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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:35 pm on 3rd March 2020.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North 3:35 pm, 3rd March 2020

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.