My Lords, I have added my name to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord True, and, once again, I find myself supporting him strongly on this issue. We went through the Housing and Planning Bill together, usually extremely late at night—I recall being worried about whether I would get away in time to catch my last train. It worried me at the time that Conservative Richmond and Liberal Democrat Sutton, which are almost neighbouring boroughs, were so much in agreement. Now, when I hear that tonight we might be keeping the noble Lord, Lord True, from his budget-making council meeting, I feel that I almost owe it to my Liberal Democrat colleagues in Richmond to speak for at least another three hours on this extremely important amendment. Maybe we will do that.
I strongly support the noble Lord, Lord True, on this issue. I was, for 13 years, leader of a council in an almost neighbouring south London borough—Sutton. As I have said many times in this Chamber, I was a town-centre councillor in that borough for 40 years. I should perhaps add that it is still Liberal Democrat run after more than 30 years, so we are clearly doing something right there. This is a serious issue. It has affected Sutton and many London boroughs, and no doubt other parts of the country but particularly London, where residential property values are much higher and property owners and developers can make much more money from residential development than from office development.
Like the noble Lord, Lord True, in spite of the temptation he offered me, I will not go through all that I have said in previous debates, both on the Housing and Planning Bill and in Committee on this Bill. This matter was discussed in Grand Committee. I know that the noble Lord, Lord True, was unable to be there but I raised the issue there as well. I repeat that, in the time it took us to get an Article 4 direction into the town centre in Sutton—in a little over a year, but I will come back to that in a minute—the town centre lost 28% of its office space in about 18 months. The noble Lord, Lord True, talked about the figures for Richmond. Similarly, the percentage of office space in Sutton that was occupied or partly occupied was 62%. So we are not talking about empty and redundant offices which are past their sell-by date or are in areas where they are no longer needed; we are talking about active employment zones where people have jobs or go to shop or eat in their lunch hours, and which are a very important part of the local community.
I mentioned the Article 4 direction, which eventually we got for the town-centre area. Initially, my council proposed to get an Article 4 direction for the borough as a whole. I see the noble Lord, Lord True, nodding in agreement. Perhaps that was also the case in Richmond—I know that it was in a number of other London boroughs. It was made very clear to us by the Government at the time that that was a non-starter—it would not happen. So in Sutton we attempted to get an Article 4 direction in rather more targeted areas. Again, it was made clear to us that that would not succeed, so we targeted solely the town-centre area, to which I have referred on a number of occasions.
If you introduce Article 4 immediately, you are liable for considerable compensation payments to potential owners. It is simply not a viable option, particularly in a valuable town-centre area, so it needs 12 months’ notice. That was probably a significant contributor to why we lost 28% of our office space in the notice period for the Article 4 direction. As I said in Grand Committee, since Article 4 has applied in the town centre, that process has slowed down considerably for a number of reasons, but what has happened now is that the same developments are happening in a number of the district centres, where Article 4 does not apply and where, frankly, to go through the lengthy and expensive process of introducing Article 4, even if it were likely to be successful, would be time-consuming, expensive and possibly not so effective.
Minister after Minister, including the noble Lord on the Front Bench today, has quoted Article 4 as the answer to this problem. Clearly, attitudes have changed, and perhaps the understanding of the problem is greater than it was. Are the Government any more minded now than they were 12 or 24 months ago to accept Article 4 directions for the whole of a local authority area, as distinct from a very targeted approach? If that were the case, it would be very useful to know that from the Minister and would at least be of some help—and a very refreshing and welcome change.
I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord True, that the proper answer to this issue is to allow local authorities to decide for themselves, knowing and recognising the local situations. As the noble Lord, Lord True, has said, and as I have said on other occasions, I have no problem with the issue in principle. I understand and entirely accept that in other parts of the country it has proved very successful. However, in our part of south London, and in other parts of London, exactly the opposite has been the effect; it has been disastrous.
I turn now to the reason for which this measure was introduced. The current Minister, Gavin Barwell, a former Croydon councillor—another south London councillor—has said that housing need and the need to meet the Government’s housing targets override any concerns about permitted development rights. As I said before, it is not just about housing numbers. It is about housing need and about actually getting the right sort of homes—not necessarily houses—in the right places. It is about the homes that are needed in areas that are needed, where there are jobs for people to work in, where they support the local economy and do not detract from it.
Above all, this should contribute towards affordable homes. I leave aside for the moment what is the definition of an “affordable home” in south London, but south London needs affordable homes, and this process is providing very few, if any, affordable homes at all. Indeed, London Councils gives some figures, stating that:
“Between May 2013 and April 2015 at least 16,000 new dwellings have avoided the full planning process through office-to-residential PDRs. Had these developments been required to seek full planning permission for their conversion, many of them could have been required to contribute to affordable housing provisions”,
and, indeed, to contribute in many other ways to the local infrastructure—all of which is avoided by permitted development rights. It is questionable to what extent these really contribute to housing need in parts of London, as distinct from housing numbers. We should remember that there is an important distinction there sometimes.
A final point, which I raised very late at night during the Housing and Planning Bill, is that I would understand this a bit better if it was felt that the councils concerned were failing to meet their housing targets. Almost a year ago, I quoted the figures from my own council, and no doubt the noble Lord, Lord True, could do the same for his council. For each of the previous 10 years, my council—of which I am no longer a member—has more than met its housing target. Taken over the 10 years as a whole, housing completions in our borough were 130% above target. What is the justification for imposing the permitted development rights when it means losing all other planning gain that comes from such developments and, most importantly, losing the opportunity to get more much-needed affordable housing?
For all those reasons, I am more than happy to support, once again, the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord True. Like him, I do not know whether they are precisely right or necessarily the right answer. For me, the right answer is to trust the local authorities to do what is best for their area. But if we still do not have a Government willing to do that—I accept that the coalition Government were no better; indeed, they were arguably worse—then at least let them allow some leeway in those areas where it is an extremely important and pressing issue. What is happening in London today will happen in other parts of the country very soon, if it has not happened already.