Housing Developments: West Sussex

– in the House of Commons at 8:54 pm on 7th September 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Eddie Hughes.)

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith Conservative, Arundel and South Downs 8:55 pm, 7th September 2020

It is good to see colleagues from West Sussex here this evening. The Minister for Defence Procurement, my hon. Friend Jeremy Quin, wanted to be here, but is away on Government business overseas. He is taking a close interest in these matters, and is also keen to see that the Government find the right balance.

West Sussex is a proud county that has contributed greatly to the history of this country. Romans, Saxons and Normans all settled in Sussex first before going on to make a lasting impression on many other parts of the United Kingdom. Much more recently, our ports and airfields were central to the defence of our realm in two world wars. The Minister’s Department may be interested to know that the six Sussex rapes are among the very oldest recorded form of local administrative units in the country, still reflected today in the six martlets on the Sussex flag.

More pertinently to today’s debate, Sussex sits between two immovable features—the coast of the English channel and Greater London. In many places, it is the only ribbon of truly green land preventing unbroken concrete from connecting the two. I requested that the House discuss this important issue back in July, as my constituents in Arundel and South Downs were already feeling the strain of a planning system that had the unique quality of pleasing absolutely no one. I suspect that I make common cause with the Minister when I say that the planning system we have today is too slow, too adversarial and too expensive, and yet still manages to create huge amounts of blight and burden on communities without delivering the volume, quality or even type of homes that we need. Planning permissions are already in place for more than 1 million homes, enough to satisfy the nation’s needs for years to come, but those homes are not getting built. Labour’s tax raid on pensions channelled savings instead into buy-to-let property, and we have a legal commitment to net zero, but we are building homes in the middle of nowhere that are wholly reliant on a car to go anywhere.

Housing is a market where intervention has been heaped on intervention, so that, like a teenager’s carpet, we can no longer see the original pattern. That matters terribly, because right now so many of my constituents from Adversane to West Grinstead, Barnham to Wineham, and in villages of every letter of the alphabet in between, are having their lives blighted by the prospect of inappropriate and unsustainable development. It is on their behalf that I speak today.

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important Adjournment debate. The ancient parish of Ifield just outside Crawley borough is facing the threat of some 10,000 houses in unsustainable circumstances on the floodplain. Would he agree that it is very important that while we should provide additional housing for future generations in West Sussex, we must have the environment paramount in our considerations?

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on that. I shall come to the point about the provision in the planning system for different landscapes, including floodplains, which, as we know, West Sussex has in abundance.

The aspiration of owning one’s own home is one that every homeowner, parent and grandparent can support. I was proud last December to stand on a manifesto that pledged to tackle a problem that has been ducked by so many previous Governments, but let us also be clear that that manifesto also said that we would

“guarantee that we will protect and restore our natural environment”.

It also said we would “increase bio-diversity” and devolve

“power to people and places across the UK.”.

I am an optimist, and I believe that, with care, it should be possible to do all those things.

The Government’s recent planning White Paper has many features that I welcome, such as local design statements, more emphasis on brownfield land and faster neighbourhood plans, but I would argue that, perhaps not for the first time this summer, well-meaning ministerial intent has been sabotaged by a “mutant algorithm” cooked up in the wet market of Whitehall. There are seemingly three fundamental flaws in the standard methodology. First, it appears to be entirely blind to geography, which is not a great look for a planning system. If, as in West Sussex, much land is physically incapable of being developed or is protected in law, the algorithm appears to completely ignore this. For example, nearly 50% of Mid Sussex District Council’s land is in the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty, another 10% is in the South Downs national park and the district is one of the most wooded in the whole south-east. My constituents in Hassocks, Hurstpierpoint and Sayers Common are rightly concerned that if this protected land were excluded without an adjustment to the numbers, the algorithm would force unrealistic amounts of development in what should, in any case, be a precious green corridor linking the ecology of the South Downs and the High Weald.

Also, the algorithm must only work in dry weather, as much of my constituency lies on the floodplains of the Rivers Arun, Adur and Rother, something that even a cursory look at the lacework of blue lines on an Ordnance Survey map would reveal. Anyone relying on the Environment Agency’s narrow definition of flood risk will spend much of their winter bewildered by the waters lapping around their waist, as residents of Pulborough, Fittleworth and Henfield know all too well. Promoters of a 7,000-home development known as Mayfield Market Town clearly fall into that category, as locals know that a large proportion of the proposed site sits under water for a good proportion of the winter. I guess we could build the homes on stilts, like those over-water tropical villas, but that does not quite explain how the residents will get in their cars to drive the many miles that development in such an unsustainable location would require. All that is before we take into account the down-catchment impact of run-off from concreting an area that currently acts as a huge sponge, filling our chalk aquifers and preventing flooding of our coastal towns downstream. My constituents in Hassocks and Barnham have both had the disturbing experience of raw sewage emerging from the drains after planners failed to understand how the water table on a floodplain works.

Secondly, the standard method algorithm is backward looking and self-perpetuating; unlike the famous investment disclaimer, past performance here is treated as entirely a predictor of future success. Districts with high rates of house building in the past are assumed to continue that into perpetuity, so this fatally undermines any opportunity to level up away from the over-heated south-east of England.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Conservative, Bracknell

Many of my constituents in Bracknell and the Wokingham Borough Council area are very sensitive about unsustainable house building. Having seen the targets that have been put together in the Lichfields table, they are rightly concerned about what lies ahead. Given that both councils that I represent have proudly and boldly delivered against the local plan in recent years, does my hon. Friend think that for the Government to be worthy of their pre-eminence, they need to apply some form of judgment on top of the science?

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the role of judgment in any planning system—particularly one with a Government who are committed to supporting local democracy.

The report from the levelling up taskforce, which was published only today—I congratulate the author on attracting such attention to such an important issue—shows a huge southward shift in the UK population. Before the second world war, roughly a fifth of the population lived in the south of England outside London, while twice as many lived in the north and Scotland, taken together. Now equal numbers live in both. Between 1981 and 2018, the population of London increased by nearly a third, while that of the north-east grew by less than 1%. By piling on even more growth in the south-east, the algorithm is locking the north and midlands into permanent disadvantage, just as Ofqual’s formula dictated that someone from a school that had not done well in the past could never do well in the future. For much of the north and midlands, the algorithm suggests a lower number than the current one, while in the south it significantly increases. Despite the Government’s stated intent, the new formula is levelling down, not levelling up.

Thirdly, the formula uses a simplistic affordability ratio as a false proxy for local need. For an area impacted by central London wages, such as Horsham, the algorithm produces a result that would take the housing stock from 55,000 in 2011 to almost 90,000 over 20 years. That is growth of 62%. However fertile the local population may be, it seems an unlikely outcome at a time when the reproduction rate of the settlement population is barely at replacement levels. Trying to influence affordability through supply has been likened to a person standing on an enormous iceberg and trying to melt it by pouring kettles of hot water over their feet.

The algorithm needs more work. The reason that matters is that high, top-down housing targets induce developers to submit large and unsustainable schemes. Even when they do not get built, they end up blighting residents for years on end. That is the case for Horsham District Council, which, in calling for sites, has encouraged developers to put forward greenfield sites in Adversane and West Grinstead. Both are in the middle of countryside and only accessible by road, and the nearest town of Horsham is a 10-mile drive away. They would create millions of car journeys a year, and there is no capacity in local schools and GP surgeries or local employment opportunities. Ironically, in that particular case, the alternative is the Government themselves, through Homes England, which claims on its website to be able to build 10,000 homes much closer to existing hospitals, schools and shopping facilities in the north of the borough. If that is the case, I say get on with it.

The perfect example of this blight is Mayfield Market Town, which has impacted 27,000 residents across 17 parishes for seven years, dating back to 2013. Residents, through Locals Against Mayfield Building Sprawl and the inter-parish group, have held 73 meetings, and have had to raise and spend £140,000 to fund barristers and commission experts’ reports on a scheme that, to the best of my knowledge, not a single elected person or layer of government in West Sussex has ever supported.

Let me reassure the Minister that in West Sussex we are not nimbys. Over the past three years, Sussex has delivered 6,000 homes per year and has hit 97% of its allocation. I think good development is organic. The historical growth of our small towns and villages can be traced like rings on a tree. Good development supports the village school, the village shop and the village pub. Without exception, adopted local neighbourhood plans have made healthy provision for growth, and have just got on with it. The tiny parish of Albourne committed to 14% growth in a parish of just 260 homes. It approved this at a referendum in September 2016, and by the middle of this year 21 new homes had already been delivered. Every day that we persist in trying to build the wrong homes in the wrong places is another day when we are not building the right homes in the right places.

There is a better way. First, we should adjust the housing numbers formula not just for national parks and areas of natural beauty but for a broader category of floodplains, high-quality agricultural land and vital green corridors for wildlife. As currently constructed, the logical inference is that the more protected land we have in an area, the greater the density of development on the remainder. It is like a closed-loop error in computer code that would see the South Downs national park end up like Central Park, Manhattan, with protected areas hemmed in on every side by high-rise development.

If we are serious about the guarantee to protect and restore our natural environment, we have to build in protection for green corridors for wildlife to move through the landscape and for natural processes to operate effectively. These cannot be cosmetic or artificial—they need to have the original ancient biome intact. One such green corridor is the ribbon of land between Barnham and Eastergate connecting the coastal plain to the national park. Another is between Henfield, Sayers Common, Cowfold and West Grinstead that connects the South Downs with the High Weald. It contains the Knepp estate, where Isabella and Charlie have made such an iconic contribution to rewilding. It hosts one of the largest concentrations of nightingales in the UK, the biggest breeding population of rare purple emperor butterflies, all five indigenous species of owl and, crucially, about 16 breeding turtle doves—the most likely next bird species to face extinction on British soil. This summer, the first white stork chicks born in the UK for hundreds of years hatched there. This ecological gem is at risk from plans to build a 3,500-home new town on nearby greenfield land in West Grinstead, bringing 10,000 new residents, light pollution, and millions of additional car journeys.

I accept that they may currently be somewhat out of favour, but, as the excellent Sussex Wildlife Trust has highlighted to me, there are also extremely rare bat colonies relying on the native woodlands, ancient hedgerows and streams of West Sussex. In fact, West Sussex is home to the UK’s rarest mammal, the greater mouse-eared bat, which is an extinction event happening in real time and on our watch. As its name suggests, it has large, mouse-like ears and a body so large that it has been likened to a rabbit hanging from a wall. In flight, its wings can stretch to nearly half a metre wide. Only a handful of mammal species live longer relative to their body size than humans, and the greater mouse-eared bat is one of the longest-lived of all: it can clock up more than 35 years. Scientists recently discovered that this is probably due to the fact that its telomeres—the string-like material at the end of its chromosomes—do not shorten with age, an insight that could very possibly help humans live longer. Tragically, as the result of its habitat being destroyed, the population of this great creature is believed to be down to a single solitary male.

Secondly, we should exhaust every single opportunity to prioritise building on brownfield land. How can we teach our children to recycle plastic bags from a supermarket and yet let an algorithm, mutant or otherwise, dictate that we bulldoze by numbers through ancient fields, hedgerows, water meadows and woodland while land capable of reuse stands idle? Every local planning authority now has a brownfield register, which in 2019 showed that there was enough suitable brownfield land to build more than 1 million homes. I welcome the Government’s commitment to a “brownfield first” policy, although we should give this teeth by supporting the call from CPRE to require local authorities to write these numbers into their plans as delivered before considering any greenfield sites.

Even in West Sussex, we do not have to look far. In my constituency of Arundel and South Downs, the Shoreham cement works sits on a 44-acre site on the Steyning Road near Upper Beeding. It should be the perfect showcase of an environmentally friendly, multi-use redevelopment of a brownfield site. It could easily provide more than 2,000 quality apartment homes for a mixed community of downsizers and first timers, which is precisely where the gap in the market exists. But it is an eyesore that has been derelict for over 20 years. Despite—or perhaps even because of—many layers of government coming up with their own visions for the site, nothing has happened, and the site is not even being considered within the local plan, while untouched green fields are.

The Government are spending £400 million to support house building on brownfield land, but why is that money only available for mayoral authorities? If it is good policy—and it absolutely is—then let us make those brownfield moneys available for all. In respect of this particular site, I would be grateful if the Minister and his officials would agree to meet me and my hon. Friend Tim Loughton to see what might be done to move forward.

Thirdly, we should be looking to do more in the centres of our great urban cities, particularly London. Our great capital city is a magnet for talent internally and externally. It is the closest we have got to a city that never sleeps—young, optimistic and diverse; the very epitome of a thriving urban centre. But it is becalmed, challenged by crime, closed roads, closed bridges, congestion and now covid. It is no wonder that the August survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors saw 93% of businesses expecting to reduce their space requirement over the next two years, or that PricewaterhouseCoopers, Linklaters, Schroders, Facebook and many others are all planning for their London-based staff to work from home.

As well as being overdue fresh leadership, London is now badly in need of a new renaissance. Let us take its now hollow core and transform it into the world’s greatest live-work city. London is a city whose centre was razed by the great fire of London and then again by the blitz but in each case was built back better than before. Let us see commercial to residential conversions on a grand scale, building up not out, vertical farming, ubiquitous wireless connectivity, hydrogen river boats shuttling up and down the Thames—and all building on the abundance of existing infrastructure and services that development elsewhere can never tap into, such as world-class teaching hospitals, universities and cultural institutions. I put it to the Minister that this is no time to give up on our urban areas, and London is just one. Exactly the same opportunity exists for Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff and all our great historic urban centres.

Fourthly, we should acknowledge the special quality of dark skies and use the next draft of the national planning policy framework to preserve and restore the ability of future generations to connect with our universe by being able to see the milky way on a dark night. The most recent British Astronomical Association survey revealed that 61% of people live in areas with severe light pollution, meaning that they can count fewer than 10 stars in the night sky. This is a real opportunity and costs us nothing to achieve.

Fifthly, we must retain confidence in the fairness of the planning system by ensuring that there is one common and equitable set of rules for all. That means not discriminating in land supply between permanent and nomadic residents, which I know causes a great deal of concern to my local councils.

Finally, I make a personal plea to the Minister to give more support to community land trusts, which are one of the best solutions to providing genuinely affordable homes for truly local people. Projects are being pursued at the moment in Arundel, Angmering, Barnham and Eastergate, Pulborough, Slindon and Steyning, each of which I look forward to supporting all the way to their completion.

I ought to conclude and allow my right hon. Friend the Minister to respond. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this right, and it is vital that we do. This is not about today, but about tomorrow—the future that we want for our children and grandchildren. As I said at the beginning, I am optimistic about the future. I am encouraged that this is a consultation, and I know that the Secretary of State and the Minister have already said that they are open to making changes. Nature has bequeathed us a unique inheritance on to which our forefathers built thriving towns and great enterprising cities while preserving a tapestry of villages, fields and woodlands. We must not preserve it in aspic, but neither must we replace the species-rich ancient countryside and dark skies of West Sussex at risk from overdevelopment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham 9:20 pm, 7th September 2020

I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Griffith, a constituency neighbour, on securing this debate, which is of such importance. Indeed, no fewer than six of the eight West Sussex Members are present in the Chamber.

I was disappointed earlier in the Session when I missed my hon. Friend’s maiden speech, but I feel we have almost been treated to a rerun of it this evening, such has been the panoply of the tour around the wonderful constituency of Arundel and South Downs, which forms the heart of West Sussex, and I have actually learned quite a lot, despite representing the neighbouring constituency for 23 years, not least how close we are to the greater mouse-eared bat and how endangered they are, and I shall go and find some.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

It is; yes, indeed.

I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s complete horror at what he refers to, appropriately, as the mutant algorithm that may be responsible in the future for the level and type of developments across our country, which will have particular impact on parts of West Sussex, and I want to talk about my constituency, the coastal part of West Sussex, and why we are particularly fearful of what might happen if some of the measures that have been promulgated in the White Paper go ahead.

Adur, which forms two-thirds of my constituency, is one of the smaller district council areas in the country and is boarded to the north by the south downs national park, subject to high protection, and the coast to the south; it is an urban coastal strip. About 52% of the land space of Adur District Council falls within the national park, so is not under the planning authority of Adur planning authority and is subject to greater protections than the ordinary district area. Instantly, that district has lost more than half of its land space, on which it has no control over development.

Within the district we have England’s largest village, Lancing. It is technically a village although it has over 21,000 residents, and it is the largest part of Adur. We also have the oldest commercial airport in the country, Shoreham airport, which has been there since 1911—although a few people still complain about the noise of the planes, even though the houses were built long after the airport was put there. Shoreham harbour is the closest cross-channel port to London, and we have the original Hollywood, film studios, as were, on Shoreham beach. All those spaces are threatened, and would certainly be threatened if we changed our planning policies.

I am a veteran of the local plans. Adur came up with various versions of its local plan almost 10 years ago. I attended countless meetings, held meetings, and made sure everybody was consulted, and it was a very thorough consultation. Because of the unique circumstances of Adur—we cannot develop in the national park, because Shoreham harbour is a separate brownfield zone and we cannot build out on the sea as we lack the infrastructure to link up the houses—we have a particular problem. If we do not have the roads, people cannot get in and out of the houses easily, regardless of how smart the new developments might be. The local council, with my support and that of local people, argued a strong case, and in the end the planning inspector accepted a target that was about two thirds of the original target that we had been told we would have to take in Adur, recognising the special circumstances and appreciating how the case had been argued. The local plans of Mid Sussex to the north and Arun to the west were rejected and they had to come up with greater numbers, but our special circumstances were recognised.

I am fearful that all that hard work that made the case and gave us stretching, challenging housing figures that we would have to produce up to 2031, on which a good start has been made, will be put at risk if all of a sudden we have a completely different planning strategy. I will certainly ask the Minister to comment on what will be the future of the already agreed local plans, in place up to 2031, if these new changes come in. Will all of that work have been in vain, with those areas that we protected now being fair game for developers?

Shoreham airport is one of the few green spaces that we have left. Many developers have eyed it up over many years, and various people have bought Shoreham airport on the basis that they might be able to develop it. If so, we would lose an important part of the local scene and an historic building.

Shoreham harbour was the largest brownfield site in the south-east of England. The heavy goods and imports warehouse and everything have gradually disappeared over the years and are now being replaced by a large developments of—mostly—flats. The latest development is of some 500 flats on the waterside. It is a great place to have a flat in a new development—until anyone tries to get to it, because the road has not changed. The A259, an already congested road with already worryingly high air pollution levels cannot be expanded, and yet, within the next few years, that development of 500 flats will be just one of many thousands of new dwellings on the north side of Shoreham harbour. On the south side of Shoreham harbour, the number of residences has more than doubled in my time as the Member of Parliament and yet there is just one road onto the spit of land that is Shoreham beach.

We have already been developing brownfield sites, and there are very few left. A planning application is in to convert a series of business premises on Lancing business park—the second largest business park in the whole of West Sussex and one that is extraordinarily successful, employing about 3,200 people across 230 businesses, with world-class companies and with 99% occupancy, the last I heard—into 80 residences. We are desperately short of business space—particularly good-quality business space—within the Adur district, and now, because of permitted development rights, there is a strong chance that the application could go through, so we would lose space that we desperately need for businesses. It is not just a question of turning business space—brownfield space—into residences; we need that business space as well, and none of that will work without the infrastructure to link it all up.

I have often termed the A27 as the biggest car park in the south of England. My hon. Friend the Father of the House and I, and our predecessors before us, have campaigned for an enhancement—a bypass—to the road over many years, and we still have nothing. What we do have, because the local council had no choice under the likelihood of an appeal, is approval for a development of 600 houses. Worse still, to go with that, and in order to finance it, will be a brand-new IKEA store that is predicted to attract 2 million customer journeys a year on what is already the busiest road and one that is highly congested. That is the impact of development on local communities that are already struggling to find space for the activities they have.

All our schools are now full up. The last secondary school in my constituency that had been undersubscribed, Sir Robert Woodard Academy, has done fantastically well—it is no doubt well along the road to being an outstanding academy—and is, this year, for the first time in many years, oversubscribed. It is a great success, as is Shoreham Academy, which is oversubscribed too. All our secondary schools are oversubscribed. We desperately need new primary schools as well, but where do we put them? The space for them will be gobbled up by housing developments or businesses who desperately need to replace their space. It is all very well having a new, fast-track, slimline development planning scheme, but we have to be cognisant of the geography in which we place it, and there are certain parts of the country, of which I think my constituency is one—we are not just being nimbys—whose special circumstances mean that we cannot just plonk down a load of boxes in order to house people.

We absolutely need more housing for more people, but we also need appropriate housing. Many of these new developments, such as the lovely new flats going up along the waterside in Shoreham harbour, will be bought by people from out of the district, in many cases as second homes for people with boats. Local people and their children will be priced out of their own areas, where they grew up, because of property prices, not least because of the drift of people moving out of Brighton, as property prices there almost mirror London prices, and gradually moving along the coast to Shoreham, Worthing and beyond. We are therefore pricing out and taking away the space for local people who have grown up in the area with their families.

There is also an important issue affecting coastal constituencies. West Sussex is a relatively affluent part of the world that is very rural in many parts—not in my constituency—and has pockets of deprivation. We also know from a big study last year that educational achievement is at least two points below the average for other parts of the country. We therefore face real challenges in coastal constituencies, yet we have been neglected in the whole of the south-east, particularly on the coast, over many years when it comes to infrastructure spending. We are expected to provide the houses—and the taxes—but we do not get the infrastructure to go with that to make them viable for the people who already live there and those who understandably want to move into the area.

Of course we need more development, and we desperately need more housing—there are too many people on housing waiting lists—but we cannot use an algorithm that is completely blind to the sorts of local geographical and social circumstances that I have mentioned to come up with figures that might add up in Whitehall, but absolutely do not add up in places such as Adur. Just in the last week, the local council made an announcement, which I absolutely support, about an area of 70 acres called New Salts farm, which borders the airport and which had been speculatively bought—first by Wimpey homes and then by a housing association, on the basis that it could develop it into a lot of houses—but it was specifically taken out of the local plan because it was not seen as suitable for development. It is on a floodplain, it is close to the sea and it is a congested area. I am glad to say that the local council has bought that stretch of land and will use it as an environmental area for the use and enjoyment of the local population—a green lung of the kind that we desperately need in our area.

That is a fantastic scheme, and I applaud Adur Council for taking that initiative. However, I hope that the sorts of changes now being looked at will not mean that a developer can come in and say, “No, we’re going to develop that land,” and force Adur to give up its ambitions for that and other similar areas—for the very few open spaces that we still have left. It is really important that any algorithm respects, appreciates and recognises the local environment and the needs of local people, because their work-life balance is much more important than an algorithm. As we know, once we lose those spaces, we do not get them back.

I hope the Minister will look carefully at this. Many colleagues on this side of the House who represent constituencies that have large protected areas in them and are bounded by the coast, or by national park areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty or whatever, will be looking closely at how any changes in the planning system will impact on us, because we have done our bit. We have taken a lot of development, and a lot of people are feeling rather put upon. They are feeling that the local environment has got a bit too cosy, and they will take it, but they will not take a great deal more. Let us not ruin it simply because we have not thought this through. Let us remember that, at the end of the day, we are beholden to our constituents and our local communities, and they expect us, and certainly our party, to protect and enhance them, not to cover them in concrete.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons 9:34 pm, 7th September 2020

May I say to my hon. Friend Andrew Griffith that I am glad he secured this debate? I fear the penalty may be that he will be taken into Government: either made a Whip to keep him quiet or a Minister to answer devastating points such as he has made today. I congratulate him, as I congratulate the four of the eight West Sussex MPs who have become Ministers, one of whom has become a Minister again: my right hon. Friend Nick Gibb and my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies) and for Horsham (Jeremy Quin). Those of us who are not Ministers—my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for Crawley (Henry Smith) and for Arundel and South Downs and I—have to provide the balance, and we can encourage Government to pay attention.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, who very kindly looked after me for some years when he was my Whip: could he please send the Secretary of State to West Sussex and bring the Prime Minister with him, first of all to learn that in Sussex we will not be druv—that means treat us with respect and treat our area with respect—and, secondly, to explain where the land is going to come from for development between the South Downs national park and the coast?

If we take the borough of Worthing, which makes up two thirds of my constituency, the council is proposing to have 200 homes built on Union Place, where the old police station was, opposite the old Conservative office, and over 300 homes, if things go right, at Teville Gate by the station. In the long-term plan, there were proposals for over 700 homes in West Durrington, below the national park, and those have basically been built. There are many other smaller schemes coming forward, including the Aquarena site, where a building application for 21 storeys was rightly refused, and 18 storeys was accepted—still, I think, too high.

I would say to the Minister that if he looks at St Andrews Gardens off Church Road in Tarring, an area where there is no residential building of more than three storeys, there was a proposal by some landlords—freeholders—to stick on an extra floor. The council rightly turned it down, the inspector came along and turned it down in even more firm language, and what happened when people read the Government’s proposals for planning? There is a pre-application now in at the council that is putting people up in arms. People do not vote in my constituency to have a Government proposal misinterpreted and then have everything in that particular ward wrecked, where there are all sorts of other problems. But the main problem, I think, is that it is out of scale for the local area. My constituents, Jon and Michelle Mayes, have written to me to say on the original St Andrews Gardens that, although the people there are nice, the homes are out of place in that particular area. Why should that be coming forward again?

On Thursday, I shall go to celebrate the change of name of Chatsmore Catholic High School to the St Oscar Romero Catholic School. If the Minister and the Secretary of State put Chatsmore in a Google Earth search, they will find that that school, by the railway line, is between the north and south Goring gap—the green fields between Goring in Worthing, Goring-by-Sea and Ferring in the Arun District Council. Persimmon has put in an application for over 450 homes that will totally change its character. Were green belt to spread further than London and Oxford, there would be a green belt around Worthing that would certainly include the north and south Goring gaps, one of which includes Chatsmore Farm to the north, just below the A259.

I would say to the Minister that if he has a chance of looking up Chatsmore on Google Earth, he will see the problem. Where there is an open field now, that is where Persimmon plans or hopes to get approval. It is not in the Worthing Borough Council plan and it is not in any sensible plan. As a shareholder in Persimmon, I can say to the board, “If I get a chance, I’ll come to the AGM”—perhaps I can get many other people to buy one share; I have got more than one share in my private pension—“and say, ‘Could they please pay attention to the shareholders, but even more to the nature of our countryside running down to the coast from the national park?’”

I hope that when we look at the planning proposals, we can accept where it is possible acceptably to have homes, even though there may be local objection, but we should not have homes where it is wrong. The difference between being right and being wrong is even more important than between being right and being left. Having said that, I say to my local Labour party in Worthing West, which for a long time was chaired by Ed Miller, who was secretary of the Ferring Conservation Group, “I will back you all the way. You may have tried the best you can at various elections to get me out, but between elections let us work together to protect the Goring gap.” I say the same thing to the Liberal councillors and others involved in Tarring to protect St Andrews Gardens and the rest of Tarring as well.

This is a cross-party issue. If the Government get it right, they will get more homes—acceptable homes. If they get it wrong, I do not think they will be respected by the people of all parties who want to have a proper planning system that delivers new homes at affordable prices to a range of people who otherwise would find themselves suffering from housing stress. Do not do it at the expense of a ward such as Tarring. Do not do it at the expense of those who want to protect the Goring gap, where the Goring and Ilex Conservation Group unite with the Ferring Conservation Group, and I back them all the way.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 9:40 pm, 7th September 2020

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Andrew Griffith on what I think we all agree was a finely crafted and balanced speech. I congratulate him on securing the debate and also on securing the interests of other hon. and right hon. Members. I note in particular the as ever eloquent speeches by my hon. Friend Tim Loughton and also by my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley, who made very kind remarks—at least about me.

I also note the interest my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs has secured from other colleagues. I see around us my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), for Crawley (Henry Smith) and for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), as well as a few interlopers from a little further afield in Berkshire, Hampshire and Leicestershire: my hon. Friends the Members for Bracknell (James Sunderland), for Winchester (Steve Brine) and for Harborough (Neil O'Brien). I am very pleased they have made the time to attend this debate.

I am particularly interested in the interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs in housing and planning matters, and I am pleased to speak on some of the issues that he and others have raised this evening. He drew particular attention to the calculation for local housing need, as did others, and I think it is worth me spending a minute before I go into the detail of my speech just to remind the House of the history of the local housing need calculation, which began some six or seven years ago. From memory, it had to be revised in about 2017 to look more closely at households. Due to the challenges there have been, we committed earlier this year to revisit it with a consultation yet again. That is why the consultation is taking place now. We should disaggregate that from the consultation that has taken place on our wider planning reforms in the planning White Paper, but I entirely understand why my hon. Friend and others have wished to raise the local housing need calculation.

The local housing need calculation is driven, as properly it should be, primarily on the question of affordability. There are places in our country where affordability is low and prices are high—sometimes income is low, too—and in those places it is difficult for people, particularly local people, as mentioned by some of my hon. Friends, to find accommodation locally. We must not lose sight of the other levers that affect the local housing need calculation: the importance of levelling up and improving stock in those parts of our country that most need it; and, the importance of focusing on more brownfield development and the better use of our town centres. We are mindful of those considerations, and we will consider them carefully and closely as a result of the consultation and the submissions made to it.

My hon. Friend also drew attention to the planning White Paper and our proposed planning reforms. I want to take this opportunity to reassure him and other Members not least about our very real aspiration to leave the environment better than we found it as a result of the White Paper. It is clear that things have to change, because under the last Labour Government, house building fell to its lowest peacetime rate since the 1920s. That is why this Government have delivered more than 1.5 million additional homes since 2010 as part of our commitment to reverse that trend. We built more than 241,000 in England last year alone, and we can be rightly proud of these achievements, yet despite this progress, we are still not building enough homes. That is why we made a manifesto commitment to build more.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

Would the Minister then consider that maybe the reason we have done so well in West Sussex and other parts of England since we have been in office is that we have local plans in place delivering new houses, and that maybe our focus should be on areas such as Eastleigh, part of which I represent, that do not have a local plan, and on the 1 million or so planning permissions that have been granted but not built? Maybe if we focused on those two, we would continue to make the progress that he has rightly celebrated at the Dispatch Box.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making those points. I will not make specific reference to any particular local plan, but it is worth noting that the consolidated local plans, as they are constituted, provide for only 180,000 new homes, which is well below our commitment to build 300,000 new homes a year by the middle of this decade, and below the number that were produced last year. It is for that very reason that we are introducing, as defined in our White Paper, the sorts of reforms that we believe will allow for more building in the right places, in the right style and to the right standard that people want.

Our vision for the future of planning and house building is bold and ambitious and it is set out in our White Paper, “Planning for the Future”. Its purposes are essential. It proposes important changes to the focus and processes of planning to secure better outcomes in terms of land for homes, beauty and environmental quality. Simplifying the role of local plans will be a big part of this. It will be easier to identify areas suitable for housing development and for renewal, and areas that should be protected. These changes will transform a system that has long been criticised as being too slow to provide housing for families, key workers and young people, and too weak in getting developers to pay their fair share towards supporting infrastructure such as schools, roads and clinics. Our reforms will provide for more building on brownfield land, which my hon. Friend and others have mentioned, while valuing green spaces will be important and will continue to be protected. The consultation on the White Paper runs until 29 October 2020, and I hope that all our constituents will take the opportunity to engage in that process.

Our national housing challenge also requires powerful local responses, because local authorities have a key role to play. It is reasonable to expect them to meet their share of the nation’s future housing needs. That is why we ask authorities to plan to meet the full housing need of their communities, to identify enough land to meet that need and to take an active role in delivering homes in their areas. Although the presumption in favour of sustainable development may apply where an authority cannot identify sufficient land for housing or where delivery falls below a certain level, we are clear—crystal clear—that decisions will still need to be made in the light of all the policies in our national planning policy framework. That includes policies that seek to protect an area from unwanted developments, such as the strong protections for the South Downs National Park.

Local and neighbourhood plans will also play a key role as they have a number of important functions, including setting out what development an area needs, ensuring that it is supported with the right infrastructure and, crucially, ensuring that local decisions remain at the heart of the planning system. Our proposal for protecting areas in local plans in “Planning for the future” would justify more stringent development controls to ensure sustainability in areas subject to significant flood risk or other environmental factors, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs alluded. Taken together, local and neighbourhood plans help ensure that developments that are planned and sustainable, not sporadic and speculative, are developed. I am pleased that 90% of councils have adopted a local plan—one or two still have not, as has been mentioned by some of our colleagues. That is compared with just 17% in 2010. I am delighted that there have now been more than 900 successful neighbourhood planning referendums across England. I am certainly encouraged by the work being undertaken by the communities in West Sussex to update their local plans and drive forward the number of adopted neighbourhood plans in the area.

As we move to transform our planning system, we are looking carefully at those areas that have long been a source of local objections. This evening, I will touch on just three: the need to protect the environment; a lack of critical infrastructure; and the need for high quality design. The first, environmental protection, is a subject close to all our hearts. A number of Members have mentioned it. I want to reassure my hon. Friend and other hon. and right hon. Friends that our reforms will not be at the expense of our natural environment. Through our NPPF, we have made it clear that planning policies and decisions should minimise the effects on biodiversity of developments and provide net gains. That means opportunities to incorporate biodiversity improvements in and around developments should be sought, especially where that can be secured and offer secure, measurable net gains for biodiversity, but we also want to go further, which is why, in our forthcoming Environment Bill, we will make biodiversity improvements mandatory for a range of development, including house building.

This will ensure that future planning applications include an assessment of the existing biodiversity quality of land and details of the improvements that are proposed to be made. The NPPF also makes it clear that planning policies should encourage the take-up and prioritisation of suitable brownfield land, especially for new homes. All authorities now publish a local register of brownfield land suitable for housing, bringing thousands of hectares of developable land to the attention of house builders. Our brownfield remediation fund announced at the Budget, which provided £400 million for brownfield development—initially, those proposals were focused on mayoral combined authorities—has demonstrated a very fat pipeline of brownfield sites. I look forward to more being brought forward and other opportunities that we can work together to develop, because I want to underline today that planning permission for major development in areas like the South Downs national park should be refused, other than in exceptional circumstances and where development is shown to be in the public interest.

Another source of local objections is the lack of critical infrastructure, and that the infrastructure comes too little or too late. That was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, among others. That is why we committed in our manifesto to amend planning rules, so that infrastructure comes before people move into their homes. As a part of that, we are investing £10 billion through the single housing infrastructure fund to provide the infrastructure to support new homes, so that infrastructure comes forward quickly and appropriately. Moreover, we have made £5.5 billion available through the housing infrastructure fund to provide the infrastructure to unlock up to 650,000 homes in areas of greatest need. We are consulting on a new uniform flat-rate infrastructure levy, consolidating existing developer contribution mechanisms—the community infrastructure levy or section 106—to deliver the local infrastructure needed to support people and places. It is a truly radical reform, simplifying processes while making sure developers pay their way.

Finally, we know how important high quality design is to communities. Often it is the most tangible thing people see when they see developments going up around them. We know that people will be less likely to oppose new development if the quality of the local area is improved at the same time. Reflecting the recent report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, our reform proposals make beautiful places a central objective for planning. We intend to create a fast-track system for beautiful buildings, with local design guidance to help developers build and preserve beautiful communities. At its heart will be effective community engagement, because community input at this stage of preparing plans and design codes will give local people real influence over the location and the design of new developments, rather than having to react to unexpected planning applications. I want planning to be proactive, to be strategic, to be up-front, not tactical, not reactive, not rearguard as it all too often is at present and has been for too long.

In closing, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs for convening us on this important topic and allowing so many Members of the House to make eloquent speeches or contributions. I have listened keenly to those distinguished contributions tonight. I believe we all recognise the crucial need for homes for young people in West Sussex and across the country: homes in sustainable and well-designed communities, homes with the infrastructure that is ready to go, and homes that ensure our beautiful countryside and heritage all around the country—in Staffordshire, of course, but in West Sussex in particular—is protected, preserved and enriched in the decades to come. I am confident that together we can achieve it.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.