Building Out Extant Planning Permissions — [Caroline Nokes in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 30th October 2019.

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Photo of Anne Milton Anne Milton Independent, Guildford 9:30 am, 30th October 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered building out extant planning permissions.

It is a pleasure, albeit a surprise, to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes.

I am here to talk about planning, which is often a contentious issue for our local councillors, and particularly for local authorities that are developing local plans, especially in constituencies with significant areas of green-belt and other protected land. Some 89% of Guildford borough and 60% of Waverley borough is in the green belt; and 36% of Guildford and 53% of Waverley is in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

In Guildford, we are very short of homes. We have around 3,000 people on Guildford Borough Council’s waiting list, with thousands more unable to buy a home due to excessively high prices, and we have correspondingly high rents. However, in Guildford and Cranleigh we need to build more homes in the right areas, with good transport links and all the necessary infrastructure, without increasing the risk of flooding, while protecting our green belt. To do that, we need investment from Government and developers.

I am sure that many Members of this House and I could spend several hours discussing the need for more homes, including more social housing and more homes that people can afford, and where those homes should be built, but I asked for this debate on a narrower area. Once local authorities have had the arguments about local plans and planning permissions—and they do have torrid arguments about them—and permission has been given, what powers do local authorities have to get the homes built? How can they get the much-needed infrastructure?

In Guildford in 2018-19, the number of homes built was 284. There is a requirement for 518 this year and 928 in 2021-22. In simple terms, that will only cover the backlog of unmet need. There is also a need, year on year, for 570 so-called affordable homes—although what is called “affordable” in Guildford is not affordable in many other parts of the country, or even in Guildford itself, so the word is open to some debate. However, taking into account that development will provide 40% of the overall housing figure, year on year, Guildford will be short of affordable homes until we reach more than 1,000 new dwellings a year.

Schemes such as Weyside urban village are subject to a housing infrastructure fund or HIF bid, which we are still waiting to hear about. We were told by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government that this was an oven-ready scheme, but still we have not heard back on that, and the Government have recently put up interest rates on local authority loans from the Public Works Loan Board from 0.8% to 1.8%.

Despite my having had numerous meetings with Ministers from the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Guildford’s infrastructure, both road and rail, is under extreme pressure, as is the two-lane stretch of the A3. That affects many more constituencies than just mine; it affects everybody south of Guildford. Developers will build only where there is a commitment to the delivery of infrastructure. Builders simply will not build without it; they go elsewhere, where it is easier to build.

In Cranleigh, in Waverley borough, a total of 7,640 permissions have been given since 2013, but only 1,906 homes have been built. Cranleigh is required to build 1,700 new homes over the local plan period, which is from 2013 to 2032. Of those, 1,600 have been granted permission. The largest sites in Cranleigh account for 1,348 of those dwellings, of which only 168, or 12%, had been built as of 4 September.

The figures are pretty shocking. A permission for 425 dwellings was granted in 2016, but only eight of those plots are complete; 136 dwellings were given permission in 2014, and only 69 of those plots are complete; 75 dwellings were granted permission in 2017, and 38 of those plots have been developed; 265 dwellings were given permission in 2015—four years ago—and none of those is complete; an application for 54 dwellings got permission in 2017, and of those, we have only one show home; of 125 dwellings given permission in 2015, none is complete; and on one site, where 149 dwellings were given permission in 2016, and 119 in 2018, only 52 plots are complete. As I say, developers will build only where there is infrastructure, but these permissions are crippling Cranleigh.

Cranleigh is in the countryside, beyond the green belt, and although I do not want to see building on the green belt—none of us does—we end up with development pushed on to the countryside beyond the green belt, with no account taken of sustainability, environmental protections or feasibility. Cranleigh is a wonderful village, but it has precious little transport infrastructure and no realistic means of achieving it. That has an impact on housing delivery, and developers want to keep prices high, well beyond the reach of many. Build-out is slow. I could talk about the inappropriateness of the development in Cranleigh, but that would take me into another Westminster Hall debate.

Local authorities simply do not possess enough tools to force the hand of developers. The housing delivery test is based on the completion of new dwellings, rather than planning permissions granted. In granting planning permission, local authorities can set shorter time periods in which the development must be begun, but as starting a development can mean as little as commencing an access road, or creating a hard-standing for the parking of vehicles, those time periods mean precious little. Local authorities have no carrots and no sticks at their disposal.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I am trying to give her a break to maybe take a mouthful of water, but I am interested in what she thinks those carrots and sticks could be.

Photo of Anne Milton Anne Milton Independent, Guildford

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will come on to exactly that; I have a few ideas.

There are numerous options available to Government to make a real difference in getting the homes that we need built. We need houses that people can afford in areas such as Guildford and Cranleigh, where prices are eye-wateringly high; the average house price in Guildford is more than £550,000, and socially rented homes. However, it sometimes feels as if successive Governments are simply unwilling to do anything that will upset the developers’ apple cart.

The options that could be available to Government include requiring developers of strategic sites in local plans to come forward with a full permission application. They already have the benefit of being in the local plan—a factor that carries significant weight when it comes to granting permission. They should have to come forward with a full application. The pretty development pictures that we see at the outline stage, which are generally in watercolours and made to look a bit like something out of a storybook, are rarely carried through into reserved matters.

Phased development on larger sites should be agreed in advance between the developer and the local planning authority and written into the section 106 agreements, so that the LPA has a more realistic idea of what will be delivered. Currently, provision of affordable housing is written into any agreement, but if all housing is viewed as a social benefit—I think all housing is a social benefit—we could include phased development targets, particularly on strategic sites, in local plans.

Starting a development should involve completing a dwelling, not just putting a bit of concrete on the land. Once the developer has committed money to laying on services and so on, they are more likely to continue. Council tax could become due on every dwelling, whether completed or not, based on agreed delivery rates. There could be compulsory purchase by Government of sites that had not delivered over, say, 10 years. There could be a higher rate of tax on land banking by non-building companies that push up the value of land. We could apply heavier taxes on developers’ land banks that contain more than five years-worth of house building, based on their current build rate. Developers can make money selling on plots rather than building houses; we need to capture more of the uplift value of the land, so that house building becomes the better option. We could decide not to sell public land to developers. Land capture value should be captured for the benefit of the public, not for plugging funding gaps.

Local authorities face significant sanctions for not building homes in housing development targets; developers that do not build have none whatever on them. The only cost that they bear is the cost of interest on loans that they acquire to buy the land. In fact, it is not uncommon for developers to build out just short of their targets but not up to the trigger points. For instance, I recently heard a story of a developer from whom significant amounts of money were due when it reached the 300th house—money that was critical for the infrastructure for a large site. But the developer stopped at 299. None of the other developers building on that strategic site was prepared to go ahead without that infrastructure.

I cannot see, despite protestations from many people, any real action from Government. You, Ms Nokes, raised with me an interesting point about Romsey brewery. This is a long-running case in Test Valley. The last brew was on your 11th birthday on 26 June 1983. Every time it looks like development is about to make progress, it stalls. There are residents on a site that has been partially developed for years and years. There is a similar site in Guildford; it was demolished in, I think, the 1980s. It stands right in the town centre—minutes’ walk from the station—but nothing is being built on the site. In an area such as Guildford, where, as I said, 89% of the borough is green belt, it is criminal that people who need homes—socially rented homes, homes to rent, and homes to buy at prices that they can afford—see that site sitting empty.

If we want more homes, at the very least Government need to help local authorities to deliver the infrastructure and penalise the developers, or give them significant incentives to get on and build the houses that are needed. We need the Government to take action so that we get truly sustainable development—not just development anywhere, but development that allows rewilding of our countryside, for example, and enables building on brownfield land. I am thinking of sites such as the Romsey brewery and the Plaza site in Guildford.

Guildford will remain unbuilt on for years and years unless Government do something. I know that this Government have, and previous Governments had, the best intentions. What I would like to hear from the Minister and perhaps Alex Cunningham is some ideas about how we get things to happen in the foreseeable future, not five years down the line.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North 9:43 am, 30th October 2019

It is also an unexpected pleasure for me to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank Anne Milton for securing the debate. There is no doubt in my mind that the failure of developers to get on with the job and build the homes for which they have permission is a major factor contributing to our failure to meet the needs of people in this country.

The right hon. Lady talked about high demand for property in Guildford and real shortages. That is reflected across the country and even in the north of England, where land prices are of course less expensive. She made a comprehensive speech, and my speech will reflect much of what she said. There were interesting comments particularly on affordability. Of course, we have very different markets across the UK. I do not know what it costs to buy a three or four-bedroom house in Guildford, but if someone comes to Stockton-on-Tees, they can buy a brand-new four-bedroom house for under £200,000.

Photo of Anne Milton Anne Milton Independent, Guildford

In Guildford it varies slightly, but I think the average house price is about £580,000.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

There we have it—the absolute difference between different marketplaces. If someone wanted to buy a small, two-bedroom apartment in my constituency, they could buy one brand-new for under £90,000.