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Local Infrastructure (East Midlands)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:21 am on 20th March 2018.

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Photo of Andrew Lewer Andrew Lewer Conservative, Northampton South 10:21 am, 20th March 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am pleased to participate in this debate on such an important topic as housing, infrastructure and local government. It was introduced by a very close political colleague and friend, my hon. Friend Lee Rowley. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

In the midst of Brexit negotiations, we should not forget the urgency of local matters that affect our constituents so much. That was proved by the Chancellor when he announced the Government’s commitment to a total of £44 billion of capital funding, loans and guarantees to support the housing market through to 2022-23. Reforming the housing sector is a priority of the utmost importance to the UK. The goal is to deliver 300,000 net additional homes a year by the mid-2020s, which will be the highest level since 1970. Some of the strategies that are part of this grand sectoral investment have already started, such as the £5 billion housing infrastructure fund. That fund is expected to deliver 200,000 new homes. Last month, the £866 million first wave of the fund was announced. The home building fund, which was launched in 2016 and was increased in the 2017 Budget, is set to deliver 88,000 homes. As of December 2017, the fund had contracted 153 schemes, worth more than £1.4 billion in loan funding.

Broadening the perspective, not enough significance is allocated to how transport infrastructure impacts on the housing crisis, hence the great value of this debate. Transport infrastructure is fundamental in delivering housing supply and in determining the type of housing provision, which can vary from the car-based, pollution-intensive, sprawling, isolated suburban extensions to sustainable, safe, people-focused and well-planned communities. Reliable transport networks are essential to that growth and productivity, which is why the Government are delivering the biggest investment in railways since Victorian times. A total of £40 billion will be invested between 2014 and 2019, and that will benefit millions of passengers across the country. It will mean more trains, more seats and better stations. My right hon. Friend Sir Patrick McLoughlin has already talked about that in concrete terms.

That is the broad infrastructural sweep, but what about the east midlands and Northamptonshire in particular? The importance of strategic planning cannot be stressed enough, but homes are about people. The involvement of the local community and other organisations and groups is essential in helping local councils to shape a local plan and prevent the purely top-down imposition of housing and infrastructure that would not be right for that area.

Regarding my constituency of Northampton South, I am pleased to say that in February, the borough council cabinet agreed that the council and Northampton Partnership Homes should build or acquire around 1,000 homes, including affordable rented housing, market rented housing and housing for sale over the next 10 years. The council has requested a meeting with the Ministry to explore ways in which the Government can help and support the council in its efforts to maximise the supply of new homes in Northampton within that scheme and more broadly. There are positive prospects to look forward to with forthcoming major investment projects in my area. They include: the Northampton growth management scheme, the north-west relief road, the Sandy Lane relief road, the Daventry development link and the Towcester A5 relief road. That adds up to more than £118 million in funding.

To be hugely topical as a Northampingtonshire MP, there is a case, very much added to by the particular circumstances of Northampton—it is not an uncontroversial topic—for looking at local government reform to facilitate more joined-up and efficient provision of much-needed housing growth with properly co-ordinated and functioning infrastructure. As discussed at length in ResPublica’s report, “Devo 2.0—The Case for Counties”, devolution should expand beyond cities and advance the reform of local government in the counties. I was a district councillor for 12 years. For my sins, I was on a planning committee for 11 of those. I was a cabinet member. I was a county councillor for 10 years, and that included time leading Derbyshire County Council. As well as being deputy chairman of the Local Government Association for many years, I have been its vice-president since 2014.

I am proud of the achievements of the local government membership, as I am sure many people in two-tier district and county areas are. Those who served on urban district councils and rural district councils can be proud of their achievements in their era, but it is no disrespect to that former era and the work that went on in local government under the previous structure to say that it may have had its day and a change is needed. Population growth has been a challenge that has been hard to deal with in some of the two-tier areas. Some 60% of single-tier county areas were able to meet demand and provide homes for at least 95% of new households with an average population growth of 5,100. However, only 30% of district councils in two-tier areas were able to meet the same target, despite having average growth of only 1,750. It is not just about numbers. We heard recently in the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, as it was then called, about how housing and social care functions being together has helped Sunderland deliver better services for older people. Such synergies are clear with transport and housing.

I became a twin-hatted councillor for 10 of those 12 years to prevent responsibilities from being passed from pillar to post, where people say things like, “On-street is county. Off-street is district”, or, “We are a waste collection authority, but they are the waste disposal authority”, or, “Yes, we do libraries, but they do leisure centres.” With hard choices ahead of us and the need to fully engage the community, there is a democratic and administrative case to be made here when housing pressure is so great. As was rightly stated in the report I referred to, the collecting authority does not have an incentive to ensure that it receives the revenue needed to deliver infrastructure investment through section 106. The top-tier council is responsible for infrastructure, but the lower-tier council is in charge of collecting contributions from developers for infrastructure projects, and failure to collect that contribution limits the activity of the top-tier council. Nevertheless, developments continue to get approved without always necessarily having the right funds.

Another problematic aspect is that although services drive costs and go hand in hand with planning, it is not the planning authority that has the responsibility for the bulk of the ongoing costs as a result of the development. For reasons that are well known, Northamptonshire is right in the middle of this debate. The Dorset proposals, which have some genesis in the time that I spent writing the LGA peer report on Dorset in 2013, are starting a change away from a unanimity requirement towards some more rapid change in local government structures. I do not think people have cottoned on to how big that is and how quickly it will happen. In Northamptonshire, we have Cheshire as our potential model of two unitaries.

Bigger is not always better. We would not have any councils at all if we extended that principle too far. The economies of scale argument can be tested to breaking point. It is also important to keep the history. Cheshire is still Cheshire, and Northamptonshire will still be Northamptonshire, so this is not about the 1974, Edward Health-style policies of creating fictional counties that no one had any connection or association with, such as Avon and, particularly pernicious, Hereford and Worcester. We need to look to functional economic geography and thus to the heart of the debate on joined-up infrastructural housing and local feel and needs, and yes, making those savings as well.

Oxfordshire, for instance, has claimed that a move from a two-tier authority to a unitary would not only increase local accountability, but an independent study has estimated that it would save £100 million over the first five years to enable that council to boost housing and infrastructure.

Once the more coherent network of unitary authorities is set up, local authorities in England need to be more sovereign, more respected and less lorded over by central Government than they have been for many decades. That will incentivise strong leadership, high standards of accountability and therefore better delivery of housing and infrastructure. The investment announced by the Government is a great commitment to helping solve the housing crisis, but part of the solution to the problem is also local. In my time as a Member of the European Parliament, I saw how places in Denmark and Holland have a completely different relationship and respect level between national and local government. In leaving the EU, we must not turn away from best practice elsewhere or turn inward or, worst of all, turn Whitehall-wards. We need to really respect such practice from elsewhere and learn from it.

In this debate we have heard, and will hear, about different pressures and needs regarding housing and infrastructure across the east midlands. They are different in different places. The solution, as far as there ever will be one, is a serious commitment to localism.