Amendment 198 is about deliberative democracy or citizens’ forums as they are sometimes known. When I, as somebody who has been a councillor and an MP, first heard of this, I was slightly suspicious of this alternative form of problem-solving. It struck me as slightly random and unaccountable. But the more I looked into it, with the help of Graham Allen, the former Labour MP who championed the cause of deliberative democracy, I began to change my mind. The Government have actually been funding three experimental projects using deliberative democracy—one in Dudley looking at the future of two shopping centres, one in Cambridge looking at how to solve congestion, and one in Romsey looking at how to solve problems around a local bus station. It struck me that these were actually ways of complementing and reinforcing local democracy, rather than substituting it.
At a time when democracies are struggling to retain public confidence, we should look at every possible means of refreshing democracy in a way that is relevant to the modern world. This is what that amendment wants. Like others, I have been to planning meetings where people have been shouting at each other; there must be a better way to find a way through. I look forward to working with the noble Baroness who moved this amendment, as she obviously has considerable experience. Perhaps the Minister will let me know, following the three trials funded by the DCMS, whether her department will engage with the Local Government Association to see how we can best take that debate forward.
I am afraid that I disagree entirely with Amendment 223 and the suggestion that the adopted plan should be up for review after a local election. The one thing going through this debate since it began is the need for certainty and clarity about the local plan. It has to go through a process to become adopted. If there is a local election just after it has been adopted and control changes hands and it is up for review, what then is the status of that local plan? I very much hope that my noble friend will resist, perhaps more politely than I have done, the suggestion in Amendment 223.
What I really want to speak to is Amendment 209. This is one of the most important groups in the whole debate and in all of the 80 groups that we have in front of us—however many groups we deal with, there always seem to be another 80 ahead of us. This amendment and Amendment 211—and two other amendments which are in another group for some reason—go to the heart of a major challenge facing this Government: how to deliver the homes that the country needs.
In 2021, we were an estimated 2 million homes short of what was needed, or 2.4 million short if we look at the European average of homes per capita. We announced the target of 300,000 homes a year in 2018, and we are already 200,000 homes behind that target. Home ownership is increasingly unaffordable: in 1997 house prices were 3.5 times average earnings and in 2021 they were nine times average earnings; tenants in London are paying 40% of their average pay in rent, and one London borough, Lambeth, has 36,000 people on its waiting list; planning consents in the year to June 2022 were the lowest since 2016, and so on. There cannot be anyone in any doubt that we need to massively boost the supply of homes in every single tenure.
There is much in the Bill that I welcome and that will help achieve this objective, such as simplifying and streamlining the planning system, commencement orders facilitating CPOs, and the rest. However, I am afraid that these are all overshadowed by policies not in the Bill but proposed in the document published over Christmas to head off a rebellion in the other place. The starkness of the Government’s climbdown is revealed in an article in last week’s House magazine by Theresa Villiers, who referred to her amendment in the following terms:
“This was backed by 60 MPs, and in response, the secretary of state brought forward significant concessions to rebalance the planning system to give local communities greater control over what is built in their neighbourhood. That includes confirming that centrally determined housing targets are advisory not mandatory. They are a starting point, not an inevitable outcome. Changes have been promised to make it easier for councils to set a lower target”.
As I have said before, you cannot rely on the good will of local councils to deliver the homes that the country needs. Central government has a mandate. In our manifesto in 2019 we said that this will be achieved through continuing
“our progress towards our target of 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s.”
So what a local MP may regard as an arbitrary target set by Whitehall is actually a goal from a democratic Government delivering their election manifesto. I believe that the votes that an individual MP may lose if an unpopular development goes ahead will be massively outweighed if the country as a whole does not believe that the Government are taking housing seriously.
The consultation document weakens or removes the levers that the Government have to deliver their target. These amendments, and Amendments 215 and 218 in a later group on land supply, push back against those policies and give back to the Government the levers that they need. This is vital because, as you go through the document, there are 15 proposals that impact negatively on housing supply and only two that improve it. Between now and Report, the Government should publish their own assessment of the impact of the proposed changes on housing delivery. We know it can be done, because it has been done by Lichfields, which estimates that the changes proposed would reduce the number of homes built by over 70,000, to 156,000 a year—roughly half of the Government’s commitment.
The impact of the document is already being felt. Since it was published in December 2022, 47 local plans have been delayed, with the clear intent of delivering lower numbers than was previously proposed, using the flexibilities set out in the document. I will not go through all the concessions because it is late, but it suggests that buffers should no longer be needed. That is like the Treasury saying that it does not need any reserves. Buffers will be needed because things do not always work out. There is a suggestion that the green belt should not be reviewed. The green belt has no necessary environmental quality, visual impact or public accessibility requirement. Many award-winning housing schemes have been built on the green belt.
However, the main concession is in the chapter headed:
“Introducing new flexibilities to meet housing needs”.
Targets become a starting point, with flexibility to take account of local circumstances. Paragraph 4 refers to changes to
“how housing figures should be derived and applied so that communities can respond to local circumstances”.
The document states that local authorities do not need to meet housing needs if it could mean
“building at densities significantly out-of-character with the existing area”,
although elsewhere the Secretary of State proposes “gentle densification”. I think we can all break the code.
I very much hope that, on Report, noble Lords will ask those in the other place to think again about these changes and restore the Government’s policy to what it was when the Bill was introduced, rather than what it has become since those changes were proposed over Christmas.