Planning Permission and Housing Need: Wealden

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 1st March 2022.

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Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden 11:00 am, 1st March 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered planning permission and calculation of housing need numbers for Wealden.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I welcome the Minister to his new role, and I look forward to working with him intimately in helping Wealden put together its housing plan.

It is a huge honour to represent Wealden in Parliament. It is a joy to live in one of the most beautiful parts of our country, and our communities are excellent. During covid, I established the Wealden Heroes Award, which the Minister may want to reflect on. It showed the fantastic work that so many of our residents did for each other in the communities we wish to serve.

Before there is any confusion, let me point out that Wealden District Council covers more than my constituency, even though we share the same name. To continue the confusion—mostly to confuse the Minister—my married name is also Wheeldon, but I go by Ghani in this place. Many assumptions are made, but my constituency covers Forest Row, Wadhurst, Crowborough, the glorious Ashdown Forest, Mayfield, Uckfield, Fletching, Horeham, Hailsham and all the villages in between. They are watching, Minister, so I had to point out all of them.

When and where new homes are built is always controversial, but I fully recognise that our country and county need more homes and that a level of development is inevitable. My case work reflects that. I work with businesses that want homes for their workers, and with domestic violence victims who need social housing. I work with older residents who want to downsize, and with younger families who want to stop renting and buy their first home. I will never forget that, a few years ago, the fantastic Fletching Primary School was struggling because of the lack of kids coming in. We also did not have many young people in the area. When I speak to health practitioners serving Wealden, especially nurses, one of the big issues is that they just cannot afford to move in.

In Wealden, we are realists; we are not nimbys. Wealden District Council is already going above and beyond in order to accommodate the requirement set by the Government. However, the numbers are just too high. They ignore our environmental constraints and expect Wealden District Council to pick up the slack for failing neighbouring councils, which I will expand on as I go on. Wealden is presently working with the Department to put together its housing plan, and the Minister will know that I have been working with the Department since 2015—seven long years to try to resolve Wealden’s housing plan. I hope that today’s debate will help Wealden and the Minister to put that in place.

One of the big points that I need the Minister to respond to is about the population growth calculation. I am deeply concerned about how the statistics are used by the Department. Based on the Department’s standard method, Wealden’s share is 1,221 new houses each year. However, the standard method uses Office for National Statistics population projection data from 2014 that show that between 2021 and 2031, a total of 212,739 new houses are needed each year for the whole of England. However, the corresponding figure in the latest data, which are for 2018, shows a reduction of 161,048 houses per annum—a reduction of 24%. According to the 2014 ONS projections, Wealden’s share was 872 houses per year, whereas the 2018 projection is for 598 houses per year, an even larger reduction of 31%. Ignoring the reduction just does not make sense, and I hope the Minister can confirm what data the Department is using. If there is not the population need for the homes, what is the justification for the Department’s data and the pressure on Wealden District Council?

According to current targets, 24,500 houses are scheduled across Wealden District Council between 2018 and 2038. To put that into context, 24,500 homes is equivalent to approximately one home for every 2.8 already in the district. Let us just think about how that would ever make sense, because I do not know how such numbers are meant to stack up. From 2017-18 to 2019-20, the requirement for new houses for Wealden went up from 499 to 1,236—an increase of 226%. Those targets are incredibly high and one could even say slightly absurd considering the jump. I hope the Minister will explain to us how the targets are set.

Notwithstanding the large increase in deliveries of new houses, Wealden Council was unable to deliver the quota demanded by the Department, as it achieved 83% for the housing delivery test. Wealden was therefore penalised with an increase to its five-year land supply by a buffer of 20%, resulting in a five-year land supply figure of 7,440. Moreover, planning applications are often granted but not built out for a number of years. Although Wealden did achieve 83%, it has approved many more houses than that, and it is essential that those approvals are also included in the overall numbers.

At Wealden District Council, more than 7,600 permissions have been given for new homes, but not all of them are being built right now. During the past two years especially we have seen understandable delays in construction due to the disruptions of covid and supply chain issues. The projected completions within five years currently amount to 3.6 years’ supply. We need to ensure that all homes that have been granted consent will count towards the forward targets and the five-year land supply as well. Over the last seven years, along with the council, I have repeatedly asked the Department to respond to this point, which will help Wealden council put together a more realistic housing plan, where the numbers will not be bounced around, which would stress constituents out even more. I hope the Minister will respond to that as well.

We talked about Wealden achieving just 83% of the housing delivery test, but only one authority in East Sussex has avoided continued Government sanctions for failing to meet the housing targets. Four out of the five local planning authorities in East Sussex have failed to deliver the housing requirement in the years up to March 2021. Hastings Borough Council and Rother District Council fell below 75% of their target, building an average of less than 200 dwellings a year, which compares to the 800 that Wealden is doing at the same time, yet those areas receive additional Government support for infrastructure, whereas Wealden does not, because they traditionally fall into the metrics of deprivation. I hope the Minister can explain why, when a council achieves 83% compared with 75% in neighbouring authorities, it is further penalised and does not secure infrastructure funding. We need to have the right incentives in place for good councils.

We are incredibly excited about the levelling-up fund and all the funding that will come to our county. We have projects—I can see my hon. Friend Caroline Ansell is here—and funding for Hastings, Newhaven, Seaford and across the Lewes constituency. That is great for the county, but we want to see further investment in our roads. The levelling-up White Paper highlights planned investment for the A27 at Lewes, improvements to the Brighton mainline and a new hospital for Eastbourne.

As East Sussex MPs, we meet up every Tuesday afternoon under the auspices of my hon. Friend Huw Merriman to make sure that we co-ordinate our funding. Although we appreciate the funding for the county, as I pointed out, Wealden builds above and beyond all of its neighbouring local authorities but tends to receive the least funding, and that has to be re-evaluated. A local authority that builds more homes than its neighbouring local authorities should be prioritised for funding, not penalised because it does not meet the traditional metrics of deprivation. Wealden should be rewarded for the homes that it is building.

I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne will forgive me as I make my next point. Eastbourne also has an increasing population, and it tends to build higher-storey homes, but it constantly argues or complains that it does not have the space to build outwards, so the pressure falls on Wealden.