hall developments in Westhoughton and the Hill Lane development in Blackrod, against local wishes.
The independent planning inspector has said that the failure to put the Greater Manchester spatial framework in place means that no meaningful weight can be given to planning objections. As a consequence, our green spaces are being taken up, congestion is increasing and communities are being damaged. Is it a coincidence that the Greater Manchester spatial framework mark 2 is to be published in June, following the local elections? What is it that council leaders in Greater Manchester do not want us to know? Will voters have a chance to see the proposals before the May elections?
Order. I am going to increase the time limit back to eight minutes because a couple of speakers have withdrawn.
I am grateful for that news, Mr Deputy Speaker, as it means that I can expound my argument a little more fully than I had thought. I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr Robertson, on securing the debate.
In the limited time I have—notwithstanding your generosity, Mr Deputy Speaker—I wish to cover three points. First, I do not think that we have a national housing crisis; we have a serious regional housing problem that is more severe in some parts of the country than others. Secondly, I shall say a little about housing finance, which my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury touched on. Thirdly, I shall say a word or two on an issue to which one or two Members alluded: the need to spread economic growth and development more evenly throughout the country. Doing so would help to deliver housing, including affordable housing, in many parts of the country.
Many Members have commented about the planning system, but I think that it is doing its job properly in many parts of the country by delivering housing in line with the projected population increase. Under the plans that local authorities are putting in place in my area of Gloucestershire, we are projected to build housing in line with the growth in population. There are a number of other regions throughout the country where that is true, but it is not true in London, where we are massively under-building housing compared with the growth in population, as several colleagues have mentioned. There is also significant pressure in the south-east and east. Those are the parts of the country where the projected growth in population is significantly outstripping the housing that is being built, so that is where the Government need to focus their efforts to bring the housing market under control.
My point about population growth is supported by figures on housing affordability, which give us a good idea about whether we are balancing the supply and demand of housing. Unaffordability is not significantly higher in most of the country now than it was before the financial crash, but that is not true in London. In London, the ratio of median house price to median gross residence-based earnings is nearly 13:1, whereas the average for the rest of the country is about 7:1, so London is skewing the national figure and giving a misleading impression.
I talked about the houses that were being built in Wandsworth, but I should have mentioned that thousands of the homes are specifically for low rent or for purchase at low cost. In fact, the focus is on those people whom my right hon. Friend is so concerned about.
That proposal sounds sensible. I am not familiar with the detail, but given what my hon. Friend sets out, it sounds like the local authority is focusing on demand. We will need significantly more of that if we are to meet demand in London.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury put his finger on it when he spoke about housing demand. Clearly, compared with the situation when I was younger, we are much tougher with the loans that people can take out. When we look at what happened to the financial system after the banks made unwise lending decisions, such practice is probably very sensible, but it does make it more difficult for younger people to purchase houses. I welcome what the Government have done on the finance side of the argument, and two things are particularly welcome. The Help to Buy equity loan scheme is helping a significant number of young people who can afford a mortgage to be able to finance their deposit. It is not true to say, as some people do, that that only deals with the demand side of the equation, because it is of course only used for buying new houses. If we look at how house builders operate, we see that they build houses as they sell them. If we make it possible for a first-time buyer to purchase a home through the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, the house builder will then build more houses on that estate, as I have seen clearly in my constituency. Such practice helps on the demand side, which in turn generates housing supply.
I also welcome the introduction of the lifetime individual savings account, which enables younger people to save for a pension or a home, but I have one policy suggestion for the Minister. I am very supportive of our auto-enrolment policy to ensure that everybody saves for a pension, so will he consider whether we could apply auto-enrolment to lifetime ISAs? A young person going into the labour market would then find that their savings and their employer’s contributions would go into a lifetime ISA—at least that would be an option—so that the money could be used to fund either a pension or a home. If someone is a homeowner when they retire, they will not need such a significant pension, because they will not be paying rent on the home that they own. I think that that sensible proposal might make younger people keener to save for a deposit, because they would find it more affordable, so I urge the Minister to consider the suggestion.
I am grateful that the Government have said so much recently about the northern powerhouse. Given the location of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury, I also welcome what the Secretary of State for Wales did with the Severn growth summit to encourage the development of what we might call a western powerhouse to create another centre of gravity for developing economic growth in Wales and the west country. It seems to me that one of the real problems is that we will not deal with the housing crisis simply by building more homes. London, for example, has high levels of immigration—23% of Londoners are non-UK born residents, and 156,000 migrants moved to London in 2016. Having listened to colleagues’ concerns about excessive house building in London, I argue that we cannot build our way out of the problem. A longer- term solution is to generate progress in the northern powerhouse—in transport infrastructure and development in that part of the country—and then generate development in what I might call the western powerhouse in the west of the country and Wales. We could also look at things such as the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford growth corridor so that we actually see economic development spread more equitably across the United Kingdom. That would mean that rather than feeling the pressure to move to London, or to get a job or create a new business there, young people in many parts of the country would feel able to stay in their home towns and cities, or indeed to move to Manchester and the great cities of the north. That will happen if we create a powerhouse that is globally competitive, as London is.
I am much happier with where the right hon. Gentleman is finishing his speech than I was with his position six or seven minutes ago. It seems that London has doubled in size during my lifetime, but the major cities of the north have hardly changed. If the message that the Government get today is that we need continually to expand the size of London, I agree entirely that we will not build our way out of this problem, as we will just continue to feed that demand. The solution has to be investment in infrastructure and skills all around the country, not just focused on London.
I am glad that I have cheered up the hon. Gentleman as my remarks have developed, and I hope that I have had that effect on at least one or two other colleagues. He is right that that is the answer. There is a regional housing problem in the United Kingdom. House prices in London and its surrounding areas are massively out of kilter with the rest of the country, and we can deal with some of that by building houses. We do need to increase the density of house building in London, so I welcomed what the Government said yesterday about building upwards, and having slightly increased housing densities and slightly higher rise properties—not massive, but perhaps with more storeys than a traditional two-storey property—but we also need to spread economic growth across the country.
People with housing challenges who live in London should be as supportive of investment in the northern powerhouse and other parts of the country—and in creating a great, globally competitive city in the north—as people who live in the north. Such investment would result in us sharing economic growth more equitably across the country. That is how we deal with the housing challenges that we face more fairly and equitably, and it would also help the whole country’s economic growth and make us more globally competitive.
Does the Minister know how many affordable houses were built for Islanders two years ago? Thirty-five. Would the Minister hazard a guess at the number of affordable houses built for Islanders last year? Thirty-four. Just 79 affordable houses were built in two years for an Island with a population of 140,000. This is utterly unacceptable. It is proof of a system in need of reform and, judging by the many voices here, in need of much greater local flexibility and the support from the Government that that would entail. I would like briefly to outline the problem and to suggest a few thoughts on the situation, locally and nationally.
Like many areas, the Isle of Wight needs sustainable, intelligent and sensitive regeneration to drive economic and social development. The current housing system does not serve the Island well. It is a system of developer-led housing, which generates only a small number of affordable houses. It fails to deliver the right type of housing. It is not sustainable. It encourages urban sprawl and all the transport problems identified by my hon. Friend Chris Green and others. It forces communities to accept unpopular local developments. And in a place like the Isle of Wight, which has a visitor economy and an important tourism industry, greenfield development actually damages our economy.
A better system would be one where there is a funding scheme to support housing associations and others to build—as a significant, if not near-100%, solution to our housing problems—genuinely affordable housing for local people in small-scale developments in existing communities. That would ensure that we were able to provide housing for our people and to protect our environment at the same time. The wrong type of housing actually damages our society, because what developers want is not what my constituents need. It is not designed for local people. And, frankly, even so-called affordable housing is not really affordable for many people who earn the Island’s average wage.
May I say how much I support the line that the hon. Gentleman is taking about the use of the word “affordable”? Does he agree that applying the word “affordable” to housing that is 80% market rent probably means that it is unaffordable for most?
I thank the hon. Lady for her suggestion. I would say semi-affordable, rather than affordable— and, even then, people are reliant on the bank of mum and dad.
Housing associations tell me that what they need is one-bedroom or two-bedroom housing, but what is built, because we are part of a south-east market where people come to retire, is three-bedroom and four-bedroom housing, which is not what Islanders need. One of the most painful experiences of the last election was hearing the desperation of young people unable to find anywhere to live. I want a system that prioritises housing for Islanders at prices they can afford, and specifically for young Islanders. Indeed, research that I commissioned from the House of Commons Library a few months ago shows that an increase in our population on the Island has not led to an increase in prosperity—quite the opposite. Our gross value added per head has actually gone down slightly since 2000, while adult social care costs threaten to bankrupt us on a near-annual basis.
Throughout Britain, especially in island communities, in national parks, in areas of outstanding natural beauty, and perhaps even in the big cities nowadays, our country needs a system of building that is sensitive to the environment, caters for the resident population, and has much greater local flexibility. In considering these housing proposals, I am thinking not of the next five to 10 years—where to stick a housing estate now— but of what my Island is going to look like in 50 or 100 years’ time. Its landscape has inspired people for generations, and, frankly, I do not want that disappearing just to fulfil Government targets.
Our housing policy should oppose, in principle, all greenfield development unless it has strategic advantage for Islanders. Our housing target is 640 houses a year. Few of those houses will be for people who currently live on the Island. For me, that is difficult to accept; in fact, I do not want to accept it. I have yet to meet a single person on the Island who supports it. It is much better for us to have a system that builds what we need. Working with Government and the Housing Inspectorate, we should aim to support the building of, say, between 200 and 400 properties a year, overwhelmingly funded by housing associations who will be given the support to do that. If that means social housing, council housing, or whatever we want to call it nowadays, then yes, that is what we need.
This housing should be built overwhelmingly for two groups of people: first, young people, for whom we need to build social housing, starter housing and shared-equity housing—we should also include key worker housing in this—and secondly, elderly people who are seeking supported and sheltered housing. We need to make sure that our elderly do not face a choice between an expensive nursing home, which very often the council ends up paying for, and staying in a bungalow or house that they cannot quite manage to run. By having that midway point, we can free up more housing as part of a more sustainable model of development. I hope to work on this with the Campaign to Protect Rural England, as well as other green or green-oriented groups, to develop a sustainable model that I can work on with the Minister and with the Government.
I envisage that some of this housing may be for, say, an old lady or an old gent who moves out of a bungalow that could then be purchased by a housing association who would have a planning assumption whereby they were allowed to repurpose the building, perhaps by adding a second storey or creating two properties on the site, so that we meet increased housing targets without eating into our precious landscape, and provide perhaps a home for old folks on the bottom and a younger couple on the top.
We need intelligent, sustainable and sensitive development. We do not have that at the moment; I do not feel that the current system provides it. I will do what I can in the coming months and years to work with the Minister, perhaps using the Island as a test case for a sustainable model of development that accepts some increase in population but also accepts that in unique environments we need to protect that landscape rather than just see green fields as further housing developments of the future. I look forward to working with the Minister on this.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Seely on further enhancing his reputation as a doughty and energetic campaigner for his island. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Robertson on securing this debate.
I listened with interest to the exchange between my right hon. Friend Mr Harper and my near-neighbour, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), about where and how we should be building, and the interaction with other things such as skills and the like. I do not think it is an either/or discussion, as we could do both. As the hon. Member for Chesterfield said, we have to build up the skills base and the infrastructure in the places that we have the privilege to represent. At the same time, I completely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean that there are parts of this country where there is a clear imbalance in demand and supply, and we need to try to address that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury said, planning should be regional. We have clear evidence of problems with house building in certain parts of the country, primarily in London and the south-east. Given that a limited number of Members from London and the south-east are here at the moment, I guess I can get away with saying that, because they are not listening. There is a clear case for adopting the proposals and approaches that have been described. The suggestion from Siobhain McDonagh with regard to building close to train stations is a very interesting one for areas where there is an acute supply difficulty.
However, in my constituency and those of many Members who have spoken today, we do not necessarily suffer from that acute supply difficulty. The Nationwide house price index suggests that in the past 10 years, the real-terms increase of house prices across the country has been in the order of 20%. In the constituency that I have the privilege to represent, we have had single-digit increases at best in some wards, and prices in some wards have reduced in real terms by up to 22%. If supply is a proxy for actual demand and for the issues we are talking about, there are examples in places such as North East Derbyshire where, because house prices are falling or staying static, there cannot be the demand issues that we are seeing elsewhere. That necessitates a different approach in places such as London and the south-east from places such as North East Derbyshire.
When we are talking about these issues, we also need to think about collaboration. When I go home every weekend, I get off the train at Chesterfield and drive past large swathes of brownfield land that could be redeveloped. In fairness, I know that the council is hoping to redevelop that land, but I understand the frustration of my constituents who drive past the same brownfield land and then are expected to accept increased building on greenfield or green-belt land in my constituency. As an addendum, my constituency has pledged to build a significant number of houses on brownfield land, so I am not trying to shift that to other parts of the country.
Along with collaboration and a regional approach, we have to accept that this requires local leadership. Localism requires local people to take control, and there is ample evidence that while the opportunity has been given by the Government since the Localism Act 2011, it has not been taken up in far too many places. My council in North East Derbyshire has not put in place a local plan since 2005. That plan is now 12 years old. North East Derbyshire is one of just 15 councils in the country that have been called out by the Government for failing to do that. The Labour leadership of the council still, six days after the Government’s deadline, has made no public comment that I can find on the website about how it will solve that issue.
The council has spent 12 years going through the first three stages of an eight-stage process, which means that on current form, it will arrive at a local plan some time in the 2040s. That is probably not where we need to be as a forward-looking part of the world. We have to ensure that there is local leadership and local ownership, and where there is not, perhaps we need to look at how to replace people who refuse to take up the opportunities afforded to them.
In the time I have left, I want to focus on the second and third parts of the subject of the debate: planning and the green belt. I completely understand and accept the need to build more houses and that there should be a debate about that in places where we may have to build on green belt and greenfield land, but that should be locally led, locally understood and locally accepted.
Local residents find the apparent iniquities within the planning system incredibly frustrating. For example, people are unable to build a single farm building in certain parts of the country, and yet large-scale developments such as the ones talked about today are pushed through on account of local plans not being in place, so developers can swoop in and make applications in the way that has been described, as I see in parts of my constituency such as Wingerworth and Old Tupton. That is unacceptable because it undermines confidence in the planning system.
I would also say—I know I am going slightly off the point about housing—that such confidence is also undermined when we look at hydraulic fracturing. I spent most of yesterday in a planning committee meeting in Matlock for Derbyshire County Council to make a decision on fracking. When we have large-scale planning proposals such as that one, which will see the wholesale industrialisation of significant rural parts of our country, which local people are told that they should accept, despite not being able to have incremental increases in affordable housing in their local villages, they find that very difficult to accept.
I welcome the Localism Act, even though it brings challenges. We have to look at ways in which we can rebalance our approach in such matters from a regional perspective. However, we must also make sure that there is confidence in such planning approaches and in the planning system by ensuring that such large-scale and often unwanted developments are contextualised in a system in which people are heard.
It is a great pleasure to contribute to this very important debate. It is also a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Lee Rowley, who, if I may say so, spoke with clarity and force this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Robertson on securing the debate.
We have a challenge in this country: in one word, affordability. I see that quite clearly in my constituency of Witney and west Oxfordshire. We are very lucky that, statistically, we have almost full employment. It is a very pleasant part of the country in which to live—it is very green, with beautiful buildings, lots of jobs and Oxford nearby—and it has relatively good transport links, although more of that, perhaps, in a moment. However, that means there is a real challenge, because for very many people, the cost of housing has simply outstripped the ability to pay. This has an impact on all sorts of services that my constituents need. To give just one example, it affects the recruitment of GPs and teachers. This is a very real challenge. For swathes of young people—when I say that, I mean people under 40—owning a home, a dream almost universally shared, has become out of reach, and we absolutely must tackle this challenge.
There is certainly an issue with supply. I am well aware, as all hon. Members will be, of the statistic showing that, for many years under Governments of all colours, insufficient houses have been built. We have been building approximately a half of what we need. However, it is very important that we do not become fixated and obsessed simply with numbers. This is not all about supply or simply numbers, not least—I am very glad that the Government are reassessing the NPPF—because there is a question mark over how the supply figure reached through the strategic housing market assessment is calculated. There is a suspicion that it is too reliant on developers, who in due course drive the figure higher than it actually is.
We sometimes get the terminology wrong in this House. We tend to talk about developments when we should really be talking about communities, and we tend to talk about houses when we should really be talking about homes, because they are precisely what we are building in this country. We need to remember that we are building communities, and these will be the communities of the future. It is in 20 or 30 years’ time, when the builders have long since moved out and other MPs are representing the area, that the success of the rules we are putting in place now will be judged.
In my constituency, I am very keen that we do not just look at the green belt, important though it is to protect it. A relatively small amount of my constituency is green-belt land, but I have some of the most beautiful countryside in the country. Communities simply will not accept a cavalier approach to house building in such areas, and we need to guard against such an approach.
I am glad that the White Paper has been published and has addressed a great many of these issues, and that the NPPF is being looked at. I have spoken about how the need figures are calculated and I am glad, too, that the issue of building on brownfield lands first is being looked at as a priority by the Government.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Nick Boles, who is not in his place, who really hit the nail on the head in talking about the build-out rate. It is crucial that when planning permissions have been granted the developers build them out, that there is not a practice of land banking and that they do not, for reasons of profit or any other reason, fail to build those out. This simply must happen. It must be built into the planning system. There might be things that the Government can do to help or that local government can do to help, such as bringing in small builders or local builders to ensure that those areas can be built out as and when local communities need them.
We need robust local plans throughout the country, and I would also like neighbourhood plans to have teeth. One of my hon. Friends referred to the fact that if local communities are asked where they think the housing ought to go to serve their needs, more housing might be built, but what is crucial is that local communities are consulted and listened to about those homes. They know which areas are likely to be flooded and which areas are unlikely to be able to take any traffic growth. They are therefore able to advise district councils—and, in due course, the Government as well—on where housing should go.
I would like those neighbourhood plans to have more teeth because nothing is more infuriating for a community than to spend months and thousands of pounds developing a neighbourhood plan—they are not cheap—only to find that it is given next to no weight in the local plan process. Those plans simply must be given weight. I suggest that the results would be good for everyone as we look at tackling this affordability challenge.
In the short time remaining, I want to look a little more at infrastructure. Communities, quite reasonably, oppose housing developments nearby when people worry about how they are going to get to work, where their children are going to go to school and which GP surgery they will go to if they are ill. The garden village scheme in many ways has a lot to commend it, because for many years we have seen penny packeting, where housing is put on the edge of a village but nothing else is added, so there is no increase in road provision, no increase in the number of GP surgeries and so forth. However, it is crucial that the schemes are well planned and the garden villages indeed have GP surgeries and shops, and that the infrastructure, particularly around roads, is introduced at the same time.
There is such an example in my constituency, just to the north of Eynsham. Hon. Members who have heard me speak on just about any subject in the House will know that I will almost certainly mention the A40 at some point, and I do so again now. I am well aware that there is a lot of concern about the development in Eynsham, because anybody leaving Witney or any of the towns and villages in that area—I do not live far away myself, so I am well aware of the problem—or anybody leaving Eynsham spends hours in traffic as things are now. If thousands of houses are built in Witney and thousands are built to the north of Eynsham, people understandably fear that the infrastructure simply will not cope—and it really will not when we are talking about the A40, which is a single-track road heading into Oxford.
It is crucial that, across the whole of planning, that infrastructure is built in first so that we have the schools and GP surgeries that we are going to need and that we do not have thousands more people trying to pile into the same local Co-op. Crucially in my case, the A40 must be addressed.
I am grateful to the relevant Department, which is well aware of my submissions on this subject. I am grateful, too, that my local county council has put in a strong housing infrastructure fund bid and that the major road network consultation is taking place at the moment.
I want to talk about innovation. In this country, we have not made anything like enough use of what are called prefabs or timber-frames, and we must do much more. There is a real challenge of affordability here that can be addressed through using technology and innovation. In my constituency, I have examples of companies that build just such structures.
On architecture, people expect that if housing is being built it will reflect the nature of the area in which it is being built. Having that would mean that we also had the consent for the housing that we need. That must never be forgotten.
I end by noting that we are building communities—places—and it is the people who live in them who really matter.
I start by thanking hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed today, not least Mr Robertson, who secured this important debate. It is good to see Nick Boles, a former planning Minister, back in his place.
I am acutely aware that the subject of this debate is often contentious and that discussion of the green belt can be fraught with difficulty. It is very good that this afternoon there has pretty much been consensus across the House. I understand that Members may be concerned that the need to build more homes will lead to increased pressure to build on green-belt land, but we must recognise that that pressure would be ameliorated to an extent if so much of our development land was not subject to land banking. I know from experience that that is a growing problem that is hampering the ability of local authorities to deliver the homes we need.
Some of the figures are startling. Last year, Shelter estimated that more than 320,000 homes that have been given planning permission in the past five years have not been built. That alone represents much more than a year’s worth of the supply of new homes that we need. Numerous organisations have expressed concern about this issue, including Shelter and the National Trust, and The Guardian and other publications have investigated its extent. The results are alarming. The Guardian has suggested that the nine biggest house builders are sitting on 600,000 undeveloped plots of land.
That is why Labour has, for several years, called for “use it or lose it” powers to ensure that planning permissions are used and that sites are built out. There must be both incentives for developers to build sites out at a faster rate and greater enforcement on those that do not.
I am glad that the Government have finally announced a review of build-out rates, but I fear that it is sadly too late. In the meantime, thousands of families have missed out on the opportunity of getting a new home. I would be very grateful if the Minister told us whether the Letwin interim review of build out is likely to report in the spring and how soon he expects proposals to come to the House to tackle land banking. I would also like to know whether the review addresses the reason for stalling on a number of sites and the need for remediation funding, which was raised by my hon. Friend Derek Twigg.
Let me be clear about Labour’s green-belt policy. As was stated in our manifesto last year:
“We will prioritise brownfield sites and protect the green belt. We will start work on a new generation of New Towns to build the homes we need and avoid urban sprawl.”
That has been a consistent Labour policy. It was reiterated in the Lyons review in 2014, which stated that
“the policy of containing urban areas in England has been highly effective in its objective of preventing urban sprawl and stopping adjacent cities from merging together. There is clearly value in the preservation of areas of amenity land close to our urban areas for people to enjoy.”
“Planning authorities seeking to meet local housing need should be reminded that current policy provides for both review of and change to green belt boundaries, including swaps of land, as long as that is in the context local plan preparation or review and is the subject of detailed local consultation.”
We want to protect the green belt, but to continue to give local authorities the flexibility they need to change it in line with local expectations and local plans.
The Government are letting communities down over the protection of green-belt land and are not giving local authorities the tools they need to protect high quality green spaces around urban areas. Organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England have expressed concern that the changes being made following last year’s housing White Paper to define the exceptional circumstances in which green belt development is acceptable are “insufficiently robust”.
Does my hon. Friend understand the frustration in places like Stroud when the number of affordable housing units needed is ratcheted up, but we are completely unable to prevent the developers from building executive houses? Does she agree that that dilemma just makes us look hopeless in terms of general residents’ interests?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which has been much made this afternoon. The change signalled by the Government is what I think led my hon. Friend Mr Cunningham to label the policy “green belt first”. My hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Bury North (James Frith) also clearly highlighted the difficulties of that approach.
Last year, the Government proposed a new method for calculating the housing need for local authority areas, but unfortunately the new formula does not take into account the amount of land that is protected in a given area. For example, in County Durham, 43% of the area is green belt, an area of outstanding natural beauty or under conservation area protection. Again, that causes problems for the local authority, and the Government need to address the issue urgently.
The National Housing Federation said that the Government’s target of 300,000 new homes a year will not be met unless we make better use of land. So far, as the Minister will know, we have not come close to reaching that target, with only—this was a huge improvement on previous years—183,000 homes built last year. The Government need to reach the target, and that point was made very effectively by my hon. Friends the Members for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins).
The National Housing Federation has called for the Government to
“think innovatively about how best to use public, brownfield and greenbelt land to build the homes and communities”— communities is a very important point—that
I agree that there must be more creative and collaborative solutions to the housing crisis. We need to see much more of local authorities working together, with much greater support from the Government, to set up new towns and garden cities.
The Government must do more to ensure that local residents and businesses feel in control of development in their areas. Too often, people are left feeling that planning is done to them, rather than it being a process in which they can participate. We know that the Department will prepare a new draft of the national planning policy framework for consultation soon, and the Government must take the opportunity to address some of these issues. That point was made excellently by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North. The local plan process must be strengthened and proper consultation must be guaranteed. There must also be greater investment in planning departments, which have been starved of resources. They need additional resources to ensure that developments are correctly assessed and that local policies are properly implemented.
A survey of local councillors that was carried out last year by the Local Government Information Unit and the National Trust found that 50% of local councillors saw sites being approved for development that were not in line with local plans. However, it should be through the local and neighbourhood planning process that appropriate sites are allocated for development and that any changes to protected designations such as green belt are undertaken. In that way, communities can best plan for sustainable development and control future development in their area.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Robertson on securing the debate. He made some powerful points about the supply of new homes, the type of stock and the wider issues about affordability. They were tenaciously made and duly noted by the Government. I also pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend Alok Sharma, for the sterling job that he did. I know that he will take that energy and focus into the Department for Work and Pensions.
Today, we have had a thoughtful and very well-informed debate, with valuable insights from hon. Members across the House representing a range of communities, whether those are urban, rural or suburban communities like my own. Building the homes that Britain needs is one of the great social challenges of our generation—a national mission—but we must carry local communities with us. We have heard a lot about that today. From my point of view, I see that dual mission not as a zero-sum game, but as two sides of the same coin. We must get an effective set of outcomes that work not only for the country, but for communities.
The most recent data from the English housing survey shows that the proportion of households owning their own home has steadily declined since 2003 to its current level. It stabilised around 2013 and has remained broadly stable since. That means that we are at a crossroads. It is time to turn this challenge into an opportunity and grasp it with both hands.
There are some positive signs. Last year, we saw 217,000 homes delivered, the highest number in all but one of the last 30 years. Just last week, the Halifax survey showed that the number of first-time buyers in 2017 was the highest in 10 years—since the financial crash—while the National House Building Council survey showed the highest number of new homes registered to be built since the financial crash. That, though, must be the point of departure, not the point of arrival. We need to deliver in the region of 300,000 homes each year, if we are to provide the homes Britain needs and make them more affordable—for the nurse, for the teacher, for those young families on low and middling incomes trying to get on to the housing ladder.
This is not just about those who are buying, of course: increasing the supply of new homes is vital for bringing down the cost of renting too. The Government have an ambitious plan and we are restless to get more homes built. There is no silver bullet, as hon. Members pointed out. There are just various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and we must be assiduous in putting them all together. The first policy lever is the national planning policy framework. I am pleased to say that we will be consulting on changes to the NPPF to reduce obstacles to home building. In that context, I listened carefully to the range of concerns raised by hon. Members across the House.
I will not pre-empt publication but, as the House will know from the Secretary of State’s statement, we intend to consult on changes, for example, to density to free up local authorities to build perhaps one or two storeys higher—whether apartments, terraced homes or other designs—if that is in keeping with their local area and in accordance with what local constituents and communities want. That will provide greater flexibility in towns and urban areas, where demand is particularly high. The points about regional variations in demand and affordability were well made by hon. Members across the House. We want to encourage homes to be built—we want to clear away those obstacles—and to promote local design, buy-in and support for this national mission. We will therefore publish a revised draft of the NPPF and launch our consultation by Easter.
I want to be clear on one issue on which feelings always run high—I know from my own local experience how important it is: the green belt, which is cherished by hon. Members and their constituents and communities. Our NPPF makes it clear that most new building on green-belt land is inappropriate and should be refused planning permission, except in very specific circumstances, and only in exceptional circumstances may a local authority alter the green-belt boundary, after consulting local people and submitting a revised local plan for formal examination. Broadly, since 1997, the proportion of green-belt land has stayed relatively steady at 13%.
There is a broader point here about home building and the overriding need to carry local communities with us, whether rural, suburban or urban communities. That is why last week the Government announced the first wave of money being allocated from the homes infrastructure fund. Last week alone, we targeted £866 million of investment, or 133 local housing projects, from London to Manchester, Cornwall to County Durham, to unlock building capacity for up to 200,000 new homes. We recognise we need more homes, but we also know that communities worry about new developments —my hon. Friend Robert Courts made this point very well—and ask some reasonable questions: what will it mean for congestion on the roads, and what will it mean for pressures on schools and local NHS services? There is certainly a link with pressures from immigration. Once we have left the EU, we will have greater scope and control over that to get the balance right.
The Government hear those concerns loud and clear. That is what the homes infrastructure fund helps to address. We will be having a further round of funding in about a month’s time to deal with bigger infrastructure projects. The key is that, by investing in local authority-led projects in areas where demand is greatest, we can build not just more homes but stronger communities at the same time, which is crucial to the strategy the Government have presented.
I come now to the next public policy lever that we must yank even harder in order to speed up the rate of building—the shadow Minister and Members on the Conservative Benches made this point. There is, I think, a cross-party consensus on the objective, although whether there is such a consensus on the means is another question. The point was made very well by my hon. Friend Neil O’Brien and also by Dr Blackman-Woods.
Let me put this in context. In the year ending March 2017, 304,000 planning permissions for new homes were granted, an increase of 15% on the previous year and of 70% on five years ago. The latest figures—which, admittedly, date from 2016—show that detailed planning permission was granted to 684,000 homes which had not been completed.
The Government’s position is clear: new homes should be built as soon as possible once planning permission has been granted. Our housing White Paper contains a range of proposals to tackle issues that delay or prevent the building out of developments. They include proposals to give local authorities stronger tools with which to ensure that sites with planning permission are built out, to provide more transparent data on housing delivery and to tackle delays associated with, in particular, pre-commencement conditions.
My right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin is leading a review of the gap between the number of planning permissions being granted and the new homes actually delivered, with a view to reducing it. The review panel will make its recommendations for closing the gap and will report on its findings later this year. We want to establish what more can be done to ensure that developers cannot wriggle out of commitments to build more affordable homes in the right places, after planning permission has been granted. That is another important piece of the jigsaw: another important element of the strategy that we are presenting today.
Members across the House made the point that Governments must lead by example. This is not really about a private sector monopoly; the state has a role to play. That argument was made especially clearly and saliently by Toby Perkins. Releasing more surplus public sector land to boost the supply of new homes is obviously a powerful way of achieving our goal. We will be pressing Whitehall Departments to release more of that surplus public sector land, with a view to generating a further 160,000 new homes. Homes England can help them by providing expertise and targeted investment.
Let me return to the objectives to which I referred at the beginning of my speech. The release of public sector land offers opportunities to provide less expensive homes for essential public sector workers such as nurses, teachers and police officers.
I know that the hon. Lady has a great deal of experience in this regard and she is right. I suspect that what is needed is a mixture of coaxing and cajoling, carrot and stick. We must try to ensure that there is a win-win. However, it seems to the Government, and certainly to me, that there is a huge opportunity not just to build more affordable homes, but to control the process to ensure that those homes are for key workers on low and middle incomes.
We have heard a range of excellent speeches. I shall try to do justice to as many as possible in the time available. Derek Twigg raised the issue of funding and, in particular, the issue of the homes infrastructure fund. As I have said, we want to encourage the building of more homes, but we know how important it is to provide the infrastructure that will enable us to carry communities with us.
Can I press the Minister on that, if he does not mind? Halton Borough Council is saying that, because the brownfield land is either contaminated or has already been allocated and used, there are exceptional circumstances to build on the green belt. My constituents do not agree and nor do I. Can the Minister tell me whether that is correct? May I also ask whether he is going to do anything about developers who build on green belt before all the brownfield land has been used?
The national planning policy framework makes it very clear that building on the green belt must be the last resort. Well disposed as I am towards the hon. Gentleman, he will not tempt me to start commenting on individual plans or planning applications, but I can tell him, in relation to his own local authority, that we did not have a bid for the homes infrastructure fund and we want the bids to be locally driven. Then we will look on them as sympathetically as possible—in accordance, obviously, with a set of criteria—to maximise the output.
Does my hon. Friend understand that, for smaller authorities such as Isle of Wight Council, which is just about the smallest county council in Britain, it is difficult because we do not have the capacity always to know how the central Government system works? Therefore, we lose out when it comes to applying for some of these funds.
I listened to my hon. Friend’s passionate, tenacious and articulate speech on behalf of the Isle of Wight. I am happy to look again at whether we can provide any support in relation to the bidding process, but we are in a Catch-22 because we will be criticised for imposing ideas on local communities—particularly the smaller ones—if we do not allow bids to be community-driven and led. However, let us take that forward and see if we can work together.
I cannot tell my hon. Friend Nick Boles how fantastic it was to see him in the Chamber, back in fine fettle, setting the housing market in context. As usual, he is a one man walking ideas factory, offering ideas that I am already in part looking at trying to take forward. He made a powerful case for the national mission to build more homes and for trying, as we—I emphasise this—carry communities with us, to think in radical terms to get this job done.
Mr Cunningham made some important points about the green belt. My right hon. Friend Nick Herbert brought his experience directly from a local public inquiry to inform the debate at the national level. He also raised the issue of equality of arms between developers and local communities, an important point well made.
I am going to make some progress as I need to allow two minutes for the wind-up, otherwise it would be frowned upon by Madam Deputy Speaker.
My hon. Friends the Members for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) and for Bolton West (Chris Green) talked about the need to prioritise brownfield over green spaces. That is already in the NPPF of course. We will look at whether we need to reinforce that message. My right hon. Friend Mr Harper made important points about finance, but also about the geographical differences in the housing challenge we face. He made those points well. My hon. Friend Lee Rowley also talked about having a tailored approach to different regions and communities. That point was well made.
Wera Hobhouse spoke about the reality that a lot of affordable housing is not that affordable and is still costly. We clearly need to look at that both in this context and in the social housing Green Paper. Siobhain McDonagh spoke with passion and conviction. She is right that we need to address this at many levels. I like the sound of some of her ideas and look forward to having that cup of tea with her and seeing how we can take them forward.
This Government’s mission is to reverse the decline in home ownership and revive the dream of Britain as a property-owning democracy. We must revive that dream for the key workers and for those on low and middle incomes striving to get on to the first rung of the housing ladder. Above all, we must deliver the homes we need for the next generation. We must build the homes Britain needs in the right way and in the right places. That is a great challenge, but an even greater opportunity, and one we must seize with both hands.
I thank the Minister and all the Members who have contributed to this debate; as I anticipated, it was heavily subscribed. Members raised points from their own constituencies, which was perfectly correct. That gave a good flavour to the debate, which has given the Minister a lot of good ideas—and maybe a few headaches as well.
In winding up, I want to pick up where the Minister finished. I entirely agree with him: one of my favourite Margaret Thatcher policies was that on home ownership. She extended home ownership to so many people who previously would not have had the chance to own their own home. I am absolutely with the Minister and the Government in their desire to increase the number and percentage of people who own their own home.
I am pleased that the Minister recognised that housing supply is not the one silver bullet. Indeed there is no silver bullet. I stress that the building of more and more and more houses will not necessarily lead to greater affordability. There is not an easy answer, but we must work even harder to make sure that we achieve what I think all Members want.
I certainly will contribute to the discussions on the planning guidance. I ask for further clarification, however, on the green belt and unmet housing need. As I said earlier, the Government have stated in planning guidance in the past that unmet housing need is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt in importance. The Government must be a little clearer on that as we move forward.
I am pleased to see the Minister nodding to my request on that point.
Again, I thank all Members for contributing to this interesting and important debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered housing, planning and the green belt.