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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:31 am on 29th March 2022.

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Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 10:31 am, 29th March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Dowd.

I genuinely think that this has been a valuable debate about an important issue. I congratulate Andrew Selous on securing it and on the typically clear and powerful remarks he made in opening it. He has been raising concerns about this issue for a considerable period, and the fact that he felt compelled to secure this debate today only serves, I am afraid to say, to highlight the startling lack of progress on the part of the Government in addressing those concerns.

The concerns are not the hon. Gentleman’s alone; indeed, this issue is not confined to his corner of Bedfordshire. His concerns are widely shared across the House. As the attendance for today’s debate makes clear, they are keenly felt among Government Members in particular. I thank all the Members who have contributed this morning.

Having heard today’s contributions, we can only hope that the Minister will at least be convinced of the need to go away and revisit the fundamental aspects of a planning system that routinely fails to produce the necessary social infrastructure for new communities to thrive. We have heard lots of complaints and points of contention today, but it is within the Government’s gift to take action on many of the issues that have been raised. I hope that the Minister will go away with renewed vigour to address them.

The focus of this morning’s debate has been on the provision of primary care services for large-scale housing developments. I add my praise to the general expressions of support that have been conveyed today to GPs and GP practice staff. That we face significant challenges as a country when it comes to primary care capacity is not in dispute. The reasons for that shortage are complex, and when it comes to problems such as the recruitment and retention of enough GPs to accommodate rising patient demand or how local health services plan for population growth in service provision, those are obviously the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Care. However, there is no question in my mind but that the planning system is exacerbating the crisis in primary care, particularly in areas experiencing significant development, by failing to deliver new facilities in places where the needs of large-scale new communities cannot be met simply by the expansion of existing sites.

The particular concern of the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire and others who have spoken this morning is general practice capacity, but the national failure to ensure that all new large-scale housing developments have adequate primary care provision is mirrored in other forms of infrastructure, whether that be school places or transport, as the hon. Members for Wantage (David Johnston), for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) and others have remarked upon. Having that infrastructure is absolutely key to gaining local consent, which is an essential part of the planning process.

I do not think that this issue is primarily one of housing supply. There is a housing crisis and we need to address it, but the crux of this issue is the need for up-front infrastructure investment before or at the point that a large-scale residential development completes and new residents move in. However, the planning system as it currently operates—and I think Conservative Members will accept this—is simply not geared up to facilitate that infrastructure-first approach on all major sites; all too often, no one has overall responsibility for place-making.

The importance of master developers was clearly identified in the Letwin review: they strategically assemble land, secure the necessary permissions, co-ordinate the delivery of the infrastructure and de-risk the development process as a matter of course. Without those developers, the system incentivises volume house builders to build often poor-quality housing in inappropriate and often entirely car-dependent locations, in a way that frequently leads to intractable disputes about how core infrastructure and services will be delivered and who will pay for them. Ultimately, the fact that the planning system lacks many of the features necessary to support effective large-scale housing growth stems from the failure of central Government to take a clear strategic role in the delivery of new large-scale communities.

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire and others drew attention to the inadequacies of the housing infrastructure fund, and they were right to do so. The fund can and does support the delivery of infrastructure on sites where viability is an issue and address the need for up-front infrastructure and the problem of risk on a limited number of sites. However, because it distributes funding on a competitive, ad hoc basis, it is not a general solution for the infrastructure needs of all large-scale housing developments.

Homes England could play a far larger role in providing local authorities with support and assisting local partners directly with delivery, land acquisition and the master developer role. It has extensive legal powers that allow it to take on that role and obtain land by means of compulsory purchase. It could be the instrument the Government use to support large-scale growth with the necessary social and transport infrastructure. However, that would depend on the Government having a strategy; at present, I am afraid, they do not. Although there are exceptions, in general terms it is simply a fact that central Government in England do not play a clear strategic role in site identification or the delivery of new large-scale communities.

The national infrastructure strategy sets out a range of investment priorities, but it does not provide a framework that makes clear which areas are preferred for long-term priority housing growth and their relationship to infrastructure investment. National planning policy on delivering sustainable, large-scale housing developments is incredibly vague and provides little in the way of encouragement or guidance to local authorities contemplating meeting local housing need in key strategic locations.

The Conservative Administration of Mrs May changed the law in 2018 to encourage locally led development corporations to act as master developers. However, to the best of my knowledge—the Minister may correct me—none has yet been designated.

In many ways, the root cause of the infrastructure challenges on sites such as those that have been mentioned today is the issue of land value capture. Aside from direct Government grant, development of those sites is reliant on developer contributions in the form of section 106 or the community infrastructure levy to meet essential infrastructure needs. However, those contributions are often not sufficient to provide all the infrastructure needed on those sites. I am surprised that this has not been mentioned today, but that is at least partly a direct consequence of the impact of viability rules set out in the 2012 national planning policy framework, which allow developers to game the system and drive down section 106 contributions. Although in some cases local authorities could be more robust with developers, the national planning policy framework ties their hands behind their backs in terms of what they can extract as public gains under section 106.

The Minister will no doubt point to the Government’s proposals, mentioned most recently in the levelling-up White Paper, to introduce a new infrastructure levy. However, at present, we have no idea how it would apply to large-scale development or deal with areas of low demand, how much it would yield or the date by which we can expect it to be implemented. There is an immediate deficit, as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire said in his opening remarks.

Given how heavily the Government appear to be leaning on the new levy as a means to secure affordable housing and the infrastructure communities need, perhaps the Minister might give us a sense of what the new levy will look like, what form it will take and when it will be brought before the House for consideration. Indeed, he might even go so far as to give Members a straight answer to the more fundamental question of whether the Government still intend to legislate for a reform of the planning system in this Parliament.

To conclude, this debate has highlighted a problem that is not confined to a handful of sites or to particular parts of England, but is the inevitable outcome of the current planning system, which does not provide the necessary social and transport infrastructure on major sites as a matter of course. Addressing that problem requires a fundamental change of approach on the part of the Government, not just tinkering around the edges with individual infrastructure funding streams.

Real benefits can be gained if the Department is willing to grapple seriously with the problem, not only in delivering a marked increase in housing supply but in terms of the quality and sustainability of the new communities that could be created. The alternative is that we continue to see more poor-quality housing in inappropriate locations without the necessary infrastructure that residents need to flourish. Members across the House do not want to see that outcome, and I suspect the Minister does not want to see it either, but do the Government have the political will to re-examine the flawed system that they are currently presiding over?