General Practice: Large Housing Developments — [Peter Dowd in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:52 am on 29th March 2022.

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Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet 9:52 am, 29th March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Andrew Selous for securing a debate on this important issue this morning.

The Mayor of London wants 2,364 new flats and houses to be built in the borough of Barnet every year for years to come. I did a rough calculation for some of the bigger developments recently built, approved or pending in the planning system in my constituency alone, and the figure is nearly 4,000 units, with another 691 rejected but liable to come back on appeal or possibly with a revised proposal. That could mean anything up to about 9,000 people trying to find a place on a GP’s list of patients. I pay tribute to all the GPs in my constituency. They are the bedrock of our NHS. We all depend on them, and they have done magnificently in so many ways during the pandemic.

It is clear that rising healthcare need is already placing great pressure on our national health service, including general practice, as we grow older as a society and as our frail elderly population gets larger. But at the same time, council planning committees are finding it harder and harder to turn down planning applications even where it is clear that the area does not have the GP capacity to service the population increase that the proposed new flats could involve. Elected councillors are increasingly advised by officers that they should not turn down an application even if it contravenes long-established planning principles on matters such as character, conservation, height, density or pressure on local services and infrastructure, because their decision could be overturned on appeal, on the grounds that housing targets are not being met. To compound the pressure, elected representatives are threatened with high costs being awarded against councils if they lose planning appeals. That is forcing councils to produce long lists of development sites to meet the requirement of a five-year land supply, many of which may be wholly inappropriate for new housing—certainly high-density new housing. Even where developers offer to build facilities for a new GP practice as part of their plan, that does not solve the problem, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, because it is a shortage of doctors, not premises, that is causing the greatest pressure on primary care.

My hon. Friend clearly articulated a solution in his speech, but I would like the Minister to consider a threefold solution. First, housing targets should be advisory, not mandatory. They should not be taken into account in planning decisions or appeals. Secondly, whether or not a local authority has a five-year land supply should no longer determine planning applications. Thirdly, we need to accelerate efforts to train, recruit and retain more family doctors. The Government take the expansion of the NHS workforce very seriously, and it is a proud achievement that there are more doctors in hospitals than ever before in the long history of our national health service. The Government have ensured that there are more GPs in training than ever before, and five new medical schools have opened. That good progress is all welcome, but as the Health Secretary has admitted, plans to recruit 6,000 additional GPs by 2024 are not on track. We need to turn that situation around if we are to tackle the covid backlog and ensure that, where new homes are built, all residents—existing ones and new ones—continue to be able to access the GP appointments they need.

I hope the Minister will set out the care improvements delivered by the £250 million package announced last year to relieve immediate pressures on GP practice. I hope he will also give us the latest numbers on the recruitment of other professionals, such as nurses and pharmacists, to support GPs as part of multidisciplinary practices. Will he commit the Government to redoubling their efforts to plan effectively for the future workforce needs of our national health service?