Examination of Witnesses

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:14 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Will Tanner and Alex Morton gave evidence.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 4:40 pm, 23rd June 2022

Gentlemen, thank you so much for coming today. We should be able to hear you, and you will not freeze mid-frame, which is welcome. For the record, could you state your name and who you represent?

Alex Morton:

I am Alex Morton, the head of policy at the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank. Slightly related to this, a few years ago I worked in No. 10 doing housing and planning issues.

Will Tanner:

My name is Will Tanner. I am the director of Onward, another centre-right think-tank, which was established four years ago, in 2018. Similarly to my fellow witness, I was in the No. 10 policy unit until 2017.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Gosh. Is the Minister starting this one?

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

What fun you will have, Mr O’Brien.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Q Thank you, Mr Bone. May I apologise, as I will have to leave a few minutes before the end of the session?

Alex and Will, thank you for joining us in person. The Bill takes forward the devolution agenda by making it easier and quicker to set up new combined authorities, particularly in two-tier areas. It also contains a number of powers to speed up and improve regeneration, from the infrastructure levy to compulsory purchase order powers, high street rental auctions, street votes, heritage protections and land market transparency. How can we use both the devolution agenda and these new tools best to drive urban regeneration and more brownfield development—the kind of development that a lot of people want to see? How can we build on what we are doing in the Bill and make the powers that we are creating work most effectively? I will pick first on Will and then go to Alex.

Will Tanner:

First, thank you for having me. It is a very important question, and the Bill goes some way towards answering it. The Bill tries—if I may infer Ministers’ intentions from it—to establish a much greater level of strategic authority in the planning system to bring together different elements that are important for regeneration and economic development in local areas. That includes building some of the institutional framework in the form of both more and stronger mayoral combined authorities or equivalents in counties and giving them clearer incentives to intervene and bring land together with other forms of intervention—I point to the infrastructure levy in particular in that regard, not just at mayoral level but below—as well as creating much greater transparency in information to allow the system to work more effectively and generate more community buy-in. That is both at a national level through the levelling-up mission framework that the Bill sets out, setting a clear direction on where the levelling-up agenda is due to go, and more information for consumers of the planning system through the digital planning framework and, indeed, through greater powers to require information on behalf of local authorities such as owners of high street shops and other parties locally.

Alex Morton:

I am a little more sceptical on parts of the devolution agenda. It has worked very well in some places, such as Manchester, but less so in others. London has probably one of the biggest housing backlogs, and obviously it has had a Mayor for a very long time.

For me, the most interesting and best thing about the Bill is the focus or push around trying to make local plans more delivery-oriented, moving towards a system of local plans as delivery mechanisms and not huge, long lists of policies by moving some of that policy up to a national level. It would be good to discuss that further. I think that is the right aim, but there are some difficulties in how that is planned to be done. The shift away from a five-year land supply is also welcome.

Listening to people earlier, what often came up is planning issues x, y and z. Really, planning is just to deliver enough land, so that enough homes are built, we meet housing delivery targets and we do not have a housing crisis. Almost everyone else has a strong interest in planning doing mixed communities, planning doing sustainability, planning doing an ageing society and planning doing obesity. Planning is not really meant to do all those things; it is not some kind of titan that can hold the world on its shoulders. The whole point of planning is that there are sufficient land released to a different mix of developers who will build enough homes so that we do not have a housing crisis. If the Minister is inclined to put in place some kind of definition of what planning is, I would say that planning is designed to make sure that we build sufficient homes of sufficient quality in the right places—full stop. If the planning system could just focus on doing that, we might have less of a housing crisis, with everyone shoehorning everything else under the sun—important and noble though those other things are—into the planning system.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Q Thank you. Can I press Alex on street votes? Is this something you welcome? What observations, if any, do you have about how we could potentially make a success of that policy?

Alex Morton:

I think street votes are a very good idea. They are a way to try and encourage communities. They are not a solution to everything—I think we have to be honest about what street votes are. Street votes are in areas where there is high demand in housing and you have relatively low density—particularly Metroland, for example, in London—where you might be able to persuade people to replace a certain amount of terraced housing with four or five-storey terrace streetscapes, which would be quite attractive. That could be a good way in lots of high-demand areas, without building on green belts and green fields, to get a recycling of space. That used to happen. For most of our city’s history, that densification process was natural. You had a single landowner usually—sometimes aristocratic, sometimes merchants, sometimes commercial holdings—who would buy blocks, demolish them and build them up. You have to do that now in a way that is consensual and fit for the 21st century.

Street votes are a way to try to get people together and say, “Look, we can all, on our street, agree that we can build up another few storeys. We will all benefit from this. This will mean that we do not have to build on greenfield sites on the edge of London.” I do not think we should be too optimistic about it in the next, say, five years solving the south-east’s housing crisis. However, it has to be something that the Government moves at great speed on, to try and put pilots in place to get this going, so that if it can work—I think it should—we can then roll it out on a wider scale. That said, I do not think, sadly, that it will alleviate the pressure on green fields in the next five or 10 years, but it is a thing we need to do now if we are to stop building on more and more of our land surface.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Q I have one last question, for Will. One of the things the infrastructure levy does is have the neighbourhood share, in the way that CIL does, but CIL only applies to a certain number of authorities. How might that connect to the work you have been doing on what you called double devolution and neighbourhood-level governance?

Will Tanner:

I thoroughly welcome the commitment to maintain the neighbourhood share within the new consolidated infrastructure levy. As you say, the infrastructure levy is compulsory rather than optional and it will apply everywhere, so it represents an opportunity to share a considerable amount of revenue directly with communities where the right governance exists. Parish and town councils only cover about 37% of the English population at current levels—about a third of local authorities are fully parished—so only a relatively small number of places will be able to take advantage of this at first. The inclusion of the neighbourhood share will create a very strong incentive for local areas to put in place strong, hyperlocal governance to control local decision making and some local services within a general power of competence that exists for parish and town councils.

We know from our research that there are strong benefits from that. If you look at rates of volunteering, rates of group membership or rates of local philanthropy, all those things are higher in areas where parish and town councils exist. So I am very supportive of the Government’s efforts to try and create a stronger incentive for places to put in that local governance and to benefit from the gain from development. I would also suggest that it should create a stronger incentive for places to become more welcoming of development as a whole and therefore embrace new housing.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Q On CPO powers, which the Bill streamlines by speeding up the process and simplifies by taking out bits of the process, while also potentially enabling the capturing of more value for the community and for wider infrastructure projects, with implications for consent and regeneration, what observations, if any, do you both have about the plans in the Bill on CPOs and how we make a success of them? Shall we go to Will first, then Alex?

Will Tanner:

As the Minister will know, Onward’s first ever paper looked at this issue in some detail. As the Committee will know, at the stroke of a planner’s pen, the value of a piece of land can go up 100-fold. There is an opportunity for the UK to do much more to capture the gains from development in a way that other countries, such as the Netherlands, do more systematically. The Bill goes some way towards doing that through the simplification and clarification of when local authorities can use CPO powers, which will hopefully make CPO more widespread.

I think the greatest opportunity lies in the clarification of what constitutes fair market value. That is a relatively contested area of policy; there are lots of different views from different areas. I thoroughly welcome the proposed Law Commission review into this area of legislation more generally, because I think legislation has spread over a number of years. However, there is an opportunity for the UK to more systematically capture those gains for development, and allow local authorities to buy and assemble land—especially with regard to ransom strips and small plots that hold up development—to capture those gains for public benefit. So I am supportive in principle but keen to see a bit more detail.

Alex Morton:

I support the idea of streamlining CPO. I would be quite nervous, as a small “c” conservative and a small “l” liberal, about the measure to have a direction from the Secretary of State setting out the value of land. As Will has just suggested, there is a potential area in terms of ransom strips or other areas. If that was narrowly defined in legislation, so that, for example, on brownfield sites where there is multiple land ownership, there may, in exceptional circumstances, be a direction by the Secretary of State, that would be quite different from the current powers, which look like they could be abused by a future Government that was not sympathetic to property rights.

There is a case, with some ransom strip owners and some landowners who hold out and are unreasonable, for there to be some kind of change to get those people. But that is a big shift in property rights, which should probably be set out in primary legislation and very tightly circumscribed to small areas of brownfield land where there are multiple landowners, or be more tightly defined than the current situation, which I think could be abused—probably not under this Government, but under a future, more radical Government that did not support property rights.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Ah, right. We come to Mr Henry.

Photo of Darren Henry Darren Henry Conservative, Broxtowe

Turning to CCA England Mayors, I think Onward has written a report about England’s Mayors and their potential. The Bill recognises that the more power you give to these local leaders, the more accountability measures you need to bring into place. Do you feel that the Bill goes far enough with things such as audit committees for us to be able to hold local leaders to account?Q

Will Tanner:

I support the measures in the Bill to extend the mayoral devolved model to county areas. Up until now, the mayoral model has, as you know, been largely ascribed to urban areas. I think that is a missed opportunity for historic counties in England. I particularly welcome the removal of the requirement for constituent authorities to consent to combined county authorities, so that counties cannot be held to ransom by districts within their area. I also recognise that the Bill goes some way to introducing stronger accountability for those combined county authorities.

However, in our recent paper, “Give Back Control”, we argued for a significant extension of the mayoral model. I see the provisions in the Bill as a starting point to extend the breadth of coverage of mayoral combined authorities, but I think there is a further step to deepen the powers and responsibilities of those authorities, both in cities and county areas. I would argue that that should be done in a number of ways. First, by giving much greater financial control to Mayors through a single mayoral settlement, rather than a panoply of different funding pots. That is not necessarily something for legislation, but it is a matter for Government, and the Treasury in particular. There should be the extension of further powers—this would be a matter for legislation—over local transport, local energy systems and other matters to give Mayors more ability to join up local services on behalf of their constituents.

Alongside that, we should have strengthened mayoral scrutiny panels, on which MPs as well as local councillors could sit, to join up the scrutiny of Mayors around the country—or indeed governors, as they may be called—so that they are held to account for those additional powers. I think Mayors have been successful to date, but there is much more they can do. Looking at international models, the mayoral model in this country has quite a long way to go to replicate the success of other countries.

Photo of Darren Henry Darren Henry Conservative, Broxtowe

Q Have you got a country in mind that is doing it really well?

Will Tanner:

I would point to the United States as a good example of where you have much greater levels of local and regional state-led control. The UK is almost uniquely centralised as a country, compared to other countries in the OECD. Just 5% of taxation is raised locally in this country, which is a third of the rate in France and a sixth of the rate in Germany. Just a quarter of that revenue raised is spent locally, compared to about 75% in Canada, for example. This country has a very long way to go on devolution, despite some of the advances made under this Government and indeed previous Governments.

Alex Morton:

I would argue that devolution, or any kind of power structure, tends to work best when there is clear accountability. One of the problems that is beginning to emerge in this country is that you have Mayors, local enterprise partnerships, parish and town councils, district councils, county councils and combined authorities—and on top of that, you have PCCs. The problem comes when people do not know who is responsible for what, and I think that is increasingly becoming a problem for lots of local voters. They cannot see how this quite works.

I am sympathetic to some of the arguments that Will and others are putting forward around trying to get more powers lined up, but I think the thing that is pushing back increasingly is that it is harder for me as a voter, getting on with my daily life, to know exactly who is responsible for what if something is broken. Is it my parish, my district or the Mayor? Then there are unaccountable bits such as LEPs. I spoke to a businessman who said, “I was thinking of investing in the north-east, and my people gave me a whole long list of people I should meet—elected officials—but they couldn’t quite tell me who did what, because it wasn’t very clear. For me, as someone who is thinking about making an investment in the north-east, I would rather have one or two people who have very clearly defined responsibilities for those purposes.”

Part of this is the depressing politics of, “It’s always easier to add an extra layer of politicians than it is to remove another one.” There is sometimes an argument to get rid of some powers and move them up, but it is often the case that what happens is that some powers get shifted up and that layer has to be left in place. Then you end up with a very confused accountability line for voters, businesses, the Highways Agency—the list goes on and on. Everyone who has to interact with them is not sure who they should be talking to, on what and why.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I am going to call Greg Smith, but I will put the witnesses on notice that, at the end, I will give you the opportunity to change the course of history by telling the Committee what it should be doing.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

Q I am going to throw something of a curveball, because it is the sort of question that I am hopeful the think-tank world might have a view on. Throughout a lot of the evidence that we have heard during previous sessions on this Bill Committee—Alex, you talked about the south-east housing crisis in one of your answers—we have this presumption that building is the only answer to the question. From my constituency casework and from prodding around the issue, I have a theory that we do not really have a very good grasp on the gap between supply and demand, particularly in London and the south-east, where house prices are so much higher.

As we are looking at a Bill that essentially enables greater house building in our neighbourhood planning, can you offer a view on whether factors such as stamp duty, particularly at the punitively high rate that George Osborne imposed as Chancellor on the top end of the market, have had a disproportionate effect on movement within the housing stock we already have in this country? If people are not moving up to the very top tier of housing—the very large family homes and so on—there is a domino effect all the way down to the bottom of the market for people who are trying to get into starter homes and one or two-bedroom flats. Do you know of any assessment, either by your own think-tanks or across the think-tank world, that could answer that question? Just how big, in reality, is the gap between supply and demand? What other factors within the state’s control could we look at to take those barriers away?

Alex Morton:

We are doing a paper called “The case for house building”, which may not be to your taste; it will argue that, unfortunately, supply is an unavoidable part of any solution. It is frustrating that many other factors, such as interest rates, immigration and stamp duty, are contributing to the housing crisis, but the unavoidable reality is that supply affects price—there is no market in which supply does not have an impact on price. Throughout most of human history, the average cost of a house has been close to the build cost. If you really want to be technical, it is the capitalised future stream of rental income—house prices sometimes get out of line because there are asset price bubbles—but if you work out the rental stream of the average property over 30 years, it should be close to the build cost. Anything above that is fundamentally caused by an imbalance between supply and demand.

Ian Mulheirn has very eloquently made the case that we should not focus only on supply. I totally agree, but I think there is sometimes a desire to wish away the problem. Having said that, I empathise quite a lot with politicians, because it is annoying that other issues are contributing. I would argue that immigration is probably the quickest and shortest lever you could pull; I am thinking of the Chesham and Amersham by-election, for example, in which a party that strongly supports more immigration and more refugees was somehow arguing that there could be no building in any kind of southern constituency.

However, that does not get us away from the fact that for a long time we have not built enough houses for the people who are already here. We can see that in levels of homelessness and overcrowding, particularly for people at the bottom of the market who are really suffering and cannot have families. It is just unconscionable not to do something about that. So yes, cut stamp duty; yes, reduce immigration; but unfortunately there is just a big backlog. We will have a report out soon on this.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

Q Just to clarify the question that I am trying to get to the bottom of, my point is not that there will not ultimately be a gap between supply and demand; it is about the effect of factors such as stamp duty on supply. How much are the barriers to movement in the housing market dampening supply?

Alex Morton:

We have done a couple of papers on this. There is a clear link between the number of transactions and the speed at which house builders can build out, as I think you have been hearing from other witnesses. The number of people who are prepared to buy new build is relatively constant; Help to Buy has shifted that, but absent Help to Buy, it is a relatively constant number. If transactions increase, so will the number of houses built. I can send you our paper “Stamping Down”, in which we talked about how reducing stamp duty would boost transaction levels. For me, part of the problem is that even if we get housing up to 300,000 for some years, we should be doing that along with other measures—we might then be able to start taking our foot off the pedal in about 10 years’ time. The backlog is so large that we should do all these things. Worrying too much about the exact mix is almost dancing on the head of a pin. We need to reduce demand and increase supply now, and then in five or 10 years, having done those things, we can review where we have got to.

Will Tanner:

I agree with quite a lot of what Alex has just said; I think it is about both supply and demand. I take a lot of Ian Mulheirn’s arguments, particularly about the role of interest rates, but I agree with Alex that we have not built enough homes for a very, very long time. We did a report called “Stamping out a bad tax”—another variation on the word “stamp”—that looked at abolishing stamp duty because, as a transaction tax, it has distorted effects within the market, in exactly the way you describe. There are ways of paying for that through second-home taxes and taxes on enveloped dwellings and the like. It is possible to do that in a fiscally neutral way, but it would be wrong for me to suggest that that will solve the housing crisis in one fell swoop. Ultimately, we need to do a number of different things. Over the last 10 years or so it has been easier for politicians to do demand-side changes to the housing market than to do supply-side changes, and that has led to some of the backlog that Alex talks of.

I would argue that some of the things in this Bill, particularly around compulsory purchase, land assembly, spatial planning and the role of development corporations, potentially unlock considerable amounts of supply. That is why this Bill is an important addition to the housing and planning system—it potentially fixes some of the roadblocks to supply over a number of years.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Q I am going to go to the final question. Alex, what is the one thing that this Committee could do to improve things?

Alex Morton:

I think we have covered most things that I had down. The one element that we have not touched on is the goal of streamlining planning and local plans. Perhaps more should be being pushed down than up. By that I mean I would that rather local plans were a series of site allocation policies and strategic policies around transport, and then local people should have a greater say on what happens on those sites, whether through neighbourhood plans or the neighbourhood priority statements that the Government are already trying to do. There is an argument that if development is happening in your community, and you can shape how it looks and what infrastructure and other benefits come with it, you are more likely to be in favour of it, or at least not hostile.

Therefore, rather than trying to have a system that says, “Let’s strip out all the local plan policies”—which I think is absolutely necessary, and the Government are absolutely right to proceed, because local plans take far too long and are out of touch by the time they are finished—you could create processes around how we get on sites, particularly larger sites, where they have been allocated, and how we engage with the community as part of that local planning process, so that, at the end of it, you have a local plan with a list of sites and some overlapping strategic policies, and then local people get to choose things like design or what benefits come with it. That would be a good way to square the circle around streamlining, without running to this argument that you are centralising and taking powers away. I don’t think the Government is trying to do that; I think they are genuinely trying to fix the housing crisis, but I understand why MPs are saying that, and I think that could be an alternative way, as the Bill develops, to get there.

Will Tanner:

The area where I think the Committee could make a real difference is around the levelling-up missions and the overarching framework around the Bill. I am not sure the Minister will necessarily thank me for saying this, but I think the reporting requirements and the architecture around the levelling-up missions could be strengthened considerably in two primary ways.

First, we have seen through the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Climate Change Committee the importance and strength of an independent body to hold the Government to account for delivering against its own targets, and I think the levelling-up missions would benefit from that level of scrutiny and accountability. At the moment there is a bit of a risk of the Government setting out its own interpretation of progress rather than us having an independent view. Bluntly, the Government should welcome that as a way of ensuring that the whole of Government is driving towards the same end. There is a bit of a risk at the moment that the Department for Levelling Up becomes the sole vehicle for driving levelling-up policy.

In a second but similar way, I think there is a missed opportunity in terms of not aligning that reporting framework against a Treasury set of fiscal events. Ultimately, levelling up is so interdependent with tax and spend policy that if the Treasury is reporting at different times, particularly around changing tax measures or making large public spending decisions through the spending review, there is the risk that levelling up falls through the cracks of the way the Government makes major decisions, rather than being completely aligned as a whole of Government mission, as I understand both the Prime Minister and the entirety of Government believe it to be. That would be my systemic change.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Thank you for your excellent evidence today.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Miss Dines.)

5.9 pm

Adjourned till Tuesday 28 June at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.

Written Evidence Reported to the House

LRB01 Community Rights Action

LRB02 West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner

LRB03 Historic Houses