My Lords, we have already heard how too many people and families are struggling with unaffordable housing and homelessness. More than 1 million families remain on the housing waiting list as we speak. There is a clear need to build more affordable homes in the medium term but that is not as easy as it sounds. In England last year, only 163,000 new homes were completed and only 32,000 of them were classed as affordable. That was the lowest number for 24 years. In many cases, those houses were priced at levels we would not regard as affordable for many families.
I support my noble friend Lord Smith in the points he made about the restoration of the local authority’s role as a builder and provider of housing of all sorts and in all tenures—particularly focusing on affordable homes. I want to draw attention to three issues I think need to be sorted in the short term, making reference to the findings of last year’s ad hoc Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment, where all three of those points were highlighted.
First is that wonderful and quaint proposition on planning with which we struggle: a viability test. It is absolutely clear that, in a planning sense, local authority targets to achieve affordable housing are not being met. I believe one of the significant reasons for that is the frequent undermining effect that developers produce by using viability assessments to argue down the numbers of affordable homes they will build, subsequent to the original planning permissions being granted and the original number of affordable homes agreed. It is a David and Goliath contest: developers have sharp-suited lawyers with sharp elbows, but planning authorities are depleted, not only in the number of planners but the skills they have. They are no match, quite frankly, for developers.
I welcome the Government’s consideration of helping planning authorities by allowing them to charge increased fees, but that is moving far too slowly and we need a rapid progression of the commitment to allow councils to increase planning fees by 20%. We also need a commitment to allow every council the flexibility to increase planning fees by up to 40% while a fair and transparent scheme of local fee setting is tested. We simply cannot continue at our current pace, otherwise we will continue to see these unequal struggles on viability between planning authorities and developers.
I was pleased to be part of the Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment. Almost every witness we saw raised the current operation of the viability test as an issue, so we need to do something about it. I urge the Government, first, to introduce complete transparency in viability assessments. Currently, they are not public documents. Developers say that they are commercially confidential. That may be the case in the initial stages where land assembly is still taking place, but the reality is that once that has happened there is nothing commercially confidential about them. Yet they are still not in the public domain. The viability process needs to take place in the open so that local communities have at least half a chance of understanding the reasons behind reductions in affordable housing and challenging the calculations that result in developers reneging on their undertakings to provide affordable homes as part of their planning permission.
Secondly, the viability test should become an exception rather than the rule. It is almost the rule now that a developer will go back and argue under the viability test that they can no longer provide the public goods that were agreed. I recognise that the Government are pondering a minimum affordable homes requirement of 10% in all planning applications above a certain size, but that does not say anything about the post hoc reneging and renegotiating which the viability test currently allows.
Building more homes will impact on land take on green fields, green belt and the environment. Local authorities feel deeply under the cosh to meet housing targets. The Government have introduced severe penalties for local authorities which do not provide adequate plans for housing targets or deliver them. That takes away their decision-making rights, it allows developers a free rein on development anywhere and it removes access to special funds. For obvious reasons, local authorities are now considering easy greenfield sites, often with poor infrastructure, poor transport and poor employment access, rather than more difficult, piecemeal, previously developed land and urban infill where there is better access to services. If I had a pound for every “garden village” that makes me want to throw up in my handbag, I would be a very rich woman, because they are neither gardens nor villages; they are lightly disguised new settlements inappropriately plonked in the middle of the English countryside providing individuals with no access to infrastructure, schools and transport. We have to do something about that.
We must not see affordable housing as a dash for the bottom. People need affordable houses, not cheap and nasty houses. We are currently providing the smallest houses in Europe. We need a minimum standard for housing. There is huge dissatisfaction with quality. The Select Committee indicated that there had been a sharp decline in the number of developments that undertook design review. Support and encouragement for design review has been diluted and left to local authorities, which cannot afford it. Affordable housing must not mean a dash to build cheap, mean, little houses in poorly designed neighbourhoods with insufficient access to employment, affordable transport, schools and health facilities. They will rapidly become our future slums. We need to learn from the past.