My Lords, the previous exchanges might indicate that I have bad news. I do not. With the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by the Deputy Prime Minister on sustainable communities, housing and planning. The Statement is as follows:
"I want to make a Statement on this Government's plans for a step change in our policies for building successful, thriving communities.
"The Chancellor has been generous. He has given a good settlement for local authorities, regional development agencies, regeneration, housing and planning. Today, I want to talk about two elements of our settlement—housing and planning—to provide decent, affordable homes for people wherever they live. And I want the House to join together to make a step change in our approach.
"Anyone looking at the record over past decades will recognise that all governments have failed to meet the housing needs of our people. There has been a continuing decline in the provision of all houses—social and private. We in this House should recognise that we have failed to meet the needs of this generation, let alone the needs of our children. The situation will get worse unless we take radical action now.
"In the last 30 years, we have seen unprecedented economic growth, rising incomes, smaller households, people living longer. We have seen an increasing demand for housing, but overall we are building 150,000 fewer homes today than we were 30 years ago. No wonder house prices are rocketing. No wonder many people cannot afford to live where they were born, in both urban and rural areas.
"There are different problems in different places in our country. We are failing to adjust to geographic changes in economic activity. We are failing to tackle abandonment and dereliction. We are failing to provide homes for teachers, nurses and other key workers. We are placing our public services under pressure because they cannot get enough skilled staff.
"So, today, I am announcing a step change in housing policy. And I propose to do that by promoting sustainable communities, making the best use of our land, increasing development on brownfield sites and protecting and enhancing our green belt and valuable countryside.
"The shortage of housing in London and the South East is causing record housing costs which are impacting directly on living standards. They make it more expensive for companies and public services to recruit and retain staff. They make it more difficult for young people to get a foot on the housing ladder. They affect our public services and force more families into bed-and-breakfast.
"Two years ago, in Regional Planning Guidance 9, I put in place a 'plan, monitor and manage' approach to planning for additional housing in the South East. I said then that local authorities should provide for new homes at the rate of 23,000 a year in London and 39,000 a year in the wider South East, outside of London.
"Today, we have to be open and honest, and recognise that these targets are not being met. We estimate that over the past two years the shortfall was approximately 10,000 homes. We cannot allow this to continue. I am therefore announcing today a number of measures that will meet the real pressures and challenges that we face.
"First, I will insist that all local authorities deliver the housing numbers set out in regional planning guidance. Tackling housing shortage is a national responsibility and we must all play our part—central and local government alike. I am therefore putting local authorities on notice that, where they fail to meet their targets, I will take action to intervene.
"Secondly, I will accelerate the existing proposals for significant growth in the four growth areas identified in regional planning guidance for the South East. Two years ago I asked for reports to be prepared on potential growth in the Thames Gateway, Ashford, the Milton Keynes area and the London-Stansted-Cambridge corridor. Those studies are complete or nearing completion and show how economic development will increase the number of homes we need. Over the coming months, taking account of these studies, I will work with regional and local partners in each of the four areas to establish where, at what scale and how quickly growth can be achieved.
"Overall we estimate that at least 200,000 new homes could be created in the growth areas. In the Thames Gateway in particular, I will be putting a renewed emphasis on delivery and, in discussion with the Thames Gateway Partnership, will establish new means of delivering rapid regeneration.
"Thirdly, we need to make better use of land, by improving design, increasing densities and using brownfield sites to the full. In 1998 I committed the Government to a target that 60 per cent of new homes should be on brownfield land. We have met that target eight years early but we need to keep up the pressure. To help with this, I will establish a register of surplus brownfield land held by government and public bodies. I am instructing English Partnerships to use their new role on brownfields to search out and deliver even more land for housing.
"I can also announce that we will be proceeding with a further three millennium communities, in East Ketley in Shropshire, Milton Keynes and Hastings. These add to the four we have already agreed in East Manchester, Allerton Bywater, Greenwich and King's Lynn, bringing the total number of communities to seven and the homes which will be delivered to more than 6,000.
"But to produce more sustainable development we must use land more efficiently in order to reduce overall land-take. To do this I am announcing that I intend to intervene in planning applications for housing that involve a density of less than 30 dwellings per hectare. I am also setting a new target to protect valuable countryside. Since 1997, I have increased the green belt by 30,000 hectares. Today I can announce for the first time a public service agreement target which commits us to protecting the valuable countryside around our towns, our cities and in the green belt.
"We will not tolerate urban sprawl, and we will not concrete over the South East—as some have speculated in the press—or any other region. But housing pressures in London and the South East are acute and require ambitious solutions. My strategy of providing for sustainable, high quality, well-planned communities in the growth areas will benefit everyone. It will mean that we reduce the pressure elsewhere in the South East and will protect valuable countryside for the benefit and enjoyment of all.
"There needs to be not just more homes, but more homes that people can afford. We have said schools and hospitals first. That means special attention to helping nurses, teachers and other public service workers get affordable homes. Since 1997 the Government have almost doubled funding for affordable housing to £1.2 billion per year and this is now supporting the creation of 20,000 new affordable homes every year.
"Subject to further detailed consideration about how best to use the new money available, we will now be able to increase that funding to provide additional homes for key workers and new social housing for the homeless and families in bed and breakfast accommodation. In addition to this new funding, we will be looking for ways to extend our existing programmes for affordable housing through greater partnership with employers and public and private landlords.
"The problems in the North and the Midlands are different but just as pressing. Some of our towns and cities are experiencing a renaissance in their economic and cultural fortunes. But many also have communities where properties are almost worthless, leaving people trapped in negative equity and facing the problems associated with social exclusion. We are building the wrong kind of houses in the wrong places and failing to tackle fully urban decay.
"Earlier this year we announced the creation of nine Pathfinder projects to tackle the most acute problems of low demand and abandonment in the North and the Midlands. I can announce that we will be taking those projects forward to help tackle the blight afflicting properties in the Pathfinder areas. In addition I can announce that, following EU approval, we will be going ahead with our new housing gap-funding scheme which will allow support for housing programmes where the market price is less than the cost of development.
"We will also reinforce our efforts to improve the overall condition of our housing and ensure that everyone has the opportunity of a decent home. In 1997 we released £5 billion of capital receipts to target the backlog of repairs to council homes. Over the past five years we have trebled council funding for housing to £2.4 billion a year, and in 2000 we set ourselves the challenging target of making all social housing decent by 2010. These actions have allowed us to make good progress on housing conditions.
"Overall, 1.7 million improvements have been made to council homes, and we are well on track to meet our interim target of bringing a third of the worst social housing—550,000 homes—up to a decent standard by 2004. We will work towards that target by devoting even more resources to refurbishment; by allowing all local authority arm's length housing companies receiving either a "good" or "excellent" rating to apply for this additional funding; and by reviewing all policies that contribute to our 2010 decent homes target to ensure that they are as effective as possible and provide value for money.
"It is not just social housing that needs attention. People in the private sector suffer some of our worst housing conditions. All too often housing benefit is funding the provision of unfit housing to the detriment of the tenant and the benefit of the landlord. This is unacceptable. As soon as parliamentary time allows, we will legislate to tackle the minority of unscrupulous landlords and boost our drive against poor conditions.
"Over the last five years we have provided funding to local authorities to help improve 30,000 private homes per year. I can announce today that we are setting a new objective to help improve more non-decent private sector homes occupied by vulnerable households. We are investing large sums of money in improving all housing, so we must have an inspection regime that drives up standards across the board and ensures reform.
"I am announcing today that I will establish a single housing inspectorate, building on the excellent work of the Audit Commission and the Housing Corporation. I am also announcing that we will establish strong regional bodies, going with the grain of our proposals for regional governance. These will bring housing investment together in a single regional pot. And they will link that investment with planning, infrastructure and economic growth strategies. I will announce further details later in the year when I have discussed them with key stakeholders. And I will put the new arrangements in place as soon as possible.
"In order to achieve a step change we need to increase resources for the planning system and bring about much-needed reform. We are therefore providing an extra £350 million for the planning system over the next three years. This must be targeted where it will improve performance the most. And I give notice that if poor performance does not improve, I will intervene. The extra money will be linked to reform and I am publishing today three documents: our response to the recent planning Green Paper consultation and supporting papers on compulsory purchase and on regional and local plans. Copies are in the Library.
"These put in place extensive reform, and I would like to summarise some of the key points. First, we will give counties a new statutory role in underpinning the new regional planning system, but we will abolish county structure plans themselves. Secondly, we will introduce business planning zones to deliver growth, jobs and productivity without sacrificing quality of development. Thirdly, I will speed up the planning of major infrastructure projects by setting out the Government's objectives in clear policy statements and changing inquiry processes to make them more efficient.
"I have accepted the Select Committee's arguments that parliamentary procedures for major infrastructure projects are not the best way forward. Finally, I will not change the right for objectors to make their case to the inspector at inquiries into plans. But I will take action to speed up the inquiry process.
"The proposals I have announced today focus on creating sustainable communities which meet the needs of all, regardless of where they live or the size of their pocket. But they are just the start. I will return to the House by the end of the year with a comprehensive long-term programme of action. This will meet the different needs of both the North and the South. Whether it is the key workers in need of affordable accommodation or families trapped by negative equity, we must work together to find solutions to their problems.
"Our long-term programme will link policies on housing, planning, transport, education, health and regeneration. It will demand a new standard in how we build houses and communities, seeking improvements in density, design, environmental standards and construction techniques and it will protect and help to revitalise the countryside for those who live in it and those who seek their leisure there.
"This is a strategy for the long term. We know the problems, we have the commitment, we have the resources. We must recognise in the country and on all sides of the House that we have simply not done enough over the years. We need more homes where people want to live, near where they work, in the North and in the South, at a price people can afford and in a way that protects the countryside. This is a challenge to all of us. I believe that the strategy I have put to the House today will begin to rise to that challenge".
My Lords, that completes the Statement from the Deputy Prime Minister.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing the Statement to the House. It lays out the Deputy Prime Minister's thoughts and provides an analysis of the current housing position. Perhaps understandably, it is breathtakingly short on detail. But it contains some pointers to the future.
The proposals will push ever more responsibility into the hands of unelected regional bodies. Going with the grain of the Deputy Prime Minister's proposals for regional government, as he said, housing investment will be brought together into a single regional pot, with planning, infrastructure and economic growth strategies included. Is it proposed that there should be yet another regional body to deal with that, or is it anticipated that the undemocratic regional assemblies will be tasked with this extra responsibility, of which they have no experience?
The Government have made it abundantly clear that regional government will be introduced only where regions vote for it. Is this another example of the Government jumping the gun and introducing regional government by stealth? We should be told. If the electorate do not want regional government, they may simply be whistling in the wind with their votes in a referendum because local government's responsibilities for housing, planning and many other areas will have gone there anyway. That is a fine example of things being pulled up rather than being pulled down.
Where is it anticipated that local government will fit into the picture? How is it intended that local authorities should be able to influence how much housing will be placed in their areas and where? If it is intended to give planning responsibilities to these new regional bodies, how much say will local planning authorities continue to have? In passing, what is meant by saying that county councils will be given a statutory underpinning role in the new regional planning system? County councils currently make and organise the structural plans. Presumably, under this new wording they will have no responsibility for the structural plans. Somewhere along the line, despite what has been said and all the consultation that has taken place rejecting the removal of county councils from structural plans, that is precisely what will happen.
Of course this is an interim statement. We are promised flesh on the bones later in the year. The flesh of local government should be beginning to creep at the outline thoughts presented here. Even where responsibilities are to be left, the Deputy Prime Minister is threatening intervention if local authorities do not perform to key government objectives and meet the targets on housing numbers set out in the regional planning guidance and some as yet unstated arbitrary standards—including, apparently, where permission is given for too few dwellings per hectare. Perhaps this is a policy of build them thick and build them high. Plans are clearly well advanced for four growth areas in the South East regional plan. How much of the land anticipated in those areas will be from the green belt? The Deputy Prime Minister says that he will not concrete over the South East or anywhere else. Tell that to Stevenage, where acres of green belt land are being consumed.
An extra £1.2 billion is promised for affordable housing—some for key workers and some for property improvement. Money is always welcome, but whether it achieves its objectives depends on how it is spent.
The Deputy Prime Minister is anxious to help key workers into housing. London is desperately short of people to support its services. As chairman of a hospital in London I know that. However, whether all those key workers would want to live together in a suburb of Essex, for example, is debatable. New developments will have to be of mixed occupancy. If not, the Government cannot meet their targets for increasing the priority categories for the homeless and getting others out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, never mind those others in need of decent housing, such as asylum seekers.
There will have to be additional infrastructure, too, to support the densities envisaged in the Statement. I am told that Kent already has a land bank of 11 years worth of housing, but it cannot develop it because some of the land is contaminated and there is no money to clean it. More importantly, there is also no money for the development of new schools, hospitals, roads and transport, not to mention the non-existent access to the additional water supplies that major schemes would require. Is any of that £1.2 billion to be devoted to that supporting infrastructure?
It is welcome news that the Government have decided to give more money to planning. I hope that the money will be used to increase staff numbers in local authorities to help with the movement of planning applications. I also welcome the decision not to give Parliament a role on major infrastructure applications. That proposal was excoriated by just about everyone. We recently had statutory instrument proposals for major infrastructure and changes to the inquiry system. What other proposals are coming forward to deal with major inquiries?
It is notable that the Statement proposes to continue with the little-admired business planning zones. As the Select Committee pointed out,
"it is based on the misconceived idea that the planning system is stopping desirable development rather than helping to enable it. There is no evidence of that".
This is yet another area that will be taken beyond local authority control.
Too few houses have been built in recent years, but that is no reason why, in redressing that problem, changes should be made to the whole system of local government, with increasing centralisation. I hope I am wrong in my surmise that this will be the intended or unintended result of the proposals.
Like the proverbial curate's egg, there will be some good in the proposals and some bad. Without the details of what lies behind the Statement, only time will tell. We look forward to the debates that will ensue.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place and declare an interest as a member of Suffolk County Council—of which I have been an elected member for 12 years. We welcome also that the Statement puts housing higher on the agenda. Implicit in the Statement is a recognition that the policies of successive governments have failed thousands of citizens in respect of their most basic need.
We caution against one-size-fits-all policies, which fail to recognise enormous regional disparities. Neither must the pressures of economic growth in the South East be allowed completely to overshadow the different needs of the North.
We welcome the emphasis on the development of brownfield land. The fact that local authorities have delivered the Government's demanding targets eight years ahead of schedule demonstrates that when local authorities are given the tools, they can deliver a great deal. However, it costs a lot more to develop a brownfield site than to build on new land. Do the Government have any plans to introduce a levy on greenfield development, with that money used to redeem brownfield sites for housing? Is the noble Lord the Minister aware that some building societies are reluctant to lend money to purchase properties on land that was once contaminated? Does he know that a great volume of land is kept empty for long periods? Sometimes that is because landowners are waiting for values to rise and sometimes—which is more sinister—because such land is being held back for its ransom value, where it could form part of a much larger development.
Has any progress been made with the plans in the rural White Paper to end the 50 per cent rebate on second homes, with the money raised to be ring-fenced and used for housing? That measure would have a significant impact on the plans announced today. Are there any proposals to change the VAT system, to make it more cost-effective to undertake conversions and repairs? Something like one fifth of the housing stock is either unfit or in poor condition. Such a change would do more for the housing stock than yet another level of inspection and audit of the kind that the Statement holds out.
The recent Green Paper failed to ask the real purpose of planning. We believe that planning is about the development of sustainable communities, sustainable economies and a sustainable environment. When the House debated that Green Paper, it was not until my noble friend Lady Hamwee summed up that the word "sustainability" was used. The emphasis so far has been on the planning process and we have rather lost sight of the outputs. The Green Paper diagnosed the problems, then drew entirely the wrong conclusions. Planning processes are too lengthy—largely because planning operates in a vacuum, with little in the way of a national framework in terms of spatial strategy, energy policy and transport. A raft of over-prescriptive government rules for the planning process has grown over the years and they are entirely in the hands of the Government to remove. There is a lack of skilled planners, so we welcome the promise of an extra £350 million—although we have yet to hear exactly how that money is to be spent.
Will it be possible to rationalise the new system in a hierarchical way? In terms of timing, there is no sensible relationship between county structure plans, regional plans and local plans. We welcome that the Government have listened to those who said that the parliamentary process is no way to deal with major infrastructure projects, but regret that the Government have not seen fit to retain county structure plans, despite the fact that 90 per cent of those consulted felt that they should be kept. We are many years from a democratically elected regional tier. For major planning decisions to be taken in the way proposed is a retrograde step.
The separation of land use from waste, minerals and transport planning will cause severe problems in future. The Statement recognises that a sub-regional planning tier is needed. We already have one—the county council. We regret that the opportunity has been lost to introduce a limited third-party right of appeal. If one adopts the view taken by the Green Paper, as we do, that community support for planning processes is paramount, the right to appeal against a decision hated locally should be introduced.
We regret the tone of the Statement. Its use of phrases such as
"putting local authorities on notice" and the emphasis it places on intervention will not help to develop a good relationship between local authorities and central Government. We are concerned at the proposal that the Secretary of State, advised by civil servants in London, will have the ability to override locally elected representatives.
My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Baronesses for their broad welcome for the Statement, even though they had legitimate questions. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that it is not insignificant that the only parts of the country that she mentioned were Essex and Kent—exactly the same as in another place. There is more to the country than Essex and Kent. Millions of people live outside Essex and Kent. Why the Front-Benchers in both Houses seem to concentrate just on Essex and Kent is beyond me.
I was referring to Tory Front-Benchers, my Lords. I listened to all the questioning on the Statement in another place and was surprised. The honourable Member for Brentwood and Ongar, Mr. Pickles, was completely isolated and not supported by any of his Back-Bench colleagues.
We are not planning any new regional bodies of the kind for which the noble Baroness asked. The Housing Corporation, regional development agencies and the Government are not planning a new quango. The noble Baroness did not ask for one but that was implied by her question. Neither are we jumping the gun. At present, all relevant decisions will still come to Ministers. There is no question of decisions that should legitimately be made by Ministers accountable to Parliament being passed to an unelected group of people—however esteemed and qualified they may be. For the interim, decisions will be made by Ministers.
County councils will retain their rights in respect of minerals and waste but we are abolishing the structure plans. We are not abolishing county councils. Tory Governments abolished county councils. Labour Governments are not in that business. We do not want to impose another layer of planning—which would happen if we left county structure plans in place and be an undue burden on all concerned.
I do not want to bandy figures, but the Statement makes it clear that, since 1997, the Government have redesignated or physically added 30,000 hectares to the green belt. From 1979 to 1997, the figure was virtually stable. I do not have to apologise for anything. There is much more green belt under Labour than there was under the Tories. In no shape or form can any charges about attacking the green belt be levelled against the Deputy Prime Minister. We are pledged, as a public service agreement objective, to add to the green belt irrespective of our plans for more housing because we know that can be done. Green belts are not necessarily synonymous with green fields—which some people refuse to accept.
Density is not a question of piling them high and selling them cheap. Such properties do not last long. We have learnt the mistakes of the past. I invite your Lordships to study the publication Better Places to Live: By Design—a companion to PPG3. Unfortunately, it was published in September last year, when everyone's mind was on other matters.
In the document, example after example is given, supported by the Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment, of good quality dwellings, designed with good environmental standards and built at high density all over the country. There are examples in Norwich, Manchester, Southwark, Islington, again in Manchester and in Kendall of density building of 50 to 100 dwellings per hectare, whereas the average in the South East has been approximately 20.
There are other examples of density building of 30 to 50 dwellings per hectare in Bishop's Stortford, Lewisham, Dorchester, Liverpool and Newcastle. All have details of good quality design. People are not piled on top of each other. The building is not done cheaply and corners are not cut. Therefore, there is absolutely no excuse for people to argue that higher density means poorer standards and poorer quality. We shall ensure that that is the case, in particular, in the growth areas. We shall focus a big push on the four growth areas to ensure that local authorities, planners and builders take account of the ideas and views of organisations such as the Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment.
With regard to the inquiry system, as my right honourable friend said, we have published three papers alongside today's Statement. One gives the Government's response to the consultation on the Green Paper. It does not give the Government's response to the Select Committee report. That will be done as part of the normal process. The 44 recommendations deserve a proper detailed response, and that will be done within the normal period of two months following publication. However, we have set out our response to the planning Green Paper.
In the inquiry system we want to maintain the right of all objectors to be heard. That is absolutely crucial. It is possible that, under different procedures, the inspector will be able to hear objectors either in an informal way or through mediation before the grand inquiry begins. Either way, objectors will have the right to be heard.
We also want to allow the inspectors to take issues concurrently as well as consecutively, as is the case at present in relation to major infrastructure inquiries. I give the example of Terminal 5. That was an exception but it is an example that people have in mind. During the course of that inquiry, the Deputy Prime Minister—then Secretary of State for Transport and the Environment—could not say what he wanted to say about transport in that area because that would have opened up completely new avenues in the inquiry. He was constrained. We want inspectors to be able to examine different aspects of big inquiries concurrently rather than one after the other.
If in an infrastructure project inspectors operate within the framework of a government statement on policy, they will not spend half their time with those appearing before the inquiry trying to work out what the policy is and then deciding whether the project fits the policy. Therefore, we believe that we can cut the time spent on major infrastructure inquiries by some 50 to 60 per cent.
Together, my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I currently have 59 years' experience and membership of the other place. It did not take us too long to see that asking Parliament to take an almost statutory or constitutional role in an executive matter would be fraught with considerable difficulties for all concerned, including the Members of both Houses.
As we have said, we do not agree with the Select Committee on the matter of planning zones. We believe that such zones are achievable. It would not be a question of a free-for-all or a case of "anything goes". That is not our intention. It will not be a question of drawing on a map and saying simply that anything goes. Buildings must be of quality and good design. I hope that I have covered most of the issues raised by the noble Baroness. We shall return to the matter later in the autumn with a Statement containing further detail.
"I am also announcing that we will establish strong regional bodies".
My Lords, it is not intended to create a brand new body. We are talking of the coming together of existing bodies which currently do not talk around the table in a structured fashion. We want them to do that, whether those involved are a government office, the director of the regional housing corporation or the RDA. We want to put the situation on a firmer footing. In that sense, it will not be a new body.
My Lords, I declare an interest as Leader of Essex County Council. I find it extraordinary that the Minister should say that we keep on mentioning Essex and Kent. We are talking about four sites for 200,000 houses, and three of those are in Essex and Kent. In fact, two are in Essex. Therefore, that is 100,000 houses for Essex. If Essex and Kent do not have a particular interest in the matter, I do not believe that anyone has.
Two of those sites—one is at Stansted and one at the Thames Gateway—could possibly take 50,000 houses. Again, the Minister said that we were not going to concrete over the South East. If 100,000 houses were built in Essex, that would constitute concreting over a considerable proportion of that county.
The Minister also said in the Statement that we were not delivering the number of houses in the South East. I say immediately that in Essex 18 months ago the Government published targets for regional guidance on planning. They set a target in Essex of 5,000 houses a year. We have been exceeding that target every year since then, and we are likely to exceed it even more. I shall not comment on other parts of the South East, but certainly Essex has exceeded its targets over those years and is meeting the Government's requirements. Therefore, I believe that the Minister should reconsider that comment.
I want to raise a point of particular concern to me about the whole Statement. While I certainly recognise, as do others, the need for more housing, I concur with the comment of my noble friend Lady Hanham concerning the need for infrastructure as well. We could do more in Essex now, but those who have lived in Essex will know that one has to go somewhere to work. Therefore, all the development in our county or other counties in the South East must also be accompanied by employment.
The Thames Gateway, which we also support as a regeneration area, needs employment as well as houses. I did not hear a suggestion in the Statement about the need to ensure that employment is created together with houses. If we do not do that, we shall create only more congestion and more problems, with no trains and no transport networks in the South East to cope with them. Therefore, I want the Minister to give us more information about how the infrastructure will compete with and complement the new houses.
I also concur with the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, who said that 90 per cent of the people commenting on the planning Green Paper wanted to support the counties retaining the structure plans. I believe that we are doing a great disservice to planning systems in this country. Counties have been a bulwark in preparing the structure plans. We could do with processes to speed them up—we all agree with that. I hope that the Minister will reconsider his statement about not leaving the counties with the structure plans; I believe that they could be helpful.
Therefore, can the Minister respond to the points that I have raised and provide an answer as to how the infrastructure will fit alongside the 200,000 houses in the South East? Will money be available for roads, rail and other networks in order to enable people to commute around?
My Lords, the noble Lord is brilliantly qualified to speak on behalf of Essex. I was simply making the observation that, on the Front Bench, one tries to take a national view of matters. It seems a little narrow for Members of both Houses to stick to only two counties out of the whole country when the Statement covered the North and the South.
I shall be brief in responding to the points raised by the noble Lord. The plans, projects and vision that exist in relation to the Thames Gateway, for example, will not work if only housing is to be considered. They will not work without new Thames crossings, and they will not work without infrastructure being put in place before work begins on the housing. I absolutely accept what the noble Lord said, and that is axiomatic throughout the rest of the Statement. On two occasions I referred to jobs and economic progress rather than simply housing.
I was not having a go at Essex; I was simply making an observation. Essex and Kent make valuable contributions to growth in this country, particularly through the Thames Gateway and the vision throughout the linear city. People will not have to travel tens of miles from their homes to work. We need jobs and sustainable communities, not only amorphous housing estates; otherwise, we shall make the mistakes of the past.
My Lords, taking a national view, it seems to me that this is a recipe for more regulators, more regulations and more inspectors. Will anyone be left to create wealth for the Government to tax in order to pay this new army of busybodies?
My Lords, absolutely. Regulators can save a great deal of money. The point raised by the noble Earl gives me an opportunity to answer a question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, that I neglected to answer earlier. At present, the inspection of housing operates from two arms: the Audit Commission carries out one aspect and the Housing Corporation another. On inspection, we want a single body not three bodies. With the stakeholders concerned we are discussing the best way forward to create a single housing inspection. We do not want more busybodies or quangos. We want a single body where two exist at present.
My Lords, it is a refreshingly frank Statement from the Government about the state of housing in this country. First, why has it taken so long to reach this decision? For two decades on average the household formation has gone ahead of the number of homes built by 31,000. Secondly, can the Minister be more definite about when the Government intend to regulate the private rented sector? They have been promising this for five years. Can we please have a guarantee that we shall not be told in another five years that we shall deal with the issue when we have parliamentary time. Thirdly, will the Government consider selectively suspending the right to buy in some areas? The Government are putting a lot of money into building new social housing. Yet last year 53,000 local authority homes were sold and only 18,000 were built to replace them.
My Lords, on the latter point I say to the noble Baroness what the Deputy Prime Minister said in another place. The issue is not just new homes. Sometimes in order to rebuild and reinvigorate communities, particularly in the north where we have the problem of market collapse, the right-to-buy issue pops up just as we are about to demolish, costing the country millions of pounds. In some areas there has been flagrant abuse. These issues are under consideration at present. I can say no more than that.
I regret to say that I have to hide behind the old caveat about the private rented sector and selective licensing. We have a proposal for that. We have a manifesto commitment. The issue is being worked on. I cannot say when it will come before Parliament. I do not know what will be in the Queen's Speech later in the year. We are working on the plans. We are making statements. We are pursuing matters within the department with our advisers so that we are ready and available when the opportunity arises. We are getting on with the preparatory work. As regards waiting for 20 years—you wait a long time and then along comes a Labour government.
My Lords, in the Statement the Minister mentioned affordable housing. What will the Government do about the inflationary practices of mortgage lenders? In the 1960s and early 1970s they would lend a maximum of one and a half times an individual's annual income and twice the combined annual income of a husband and wife. They would lend only a percentage of the value of the property. I understand that today they will lend up to four times the annual income; and that they will lend up to 115 per cent, if not more, of the value of the property, which must force up prices. What are the Government doing to curb this inflationary practice?
My Lords, we do not control the market in that sense. It is a matter for individual companies. On the other hand, shortages create price increases. We seek to tackle that issue by increasing supply in the right place and, where we have market collapse, reversing the process by putting value back into properties which have negative equity because of wholesale abandonment of hundreds of thousands of dwellings. In some ways, we have the wrong houses in the wrong place and the wrong people in the wrong place. We have jobs in the wrong place. To that extent, we have a mis-matched economy. We seek to tackle that issue.
There is no doubt that mortgage lenders have considered the low interest rates—they are the lowest we have ever had—with low inflation in the long term. Under the pressures of the market and of customers, they are bound to seek to lend for longer periods. I cannot say that that is the key to the inflationary aspect. It may not be so at the affordable end but it is the effect on the market. Underlying the issue is an acute shortage of supply. The probable root cause of the problem is that there are fewer houses than the number of household formations, as the noble Baroness mentioned.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement. I listened to it with the ears of one who chairs an urban regeneration company in the Midlands. The whole idea of an urban regeneration company is to roll up a series of partnerships—those are the ethics of the board—with communities, county councils, borough councils and partnerships with RDAs.
Twelve new urban regeneration companies have been announced in the past 18 months, Corby being one. One of our aspirations is to build 22,000 new homes. Most of those will be on brownfield sites, a relic of the old steelworks. I am listening carefully. I wonder how the Government will target assistance to urban regeneration companies which clearly have a reverse role when most people talk about housing. We say, "Bring us your people". We want to expand. We want to have a much larger critical mass within the Midlands.
What help will be available for urban regeneration companies such as Corby Urban Regeneration Company? Will the future bring more help in planning and housing? Our responsibilities are not only new build but also to improve the existing housing stock.
My Lords, I cannot go into figures today although the noble Baroness has not been slow in lobbying me along with the elected Members for the area in putting the case for Corby. I accept that there is substantial case for new housing and better infrastructure and transport arrangements. One of the growth areas is Milton Keynes and the south Midlands which includes the area to which the noble Baroness refers. We shall come forward with firmer proposals once we have talked to all the stakeholders in that area.
My Lords, the Minister said that in declining areas in the north of England there is a market collapse: with the wrong houses, the wrong jobs and the wrong people in the wrong places. Those of us who live in such areas do not think that we are the wrong people. I live in a valley where the towns are slowly dying. The population is and has been declining for some time. I refer to towns such as Nelson, Burnley and Accrington.
Part of the purpose of planning is not simply to accept that economic activity and growth exist but to influence them. Have the Government abandoned the old ideas of regional development—that in areas of declining regional activity one of the purposes of government is to resuscitate and encourage economic activity?
In the Statement it is proposed that housing expenditure in future should be in one regional pot. Can the Minister tell us whether the new Pathfinder projects—one is in our valley in north-east Lancashire—will be part of that regional pot or will they be kept separate?
My Lords, the Pathfinder projects have been especially delineated. The money has been specially organised for them. We shall get on with it. We need an urban renaissance in the northern towns as the noble Lord said; otherwise they will die. The issue is not just housing. We have to regenerate the whole economy, infrastructure and community. If we do not have sustainable communities, we end up with nothing.
The noble Lord is right. We have to look at the vehicles we use to create this change. The Pathfinder projects are one such vehicle. The money and resources will be put in the Pathfinder projects and we shall get on with it.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Housing Corporation. I welcome the Statement. Some of the points raised after the Minister sat down surprise me. An almost pessimistic view was expressed 9in response to what was very good news. It was a most wide-ranging Statement. It may have been brief but a long statement is not always good news. There was a lot of good news in today's brief Statement.
The Statement recognises, as I do as chairman of the corporation, many points. Part of our remit is to advise the Government about the issues concerning the northern counties, in relation to which market failure is addressed in the Statement. Market failure has not occurred in each of the counties, but there is market failure in some of the towns, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said.
We welcome the Statement, but we know that the pressure pot is in London and the South East. The Thames Gateway, for example, covers three regional areas—not just one county or one region. The Housing Corporation welcomes the requirement for parties to come together to talk about investment and it welcomes being involved in that. It is one of two inspectorates, so it also welcomes the idea of entering into sensible talks with the Government about merging two jobs into one, which will streamline the position. We welcome the Statement and look forward to the detail. It is good news and we should not walk away from it.
My noble friend Lord Clarke of Hampstead wanted to be present for the Statement but had to attend a Select Committee. He asked me whether I would say on his behalf, as a chairman who looked after the inner city problems in Burnley, that in his view the people of Burnley would regard this Statement about the northern counties as optimistic.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. She chairs what is by any stretch of the imagination and by any Whitehall measure a first-class organisation. It has been wholly positive, supportive and incredibly helpful to the new department in the past few weeks as we have been preparing for the effects of the Comprehensive Spending Review and preparing this Statement. I look forward to the discussions about how we shall combine the two inspectorates with their good operations and differences in their ways.
The noble Baroness made a valuable point about the Thames Gateway. It is a huge operation. Fourteen zones have already been identified and there will not be a single delivery mechanism in the area. She is right to say that there are three regional development agencies and several counties, including the London boroughs. Of course, the Greater London Council and the Mayor also have a crucial role to play.
The point about the North is well made. This Statement is not just about the hot-spots of London and the South East. We are responsible for the whole of England. The pressures and problems are different in each area. It is not that the North is full of collapsed economies and communities and it is not the case that the South does not have any empty housing. There is a mixture of problems which we have to address.
My Lords, I congratulate the Government on having reached their 60 per cent target for brownfield sites for new homes as early as they have. If the achievement for new housing had been greater, as the Government may wish it to have been, would that still have been the case? Will postmen be regarded as key workers? Can the Minister contemplate a simplified version of the government response to the consultation on planning because the language at the moment is fairly opaque?
My Lords, we can always improve the quality of our communications. I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, has said. If a simplified version of what is quite a short document is possible I shall see whether I can provide him with it.
In terms of key workers, if public services are not delivered one wonders why. One recognises a key worker when the service is not delivered. We talk about nurses and teachers and since the Government came to power the pressure has been on education and health, but if the post is not delivered postmen become key workers. That is the same issue. He makes a fair point which I do not seek to deny.
The figure is different in different regions, but overall we have reached the target of 60 per cent brownfield development of new housing eight years ahead of time with a low house building total. I do not know what the result would have been if there had been a higher house build level. Because we know the amount of brownfield land around, although there is no register of it. English Partnerships are working on that so that we can parcel it up and check it out. I do not know whether we would have met the target or not. However, we are hell-bent on keeping to the target and stepping up the housing output. Therefore, the pressure is on to find more brownfield land.