Lord Foster of Bath:
Moved by Lord Foster of Bath
180: Clause 78, page 88, line 9, at end insert—“(1A) Regulations under this Chapter may require relevant planning authorities to process data in accordance with approved data standards relating to the number and nature of—(a) second homes, and(b) holiday let propertiesin the planning authority area.”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment would enable planning data regulations to provide for the collection of data to national standards about second homes and holiday lets.
My Lords, the amendments in this group cover the issues of data and data sharing for, as well as the registration of, and safety standards in, properties available for short-term let. It is not my intention to speak on registration, with the exception of two brief comments. I will happily leave that to the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, with his great expertise as chairman of the Built Environment Committee.
My two comments are simply these. I note that the consultation on registration ended in September last year, and to date we still have not had any response from the Government. That clearly would have been very helpful to have had in time for our deliberations today. I also comment that, although I entirely accept that registering and licensing can be used interchangeably, I certainly would prefer to have licensing and a licensing regime rather than a registration regime.
I turn to my Amendments 180 and 445A, which address data issues. I believe very firmly that Clause 78 is very important and, indeed, welcome, because it requires local authorities to use data standards when they process information in connection with a planning function that are designed to ensure that planning data is comparable across local authorities and formatted in the same way so that machines can collect and process it, making it much more useful for research and innovation. It is an important and welcome clause, as is the equally welcome creation by the Government of a digital planning programme, a spatial data unit and various support systems to enable local authorities to use the data to best effect in preparing local plans and policies.
However, in earlier amendments I proposed the creation of new use classes for second homes and holiday lets. I will not repeat the case I made then to justify that— I suspect others may comment on that—but I note that there was widespread support for the establishment of new use categories in the way I described. In the hope that the Government will either accept my proposal for new use categories or collect the relevant detailed data in relation to those categories through the licensing or registration scheme, I have simply tabled Amendment 180 so that data that is collected, by whichever means, would be processed in accordance with the same national standards. This seems important because consistent and comparable data about second homes and holiday lets is, frankly, woefully lacking, as many people pointed out in our earlier discussions, not least the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. Indeed, data on holiday lets is patchy, as it is for second homes.
Building on the point that the noble Earl made at the time, I say that although some official information is available on second homes via council tax records, in those authorities that do not offer the council tax discount for second homes there is no incentive for owners to register them, so it is likely that the council tax records significantly underestimate the scale of second homes in some areas. This data deficiency makes it difficult for researchers to track developments in both classes and the effect of second homes and holiday lets on, for example, house prices and local economies, and for local authorities to enforce regulation and taxation. Hence the benefit of the new use classes, coupled with data collected and processed to national standards, as proposed in this amendment, thereby ensuring robust, comparable and usable data on second homes and holiday lets, enabling better analysis and local regulation of these types of usage and adding to the department’s valuable work to improve local spatial and planning data.
However, to maximise those benefits, the data collected must come from as many sources as possible, including not least the platforms that offer holiday lets. Frankly, it is almost impossible to enforce licensing restrictions without, for example, rental data on how many days each property is actually let. We heard in earlier debates about London’s 90-day minimum period for short-term lets, but the Mayor of London himself has said that it is near impossible for councils to enforce it due to the lack of access to booking data from platforms. Indeed, Councillor Matt Noble from Westminster City Council very recently told your Lordships’ Built Environment Committee:
“If we were to have a data-sharing agreement with the platforms, that would be incredibly useful so that we could access and identify those issues of non-compliance with the hosts.”
I absolutely accept that platforms are not keen to hand over this data unless they can be sure it is kept confidential and used only for specific purposes; hence, as proposed in Amendment 445A, the need for data-sharing agreements—something that has already been adopted across the European Union.
I accept that Clause 210(5)(i) addresses data collection but, as I read it, it does not cover data sharing, so I look forward to the Minister either correcting me or commenting on how data sharing will be covered, given the clear need for it. I point out that I raised enforcement in an earlier group and at that time the Minister did not respond. I hope she will at least agree that data-sharing agreements will help enforcement.
I turn now to Amendments 445, 445B and 457, which address aspects of safety in short-term lets. Clause 210(5(c) as it stands would allow the registration of short-term lets to be conditional upon the safety conditions being met, but that clause lacks any detail about what is going to be required.
Analysis by the Centre for Public Data shows that many Airbnb and other short-term let listings appear to lack basic safety features, such as smoke alarms and fire extinguishers. The analysis by the centre found that in 2022—last year—9% of listings, excluding tents, yurts and campsites, were described as not having smoke alarms, 44% were described as not having fire extinguishers and 41% of properties with heating were described as not having carbon monoxide detectors. Airbnb does not check that listings have fire alarms, extinguishers or carbon monoxide detectors, or even require hosts to certify that they provide them. It does not ask hosts to confirm that gas safety or electrical checks have been carried out; hence Amendment 445, which addresses electrical safety, and Amendment 445B, which addresses safety issues in relation to gas, fire and carbon monoxide.
I will illustrate the need to specify in the Bill what more detailed requirements are needed by considering the issue of electrical safety, because I referred to this at Second Reading. I said then that Electrical Safety First points out that there is an alarming situation where short-term lets are not covered by the same electrical safety regulations as traditional holiday accommodation, forms of rented accommodation or short-term lets in Scotland. There is a loophole in the law that I believe Amendment 445 would plug.
The amendment is needed because 54% of guests in short-term lets have experienced some form of electrical safety issue: 19% of guests have reported being in properties with broken sockets or light switches; 50% have reported staying in properties where there was exposed wiring; and 13% have experienced scorching or burn marks around sockets or light switches. Amendment 445 deals with the electrical installations in the property and the portable electrical appliances provided in it.
In relation to the installations, the amendment would require the hosts of short-term lets to have an electrical safety inspection carried out at least every five years by a competent and qualified person and to possess an electrical installation condition report. This is already required in other forms of rented accommodation. Given that 89% of electrical fires are caused by electrical appliances, the amendment would also require that a portable appliance test—a PAT—on such appliances is carried out, from electric cookers to hairdryers. That must be done as part of the letting. Across all forms of tenure, these products cause 12,000 fires and 3,000 injuries every single year, some of them sadly fatal, as was the case at Grenfell Tower. It is essential that such appliances in short-term lets have a PAT.
It is not surprising perhaps that, based again on the survey from Electrical Safety First, 92% of guests consider it important that the premises they stay in meet formal safety electrical requirements for both the installations and equipment. Adding these safety provisions and those in Amendment 445A to registration conditions would require hosts to pay more attention to their existing legal duties and provide for effective sanctions if properties are found to lack safety provisions.
The Government said they are committed to ensuring that England has high-quality tourist accommodation. Amendments 445 and 445A, together with Amendment 447 which provides definitions, would help achieve this. I believe that these amendments on data collection and sharing, and on safety requirements, are useful additions to the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, for his introductory remarks. He made some important points. The points I am going to make are slightly different.
I will speak to the four amendments in my name in this group: Amendments 441, 443, 444 and 446. I do so with the cross-party support of other members of the Built Environment Select Committee, as is seen from the names subscribed to the amendments. I am glad to see various noble Lords here who are, or who have been, members of that committee and who may wish to speak in this short debate, which is principally focused on the Government’s proposals in the Bill to empower themselves to introduce a national registration scheme for short-term let properties.
These amendments arise from a short inquiry conducted by the Built Environment Select Committee last year in which we looked at the effects of Airbnb and similar type properties on various localities. It was chaired not by me at that time but by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe. As committees tend to, we reached some conclusions we agreed on and had various questions that we wanted to ask the Government about the national registration scheme, which by then we were aware they were bringing forward and proposing. The Government clearly see it as central to their approach to dealing with the problems that have been identified.
One of the things we were able to agree on—here I part company slightly with the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, as was mentioned in Committee only two days ago—was that, while there was a problem, the evidence showed us that it was quite localised. It is a problem which exists in particular types of localities, including densely populated urban areas such as central London and in holiday areas. We did not see the case for a compulsory national registration scheme. We did see a case for local authorities in areas that are adversely affected to be empowered to have a registration scheme that they could apply locally.
Beyond that, we had a number of questions. We put our views and questions in a letter to the Government, as one does, and we addressed it—thinking we were doing the right thing—to the Secretary of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Our first surprise was being told, after a little while, that the reply would in fact come from a different department—the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. So I first ask my noble friend to explain clearly why a scheme so closely identified with the Secretary of State at DLUHC should in fact be handled, in policy and implementation terms, by a totally different department. It is of course entirely up to the Government to decide how to manage these things, but I think noble Lords will want to know who is in charge, so to speak, and where they should turn if they have views on the matter.
As I said, we received a reply from a Minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that was slightly odd in some ways. First, he appeared to think that the Bill in this Committee had already been enacted.
It had of course passed the Commons at that stage, and that may have been the cause of his confusion, but I know that noble Lords here would want him to be aware that the Bill is far from enacted. In fact, it is further from being enacted at this stage in Committee than it possibly was on the first day on which we sat to consider it. The Bill that emerges may yet not be quite the Bill that the Minister thinks is in force, but I am sure that all of this will be sorted out for him by his officials.
In his reply, he referred to the call for evidence that the Government issued last year—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, for bringing this up. He referred to it, saying that the Government had gone out and called for evidence, but he gave no explanation of why, months later, we still have not seen the evidence submitted as a result of that call. I am sure it would be immensely helpful to your Lordships, in considering this particular aspect of the Bill, to know what evidence the Government received. So my second question to my noble friend is: can she tell us when we will see the evidence that was submitted to the Government last year, with any conclusions that they might have drawn from it at this stage? In particular, will noble Lords have an opportunity to see it before we arrive at Report, or—this would be very helpful—while we are still in Committee? The essential thrust of what I will say in the remainder of my speech—I think noble Lords might be grasping it—is that we are being asked to empower the Government to introduce a national registration scheme without being given any information on what it might contain.
This brings me to the remaining part of the letter that the committee received in reply to its polite inquiries. We asked some questions about how this would operate, but we were told by the Minister that none of these questions could be answered at this stage because they would all be the subject of public consultation. Public consultation is a very good and necessary thing, and we have no criticism of the Government for committing to undertake public consultation on the scheme, but you have to consult on something: you have to put some proposals to the public in order to elicit their opinion. My question, as a result of reading the letter from the Minister, is: do the Government have any idea at all of what they will put to the public? If they do—I very much hope they do—can my noble friend say what they are?
The content of these four amendments follows from this. I will run through them briefly, because all of them are probing amendments, seeking an answer from the Government to questions raised in our letter. It seemed very good to be able to give the Government this opportunity, in Committee, to answer questions that they were not able to answer a few weeks ago.
Amendment 441 raises the question of whether the Government have it in mind that this should be a national and compulsory scheme or one which has the local discretion which the committee favoured—we would like to know.
Amendment 443 raises the question of what the Government mean by a “short-term” let. It is put down as “90 days” in the amendment, but that is for probing purposes. Do they mean 90 days? What exactly will count as a short-term let for this purpose? If they do not have an exact figure—90 days, 80 days, 100 days—could they give us a range of what they think constitutes a short-term let before they go out to public consultation?
Amendment 444 raises a question about something on which the committee agreed—I should have said that earlier—that any national registration scheme should not apply to rooms being let out in one’s own home. In fact, the Government encourage people to let out rooms in their own home by giving them a tax break on the rental income received, so that appears to be one government policy. Is it the Government’s intention to include rooms let out in one’s principal home in a national registration scheme, and, if so, how does that mesh with the tax credits and the signals given by the tax system to those who do so?
The final question we wanted to know the answer to was: how will this be paid for? Whether it is a national or local scheme, I would have thought that it will almost certainly be implemented by local authorities, or that they will have a major role in its implementation, so how will they be remunerated for this? Fees will no doubt be charged, so how high will the fees be? Will the local authority be able to set its own fees in local circumstances, or will it be limited to charging only on a cost-recovery basis? Amendment 446 proposes cost recovery, but it is not a proposal; it is a probing amendment. This is a chance for the Government to say what they are thinking about fees and remuneration for local authorities.
Those are the four questions to which we did not feel we had received proper answers. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will be able to give us some assurance and answers on those matters, and on the other matters I raised earlier, when she responds to the group. I add that, apart from this very short debate, I think that noble Lords will have no other opportunity, other than on Report, to have a say on the scheme before it comes to be proposed and no doubt incorporated in a statutory instrument or some other measure. So this is an important juncture—one in which noble Lords, I think, will want to hear some answers from my noble friend, as I do.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Moylan, who is the finest chair of the House of Lords Built Environment Committee since my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe last year. He is a very fine chair, and I enjoy his chairmanship and his speeches. His four questions are entirely reasonable. I declare my residential and commercial property interests, none of which is involved in short-term lets, and that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association —it only took 20-odd years to get there, but I am delighted to have that honour.
I will make a general point, as someone who spent the bulk of their political career in local government as opposed to central government, which I know my noble friend the Minister will understand as a distinguished council leader. Would it not be far better to have a national compulsory scheme that was not a one size fits all? I say that because Wiltshire, which she led so brilliantly, is very different from Hammersmith and Fulham; Shepherd’s Bush does not look like some of the places in Wiltshire. Equally, the problems that have been outlined—certainly from the evidence collected by the Built Environment Committee—are very focal, and they require different solutions. A framework of some kind that enables local implementation seems incredibly sensible to me, and the probing around the definition of a short-term let seems very sensible to me. It is entirely courteous to the Members of this House that, when we deliberate and collect evidence to improve approaches, we take those points on board. I would like the Government to reflect on the fact that this process is really helpful; the Back-Benchers are trying to help get better legislation. Before you consult, it would be nice to know the way in which you propose to consult—and then, I am sure, we will get this right.
My Lords, I support Amendments 441, 443, 444 and 446 on the theme of short-term lettings, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, the esteemed chair of your Lordships’ Built Environment Committee, on which I am honoured to serve. I also support the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, on data sharing and safety.
I share the worries relayed very forcefully in submissions to our Built Environment Committee over the loss of long-term rented homes because of landlords switching to short-term lettings—propelled not least, it seems, by a tax and regulatory regime that favours the latter. As the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, has said, our debate last Monday covered a lot of the issues that have been debated in our committee and are now the subject of these probing amendments. Noble Lords gave much support on Monday to earlier amendments that advocated a registration or licensing scheme—the two could look very similar. The Built Environment Committee favoured local discretion in introducing a national scheme locally, since some places have virtually no short-term lettings. It would be very bureaucratic to have a scheme applied there. The Government are also committed, as well as to a registration scheme, to taking a regulatory arrangement forward, and I hope that we can hear news from the Minister of a timetable in this regard.
In addition, there was support on Monday for the proposition from the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, and the noble Earl, Lord Devon, endorsed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, and the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, for new use classes, which would enable planning powers to be used to control numbers of short-term lets in each local authority. The Government are consulting on that proposition, which personally I would favour; it deserves attention, alongside some tweaks to remove perceived incentives in the tax and regulatory frameworks, which currently appear to encourage landlords to end longer-term lets and switch to Airbnb-style short-term rentals.
I add to the debate one extra ingredient: the international dimension. In this digital age, the Airbnb phenomenon for accommodation, like Uber for transport and Amazon for retail, is ubiquitous and has caused concern in sectors in most other advanced economies. Many different regulations have been applied in other countries, particularly in tourist hotspots. A report from the Property Research Trust last year, Regulating Short-Term Rentals: Platform-based Property Rentals in European Cities, describes numerous efforts to face this challenge. Amsterdam has a strict permit system, with fines of about £20,000 for failure to comply. Barcelona has banned all short-term rentals, even in private homes. In Ireland, those areas of the country designated as rent-pressure zones have tough restrictions. In parts of the United States, such as San Francisco and Boston, only properties with the host living there during the stay are allowed to be operated as short-term lets. This international perspective demonstrates that we are not alone in facing this problem. We have a greater problem of scarcity of rented housing than most of our neighbours, which suggests that an effort to get to grips with the downside of short-term lets may be overdue here.
I have one final point. Amendment 444 reflects the Built Environment Committee’s firmly held view that new arrangements should not deter any home owners from letting spare rooms on a short-term basis. The current tax-free position, allowing up to £7,500 per annum, encourages the use of underutilised assets and brings extra income that can help with rising mortgage costs. The amendment emphasises the value of continuing that favourable tax regime for owner-occupiers in underoccupied homes.
I hope that the Government will be bold in following the lead of many other countries. We need to address the pain and disruption being caused in particular locations by the growth of short-term lets that replace badly needed longer-term rented homes. I support the amendments.
My Lords, I too support these amendments, particularly the lead amendment in this group, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, about the gathering of better data. I will try not to repeat what I said last time, other than that I have some skin in the game here in the sense that I jointly own properties that are let on assured shorthold tenancies, as well as short-term holiday let properties.
This is a multifaceted issue. Second homes may, at other times, be part-time holiday lets. Holiday lets may be for leisure trips one minute and for business purposes another, and they may alter from season to season. They may be for a couple of days at one point, or a couple of weeks or three months at another point. It is very difficult to make a one-size-fits-all assumption when you are dealing with short-term lets, holiday lets or even assured shorthold tenancies.
The platforms are also equally variable: it could be booking.com—a very common one—Airbnb, an owner’s own website, word of mouth, a card in the window of the local convenience store, or a repeat booking. They are all means of people getting in contact. I know this for a fact, because the only one that does not affect the properties that I am involved with is Airbnb as we do not use that platform, but I know lots of people who do. In respect of what the noble Lord, Lord Best, said, the thing about a platform such as Airbnb is its slickness and convenience for users—both lessors and prospective occupiers. That has really made it a benchmark worldwide phenomenon and has driven its operation and popularity as much as any wish to shift from one to the other.
I contacted a local estate agent down in the West Country—not one I use but I knew somebody in the place—and asked them what was happening with short-term lets as against assured shorthold tenancies, for example. They deal with a lot of such tenancies; they are one of the main agents in that area. I was told that, while there is considerable demand for assured shorthold tenancies—often 20 or 30 applicants for each—there were very few cases of an AST being terminated for the purpose of moving the property to a short-term letting. There was nearly always some other reason for ending the AST: it was a pot of money that the owner wanted to put into some other investment, such as extending another house or helping a child with a house purchase in another part of the country.
I do not know, therefore, how frequent this supposed transfer is. Organisations such as Shelter say that they have lots of people coming along saying that they have been kicked out because the owner wanted to do an Airbnb-type letting, but I do not know whether that is an essentially urban phenomenon—it may be—or more general. I just do not think that we have the data. That goes back to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Foster, made: we need better data.
I would worry about attempts to jump to conclusions about what we do here. I follow the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, the chairman of the wonderful committee of which I am a former member, but I worry about attempts to jump to conclusions, particularly because we have not had the results of the Government’s own thinking on this, and particularly when applying these user types to a range of properties that equally has a very considerable breadth—from a shepherd’s hut at one end through to a static caravan and to a permanent dwelling. Some may be suitable only for seasonal use: I think of the very large caravan parks that—“decorate” is the wrong word—“appear” in places such as the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. I cannot say that I regard them as beautiful or a benefit to the environment, but they clearly fulfil a seasonal requirement.
There are some settlements—some seaside places and holiday hotspots—that are built on tourism. That is what they are there for, almost, and the fact that they empty themselves for parts of the year is not a particularly modern phenomenon. I remember when as children we used to go on holiday to a part of Cornwall on an annual basis, and just about every other house was advertising bed and breakfast. Those bed and breakfasts may have morphed into Airbnb, or a short-term let on some other platform. Noble Lords have mentioned that there are clearly problems associated with an imbalance of property uses, but as the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, confirmed—I raised this point on Monday —these are not consistent, geographically or by type. They tend to be associated with hotspots of one sort or another. We need to understand the dynamic.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, picked up on the point I made that we need to flesh out a great deal more what is happening here. If we do not know the purposes and drivers behind what is happening in any given instance then we are not going to get near to creating viable policies for the purpose. Let us make no mistake: this phenomenon is undoubtedly causing problems in certain areas. We had evidence of that in the Built Environment Select Committee when I was privileged to serve on it. What is required here is a degree of localised assessment, but based on consistent, nationally accepted data-gathering principles and analysis, so that we get a proper basis for dealing with this, and can look at and compare like with like and not be comparing apples with pears.
I entirely endorse Amendments 445B and 447, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Foster, because I know for a fact how very important safety is within a property, particularly where there is short-term turnover of occupancy and people are not particularly familiar with the property. It is absolutely important that they are safe, and that things such as batteries in smoke detectors are checked annually and that combustion appliances have proper tests and are serviced. They should be safe and safety checked at regular intervals.
The noble Lord, Lord Foster, referred to the business of trying to get at the data on this through council tax records. He is absolutely right that this is a pretty deficient way of dealing with it. I am going to tell a tale out of school here. My wife has written on numerous occasions to the billing authority in relation to a property that has been used for holiday letting for many years, saying, “Look, this is being used pretty much year-round as a holiday unit. Should it continue to be in council tax?” To which answer there came none, and why would there? Why would any clever finance officer of a local authority decide that he was going to forgo council tax—which he collects and keeps in his kitty, thank you very much—and be the collecting agency for business rates for central government, to be redistributed according to whatever the normal formula is? The noble Lord, Lord Foster, mentioned one area where the thing is skewed; that is a second area where there is a perverse incentive not to get things in the right slot.
It gets worse. Under the “check, challenge, appeal” process that business rates operators have to deal with when dealing with the Valuation Office Agency, someone has to formally claim the property for the purposes of being its agent before they can even get the process in train to change the assessment. That is not a sensible way of doing it either. We are completely at sea on this and really need to sort it out.
The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, referred to fees. I am really glad that they have been raised. One of my children has an investment flat in part of south London. The local authority has decreed that they will pay either a registration fee or a licence fee—I do not know which —for the privilege of being a landlord. It confers no inspection or anything else. There do not seem to be any checks, just an address and a £600 fee every year. That is not small beer; it makes the difference between the thing being a reasonably profitable investment and being highly marginal. There is a risk that the fee can be used as a milch cow, which I rather object to for the reasons I made clear when I last spoke on this.
The distribution of second homes and very short-term lettings is not necessarily where people want to live and work. I made this point last Monday; I apologise for making it again, but it is important. We need to get a handle on the distribution issue, along with all the other functional things.
This is not the stuff of simple arithmetic. The Government may be looking hard into all these things but, until we have some qualitative data, going back to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Foster, we will be adrift. We are at risk of making policies that produce an adverse reaction in their target area, because you never know what the intuitive response will be. There will be a disruptive effect, which is avoidable. There is a sensible way and a disruptive way of doing this. I hope we take the former route.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, who was a member of the Built Environment Committee when we discussed this issue. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, for his excellent introduction; I agreed with probably most of what he said, which is quite unusual for me.
There is a housing problem. We are here to talk about the short-term issue and the relationship between supply and demand, the short-term issue and location, as other noble Lords have said. It comes back to the question of where the workers—the term is a little insulting—the people who need to live locally, will live. It varies across the UK. As noble Lords will know, I live in Cornwall and sometimes on the Isles of Scilly. I have a bit of data from Cornwall Council that puts this into perspective. According to the council, we have 13,292 second homes in Cornwall. I am not sure how that was measured or how you define a second home, which is partly what we are talking about now, but that is a pretty high figure.
On the question of where people might live, the same council and its deputy leader have said that there are 6,000 affordable homes in Cornwall which have planning permission, but only 600 are being built. One has to ask why. Is it that the developers are waiting for a year or two so that they can get a better sale price, or what? We need that information.
The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, said that he did not have any evidence of people being kicked out of their longer-term lets for Airbnb, but there was evidence of this in Plymouth in a local paper article about six months ago. It named the person—I think—and where it took place. It involved a man who was working in some local authority role. He had been there for many years, but one day his landlord, who lived downstairs or upstairs in the house, gave him notice to quit, because he said he was going to sell it. So, the tenant had to leave. I do not know whether he found anywhere else; history does not relate. However, he did keep an eye on the property, and six months later he found it advertised on Airbnb. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, it is keeping the availability of accommodation—both affordable and unaffordable homes—in a pretty nasty state wherever this happens. I recall asking the Airbnb witness, when he or she came to our committee, whether they felt it would be all right for somebody to be kicked out like that and for the council worker to sleep on a park bench—that was his alternative. I did not get much of an answer; I did not really expect one.
There is a problem here, but it is only in some places, as other noble Lords have said. There are other places where it is probably not necessary to have legislation, and that is the purpose behind Amendment 441. For me, the most important thing is to have the ability to register these properties when the local authority believes that it is necessary. So, I favour “permitting” in Amendment 441, but if the Government think that it is essential around the whole country, we will have to look at this again.
My worry about Amendment 443 is the inclusion of “90 days” in the definition of a short-term rental, but as the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, said, this a probing amendment. It is easy to ask: would this apply to a rental if it is let for 90 days, or if it is available for let for 90 days? Who is going to check? It is a bit difficult to define something which will probably cover the whole country—ditto my comments about Amendment 444. That amendment talks about one room in a house, which sounds fine. If you have a three-bedroom house and you let one, that sounds fine. However, there may be people who then build a bigger house in order to let multiple rooms—I do not know how many; it could be three, four, five or six—and make a lot of money out of it, and they could get away with it because it is a series of single rooms. All these special exclusions could make it more difficult for this legislation to work.
The amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Foster, are absolutely essential. This is one of the things we discovered with Airbnb, as the noble Lord said: it does not have to comply with any of these regulations. Fire and safety are fundamental to any property that is let. I know many people who run holiday lets, and they moan like anything that they have to get all these certificates. But if you have rented something, whether it is for a week, a day or a year, you still expect the same level of safety. It is amazing that people think they can get away with not having this.
Some noble Lords will have met the people doing the R&R, who told us what is going to happen with the restoration of this building. My first question to them was, “And what are you doing about fire extinguishers, fire monitoring, and extinguishers in the roof in particular, after Notre-Dame?” They said, “Well, that will come later, when we’ve decided what to do and started the work”. We all know that the most likely time for an old building to catch fire is when the contractors are in. That probably applies as much to lets registered or unregistered with the local authority as it does to this place—which we all love, of course.
In supporting all these amendments, my final comment, therefore, is that it is going to cost local authorities money to do these things. We know that. They must have the money and be allocated the money, and they must be able to spend it on what they like. Everybody will then think that this is all fair and above board, and they will sleep better in their beds at night.
My Lords, I am speaking as a former member of the Built Environment Committee; I was a member when the committee’s report was drawn up. I thank the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, and his committee clerk for sending me a copy of the letter received by the committee this week, I understand, from the Minister who has accepted responsibility for this issue. It is, as it turns out, the Minister from DCMS. Before I go any further, I say that in a previous debate it was extremely frustrating for the Government Front Bench to reply, “Well, that was a matter for the Department for Transport”, and for no answer to be forthcoming. I hope we will not get into that dead end today, because this is a significant set of amendments on a significant proposal in the Bill. As this debate has already made clear, it has a very clear crossover into the housing market and the availability of housing in many areas of the country.
When the committee commenced its inquiry, it consisted of members with a very wide range of views—from those who had an extremely free-market approach to the housing situation and believed that the market would determine it, to those at the other end who thought that the best solution to our housing problem was a state allocation system. So, we had a very wide range of views in the committee, but we received such convincing evidence during the inquiry that it was not that difficult for us to produce a consensus report. The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, are very much exploring with the Government their response to the committee’s report, and I have signed Amendment 441 in particular. The Government’s wording in the Bill is that the Secretary of State can propose regulations “requiring or permitting” local authorities to do something, but the amendment would delete “requiring” so that the Secretary of State’s regulations can only be about “permitting” them.
I am also privy to what my noble friend Lady Thornhill would have said if she had not tested positive for Covid yesterday: “My first major concern is that there are several ‘may’ or ‘must’ statements in the Bill, which could either require or permit action, and there is a world of difference between the two. We are being asked to agree a general principle and accept that there will be additional shorter consultations to bring forward a set of regulations on the details of how such a registration scheme would operate.” My noble friend Lady Thornhill shares my aversion to the Government having unfettered power and, on this occasion, even being able to restrict the time for consultation. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, has spoken about that. I hope that the Minister, despite being from the wrong department, will be able to tell us what the outcome of that consultation process was.
Both my noble friend Lady Thornhill and I would like to hear what the Government’s current thinking is on whether short-term lets should constitute a change of use and therefore require planning permission, or whether they should not. It is a key element in permitting some degree of local flexibility for any scheme that comes forward.
I am sorry to remind noble Lords that on several occasions so far in our discussions I have had something to say about the plethora of regulatory impositions that the Bill contains, and this has more, of course. I would like to hear whether there is any departmental working—anything in the pipeline—on the combined impact of all these regulations from different legislative provisions on councils’ ability to deliver what they are supposed to be doing. How open are the Government to responding to the fact that the need for action is very different in different parts of the country? Is the Minister fixated on a one-size-fits-all solution, either where everybody must or where everybody is forbidden to license or register as the case may be?
The committee took evidence from south Devon, where there is a serious problem, and my noble friend Lord Foster in the debate at the beginning of the week referred to a village known to him in east Suffolk where a very high proportion of homes are second homes or holiday lets. However, if one turned to the metropolitan boroughs of Knowsley or Halton, one would find, for all practical statistical purposes, that there are no second homes in those two boroughs, and no Airbnb or other short-term lets being advertised. That strongly suggests to me that the right approach is to have a permissive regime, not a compulsory one, and I believe that is soundly based on the evidence that the Select Committee received.
A key drawback of any national or uniform legislative outcome is that it requires resources, human and financial, to set up and run and to monitor and enforce. Several noble Lords mentioned registration fees; they can be set to cover the cost, and one of the amendments which I did not sign said they should be on a cost-recovery basis. However, that works only if there are sufficient homes—some might say too many—that need to be licensed in a particular area. How would the costs of setting up, monitoring and enforcement be covered in areas of low or very low prevalence of such homes? Either the measure becomes a complete dead letter because there are no resources to implement it, or the licence fee charged will have to be wholly disproportionate. We get to the strange situation where the fewer the homes, the greater the charge would have to be to cover providing that service.
Conversely, the evidence the committee took on Airbnb lettings is that they are significantly more lucrative in certain areas to those who own the properties than in others. Do the Government envisage authorising a proportionately larger registration fee to allow councils to cover their costs—including, of course, the costs of enforcement—or not? Quite clearly, the profit from these homes in some areas will be significantly higher than in others.
These points all raise warning flags about not overpromising that this government provision as it stands will be the solution to the short-term letting problem. Indeed, you can ask a whole lot of other questions. Some have been posed by others, and others I could put into play now—but let us not do that.
All this suggests that the Minister might be well advised to try a couple of pilot schemes as a useful first step. Could she tell us whether she would consider that approach, or consider whether Wales has actually provided a pilot scheme because its scheme is discretionary? As I understand it, some local authorities in Wales have commenced a scheme while others have no intention of doing so at all. I realise that the Welsh scheme was not invented here, which may of course make it ineligible for consideration or comparison, but to do that might be time well spent.
I will briefly conclude by saying that I strongly support what my noble friend Lord Foster of Bath said about electrical safety. There seems to be absolutely no reason or argument to oppose his amendments, which would ensure that those who occupied short-term lets and dwellings, or indeed any accommodation, had a guarantee of a safe environment in which they could operate.
My Lords, in an earlier debate on these topics on Monday, we heard the noble Lord, Lord Foster, discussing Southwold, where I spent many happy hours on holiday as a child and which now has, if I remember my figures from Monday rightly, only 500 permanent homes out of 1,400 homes. In that same debate the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, referred, as he did again today, to the fact that have not just a numbers problem but a distribution problem around the country because of the lack of available data.
We are all aware of the considerable issues presented in parts of our country related to second homes and short-term lets. That situation was clearly articulated by my noble friend Lady Hayman in our debate on Monday, when she articulated that communities are hollowed out because of the second homes left empty for large parts of the year, which means that all the community facilities that permanent residents need struggle to be viable. In addition, we see local house prices forced out of affordability for local people as second homes and holiday lets contribute to the housing pressures.
An amendment creating new use classes for second homes or holiday lets was rejected in the other place. Although amendments on the same subject were withdrawn on Monday, I hope that we come back to this, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Best, because it is critical that we tackle this issue. In the House of Commons, the Government claimed that these were not necessary as neighbourhood plans could create principal residence policies. However, I wonder whether the full extent of this issue and its impact, particularly on rural and coastal communities, has been properly assessed and understood. The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, would enable the collection of data relating to this problem which might help to develop the picture further. However, we should encourage the Government, through the Minister, to consider this matter as urgent; it may already be too late for some of the communities worst affected. Surely we will not abandon these communities to the opportunities they offer for a small number of people to make a fast buck.
On the amendments tabled to Clause 210, which were clearly articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, we too are interested to hear the Government’s thoughts on the registration of short-term rental properties. It was interesting to hear about the work of the Built Environment Select Committee in that respect.
In the Commons, Ministers referred previously to the ongoing consultation on this matter—indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, referred to it again this afternoon. What is the outcome of that consultation—it has not been published yet—and what conclusions will the Government draw from it? I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Young, referred to this in an earlier debate on this topic.
I was very interested in the comments on the work of the Built Environment Select Committee, and it is fascinating to hear that this issue sits with the DCMS rather than DLUHC. I hope the Minister will respond to that. It is disappointing to hear that a Minister thinks that the whole Bill has already been enacted. In view of the fact that none of these issues has been dealt with, I think we are glad that it has not been so far, and I am sure that noble Lords here will improve the Bill as we go along.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for that clarification.
The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, set out the four questions asked by his amendments, and they are all very important questions on which I hope we will hear further from the Minister, particularly Amendment 446, which addresses how this is going to be paid for. That is one of a number of questions on fees and costs that appear about many other clauses of the Bill, so I hope we will have responses to those questions.
The amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Foster, largely relate to ensuring that the safety of short-term let properties is not left to chance. It is particularly important that properties left empty for periods of the year are subject to detailed regulation on safety matters. This would also encourage absentee landlords to ensure that their responsibilities are met. Recently, we have seen increasing pressure on social landlords to address safety provision—in fact, there are very stringent new requirements on them—so it is clearly an issue that the Secretary of State takes seriously. We should not have what would amount to an exemption for the owners of short-term let properties in this respect. I hope that may be addressed.
The noble Lord, Lord Foster, also referred to the difficulty of enforcing licensing restrictions without data from booking platforms. Although I agree with him that booking platforms may be unwilling to release that data, it is really important and, without it, enforcement is difficult to address. Local authorities would struggle without effective data collection methods to enforce some of the matters raised in this debate.
The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, referred to the perverse incentives that exist between council tax and business rates. This is really important to data gathering: there is no incentive for councils, because if they collect business rates, they have to send it all off to our good friends at the Treasury, whereas if they collect council tax, they keep it to deliver services to their communities, so there is not much incentive for them to get matters straight here.
My noble friend Lord Berkeley referred to the importance of being reassured of the safety of the building, regardless of the length of time of the let. If you stay somewhere, even if just overnight, you want to be assured that the building is subject to the same safety regulations as would apply anywhere else you stayed.
Turning to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, I am very sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, is not in her place today and I hope he will send her our very best wishes for a speedy recovery. He spoke about evidence to the Built Environment Select Committee from south Devon. I heard a great deal on this from my former colleague on the District Councils Network, Judy Pearce, who is the leader of South Hams Council and has been a powerful advocate of a great deal more action on second homes. The suggestion of pilot schemes—or taking advice from Wales, as I am sure my noble friend Lady Wilcox would say—is always a very good idea.
Those are our comments on the amendments submitted. We support the amendments on registration and we certainly support the amendments on safety.
My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register as the owner of a second home in Pembrokeshire, one of the three local authorities that is introducing a licensing scheme—actually, it is not introducing a licensing scheme but a 300% increase in rates unless you rent your house out for more than six months, which I generally do.
This group of amendments concerns the operation of the short-term letting registration scheme introduced by the Bill. To start with Amendment 180, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Foster of Bath—I, too, send my good wishes to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, and hope she recovers swiftly from Covid—I start by acknowledging the important topic this amendment raises relating to holiday lets and second homes.
Data in relation to holiday lets is vital to support tourism and manage the impacts on local communities, which we can all acknowledge are, in some instances, very significant. I believe, however, that there may have been some misinterpretation on the intent of Clause 78 which may mean that this amendment would not be needed. Clause 78 aims to require planning authorities to process their planning data in accordance with approved data standards, whereas the amendment seeks to require collection of data by planning authorities. Nothing in Clause 78 can require or permit the collection of data by planning authorities, although it can regulate the manner of collection where that is authorised elsewhere.
With that having been said, I add a point of reassurance. Where planning authorities have this data, Clause 78(2)(b) provides the ability for data standards to be set for holiday-let data. As I mentioned in relation to Amendment 166, we are looking to further refine the data available both to the Government and to local authorities in this area. Both the existing data and any further data can then be subject to regulations under Clause 78 requiring local authorities to process that data in accordance with standards set by the Secretary of State. I am sure that we will discuss these powers further later in Committee.
On Amendments 441, 443, 444 and 446, tabled by my noble friend Lord Moylan, he has suggested how certain elements of the registration scheme could be designed, and I am grateful for his thoughts on these important questions of detail. As he will have heard, we intend to consult both on the registration scheme and on the potential for short-term let use classes, and we will need to reflect on the responses to those consultations in coming to a view on the matters he has raised. That will of course, as I alluded to earlier, include giving careful consideration to the interaction between the two sets of reforms. Although the Government wish to move quickly in this area, it is also important that we get this right for the affected communities. I look forward to working with him and other noble Lords as we seek to do so.
I will be coming to that in a moment.
Finally, I turn to Amendments 445, 445A, 445B and 447, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath. These amendments concern the detail of how the registration scheme will operate, particularly in relation to data sharing and the safety of properties. These issues will indeed be explored in the consultation, and a registration scheme will be designed to ensure that all providers of short-term lets are aware of their legal responsibilities to ensure health and safety in their properties. Infrequent use should not mean that short-term lets do not need to meet safety standards, but that issue will be considered in much more detail in the consultation.
The shape of England’s guest accommodation landscape has changed greatly over the past 15 years. Online platforms have enabled greater choice in accommodation for holidaymakers and have brought many benefits to the tourism sector. This proliferation of a new type of guest accommodation has, however, been unregulated, which has prompted concerns including on safety, as my noble friend highlighted. We want to ensure that England continues to provide a safe and competitive guest accommodation offer, while also supporting those who live and work in our local visitor economies.
That is why the Government launched a call for evidence on this topic, as an important first step in understanding how we can ensure we continue to reap the benefits of short-term lets, while also protecting holidaymakers and local interests. This initial call for evidence, which ran between June and September last year, was indeed led by DCMS, as it follows on from previous work that that department did, as short-term lets are an integral part of the UK visitor economy. A report on that call for evidence will be published at the same time as the consultation on the registration scheme, this summer, and I reassure noble Lords that both departments are working together closely because of their shared interest in the scheme.
It has become clear from the call for evidence process that there is a compelling case for introducing light-touch regulation in this sector, and that is what we are intending to do through the Bill. The Government are also introducing a registration scheme for short-term lets through the Bill. The details of how the scheme will operate will be explored through a public consultation, which will be published before this year’s Summer Recess with a view to the register being up and running as soon as possible thereafter. The consultation is intended to flesh out many different aspects of how the scheme would operate, such as what information would be collected, who would administer the scheme, which requirements should be satisfied as a condition of registering and whether any fees would be charged; it will also cover any enforcement powers, which were asked about by an earlier contributor to the debate.
The important matters on safety that noble Lords raised—
I appreciate what the Minister said about enforcement. It was in fact me who talked about that—not my noble friend Lord Shipley, as was widely said. Enforcement is vital because without it, the scheme becomes a dead letter. Making sure that any costs or fees take adequate account of that is quite important.
The noble Lord has made that point well and I will certainly take it back to the department, which will take note of it.
Regarding a precise time definition for short-term lets, it is not the length of time but the activity that is important. In essence, the definition of a short-term let is a dwelling used by a guest, in return for payment, that is not the guest’s main residence
The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, asked whether the planning changes that the Secretary of State referred to are the subject of the planned consultation on a short-term let use class, as discussed by this Committee on Monday. I recognise that a number of the questions asked by noble Lords will be answered only by the consultation process. However, I hope that, in the meantime, I have been able to offer at least some reassurance; I therefore ask the noble Lord, Lord Foster, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate; I have certainly learned a great deal. We had a discussion earlier about the difference between having a national scheme and a local scheme. I was tempted to say that I would refer to the speech I made two days ago.
I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, because he has demonstrated how your Lordships’ House can always find a solution to a problem. As I now read it, based on the conversations I have been having, we are collectively agreed that we will have a national registration scheme with local flexibility based on national standards. There is a great deal of sense in that.
I listened carefully to the Minister and I am grateful to her for her response to the debate but I find myself in a great deal of difficulty, as I suspect many other noble Lords do. She told us that there will be a new consultation and that we will know about that document only when we get answers to the outcome of the previous consultation. She has already indicated that that will not take place until the summer. Notwithstanding the concern of many of us that we may still be in Committee in the summer, I still think it would be helpful to have more information about what will be in that consultation before we take the Bill further.
In particular, I very much hope that, as other noble Lords have said, the consultation will clearly indicate the Government’s policy on the various issues we have been debating. For example, my noble friend Lord Stunell—or Shipley, or whichever guise he is taking on at the moment—raised the important issue of the fee-charging structure. It is important that this consultation says what the Government believe it should be and then gets a reaction to that.
I am grateful for the Minister’s response, at least in promising us that many of these issues will be covered. The problem is that we do not really know what the answers to our questions today will be. We look forward to raising these issues again at a future stage; hopefully, we will have received the consultation document by then.
I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 180 withdrawn.
Clause 78 agreed.
Debate on whether Clause 79 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, my amendment would remove Clause 79 from the Bill, and my noble friend Lady Taylor of Stevenage has given notice of her intention to oppose Clause 81 standing part of the Bill. We have also a further amendment in this group. Clause 79 concerns the power in relation to the provision of planning data, while Clause 81 concerns the power to require the use of approved planning data software in England. After Clause 83, my noble friend Lady Taylor of Stevenage’s Amendment 182 would insert the following:
“The Secretary of State may only make planning data regulations which contain provision relating to local authorities after consulting with local authorities.”
We oppose these clauses standing part of the Bill and have laid an amendment to Clause 83 because local authorities should be able to decide what planning data software they use. Also, local planning authorities that have already purchased software and tools may well find in future that what they have purchased is no longer approved for use, meaning that their investment has been made redundant and they have spent money they can probably ill afford to spend again. Will the Minister ask the department to look at this again in the light of local authorities’ concerns, particularly from that financial perspective?
Clause 81 permits the use of regulations to restrict or prohibit relevant planning authorities using software not approved by the Secretary of State, as I just talked about. The other concern is the unnecessary level of bureaucracy. This also risks reducing competition in the market, and I would be surprised if that is the Government’s intention. What is the Government’s intention behind this clause?
The Local Government Association supports our position and has confirmed that local authorities would of course need to ensure that their planning data software allows them to meet any new data standard requirements. It is also right that, where new regulations relating to local authorities are introduced, it should be done only following proper consultation with local authorities that will clearly be affected by this clause. This will help to ensure that the regulations are fit for purpose and that any new burdens are identified and properly addressed, and to avoid any unintended consequences during implementation. Do the Government intend to carry out any consultation before implementation? Have they already spoken to local authorities about this? If so, what was the response?
We appreciate that the Government are bound by public procurement rules. I spent much time on the then Procurement Bill as it went through this House, so I am aware that within the general procurement framework there is a specific set of rules and handbooks for technology procurement.
However, we believe that the powers in Clause 81 are just too expansive. They enable Ministers by regulation to restrict or prevent the use or creation of software that is used by planning authorities to process the planning data. Further checks should be put in place on their usage, and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response in that regard.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, has an amendment to Clause 23 which would require the Secretary of State to publish the results of a consultation and give reasons for any decision reached. We strongly support that amendment. It is an important consideration and consultation should be part of any decision-making in this area. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am pleased to speak on this group, and I will speak also to my Amendment 181 to Clause 83. I sat through Second Reading but did not speak. I can claim only that I had intellectual indigestion through trying to understand what the Bill is all about.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is looking at the difficulties from a local authority point of view. My speech is from a devolved authority point of view. It is in Part 3 of the Bill that the devolved Administrations have the greatest worries about infringement of their devolved competence. My interest is as a Scot living in Scotland. Part 3 of the Bill has been referred by the Scottish Parliament to its Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee for consideration, and other sections have been referred to the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee. That is all very well, but none of these committees has recommended legislative consent, and they are due to give their final conclusions when we get to Third Reading, which is not very far off.
At an earlier stage in the Bill, my noble friend the Minister was telling the House that civil servants are regularly in touch with their Scottish counterparts. Surely a Bill of this complexity must, at some stage, require some negotiation at ministerial level as well. Can my noble friend tell us of any hint of consent from any of these branches of the Scottish Parliament?
I turn to Clause 81 and the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. The clause requires the use of approved planning data in England. It portends that one of the things that the Government will be seeking is to get compliance in due course with the use of their approved planning data from all the devolved Administrations. While this may be understandable on a practical level, it bears the echo of a previous experience that the Scots have had, in a more limited field with which I am familiar. Some years ago, in contrast to England, the Scots developed an electronic sheep traceability system and associated database, known as sheep EID. It has worked very well. Recently, the department in England decided to inaugurate a similar programme and was offered the chance to share the system and the cost. This was rejected for no apparent reason. Therefore, one has misgivings about the application of systems.
At various points in the Bill we have considered whether the requirement for consultation is appropriate. There is much that can be said about meaningful consultation, but this clause requires any Secretary of State to consult in specific circumstances. The amendment requires them to publish the results and give reasons. The issue is of much concern to the Scottish Law Society, which drew my attention to it and which welcomes the obligation to consult and to give the conclusions and reasons for the decision, which would serve the interests of transparency.
In a previous group, we had a magnificent example of people dying to know the outcome of a consultation when the Government were sitting on it. This amendment would ensure that all information was available. It seems obvious that planning was not reserved under Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998 and so it is fair to assume that planning data falls into the same category. Can we assume that as the approved planning data systems for England required by the Bill are developed, we will be aware of what is likely to be required from the existing records of the devolved Administrations?
As a Scot by birth living in England, I support my noble friend the Duke of Montrose in his Amendment 181. It is good that in this clause, as my noble friend said, the Government are committed to consulting in specific circumstances. However, too frequently we are not seeing the results of the consultations in a timely fashion, particularly before any regulations under this part of the Bill may be drafted and come before the House. Therefore, I lend this amendment my strongest support.
My noble friend also raised collaborating with the Scottish Parliament with a view to obtaining legislative consent. We have had two recent regrettable circumstances where the Scottish Parliament—and in one case, the Senedd—withheld their consent. This could be avoided if discussions took place with the relevant committees of the Scottish Parliament at the earliest stage and throughout the course of the Bill. I am thinking particularly of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which has exercised the House at quite some length, and the recent Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill. The withholding of legislative consent could have been avoided by the Scottish Parliament if the Government had liaised with them and the relevant committees at a much earlier stage.
With those remarks, I support all the amendments in this group, particularly that in the name of my noble friend the Duke of Montrose.
First, what is the purpose of requiring an approved national planning software? Is it so that the Government can more readily access planning data from across the country? If so, to what purpose do they want to put the data that they acquire in that way?
Secondly, how many different planning software systems are in operation at the moment? Digitising planning is a complicated operation, so you would not expect that many but, if there are, have local planning authorities already expressed a clear preference to use a single system? This takes me to the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, in that, if the Government are requiring a single approved planning software, there would be considerable costs attached to local planning authorities transitioning to a new software system. You would want to balance those costs against the benefits. The Bill makes no obvious benefit of using a single system. Another issue is about compatibility. If the current software systems are compatible, is this a solution seeking a problem? There may not be a problem if they can already speak to each other.
My third concern with Clause 79, and the stand part question expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, is that planning applications have to be retained for a long time. I cannot remember for how long; I think it is 30 years, but it may be longer. If that is the case, all previous planning applications going back a certain length of time would have to be put on to a new system, so that the systems could talk to each other. As all noble Lords know, there are planning applications made on the same place time and again and in different forms. I want to understand the purpose of this: why and who benefits?
Another of my concerns is this. I am in favour of digitising; I think it has huge benefits for many people, particularly planning professionals, in this case. It would be much easier to have it all online. However, if it is going to be a digital-only system, as seems to be the thrust of this group of clauses, the Government will be guilty of digital exclusion.
The Government must recognise two things. First, many people access all their digital needs only through a mobile phone. Accessing a planning application, with all its complexity, through a mobile platform will not provide the level of detail that they want. Secondly, many parts of the country still do not have either sufficiently good broadband or mobile signal. Digital exclusion could be a growing issue, especially in planning. People get involved in planning applications, big and small, and I am sure that the last thing the Government want is to exclude residents for different reasons—accessibility or knowledge of use.
I have asked many questions, but I hope the Minister is able to answer them. While digitising planning systems has many positives, they have to be weighed against some of the many negatives that exist.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for her valuable contribution to this debate and for focusing our attention on these provisions. In the light of her remarks, it is probably best for me to start by explaining the importance of Clause 79.
Too often, planning information is hard to use for all the purposes that it should serve. Clause 79 is designed to address this problem. Planning authorities often receive large amounts of information which requires manual intervention to make it usable. Re-entry is then required to use that information later in the system. These manual tasks take valuable time away from planning authorities performing their core role of making decisions that matter to communities.
There are three key effects of this clause. First, it works with Clause 78 to ensure that complying with data standards does not create a new bureaucratic burden for planning authorities receiving information and then having to render it compliant. Secondly, it gives planning authorities the power to require information in a manner that best suits their systems and the data standards to which they are subject. Thirdly, it protects against the risk that some may attempt to use the requirements under Clause 78 to inconvenience local authorities’ decision-making by deliberately submitting information in a problematic format that is difficult to extract.
Clause 79 also sets out the process that planning authorities must follow to exercise their powers. Publication of a notice on the planning authority website or through specific communications will be required to inform participants of what planning data will be subject to data standards when it is submitted to a planning authority. In circumstances where the data fails to comply, a notice must be served specifying the reasons for rejection.
I will deal briefly with the power of planning authorities to refuse information as non-compliant. There is no obligation for planning authorities to refuse non-compliant information. However, for the reasons I have just outlined, we expect planning authorities to accept such information only exceptionally. The Committee will see that we have taken steps to protect those who are not able to submit using the means specified by the planning authority or who cannot comply with the data standards in that submission. Where the provider of information has a reasonable excuse, information cannot be refused. Planning authorities will be under a duty to accept—
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting. I wonder whether the Minister has any statistics about the problem that these clauses are trying to solve. What is the extent of the difficulty such that, when applicants submit their planning applications to the planning authority, they then have to be manually entered or have to use a different system? Do we know the extent of that problem?
We believe the problem to be quite considerable. I do not have statistics in front of me, but I will undertake to consult the department and see whether I can put some flesh on these bones, if the noble Baroness and others would find that helpful.
On that point, it would be incredibly useful to have some sort of evidence base for us to consider. Can the Minister ask the department for that?
We have received representations from a number of local authorities on the difficulties that they encounter and the sheer time that it takes to process information that does not conform to their systems.
As I was about to say, where the provider of information has a reasonable excuse, information cannot be refused. Planning authorities will be under a duty to accept and fully consider this information, so those with a reasonable excuse are not disadvantaged. Where information is initially refused by a planning authority, the clause provides the discretion to accept a compliant resubmission.
In summary, this clause will ensure that, by default, information received will be usable for all of the purposes to which planning authorities need it to be put. This will make the system more efficient, enabling planning authorities to work faster and focus on planning rather than data entry. That is the main point.
I turn next to Clause 81. Outdated and expensive software is one of the barriers that local authorities face to achieving more efficient ways of working in the planning process. Systems do not work with one another, forcing manual re-entry of information while locking that information away in formats that are not reusable. Clause 81 is essential for ensuring that planning authorities can benefit from the changes in this chapter through being supported by the right software, which can process standardised data.
The intent behind Clause 81 is to ensure the provision of software that is compatible with planning data requirements, so software approval requirements will follow on from the development of data standards set under Clause 78.
Our intention is to focus on exploring software that enables better availability of information and unlocks the ability to produce better tools for planning authorities. It is therefore not our intention to require the approval of all planning data software. We will continue working with planning authorities and the technology sector to determine when and where the use of this power will most benefit the planning system. In summary, this clause is essential for delivering effective, high-quality systems which the public rightly expect of government at all levels. I commend it to the Committee.
Amendment 181, in the name of my noble friend the Duke of Montrose, relates to Clause 83, as he explained, and aims to make public the result of engagement between the UK Government and devolved Administrations. I need first to explain how this amendment impacts on the planning data section of the Bill. It is important to understand what is in scope of Clause 83 in relation to the devolved Administrations.
As it stands, the only matters within devolved competence that planning data regulations could apply to would be Part 6 of the Bill, on environmental outcomes reports, or EORs. As such, provisions relating to consultation with the devolved Administrations must be read alongside the wider EOR clauses.
As set out in Committee in the other place, the Government are continuing to work with the devolved Administrations to understand whether there is scope to extend the EOR powers to provide a shared framework of powers across the UK. Once those discussions have concluded, the Government will bring forward any necessary amendments to both Part 6 and Part 3 to reflect the agreed position between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. I reassure my noble friend and noble Lords that, in bringing forward the new system of environmental outcomes reports, the Government are committed to respecting the devolution settlements.
In answer to my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering, our discussions at this stage are with the devolved Administrations rather than with, for example, the Scottish Parliament. I hope noble Lords will agree that we should not be required to make public the results of confidential policy discussions between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. For all these reasons, I hope that my noble friend will accept that his amendment is unnecessary.
Amendment 182, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State has consulted local authorities before establishing planning data regulations. Local authorities’ input on the new data requirements is of course important as we look to transition from a largely document-based planning system to one that is data-driven.
However, I reassure noble Lords that the intention of this amendment has already been built into the approach that the department has taken to design and test the new planning data requirements. As I have emphasised, the Government’s policy aim through planning data regulations is to create consistency on a national level. This includes the way local authorities process and publish planning data and will ensure that they are supported by suitable software to meet the new requirements.
Since 2019, we have been working with local authorities to test potential new requirements, such as data standards. This has provided valuable insights on the views of local authorities and the support that they will require to implement the new data requirements. We will continue this collaborative approach to establish planning data regulations.
Local authorities are the experts in the needs of their local areas, and these local views will form the basis of our national strategy around planning data, which these regulations will establish. We will continue to work collaboratively with local authorities, through running pilots and pathfinder projects, to gather our insights and design the new requirements.
I will bring another point to noble Lords’ attention. Planning data regulations under Clauses 78 and 80 will concern the form of planning data to be processed and published by local authorities. The planning information that these regulations will address will already be part of the planning system.
Given the collaborative approach that we are already taking to design the new requirements that will inform planning data regulations, I hope that I have been able to reassure the noble Baroness that local authorities’ views have been, and will continue to be, central to any planning data regulations that will be brought forward.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. I was much encouraged by his suggestion earlier: it will be helpful if the Government provide guidelines for planning data operating systems at a very early stage. I realise that my amendment was covering a very small part of the subject under discussion, but it was merely for planning data. If the discussions with the Scottish Parliament produce something different, the question of disclosure will still be important.
I take my noble friend’s point. The point that I sought to make was that, of course, the outcome of our discussions with the Scottish Administration should be reflected in the eventual regulations and indeed in what is decided on the software. I hope that he will accept that our internal discussions with the Administration are part of Government-to-Government dealings and, in the normal course, should not be made public.
I was just about to cover very briefly a question that the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised about the possible transposition of existing planning records on to a new digital system. I am advised that we will not require planning authorities to completely move all their data on to a new digital planning system. The intention is for this new system to look forward prospectively, if I can put it that way.
I thank the noble Earl very much for that information. The danger then is that, if an old software system containing planning applications from before the new software was introduced is incompatible and is therefore not transitioned across, it will not be readable by the new system for future use. That issue ought to have been considered.
That is a very relevant point. The point that has been made to us quite forcefully is that a lot of the software that is already in use is clunky and outdated, and that somehow a solution needs to be found. Clearly, the state in which systems are at the time any new system comes into play will vary from local authority to local authority. I will investigate that point further and, if I can elucidate the issue, I will gladly do so.
In his normal calm and reassuring way, the Minister pointed out on Clause 81 that there may be some leeway regarding the software that could be used. However, I will read what is in the Bill, so that the Minister can explain why there will be leeway. The power is
“to require use of approved planning data software in England”,
and the clause says:
“Planning data regulations may make provision restricting or preventing a relevant planning authority in England from using or creating, or having any right in relation to, planning data … which … is not approved in writing by the Secretary of State.”
How will that leeway come in if the Bill says that the software has to be approved in writing by the Secretary of State, and that a planning authority in England cannot use it if it is not?
I simply come back to the point I am trying to emphasise, which is that the watchword here is collaboration, between central government and local authorities. We want to get this right to get a solution that local authorities themselves are comfortable with and which is compatible, authority to authority. Although the noble Lord is correct to quote the Bill as he has, our intention is not to require approval for all planning data software.
That is impossible given how Clause 81 is written, because it makes provision for
“restricting or preventing a relevant planning authority” if software is not approved by the Secretary of State. I understand the intention, but does the Minister agree that, as Clause 81 is written, what he wishes to see is actually not allowed by the Bill?
I can only supplement what the Bill says by saying that we do not intend to introduce any requirement for approval without the appropriate exploratory work and engagement with local authorities.
My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate. I thank the Minister for his customarily very detailed and helpful response. We talked briefly about the evidence base behind these clauses. It would be helpful, as he suggested, to have that provided. It would also be useful to know how up to date the information in that evidence base is.
Regarding Clause 81, will the Government support the changes they are proposing to local authorities to update their software with the resources to enable them to do so? It is pretty expensive, and we know that local authorities are not exactly flush at the moment. It will be important for there to be proper funding and resources for local authorities that need to change their software.
It was good to have the further clarification that the Minister gave to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, just now that the Secretary of State would not have to approve all software. The Minister said that this is the intention. Unfortunately, as has just been said, that intention is not clear at all in the wording. I suggest that he mentions to his department and to officials that the wording, both in the Bill and in the Explanatory Notes, could perhaps be revisited to make that really clear, because many local authorities are worrying a lot about the implications of that wording. Perhaps a slight change might resolve some of the concerns.
Finally, my noble friend Lady Wilcox has now left, but she asked me to point out very politely to noble Lords that, in May 2020, the Welsh Assembly became the Senedd and they are now the Welsh Government.
Through the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, I apologise for any misspeak that I may have committed. I also take on board the points she just made about costs in particular.
Clause 79 agreed.
Clauses 80 to 82 agreed.
Clause 83: Requirements to consult devolved administrations
Amendment 181 not moved.
Clause 83 agreed.
Amendment 182 not moved.
Clause 84 agreed.
Clause 85: Development plans: content