Amendment 195

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Report (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 12:16 pm on 6 September 2023.

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Lord Young of Cookham:

Moved by Lord Young of Cookham

195: Schedule 7, page 347, line 38, at end insert—“(6A) The local plan must be designed to secure that the supply of housing through development in the local planning authority’s area meets or exceeds the requirement for housing during the plan period which would be derived from the housing targets and standard method prescribed in guidance by the Secretary of State as applicable at that time.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would require a local plan to meet or exceed the housing need for the authority’s area as specified by Government targets.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 195 in my name and those of my noble friend Lord Lansley, the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman.

For me, this is the most important group of amendments in the whole Bill; they go the heart of the question of whether one of the basic responsibilities of government is to ensure that the nation is adequately housed. I hope that it is common ground that there are some core functions of central government that it should not opt out of: ensuring that the country is well defended, that the streets are safe, that families have a basic income, that children are well educated, that there is access to a decent health service and that people are adequately housed. These are either provided centrally by government—defence, health and income support—or mandated to be provided by others, in the cases of policing, education and housing.

Basically, what happened last December was that housing was deleted as one of those core functions. It was done not as a considered act of policy but as a reaction to a group of Government Back-Benchers who were threatening to rebel. As a former Government Chief Whip, I am well aware of the importance of party cohesion—but not at any price. Yes, the nominal commitment remained with central government—the 300,000 housing target—but, crucially, the means for the Government to secure that target was removed. The targets became advisory, not mandatory: a starting point and not a destination.

The way the system has worked for as long as I can remember—going back to the days of the GLC in the 1960s, and to the 1980s when I was a Minister and SERPLAN—is that central government has formed a view of how many homes the country needs. It has looked at household formation, life expectancy, broader demographic trends, regional policy and net inward migration, and then come up with a global figure. That has then been divvied up between the planning authorities, after consultation, to underpin a credible national housing policy.

It should be immediately apparent that this is not a process that can be left to the discretion of local councillors. They look downwards to their electorate, to whom they are accountable, while national government has a broader responsibility. For example, left to their own devices, local authorities would make no provision for migration, which is a responsibility of national government. The noble Lord, Lord Best, will develop that point. As I have said repeatedly in this House, you cannot rely on the good will of local government to provide the homes that the country needs.

Before the policy was reversed, we were falling well short of our target. New homes granted planning permission declined to 269,000 in the year to March, down by 11% on the year to March 2022. After the reversal, the target becomes less achievable. The starkness of the climbdown was revealed in an article in the 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”.

I believe that my colleagues in the other place have misread the politics. Yes, there is a risk of losing a few votes from those who do not wish to see development in their area—we saw the consequences of that in a by-election in Chesham and Amersham—but there is a much greater risk of losing far more votes in a general election if we are seen to be a party that is insensitive to the needs of those who need a decent home against a background of lengthening waiting lists, more use of temporary accommodation, rising rents in the private sector and home ownership becoming more difficult.

Our opponents in the main opposition party have spotted this weakness and will continue to exploit it until we put things right, which is what the amendment seeks to do—restoring what was government policy when the Bill was introduced, before the policy was ill-advisedly abandoned in December. There is a strong case for giving the other place an opportunity to reflect on this policy change now that we have seen its consequences. My noble friend Lord Lansley will develop that point.

The consequences were made clear in a unanimous report, published in July, from a Select Committee with a government majority. It said:

“The Government’s reform proposals include making local housing targets advisory and removing the need for local authorities to continually demonstrate a deliverable 5-year housing land supply. We have heard evidence from many stakeholders that these measures will render the national housing target impossible to achieve”.

It also said:

“This uncertainty has resulted in 58 local authorities stalling, delaying, or withdrawing their local plans to deliver housing—28 of those since the December 2022 announcement. Contrary to the Government’s objective of facilitating local plan-making, the short-term effect of announcing the planning reform proposals has been to halt the progress of local plans in many areas”.

Several authorities have stated that the reason for delaying their local plans is that they are waiting for the outcome of consultations. On that subject, the report concluded:

“In many cases, this will be on the understanding that they will no longer be required to meet their local housebuilding targets”.

The report further concluded that

“it is difficult to see how the Government will achieve its 300,000 net national housing target by the mid-2020s if local targets are only advisory. The Government has not provided sufficient evidence to demonstrate how the policy of removing mandatory local housing targets will directly lead to more housebuilding”.

Before tabling this amendment, I did what I could to press the Government to think again. My noble friend has answered countless Questions on the 300,000 target; she can look forward to another next Tuesday. She has been generous and patient with her time in many meetings. I have seen the Secretary of State and his special adviser, and my noble friend Lord Lansley and I have seen the Housing Minister—all to no avail. Far from this amendment being contrary to government policy, it is essential if the Government are to meet their manifesto commitment of building 300,000 homes a year. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will think again. If not, I propose to test the opinion of the House.

Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench

My Lords, my name is down in support of Amendment 195, so brilliantly introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. It is also supported by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley. The amendment would return us to the position whereby each local plan must be designed to secure enough homes to meet the target for the area set by government. I too see this as a matter of considerable significance.

In essence, this country needs to build at least 300,000 homes each year to ease the problems caused by acute housing shortages: overcrowding, homelessness, poverty and health inequalities. This national target will not be achieved by leaving the supply of sufficient homes to individual councils to determine. On its own, of course, the requirement on all local authorities to have local plans that together make provision for 300,000 homes will not mean that the planned-for number will necessarily be built. Market factors will affect private housebuilding. Insufficient government support will affect social housing output, and so on. If local plans do not plan for their share of the national total, it is certain that it will not be accomplished.

Many analysts suggest that the overall figure of 300,000 homes per annum is not enough. The Centre for Cities has explained that we would have another 4.3 million homes if we had matched the average rate of housebuilding of our European counterparts over recent decades. We have a massive catching-up job to do. The Centre for Policy Studies argues that 460,605 homes should have been added last year. The actual output was barely half this figure—235,000 net additions, including conversions of existing buildings. For the moment, 300,000 homes is a sensible, short-term target.

Why is it so improbable that this figure will be reached unless local planning authorities are obliged to meet housing targets? First, because a number of councils have already made clear that, if the decision on numbers is now in their hands, they will reduce the amount of development previously planned for. Even if only, say, a quarter of authorities opt to see fewer homes built, there will be a big undershoot of the grand total. Reducing acute shortages will then be even more difficult in future than it has been to date.

Secondly, nationally determined targets are necessary because—as I guess we all recognise—it is incredibly difficult for elected Members to champion new housebuilding in their areas. New housing is perceived as meaning more traffic, more pressure on services, disruption from construction and—although this may be an urban myth—a fall in house prices. It is also true that housebuilders have often singularly failed to create quality places. There is a long way to go in reforming that industry. These concerns do not mean that we can simply set aside the need for new homes.

The harsh fact is that where a councillor is likely to be voted out of office if they do not vociferously oppose new development, few will feel able to act in the interests of those who need a home but do not yet have a vote in that area. The structure of democracy at local level makes it nigh on impossible for representatives of local communities to act in the wider interests of those who do not live there.

Our planning system recognises that no one is keen to have a power station, airport or highways project on their doorstep. Nationally significant infrastructure projects are taken outside the remit of the local council. No one is suggesting the same approach for housing developments, even very large ones, but recognition should be given to what is in the national, rather than necessarily the local, interest. Securing sufficient new homes is a national priority and should be part of the national decision-making process.

This important amendment removes the unfair onus on local councillors to determine how many new homes their local plan should be designed to secure. It removes an unreasonable expectation that those who are—or hope to be—elected as local councillors will always do what is right for the next generation, the wider region and the country, rather than what the often vocal local electorate of here and now are demanding. I acknowledge that arguments can still rage over the methodology for setting housing targets and that there will rightly be lengthy consideration of exactly what gets built and where, but these are separate matters and do not affect the amendment before us. Rather, I warn that, without this change to the prevailing position, without decisions on overall numbers of new homes being taken at a higher level than the local planning authority, we will certainly not see 300,000 additional homes built each year. The horrendous housing shortage will get worse. I urge the Minister to accept this essential amendment.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Conservative 12:30, 6 September 2023

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Young and the noble Lord, Lord Best —he is also my noble friend in this context—for introducing Amendment 195 so very well.

I want to add my threepennyworth in relation to not only Amendment 195 but Amendment 196; one might think of them as a package. They would require local planning authorities to meet or exceed the Government’s housing target—in so far as the Government have a housing target; we have debated the figure of 300,000, which is what the Government tell us their target is, but it could of course be different if they chose a different target because of their assessment of the demographic and other requirements—and to do this by reference to the standard method. I emphasise that this means whatever standard method is applicable at the time. Personally, I do not regard our current standard method as fit for purpose. There will need to be change. I have said before—let me repeat it briefly—that the relationship between the standard method process and the prospective increases in employment in an area should assume a greater weight in relation to the objectively assessed housing need.

These amendments are a package. Remember, in addition to Amendment 195, which we are debating first, Amendment 196 would require local planning authorities to have regard to the housing target or a standard method respectively. Of course, if Amendment 195 were to go to the Commons, Amendment 196 would go with it as a consequential amendment. The House of Commons would then have an opportunity to consider the questions of whether local planning authorities should have regard to the Government’s target and standard method—that is a bit of a no-brainer; of course they should—and of whether, in addition, they should be required to meet or exceed the resulting figure of objectively assessed housing need for an area. This is the debate that the House of Commons needs to have.

There are two groups of people who should vote for Amendments 195 and 196. There are those who just agree with the policy; I am among them. My noble friends have well set out the policy objective, which fundamentally comes down to this: if a Government have a target, they need to have a mechanism for delivering it. I have had these conversations, for which I am grateful, with the Housing Minister, my noble friend and the Secretary of State. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State in particular—I love him dearly—is trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. He is trying to give local planning authorities, in the minds of a minority of Conservative Members in the other place—I emphasise that it is not a majority but a minority—the freedom to have a different method and to think, “It’s a starting point but we can go south from this instead of north”. It is an opportunity for them to say, “We’ve got green belt, areas of natural beauty, sites of special scientific interest and sensitive areas. We don’t have to have the houses; they can all be somewhere else”.

In some cases, that will be true. Let me pick a place at random. If you were in Mid Bedfordshire and you knew that Milton Keynes, Bedford and Luton wanted development—and, indeed, Tempsford, which is on the new east-west rail link and faces the possibility of taking on a large new settlement of 20,000 homes—you might well conclude that, in Mid Bedfordshire, taking account of the development in all the neighbouring areas, you do not need much development. That would be perfectly reasonable. Actually, the standard method and the way in which the guidance is constructed would allow that to happen because that is precisely what joint spatial development strategies should deliver in an area such as Bedfordshire.

As I say, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State wants those who feel that they have relaxed all these requirements to feel comfortable with that, yet he wants to maintain his target. When challenged, he says, “Well, there’s still an objectively assessed housing need and, if people do not meet it and do not show that they are going to meet that housing requirement, their plans will not be sound”. I have to say, this is not the way in which to conduct the planning system, whereby local planning authorities produce plans and inspectors throw them out. That way lies madness. What we need is for local planning authorities to have the kind of guidance that enables them to produce in the first instance sound plans that are the basis on which local people can rely. That is what we are aiming for: a plan-led system. However, what the Government are moving towards is not a locally plan-led system. In my view, we need to change this.

That is the first set of people who should vote for this amendment, in this case because it is the right the policy. There is a second group of people for whom there is another, different argument. It goes, “How is this supposed to work?” This Bill was in the other place last year. It completed its Third Reading on 13 December. As far as I can tell, there was effectively no substantive debate on the provisions in this Bill relating to the housing target and standard method. Nine days after the Bill completed its passage through the other place, the Government published their consultation draft of the National Planning Policy Framework. In it, they relaxed the housing delivery test; they made the housing targets and standard method an advisory starting point, in effect; and they allowed local planning authorities to have an alternative approach.

As my noble friend Lord Young demonstrated so clearly, all of that added up to local planning authorities thinking that they had been let off. However, none of that was in the Bill. It was not debated by the House. It was not voted on by the House of Commons in any fashion. Today, if we do not send Amendments 195 and 196 to the other place, no such debate will take place in the House of Commons. The issue will go through by default. I agree with my noble friend: the world has moved on and sentiment has changed. He used to be a Chief Whip; I used to run national election campaigns. I used to look carefully at the salience of issues. The salience of housing as an issue has risen and continues to rise. I must advise my Front Bench that the salience of housing as an issue is rising not because we are building too many houses but because we are building too few. The Government may argue, “Well, they’re just in the wrong place”. There are ways of dealing with that but we do need more, which is what the standard method is intended to help us achieve.

We are having this debate today because these amendments are here on Report. If we do not send them down to the other place, the debate will not take place in the Commons. I know that there are colleagues on our Benches in another place who want to have this debate. They think that the Bill needs to show what Parliament thinks about housing targets—the standard method—and how an objectively assessed housing need should be established, and by whom. We need to give them that opportunity. I encourage noble Lords, in looking at these amendments, to realise that this is about not just the policy but the question of whether the Commons should have a chance to look at this matter. I do not mean making them think again, which is our conventional constitutional job; in this case, I mean them looking at this issue for the first time. If we do not send these amendments back, they will not even look at it a first time. We need to give them that opportunity.

I hope that noble Lords will support Amendment 195 on that basis.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken so eloquently on this subject already. Amendment 200, in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayman, recognises the need to reinstate the provision for housing targets through the NPPF and associated guidance, and through the housing delivery test, which, I agree with noble Lords who have spoken already, is incredibly important. Similarly, Amendment 195, in the name of the noble Lords, Lord Lansley, Lord Young and Lord Best, and my noble friend Lady Hayman, and Amendment 196, in the names of noble Lords, Lord Lansley and Lord Young, see the essential part that local plans have to play in the delivery of housing need. It is, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, said—rightly, in my view—one of the most important amendments to the Bill that we have discussed on Report.

The much-respected organisation Shelter reports that there are 1.4 million fewer households in social housing than there were in 1980. Combined with excessive house prices making homes unaffordable, demand has been shunted into the private rental sector, where supply has been too slow to meet needs. That means above-inflation increases in rents.

On the affordable homes programme, the National Audit Office reports that there is a 32,000 shortfall in the Government’s original targets for building affordable homes. It goes on to say that there is a high risk of failing to meet targets on supported homes and homes in rural areas. Progress will be further confounded by double-digit inflation, soaring costs of materials and supply disruption, yet the Government seem to have no clue how to mitigate those factors, and in those circumstances the decision to scrap housing targets last December seems even more bizarre.

The National Audit Office is not the only one with concerns about the delivery of the programme. In December last year, the Public Accounts Committee outlined that DLUHC

“does not seem to have a grasp on the considerable risks to achieving even this lower number of homes, including construction costs inflation running at 15-30% in and around London”, although that is not far off what it is in the rest of the country.

We had extensive debates about the housing crisis during Committee on this Bill, but there was nothing in the Minister's responses to reassure us that the vague promises to deliver 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s would feed through into the planning process—points made very clearly by noble Lords who have already spoken. I do not need to point out to your Lordships’ House that we are just 18 months away from that deadline and the target has never been met. It is being missed by almost 100,000 homes a year, and more in some years. If they are not in the planning process, what chance is there of them being delivered? According to one estimate commissioned by the National Housing Federation and Crisis from Heriot-Watt University, the actual number needed is around 340,000 new homes in England each year, of which 145,000 should be affordable.

Let us consider the latest figures from the National House Building Council. The number of new homes registered in quarter 2 in 2023 was 42% down on 2022. The number of new homes registered in the private sector in quarter 2 in 2023 was 51% down on 2022. The number of new homes registered in the rental and affordable sector was down 14% in quarter 2 2023—declines across most regions compared to the same quarter last year, with the north-west experiencing the sharpest decline of 67%, followed by the east of England at 56% and the West Midlands at 54%. Only London and Wales bucked this trend.

The consequences of not delivering the right number of homes of the right tenures that people actually need are devastating. Those of us who are councillors or have been councillors all know that our inboxes, surgeries and voicemails are full of families with horrible experiences of overcrowding, temporary and emergency housing, private rented homes that are too expensive for family budgets and insecure resulting in constant moves, more young people having to live with their parents for longer, impaired labour mobility, which the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, mentioned and which makes it harder for businesses to recruit staff, and increased levels of homelessness. All this is stacking up devastating future consequences for the families concerned, and no doubt a dramatic impact on public funding as the health, education, social and employment results of this work down the generations.

There is increased focus on addressing affordability as distinct from supply—subjects that we discussed in the earlier group. In the foreword to a 2017 Institute for Public Policy Research report, Sir Michael Lyons said:

“We would stress that it is not just the number built but also the balance of tenures and affordability which need to be thought through for an effective housing strategy”.

With local authorities charged with the responsibility for ensuring that their local plans drive economic development in their areas, we simply cannot afford to overlook the place that housing development plays in local economies.

Policy Exchange has set this out very clearly in its paper. The housing crisis does not simply have localised effects on regional markets; it is holding back growth everywhere. Addressing the housing shortage offers immense economic opportunities to the country. As in previous historical periods, like the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1960s, expanding housing supply could provide a platform for sustained growth that balances the economy and spreads prosperity widely. It could help to reduce government expenditure on benefits and make our urban areas more productive.

Equally importantly, it could restore faith in the aspiration of home ownership. The fact is that we need a renewed national effort to fix the housing market and fulfil the dream of an affordable, secure and sustainable home for every family and the promise of owning one’s own home to the next generation. That national effort might well have to wait for the election of a Labour Government, but what is certain is that we cannot let that effort be confounded by a few Tory Back-Benchers in the other place, nervous about their majorities.

The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said that if the Government have a target, they must have a mechanism for delivering it. I completely agree with that. Without a clear plan for each area to meet its assessed housing need, there is little likelihood that it will happen at all.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat 12:45, 6 September 2023

As far as I understand these amendments, they are an intention to return the planning system to the time before 2022 happened—the golden age when the system worked. I must say that I was looking for some fairy dust. I will explain by going back to 2010, when an incoming coalition Government discovered that only 15%—I think it was 15%—of local authorities had an up-to-date local plan. That is when the Department for Communities and Local Government, in which I was then a junior Minister, came up with a way to encourage local planning authorities to speed-up their local plan process.

That was after a 30-year statutory requirement—it is 30 years old—that they should have such a local plan. This was essentially to let developers loose in areas where there was no up-to-date local plan. I have scars from an Adjournment debate in that place, which is a bit like a QSD at this end. As a junior Minister, I drew the always available short straw, and I was faced—or rather I was backed, because they were behind me— by 20, 30, 40, although it seemed like a thousand, angry MPs complaining that the Government were blackmailing their district council by setting developers loose. It was like Dunkirk, only there were no boats.

The coalition Government kept their nerve, and so that system endured until 22 December, I think—the dispatch date given by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. However, whether the coalition Government held their nerve, or whether, like the Conservative Government, they did not hold their nerve, the outcome was still not 300,000 homes a year. The missing ingredient for us was fairy dust. That system does not deliver 300,000 homes a year. I wish the noble Lords good luck with their amendments, and I shall be interested to see what the Government have to say, but even if passed, it will not deliver 300,000 homes a year. That seems to me to be the fundamental point. I absolutely take the analysis delivered so powerfully by the proponents of this. Unfortunately, the lever that they intend us to use for it is already deficient, and we have seen it. So, please, where is the fairy dust?

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative

My Lords, I refer to my registered interests, particularly that I chair a company that advises people on sustainable planning. I must say to my noble friends, with whom I very often agree, that I find this debate extremely difficult. First, this Bill should never have been in this form at all. No previous Government would have provided a long title for a Bill that means that it takes this long to go through Parliament and that, every time they think of something, they can add it to the Bill. We must be very clear about this Bill. Historically, we used to have the tightness of a title which enabled you to keep responsibly and respectably within the subject. So I start with this difficulty.

Secondly, this concentration on the numbers misses the point. Since the Government got rid of the net-zero requirement for houses, we have built over a million and a half homes that are not fit for the future. Every one of them has meant that the housebuilders have taken the profit, while the cost of putting those homes right has been left with the purchaser of the home. That is a scandal which is shared between the Government, who were foolish enough to get rid of the net-zero requirement, and the housebuilders, who knew precisely what they were doing. One of them made so much money that it offered its chief executive £140 million as a bonus. He did not get all that in the end, but that was the situation.

My problem is that in the absence of a proper policy, we are talking about the wrong thing. We should not be talking about the numbers, except to say that we need significantly more homes. We should be talking about the quality of the homes and the places where they should be. I go back to my own experience as Housing Minister. We were very interested in ensuring that we built homes on already used land. We thought it important to recreate our cities. We thought that was just as important a part of this as the numbers. At the moment, I can drive back from my local railway station and see every little village, every little town, spreading out into the countryside, homes being built on good agricultural land and homes being built which are, by their nature, the creators of commuters, as there is nowhere else for people to work.

If I may say so to my noble friend, it is no good ignoring that many district councils have a real problem with the number of places in which they can build the homes that they were asked to build. A lot are NIMBYs, and some I quite agree you would not like, but if you are faced with building homes in a council where most of the area is green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty or historic areas, you find yourself in a huge difficulty. I agree that many of them do not try as hard as they ought to, but let us not kid ourselves as to what the local issue is—not just wanting to win that particular ward but a matter of real difficulty.

For that reason, I say to my noble friend that I am sad that in this elongated, extended, overblown Bill, we have not had time to do four things: put in the future homes requirements to raise the standards of housebuilding so that they are fit for the future; create a system whereby housebuilders should provide the resources for rebuilding the insides of many of the homes that they built over the last five or 10 years; and understand that we should reuse land and think about place-making where people are within a quarter of an hour of the resources they need. Then, we can talk about how we can have a relationship with local authorities that can build the number of houses that we need.

I intend to support the Government on this amendment because I am not prepared to be put into a position where the answer to our problems is numbers. That is not the answer. The answer is a housing policy which looks at sustainability, the ability to buy and the future, not a collection of odd clauses stuck together and added when it happens to be convenient.

Photo of Lord Cromwell Lord Cromwell Crossbench

My Lords, I have a much less eloquent and much less exciting question to the proponents of Amendment 195, and certainly no fairy dust. If you are linking national targets to the local plan, what happens when national targets change during the five-year plan period? Does the plan have to be rewritten, do parts of it have to be rewritten, or do you have to wait until the end of the period and then apply the new target? It is a purely technical question and, as I say, much less exciting than some of the material we have just heard, but I would be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, could help me with that.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Conservative

I know that we are on Report but in response to that, it is exactly the structure that we have seen before. Essentially, in the five-year period between one local plan and the review of that plan, clearly, the housing delivery test is applied to what is adopted in that plan in the first instance. When it is reviewed after five years then clearly, as the amendment would say, the local plan must then be reviewed, taking account of the Government’s targets and standard method as applicable at that time.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, was absolutely right when he introduced his amendment in saying that this is the most important part of the Bill and is at the heart of the housing debate we have been having. I am very fortunate to be following the noble Lord, Lord Deben, who has given this whole debate a new dimension and a new focus for our thoughts, on whether we should be fixated on numbers or considering other elements of housing provision.

There is complete agreement across the House and support for building the homes that people need and the country needs. It means building homes in all parts of our country. I agree with the argument made by the noble Lord, Lord Young, about how we will provide the homes that folk need, and the analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, on how vital it is that homes be provided for social rent so that families can have a stable background, and with a housing cost that they can meet within their tight family budgets. Like her, I am a councillor, and I am saddened by the number of families where I live who are pushed into renting in the private housing sector on short-term lets and every six months are having to post on Facebook, “Is there a home to rent in this locality at this price with this number of bedrooms, so that I don’t have to move schools for my children?” That is not the sort of country we want to create, in my opinion; we ought to be providing stable homes for people whose incomes restrict their housing options to homes for social rent.

The answer that the noble Lords, Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Lansley, and even the noble Lord, Lord Best, give is to provide a big target for housebuilding, which the country needs, and to hope that it will somehow be fulfilled. Unfortunately, history tells us that this is not what happens. We know that the Government have dictated housing targets for many years and failed to achieve them for at least 50. If those targets had been fulfilled, we would not be in the desperate state we are now. Targets do not build homes. Targets do not build the homes that people need; they tend to give power to developers, who build homes that people want, which is why we are so short of affordable housing and housing for social rent. Top-down targets are not the answer. The problem with top-down targets is that communities and, indeed, councillors do not like being told exactly how many homes they have to build. Top-down targets enable arguments about census figures, household sizes and demographic trends, and these cast doubt on the need for new homes. The consequence of that argument is that land allocation for sites is hotly contested. Because the targets are top down, there is no general discussion with communities about the type of homes needed as well as their number. When communities have those discussions, as they do when developing neighbourhood plans, the result is that more homes are allocated in those areas than the targets suggest, because communities have the opportunity to think about it and rise to the challenge. The people in the community—local families—need those homes and communities respond to that by enabling those sites to be allocated for new build.

My other challenge for the advocates of top-down targets is that they can be implemented only where councils adopt a local plan. On Monday, in discussion on another group of amendments, we heard that only a third of local councils currently have an up-to-date plan. That means that two-thirds of councils do not have allocated sites for housing. It is not surprising, therefore, that the top-down targets do not provide the lever for councils to allocate sites. What is needed is for those councils to have those discussions and be encouraged—perhaps not as far as the Minister would like—to step into the difficult territory of a combined county authority dictating to district councils what should be built. That is difficult territory, which I suggest others would not wish to tread in. If, as I think we all agree, we want new homes built, we must be willing somehow to provide the means by which that happens, rather than simply saying, “These are the targets: get on with it”.

Housing targets and numbers do not reflect different types of tenure, types of home and household sizes. Some parts of the country desperately need housing with extra care for older people so that they can retain independence and downsize without having to go into residential care. Where is that in any top-down target? It does not exist, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Best, in an earlier debate about social housing numbers. That is as important as a single top-down target dictated by the Government.

I shall state at every opportunity that the Bill is about levelling-up and regeneration. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said on the previous group about how important it is to link economic investment and housing development. That is how we achieve levelling up in some of our more deprived communities, but that is not what is here. What is also missing is any incentive for local communities to accept new building. As a local councillor, whenever a big housing site is allocated, people say to me, “Where is the allocation for school places, new doctors’ surgeries and new transport, and what about our parks?” I know the Minister will say to me, “You can put them into the conditions of a planning application”. Of course you can but, more often than not, they are not fulfilled within that community—they are off site, somewhere else. That is at the heart of this problem about housebuilding. Incentives must be in place to encourage communities to accept new homes.

Then there is the issue that we have forgotten about: currently, more than 1 million homes with planning consent are not being built. In my small ward, planning consent for nearly 800 homes has been there for two or three years. The homes are not being built because it does not suit the developers to do so. Unless we also overcome the issue that there is too much power in the hands of developers, we miss the whole point about top-down targets. I repeat: top-down targets do not build homes. We need to talk to communities, discussing how inward investment and housebuilding will help them thrive and help their high streets come to life. That is why, if the noble Lord, Lord Young, is moved to press his amendment to a vote, we will be unable to support him. We will abstain. We agree that more houses are needed, which is where I started. There is complete agreement on that, but we disagree on how you achieve it.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 1:00, 6 September 2023

My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions made on this important issue. I reiterate at the outset that delivering more homes remains a priority for this Government, as the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State made clear in the long-term plan for housing, which they set out at the end of July.

Local plans play a crucial role in enabling new homes to come forward, which is why the National Planning Policy Framework is clear that all plans should seek to meet the development needs of their area. Nothing we consulted on at the end of last year changes that fundamental expectation. There will, however, be limits on what some plans can achieve, which is where I must take issue with Amendment 195, in the names of my noble friends Lord Lansley and Lord Young, the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock.

Amendment 195 would place local plans under a legal obligation to meet or exceed the number of homes generated by the standard method prescribed by the Government. Amendment 200, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, is designed to have a similar effect. While this is well intentioned, it would be unworkable in practice. Ever since the National Planning Policy Framework was introduced in 2012, it has been clear that plans should meet as much of their identified housing need as possible, but there are legitimate reasons why meeting or exceeding that need may not always be appropriate. For example, an authority with very extensive areas of green belt or which is largely an area of outstanding natural beauty or a national park may not be able to meet its identified housing need in full if we are also to maintain these important national protections. In these cases, there will be a need to consider whether any unmet need can be met elsewhere, which is something that our policies also make clear.

It is for this reason that our standard method for calculating housing need—or, indeed, any alternative method which may be appropriate in certain cases—can be only a starting point for plan-making, not the end. Mandating in law that the standard method figures must be met or exceeded in all cases would do significant harm to some of our most important protected areas and could conflict with other safeguards, such as the need to avoid building in areas of high flood risk.

It is also right that local communities should be able to respond to local circumstances. The changes to national policy which were consulted upon at the end of last year are designed to support local authorities to set local housing requirements that respond to demographic and affordability pressures while being realistic, given local constraints. However, let me make it clear: the Secretary of State’s Written Ministerial Statement, published on 6 December 2022, confirmed that the standard method for assessing local housing need will be retained. To get enough homes built in the places where people and communities need them, a crucial first step is to plan for the right number of homes. That is why we remain committed to our ambition of delivering 300,000 homes per year and to retaining a clear starting point for calculating local housing needs, but we know that the best way to get more homes is by having up-to-date local plans in place.

Amendment 196, in the name of my noble friends Lord Lansley and Lord Young, takes a different approach, obliging local planning authorities to have regard to any standard method and any national housing targets when preparing their local plans. I will put this more bluntly still: there is no question that we are about to let local authorities off the hook in providing the homes that their communities need. They need to have a plan, it should be up to date, it needs to do all that is reasonable in meeting the needs of the local area and, in response to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, it needs to look at different types of housing. They need to know how much housing is required for older people, younger people, families and disabled people. That is what their plan should have. We have discussed this with local authorities and will be working with them to ensure that that will happen.

A need to have regard to the standard method is already built into the Bill, as Schedule 7 requires local planning authorities when preparing their local plan to have regard to

“national policies and advice contained in guidance issued by the Secretary of State”.

That includes the National Planning Policy Framework, its housing policies, including those relating to the use of the standard method, and associated guidance. Adding a specific requirement to have regard to the standard method would have no additional effect as planning authorities will already take it into account and draft plans will be examined against it.

A legal obligation to take any national housing target into account, which this amendment would also create, poses a different challenge as it is unclear how plans at the level of an individual local authority could do so. This could create unintended consequences by creating an avenue for challenges to emerging plans on the basis that they have not done enough to reflect a national target and so could slow down the very plans that we need to see in place.

I hope that, taking these considerations into account, my noble friend Lord Lansley is persuaded not to move his amendment.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Deputy Chairman of Committees 1:15, 6 September 2023

My Lords, this has been a long and good debate, and I will not detain the House with a long summing up. I will deal first with the core defence that the Minister has just laid out, namely, that the way to get more houses is to have more up-to-date local plans. That argument was considered seriously by the Select Committee in the other place, which said this about what the Minister has just told us:

“We are sceptical of the Minister for Housing and Planning’s confidence that greater local plan coverage will result in more housebuilding. If there is no longer a requirement for up-to-date local plans to continually demonstrate a five-year housing land supply, and if housing targets in local plans are to be made advisory, then it does not necessarily follow that more local plan coverage will result in the same increases in housebuilding as under the current NPPF”.

In one paragraph, I am afraid that it demolishes the main defence that the way forward is through more local plans.

I am grateful to everyone who has taken part in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Best, pointed out that the Government’s target is very modest by international standards and explained how the imperatives of local politics will always require local councillors to go for a lower target rather than a higher one, so it would not be fair on local councillors to leave this in their hands.

My noble friend Lord Lansley made an important constitutional point that the major changes were made to the proposed NDMP after the Bill had completed its stages in the other place. It has not had an opportunity to consider these major changes in housing policy and will not unless this amendment is carried. He also made the point that housing has risen up the agenda since the rebellion last December, and there has been some evidence of a movement of opinion within the governing party down the other end.

I am grateful for the support from the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, who pointed out the statistics were going in the wrong direction. I was disappointed by the response from the Liberal Democrat spokesman. Only one thing is clear: if we do not carry this amendment, we will get fewer targets. The Government say they want more houses but, again, I quote from the Select Committee report:

“it is difficult to see how the Government will achieve its 300,000 net national housing target by the mid-2020s if local targets are only advisory”.

I was Housing Minister to my noble friend Lord Deben. If I had gone to him and said, “It doesn't matter how many houses we build”, I am not sure that I would have stayed in my post for very long. Numbers matter. Any responsible Government must look ahead: how many schools, hospitals and homes do we need? It is not an irrelevant consideration. That is why my party had a clear manifesto commitment to build 300,000 houses a year.

Yes, we should do more about brownfield sites, but if every brownfield site in England identified on all the local authority brownfield registers was built on to full capacity, this would provide for only just under one-third of the 4.5 million homes needed over the next 15 years.

I am grateful to the Minister, who has been very patient. She has not been able to move in the direction that I had hoped, so I want to restore the position to what it was when the Bill was introduced, before the Government amended housing policy in December. I want to enable the commitment of 300,000 houses that we gave at the last election to be met, and I want to give the elected House an opportunity to consider the major changes in government policy announced since the Bill was introduced. I wish to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 129, Noes 164.

Division number 2 Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Report (6th Day) — Amendment 195

Aye: 127 Members of the House of Lords

No: 162 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

Tellers

No: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Amendment 195 disagreed.

Amendment 196 not moved.