Housing and Planning — [Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 3rd March 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough 2:30 pm, 3rd March 2020

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.