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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:40 am on 29th March 2022.

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Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Minister for Housing) 10:40 am, 29th March 2022

I thank my right hon. Friend for asking such a specific question. I do not have those figures to hand, but I will ensure that I get them to him. He makes a very valid point, and I will come on to some of the things that we are looking at to address exactly his points.

I was talking about local plans, which provide certainty for communities, businesses and developers. An effective and up-to-date plan is essential not only to meet an area’s housing requirements, but to create well-designed and attractive places to live, with the services that people need on their doorstep. We are already helping councils to put in place such robust and up-to-date plans. That includes encouraging visits from the Planning Inspectorate and specialist advice from the Planning Advisory Service to provide a range of specialist planning advice to councils throughout England.

Plans should be shaped by early, proportionate and effective engagement between plan makers and communities, local organisations, businesses, infrastructure providers and operators, and statutory consultees. They should seek to meet the development needs of their area, and that includes facilities that will be needed across health, schools and other areas. We recognise, however, that more work is needed. We want all infrastructure providers, including healthcare providers, to be much more engaged in the plan making right from the outset, because that is clearly not happening enough, as we have heard in the evidence of colleagues today. We will come forward on how we will do that as part of our reforms in due course.

Local plans are not the only means of improving services and building that vital infrastructure. There are clear regulatory frameworks for local authorities and developers to follow. The national planning policy framework, for example, states that local plans should aim for sustainable development, which means that new schools, hospitals and local services such as GP practices should be factored in from the outset. Proposed development should be shaped by effective engagement with the local community, so that planners and developers know what is really needed. In some areas, it might be new roads, bridges or bus depots, but in others it will be new nurseries or GP surgeries. That engagement should extend to relevant health bodies too, such as NHS trusts and the clinical commissioning groups, to ensure that any development helps rather than hinders local strategies to improve health and wellbeing.

Local healthwatch organisations have a role to play. They have a firm grasp on the concerns of people who use health and social care services. My Department strongly encourages planning authorities to consult them when new homes are being built, so that they can raise those all-important questions on the number of GPs needed. Equally, to some extent local plans should head some of that off before houses are actually built. I have, however, listened to what colleagues have said—I hear it loud and clear. Put simply, if a GP surgery is right in the centre of town and a new development is on the outskirts, it is obviously better to ensure that a new surgery is built closer to the homes it will serve.

We have touched on some of the funding. Hon. Members are aware that councils obtain contributions through a community infrastructure levy on new development and by negotiating section 106 planning obligations with a developer. That helps to create funding not just for housing, but to address local infrastructure needs. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, about £5.5m has been allocated to healthcare provision through such funding, and that should be spent on helping to provide GP practices.

I recognise, however, that there is an issue here about which we need to do more. We hope that part of the effective planning reforms that we are to introduce will answer some of that. Our ambition has always been to simplify the system and to ensure that development becomes synonymous with improved services, and healthier and happier neighbourhoods. That is why we are exploring the introduction of a new infrastructure levy to replace the existing system of developer contributions.

At the moment, we plan for that new levy to be payable on completion of development. That will replace the negotiation and renegotiation that we keep seeing happen. The new levy will not be negotiable and will maximise land value, so we get more for local communities. It will also bring much greater certainty on costs, on factoring expenditure into the price paid for land and, in turn, on delivering more vital infrastructure. Under our proposals, local authorities would be allowed to borrow against infrastructure levy revenues so that they could bring forward vital improvements to services, including expanding GP capacity, before the first spade of a new development even hits the ground.

That said, I recognise that we need to test the policy. Many issues have been raised. I cannot at this moment commit my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to a meeting, but I will raise with him the suggestions and comments made today, and I will meet my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to raise the points made, to ensure that we are prioritising, gearing up and keeping focus, so that we can see what more can be done, and so that we do not miss the opportunity provided by the new fund to get the necessary infrastructure.