Long-term Plan for Housing - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:17 pm on 11 January 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:17, 11 January 2024

My Lords, there surely cannot be any debate on the fact that we are in the midst of a catastrophic housing crisis, which figures from Shelter tell us leaves almost 300,000 of our fellow citizens homeless every night, including 123,000 children, and over a million families on social housing waiting lists. A planning policy framework doing its job would at least put the steps in place to start delivering the numbers of homes that would resolve this crisis, but this plan is neither long-term nor a plan to deliver housing.

Sadly, the Government’s caving-in to Back-Benchers in the other place, and developers on housing targets, means this planning policy framework will mean housing delivery falling far from the mark for the foreseeable future. Data published this week showed that consents are at an all-time low, 20% down on last year, and the National House Building Council shows a dramatic fall in registrations, down 42% in quarter two compared with last year.

Commitment to delivering real improvement in housing delivery has to be called into question when we have had no less than 16 Housing Ministers since 2010, and when the Secretary of State delivered his statement on this planning policy framework to a press conference, rather than in Parliament. The National Planning Policy Framework should provide the link to ensure that local councils are taking into account the strategic need for housing, industrial and commercial land, food and farming requirements and the whole range of environmental issues as they apply in each area. Local plans are vital to deliver what is needed across the country, but also to engage local communities in how that is done and to provide the protections needed against speculative, unwanted or dangerous development.

However, the level of uncertainty the Government have generated by flip-flopping over their commitment to housing, by failure to create proper industrial strategy and failure to take environmental issues seriously enough, has fatally undermined all of that and has now culminated in 58 local authorities either scrapping or delaying their local plans as they wrestle with the uncertainty over housing targets. Yet this Statement seems to unequivocally point the finger at local authorities.

I suggest that the Minister in the other place might want to look in the mirror here. The example closest to home for me was that after extensive local research, two years of intensive public consultation and partnership working, and an extended three-week public inquiry, our Stevenage local plan was submitted to the Government on time—and then sat on the holding direction on the Secretary of State’s desk for 451 days until it was finally approved.

It is not just on housing that this framework fails to deliver. Because we have no proper industrial strategy, it is almost impossible for local plans to meet the needs for industrial commercial permissions, and the honourable Member for Buckingham in the other place raised on 19 December that it does not meet the stronger protections for food production land use either, with a wishy-washy statement quoted by the Minister:

“The availability of agricultural land used for food production should be considered”.

What does that mean? Question after question when the Statement was debated in the other place, largely from Conservative Members, sought clarification of exactly what is meant by the fact that housing targets are an advisory starting point. The best the Minister could come up with was:

“I cannot pre-empt or suggest exactly what that will mean in all instances”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/12/23; cols. 1275-6.]

One senior member of a respected planning stakeholder body told me that they stopped taking notes at the Secretary of State’s press conference on this topic because what he said just did not make any sense. Can the Minister please tell us how this process of advisory starting points for housing targets will deliver the 300,000 homes a year that are so urgently needed? We need to be clear here. There will be no levelling up unless we are at least aiming to provide a safe, secure, affordable and sustainable home for everyone. How does this set of policies deliver that?

On the key issue of resources, this is crippling local authorities’ ability to deliver against their planning obligations; indeed, the Royal Town Planning Institute reports 90% of local authorities as having a backlog of cases and 70% as having difficulties in recruiting. How will the Government support local authorities to resource their planning function as demand increases when their budgets are squeezed by the skyrocketing costs of children’s services, adult social care and, of course, homelessness? How do the Government reconcile their threats to remove planning powers from local authorities that do not meet the three-month deadline for delivery of their plan with the absolute obligation for authorities to consult local people? With a significant change on the issue of housing targets, surely it is understandable that further consultation must be undertaken. Has that been taken into account? If, as the Secretary of State has threatened, recalcitrant local authorities have their planning powers removed, who will undertake the planning work for their area? The Planning Inspectorate is already underresourced and its involvement in local plan-making would be a significant conflict of interest.

Time and again in debates during the passage of the levelling-up Act we were told that the Government would not accept amendments because provision would be included in the National Planning Policy Framework; for example, on ensuring that housebuilders focus on healthy homes and on making specific provision for housing for older people, flooding, access to open space, protections for historic buildings and a wide range of environmental issues. What assessment has the department carried out to ensure that all those issues—all those promises that were made to us—are incorporated into this new set of policies?

I return to my initial point: without a determined effort to deliver 300,000 homes a year, which we will need to resolve the housing crisis, we will continue to see the shameful situation where children are homeless, where they share beds with their parents because of lack of adequate space, where permitted development allows appalling housing conditions to prevail, and where poor housing affects the health and life chances of a whole generation. Perhaps it is time for a new ITV drama, “Mr Bates versus DLUHC”. In failing to tackle this through a clear housing strategy and the policies to support that, including targets, this policy amounts just to failure and another missed opportunity.