Clause 148 - Guidance

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill – in the House of Commons at 1:23 pm on 17 October 2023.

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Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to consider:

Government amendments (b) to (d) to Lords amendment 117.

Lords amendment 231, and Government amendment (a).

Lords amendment 237, and Government amendments (a) and (b).

Lords amendment 369, and Government amendments (a), (c), (b) and (d).

Lords amendment 1, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendments 2 and 4, Government motions to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.

Lords amendment 3, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 6, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (d) in lieu.

Lords amendment 10, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.

Lords amendment 13, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 14, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (p) in lieu.

Lords amendment 18, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.

Lords amendment 22, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendments 30 and 31, Government motions to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (d) in lieu.

Lords amendment 44, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.

Lords amendment 45, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 46, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 80, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 81, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (c) in lieu.

Lords amendment 82, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 90, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.

Lords amendments 102 and 103, Government motions to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (d) in lieu.

Lords amendment 133, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 134, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 137, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 139, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 142, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 156, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 157, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 172, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 180, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 199, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 239, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (c) in lieu.

Lords amendment 240, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (c) in lieu.

Lords amendment 241, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendments 242, 243 and 288, Government motions to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (d) in lieu.

Lords amendment 244, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 249, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 273, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.

Lords amendment 280, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 285, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.

Lords amendment 327, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 329, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.

Lords amendments 5, 7 to 9, 11, 12, 15 to 17, 19 to 21, 23 to 29, 32 to 43, 47 to 79, 83 to 89, 91 to 101, 104 to 116, 118 to 132, 135, 136, 138, 140, 141, 143 to 155, 158 to 171, 173 to 179, 181 to 198, 200 to 230, 232 to 236, 238, 245 to 248, 250 to 272, 274 to 279, 281 to 284, 286, 287, 289 to 326, 328, 330 to 368 and 370 to 418.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill has had a lengthy passage. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all my predecessors in my role and to colleagues across the Department who have shepherded the Bill to its position.

The Bill reflects the huge importance of levelling up for the future of the country. For decades, successive Governments have failed to address the inequality of opportunity in our country. Economic growth has for too long been concentrated in a select few areas. The Bill will ensure that this Government and future Governments set clear, long-term objectives for addressing entrenched geographic disparities.

The Bill will expand and deepen devolution across England. It will devolve powers to all areas in England where there is demand for it, allowing local leaders to regenerate their towns and cities and restore pride in places by creating a new institutional model more suitable for devolution to whole-county areas outside city regions that have more than one council: the combined county authority.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

I do not know what the Minister is going to say about Lords amendment 14, but if she is agin it, will she reassure me that the voice of district councils will not be lost in combined county authorities, which would create a disparity of the type that she is out to remove in the Bill?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his view. I will come on to address that point substantially in my remarks.

We are modernising our planning system, putting local people at its heart so that it delivers more of what communities want. The reformed system will champion beautiful design in keeping with local style and preferences and ensure that development is sustainable and accompanied by the infrastructure that communities will benefit from.

The Bill further strengthens protections for the environment so that better outcomes are at the heart of planning decisions. I am pleased to be able to inform the House that we have reached agreement with both the Welsh and Scottish Governments on a UK-wide approach to environmental outcomes reports in part 6 of the Bill.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

May I welcome the amendment that the Government tabled in the other place that will have the effect of addressing the issues I raised on Second Reading about the propensity of developers simply to clear a site in advance, with no regard for the wildlife on it at all? We had a controversial case of that happening only last week. I think the amendment will make a real difference and stop that terrible practice happening. It is a good example of the Government’s commitment to wildlife and the environment. I am grateful to the Minister.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank my right hon. Friend from the bottom of my heart for all the work he has done to protect wildlife both in his constituency and across the country. Hedgehogs will be a lot safer for his determined work—and not only hedgehogs but all other species of our beloved wildlife.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I will give way shortly.

We have committed to resolving a related anomaly by reinstating a devolved regulation-making function for the Scottish Government on Electricity Act 1989 consents. That was lost following the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972. Our Governments will work together to transfer functions so that powers lost in the repeal of that Act can be reinstated, using existing processes under the Scotland Act 1998.

Since the Bill left this House, the Government have made a number of amendments to improve it. For example, we have addressed the issue of the payment of compulsory purchase hope value compensation by removing hope value from certain types of schemes where there is justification in the public interest. Part 11 of the Bill has been refined in response to concerns raised by the House about the need to specify the purposes for which the new information-gathering powers may be used. To bolster the Bill’s benefits for the environment, we have reduced opportunities for incentives for site clearance before development, just as we heard from my right hon. Friend Chris Grayling, and included a clear requirement for plan makers to take into account the content of local nature recovery strategies.

I turn to the changes added by peers in the other place. Part 1 of the Bill provides the foundations to address entrenched geographic disparities across the UK. We have heard calls to be clearer on the third round of the levelling-up fund and tabled an amendment that adds a duty to lay a statement before each House of Parliament within three months of Royal Assent about the allocation of levelling-up fund round 3. Our views differ from those in the other place. We do not think that there is any connection between that further clarity on the levelling-up fund and the publication of the statement of levelling-up missions. Therefore, we do not think it is necessary to bring forward the laying date of the statement of levelling-up missions as proposed in Lords amendment 1.

We have been clear that the first statement of levelling-up missions will contain the missions from the levelling up White Paper. Missions may need to evolve over time and, if the detail of missions appears in the Bill, the process to adjust them in the future will become unhelpfully rigid and time-consuming. Therefore, in response to Lords amendments 2 and 4, seeking missions on child poverty and health disparities, the Government have tabled an amendment that requires the Government to consider both economic and social outcomes in deciding their levelling-up missions. That means that we retain that vital flexibility for future Governments to set missions according to the most important pressing issues of the day, while recognising that social outcomes such as child poverty and health inequalities are essential factors when deciding missions.

We are not able to accept Lords amendment 3, which would define criteria for assessing the success of levelling up, because those criteria will inevitably change as the data we have evolves. However, given the strength of feeling, I am pleased to announce that the Government can commit to publishing an analysis of geographical disparities alongside the first statement of missions. Linked to that, there have been calls for more specific reporting on levelling up and rural proofing in Lords amendment 6. We strongly agree that levelling up must work for all types of communities, not just those in urban centres.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 1:30, 17 October 2023

I will just finish this remark, and I will certainly give way to my former ministerial colleague.

The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs already publishes an annual rural proofing report, which reflects the Government’s consideration of rural challenges across policymaking.

Photo of Dehenna Davison Dehenna Davison Conservative, Bishop Auckland

As someone proud to represent a predominantly rural community, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to level up in rural areas is by ensuring that those areas get strong devolution deals with strong local leadership?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Just a little reminder that if Members intervene on a speaker, it is customary to stay until the end of their speech.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I want to reiterate my thanks to my former colleague, my hon. Friend Dehenna Davison, who did so much to shepherd the Bill to its current position. I completely agree with her. The best way to ensure levelling up across the country is by voting Conservative, because we have done more than any other Government to spread opportunity around the country.

To avoid anything that would duplicate the work I just mentioned, we have tabled an amendment that will require the Government to have regard to the needs of rural communities in preparing the statement of levelling-up missions. That is consistent with the approach we have taken in other areas, including with respect to the devolved Administrations.

We have heard the concerns highlighted through Lords amendment 199 on access to banking facilities for communities, and we share those concerns. Branch closures are commercial decisions for banks, and we do not believe that a blanket requirement on local authorities to produce strategies to inhibit that would be effective or proportionate. Instead, the Treasury will continue to support the roll-out of alternative services, such as banking hubs, which will ensure that communities across the country have access to the facilities they need.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West

On Lords amendment 199, a lot of constituents have written to me with their concerns about bank closures. In West Kirby in my constituency, when the last bank closes next year there will be a banking hub, but it will not meet the needs of everyone across the constituency. Does the Minister agree that banks, post offices and so forth are incredibly important, particularly for those who are not able to or do not have the facility to access the internet and do their transactions online? Will she reconsider that position?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

The hon. Lady makes some good points. As I said, we agree on the importance of those services, particularly for the rural communities that we represent. That is why we are pushing through with the other work being done by our colleagues in the Treasury, and with the banking services model.

Turning to combined county authorities, the Government have heard the strength of feeling in both Houses about combined county authority associate member voting rights, and the combined authority boundary changes. The Government are therefore content to remove the ability to vote from associate members of both combined authorities and combined county authorities, the latter of which is called for by Lords amendment 14. We are also content to accept the requirements that must be satisfied before local government areas are added to an existing combined authority for the first nine months after Royal Assent, as proposed in Lords Amendment 18. The Government have accordingly tabled amendments in lieu, which we hope the House will support.

The core feature of combined county authorities is that only upper tier local authorities can be constituent members. That principle is essential to ensuring devolution, and its benefits can be expanded to two-tier areas. The House will not need reminding of several previous devolution deal negotiations for combined authorities that have failed in these areas, despite majority support for the deal. Allowing non-constituent members of a combined county authority to become full members would undermine our efforts to address the problem in future and would reduce the effectiveness of devolution in those areas. We remain of the view that combined county authorities must engage all relevant stakeholders, and wish for district councils to have voting rights on issues pertaining to them, but they must be established at local level. Let me reassure the House that the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend Jacob Young, who is next to me on the Front Bench, is having detailed discussions with districts on that point.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Given the Minister’s enthusiasm for devolution and the wish to spread investment more sensibly around the country, what extra powers will local communities have to decide what is a realistic number of new homes in any given area?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I will address that matter in due course, so I hope my right hon. Friend will allow a little patience.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

I would like to reinforce what my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne said about the concern at district council level that they may be sidelined in combined authorities. We have received a persuasive letter from New Forest District Council, and I would like the Minister to reassure the House that her pledge that they can vote on areas relevant to them will be honoured.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

New Forest MPs are definitely speaking up for their residents today. My right hon. Friend will have seen the Levelling Up Minister next to me; he has heard that vital point. These matters must be decided locally, but I can reassure both my right hon. Friends the Members for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) and for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) that their voices have been heard and those points will be considered in future arrangements.

It is our strong view that one of the core principles of local democracy is that citizens can attend council meetings to interact in person with their local representatives. There are no limits placed on authorities broadcasting their meetings online and we do not agree that councillors should be able to attend those meetings and cast their votes remotely. It is important that they are present, active participants in local democracy. Therefore, the Government are not able to support Lords amendment 22.

The Bill removes a key barrier to transferring police and crime commissioner functions to combined authority Mayors, a long-standing Government commitment. Those powers do not permit the removal of a police and crime commissioner in favour of a mayor mid-term, as some have suggested. The powers simply allow the May 2024 mayoral elections to elect the Mayor as the next police and crime commissioner for an area, where Mayors request that the election be conducted on that basis. It is to allow the proper preparation for, and administration of, those elections that the Government are seeking to commence the provision upon Royal Assent, and so we are unable to support Lords amendment 273.

Turning to planning, we have heard the strength of feeling across both Houses about the need for national development management policies to be produced transparently, with clear opportunities for scrutiny. We have therefore strengthened the consultation requirements in the Bill, to make it clear that consultation will take place in all but exceptional circumstances, or where a change has no material effect on the policies. Draft policies will also need to be subject to environmental assessment, which in itself will require consultation. That will give everyone with an interest in these important policies—the public and parliamentarians alike—the opportunity to scrutinise and influence what is proposed.

Housing provision has been raised by my right hon. Friend John Redwood.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Will my right hon. Friend allow me to finish my point, and then I will gladly give way?

As our existing policy makes clear, it is important that every local plan is founded on a clear understanding of the housing needs in the area. In response to Lords amendment 82, we have tabled an amendment that puts that important principle into law: plans should take into account an appropriate assessment of need, including the need for affordable homes. Any assessment of need is only a starting point for plan making; it will remain the case that local planning authorities will make their own assessment of how much of that need can be accommodated.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

Will the Minister assure the House that the compromise set out in the Secretary of State’s letter to colleagues of 5 December last year will be implemented? It is an important way to amplify local control over what is built in a neighbourhood, while still delivering the volume of new homes that we need.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point, which I think is a matter of interest to all colleagues. She will know that we have had an exceptionally high level of interest in the consultation on the national planning policy framework, with over 25,000 respondents across the country. That demonstrates the keen interest of parliamentarians and their constituents in this important issue. She will know that officials need to work through those responses, as they are doing directly with her and others, before we make proposed changes. Officials will continue to work with her and other colleagues, and we look forward to publishing the updated document shortly. To be clear, the position remains as outlined in the Secretary of State’s letter of December 2022.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton

The Minister is endeavouring to strike the right balance in a tricky area. Does she agree with me, as a former Housing Minister—there are one or two in this place—that actually the most important thing beyond what happens in Westminster is that local authorities get their local plan in place? We have a Liberal Democrat-run council in Elmbridge. It does not have a plan in place and has not for years. That is what exposes the green belt and unwanted developments such as the Jolly Boatman site which local communities do not want.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank my right hon. Friend and esteemed predecessor in my role. I will come on to speak a bit more about the “banana” policies of the Liberal Democrats later in my remarks. For the avoidance of doubt, that stands for—

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

No. The hon. Lady will have her chance to speak later. It stands for “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone”. That is their policy. The whole House and the whole country know it. We on the Conservative Benches are building the homes that the country needs. My right hon. Friend Dominic Raab is absolutely right to say that where local authorities have a local plan more houses are built, and that where local authorities do not produce a local plan they are failing their residents and letting down future generations who will live in those areas. I will not take any more interventions now; I need to make some more progress.

The Government agree that it is vital for local planning authorities to have the resources they need to deliver an effective planning service. On 20 July, we laid draft affirmative regulations that, if approved by Parliament, will increase planning fees by 35% for major applications and 25% for all other applications. This is a national fee increase that will benefit all local planning authorities in England. We are also undertaking a programme, with funding, to build capacity and capability in local planning authorities. The Government do not believe that enabling authorities to vary fees and charges is the way to answer resourcing issues. It will lead to inconsistency of fees between local planning authorities and does not provide any incentive to tackle inefficiencies. It would also create significant financial costs to the taxpayer. We do not require the fee income to be formally ringfenced, as there is already a requirement through primary legislation for planning fees to be used for the function of determining applications. We have been very clear that local planning authorities should use the income from planning fees to fund their services. That will allow them to build their capability and capacity, and improve their performance. Therefore, the Government are not able to support Lords amendment 82.

On the environment, the Government agree that the planning system must support our efforts to meet our legal net zero commitments by 2050 and to tackle the risks of climate change. We have committed to updating the national planning policy framework to ensure it contributes to climate change mitigation and adaptation as fully as possible. What is crucial, however, is that we address climate change in a way that is effective without being unnecessarily disruptive or giving rise to excessive litigation for those seeking to apply the policies once they are made. That is why we cannot support Lords amendment 45.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

I congratulate the Minister on her stewardship of the Bill. It is clear that it will be to the further benefit of the environment and devolve power democratically in terms of local decision making. Does she agree that it is this Conservative Government that are best for levelling up, whereas the other political parties in this Chamber constitute no progress at all and will bring no progress in the unlikely event they are ever put in that position? Is not the fact of the matter that, both democratically and transparently, it is the policies she is setting out and the position of this Government that will be for the benefit of the whole country?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend. I think Northampton North speaks for the whole House on this issue. With that, I will give way to my right hon. Friend Dr Fox.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset

My hon. Friend says, very importantly, that we will be getting an update to the NPPF to reflect the changes made in the Bill. Can she give us an idea when we will get it? We were promised it before the summer and then we were promised it in September. When will the House and the country actually see the updated NPPF?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 1:45, 17 October 2023

I recognise that there is a keen appetite to see the update. As I set out earlier, there has been a huge amount of work to analyse the very significant volume of responses. We will be bringing forward the update as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I am not going to give way at the moment, I am afraid.

The Government agree that the quality of our homes is vital, but we do not agree that further legislation is needed to achieve that. The healthy homes principles contained in Lords amendments 46, 327 and 249 cut across building safety, building standards, building regulations, planning policy and design. They are already considered and addressed through those well-established systems.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

I am truly grateful to the Minister for giving way.

In its latest progress report, the Climate Change Committee was clear that planning policy needs what it calls “radical reform” to support net zero. Will the Minister therefore say more about her bewildering decision not to accept Lords amendment 45, which would simply ensure that all national planning policy decisions, local planning making and individual development decisions are in line with net zero? If the Government are serious about wanting net zero to be a priority, why would they not ensure that all their planning decisions support net zero, rather than undermine it?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I have set out that, of course, the planning system puts the environment and net zero at the heart of all its work.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I just want to go back to the point about the Government coming forward with the NPPF. She indicated that it would appear very quickly after Royal Assent. Presumably the Bill will receive Royal Assent very quickly, so surely that piece of work must be almost ready. Why can we not see it sooner rather than later?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We very much hope we will, with the consent of the House after these debates, see the Bill receive Royal Assent. We are working at pace to bring forward the long-awaited detail that she and others are rightly pressing for.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I will come to colleagues very shortly. I want to say a few words about healthy homes, which I think my hon. Friend may want to speak about. The Government do not agree that an additional regulatory framework to promote healthy homes, including a schedule setting out the principles and process for providing a statement, is necessary, because it is already considered and addressed through well-established systems.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Chair, Health and Social Care Committee, Chair, Health and Social Care Committee

I understand why the Government are resisting Lords amendment 46, a cross-party amendment from Lord Crisp, Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Blunkett. I understand what the Government are saying. At the moment, a big Select Committee inquiry is under way into prevention and we are looking at healthy homes. Is the Minister satisfied that the Government are addressing the fact that poor-quality housing is a major determinant of ill health that cuts across inequalities and is directly comparable to that? Is the Minister satisfied that all the stuff in the letter yesterday from the Secretary of State to all Members is in place to address that inequality?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank the Chair of the Health Committee for all the work he is doing on this issue. I will read his report with great interest. I draw the House’s attention to the work that the Government and the Department are doing to tackle the damp and mould that is in so many houses and that caused the tragic death of Awaab Ishak. It is always right that we look to see what more we can do.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I need to make progress.

On the important issue of building in flood risk areas, which was raised in the other place, amendment 80 is well intentioned but would have wholly impractical implications. Under the amendment, a ban on residential development in land identified as flood zone 3 would take no account of flood defences and where, in reality, it is safe to build. For example, some 60% of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham lies in flood zone 3, as do many parts of Westminster. Planning policy and guidance make it clear that residential development is not compatible with functional floodplain, and should not be approved.

There is strong policy and guidance in place to prevent residential development where that would be genuinely unsafe. In high-risk areas, such development is only acceptable when there are no reasonably available sites with a lower risk of flooding, when the benefits of development outweigh the risk, and when it can be demonstrated that the development can be made safe for its lifetime without increasing flood risk elsewhere and, where possible, will reduce flood risk overall.

Photo of Tom Randall Tom Randall Conservative, Gedling

I appreciate that the wording of Lords amendment 80 is not suitable given its likely scope, but flooding is a big issue in my constituency. It has affected a number of building sites, the Linden Grove development being just one example. Can the Minister assure me that the wide panoply of powers available to the Government, including the forthcoming planning policy framework, will create the infrastructure and apparatus necessary to ensure that a robust system will be in place to prevent flooding from affecting future housing developments?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I can, with pleasure, give that assurance to my hon. Friend’s constituents, and to those in other flood-risk areas. We have considered this matter very carefully. We have strengthened planning policy and guidance, and put capacity into local authorities to enable them to assess risks properly. We believe that the policy strikes the right balance between allowing house building where it is safe and, of course, protecting homes from flooding in the future.

We are grateful for the constructive discussions that have taken place on the important topic of ancient woodland. We are content to accept the principle of Lords amendment 81, which means that within three months of Royal Assent we will amend the Town and Country Planning (Consultation) (England) Direction 2021 to require local planning authorities to consult the Secretary of State if they want to grant planning permission for developments affecting ancient woodland. That clause will ensure that a Government commitment made during the passage of the Environment Act 2021 is enacted to a specified timeframe.

Photo of Natalie Elphicke Natalie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

Ancient woodland is already highly protected. Will the Minister consider how this will interact with major infrastructure delivery in line with the commitment that she has given? I am particularly mindful of the fact that in Dover we are seeking an upgrade of the A2, which has already been planned to take account of ancient woodland. I am keen for that to progress, taking account of the existing environmental considerations.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My hon. Friend is an excellent champion of infrastructure and housing in her constituency and, of course, throughout the country. She has made an important point, and I should be pleased to meet her and, possibly, her local representatives to talk about it in more detail.

Last month, in response to the concerns of Members of both Houses, the Government made changes to the national planning policy framework in relation to onshore wind, which were designed to make it easier and quicker for local planning authorities to consider and, where appropriate, approve onshore wind projects when there is local support. We need to allow time for those changes to take effect, so we will keep the policy under review, and will report in due course on the number of new onshore wind projects progressing from planning application through to consent. We also intend to update planning practice guidance to support the changes further, and to publish our response to the local partnerships consultation for onshore wind in England. The response will set out how, beyond the planning system, the Government intend to improve the types of community benefits that are on offer for communities who choose to host onshore wind projects, including local energy bill discounts.

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma Minister without Portfolio , COP26 President (Cabinet Office)

Conservative colleagues and I, along with the Minister’s Department, worked together to end the de facto banning of onshore wind, and I am grateful for that. However, as the Minister has acknowledged, we need to see whether this policy is working, and a key determinant of that will be whether onshore wind really has meaningful community benefits. The consultation closed three and a half months ago; will the Minister tell us when we will see its conclusions? I am not suggesting that she should pre-empt those now, but could she also specify some of the likely monetary benefits that might flow to communities, so that we could have an indication that the Government are moving in the right direction?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he has said, and for all the vital work that he did in his previous role in taking forward the country’s reaction to climate change. This is a key plank of our policy. Our commitment to renewables is beyond question, and we have done more to drive forward that agenda with the help of my right hon. Friend and others. I have been discussing some of the questions he has raised today with my colleagues in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, because I think people want to see what this means in practice for their communities. We have some exciting work planned, and I can assure him that, as I have said in response to earlier interventions, we will provide the response to the NPPF—which covers this and other matters—as soon as we can.

The Government remain committed to repealing the antiquated Vagrancy Act 1824 as soon as replacement legislation can be introduced, and once that has happened there will be no need to publish a report. Lords amendment 240 would require a Minister to publish, within 90 days of Royal Assent, an assessment of the impact of the enforcement sections of the Vagrancy Act on levelling up and regeneration. Given our commitment to the repeal and replacement of the Act, and because identifying and gathering the information would take significant time, we propose that a year should be provided rather than 90 days.

To ensure that the leaseholder protections on remediation work as originally intended in the Building Safety Act 2022, we have tabled an amendment to remedy a gap in the Act so that a qualifying lease retains its protection if extended, varied, or replaced by an entirely new lease. We do not, however, agree that Lords amendment 242, which would secure parity between non-qualifying and qualifying leaseholders, and exclude shares in a property of 50% or less from being counted as “owned” for the purposes of calculating whether a lease qualifies for the protections, should be accepted. There are a number of defects in the amendment; in particular, it would remove the protections once remediation work was complete, which a number of stakeholders have described to us as a potentially worrying change.

The Government made amendments to the Bill—clauses 239 and 240—which will allow us to transfer the building safety regulator out of the Health and Safety Executive in the future. That will ensure that we are ready, and have the flexibility in place, to respond to the Grenfell Tower inquiry report when it is published. When the regulator is moved, the essential committees established under sections 9 to 11 of the Building Safety Act will need to be transferred. We are therefore unable to accept an amendment that prevents us from removing the references to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 in relation to the committees. I should, however, make it clear that the Government have no intention of amending the make-up or role of those committees.

The Government take the condition of school and hospital buildings very seriously, which is why we already have extensive, well-established and transparent data collection arrangements for schools and hospitals. In addition to annual funding and central rebuilding programmes, we provide targeted support for schools and hospitals with specific problems such as reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. The creation of a new register, collecting new data and following up relatively minor issues easily managed locally, will take limited resources and focus away from the most serious issues which require additional support to keep our schools and hospitals safe, undermining overall safety. That would carry unavoidable significant financial implications for both the NHS and the school system. The Government have listened to the arguments about local authorities opening their own childcare provision. While we did not feel that there was a legislative gap, we are willing to concede that point in full, and an amendment will be added to the Bill.

You will be delighted to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I am nearing the end of my remarks, but I have no doubt that you will hear from the Opposition Front Bench a torrent of complaints and criticisms of the Government’s entire policy. Before we hear from them, however, let me make a few things clear. Despite having listened to numerous speeches from Opposition Front Benchers, I have no idea what their plans are for this vital policy area—apart from the rare instances in which they have simply repeated, and passed off as their own ideas, what the Government are already doing. They claim that they would magically make all these things happen without any additional public spending. Oh, I am sorry; perhaps I have missed their saying where they will spend the VAT charge on private schools, for possibly the ninth or 10th time. We can all see that for the fantasy it is.

Let us look at the Opposition’s record. Just last month, the Leader of the Opposition claimed that Labour was the party of the builders, not the blockers, yet in the next breath he ordered his Labour Lords to stick to defective EU laws, blocking 100,000 homes and voting down Government plans to unblock nutrient neutrality and protect the environment, meaning that desperately needed affordable homes, care homes and brownfield regeneration projects in town centres still languish unbuilt—[Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the shadow Levelling Up Secretary, Angela Rayner, asks why we did not accept their amendments. She never put forward any proposals. She did not put forward any amendments. Labour Members voted ours down without a single plan of their own. No surprises there.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I am not giving way.

The Leader of the Opposition says that his is now the party of the yimbys. We all want housing for our own children and grandchildren—I am a mother of four; my second grandchild, Henry, was born just last night—so this Government stand squarely behind the aspiration of families across the country to buy a home of their own and get on the housing ladder. But what have we seen from Labour? At least 19 members of the shadow Cabinet have conspired to block houses being built in their own constituencies, including the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and the Leader of the Opposition himself, who just two years ago voted to protect the right of communities to object to individual planning applications. That is what he voted for in this place, yet he now says that local communities will be completely ignored. Presumably what he means is that what is okay for him is not okay for anyone else. He wants to rip up the protections for precious green spaces, not just on the green belt but on the brownfield sites. Of course these are a vital aspect of our brownfield-first planning policies, but they often also form a vital green lung in heavily urbanised areas—[Interruption.] There is an awful lot of chuntering from Labour Front Benchers. They do not like what I am saying, but I will not be shouted down in standing up for house building across the country.

I would like to refer to a quote:

“Green space is vital in our communities to give children a safe place to play and to enhance community well-being.”

Not my words but the words of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, who went on to say:

“I wanted residents to know they have my support in their bid to stop contractors entering the site to start building.”

I hope that the Leader of the Opposition has explained his position clearly to the residents of Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth, who I am sure will be interested to know exactly which sites on their green belt, urban brownfield and rural farmland the Labour party would like to determine, at the stroke of a north London lawyer’s pen, should be built over with zero regard to local communities.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I will not give way.

There is no credibility at all on the Labour Front Bench. You do not have to take my word for it; just look at housing delivery in London and in Wales, where Labour has been in government, with all the powers, funding and levers, for many years. It has an atrocious record on house building, housing delivery and affordable house building. It is hardly surprising, when house building fell to the lowest level since the 1920s the last time Labour was in government. That, along with everything else, is something that the Conservatives had to sort out when we took office.

We are on track to deliver our manifesto pledge to build 1 million homes during this Parliament, with housing delivery at near-record 30-year highs. We are not complacent, and we need to deliver more of the right homes in the right places. That is why the Prime Minister and the Housing Secretary set out our long-term plan for housing in July—a plan based on the principles of building beautiful, with homes built alongside GP surgeries, schools and transport links, where communities are listened to and where we enhance the natural environment and protect our green spaces. It is a plan where we will build beautiful neighbourhoods modelled on the streets of Maida Vale, the crescents of Bath or the rural and suburban vernacular of Poundbury, not on soulless dormitory towns.

Now I shall turn to the Liberal Democrats. Even by their own standards, we have seen the most extraordinary fiasco unfolding within their party. I have to hand it to them: their balancing act is pretty impressive. They are taking the high-rise tightrope walk art of holding two entirely different positions at the same time to newly dizzying heights. Historically, the Lib Dems have been the BANANA party—build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone—but amid incredible scenes, their youth wing has thrown out the yellow bendy fruit and forced on the party a top-down Whitehall-driven target of 380,000 houses a year.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

No, I will not give way. The hon. Lady can speak later.

This policy has been described by the Lib Dems’ own former leader—

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Just a little reminder that we are on Lords amendments. I am sure the Minister will be referring her remarks back to the relevant ones.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. We did discuss the matter of housing targets in the Lords debate.

The Lib Dems’ policy to have 380,000 houses a year—that is certainly this week’s policy—has been described by their own former leader as Thatcherite. So anyone contemplating voting Liberal Democrat needs to know what this means. I am afraid that they can no longer sustain a position of objecting to every single house being built in their area, or avoid making local plans to give communities a proper say over housing and the green belt. As we have seen with so many Liberal Democrat local authorities, they have kicked the can down the road and failed their residents.

I shall finish by expressing my gratitude to all my colleagues, both here and in the other place, for their continued and dedicated engagement with this complicated and complex Bill during its passage. We have listened carefully to the views of Members on both sides of the House, stakeholders and members of the public. The amendments we have made to the Bill as it has progressed to the Lords have further enhanced it and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Well, what can one say about that last 20 minutes, apart from that it must have felt far more persuasive when the Minister practised it in the mirror this morning, but I do congratulate her on the birth of her grandson.

I will start by thanking their lordships for the extensive and forensic scrutiny to which they have subjected this complex and demanding piece of legislation. I put on record the appreciation felt on these Benches for the tireless work of our noble Friends, Baroness Hayman of Ullock and Lady Taylor of Stevenage, ably assisted as ever by Ben Wood and the whole Labour Lords team.

This Bill has been with us for some time now. First published in May 2022, it has progressed slowly against the backdrop of significant political and economic turbulence, the responsibility for which lies squarely with the Conservatives. It has survived an unprecedented degree of ministerial churn: three Prime Ministers; four Secretaries of State, albeit one a retread; four Housing and Planning Ministers; and four Levelling Up Ministers. With so many minds on the Government Benches having grappled thoughtfully with the implications of each of the Bill’s many provisions, one might have hoped that it would have been significantly improved and that its worst features would have been substantially mitigated, if not removed altogether. Sadly, despite the addition of scores of new clauses and a large number of new schedules to the extensive number it already contained, the Bill remains not only eclectic but deeply muddled. It is a rag-tag mix of measures—some sensible, but many more ill-considered or downright damaging—that attempt but fail to render coherent a Tory levelling up, devolution and planning agenda that is anything but.

In the eight months that the Bill was considered in the other place, the Government were forced to give way on a variety of fronts. I am glad that, in a range of areas, the arguments that my hon. Friend Alex Norris and I made in Committee last year have been partially accepted.

However, although the Government’s concessions have rendered the Bill slightly more palatable, they have not resolved the fact that it still contains a range of measures, from the new infrastructure levy to community land auction arrangements, that are riven with flaws. We regret the fact that Ministers did not reconsider their inclusion entirely. It will now fall to a future Labour Government to halt, review or rescind each of them.

We do not have an opportunity today to attempt, again, to address many of the more problematic parts of the Bill but, as a result of the prodigious efforts of noble Lords in the other place, we have a chance to make a number of important changes that would modestly improve the Bill and, in so doing, enhance outcomes for local communities across the country. It is with that objective in mind that I turn to a selection of the unusually large number of amendments that the other place has sent to us for consideration.

Lords amendments 1 and 10 relate to the levelling-up mission set out in part 1 of the Bill and the distinct, but related, third round of the levelling-up fund. They seek respectively to ensure that the missions and the fund application process are properly integrated and that round 3 of the fund takes place not only in a timely manner but on the basis of a reformed application process. We support both.

The Opposition’s views on the Government’s levelling-up missions are well known, but, if we are to give statutory force to a statement setting such missions for a period of no less than five years, it is right not only that it comes into effect soon after the Bill receives Royal Assent but that it is accompanied by a statement detailing the application process for round 3 of the levelling-up fund, including transparent criteria so that the two can be fully aligned.

Similarly, our criticisms of the levelling-up funding process are a matter of public record, but, if the fund is to be the primary means of delivering priority local infrastructure projects for the foreseeable future, it is right that steps are taken prior to the opening of round 3 to simplify the application process and to reduce the onerous requirements and resources it presently involves.

We recognise that, by tabling an amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 10, the Government have sought to enshrine in the Bill an assurance in respect of round 3 of the levelling-up fund. However, not only is the content of the proposed statement left completely undefined, but the proposed amendment in lieu fails to achieve one of the central objectives sought by their noble Lords, namely that such a statement be published within the same timescale as a statement on the levelling-up missions so that the two processes, which are clearly connected, fully complement each other. For those reasons, we cannot support the Government amendment in lieu and we will support Lords amendment 10, along with Lords amendment 1.

The question of whether the Government’s proposed levelling-up missions are comprehensive enough to reduce inequalities between and within regions has arisen since the White Paper was first published in February 2022. Lords amendments 2 and 4 seek to augment the 12 missions set out in that document by requiring the addition of separate missions relating to child poverty and health disparities. We welcome the Government’s acceptance that addressing the impact of economic and social disparities warrants a greater focus in respect of levelling-up missions and that they have tabled amendments in lieu of Lords amendments 2 and 4 to that end. However, in our view, the requirement that Ministers “must have regard” to these disparities in the preparation and review of all the missions falls some way short of the implications that establishing dedicated new missions on child poverty and health disparities would have for life chances across the country. For that reason, we cannot support the Government amendment in lieu and will support Lords amendments 2 and 4.

We also support Lords amendment 22. We remain firmly of the view that there are circumstances in which virtual or hybrid meetings are necessary or useful, and that their use could help to reduce barriers to public engagement, particularly in relation to the planning process. As we argued in Committee last year, a number of organisations, including the Planning Inspectorate, already enjoy the freedom to offer such meetings as they deem necessary, and there is widespread support for putting local authority remote meeting arrangements on a permanent footing, including from the Local Government Association, Lawyers in Local Government and the Association of Democratic Services Officers. The Government have offered no compelling reason why this amendment should not be incorporated into the Bill, and we therefore urge the House to support it.

As the Minister will know, the establishment of a new tier of national planning policy in the form of national development management policies, and their precise relationship and standing in respect of local development plans, has been a point of contention throughout the Bill’s passage. The Opposition feel strongly that it cannot be right that national policies that will have a far greater impact on local communities than any existing national policy statement and that have significant implications for the status and remit of local planning can be developed without an obligatory and defined public consultation and parliamentary approval process. Lords amendment 44 stipulates such a process, including minimum public consultation requirements and a mechanism for facilitating parliamentary scrutiny based on that which currently applies to designating a national policy statement.

In tabling amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 44, the Government have made it clear that consultation in respect of the designation and review of an NDMP must take place in all but a limited set of circumstances. We welcome that subtle shift in the Government’s position. However, if the Government amendment in lieu were accepted, the form of consultation would remain, as in the original drafting of the Bill, whatever the Secretary of State “thinks appropriate”. In short, the Government’s amendment in lieu will replace a precise set of requirements, namely those set out in clauses 38ZB and 38ZC, with an ambiguous and loosely worded clause that will allow Ministers to determine the nature of the consultation to take place and give them the freedom not to consult in instances where they feel it is necessary, or expedient, to act urgently, however they choose to interpret that phrase. In our view, that is problematic. As such, while we welcome the willingness of Ministers to move on this issue, we do not feel they have gone anywhere near far enough. For that reason, we will support Lords amendment 44.

The need to do more to ensure that there is genuine coherence between the planning system and our country’s climate commitments has been a recurring theme throughout consideration of the Bill. It is abundantly clear from the evidence, including from recent detailed research undertaken by the Climate Change Committee, that the existing plethora of duties, requirements and powers that set out how the planning system should help to achieve net zero are not producing the required results. Not only are they insufficiently robust to produce consistency when it comes to the decisions taken by local planning authorities and the Planning Inspectorate, but the system regularly throws up decisions that are incompatible with the need to make rapid progress towards net zero emissions by mid-century or to deliver resilient and climate-proofed places.

The Government previously made vague commitments to revise the national planning policy framework to include a number of changes designed to respond to the climate crisis, but when they had the opportunity to act in the new version of the NPPF published last month, they failed to include any references to our net zero targets. As for the more far-reaching review of national policy that is promised, this will not take place until next year, if at all. It is simply not good enough.

We urgently need clear and unambiguous national policy guidance in relation to climate change, a purposeful statutory framework to align every aspect of the planning system with net zero, and an overarching duty on the Secretary of State, local planning authorities and those involved in neighbourhood plan making to achieve climate change mitigation and adaptation when preparing plans and policies or exercising their functions in planning decision making. The latter is what Lords amendment 45 would achieve, and we support it.

Lords amendment 239 quite reasonably proposes that, in addition to managing and shaping the overall childcare market in their area, local authorities should be allowed to deliver their own childcare provision, if they wish to do so. The amendment would expand on existing powers in the Childcare Act 2006 that allow local authorities to establish their own provision in circumstances where they identify a childcare need that cannot be met by any other means, or where they deem it more appropriate to provide that provision themselves.

The Government resisted this amendment in the other place on the basis that there was no appetite among local authorities to deliver childcare directly, that it would not make a material difference to childcare availability across the country and that it might risk an actual or perceived conflict of interest for local authorities as both market shapers and direct providers. Those arguments were utterly unconvincing. The huge gaps that exist in the affordability and availability of childcare across the country are denying children opportunities, limiting parental choice and holding back our local economies. Local authorities have a statutory responsibility to ensure that there are sufficient childcare places available to families within their local community. We believe that if they deem it necessary to directly deliver their own provision to meet that responsibility, they should have the freedom to do so.

We are therefore pleased that the Government have accepted our argument that local authorities should not simply be a childcare provider of last resort but should be allowed to deliver childcare directly if they believe it can help meet local need. We welcome the full concession made via an amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 239.

As the Minister will know, we took strong exception to the provisions in the Bill, as first published, that would have had the effect of disregarding the full repeal of the Vagrancy Act 1824 that the House approved via amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. Having resisted our urgings in Committee to voluntarily withdraw the relevant placeholder clause, the Government were forced to do so in this place on Report.

However, nearly a year on from that concession, and 20 months after the then Policing Minister, Kit Malthouse, made a commitment from the Dispatch Box that it would be repealed in full within a maximum of 18 months, it remains the case that the 1824 Act—an embarrassing remnant of Georgian England’s approach to the poor and destitute—remains on the statute book. We welcome the concession the Government have made in essentially accepting, albeit with a slight variation in respect of timing, Lords amendment 240. In so doing, the Government will at least be required to produce a statement detailing the impact of enforcing the most pernicious sections of the Vagrancy Act that criminalise sleeping rough and begging. But the Government really do now need to honour their word on this matter, bring forward the necessary replacement legislation and repeal the Vagrancy Act in full, as the House has clearly insisted that they do.

Lords amendment 241 relates to public buildings that are in a state of disrepair—an issue that has gained prominence in light of the revelations in recent months about the risks posed by RAAC. The amendment would simply require the Government to keep a register of schools and hospitals that are in serious disrepair. The Government maintain that extensive data on the condition of both schools and hospitals is already publicly available and that a requirement to maintain such a register, and update it regularly, would place an unnecessary burden on schools and NHS trusts in a way that would detract from their ability to address the most serious building safety issues. We note and appreciate those concerns. However, there is clearly a need for greater transparency and more accessible reporting on public buildings that are in a state of disrepair.

I stand to be corrected, but it is my understanding that there is no statutory requirement to release all the data in question. To the extent that data has made its way into the public sphere, it has emerged in an ad hoc and unplanned manner, and it is often presented in formats that are virtually inaccessible. Given the strong case for measures to increase transparency and improve reporting in relation to this important issue, it is disappointing that the Government have not felt it necessary to provide any concessions. We urge them to give further thought to whether some kind of compromise might be reached.

Lords amendment 242 seeks to remedy a glaring defect within the Building Safety Act 2022: that qualifying leaseholders who have been required to extend or vary their lease subsequent to the Act’s coming into force in June last year have found themselves ineligible for the leaseholder protections it provides, because a lease extension is technically a new lease, not an extension of the same lease. The fact that this defect was allowed to arise is a source of serious concern, particularly given that the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Act 2022, passed only a few months before the Building Safety Act, included provisions designed to ensure that the same problem could not arise under it. This is a salutary warning of the problems that arise when a Government choose to legislate in haste on an issue and do not provide the House with adequate time to scrutinise a Bill.

The Government, to their credit, have accepted that this problem needs to be remedied. The amendment in lieu that they have tabled to Lords amendment 242 achieves that end, and does so with retrospective effect. Although many more issues relating to the building safety crisis require the Government to think again—not least the plight of non-qualifying leaseholders the Government chose to exclude from protections under the Building Safety Act—we welcome the concession that has been made, albeit with one proviso: Ministers must take steps to ensure that leaseholders who paid service charges over the past 15 months in the belief that they were not eligible for the leaseholder protections under the Act, because of the Government’s mistake, are reimbursed. Those individuals should not suffer financially as a result of a drafting error that should not have been allowed to occur in the first place. If the Minister—I hope she is listening to this point—can provide us with some reassurance on that point, we will happily accept the Government’s amendment in lieu.

The issue of onshore wind has arisen at several points during consideration of the Bill. In response to demands from a sizeable group of Conservative Back Benchers, the Government committed on Report in this House to make changes to the NPPF to facilitate more onshore wind deployment, subject to local approval. Although it was made clear that the precise method by which community consent would be determined would emerge from consultation, a clear deadline of April this year was given for changes to be made. That deadline came and went without the NPPF being amended. As a result, a group of disgruntled Conservative Members threatened to amend the Energy Bill to ensure that the harmful effective moratorium imposed on onshore wind since 2015 was finally ended. To stave off a rebellion, the Government agreed to update footnote 54 of the NPPF. However, the revised wording of that footnote still leaves onshore wind projects subject to a uniquely restrictive consenting regime. It therefore remains easier to build an incinerator or a landfill site than an onshore wind farm in England. As RenewableUK stated in responding to the changes:

“We will still face a planning system stacked against onshore wind that treats it differently to every other energy source or infrastructure project... There has been a slight softening at the edges but nothing more.”

Lords amendment 244 seeks to remedy this anomaly once and for all and to ensure that onshore wind projects are treated in the same way as any other form of infrastructure. It would reinstate onshore wind projects of more than 50 MW as nationally significant infrastructure projects, just like all other onshore forms of electricity generation; remove the obligation for pre-application consultation that currently exists only for onshore wind projects of two or more turbines; and require associated planning guidance to be brought back in line with that for other forms of generation. We strongly support it and urge the House to finally resolve this matter by doing the same.

Lords amendment 273 concerns mayoral control of police and crime commissioner functions. The Government have sought to ensure that metro Mayors are given the power to unilaterally take on those functions themselves without the consent of the constituent authorities of the relevant combined authority, and to do so from the point at which this Bill is given Royal Assent.

Photo of Paulette Hamilton Paulette Hamilton Labour, Birmingham, Erdington 2:15, 17 October 2023

Does my hon. Friend agree that people deserve to have their voices heard and to decide for themselves who they want to represent them as their police and crime commissioner?

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend is right. As I was about to say, we believe that this change is clearly driven by political expediency and is intended to facilitate the transfer of the PCC functions in the west midlands to its Mayor prior to the elections that will take place in May 2024. This is the latest attempt to achieve that end—a provision enabling the Mayor to expand the boundary of the West Midlands Combined Authority without the consent of the constituent authorities, having been defeated in the other place on 13 July. Lords amendment 273 does not engage with the substantive issue of whether a transfer on this basis is appropriate. All it seeks to do is to delay the point at which the measures contained in clause 59 come into force, so that this not insignificant change can be enacted in a considered manner after the next set of elections take place. The amendment has our support.

Finally, Lords amendment 329, which was tabled by Lord Best, would require local plans to identify the scale and nature of local housing need and to make provision for sufficient social rented housing so that homelessness and the use of temporary accommodation can be ended. The importance of this matter cannot be overstated. As a result of the reduced supply of genuinely affordable homes over the past 13 years, more than 1.2 million households languish on local authority waiting lists; millions of families are trapped in overcrowded or unsuitable properties; and, to our shame as a nation, the number of households in temporary accommodation, many of whom contain young children, surpassed 100,000 for the first time this year. National planning policy is clear that local plans should, as a minimum, provide for objectively assessed needs for housing, but we know that the true extent of local housing need, and in particular the need for social rented housing, is not often reflected in them.

We strongly support the principle that underpins Lords amendment 329: that local planning authorities should be required, rather than encouraged, to properly identify local housing need and plan to meet it. We recognise that the Government have made an important concession with their proposed amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 329, which would ensure that local plans must take account of an assessment of local housing need, including affordable housing need. However, the Government amendment in lieu falls short, in failing to require local planning authorities to plan to accommodate that identified need. For that reason, we are minded to support Lords amendment 329 today, with a view to encouraging the Government to consider whether they can move a little further on this matter.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

Having served on the Bill Committee for six months, I have to say to the Minister that I found it really disrespectful that she would not take my intervention; I am here to scrutinise the legislation. I say to my hon. Friend—the future Housing Minister—that I welcome our adoption of these measures to ensure that we get the right tenure, not least because of the housing crisis that I see in my constituency. Let me push him further by asking whether we will accept the principles of Lords amendment 46 on healthy homes and the built environment, because we know that housing is about not just bricks and mortar, but the environments in which people live.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I thank her again, as I did at the time, for the many months of work that she did on the Bill Committee. She is right to raise the point about healthy homes; we fully support the principles of that campaign. We disagree with the Government’s suggestion that the issue is already well addressed, and I gently encourage the Minister to continue the conversations that I believe the Government are having with Lord Crisp and the other proposers of that amendment in the other place.

To conclude, while we welcome a small number of the concessions that the Government have felt able to make to the Bill, we believe that most do not go far enough. This unwieldy and confused piece of legislation is flawed on many levels. We have an opportunity today to make modest but important improvements to it. On that basis, we urge the House to support the many reasonable amendments that the other place has sent to us.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons 2:30, 17 October 2023

I congratulate the Minister on the way she presented the Government’s approach to these over 100 amendments— on heaven knows how many pages, if one tries to read through them. I also congratulate the Opposition spokesperson, Matthew Pennycook, on martialling the points and presenting them in a way that the House can understand. In particular, I join him in saying to the Government that Lord Crisp’s proposals have much that should be incorporated.

Amendment 327, which would be inserted before schedule 7, talks about houses designed

“to provide year-round thermal comfort for inhabitants”; to have reduced opportunities for the “risk of crime”; to be free, as far as possible,

“from adverse and intrusive noise and light pollution”; and to ensure that

“living areas and bedrooms…have access to natural light”.

The amendment addresses a whole series of issues that did not get as much attention as they should have done. When developers are able to convert office blocks into homes, some of those homes are, frankly, substandard.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

I very much agree with the point that the Father of the House has just made. Does he agree that healthy homes should incorporate the idea of green space and more equitable access to good-quality green space within reach of those homes, as set out in the Lords amendment? We know about the improvements to physical and mental health that can come as a result of access to green space.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

The hon. Lady reminds me that I meant to say that when Dr Christopher Addison became the first Minister for Health in 1919, the first action he took was to help build social housing on a scale that would allow people’s health to be improved by living in far better environments, inside and outside their homes.

Yesterday, in levelling-up questions, the Secretary of State very kindly spoke clearly about the approach to the development at Lansdowne Nursery, on the A259 in my constituency, and the threat to Chatsmore Farm, in what is known locally as the Goring gap.

It is important that the words that the Secretary of State spoke yesterday should be passed on to planning inspectors, including the one in Arundel today, who is considering the appeal against the properly justified refusal of planning permission to put homes on the Lansdowne Nursery site.

I invite Ministers from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to come to my constituency—and to the constituents of my hon. Friend Andrew Griffith and my right hon. Friend Nick Gibb—to see how every bit of grass is under threat from opportunist developers.

Those developers have rightly been turned down by local authorities—boroughs and districts. They should be supported by planning inspectors, not at risk of what I would call “a rogue decision” by someone from Bristol.

Turning to amendment 22, after clause 70, the Government are wrong to ban parish councils from meeting remotely if they want to. Some parish councils cover a large area and many elderly people kindly serve on them. If they want to have a valid meeting, why can they not tune in, if they are ill, remote or for some other reason? It seems to me to be totally unnecessary for central Government to say to local councils, especially parish councils, “You cannot do that.” I hope that the Government will think again, if not in this Bill then in another one. Let people have autonomy and a degree of sovereignty. If their powers are limited, then how they use them should be up to them, in my view.

In amendments 242 and 243, Lord Young of Cookham has helped qualifying and non-qualifying residential leaseholders. I accept that the Government proposals are limited to residential leaseholders and do not cover commercial leaseholders.

What the House should not accept, and where the Government should think again, is why there has to be a distinction between qualifying and non-qualifying leaseholders. Many non-qualifying leaseholders have homes on which they cannot get a mortgage or sell, and on which they cannot avoid paying high annual costs, as well as remediation costs.

I repeat the question put by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, about what happens to people who have paid but who will now not qualify. Will the Minister give clear advice when she winds up, or in a later statement, on what happens to leaseholders facing claims for payment that they think they should not have to pay? Can people get out of this dilemma, which is caused by too many people in Government not understanding the legal status of residential leaseholders?

I do not believe that Dame Judith Hackitt understood it when she put forward her fire safety proposals, and I do not think the Government understood in the early days. Now that they do understand, will they please remove the distinction? The idea that if people live in homes below 11 metres they are not facing an un-mortgageable and unsellable home is wrong. Many people who have leasehold homes under that level are frankly in a dilemma that Government ought to be able to resolve.

I could go on for longer, but many other Members wish to speak. I congratulate those who have helped to improve the Bill. There are many elements that I support—the Government can take that for granted—but on issues where they are allowing injustice or ineffective approaches to continue, let us change that.

Let us be on the side of the 5 million to 6 million residential leaseholders whom we have ignored for too long, whose situation has been understood poorly. Now that it is understood better, we ought to allow them to have better, healthier, happier and more financially secure lives.

Photo of Anum Qaisar Anum Qaisar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Levelling Up)

This is my first scrutiny of Lords amendments as the SNP’s levelling-up spokesperson, so I would like to start by thanking my hon. Friends the Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for their work scrutinising the Bill so far.

Sarah Dyke is making her maiden speech today—I made mine just two years ago. With your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I were to give her any advice, it would be this: watch out for the grey hairs—you will get lots of them. Work in a collegiate manner—the public think that we in this place all hate each other, but we really do not. And wear trainers where possible.

I felt a tad left out earlier, because when the Minister went on her bizarre monologue about Labour and the Liberal Democrats, she left out the SNP. Does that reflect the fact that she does not think Scotland matters? That remains to be seen. The intention behind the Bill—to help areas across the four nations—is admirable. However, as per usual with this Tory Government, their aim is commendable but their journey towards that aim is terrible. The Bill is muddled, confused and not fit for purpose.

The Tory track record on levelling up is weak at best and politically motivated cronyism at worst. On the SNP Benches, we have been clear from the start that the Bill is simply not good enough. But, because of the approach that the Government have adopted, it is now doomed to fail, arguably like most of their policies. It pushes funding, which is so desperately needed in struggling areas across the four nations, to be allocated to boost support in politically beneficial regions.

Take Scotland, for example. The second round of levelling-up funding in January 2023 saw only £177 million distributed to a nation that was promised very much more. In Scotland we are continually told that we are in a Union of equals, yet that figure is only 8.4% of the possible £2.1 billion, meaning many local authorities, including North Lanarkshire in my Airdrie and Shotts constituency, have been left behind and forgotten by this Government. The Conservative Government cannot be trusted to level up Scotland. They have neither the will nor the desire to do so.

Photo of Anum Qaisar Anum Qaisar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Levelling Up)

I wish to make some progress, but I shall give way in a bit.

It will shock no one that the UK Government have sought to reduce the measures that are designed to increase scrutiny of levelling up. Lords amendment 1 would require the Government to produce a statement on their initial plans for levelling up within 30 days of the Bill becoming law. If levelling up is such a fundamental aim, then I do not quite understand why the Government are unable to produce such a statement to the House. The Minister’s opposition to Lords amendment 1 is, to my eyes, another example of this Government trying to evade scrutiny.

It should be noted that the Bill aims to tackle issues of the UK Government’s own creation. They say that they want to level up, but it is their policies that have resulted in years of austerity that have run infrastructure and services into the ground. There is little doubt that the situation has been made worse by the gross mismanagement of the economy by successive Conservative Governments since 2010.

I am also not surprised that the Government have sought to change Lords amendment 2, which would have ensured that reducing child poverty was a levelling-up mission. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to expand the impact of levelling up, the Minister seeks to drop this amendment. The Lords amendment was narrow in scope, seeking only to reduce the proportion of children living in poverty rather than seeing its complete eradication. Tackling child poverty is desperately needed. The Government’s action in this area stands in stark contrast to the efforts of the Scottish Government, for whom tackling child poverty and inequality more generally remains their main priority, with £4 billion being spent on targeted social security support. The Tory Government could look to copy the lead of the Scottish Government and prioritise tackling child poverty through levelling up, but they have made a conscious decision not to do so.

Politics is all about choices. The public should be aware that the Government had an opportunity, through Lords amendment 2, to include a mission to reduce the proportion of children in poverty as part of their levelling-up agenda, but they chose not to do so. But am I surprised that the party of the two-child cap has chosen to oppose measures to reduce child poverty? No. Yet this is an issue within the Westminster establishment, and the Conservatives are not alone in their beliefs on this. The Tory-lite Labour party are also supporters of the two-child cap.

The provisions in Lords amendments 3 and 4 would tackle geographical disparities in housing, education, private sector investment, public spending and health. All are aims that should be at the core of an effective levelling-up strategy. The UK Government should follow the Scottish Government’s approach of attempting to tackle geographical disparities and look to emulate their investment of more than £831 million in affordable and energy-efficient housing. The amendment in lieu put forward by the Government is a cop-out and barely pays lip service to countering geographical disparity and inequality.

Lords amendment 10 seeks to improve accountability and make it easier for councils to apply for funding. Additionally, it would put measures in place to prevent the Government from making politically motivated levelling-up decisions. It seeks to put in law that the Secretary of State sets out the application process and criteria for round 3 of levelling up. I do not understand why the Government are opposing that. The amendment seeks to set out measures in greater clarity to ensure that local authorities are in with a chance.

Over the last two rounds of levelling up, my constituency of Airdrie and Shotts has been unsuccessful, so ensuring that there is a requirement on the Department to set out the process and criteria would help my local authority—it is a Labour-run authority, but it would help them none the less—and, ultimately, my constituents in Airdrie and Shotts. If I were a cynic—I am not saying that I am—I would say that the UK Government have treated public funds for levelling up as an election tool, prioritising taxpayers’ money for their own constituencies —a tactic that the Prime Minister was not even trying to hide when he was Chancellor, publicly bragging about taking money from deprived areas and handing it to better-off areas in England. That was, of course, during the Tory leadership election, so perhaps he was hoping that no one was listening.

The system and mechanisms for allocating funding are broken and Lords amendment 10 seeks to fix that. Wales and Scotland are getting less levelling-up funding per person than England. Once again, we are seeing the Tories spending money that should be for Scotland on improving their own areas. We know what the Tories think of spending in Scotland. Those of us on the SNP Benches remember Boris Johnson, former Prime Minister and champion of levelling up, saying that a pound spent in Croydon

“is of far more value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde.”

Once again, the Government’s proposed changes to the amendment show the contempt that they have for scrutiny and allow them to continue their political cronyism when it comes to levelling-up funding.

Despite promising to put power back in the hands of local people, the amendments show that the Bill in its entirety is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt by Westminster to roll back on the devolution settlement. The Bill adopts a top-down approach that cuts out the democratically elected Scottish Parliament and its Ministers, in favour of decisions made in Whitehall. In the last Budget, the Chancellor announced several direct funding programmes in Scotland through the Government’s levelling-up fund—projects that totalled £172 million in spending. Those projects violated the devolution settlement, spending in areas that are explicitly devolved and undermining money that should have come to Scotland in the form of Barnett consequentials. It is not enough for the UK Government to seek support from the Scottish Government in the implementation of projects selected by Whitehall; the Scottish Government must be consulted at all stages, as was the case with EU funding. If the UK Government are serious about levelling up, they must respect devolution.

Photo of Anum Qaisar Anum Qaisar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Levelling Up)

No, I will not take an intervention. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to speak, I am sure that he can put in a card.

It is not surprising, but incredibly concerning, that the Tories are attempting to water down issues that would quite literally improve the quality of people’s lives. The Lords amendments could strengthen the Bill, but, at the end of the day, the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill was underwhelming in its inception: it will not level up the areas that need it the most; it will not work towards eradicating child poverty; and it will not increase the Government’s accountability. However, it will be another unsurprising Tory policy that hands more power to this untrustworthy Government and fails to deliver an ounce of what they promised. The reality for Scotland is that it is only through having the full powers of independence that we will truly unlock our ability to decide what is best for our diverse communities.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

It is a joy to have the opportunity to speak in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, because I can see the direct benefit that it will have for West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which I am proud to represent.

The ministerial team have been helpful in their dialogue with me on the needs of levelling up rural areas. I ought to say at this point that I chaired the all-party group on rural services. I want to refer to Lords amendment 6, which places a requirement on the Department to produce a rural-proofing report detailing ways in which the levelling-up missions have regard to their impact on rural areas and will address the needs of rural communities. As somebody who represents a large rural constituency of West Cornwall and Scilly, I cannot stress enough the importance of policy and measures actively designed to support the needs of rural communities. The House does not need me to remind it that the need to level up rural Britain is urgent and critical. Wages are lower, house prices are often higher, homes are more expensive to heat, delivering public transport and other services, such as social care, are more challenging, and the list goes on.

As I have said, I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the departmental team for their engagement with me. My right hon. Friend assures me that, rather than accept the Lords amendment, the Government will give greater force to the commitment to level up, and that they will be obliged to consider economic, social and other outcomes in setting up levelling-up missions, including the specific needs of rural communities. I welcome the acknowledgement that rural communities have a specific case worthy of consideration. In his concluding remarks, can the Minister explain in practice how the needs of rural communities will be addressed and not sidelined in favour of more densely populated areas, especially in relation to Cornish people who need secure, affordable housing.

In conclusion, I pay specific tribute to my hon. Friend Dehenna Davison, who, in her time in the Department, proved to be a good friend to Cornwall in our ambition to secure meaningful devolution and sought to address important gaps in the spreading of levelling up funding. Lords amendment 10 seeks to address areas that have been left behind and those gaps in levelling up and other regeneration funding. Such areas are looking to the Government to set out their approach to the third round of the levelling up fund.

One such area is Helston, an important town serving the Lizard peninsula and many other rural communities. Some 42,000 people live in and around Helston, which is famous for Flora Day and the Flora Dance, but is also known as one of the few towns in Cornwall that has missed out on much-needed levelling up and regeneration funding. A fantastic team, including Helston Town Council and many other important organisations in the town, have identified some critical projects designed to revive the town and make it a safer, healthier and wealthier area in which to live and work. I hope that the town will be successful in its future bids for levelling up funding, particularly in the very near future.

Photo of Sarah Dyke Sarah Dyke Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting me the opportunity to make my maiden speech today. I begin by paying tribute to my predecessor. The hon. Gentleman served his constituents over his tenure in Parliament, and I thank him for his service. He also spoke up for one of the major cultural exports in our region, cider.

Written records of cider production in Somerset exist from as early as the 12th century. Somerset has become synonymous with the cider industry and is proud to be its ancestral home. Cider is so important to our region that until the passing of the Truck Act 1887, which prohibited the practice, labourers were often paid in cider, with some of the top labourers often earning eight pints a day in payment. Although prohibited, I understand that the practice was slow to dry up in Somerset and continued well into the 20th century.

The industry today sustains thousands of jobs and hundreds of farmers. Our cider is renowned for its quality and I will champion the industry during my time here. Somerton and Frome is also a large agricultural base and is home to many of the country’s finest farmers and rural businesses, all producing food for our tables to high environmental and animal welfare standards. Farmers are essential to the UK economy and our way of life. We must back our hard-working farmers and provide them with a fair deal to ensure that we have food security long into the future.

I herald from a family that has been farming in the area for more than 250 years, so I will always stand up and fight for our farmers, who not only produce delicious and healthy food and drink, but protect our precious environment. The importance of improving the environment is critical to a rural area such as Somerton and Frome, because we face the effect of climate change first-hand and the damage it can cause will be devastating for our local communities. I am committed to campaigning on the issue and I call for the positive changes that we need to see.

It is an honour to be elected as the latest Liberal to represent the area, and I am proud to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Hughes and, more recently, David Heath, the last Liberal Democrat to represent the constituency. David is a true champion of this area who fought for 18 years for the people of Somerton and Frome. I thank him for all he has done in Somerset during his career. If I am able to achieve half of what he was able to do, I am confident I will have done a good job.

Leading women are often overlooked, and I would therefore like to recognise some of the pioneering women from my area. I am the second woman to represent the town of Frome, following on from Mavis Tate MP, who represented Frome from 1935 to 1945 and used Parliament to campaign for and champion women’s rights. Alice Seeley Harris, a documentary photographer who helped to expose human rights abuses in the Congo Free State under Leopold II of Belgium, also lived in Frome. Finally, I would like to mention Emma Sheppard, another Victorian pioneer who called for workhouse reform.

From people to places: let us take a short tour of the seat that I am so proud to represent. We start in Somerton, the ancient capital of Somerset, from which the county gained its name. The old English name for Somerset means “the people living at or dependent on Somerton”. The terms Somerton and Somerset derive from “the land of the summer people”, as Somerset was marshy and wet during the winter months and only dry and useful in the summer—that is, until the Somerset levels were drained by the monks to farm there during the middle ages.

We move on now to Langport, which is aptly named as it was a port town. Langport is the natural crossing point on the River Parrett, and the Royalist soldiers fled through the town while being pursued by Cromwell’s forces after the battle of Langport, held on Pict’s Hill nearby. It is also home to the Langport Mummers, who perform the Alfred play, based on King Alfred and his battle with Guthrum, the Viking. Alfred is known to have been based close to Langport before his battle with Guthrum’s great heathen army around the eighth century.

From the westernmost part of the constituency, we move to the south-eastern edge, to King Alfred’s Tower, which was built by Henry Hoare on the county border with Wiltshire. The folly tower is sited where King Alfred rallied his troops before defeating Guthrum and, in so doing, regaining control of Wessex. We must not leave this part of the constituency without mentioning Wincanton, which is close by. In 2002, Wincanton was twinned with Ankh-Morpork from Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series, making it perhaps the only place in the UK to be twinned with a place that does not exist.

Just north of Wincanton is the ancient Selwood Forest, which reaches north to Frome. Unfortunately, Selwood Forest is something of a rarity in Somerset, as the county only possesses 8% tree canopy cover. That figure signifies the urgent action needed for our environment, as does the lack of tree cover across the country. At the last election, all political parties pledged to increase tree cover across the country. I will be working hard throughout my time in Parliament to restore our natural environment, and I hope that progress continues to be made.

We emerge from the Selwood Forest into Frome, the home of JW Singer & Sons art metal works, which represents the industrial legacy of the town. The foundry used to produce iconic monuments such as Lady Justice on top of the Old Bailey. Closer to this place, in 1902, the magnificent statue “Boudicca and her Daughters” was assembled on the Thames Embankment on the south-west end of Westminster Bridge, where it stands today—quite some feat, given that JW Singer cast his first brass candlesticks in 1848 using turnips as moulds.

Turning to the current debate, too often when we talk about levelling up we think of urban areas in the north of England. There is no doubt that those areas need support, but rural communities such as mine are often forgotten, and without action they risk falling even further back. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who have worked hard to ensure that rural areas are not forgotten in this Bill. They have tabled amendments to improve rural bus services, which are sadly neglected in Somerton and Frome and other rural constituencies, and to introduce new planning classes for second homes and holiday lets, so that local authorities have more power to limit the impact on local housing supply.

Rural areas such as Somerton and Frome are suffering deeply with the cost of living crisis. The cost of housing is often disproportionate to the level of wages available, and people have to use their cars to travel further for work or to access services such as dentists, GPs, hospitals or schools.

Off-grid fuels have been significantly more expensive than gas in the heating of homes. I will work to ensure that off-grid rural homes never have to face this crisis again. That is why amendment 6, on producing a rural proofing report, is so important. I need not say that the cost of delivering services in rural areas is greater than in urban areas, so it is vital that the Bill takes that into account, and I am delighted that my Liberal Democrat colleagues in the other place have tabled that amendment. Although I am disappointed that the Government have not gone so far as to support the amendment entirely, their concession is welcome.

Finally, I would not be a Liberal Democrat if I did not mention the importance of local government. We desperately need more powers to be devolved to local government. However, I have deep concerns about the way in which that is sometimes done. Devolution should be implemented with an understanding of what the local area needs; just because it works well in one place in a certain way does not mean it will work in the same way across rural Somerset. I strongly urge the Government to give more powers to Somerset, but in consultation with the people of Somerset, so that we are given greater decision-making powers in our local area rather than just implementing what Westminster thinks we need.

I look forward to being a hard-working Member of this House and a great representative for Somerton and Frome. To all the people of Somerset: Sumorste ealle.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset 3:00, 17 October 2023

It is an absolute pleasure to follow Sarah Dyke. We have all been through either the thrill or the ordeal of our maiden speech, and many of us will look back with different emotions—pride, affection or regret. Hers was certainly one to be proud of. I am sure that the whole House will recognise that we have in her a Member of great calibre when it comes to speaking in the House. She paid a very generous tribute to her immediate predecessor, which I am sure many of us would echo. She spoke in staunch defence of the cider industry, which is perhaps one area in which I can genuinely offer my personal help for the profitability that she seeks. She set out a wide range of rural matters that are extremely important to those of us who represent different parts of Somerset.

The hon. Lady, in placing herself in context with a range of well-known predecessors from the part of the country that she represents, who were accomplished in different walks of life, demonstrated a lack of self-absorption that she will find somewhat rare in the House of Commons. I hope that she retains the refreshing self-effacing attitude that she brought to the House today. In the light of her top-to-bottom description of her constituency, if she were ever to leave this House, voluntarily or involuntarily, she is certainly likely to get a place on the Somerset tourist board.

I thank all those who brought the Bill this far. During her speech, the Minister referred to local plans, which are extremely important for my constituency. She said that it is not just the assessed housing need that matters but how much of that need can be accommodated in any one area. That matters hugely to a number of us. In North Somerset, for example, 40% of land is green belt, 30% is floodplain and 12% is in an area of outstanding natural beauty. One reason we are so delighted that the Government are abolishing the national housing targets is that they cannot be applied equally to areas with a lot of land that can be built on and areas where there are natural constraints. Such constraints are imposed by Government, who say, “You cannot build on green belt and you cannot build on floodplain.” It makes a lot of sense to hand the power back to local areas so that they can make decisions for themselves.

The removal of the five-year land bank is also an important increase in freedom for local authorities. I am delighted that, throughout the passage of the Bill, including in the other place, the Government put the protection of the green belt at the centre of what they were doing to stop urban sprawl—which, of course, we face in North Somerset as we are so close to Bristol—to protect our environment, as has been mentioned in relation to a number of issues, and to stop inappropriate development. That is likely to become an important election issue given that the Labour party has said that it will build on the green belt, and the Liberal Democrats have said that they will reintroduce national house building target numbers if they are able to do so.

I echo what a number of my colleagues said about encouraging nature recovery strategies in the amendments, as well as about banking hubs, which have been raised on a number of occasions. It is important in rural areas and small towns, particularly for the elderly, for those who are not necessarily computer-literate, and for those who find it difficult to travel, that we maintain some form of connection with traditional banking. I fully accept the Minister’s argument that these are market decisions to be taken by individual banks, but we cannot have banking deserts when our constituents need access to banking services.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

We often think about rural communities when discussing banking hubs, but my right hon. Friend’s point about banking deserts is equally important to constituencies such as mine, which now has only one bank left. Some in the banking sector think it is fine for my constituents to have to drive into Walsall or Sutton—it is not.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. It is incumbent on us all to work with Government and the banking sector to ensure that our constituents have access. She makes a good point: the lack of access was previously more pertinent to rural locations, but then it applied to smaller villages, then smaller towns, and now even larger towns face the situation that she describes.

I wish to make two points to the Minister, one of which I raised during an intervention when I asked, “When will we see the new NPPF?” She indicated that we will see it as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent. I hope that means that we will have the new NPPF by the time we get to Prorogation, which is not far off. I am sure that we will all hold the Minister to account for the very welcome timeline that she placed on that today.

I would like the Minister to consider one issue above all else, and to respond to it during the debate. There will be a hiatus between the passage of the legislation and its implementation date, but planning permission requests for housing developments will still be made. Will the Minister make it clear that the Planning Inspectorate needs to take into account this legislation, rather than the previous NPPF, when considering such planning applications? It would be quite wrong and profoundly undemocratic if both Houses produced legislation along the lines that the Government have proposed but planning inspectors applied an older version of the NPPF, thereby allowing planning applications that are clearly against the expressed will of Parliament to be approved. We cannot have unelected inspectors making decisions against what this Parliament has clearly decided. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance in her wind-up that, for any planning applications in that hiatus, instructions will be given to the planning inspectorate that it is expected to follow what the Government have set out in the legislation.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats

First, I associate myself with the remarks of the Father of the House, Sir Peter Bottomley. I agreed with almost all his points, including on having the right measures in place to stop opportunistic developers, on supporting virtual meetings of local government, and especially on leaseholders.

May I reiterate my support for some of the comments made by Dr Fox, particularly his call for a timeline for the national planning policy framework update? The Minister will be aware that I have tabled a number of written questions asking her to clarify for the record the status of that consultation. She has very kindly confirmed that it is just a consultation. There is a lot of confusion among my constituents, who believe that the NPPF has already been updated when it has not. I therefore associate myself with the other Members across the House who want to see the NPFF updated—in the Minister’s words—“as soon as possible”.

I rise to oppose the Government’s motion to reject Lords amendment 82, on planning application fees. Ministers will know that I originally tabled this amendment to the Bill 11 months ago, and in March I also tabled a presentation Bill that would have had the same effect. I had a number of meetings with the Minister to explain the reasoning behind this amendment.

My amendment, ultimately, is very simple. At the moment, a Government-imposed cap on planning fees means that local authorities cannot charge big developers the true cost of processing their applications, and the result of that is scandalous. In 2020-21, council tax payers across England effectively subsidised big developers to the tune of almost £2 billion. In St Albans district alone, the figure was a shocking £3.2 million. That’s right: during the biggest cost of living crisis in recent history, taxpayers in St Albans district are subsiding big developers to the tune of £3 million a year.

The Government themselves have recognised this problem. They have run a consultation and agreed to raise the cap on planning fees, but they still refuse to scrap it altogether. According to a “Dear colleague” letter that was circulated yesterday, the reasons are twofold. The first is that the costs might become inconsistent between local authorities. All I would say to that is that planning fees are less than 5% of all professional fees, and that would not cause a huge problem. The second argument is that it would not provide any incentives to tackle inefficiencies in planning departments. I think it is fair to say that local authorities are not awash with cash at the moment, so that is a pretty spurious argument.

The fact is that planning services up and down the country are operating on a shoestring. Funding cuts mean that in many cases, planning departments can no longer even meet their statutory time limits to determine planning applications. Developers and householders find their proposals delayed, in some cases for many months, as councils lack the resources to process them. The Local Government Association says that the current Government caps are

“resulting in significant capacity and skills challenges” and “undermining” councils’ ability to deliver the quality housing and infrastructure that communities desperately need. It also says that

“councils must have the ability to set planning fees at a level which cover the true costs of processing applications” if they are to improve the system to the benefit of both communities and developers.

This amendment would allow local councils to put an end to developer subsidies and take steps to pass on the costs of planning applications to those who submit them. Let us look at one specific example. As it stands, a multibillion-pound developer with an incredibly complex development is not obliged to contribute any more than £116 to have each of its planning conditions discharged. In 2014, the Conservative Government decided that a freight terminal the size of 480 football pitches should be built in my constituency of St Albans.

Where the Government decide to build a big piece of infrastructure in a constituency, it is up to the developer to decide whether it wants to enter into a voluntary planning performance agreement and to agree to pay non-statutory fees—effectively volunteering to pay additional fees—for the delivery of a larger site. Some developers do enter into such agreements, but some do not, and there is currently no obligation for them to do so. Where they do not, there are considerable resource implications for local authorities that are trying to discharge planning conditions imposed by Whitehall. Many constituents can face years of misery and chaos due to the construction of a large site and end up paying the developers’ planning costs. It is absurd, and it is unfair.

This vast underfunding also leaves effective planning enforcement activity a distant memory for most people in England. I am sure colleagues across the House will recognise that portrait. What is more, as planning departments across the country struggle with fewer qualified planning officers, developers and applicants say they are willing to pay what it costs to ensure they get a better service. In the light of big developers being prepared to pay this money, it is inconceivable that the Government would tie local authorities’ hands behind their backs by rejecting the amendment.

Government’s refusal to allow local councils to pass on the true costs to developers is lumbering local people with poor planning services and delaying the delivery of sustainable housing, with unscrupulous developers not brought to account for breaching planning conditions in a timely way. All the while, local residents are subsidising big developers. There is no excuse for that to continue. I urge Members across the House to support Lords amendment 82 and oppose the Government’s attempts to vote it down.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

There are many amendments to consider this afternoon, but I assure you that I will keep my comments very brief and specific, Madam Deputy Speaker. I rise to speak about Lords amendment 44, which was clearly designed to address what some of us see as a deficit when it comes to scrutiny.

Given that national development management policies are about how land is used in England and are a cornerstone of the planning reforms in the Bill, it is really important that we look at them carefully. I, like many others in this place, have long been concerned that NDMPs run contrary to localism. They reduce transparency and, importantly, local participation in plan making. I fear that they will take priority over local plans, with no guarantees of public consultation. For me, that is what really matters.

In a constituency such as mine, Aldridge-Brownhills, on the edge of Birmingham, local people need and expect to have their voices heard, particularly through parliamentary scrutiny. We saw that only last year with the “Black Country Plan”. I see that there is another Member from the Black Country in the Chamber, my hon. Friend Mike Wood, and he will know exactly where I am coming from. That plan was designed to pull all the local authorities together to look at housing need across the west midlands. Areas such as mine were at serious risk of having swathes of houses built on our precious green belt. Thankfully, thanks to scrutiny, transparency and the voice of local people and locally elected councillors and parliamentarians, the plan was dropped, and our local council is now able to continue working on the local plan.

On Lords amendment 44, I am pleased that the Government have listened and tabled an amendment that will place consultation on a legislative footing, but I would like to press the Minister on this. Government amendment (b) to Lords amendment 44 states:

“The only cases in which no consultation or participation need take place… are those where the Secretary of State thinks that none is appropriate”.

I would like to understand exactly what we mean by that. It is vital that we get this right. We have one opportunity to get it right and, if we do not, I fear that areas such as mine and the edges of the communities that I represent will continue to be under threat.

Our much loved green belt and our green spaces mean so much to us. We are not anti-housing, but we want houses in the right places, and we want a mix of housing. As the Minister will be aware, we have lots of brownfield across the west midlands. She spoke about the brownfield-first approach. I think it was the West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, who championed brownfield first. I, among others, have spoken many times in the Chamber in favour of that.

Finally, I want to touch on the duty to co-operate, which is often at the heart of the problems that constituencies such as mine face. I seek clarity from the Minister today, or in writing from the Secretary of State after the debate, as to what we mean when we refer to the alignment policy. I sincerely hope that this is not simply a relabelling of the duty to co-operate.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government) 3:15, 17 October 2023

I draw Members’ attention to my role as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Sarah Dyke on her excellent maiden speech; I know she is going to join her Liberal Democrat colleagues in being an excellent champion for rural communities. There is a lot to get through, so I am going to restrict my comments to a specific number of amendments that I think are particularly important. However, it is important to acknowledge that 418 amendments were made to this legislation in the Lords, which is testament to the fact that it was a confused piece of legislation and possibly poorly drafted in the first place.

As we have just heard, Lords amendment 44 requires national development management policies to be reviewed through public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny. NDMPs offer a bold change to the planning system, and the Bill grants them primacy over local plans if they are in conflict. However, there was no provision in the initial Bill for NDMPs to be scrutinised by Parliament or the public. The Government have tabled an amendment in lieu, but that amendment still allows the Secretary of State to avoid parliamentary and public scrutiny and block any community intervention in the implementation of policy. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches strongly believe that Government should be scrutinised by Parliament, rather than just being able to dictate planning policy from the top, and that Lords amendment 44 was superior to the Government’s amendment in lieu.

I would also like to highlight Lords amendment 82. Earlier this year, the National Audit Office found that local authority planning services have been cut by £1.3 billion over the 10-year period to 2020. The Government have acknowledged the issue and agreed to increase planning fees by 35% for major applications and 25% for all other applications, but there is an issue with that: those percentage increases do not account for regional differences in cost. Who is left to pick up the bill for all these costly planning applications? As we have just heard from my hon. Friend Daisy Cooper, it is council tax payers. Setting a national percentage increase in planning fees is a pretty sloppy solution: it will not cover the cost of the applications, but it will burden council tax payers who are already struggling with the cost of living crisis. As such, I urge the Government to consider adopting amendment 82, which would allow local authorities to set appropriate fees for planning applications.

On Lords amendment 241, quality education and quality healthcare require quality facilities. Since the start of this academic year, 147 schools across England have been forced to close because their buildings have been found to include reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, or RAAC. That has impacted well over 100,000 students, with many being forced into e-learning at home. This is a generation whose education has already suffered during the pandemic; it is not really good enough to keep them away from classrooms now because the buildings they learn in are at risk of falling down. Of course, it is not just schools that have been found to be in a state of disrepair: multiple NHS trusts have confirmed that hospitals are crumbling around their staff and their patients. For that reason, the Liberal Democrats support Lords amendment 241, which requires the Government to keep a register of schools and hospitals that are in serious disrepair and update that register regularly, so that there is full transparency about the problem and Government can be held to account for ensuring its speedy rectification.

I move on to the proposed removal of subsection (5) of the new clause in Lords amendment 231, which prevents regulations under that clause from amending provisions in the Building Safety Act relating to building safety committees and building safety reporting. That is particularly relevant to the condition of electrical installations, stairs and ramps, emergency egress for disabled people, and automatic water fire suppression systems in relevant buildings. We do not need to be reminded that the Building Safety Act was passed only last year. I am at a bit of a loss as to why the Government would want to start undermining its provisions so soon, particularly since lots of buildings have not yet been made safe in the wake of the Grenfell disaster, despite that being so many years ago. I welcome the Minister’s reassurances from the Dispatch Box that those provisions would not be used in practice, but that begs the question: if they are not intended to be used, why are they included in the legislation? Again, I urge the Government to keep subsection (5) of the new clause in amendment 231.

I also want to talk a bit about Lords amendment 6, which a number of Members have already spoken about. Levelling up was meant to spark life across the whole country: not just the south-east or northern towns, but rural parts of Britain that sometimes conceal their deprivation behind a veil of beautiful greenness. Others have already highlighted this issue. I know as a rural MP that, while it is a privilege to live in a rural area, it does not come without drawbacks. Some 13% of my constituency of North Shropshire has hardly any mobile connection, and only 46% of rural businesses have a decent 4G broadband connection. There is only one bus on a Sunday, as Members will have heard me say on multiple occasions, and poor connections throughout the week mean that young people are missing out on opportunities to access further education and, critically, businesses are missing out on the skilled labour they need to thrive and expand.

As Derek Thomas pointed out, the logistics of living in the countryside mean that council services cost more. Council taxes are up to 20% higher than in urban areas, while rural workers are paid 7.5% less on average than their urban colleagues and are faced with house prices that—if we exclude London—are often over eight times higher. Sadly, those differences were not recognised in the original drafting of the Bill. I support the concessions the Government have made in relation to amendment 6: they are taking steps in the right direction, and I think those concessions have been entered into in good faith. While I support them, I would have preferred Lords amendment 6 to have been retained in its entirety.

Finally, I will speak to Lords amendment 329, which deals with local housing. The amendment specifies that

“The local plan must identify the local nature and scale of housing need…and must make provision for sufficient social rent housing, to eliminate homelessness” and provide a home for the more than 1 million people who are currently on social housing waiting lists. Again, the Government’s amendment in lieu is a positive step, but it does not go far enough in tackling the scourge of homelessness.

I am sure the Minister was avidly watching Liberal Democrat conference at the beginning of conference season, but I am afraid she has slightly misunderstood Lib Dem policy, which offered to deliver 150,000 social homes a year for people who are facing homelessness and temporary accommodation. However, despite our very Lib Dem debate about whether we should set targets from the bottom up or the top down, that policy also emphasised the importance of bringing the local community with us—of building those needs and requirements into the local plan and ensuring that we build the right housing in the right place, with the right infrastructure and the consent of the local community. It is a shame that the Government are criticising us for providing a way for young people to aspire to home ownership and to get people out of the terrible situation of not having a safe and secure home to go to. Amendment 329 needs to be retained in full, and we will therefore be supporting the retention of the original Lords amendment.

In conclusion, the Bill is so long and complex; it has not been a masterpiece of legislation, and there is much confusion involved in it. I urge the Minister to take on board some of the comments that have been made today by colleagues on both sides of the House, who have made some excellent recommendations and suggestions, so that we can improve the Bill a bit before it goes to its next stage.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

First, I wish to address the question of housing supply in the national planning policy framework, amendment 44 and others. I support the Government in rejecting the Lords amendments—in most cases, those amendments make the Bill worse—but we need greater clarity from the Government about how the national planning policy framework and the definition of needs in any national intervention relate to what is done locally. The Minister has been a clear advocate of more devolved power, and the one power my local community would like is more power to decide how many houses we can fit in and where they could be built. That is not clear yet, and I look forward to further clarification and further documentation.

I am pleased that the five-year supply of land calculation has been amended, because that was causing considerable trouble. Wokingham Borough Council was more than hitting the five-year target, but we were constantly told by inspectors that we were not, because they calculated the numbers in a different, and we thought rather perverse, way. We never got any credit for greatly outperforming the average that we were meant to be building under the local plan, with all the difficulties that were being created by people living on many building sites in the local area.

That brings me on to the amendments and the debate, and the commentary that we have been hearing on the general issue of levelling up—the subject of the Bill—and how that relates to devolved government. I remind all parties in the House who have a fit of enthusiasm for the proposition that more devolved government will naturally lead to levelling up to look at the experience so far. They should understand that there are many occasions on which devolved powers are created or granted when levelling up does not occur or when things even go backwards. I will not argue with the decisions of the many local communities who have voted fairly in a referendum to have various types of devolved government. I am a great supporter of referenda and a great respecter of their results. I am not urging changes to the current complex structure of devolved government, but that should not stop us analysing whether it is working and whether it can be improved within its own terms and in how it operates.

The biggest example of devolved government is the devolved Government of Scotland. It is now a good time to review how well that has been working, because we were told that devolution would boost the Scottish growth rate and improve Scottish public services relative to public services elsewhere. So far this century—the period in which we have experienced devolved government with considerable powers—Scotland has always had considerably more money per head for public services than England, yet the Scottish growth rate has been lower than the English growth rate.

Scotland comes into the House today to demand bigger levelling-up moneys, because clearly more than two decades of Scottish independent government in many areas has not levelled Scotland up yet. We need to ask why that has failed. What was wrong with the conduct of the SNP Government and, before that, were there defects in the Labour-led Government in Scotland? How could future Governments in Scotland use those powers and the considerable sums of money granted to better effect?

What matters is which parts of the country attract most of the private investment. For all the public investment that Governments have put in, it will always be greatly exceeded by the total amount of private sector investment, because in our more free enterprise society, our private sector economy is still larger than the public sector economy, unlike in true socialist or communist states. That private investment is often the driver of many of the better-paid jobs and levelling-up opportunities that can then be created.

I am keen that we get a better balance in where new housing is built not so much because of the impact that I see of too much housing being put up in a hurry in my area, but because I think that more of that investment should go to places that want levelling-up moneys and that need a better balance of development. Those places could do with a lot of the private investment that all too often comes to parts of the country that do not qualify for levelling-up money.

Every time I get a new housing estate in Wokingham, I have to go to a Minister and say, “We need a new primary school.” After we have had half a dozen new housing estates, as we regularly do, I have to go and say, “We need a new secondary school.” Those are big ticket items, and that is big public sector investment that has to go to a part of the country that does not need to be levelled up. More difficult is trying to get money for roads, because we have this strange idea that we can put as many housing estates as we like into a place like Wokingham and magically our existing road network will take it when people buy those houses and practically all of them have cars; well, it cannot. We then need bypasses, extra road capacity or extra train capacity. We need the utilities to put in more water and electricity capacity, otherwise we have the embarrassment that we have lovely new houses, but it is difficult to hitch them up to a grid that works. There are great pressures and huge amounts of consequential investment from the new housing that comes into a congested area of the country that does not qualify for levelling up.

I urge all parties to do a little more thinking about how we level up areas and to ask why it is that so many people wish to visit huge amounts of private sector housing investment in places that are levelled up, while starving the rest of the country of it, when it is often the motor of the levelling up that they seek.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham 3:30, 17 October 2023

It is always a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend John Redwood, who as ever spoke with sense and clarity. I have been heavily involved with this Bill throughout its passage, not least when sitting on the Bill Committee for six months. The Bill has been materially improved as we have gone through the process. I am not saying that it is all the way there yet, but it has been materially improved along the way. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the time she has given me and right hon. and hon. Friends over recent days and weeks to engage on the substance of the Bill.

I start with Lords amendment 239 and the Government amendments in lieu that will remove the restrictions that have perversely persisted in the childcare system and local government for some time. I will not rehearse the arguments that were well made in the House last night in a general debate led by my hon. Friend Mr Walker about the supply and demand challenges in childcare, but I genuinely believe that the Government amendments in lieu will make a big difference to the provision of childcare, which presents challenges in many of our communities.

I want briefly to add my voice to the debate about Lords amendment 22 on the challenging question of virtual meetings in local government. I have said before and I maintain my position that I hate virtual meetings. I cannot stand them and would always much rather meet someone in person. However, the Bill talks much about local decision making, devolution and letting people decide, and there is overwhelming demand—the evidence from the National Association of Local Councils shows that some 90% of town and parish councils want the ability to hold virtual meetings in some way to expand the ability of people to participate—so it is beyond me why we cannot in some way permit such local decision making to take place.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

The hon. Member is making a very good point, and I agree with him entirely. It is really important to expand the range of people who have access to becoming a local councillor. People are not paid to be a full-time councillor, so they need to be given lots of opportunities to get to meetings and participate fully. Does he agree that this is a really important point about expanding representation?

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

I do agree with the fundamental principle of expanding accessibility and the ability for people to take part in local government, particularly those heroes who are completely unpaid and unremunerated for the many hours they put in to town and parish councils around the country. Like the hon. Lady, I represent an entirely rural constituency, where parishes are often quite big. To look back to my own local government days in my 20s, I was a councillor in a London borough that was smaller, at 6.1 square miles, than every parish in the 335 square miles I am lucky enough to represent today. We have to look at the distances, even within a parish, that some people have to endure to go to a planning meeting or to get their voice heard on the very local issues that their town or parish council is determining. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to reflect on whether there is a way the Government can meet local demand for allowing, at least in part, some virtual access to local democracy.

The bulk of the Bill is about planning reform, and the lion’s share of the amendments we are considering relates to planning reform. It is a Bill that will affect every community across our entire United Kingdom, and the lens through which I look at a number of the amendments is to ask: do these amendments support, do nothing to, or hinder the so-called December compromise? That is the compromise that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agreed with me and a number of right hon. and hon. Friends last December, not least my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers and my hon. Friend Bob Seely.

I shall start with Lords amendment 6 on the question of rural proofing. I absolutely and totally support locking into the Bill the concept of rural proofing, but there are a number of points I would ask the Minister to reflect on while making this particular commitment. Of course, anybody can say that they are going to “have regard to” anything at all. When I find myself in the supermarket with my children, I could have regard to their demand to put only chocolate, crisps and ice cream into the trolley. It does not mean that I am necessarily going to follow through on that, in my view, unreasonable demand. Much of the legislation we pass in this place can be judged upon, and under a legal challenge it is not unknown for the judiciary to look back at what was said at the Dispatch Box. I would therefore find it incredibly helpful if the Minister, in summing up, expanded a little on how the Government see that rural proofing. What are the defining principles of the rural proofing that the amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 6 talk about?

Inextricably linked to that has to be the content of the new national planning policy framework. It is a frustration that we are unable to see the final text of the NPPF until after the Bill achieves Royal Assent, not least because there are a lot of points that some of us fought hard for in the earlier stages of our consideration of the Bill that we were promised would be in the new NPPF and that will help to define this question of rural proofing. In particular, I was pleased to secure an amendment to the NPPF through the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan that explicitly changes the old language around

“best and most versatile agricultural land” to the very tightly defined and binary question of land used in food production. That is because “best and most versatile” was always a lawyers’ paradise—a subjective test that could be argued to the nth degree. Changing the wording to protections for land used in food production makes it binary: it either is or is not. That will give clarity to planning authorities up and down the land when considering applications within our rural communities. I fear that food security is playing second fiddle to energy security when we see the vast swathes of solar applications and, likewise, the level of commercial and housing planning applications on agricultural land —on land used for food production. I include in that category 3b land, which is what most of my constituency is. It still manages to produce 10-tonne-a-hectare wheat yields, to graze cattle and sheep, and to produce the food we all like to eat.

The point I am getting to is that it is incumbent on the Government to recognise within rural proofing that rural needs to remain rural. Without farming—without agriculture, without farmers—there is no rural, because it is the farmers who maintain the landscape: it is the farmers who cut the hedges and keep our countryside as beautiful as it is. If we do not have that, there will be knock-on consequences on everything else that happens in the countryside, not least on the backbone of many rural economies: tourism. If it is not beautiful and it has all become solar farms, housing or commercial warehouses, we will not have the tourism offer either. I therefore encourage the Minister, when summing up, to reassure the House that in respect of the amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 6, rural proofing really does mean keeping the rural rural.

Turning to Lords amendment 44, I have considerable concern that when so much of the December compromise was about vesting local decisions in the hands of local authorities—in the hands of local people, where I believe decisions on planning matters absolutely should be taken, whether on housing need, commercial development or developments to do with energy security—the national development management policies are explicitly listed in the Bill as having primacy over those local decision-making mechanisms. I welcome the amendment in lieu that the Government have tabled to extend consultation to some degree; my initial preference was that the full parliamentary scrutiny lock that the Lords suggested would have been the preferable measure.

I ask the Minister and the wider Government to find a way of absolutely ensuring that when we say that local decision making is paramount, we really mean it and that there are not those get-out clauses that sometimes a statutory consultation simply cannot answer. Otherwise, we will set a dangerous precedent where people put in place their local plans and neighbourhood plans and believe that they are in control, but then a national monster—in whatever form it takes—comes along and walks all over that. The people of Buckinghamshire are all too aware of that with certain infrastructure projects being built through the county right now—I never miss an opportunity to get that in, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I associate myself with the comments made by my right hon. Friend Dr Fox, although he has left his place, about the Planning Inspectorate. I urge the Minister to consider his comments on that carefully.

Lastly, I turn to Lords amendment 80, on flooding. Across Buckinghamshire and my Buckingham constituency, there have been countless examples of houses in particular built in the floodplain. These are houses that the local authority turned down but the Planning Inspectorate granted. Then—surprise, surprise—when flooding issues have come along, the developer has raised the level of the houses, in some cases by in excess of a metre, so that, when the land does flood, it floods not the new homes that it has sold for in excess of £1 million but the existing houses that surround it.

I think of one example in the village of Ickford in my constituency where that very thing happened—I even stood in my wellies in the flood waters before the foundations were dug on the development. The houses were then built with whopping great slopes in the back gardens leading to the existing homes, and when the new owners move in and try to dig their gardens to plant flower beds, doing all the things people love to do in their gardens—surprise, surprise—they find that they quickly hit layers of rubble and stone where the developers have raised the land by that height. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider how we can look at Lords amendment 80 much more carefully and properly stop the perversity of house builders being allowed to build in these floodplains, often hiding behind expert evidence they paid for and controlled, which it is difficult for others to give proper scrutiny to and disprove, even though everyone in the neighbourhood—that village, town or wherever it might be—will tell them straight down the lens, “That land floods, and if you build houses on it, those houses will flood too.”

The Bill is materially better than when we started with it last year. I repeat my thanks to my hon. Friend the Minister for the engagement she has given and urge her to push that little bit further in order to iron out those final gremlins and get it to being a Bill that communities can be really confident will protect them.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet 3:45, 17 October 2023

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Greg Smith. I rise to give my general support to the Bill and to speak to that, as well as to reflect on some of the housing and planning issues, which are relevant to many of the amendments, including Lords amendment 44 on national development management policies, which several hon. Members have referred to.

But I will first say a quick word of welcome and support for additional protections for ancient woodland, which are much needed for conserving valuable habitats. I also add my voice to those urging Ministers to consider in their discussions with the other place whether they could accept some flexibility in allowing councils to meet remotely in certain circumstances. During the covid emergency, we saw how, in some ways, the ability to meet virtually did have advantages. We see the Planning Inspectorate using virtual meetings very well—and it is not often that I say positive things about the Planning Inspectorate. That is something for the Minister to reflect on in relation to Lords amendment 22.

Turning to the general issues on housing delivery that are envisaged by a number of amendments, excessive housing targets have been making it harder and harder for councils to turn down bad development proposals. That is leading to the loss of agricultural, greenfield and, in some cases, green-belt land, and to increasing pressure to urbanise the suburbs. Plans for blocks of flats, including some massive tower blocks, are appearing all over my constituency and the surrounding area. To name just a few of the problematic proposals, there is the North London Business Park, Victoria Quarter, The Spires, Whalebones, High Barnet tube station, Cockfosters tube station, Barnet House and, last but not least, Edgware town centre, where the centrepiece is proposed to be a 29-storey apartment blocks. It is just relentless.

Where councils refuse applications, planning inspectors can often overturn the decision on the basis that the development is needed to meet the target. That was why, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham and for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), I tabled new clause 21 on Report, which obtained the backing of 60 Members of the House. In response, the Secretary of State brought forward important concessions to give communities greater control over what is built in their neighbourhood, in what has become known as the December compromise. But I am afraid that the battle is not over. We need to see the reform delivered. The extent to which the compromise fixes current problems depends on how it is implemented in the new national planning policy framework, which has yet to be published. I join others in calling for that to happen as quickly as possible, although I put on record my thanks to the Secretary of State for today’s briefing from officials on what the new NPPF is likely to contain.

The consultation on the NPPF promised that brownfield development would be prioritised over greenfield, but we need more detail, and certainty on how that “brownfield first” approach will be delivered in practice. Even on brownfield sites, it remains crucial to respect matters relating to local suburban character and density. Brownfield first does not mean a brownfield free-for-all. The Secretary of State crucially promised that if meeting the top-down target involves building at densities that are significantly out of character with the area, a lower target can be set in the local plan. If the Bill is to deliver real change, we need to know that a substantial proportion of councils are likely to be able to benefit from that new flexibility, and depart from the centrally determined top-down target. That is the only way to ensure that the centrally determined target will become, as the Secretary of State has promised, an advisory starting point rather than a mandatory end result.

The Secretary of State also promised to clip the wings of the Planning Inspectorate. That means firm and clear instructions need to be given to the inspectorate to accept local plans from councils based on reasonable evidence. Scrapping the duty to co-operate was another promise but, according to the consultation document, the NPPF envisages that it will be replaced by an unspecified alignment policy. We do not yet know whether the duty to co-operate is being scrapped or just re-labelled. We need to understand what that alignment policy will involve.

Turning to Lords amendment 44 on national development management policies, local development management policies provide a bulwark of defence against overdevelopment, for example by constraining height, preventing family homes being replaced by blocks of flats or providing extra protection for green spaces. What is proposed in the Bill is central control over these policies by replacing them with national development management policies. That is quite a radical change—probably one of the most radical planning changes in the Bill. It undermines the long-standing principle that the local plan has primacy. Ministers say that is not intended, but NDMPs could still be used, in theory, to re-write more or less the entire planning system, which would significantly restrict local decision making.

I welcome the Government’s amendment to ensure that NDMPs are consulted on, but I urge them to consider going further and accept that there must also be parliamentary scrutiny. NDMPs, as the shadow Minister was correct to point out, will have a more widespread impact than national policy statements, which tend to be focused on a single sector or even a single project. It is therefore only reasonable to apply standards of scrutiny to NDMPs that are equivalent to those applying to NPSs, and that is what amendment 44 would do. It would be useful for the Government to look further at that point.

Finally, I welcome the indication by Ministers that the flexibilities contained in the December compromise will apply in London, but there is still an urgent need to curb the power of the Mayor to impose targets on the boroughs. He has used the London plan to try to load additional housing delivery obligations on to the suburbs, especially on boroughs, such as Barnet, that have already built thousands of new homes. We are the party that promised to scrap regional targets, but regional targets are alive and kicking in our capital city.

Crucial progress on rebalancing the planning system has been made as a result of the engagement between Ministers and Back Benchers on new clause 21 on Report and engagement throughout the parliamentary scrutiny process. If properly implemented, the December compromise will give communities a greater say on what is built in their area, while also accelerating the delivery of new homes, especially on the inner-city brownfield sites referred to by the Secretary of State in his long-term plan for housing published in July.

But all that would be at risk if there was a Labour Government. They want to rip up the rules that have protected green-belt land for decades, leaving us vulnerable to urban sprawl and jeopardising precious habitats. Moreover, the Leader of the Opposition is clear that local voices will be “ignored” in the planning system if he ever gets the keys to Downing Street. That is a grave threat to the local environment in my constituency and it is one of many reasons why I will be campaigning so hard to return another Conservative Government and a fifth historic election victory next time around.

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield

I am really pleased to see the Bill finally back in this place—it has been a while. I remember saying to a former Housing Minister a year or so ago—one of several former Housing Ministers—when the planning elements were introduced to what was previously quite a tightly written regeneration and devolution Bill, that it might cause some challenge and delay that was perhaps not entirely necessary. But here we are. I will leave it to your judgment, Mr Deputy Speaker, whether I have been proven right or not.

I do not want to talk about planning, actually. I want to talk about the key thing in the Bill for my part of the world, which is the element of levelling up, regeneration and devolution. There are a number of elements and amendments I want to touch on. First, I want to mention something that is slightly aside from that, which is Lords amendment 22. The Levelling Up Minister, my hon. Friend Jacob Young, will not be surprised—I have already had this conversation with him—that I agree with the Father of the House, my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley, who is no longer in his place.

When we have a Bill that seeks to devolve powers down to local government, it seems a little bit mad to be so prescriptive from Westminster on whether and how they hold their meetings, for example on whether they could do so in a hybrid way. A number of colleagues on the Government Benches have expressed reservations about that, perhaps on the basis that local government leaders might all go off and hold their annual budget meeting entirely on Teams, but I do not think that would happen. As the Father of the House said, it would give small rural parish councils, which are manned largely by volunteers, the flexibility to be more accessible. My deputy leader is currently unwell and cannot drive, but he would still be able to attend hybrid meetings if that were allowed. Flexibility in a Bill that aims, overall, to pass more powers down to local government would be a welcome and consistent thing.

That said, many of the elements of the Bill are really positive and important. The devolution element in particular and the creation of the county combined authorities is the thing that unlocks devolution and investment for the east midlands, and for Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, for the first time. That is a really exciting prospect. We saw in the Prime Minister’s conference speech last week £1.5 billion of additional transport funding for my constituency, county and region in the next term of the combined authority, with elections to be held, subject to the passage of the Bill, in May 2024.

That £1.5 billion for two counties the size of ours over such a short period—it is a five-year settlement—is a huge amount of money and presents a huge opportunity by bringing into scope many of the road and rail projects for which our area has been waiting a very long time. As a result of all the local nuances, such as low land values, we have never managed to get those projects to the top of the Treasury’s Green Book list—we have never managed to make them into national priorities—but they are local priorities, and for the first time they will be deliverable at a local level, which is very exciting. My constituents will take heart from the fact that, for instance, the Robin Hood and Maid Marian lines, which we have been talking about for a decade, will now be in our gift, subject to the passage of the Bill.

I entirely agree with the Government’s stance in rejecting Lords amendments 13 and 14. I am directly involved in the negotiations on the delivery of the structure and voting rights of district councils in our proposed East Midlands combined county authority, and we have had a very constructive relationship. They have lobbied me to vote in favour of Lords amendment 13, and, because of the importance and value of that relationship, I want to explain my reasoning very clearly.

I think the Government are doing the right thing in rejecting the amendment because of the premise of creating combined county authorities. In previous iterations, we have not been able to secure the unanimity across 18 districts and boroughs that would allow us to deliver devolution. If they had all agreed to be full members of the combined authority we could have done that eight years ago, at the time when the West Midlands and Greater Manchester did it, but because we have not been able to find the necessary consensus we have missed out on more than £6 billion during that period, relative to Greater Manchester. For the last eight years we have looked enviously over the border at the west midlands—and at the Teesside constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend Jacob Young—at all the investment and support that they have had and that we could have had. The combined county authority principle gives us the opportunity to deliver that, in a slightly different way with a slightly more flexible approach.

Preventing the inclusion of Lords amendment 13 does not mean excluding the voices of districts and boroughs. In our combined authority, they will have voting rights on issues that affect their powers and their remit. It will be impossible not to include them in the decision-making process when they are the planning authority, and, indeed, the combined authority will be unable to deliver a great deal without their consent. It is important to emphasise that saying that they cannot be full constituent members does not mean they will not have a say, and those rights and those powers. In fact, if they could all agree to be full constituent members, even now, we could still deliver a consensual version under the current statute without the need for the Bill.

As for Lords amendment 14, which concerns associate members, we had already decided and agreed locally that there was not enough legitimacy in voting rights for non-elected members of the combined authority who would not be ultimately accountable to the public through elections. I am pleased that the Government agree with that principle.

Let me finally say something about locally led urban development corporations. We in the east midlands have had one of those, in an interim form, for some years. Covid delayed its powers, but it has done some fantastic master-planning in significant parts of our region, seeking to secure the maximum public good from private sector investment in, for example, our freeport and sites such as Ratcliffe-on-Soar and Toton. The urban development corporation provides a great opportunity—particularly when working in conjunction with the combined authority—to take a long-term, strategic approach to planning and delivery, whether that means business and commercial investment or housing, and to do so in a more long-term and joined-up way. The planning powers in the corporation mean that that can also be delivered more swiftly and easily. This is another exciting prospect, so I am pleased that after being an interim vehicle for a number of years, the east midlands development corporation will finally acquire its full range of powers and opportunities.

I really welcome the Bill returning. I am excited about the opportunities that it brings to Mansfield and to Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in the new county combined authority through significant new investment in our transport network, in our economic development and in major flagship projects. I have used the example of STEP Fusion in Bassetlaw on a regular basis to describe the impact that this can have on our region. We have a £20 billion investment in clean energy and exciting new jobs in the nuclear industry in north Nottinghamshire, and a new combined authority that can wrap around that, working with providers of skills and training to ensure that my constituents can access those jobs. We can also wrap the transport infrastructure around that, whether that involves bus, road or rail, to ensure that they can get in and out to those jobs.

We have never had the opportunity to deliver this at local level before, and those changes will be really meaningful in the long term. Children growing up on estates in Mansfield now will have job opportunities in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time that they could never previously have dreamed of, so this is a huge opportunity. My one ask of the Government—in addition to what I have said in my short speech—is that this must be delivered in the next fortnight in order for us to have our regional election next year. This must be delivered before Prorogation; otherwise, we will run out of time and my constituents will have to wait for months or even a year for access to these powers and funds, so I urge the Minister to ensure that we get this delivered in time.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament 4:00, 17 October 2023

I begin by adding my congratulations, in her temporary absence from the Chamber, to Sarah Dyke on her maiden speech, which strongly impressed the House with her environmental commitment and credentials and which included generous tributes to some of her predecessors—not least to David Heath, whom many of us remember with affection and respect, and also to the late Mavis Tate, who may not be so well known to hon. Members of the House. She was a Conservative Member of Parliament during the war years, and indeed before the war. Unfortunately, she was a member of the team of 10 parliamentarians who went to visit the Buchenwald concentration camp, and what she saw there so undermined her mental health that she took her own life two years later in 1947. It is sad to reflect that, nearly 80 years later, comparable atrocities are still being carried out, for not dissimilar reasons, in parts of the middle east.

As a leaseholder myself, I would like to associate myself with the comments of the Father of the House, my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley, on the vulnerability of leaseholders to abuse of power by freeholders. That is something on which he has campaigned most effectively for a number of years. I also share the concern of my hon. Friend Greg Smith about building work that is allowed to proceed in the face of accurate predictions of future flooding. I know of more than one case of that happening in my own constituency.

My primary reason for making a brief contribution to the debate is to flag up the concern that I referred to earlier about the decision of the Government not to accept Lords amendment 13. I am to a degree reassured by what I heard from the Front Bench, which was reiterated quite effectively by my hon. Friend Ben Bradley a few moments ago—namely, the assurances that district councils will in fact be able to make a contribution when decisions are made that directly affect them. Yet if there is an opportunity for further elaboration on that, I would like to hear it. I have probably heard enough to prevent me from rebelling against the Government, but whether I feel I can go all the way and vote against what the New Forest District Council chairman Jill Cleary, a Conservative chairman of a Conservative District Council, feels is so important is another matter.

For the record, this is what those concerns amount to. Lords amendment 13 states that, for combined county authorities:

“A Minister of the Crown may by regulations establish a process for non-constituent members to become full members.”

The district council feels this is a vital addition to the Bill, otherwise power will steal away from communities and be concentrated at county level without sufficient active district involvement. Indeed, the district council points to a survey of people in shire areas earlier this year, which shows high levels of trust in and satisfaction with district councils—higher levels than for other parts of local and national Government.

I conclude by quoting directly from Jill Cleary’s letter:

“District councils hold levers which are indispensable in creating jobs, improving economic opportunity, addressing skills shortages, tackling inequalities and reviving local pride—precisely the outcomes at the heart of levelling up agenda that the Bill seeks to reinforce. District councils are the housing and planning authorities in two-tier areas. We drive economic development in our places. We have strong links to local businesses, big and small, and a track record of attracting inward investment. It simply makes no sense that districts should be excluded from these new devolution deals.”

I appeal to the Minister, once again, to make it clear both to this House and to my concerned and esteemed local district council that it will not be sidelined or excluded by the Government’s refusal to accept Lords amendment 13.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

I call Peter Aldous to make the last Back-Bench contribution, so anybody who has contributed to the debate should start making their way to the Chamber. We are expecting a large number of votes.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

I will speak to three amendments, to highlight some concerns about why the Government are opposing changes made in the other place that, at face value, appear to have some merit, and to seek further clarification as to what they are doing to address those concerns.

A number of my hon. and right hon. Friends have mentioned Lords amendment 22, which relates to local authorities holding virtual meetings. I am a vice-president of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, and the feedback I have received from all tiers of local government in Suffolk is that they support the Lords amendment, which the Government oppose. I acknowledge the Government’s view that a core principle of local democracy is that citizens should be able to attend local council meetings to interact in person with their local representatives. However, instead of an absolute bar on virtual attendance, I would suggest that allowing local discretion, pursuing a common-sense approach, is more appropriate for the following reasons.

First, 90% to 95% of councils at all levels, based on their own individual experiences, support such an approach, which is endorsed by the Local Government Association, the National Association of Local Councils and the Society of Local Council Clerks.

Secondly, many town and parish councils have difficulties in retaining a full slate of councillors. They regularly have to co-opt new members, and contested elections are invariably the exception rather than the rule. Allowing some local discretion with regard to the holding of council meetings would remove barriers to becoming a councillor for such groups as the disabled, parents, carers and full-time workers. These groups all have a great deal to contribute to their local communities, but many of them are put off by the straitjacket of being expected to attend all council meetings in person.

Thirdly, some local councils, such as Suffolk County Council and the Broads Authority, which straddles Suffolk and Norfolk, cover large geographical areas, and one has to ask whether it is appropriate to require councillors to drive up to an hour and a half for a meeting. I am thinking, for example, of a journey from Bungay in north Suffolk, in my constituency, to Ipswich, which is a three-hour round trip. We are seeking to encourage less use of our cars, as we strive towards net zero. Attending these meetings on that basis is expensive, time-consuming and inappropriate when we should be looking to lessen our carbon footprint.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset 4:15, 17 October 2023

Does my hon. Friend think there is an inconsistency here: company board meetings can be conducted virtually and during covid Parliament was attended virtually, yet parish council meetings cannot be?

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend on that point. Coming out of covid, a lot of parish councils have raised that issue with me. From their perspective, they have made well-reasoned cases. They are not going to go daft. There is perhaps a nightmare scenario of local councillors never leaving their homes and, as a result, being abstract from the communities they represent. But they will not do that. They will be very mindful of their responsibilities and they would use this provision sensibly. At a time when we are talking about cascading down responsibilities to local authorities, it appears slightly perverse to be saying, “No, you’ve got to do it this way.”

My next point relates to Lords amendments 46 and 327, which would require the Secretary of State to promote healthy homes and neighbourhoods through a regulatory framework for planning and the built environment. As we have heard, the Government are seeking to strike out those amendments, on the basis that they will cut across the actions the Government are already taking to improve the quality of new homes, will create uncertainty and risk legal challenge and delay. I would readily accept that argument if the existing policy was working well, but it is not; it is complex and focused only on risk reduction. We should bear it in mind that from a high-quality home a host of benefits ensue and cascade down: better health and less pressure on the NHS; and an enhanced environment for learning, doing homework and passing the exams and getting the qualifications that enable people to realise their life ambitions, thereby ensuring social mobility. That in turn leads to improvement in national economic productivity. If the Government are to strike out those amendments, they need to fast-track their reviews of the decent homes standard and future homes standard and to put them in a coherent, positive and ambitious framework.

Finally, Lords amendment 45 requires the Secretary of State to have special regard to climate change mitigation and adaptation in preparing national policy, planning policy and advice relating to the development or use of land. As we have heard, the Government oppose the amendment on the basis that it could trigger a slew of litigation, which would hinder action needed to safeguard the environment, and that it repeats existing policy and statutory requirements. They also say that the importance of the environment is already restated in the Bill. I take that on board, although I would highlight three concerns.

First, to achieve our net zero obligations, there is a need for an enormous amount of private sector investment. As the UK Green Building Council points out, pension funds, corporate investors and construction companies require clarity, consistency and certainty in the policy framework. At present, that is missing and the business and investment community is confused.

Secondly, the existing system has created an inconsistency whereby local authorities must take net zero into account in developing their local plans, but the Planning Inspectorate and the Secretary of State, as we heard on a number of occasions, do not have to give net zero the same level of consideration. If this Lords amendment does not stand, at the very least the Government need to remove that ambiguity as quickly as possible.

Finally, I am mindful that in Waveney, my own backyard, in Suffolk and across East Anglia, we are at the forefront of the challenges and opportunities arising from climate change. We have an exposed and vulnerable coast, we are low lying and prone to flooding, and we are the driest region in the UK. That said, we have great economic opportunities arising from the low-carbon economy, in the form of offshore wind, nuclear and hydrogen.

Local authorities and local business in the eastern region have innovative plans to best address these threats and to maximise the benefits arising from these opportunities. However, as matters stand, they are constrained by the inconsistencies I have outlined. A greater emphasis on climate change mitigation would provide some certainty and would help to attract the private sector investment I mentioned that, as we are seeing, is globally footloose.

These are the concerns I have. I acknowledge that the Bill should not be seen as the panacea for all our ills and I have listened to the assurances that my hon. Friend the Minister has provided. I hope that she might be able to allay some of the concerns I have outlined in her summing up.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

It is a pleasure to be able to respond to the points made by colleagues across the House. This is a complex and important Bill, and it has been a thoughtful and well set out debate; everyone has contributed.

I thank colleagues across the House for their remarks. I can assure everyone that the Government have listened extremely carefully to those. Because I have limited time, I may not be able to give as full an exposition on every single point, but I hope colleagues will not be disappointed and my door is always open to colleagues —as are the doors of all my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—to listen to any specific problems that people will have. Therefore, I want to thank the Father of the House, my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley and my right hon. Friend Dr Fox for their comments.

I thank Sarah Dyke for her maiden speech and congratulate her on how she delivered it and its content. I listened to it with great interest and particularly noted her advocacy for and championing of the cider industry in her constituency, as well as her standing up for farmers. I am sure that is something that every single Member of the House can strongly agree with. I wish her all the best for her parliamentary career.

I thank my hon. Friend Derek Thomas, my right hon. Friend Wendy Morton, Helen Morgan, my right hon. Friend John Redwood, my hon. Friend Greg Smith, my right hon. Friend Sir Julian Lewis and my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for their comments. I also thank colleagues from the Opposition Front Benches for their constructive comments. We have definitely reached agreement on some points, although not all, which is not surprising given the range of issues we have been looking at.

I want to touch on a few themes that colleagues have raised. I hope that we can go some way to addressing the specific questions put to me by them. Colleagues have raised concerns about how national development management policies will operate in practice; people have said they are thinking ahead to how those could operate in practice. I want to be clear that, where a decision is made in accordance with the development plan, national development management policies and a specific local policy, and NDMPs are relevant considerations but not in conflict, as part of a planning judgment, it will still be for the decision maker to decide how much weight is afforded to those different policies based on their relevance to the proposed development. The precedence clause sets out only what should be done in the event of a conflict between policies and where they contradict one another. We do expect such conflicts to be limited in future because of the more distinct roles that national and local policy will have. In response to questions asked by many hon. and right hon. Members, I can assure the House that we will be consulting further on how that will operate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills asked: what does the provision mean when it says the Secretary of State can act urgently? I reassure her that that refers to very limited circumstances such as the unprecedented situations that we saw during the pandemic. It is envisaged that that provision would be used only in those sorts of urgent and emergency situations.

There has been much debate about the role of district councils in the future combined county authorities. I have definitely heard the points that colleagues have made. We do value the amazing work that is done by district councils. I wish to thank my own district council—Redditch Borough Council—for the incredible work that it does. I know that Members have thanked their own local authorities. I listened very carefully to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield. It is right that we want devolution to work and the voices of those district councils are really important. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Jacob Young, has been very clear in his discussions that we are encouraging potential areas to consider how best to involve district councils—they make a unique contribution—in recognition of the role that they play, without holding up those important devolution arrangements.

I have been struck by the number of colleagues who have talked about remote meetings and challenged the Government’s position on that. It is the Government’s view that face-to-face democracy should remain in place and that physical attendance at meetings is important, not just to build strong working relationships, but to deliver good governance and democratic accountability. It is clearly right that councillors are regularly and routinely meeting other councillors in person and that members of the public can ask questions in person. Some of these measures were brought in during the pandemic. Now that the pandemic has passed, it is right to consider reversing those and getting back to that face-to-face democracy. However, we are looking at a call for evidence on this matter and we will publish the results of that as soon as possible.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

It seems to me that it would be a good idea to consult parish councils in particular and to have a debate in the House of Commons when the Government have had their responses. For the Government to say what their view is, is one thing. For Parliament, which gives powers to authorities, to decide we do not want to tell them how to discuss using those powers is another. Those authorities are limited by the powers. In my view, they should not be limited in how they discuss them.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank the Father of the House for those comments. I can assure him that the Government are carefully considering his points, and those made by other colleagues.

I turn to rural-proofing and the vital role of rural areas—a point made by a number of colleagues, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. He asked how we will make sure that we abide by our commitments to rural-proofing in the Bill. I wish to be clear that we are fully behind the objectives to make sure that rural areas benefit from our levelling-up agendas. We want to make sure that the needs of people and businesses in rural areas are at the heart of policymaking, including through rural-proofing. The report that we published early last year demonstrates that we are making real progress on all sorts of issues, including digital connectivity and action to tackle rural crime.

My hon. Friend also asked about the use of agricultural land for food production—again, an issue close to the hearts of many of us who represent rural areas. The Government agree that we must seek to protect our food production and rural environments, and we will publish the consultation response on that issue very shortly.

That brings me to a question that I think I have been asked by every single Member of the House who has spoken, which is about the national planning policy framework response. People are anxious to see the detail of that, and I understand why. We had a huge number of responses to this vital planning consultation, which represents a significant change to planning policy and something that the industry is clearly calling for. We have seen problems with our planning system, and we do need to make sure that it is fit for the modern day and can deliver the homes that people need in communities, built to the highest standards. That is our objective and we need to get it right.

I am pleased that we have been able to work with many colleagues across the House, in particular my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers and my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham and for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), on the specific concerns they have raised. We will publish the response as soon as possible, or in any case shortly, and our position remains as set out in the Secretary of State’s letter of December 2022.

Turning to the vital issue of onshore wind, I recognise the contributions from my right hon. Friends the Members for Reading West (Sir Alok Sharma) and for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke). We will respond shortly to the consultation on local partnerships for onshore wind, including on improvements to the system of community benefits. I recognise the challenge to the Government by my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West to set out more clearly what the benefits will look like. I hope he can see that the Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero is on the Front Bench and has been doing considerable work on this matter. There are very successful schemes across the country already that deliver discounts on energy bills of up to £300 a year, and we see great potential to go a lot further. We hope that colleagues continue to support us in that vital work.

I will touch on climate change, which has been raised by several right hon. and hon. Members. I want to be clear that the Government take meeting the challenges of responding to climate change through the planning policy system seriously. That is why there is already a climate change requirement in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. That is restated in schedule 8 to the Bill, which amends the 2004 Act by adding proposed new section 15C(9), which sets out that local planning authorities must design their local plans

“to secure that the use and development of land in the local planning authority’s area contribute to the mitigation of, and adaption to, climate change.”

As part of our programme of changes to the planning system, we intend to complete a fuller review of the national planning policy framework to ensure that it contributes to climate change mitigation and adaptation as fully as possible.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset 4:30, 17 October 2023

I hate to take my hon. Friend back to my earlier question, but she has not answered it. Until we get a new NPPF, planning inspectors will refer to the previous one, and that leaves the option open to them to make decisions that are not in line with the legislation. Will the Minister give guidance to planning inspectors now that in the interim, until the new NPPF is in place, they must take account of what is in legislation passed by the House, rather than referring to the previous NPPF? Otherwise, we will find ourselves in the perverse position where local authorities can give permission to developments that are against what the Government are proposing on areas such as the five-year land bank and housing targets. We cannot allow ourselves to be politically exposed like that. This is a party that wants to win a general election and that expects Ministers to give direction to the planning inspectors.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I assure my right hon. Friend that I heard his remarks and concerns. Until we have published the response on the NPPF, it is not possible for us to give directions to the planning inspectors in the way that he has asked. He will also know that the Planning Inspectorate has to work within the framework policy and the legislation of the time. It is important to set out that local areas must get their local plans in place, and I hope that his local area is doing so. That is the best way to ensure that it delivers houses that command the consent of his constituents, for whom he is advocating superbly.

The Bill addresses the entrenched disparities that exist across the United Kingdom, backed by billions of pounds-worth of funding, including, I must add, for Scotland. Ms Qaisar, who spoke for the Scottish National party, was a little ungenerous in her remarks, so I want to land with her the significant investment that this Government are making in Scotland—I think the figure is £394 million—to boost communities across the country.

This Government set clear long-term objectives for levelling up and are held accountable for—

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

I am grateful and will be brief. During an earlier intervention, I asked the Minister for clarity on the specific question of the duty to co-operate. Can she give me that clarity before she winds up?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I can confirm for my right hon. Friend that we will scrap the duty to co-operate for the reasons that she mentioned. We will consult on how we expect local authorities to work together. I urge her to work with us and to contribute to that consultation when we bring it forward in due course.

The Bill devolves powers to all areas of England, modernises the planning system and strengthens environmental protection. We have, of course, heard hon. Members’ points, which we will consider carefully as the Bill completes its passage. The Government are on the side of the builders, communities and homeowners —present and future—across our country. I commend it to the House.

Amendment (a) made to Lords amendment 117.

Government amendments (b) to (d) made to Lords amendment 117.

Lords amendment 117, as amended, agreed to.