– in Westminster Hall at 11:29 am on 3rd March 2020.
Colleagues, before I call Mr O’Brien to move the motion, I note that there are a lot of speakers. If you intend to speak, I advise you to be parsimonious with interventions, because it is possible that some speakers will be crowded out.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered housing and planning.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. It is good to see so many colleagues here and I particularly welcome our brilliant new Housing Minister. I will talk about the wider reforms needed in planning and housing, but I want to start with not the where or what of what we build, but some of the problems caused by the way in which the development industry behaves.
The first problem is what has come to be known as fleeceholding. It has become the norm for bits of new estates, such as car parks and public areas, to be handed over to property management companies for their upkeep, with residents paying for it. Instead of being maintained by the council, the property management company steps in and offers to adopt those responsibilities more cheaply than the council would. Often, however, it makes a cheaper offer only because it is working on the assumption that it will be able to dramatically increase bills.
Several neighbourhoods in my constituency are up in arms about opaque and rapidly rising bills from these property management companies. For example, around Windlass Drive in my constituency, 120 households are charged £60 each to mow around a tiny balancing pond that is much smaller than this Chamber. Absurdly, while the council mows a much bigger area all around it, someone comes down all the way from Derby to mow that last tiny area. That fragmentation increases the costs to householders, and that cost is passed on to people in the form of higher bills. Likewise, residents of Coleridge Way were at one point asked to pay £300 a week for someone to drive over from Solihull to inspect a playground. Four households in Farndon Fields were asked to pay £2,400 for the maintenance of a tiny piece of car park, consisting of no more than 30 minutes’ work over five years. That is £2,400 for 30 minutes’ work—nice work if you can get it, Sir Charles.
These maintenance companies are opaque, and people who move out often have to pay them substantial fees to get the documentation they need. The Homeowners Rights Network and the National Leasehold Campaign have compiled many such horror stories. We could easily have a debate on fleeceholding alone. Having found that some companies have in fact broken the law, the Competition and Markets Authority is now taking action. I hope that the Minister will also take action against bad practice that falls below the threshold of criminal behaviour—the industry is full of cowboys—because my constituents are sick of wasting their time battling unfair bills.
The second problem with development is that of inappropriate access to sites. Residents who moved into new homes on Farndon Fields were told that there would be no development next to them for decades. That was not true. When a different developer got planning permission to build a new estate right next to them, it got an access route agreed that goes through their estate. It goes through tiny, narrow streets, past a playground and down a tiny cul-de-sac. There is mud all over the roads and huge lorries revving their engines outside people’s houses in the early hours of the morning. People on that estate face years of misery. We tried to get the developer to use a different, better access route through a field, but when pressed it said that the farmer was asking for too much money so it was not possible. In the end, the council did not want to be taken to tribunal, so it gave the developer that access route.
I have no idea how much the farmer was asking for, but if the Minister could find a way of creating a better way for councils and developers to secure temporary access routes that avoid disruption to huge numbers of households—it could be a temporary compulsory purchase order or some other solution that provides better access that is not obnoxious to residents—that would be very welcome.
Another big problem in my constituency this winter has, of course, been the flooding caused by inadequate drainage from building sites. Developers typically start work by scraping off the topsoil and only put in the drainage late in the construction process. This year, over winter, many have been caught short, as inadequate, temporary drainage has been overwhelmed by the amount of water. For example, on Kingston Way, developers caused huge flooding on the roads and flooding of people’s gardens. They have built a pathetic little muddy sandcastle to try to direct water down the drain. It is a pathetic reflection on an industry that constantly claims to have compassionate constructors. Again, some of that is for local councils to sort out, but if the Minister has an opportunity to change national guidance about the phasing of drainage works on new sites, that would be very welcome.
Another problem with construction practices is about how planning conditions are often violated, with it being difficult for councils to enforce them. Builders work beyond the hours they are permitted to work, lorries park in residential streets and firms fail to honour commitments on wheel washing, so residents end up tramping huge amounts of mud into their new carpets. At the moment, the onus is totally on the council to take developers to court, which is very cumbersome. I encourage the Minister to look at making it much easier for councils to enforce breaches of the rules through some kind of bond system or fixed penalty notice, because developers need to know that if they consistently breach the rules, they will face sure and swift sanctions, and it will cost them money if they break the rules.
The final set of issues with the industry’s behaviour relates to adoption. On Devana Way in my constituency, developers sold houses on new, tree-lined streets. It was beautiful, lovely, and people really liked the trees. However, the developer, after selling the houses to people, had a dispute with the council over adoption, which it solved simply by turning up one morning and ripping out all the trees. Wonderful! I do not see why any developer should be allowed to go ahead with constructing a new estate if it has not already secured agreement on who will maintain it. Developments should not go ahead without clear agreements on adoption and who will maintain what.
Those are some of the things we need to do to change developer behaviour in the industry. I now turn to the bigger picture. We need four or five big changes to the way in which we approach planning and housing policy. First, we need a clearer vision of where we want to build. I believe we must do more of it in our cities, because there are strong environmental and social arguments for that. It means more walking, better public health, less congestion, less pollution and lower energy use. As the Create Streets think-tank has pointed out, having denser cities does not have to mean ugly tower blocks. The densest neighbourhoods in all of Europe are in Barcelona and the densest in Britain are in Kensington, which are nice places to live. Britain currently has the least dense cities in Europe. We also have many cities that have shrunk, with Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Birkenhead, Hull and Newcastle all having smaller populations in 2017 than in 1981.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech on this important subject. I very much admire and agree with what he has previously said on urban regeneration. Does he agree that, at its best, urban regeneration provides not only more new supply, but better supply for existing tenants and leaseholders, and that it also helps us avoid disproportionate development in precious green spaces?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. That is why we must change the objectively assessed need process and choose to build more in our cities. We must support such developments and do all the other things required to support their levelling up.
Secondly, we need a clear vision of what kind of development we want, because while there will always be some developments in the shires and suburban areas, at the moment we mainly have piecemeal infill-type development tacked on to the edge of villages. Developers prefer that, because it is much more profitable as they do not have to pay for the new GP surgery, the new school, the new road and so on. Instead, those developments piggyback on existing facilities. Infill is the type of development that attracts the most opposition. That is not surprising, because it takes place next to existing residents who have chosen to live on the edge of a village or town to get a nice view.
There are physical limits to how much can be added to a place without it losing its character, because roads through the centre of a village become congested and cannot be widened, and the village school cannot be expanded even if the money is available, because it is completely surrounded by houses. In larger strategic developments, which lots of councils now want to move towards, developers do not build next to so many existing residents, the infrastructure can be planned properly and people do not have to live on arterial roads. Let us give councils the tools, the fiscal firepower and the legal ability to have genuinely planned development, not a free-for-all.
I congratulate the hon. Member on the debate. Does he agree that it would be good for the Government to look again at permission in principle, which means that councils have even less grip on strategic planning control and residents have absolutely no means of complaining, raising objections or having their concerns taken into account?
I certainly agree that it would be desirable to get rid of outline planning permission, which many developers use to get a foot in the door and then have councils over a barrel. However, if we are going to give councils the power to have a proper plan-led system, we need to ensure that we have a better system for development to pay its own way.
Part of the opposition to new housing comes from the fact that too often it comes without the necessary infrastructure. Without new schools or roads, the GP’s surgery and everything around the new housing becomes more congested and, of course, people object to that. People see developers making humungous profits while the infrastructure is either not provided at all or the cost is dumped on the taxpayer.
Section 106, the way in which councils currently get developer contributions, is totally dysfunctional. Councils cannot use it to fund recurrent expenditure or anything that meets an existing need in the community. It can only fund a new need that is tied to the new development. Contributions are tied to specific purposes, so if what the community wants changes in five years’ time, that is tough luck.
Given that collection is fragmented among lots of authorities—fire, police, health, county and district councils—developers sometimes get away without paying. They can hold off making payments by staying below certain trigger thresholds, and if they are able to hold off for long enough, the opportunity to build a new village hall, for example, is often lost. If a community has only rolled up enough contributions within a specific time period to pay for half a new school, for example, then it gets nothing and the money goes back to the developers. In 2014, the BBC found that councils had returned to developers £1.5 billion that had been intended for the community. When my constituents read that, they are outraged.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on making an excellent speech about these important issues. A number of housing developments that have been built in my constituency over the past few years do not have adequate broadband connections. Does he agree that investment in infrastructure should be extended to include connectivity? Developers and councils should work together to ensure that no new developments can be constructed until adequate broadband connections have been demonstrated.
My hon. Friend is right. Broadband is one of the benefits that people seek from new development. Mandates are one potential way to secure such benefits. The broader change that I would like to be made is the removal of all restrictions that depend on section 106 and for the system to be replaced with something that is more fit for purpose.
Beyond the need to create a better system for contributions, we need to give councils other tools to create better quality and more planned development. In my constituency, there is an old rubber factory that is two minutes’ walk from a mainline station, which is only an hour from London. It is the perfect site to build on, but despite the fact that the council gave planning permission in 2004, nothing has happened because there is nothing to disincentivise the owners from simply sitting on their hands. We need to learn from the USA and from other countries in Europe, and give councils the power to buy land, to grant themselves planning permission and to take more of a leading role in development. The current situation is a legal minefield, so I believe we should reform the Land Compensation Act 1961.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for making a fantastic speech. The planning system is so frustrating. Isle of Wight Council does not have a housing revenue account, so it does not have access to the billions of pounds of funding. On the Island we are desperate to build one and two-bedroom properties, rather than being deluged with endless planning applications for low density, greenfield houses for folks to retire to the Island. Does he agree that we need a more flexible system that caters for the needs of specific communities, especially isolated island communities?
My hon. Friend is completely correct. People want a proper plan-led system. Other countries achieve that by allowing local government to play a stronger role in determining where things go.
We must reform the 1961 Act to make it clear that buyers can pay current market use values for land rather inflated hope values. We should stop land prices being bid up in the first place, by stopping sites going through the plan-making process on the assumption that developers are going to get away without paying for infrastructure. We should turn Homes England into a flying squad to help councils plan and deliver brownfield regeneration. We must make sure that council planning departments are well enough resourced to retain good staff. It is a difficult industry where the poachers, as it were, can pay people a lot of money, and local councils often struggle to hang on to good staff.
My final proposed reform to the planning system is to reboot neighbourhood planning so that it can fulfil its potential. Many places in my constituency have drawn up neighbourhood plans, and people have given a lot of time to them. In some cases they have been a force for good and shaped the way in which, and where, things get built. In other cases, however, they have taken so long to draw up that developers have front-run them. Too many are lengthy and lack the one thing that would give them real bite, which is a map of where development does and does not go.
We should radically simplify and speed up the process of making neighbourhood plans. They should all have a clear map of where development does and does not go. Where councils are planning sensibly, we must give them more legal weight. As I argued in a report for the think-tank Onward, we should reward outstanding councils by making them exempt from any appeal to the planning inspector.
My hon. Friend is making a thoughtful speech. Does he agree that democratic accountability is fundamental to this process? Is he, like me, concerned about the rumours, which I hope are not true—I am looking at the Minister—that the Government are considering changing planning law so that developers will get automatic planning permission, regardless of the quality of their design, if they make an application in an area zoned for housing? Does he agree that democratically that would be completely unacceptable?
My right hon. Friend makes a thoughtful contribution. It depends what we mean by a plan-led system. It is right that councils should be clear about where development is going, but I worry about anything that would ride roughshod over the wishes of local people, so I agree with my right hon. Friend on that point.
There is much to fix in our planning and housing system. The current rules seem almost perfectly set up to cause a huge amount of grief and political friction, and to deliver a relatively small amount of housing, because they push development in the wrong places, without the necessary infrastructure. If we change the system, we can keep green and pleasant those places we value most, but also ensure that the average family can get a house they can afford. We are fortunate that we have exactly the right Minister to deliver that huge reform.
Order. I will impose a four-minute limit to start with, but it will probably drop to three minutes.
I thank Neil O'Brien for securing the debate and for raising a series of important issues about the planning system. I agree with him that the Land Compensation Act 1961 is in urgent need of reform. In fact, I introduced a Private Member’s Bill in the last Parliament to exactly that end.
We need to remove hope value from the planning system. Lest any Member is in doubt about why that is important, I give the example of a site in the middle part of Southwark—not in my constituency—that became vacant with an existing use value of £5 million, but was put on the market by the developer with an auction starting value of £25 million. That tells us about some of the gross injustices in our housing and planning system. The system recognises the right of a landowner to a windfall value of £20 million, over and above the right of residents in Southwark to genuinely affordable council homes on the same piece of land.
Reform is important, but cannot be limited to looking at hope value. That is important, but unless we also reform the definition of an affordable home, homes that are not affordable to the vast majority will continue to be built in this country. In my constituency, a definition of affordability recognises homes of up to 80% of market rental value as affordable. They are simply not affordable to the vast majority of my constituents.
As a fellow MP from London and the south-east, does my hon. Friend agree that the current policy has a disproportionate impact on local communities? There are severe shortages of professionals in key parts of the public sector and for some private sector employers. We have a huge shortage of NHS staff in Berkshire, as she probably knows. There is also a shortage of people for key commercial businesses.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. That is certainly true of some key public services, such as King’s College Hospital in my constituency, where staff are moving further and further away from the hospital because they cannot afford to live close to it. It is a widespread issue.
Recently the Government have come forward with mooted proposals to increase the cap on the Help to Buy scheme to £600,000 within its affordable housing programme. It beggars belief that the Government think that that will do anything to address genuine housing need in this country.
I want to highlight one further aspect of the planning system that needs urgent attention: permitted development rights. In the last Parliament, the Government expanded permitted development rights. They did so against all advice from the sector, resulting in examples of the most appalling accommodation being delivered across the country, with office accommodation being converted into homes without full planning permission.
There are a number of things wrong with this system. The first is that in bypassing the planning system, a number of the checks on quality of design and space standards are being bypassed altogether. Section 106 opportunities are also being lost, so those homes are not contributing anything to public or open space or to facilities in in the surrounding area.
Those homes being delivered under permitted development rights that are good enough and of a standard would not have had a problem getting through the planning system, so I fail to understand why the Government are continuing to cut the planning system out of this important aspect of housing delivery. We cannot be delivering the slums of tomorrow in order to satisfy spreadsheets today. It simply will not do. It has to stop. I hope the Minister, in responding to the debate, will say some positive things about the need to scrap permitted development rights, rather than expanding them further.
Finally, our planning system has a vital role to play in combating climate change. The relationship between the built environment and climate change is substantial, and unless we fully resource our planning system and enable local authorities to play the fullest possible role in place-making and in driving up standards of insulation and carbon reduction in new development and in new housing, we will not achieve the level of carbon reduction that we need to in order to resolve the climate emergency, and we will still be building homes today that will need to be retrofitted tomorrow. I end with that point, calling on the Government to resource our planning system properly and to recognise the role that it has in facilitating and delivering the high-quality homes we need to build, at scale, in order to resolve both our housing crisis and the climate emergency.
I commend my hon. Friend Neil O'Brien for securing this debate and for its importance, since no one in this Chamber or elsewhere would deny the need to ensure that we get the right kind of housing for the people who need it most.
While we look at how we get access to affordable housing, I will talk a little bit about how I believe local authorities are as much part of the problem as they are of the solution. I wonder whether the Minister could have a look at the charges that local authorities, including Cornwall Council, are applying to small businesses—small builders and small developers who are trying to solve the problem of ensuring that people have the housing they need.
There are high and, in my view, largely unnecessary charges demanded of small builders as a result of Cornwall Council’s policies. I am sure the same is true elsewhere. For example, just to get and complete the form on the Government website regarding section 106, Cornwall Council charges a legal fee of in excess of £1,200. It also demands that over £300 is spent on getting a market valuation to genuinely confirm that a property is affordable.
The community infrastructure levy, introduced by Labour in 2010 but not taken up by Cornwall Council until last year, can add hundreds of pounds per square metre to every house built, just adding to the cost of the affordable home to the person who is trying to get hold of it. The Minister has powers to scrap the community infrastructure levy, and the irony is that Cornwall Council has not yet fully determined how it will spend that money.
That is all in addition to the normal fees that a developer has to secure. Let us bear in mind that in places such as Cornwall, these are often very small builders, who are trying to train good people in the trade and make housing happen. These are additional fees to the fees demanded for planning approval.
Another thing that Cornwall Council has done recently, which on the face of it looks fantastic, is to increase the amount of money that can be charged for a property’s remaining empty—again, because the Government have allowed it. It is absolutely the right thing to do, but when someone comes along to purchase a property to bring it back into use, there is no exception made whatsoever, and they continue to pay that fee, additional to council tax, right until the house is lived in.
I have met the council and asked for that to be reviewed. The council says there are no exceptions, but the Minister may want to look at how councils are using the additional charge, which slows down the ability to bring homes back into use and improve their efficiency. It is right that the council apply the charge, but there must be some flexibility when people are trying to do something right by it.
Finally, the Minister may be aware that his Department has recently received guidance from No. 10 about how to ensure that affordable homes can be made available so that people can gain access to them. I have been working with an organisation called Rentplus; the rent-to-buy model is simple and provides homes, often on stalled sites, which my hon. Friend described earlier. The properties are built using pension funds, which we all know are not earning huge amounts of money for those investing in them.
The properties thus come at no cost to the taxpayer or to Homes England, but they provide houses for working families. Those working families get an affordable rent for as long as they need the home, and then they have the opportunity to buy it at a later point. It is called rent to buy and it is a really good model, but Cornwall Council refuses to allow it to be delivered in Cornwall. The group I am working with, Rentplus, has probably £200 million that it would like to spend in Cornwall. It identifies 800 homes that would have been built if it had been able to do so. Will the Minister look at the guidance that No. 10 has provided, to give Cornwall Council and others encouragement to use models such as rent to buy?
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Harborough, who made an excellent speech, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate.
Like everybody else, I feel there is a whole range of issues that we could address when it comes to housing and planning, so I will be specific and talk about planning and regulation relating to those homes that are not typically lived in. In my constituency, roughly a minimum of 7,000 properties are not lived in. They are second homes, boltholes owned by people who can afford more than one home. It is not their principal home. That is not even beginning to count the number of holiday lets, which are an important part of the tourism economy in the lakes and the western dales.
We also have a more recent development with the rise of Airbnb. I want to be very clear that Airbnb, like all technology, is neutral; it is what we do with it that gives it moral value for or against. I can think of many advantages of affordable holidays for people, and I can think of advantages for people who have holiday lets on the platform. It is also a way of making good use of space.
There is a lot that is good about Airbnb, but there are some problems as well. Research conducted for The Guardian just a few weeks ago showed that one in five houses in the Langdales, in Ambleside and in part of Windermere were on Airbnb. Many of those will be in estates that would not typically house second homes or even holiday lets, so it is clear that there is a movement out of the full-time, affordable family market into homes that are being used simply for rental. That is deeply troubling, and I would like the Government to look at it.
I would also like the Government to understand that although in a free society people should be allowed to use their money however they wish, the excess of second homes in communities such as mine can become deeply problematic. When we think that probably 80% to 90% of homes in certain Lake District villages are not lived in all year round, it is no surprise that beautiful places such as Dent and Langdale—wonderful communities at opposite ends of my constituency, one in the lakes, one in the Yorkshire dales—have school rolls of less than 30. Why? Because the majority of the homes that could send children to those schools are owned by people who do not occupy them or add much in the way of economic value to the community.
So what would I like the Government to do? I would like them to tackle this matter, as they have been promising for many months now. I ask the Minister in particular to address this. The Government have had a consultation, which closed in January 2019. They have still to act upon it and say whether or not they are going to close the loophole, as the Welsh Assembly have done, that allows some second home owners to game the system and avoid not only paying business rates, but paying council tax altogether. A conservative estimate in my constituency is that second home owners using that loophole are costing local council tax payers in the south lakes at least £3 million a year.
Will the Minister close that loophole, as the Welsh Assembly have? Will he also look at changing planning law, so that having a second home is actually a separate category of planning use from having a first home, so we can regulate the amount of second home ownership in places such as the lakes and the dales? Will he allow councils to look at raising council tax in certain areas, to create a disincentive and allow a redistribution of income in national parks in particular?
Finally, will the Minister look at the Airbnb market, recognising its value and the contribution it makes, but also recognising that a lack of regulation, health and safety applications, insurance and other things may make it an unfair competitor, added to the fact that Airbnb seems to be taking away houses from the affordable market for local families in the lakes? Those issues are a challenge that a Government ought to be addressing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. In the time I have, I will address some broader aspects of housing policy.
The manifesto on which my party fought and won the 1951 general election stated:
“Housing is the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity. Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by overcrowded homes. Therefore a Conservative and Unionist Government will give housing a priority second only to national defence.”
Those are sentiments I completely agree with. I wonder why politicians realised that then, whereas many seem to have forgotten it today. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on his promotion, but the fact that he is the 10th Housing Minister in the past 10 years perhaps offers an interesting perspective on the order of national priorities.
Centre for Policy Studies’ analysis shows that the 2010s saw the fewest new houses built in England since the second world war, but the same could have been said for the 2000s, the 1990s and probably every decade before that for the past half century. The inability of Governments of both political persuasions in the past few decades to address the housing challenge—indeed, crisis—means that the simple laws of supply and demand push house prices even higher. The House of Commons Library suggests that the national average house price hovers around the £250,000 mark.
In a new development in my constituency, the new town of Charlton Hayes, a new three-bedroom end-terrace house now fetches more than £330,000, while a four-bedroom family home costs more than £400,000. This is simply unsustainable. My constituency is by many measures prosperous; unemployment is under 1.5% and weekly earnings substantially outstrip both the regional and national average. However, in terms of affordability, that house in Charlton Hayes costing a third of a million pounds is 10 times the average annual wage for the area.
What I call the housing crisis relates not only to the private sector but to the overall lack of housing generally, including council housing and social housing; there is a chronic shortage of homes for our people. We must consider the crucial value of social housing, which provides homes for families and for key workers, many on low incomes, who are needed if our communities are to flourish.
It is time that many of us in this House started taking responsibility for the situation that has evolved. Too many hon. Members have allowed themselves to be turned into nimbys. Even in the Minister’s Department, the Minister for Local Government and Homelessness, my hon. Friend Luke Hall, my constituency neighbour, does not seem to believe in building homes and has made a virtue of opposing all local development in his constituency. How many hon. Members have churned out election leaflet after election leaflet advocating the need for local homes that local people can afford and then opposed just about every single planning application that has come forward in order to court the support of those fortunate enough to already be on the property ladder?
In the post-war era, Britain faced a similar housing crisis, and a Conservative Government solved it. Macmillan oversaw a housebuilding programme that built 2.8 million homes in the 1950s and 3.6 million in the 1960s. That is the scale on which we have to act today. As the working-class son of immigrants, one of the many reasons I became a Conservative was because of the aspiration that our party promoted and believed in. Our party also understood the pride people took in home ownership and the benefits thereof. John Major, in his first speech to our party conference as Prime Minister in 1991, called it
“the power to choose the right to own.”
What are we offering some of our young people today? Some £50,000 of student debt and a room in a shared house if they are lucky.
I have witnessed colleagues rejoice as local housing supply plans for my local council area were consigned to the bin. We were told that the council would now have to come up with a new plan. Do they realise the time that will take and the cost of making those huge applications, and that, within the often several-year timespans involved, political control of the council may have changed, and the whole process may have to start all over again?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I will talk about Mostyn House in Parkgate, which was originally a boarding school and is now a listed building. Once the school closed, the site was certainly attractive to developers.
Revised plans to build apartments into the fabric of the old school were submitted halfway through its redevelopment. Despite the many efforts of under-resourced local authority enforcement officers, the developer, PJ Livesey, continually drags its feet, with the result that there is a list of outstanding works as long as your arm. Planning permission was only finally achieved some five years after residents first moved in. Developers have similarly patchy records elsewhere in the country, but because the system lacks the capacity to challenge these people, they continue to get away with it.
I have long spoken about the industrial scale mis-selling that arose as part of the leasehold scandal, and we finally saw official recognition of that last week from the Competition and Markets Authority. The situation at Mostyn House is slightly different but has many similarities. Little specific legal information was provided at the initial stage, particularly regarding planning and the leasehold position, and little documentation was produced in respect of service charges. What was provided was misleading and inaccurate on ongoing costs. There were also financial incentives to use panel solicitors and pressure to exchange contracts within a tight timescale.
Many people buying these apartments were experienced professionals whose concerns about those issues were assuaged at the time by the developer’s sales staff, who confidently stated that the purchase was covered by a Premier Guarantee warranty, which gave the buyers a 10-year guarantee similar to the National House Building Council’s. That sounds good, does it not—a Premier Guarantee warranty? It sounds pretty solid, and something to give certainty. Being compared to the NHBC’s guarantee gives it an air of respectability.
However, buyers might find that they have more rights if something goes wrong with their kettle. It is at best a dispute resolution service, not a guarantee, and is seriously compromised by virtue of being funded by the developers against whom it is meant to enforce the guarantee. Premier not only provides the warranty on the build of Mostyn House but also acts as the approved inspector in respect of building regulations. Premier is effectively employed as the building control and building regulation compliance body to inspect, approve and guarantee works undertaken by the developer that it is supposed to be insuring against.
After four years of back and forth, Premier’s surveyor recently viewed the development and agreed with the defects raised by residents. However, Premier is not prepared to progress the claims, even though water is pouring into apartments right now from the defective roofs, gutters and walls. Premier said:
“The remit of our service is to attempt to bring the two parties together, investigate the dispute and make recommendations…That being said, the conciliation service will not be suitable for all disputes.”
That is not a guarantee or warranty; it is a cop-out.
It is clear that some works by the developer were non-compliant, as additional fire separation works and modifications have had to be undertaken since occupation took place. How did Premier sign off those works in the first place? It is plainly evident that there has been a general lack of supervision of the development during its construction and a lack of inspections by the approved inspector. If it finds too many faults, it will have to pay out under its own insurance policy, funded by the developer. It is therefore easy to see how the temptation to be less than thorough could arise.
My constituents have been let down. The ombudsman has proven toothless and the Solicitors Regulation Authority ineffective. Indeed, anyone who cares to look at Trustpilot ratings for the ombudsman, the SRA and Premier will see that there is very little customer satisfaction anywhere in the country. There is a wholesale failure of regulation across the board on many issues, including in this case and others we have heard about. It is time that the Minister and the Government listened and sorted out this shambles once and for all.
We will have to drop the time limit on speeches to three minutes.
I have been involved in planning for most of my working life. I wrote “Open Source Planning”, which helped to guide the reforms of 2010 and 2011; I helped to draft the national planning policy framework; I sat on the local expert planning group, which sought to simplify planning; and most recently I have been the Government champion for neighbourhood planning.
My conclusion from all of that is that the plan-led system we now have is so complex, with so many layers and so many tweaks, that it is no longer fit for purpose, particularly in relation to the delivery of housing. The plan-led system is
“less effective than at any time in the post-war era”.
Those are not my words but the words of Nick Raynsford, whose report on this I found very interesting.
Affordable housing is falling by the wayside. Its quality is highly dubious, and there is a loss of public trust in planning as the most fundamental aspect of this approach. A fundamental reform is required, and I am happy to remove the party political influence of councillors from individual applications, because I am keen to ensure that neighbourhood plans play a much greater role in keeping the involvement of local people in the planning system.
However, there is one more important reform that we should bring in: the use of mediation in the planning system, instead of a costly appeals mechanism. In 2008, the Killian Pretty review said that an alternative dispute resolution—meaning mediation—should be used as a speedy alternative to appeals. The essence of mediation, of course, is that the mediator decides nothing. The process is facilitative and allows the parties to the case to formulate their own solutions under guidance. It can be used for highways, compulsory purchase, sorting out claims however they arrive, and sorting out the thorny issues of section 106 agreements. There is a role for mediation at the beginning of the process in generating the scope of a project and ensuring that local views or needs are included.
Why should mediation even be considered? First, it has been an outstanding success in other areas, including the construction industry, where it is used effectively, but also in other areas of life. The essence of that should be used in the planning system to speed up reform.
I congratulate Neil O’Brien on securing this debate. I have two specific and brief questions for the Minister. The first concerns the first homes scheme. The Government’s consultation document on the scheme, released last month, includes an extraordinary sentence. It states:
“We are mindful of the trade-off between the level of ambition for First Homes, funded through developer contributions, and the supply of other affordable housing tenures.”
Yet, astonishingly, the consultation mandates that section 106 must be used to deliver first homes, rather than asking whether that is appropriate in the first place. We should not use section 106 contributions for this, especially at the late stage when many local plans have just been concluded or are in contention, and without any ameliorative action to preserve local councils’ abilities to facilitate council and other social housing.
I note that my own local authority has already been prevented by the Government’s planning inspectorate from requiring developer contributions to social homes from smaller sites. There are already problems, which will be massively exacerbated if the first homes scheme is ruled out in such a way. Will the Minister commit to conduct a proper impact assessment on the impact of the first homes proposal on the provision of new social homes? Secondly, on the Oxford-Cambridge arc, some contest the need to have any additional housing along the arc. I am not one of them, and I very much concurred with some of the words spoken by Jack Lopresti when it comes to the need for additional housing and looking at the issue in a manner that is not hypocritical.
As for the arc, I am astonished that the Government have not provided even a signal or an expectation on two critical issues: first, the proportion of new homes, which should be available for social rent and genuinely affordable; and secondly, the energy efficiency and broader environmental performance of those new homes. It is not good enough to suggest that local authorities will deal with all the issues. The Oxford-Cambridge arc is a central Government programme, staffed with dozens of central Government civil servants, and central Government have the power, should they wish to use it, to ensure that the new homes are genuinely affordable, that they include many social homes, and that they are sustainable.
Finally, will the Minister please commit to determining two targets or standards, or even just expectations, for the arc for the percentage of new homes that should be affordable, including social homes, and for the expected environmental performance of the homes?
We all know the drawbacks of the planning system. In areas such as mine, which comes under the jurisdiction of Calderdale Council, we have a local authority that is not only risk-averse when it comes to enforcement, but is driven by the multitude of Government targets around house building to the detriment of everything else. Today I want to highlight the issues around local plans. Calderdale still has not had that signed off and is in the midst of yet another consultation via the planning inspectorate. I want to make it clear that I do not have an issue with the numbers of houses. Whether it is one or 50,000 extra homes, the reality is that we need to build homes. The problem is our infrastructure, and without a robust infrastructure plan to sit alongside a local plan, the local plan is undeliverable.
We all know the issues across our constituencies with failing and stretched infrastructure. On roads, as well as the many pinch points across Calder Valley, we see a single road in and out of the Upper Calder Valley. Whether it is the single lane that we have had to endure for three years while flood defences are built, or whether it is roadworks, not to mention accidents, we have to sit in our cars often for more than an hour just to travel a few miles. On the numerous days throughout the year when the M62 is closed, it does not matter where one lives in the Calder Valley, the roads are like car parks, and that is just the roads.
Our clinical commissioning group has recently announced that five GP surgeries will close because of an inability to recruit GPs to the area. School places are also an issue, particularly in the Lower Calder Valley, where our excellent schools are all over-subscribed. The local authority will say that it has infrastructure improvements within the plan, but its plans do not even touch the sides of the already stretched infrastructure, let alone if a further 15,000 homes are added over the next 15 years.
The final issue that I want to touch on around infrastructure is flooding. The Calder Valley and other parts of Calderdale have just experienced their third 100-year flood in just over seven and a half years. We had 1,187 properties flooded this time. Many of the 650 homes experienced their third flood. Small micro-businesses were flooded, too. There is not one piece of feasibility on flooding on the many dozens of sites in our local plan, and many—in my estimate about 40% of the land parcels—are already flood plains for when it rains. One particular site in Brighouse, earmarked for 200 houses, was six feet under water. Another in Greetland, with 600 homes, was like a waterfall. Finally, I have no confidence in our local authority to amend things at the planning stage.
I have two asks of our fabulous Housing Minister. First, why is there such a bypass of infrastructure requirements within local plans, and why are we allowing that to happen? Secondly, I have much evidence of our local authority ignoring infrastructure requirements for housing plans on flood plains. Now is surely the time to say, “No more building on flood plains or in areas where there is a high flood risk.”
It used to be said that an Englishman’s home is his castle, but our suburbs are now changing. We have mixed communities. The targets that local authorities are under and the deregulation of planning means that castles in the air are springing up round our way, literally changing the physical form. It might have been called high-rise hell in a different age. London’s highest building is not in the square mile. It has just been approved by the Ealing planning committee and will be 55 storeys in North Acton. Because our capital is girdled by green belt, literally the only way is up. The sky is the limit. Tall buildings raise a range of questions on space standards and air quality. Post-Grenfell we have all heard horror stories of cladding and fire safety. Of the 551 buildings approved last year in London, 450 were residential, with 24 in Ealing, but that is dwarfed by 64 in Greenwich. Groups such as Stop the Towers argue that the new buildings are changing the low-rise, low-density nature of suburban Ealing, and the new developments all seem to come with youth-oriented marketing. One wonders how many more vibrant quarters Ealing can take, particularly as we have an ageing population everywhere. Demographically we know that very soon a majority of the population will be over 60, and people in social housing who come to my surgery want rehousing to the ground floor because of mobility issues. People in their suburban semis, their huge piles, want to sit on those because the new developments are too small to have the grandchildren round.
At the other end of the age scale, in North Acton there is a thing called the Collective, which involves co-living. The Telegraph describes it as the future of renting. There are huge communal spaces, brunches, daily speakers and live music, but tiny accommodation designed for celibacy. [Laughter.] It is not cheap. One has to be in work and able to afford £1,000 a month. So what is my solution? I urge the Minister to take seriously my proposal to have a suburban taskforce. We have crumbling infrastructure and older housing stock alongside hideous towers. He could take a multi-dimensional approach. His predecessor was very warm towards this, but, alas, he has been shuffled off the ministerial coil. May I have a meeting with the Minister? A whole bunch of us, including Conservative Members, want to take this forward to save our suburbs.
It is an honour to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil O'Brien on securing this important debate. He gave a powerful speech on one of the most pressing issues that the Government face. I also welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister to his new role.
I want to concentrate on one important issue that has become all too poignant for many of my constituents, as well as for other people around the country, in recent weeks. That issue is flooding, whose impact in my area has been overwhelming. Although it has not been as great as in the constituency of my hon. Friend Craig Whittaker, we have still had our problems. When there is flooding in my constituency it is not necessarily because not enough money is being spent on sea or river defences, or dredging, important as they are. It is a question of new homes being built directly on flood plains when the existing homes in that area are already prone to flooding. I am talking about flooding that happens as a direct result of already overburdened local drainage systems and waterways getting worse, and as a consequence of a lack of the infrastructure that should be put in place prior to housing development. Conditions become worse for residents of existing and new properties.
It is not so much, today, that existing communities disagree with local authorities about whether infrastructure should come before, during or after the building of new homes; it is more that they feel dismayed at the rejection of the need to build it at all. Local authorities act as if they are oblivious to the obvious need for infrastructure, and we need to address that. It is as though we have become fixated on house building targets, regardless of the consequences, and that is having a damaging effect on many communities. The quality of life that a house gives is as important as the numbers that are built, for that is what turns a house into a home.
To take my constituency as an example, Bankfield Lane is prone to flooding. It is not close to the sea or a river, or at the bottom of a hill. It is prone to flooding because the drainage system is used by more than 500 homes and is already stretched. It cannot cope any more. After a storm, rainwater simply cannot flow away fast enough, so when it rains it floods. Storm Ciara left, at the end of the weekend, anguish and devastation and thousands of pounds of damage. Improvements have to be carried out. The utility company United Utilities says that the matter needs to be addressed, but it is in disagreement with the council about who should pay. While that stand-off continues, my constituents’ lives are being affected.
We must provide incentives and flexibility for councils, which are rightly concerned about the necessity of meeting housing targets, to reject applications if there is insufficient infrastructure. We must protect individuals whose homes are already subject to flooding. We do not want to make things worse for those who are about to get new homes to live in. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tackle the challenge head on.
Problems need solutions—and here is one. Within London’s green belt alone there are enough non-green sites surrounding train stations for more than 1 million new homes. Of course, truly green sites should be protected. My frustration is not with parks, hills or areas of environmental protection, but with the scrappy plots of land in towns and cities, surrounding railway stations, that no one in their right mind would see as attractive. I am talking about the car wash in Tottenham Hale, the scrubland in Ealing, the waste plant in Hillingdon and the concrete airfield in Wisley—sites that no one in their right mind would recognise as green belt if it were not for their designation.
Despite the strength of the green-belt brand, 80% of London’s green belt is inaccessible to the public as green space and does not even have an environmental status. Together, those scrappy plots of what I refer to as the grey belt remain wrongly designated, just because of the potential furore that de-designation might cause. It is time to burst the myth that all green belt is green, and use those non-green sites to provide the homes that we so desperately need. I read with interest this weekend the comments of the former Chancellor, Sajid Javid, about his plan for the upcoming Budget, and his belief that the green belt around major train stations should be reviewed. I wait with cautious optimism to see whether that will happen under the new Chancellor.
Of course, de-designation is one thing, but what the land is used for is another. If any green-belt land is released, it should be fundamental that it be used to help to resolve the housing crisis, providing the social and genuinely affordable homes for which our country is so desperate. To offer it instead as a land bank bonus for the biggest house builders would seem inexcusable to the thousands of my constituents waiting for a place to call home. I ask the Minister please to grasp the nettle of the sensible policy I have outlined—but to use the land for the people who need it most. Otherwise we will be back in this Chamber debating even worse statistics in the months and years ahead.
I am a Greater Manchester MP, so the proposed strategic housing plan for my area for the next 20 years is the Greater Manchester spatial framework. The planning system has created a scenario predicated on the building of three, four and five-bedroom houses on the green belt. That cannot be right. There is no requirement within the Greater Manchester spatial framework to provide affordable housing—certainly not truly affordable housing. The present definition of affordable housing means that most of the people in my constituency cannot afford an affordable house. We need to amend that and prioritise development. We need to incentivise development on brownfield sites within boroughs, and within plans.
We must look at how the population projections in particular are calculated. The GMSF is built on population projections from 2014 figures from the Office for National Statistics. If the housing numbers were based on the most recent figures, which are the 2018 figures, that would mean that in a seat such as mine, and in the Metropolitan Borough of Bury, no green belt would have to be built on. The planning system must be fair. It must produce plans based on the most accurate and recent information. I urge the Minister to consider insisting that local authorities use the most recent figures rather than 2014 figures, and prioritise truly affordable housing. We cannot have a situation where developers get to take the easy way out, building houses at £400,000 and £500,000, which cater to only a small number of people in my constituency.
My last point echoes what some of my hon. Friends have said. Within the Greater Manchester spatial framework, new schools, roads and doctors’ surgeries are required. At the moment they are merely words on a piece of paper. There is no requirement within the document. Planning officers tell me that they will be built. There is no guarantee that they will be built, but I believe there is an absolute guarantee that the green belt will be built over by three, four and five-bedroom houses. We must find a way to get cast-iron guarantees, before planning permission is granted, that infrastructure will be put in place to support the thousands of extra houses that are proposed—certainly in my area.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil O'Brien on securing this timely and important debate. The standard of the contributions shows how important it is.
It is a truism to say that planning is a challenge and difficult. We have heard in the past hour or so of different experiences from around the country. My constituency is no different. We have a unique set of circumstances. The previous council administration was kicked out last May, having created problems that built up over a nearly 15-year period—without a plan, with too much speculative development, and with a failure to put infrastructure in place—and a new administration is trying to clear up the mess. The challenge is the relatively blunt instruments inherent to the planning system. In the two minutes I have left, I want to point out to the new Minister—whom I welcome to his position—three such blunt instruments. I hope that he will consider their implications on a larger scale.
The first is the overall framework. The challenge with some of the numbers going through the system, which are having an impact on districts such as mine, is that we are trying to use a national planning policy framework that is supposed to solve problems as disparate as those of Westmorland and Lonsdale, Ealing Central and Acton and North East Derbyshire. That means it does not work well. I should like some form of regional assessment within the NPPF so that we do not need, in the east midlands, to put 6,500 houses in a part of the world where real-terms house prices—the best proxy for demand—have not risen since 2008.
Secondly, I share some of my colleagues’ concerns about neighbourhood plans. When my area’s previous district council administration failed to discharge its responsibilities adequately, parish councils stepped up and tried to fill the gap by passing neighbourhood plans. That gave the unique opportunity of having them signed off by referendums in local communities. Yet, as a result, limited protections are offered. I hope that that can be considered in the future.
Finally, as to the adoption process, which is under way with the new administration in my district, there is a unique issue on which I hope we can somehow get a little more flexibility and pragmatism into the system as a whole. In our part of the world, too much speculative development over the past decade and a half means that we will significantly exceed our own, in my view overinflated, target, which was set by the previous council administration. Yet the inspector is showing only limited pragmatism, at the end of our local plan process, in terms of removing green belt, which still needs to be done to give confidence in the overall local plan process. I hope my remarks have been helpful for the Minister.
I thank my hon. Friend Neil O'Brien for initiating this important debate. We have heard from hon. Members of all political colours, representing areas rich in diversity, about the multiple problems with our housing market and planning. We have also heard many proposed solutions. That in itself is a real warning sign.
We should accept that the housing market is like an ecosystem or biosphere of interconnected dependencies and feedback mechanisms. When we put an intervention in one side, it goes into a black box that policy makers must deal with, and something unexpected pops out the other side. This is fiendishly complicated, but we must get it right. The price of failure is obvious: more unaffordable houses and continuing not to meet our supply targets. The prizes for getting it right are multiple and go across many policy areas—from solving homelessness, to local economic productivity and our sense of place. Building houses in the right place can contribute to food sustainability for our country.
My hon. Friend James Daly made the point well that we are building the wrong kinds of houses in the wrong places. It is as simple as that. If we focused on building more two-bedroom houses and bungalows, we would free up capacity for people who are, frankly, over-occupying larger houses, and that would help the whole system. That, however, relies on liquidity in the market, where stamp duty is a real issue, because it acts as a break on social mobility as well as on liquidity.
I was struck by the comments by Dr Huq. We are blessed with a modern problem: people are living longer, happier, wealthier and more independent lives. That is wonderful. In so doing, however, they are staying in their homes for longer. We must sort out supply and liquidity, and we need homes that are more sustainable, affordable, appropriate to their area and proportionate to the areas they surround.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Charles, if not that of the Procedure Committee. I congratulate Neil O'Brien on securing this debate. I agreed with you beforehand, Sir Charles, that I would keep my remarks short to allow other hon. Members to speak, given that this issue is largely devolved. It has certainly been an interesting debate.
I want to reflect on the planning and housing situation in Scotland. There has been a lot of discussion today about affordable housing, but it is us in Scotland who are trying as hard as possible to deliver 50,000 affordable homes, 35,000 of which will be for social rent, by 2021. We are certainly on track to do that. In my own constituency, Cranhill has an over-55s development, which is important given that people are living longer. Likewise, properties on Cunningham House on Shettletson Road are being built to Passivhaus standard, which is good for energy efficiency measures.
Does the hon. Member agree that we have a duty to do our best to push for more affordable green homes, and that grants and incentives to cover the costs of renewable and low-carbon innovations must go in hand with greener obligations? In other words, we must meet our obligations for climate change.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group for healthy homes and buildings. Investing in greener homes is costly. Investing in the Passivhaus standard homes in Shettleston has cost Shettleston Housing Association quite a lot of money, but my constituents tell me that their energy bills are a lot lower.
I have concerns about the planning process. I often think of the Broomhouse estate in my constituency, which was supposed to start off as countryside living in the city, but it is now one of my largest polling districts. There is no school, GP practice or shop, and the local train station, in Baillieston, is now overrun by cars.
We often find that planning authorities—this is not confined to England—are more than happy to sign off on building lots of homes, not least because they provide lots of council tax revenue. It seems that little thought has been given to where the children living in those four or five-bedroom homes will go to school. We have seen the pressures put on, for example, Caledonia Primary School in Baillieston.
We have had a fantastic and wide-ranging debate. I have learned more about section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 than I knew this morning. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Harborough, who began by talking about the idea of fleeceholding. Some streets in my constituency have still not been adopted after 60 years. I used to think that was bad, but perhaps, given the situation he highlighted, it is a case of better the devil you know.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate Neil O'Brien on securing this debate. His speech was comprehensive and full of good ideas, some he may have read in our policies. I have no doubt the Minister, however excellent or fabulous he is, will have benefitted greatly from listening. I would go as far as to suggest that the hon. Member seeks membership of the upcoming Bill Committee where there will be lots of scope to legislate on the matters that he has raised today. The same could be said for other hon. Members who have contributed.
My hon. Friend Helen Hayes spoke of land reform—that £5 million piece of land eventually being auctioned from £25 million; I don’t know what the final figure was. What an illustration of our failing system and our struggle to get the affordable homes we need. She linked housing and climate change, as well.
Jack Lopresti also recognised the crisis in housing and spoke of MPs being nimbys, opposing housing development in their constituencies—something for us all to think about. My hon. Friend Matt Rodda spoke of the shortage of professionals to manage planning. I know there is a crisis in that across the country. My hon. Friend Justin Madders spoke of the leasehold scandal, with homebuyers misled and landed with huge ongoing bills. He said people have more rights if their kettle goes wrong.
My hon. Friend Anneliese Dodds spoke about her concerns about the first homes scheme. I have heard her speak several times about how new developers are being let off the hook on providing new affordable and social homes. My hon. Friend Dr Huq talked about high-rises—they are 55 storeys high in her constituency, and there are more tower blocks across the piece. We need houses for our ageing population on the ground floor. My hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh spoke about greenfield sites that are not very green, the million homes that could be built around railway stations and the wrong status for so-called green-belt land in her area.
Labour’s plans for housing at the general election were bold and ambitious, but they were necessary. We said on day one that we would start the changes within Government to set up a department for housing, which I hope will happen soon. That would bring together the powers to plan and build new homes and regenerate existing housing across the country.
Despite the election result, Labour was right on housing and we will continue to make our case. We said that within the first year, we would take action to take profiteering out of the land market, which has a severe impact on planning and housing. We said we would revise planning rules and guidance to support the delivery of more genuinely affordable homes through the planning system and we said we would publish plans to make the country’s homes greener and warmer with a new zero-carbon homes standard and retrofit programme.
Our ambition was bold, and we encourage the Government to look at our manifesto closely and recognise the good ideas—some of which we share with Conservative Members, judging from some of the speeches we have heard this afternoon—for what they are. More importantly, we know that we must act. It is easy to talk about house building without recognising the obstacles in the way of doing so. Housing and planning go hand in hand. In order to plan, we must have the resources to do it, such as land. The broken land market is at the heart of our housing crisis. Land ownership, as we have heard, is often opaque, with little transparency on who owns what.
Public land has been sold off for a short-term profit as funding from central Government has dried up. As we have also heard, current planning rules and legislation give windfall gains to landowners and traders at the expense of local communities. We must do better, and work together to look at how we can ensure that our housing and planning system is genuinely fit for purpose.
I was interested to read the article written by the hon. Member for Harborough on what needs to happen to resolve the housing crisis. It was refreshing that he accepted in his article that after 10 years of his Government, we still have a housing crisis. I was pleased to see him outline that there are genuine problems and barriers with regard to housing, and he made a clear case for how these matters can be addressed.
I have spoken before about my 27-year-old researcher, who earns a good salary and has a second income from being a local councillor, but still cannot afford to buy a house in the area where she lives, far out in London’s zone 6. She has been saving for many years and will save for many more to get a deposit, but then she will be ruled out due to her income not being high enough to get a mortgage. Her generation and the generations to come are doomed to fail unless we remove those barriers and make home ownership a reality rather than a dream. But for that to happen, we need to build more homes—not just homes but genuinely affordable homes that people with a range of incomes can afford. However, if local councils and housing associations cannot afford the land on which to build those affordable homes, they will be halted before they can even get going.
Large spaces of land are too expensive for councils and housing associations, so instead—as the hon. Gentleman outlined it in quite some detail—smaller developments are often the only option. That means we are not hitting the capacity that we need to. It is all well and good for private developers to buy land and build housing, yet more often than not such property is tiny flats in prime central London locations that ordinary people cannot afford to live in. The flats around Battersea power station area are an example—they probably call them “apartments” around there, mind. That area is a prime location, but the properties are bought up by people who can afford to buy them yet do not live in them. If anyone goes past those properties in the evening, they will see that most of the lights inside are off. Such developments add to the total number of dwellings that are built, but they are not being occupied by the people who most need a home: those who cannot afford to buy a home in any part of London, let alone a central part where, they may be living already in sub-par accommodation with several other people; and those who grew up in these areas, and are now priced out of staying there.
It is not good enough just to view building homes as the answer. There need to be those genuinely affordable homes, which is what the planning system must account for. Labour’s plan would have meant that at least 150,000 new council and housing association homes a year would have been built within five years—decent homes that people can actually afford to live in. I do not expect this Government or any Conservative Government to match our pledge on the issue or even to come close to it, but the system has to change.
I am listening to what the hon. Gentleman is saying about making sure that we invest in council housing and housing association properties. However, one of the things that I am very struck by when looking at the system here is this obsession with the right to buy, which so often means that housing associations and councils are building these properties only to flog them off. Is it Labour’s proposal to abolish the right to buy, which is what we have seen in Scotland?
There is no doubt about it; there is this bias towards owning a home, and time and again we hear MPs, particularly on the Government side, talking about that ambition. These days, however, many people, even well-paid researchers in Parliament with a second income, cannot afford to do that, so we have to address homes for rent as well.
Currently, it feels that we have piecemeal development, with half a dozen flats built here and a few houses built there. That will never address what we need, and so we have longer and longer housing waiting lists, and people are being priced out of the private sector, as David Linden has just mentioned.
One way in which we can show we are taking housing and planning seriously is by empowering local authorities to strengthen their planning departments. They really need more planning officers. I think that most planning officers now work in the private sector, popping up at all these appeals that are held across the country, and of course it is the developers who win out at the end of the day. However, councils do not just need resources; they also need the confidence and the guidance from Government in order to crack on with things.
My hon. Friend is making a brilliant speech. Does he agree that conservation officers also seem to have been cut from every council, as well as design review panels, and that beauty is being sacrificed in this transactional way?
It is not just happening in the planning sector; it is happening across local authorities. My own local authority in Stockton has lost more than half its budget since 2010, so there is a shortage of expertise across the piece in local government to hold developers and other organisations to account.
I back what the Royal Town Planning Institute has argued for, which is championing civic planning, and building strong and responsive local planning authorities. The RTPI has also recommended that central Government do more by providing grants for social housing, by providing stronger direction on suitable land for housing, and by sharing more of any land value uplift with the public and using that uplift in value to fund affordable housing. The ideas are there and the hon. Member for Harborough has helped the Minister immensely.
That said, I also value the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to the ongoing debate in Parliament about how we can move forward on housing in the best way possible, and I look forward to hearing more of what he has to say in the future. However, the bottom line, which is where I have just got to in my speech, is that it is up to the Government to be prepared to take the steps to make change happen.
Minister, will you leave just two minutes at the end for Mr O’Brien to wrap up, please?
I certainly will do that, Sir Charles, and it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
It is also a great pleasure to follow my old friend Alex Cunningham, and to congratulate my hon. Friend Neil O'Brien on securing this important debate, and I also thank him for the entirely unsolicited testimonial that he gave me at the start of his remarks. I also thank and congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members for their presence today. The number of colleagues from across the House who have attended the debate is testament to Member’s interest in and concern about this important topic. I thank them all for being here.
I will now address some of the important points raised by hon. Members. I am conscious that I do not have a huge amount of time, so if I am not able to address them all, I certainly contract to meet with or write directly to those I miss, to ensure that we cover all the points that have been raised today effectively.
One of the key issues, raised by a number of colleagues, is unfair practices in the leasehold market. Let me say that those practices have no place in a modern housing market, and neither do excessive ground rents, which exploit consumers, who get nothing in return. That is why we are reforming the system so that it is fairer to leaseholders.
In December 2019, we announced that we would move forward with legislation on leasehold reform, reaffirming our commitment to making the system fairer and more transparent. The Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Luke Hall, will have more to say about that as the Minister responsible for that legislation; I shall certainly relay to him the concerns that Members from all parties have raised in the debate today.
I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough that we want to minimise the effect of inappropriate access routes for construction vehicles by encouraging temporary access routes that should ideally be delivered through voluntary arrangements. We have all faced the issue in our constituencies; I have faced it specifically with respect to wagons building the High Speed 2 railway line. I hope that I can give my hon. Friend some reassurance that we have legislated for local authorities and other acquiring bodies to compulsorily purchase land temporarily under the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017, and we are engaging with the sector on how best to implement those powers.
It is important that breaches of planning conditions are tackled by local planning enforcement teams, given that conditions are often imposed by councils to make a development acceptable to local people. That is why we have provided nearly £2 million of funding this year to help to strengthen enforcement teams in 37 local authorities, and we have also updated the National Association of Planning Enforcement’s practical handbook to help.
We will also outline further measures to help to improve local authority enforcement in the forthcoming planning White Paper, so I hope that Members will forbear and bear with me as that White Paper is released. I hope that that satisfies colleagues about some of the concerns that my hon. Friend raised.
Does the Minister agree that our party needs to end the obsession with the green belt? Does he also accept that if we leave house building to local councils, houses will not get built in anywhere near the numbers that we need?
The green belt is very important. We need to ensure that green spaces are protected, and that we have beautiful spaces in which we can all live. We also need to ensure that local plans are up to date and fit for purpose, in order to ensure that the houses that people want and need can be built.
That brings me rather nicely to my fundamental point. We all know that this country does not have enough homes. That is why we need a more agile and flexible planning system. KPMG and Shelter have both reported that simply to meet rising future demand, a minimum of a quarter of a million new homes will be needed every year. The median house price in England is eight times higher than median gross annual earnings; in London, it is 12.3 times higher.
We have to be bold and ambitious in our vision for the future of planning and house building in England. That is why, in January 2018, we set up Homes England as our housing accelerator, to intervene in the market and drive a step change in housing delivery. We have an unwavering commitment to enable the housing market to deliver at least 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s, and a million homes by the end of this Parliament. I am pleased that the latest figures show that last year housing supply, which has been growing year on year, increased by more than 241,000, to the highest level in the last 31 years.
I will, of course, give way to the hon. Member, as she intervenes at such volume.
In the London borough of Merton, 10,000 families are on the waiting list. Since April 2019, they have had access to 18 three-bedroom properties. What does the Minister say to those 10,000 families?
I would say that we need to build more homes in London. That is a conversation that we are having with the Mayor and with local authorities, because if we are to get those people into homes that they desire, we need to ensure that we are building them.
We have also cut the red tape—a perennial bête noire—making it quicker to plan and build homes that people want to live in. However, there is far more that we need to do to address the housing challenge. We are implementing planning reforms to ensure that our planning system creates and supports thriving communities, and to improve the quality, quantity and speed of home building. As I said, we will introduce the planning White Paper shortly, setting out our proposals to make the planning process clearer, more accessible and more certain for all users, including homeowners and small businesses, and I look forward to responses from colleagues across the House. The White Paper will also address resourcing and performance in planning departments, which various colleagues mentioned, and ensure that timely decisions are made.
The Government set national planning policy, but it is important that decisions and policies are made locally. We are clear that councils and their communities are best placed to take decisions on planning issues affecting their local area within the context of national planning policy. Local plans play an important role in outlining the homes that an area needs, and I believe that such plans can deliver local decisions that will remain at the heart of the planning system. Local plans provide clarity to communities and developers about where new homes should be built and how they should look, and such plans identify what developments are needed in an area, supported by the right infrastructure.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman briefly; I am conscious that time is pressing.
The developer Persimmon applied for planning permission for a large site on Junction Road in my constituency. It was told, “No, you can’t have planning permission.” The Government inspectorate overturned that decision. How are we going to strengthen the powers of local authorities, so that when they make a decision, having consulted the local community, that decision stands? Now Persimmon wants to build even more homes on the same site.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I do not know the specific case, but we need to ensure that the codes that we use, and those that the Planning Inspectorate uses, are fit for purpose, to ensure that when a good plan is introduced, for a site that has appropriate permissions, those developments are built.
Plans that are needed in an area, supported by the right infrastructure, help to ensure that what is planned for is sustainable rather than the result of speculative applications. That also ensures that we build in greater community support. So far, 90% of councils have an adopted local plan compared with just 17% in 2010. Some are a little long in the tooth, but I am pleased that the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough adopted local plans for both his authorities in 2019, so those plans are nearly brand new.
I assure Helen Hayes that the Government are committed to reviewing permitted development rights for the conversion of buildings to residential use, particularly respecting the quality and standards of those buildings. The review will report, and I will ensure that the report is available to her in due course.
It is also crucial that local authorities plan for the right number of homes. That is why, in July 2018, we introduced a new standard method to assess the minimum number of homes that an area needs. It does not set a target; it is simply a starting point from which authorities consider any constraints, and see whether need is more appropriately met in neighbouring areas. Following the latest household projections, the standard method was changed to ensure that it was consistent with delivering the homes that the country needs. We are reviewing the method and will consult on longer-term options in due course, because we recognise that we need to diversify the products on the market in order to drive up supply.
I will say a few words on small and medium-sized enterprises before I let my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough wind up. We are supporting SME housebuilders with a package of measures to help the sector to grow and develop, including the home building fund, the housing growth and housing delivery fund, the ENABLE Build guarantee scheme, and our ongoing reforms to the planning system, more of which he will hear about in due course. We believe that SMEs have a key part to play by increasing their output, as the biggest home builders in our country will not meet the Government’s housing building target alone. SMEs are well placed to help to deliver new homes, welcomed in their communities rather than resisted, and those homes will be built to last. Not only do we need to supply more homes, we need to make the dream of home ownership, as the hon. Member for Stockton North called it, a reality.
I hope that Members can see that the Government are truly committed to addressing the problems raised in the debate. We know that we need to build more of the right homes, of the right quality and in the right places, so that the housing market works for all parts of our community. We are determined to do that, and I invite all hon. and right hon. Members to step up to the plate and help us to tackle that challenge.
I thank all Members who have taken part in this afternoon’s brilliant debate. I was encouraged by the Minister’s words, particularly on temporary access. I strongly agree with Justin Madders in his coruscating critique of the fleeceholding industry. They are the timeshare salesmen and the dodgy wheel-clampers of our generation, and I hope that the Minister will clamp down on them very strongly. Perhaps the new homes ombudsman can be the vehicle for that.
I agree with the question posed by my hon. Friend James Daly about what affordable housing is. I think that the type of tenure most missing is cheap rented housing for working people. Although affordable housing is hugely needed, and my local council in Harborough has built a record amount of it, we need something for those people who are earning a bit and do not get social housing.
I was struck by the comments of my hon. Friend Derek Thomas about developer contributions. We must not go over the top, but on the other hand there is a reason why all economists agree that taxes on land and development are different to other types of taxes. If we lose developer contributions, we typically do not get more houses—just higher land prices and a bigger windfall for the lucky landowner.
Finally, there was a good challenge from my hon. Friend Jack Lopresti. We do need to build more houses. France has built twice as many houses as us since 1970, and French house prices have gone up half as much. Places such as the Netherlands have built more too. We need to learn from them. It is not about shoving more houses through the system; it is about having a proper, plan-led system to do it.
Motion lapsed (