Long-term Plan for Housing

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Thursday 11th January 2024

(6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Pinnock Portrait Baroness Pinnock (LD)
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My Lords, I remind the House of my registered interests as a councillor in Kirklees—where we have an up-to-date local plan—and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, just said, there are 1.2 million households on the social housing waiting lists and the Government’s own assessment is that 300,000 new homes need to be built every year. Having somewhere to live is a basic human right and a basic requirement that all Governments should fulfil. We have a housing crisis, and the response as set out in this Statement and the newly published National Planning Policy Framework fails to address that crisis. The policies are incoherent and fail on many levels. For example, the newly published NPPF refers to social housing only once and in a single sentence. There is a desperate need for social housing to rent. Can the Minister tell the House how long the 1.2 million households on the waiting list will have to wait for a safe, affordable home at a rent that is within their means?

I could tell the Minister of a family in my ward that contacted me this week. There is the wife, husband and a four year-old boy living with the grandmother, who has serious dementia, and a baby is on the way, in a two-bed Victorian terraced house with a front door that opens on to an A-road and the back door on to a ginnel, as we call it. It is an alley, I guess; we call them ginnels in Yorkshire. There is nowhere, literally no space, for that four year-old to play, or to put the baby. They rang me to ask what chance they had for a council house or a housing association home, and I had to tell them the awful truth: that virtually all the family homes have been sold under right to buy, very few replaced, and their chances are virtually nil within the next five years. How are the Government going to address that example and many, many more like it?

Debate on this vital national policy should have taken place when we debated the levelling-up Bill in this House. Many Members across the House, as the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, said, asked for the information on the revised NPPF at that time, and it is now clear to me why the Government held back, because the National Planning Policy Framework as published fails to tackle this housing crisis by enabling local authorities to plan with confidence and with the goal of meeting their local housing need.

Housing need is defined not just by numbers of housing units required but also by type and tenure. The Government’s own figures show that 62% of the rise in households is of people over 65 living alone. Perhaps the Minister can say how the Government intend to ensure that this particular need is to be met, given the policies that they have now published. Is it possible, for instance, for local authorities to allocate a site for building with specific requirements to meet such locally determined need?

Next, the Government are relaxing housing targets by describing these as an “advisory starting point”. Can the Minister flesh out “advisory” in this context? How advisory is advisory? What advice will the Government be giving to the Planning Inspectorate on the definition of that word and what they expect it to mean?

Given that housing targets are to be determined more locally, can the Minister explain the rationale behind the requirement for 20 of the largest towns and cities to have 35% more homes than are determined by their local housing assessment? Why is it 35%, not 20% or 40%? Where does the figure come from, and what will it actually mean for those towns and cities?

One of the major holes in the Government’s planning and housing policies is that there are no penalties for developers who, having obtained planning consent, fail to start building or start a site and then delay building out. This is one of the major reasons for the crisis in housebuilding numbers: more than 1 million properties have planning consent but have not been built. Yet local authorities are to be penalised for failing to provide sites while, in those same local authorities, developers are failing to develop sites that have permission. What will the Government do about this dreadful state of affairs? What pressures will they put on developers to ensure that, once planning consent is given, the developer gets on and builds out the site?

Many residents oppose new homes because of the impact on local infrastructure, such as traffic, school places and access to health services. Many are justified in their complaints. For example, in my area of Kirklees, GP patient numbers are at 1,900 per doctor, as compared to the national average of 1,600. When residents raise the issue of more houses meaning greater numbers of patients for their local GP, where I live it is genuinely the case. There are already 20% more patients per GP where I live than the national average. What will the Government do to address the genuine complaints from residents about local infrastructure? That is just one example.

Providing the housing that we need is dependent on local authorities having up-to-date local plans, yet the majority of them do not have one. What action will the Government take to ensure that local authorities have up-to-date local plans? A local plan is the initial building block that unlocks sites for housing of a type and tenure that is so desperately needed. This Statement absolutely fails to address this. I look forward to the Minister’s replies to all the questions that have been raised; if she cannot answer them, I hope that she can give us written responses.

Baroness Penn Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (Baroness Penn) (Con)
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My Lords, I will endeavour to answer the questions from both noble Baronesses as fully as I can, but it is first worth reflecting on what this update to the NPPF sought to do. Both noble Baronesses rightly situated it in the context of the broader changes in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act to bring forward a reformed planning system that allows more homes to be built in the right places, more quickly, more beautifully and more sustainably.

The right way to do this is through a reformed planning system. In December last year, we laid out our plan to do that. We made it abundantly clear that the only way to do so is through up-to-date local plans, which local authorities can deliver for communities to protect the land and assets that matter most and lay the foundation for economic growth. Part of that plan for reform was the update to the National Planning Policy Framework. In December 2022, we consulted on a series of proposals that received more than 26,000 responses, which we have worked through in detail. The updates that we made, which were announced at the end of last year, strike a careful balance between delivering homes that our communities need and protecting the things that we care most about, such as our natural environment, heritage assets, high streets and town centres—matters referenced by both noble Baronesses. The NPPF update acknowledges that different areas and different parts of the country must be approached in different ways and that local authorities and communities are best placed to ensure that the right homes are in the right places, where they are both needed and wanted.

Both noble Baronesses asked about the change to the NPPF which clarified that the standard method of assessing housing need is the starting point for local authorities. The NPPF expects local planning authorities to evidence and provide for their housing needs. The Government are clear that the standard method should still be used to inform the process. Local authorities can put forward their own approach to assessing housing needs, but this should be used only in exceptional circumstances. Authorities can expect their method to be scrutinised closely at examination. The standard method remains the starting point for this process and only in exceptional circumstances would we expect local planning authorities to move away from that. However, it is right that we allow for those exceptional circumstances. In the updated framework, the demographics of a particular area are pointed to as the factor which might mean that an alternative method would be appropriate for that planning authority to use.

Part of delivering homes in a way that meets community needs is about having a more diversified housing market. Therefore, the framework also strengthens support for SME builders and the wider diversity of the housing market by emphasising the importance of community-led housing development, ensuring that local authorities seek opportunities to support small sites to come forward and removing barriers to smaller and medium builders in the planning system. In the long run, that will also ensure that we make progress in delivering the housing that we need and keep us on track to deliver 1 million new homes during this Parliament.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, asked about social housing. Her points were well made. These updates to the NPPF did not have that as a particular focus but the Government are absolutely committed to increasing the supply of affordable and social housing. That is why our latest affordable housing programme is backed by more than £11 billion. We have increased the delivery of affordable housing under this Government. I would be very happy to sit down with the noble Baroness and discuss specific planning barriers to affordable housing further.

The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, referred to the resources needed to unlock the planning system. She is absolutely right. That is why we have increased the resources going into local planning services. The new planning rules that came into force on 6 December increase fees for major applications by 35% and minor ones by 25%. The indexing arrangements now in place also ensure that they rise in line with inflation. Beyond that, the planning skills delivery fund was boosted by £5 million to £29 million. In the first round of funding, 180 local planning authorities are receiving collectively over £14 million. We recognise that the changes we have made to the planning system in the levelling-up Act and through the changes to the NPPF need to be matched by additional resources, which we have put in.

I turn to housing standards and a range of other issues that were debated at length during the passage of the levelling-up Bill. The Government have committed to bring forward further changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, bringing in a national development management framework. We are committed to consulting on those changes this year but, for the development of local plans, we believe that the combination of the measures in the Act and those announced and changed in the NPPF at the end of last year provide clarity and certainty for local areas to be able to make their plans and deliver on them.

Where that is not proving possible for local authorities, the Secretary of State has been clear that the Government are prepared to intervene. That is why the Secretary of State issued a direction about plan-making to seven of the worst authorities. The best outcome from those directions is that the local authorities themselves bring forward plans within 12 weeks and set out a clear timetable to do so. Should they fail, we will consider further intervention, but it would be based on the particular circumstances of those local authorities and reflect their points. I do not want to pre-empt that, as the best outcome for those areas is for the local authorities to take forward those plans themselves.

We are also taking action in London, because the homes needed in the capital are simply not being built. Opportunities for urban brownfield regeneration are being left untaken, as a result of the mayor’s anti-housing policy and approach. His plan does not contain sufficient ambition for housing, and he is underdelivering against it. That is why we are undertaking an urgent review of it.

There are a number of areas from both noble Baronesses that I may not have addressed. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, mentioned infrastructure and of course we have the housing infrastructure fund, which provides the funding needed to ensure that development can take place, is supported locally and comes with the schools, hospitals and GP places needed to support it. I undertake to write to both noble Baronesses in detail on any further points on which I need to follow up.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con)
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My Lords, there is much to welcome in the Statement—namely, the increase in planning resources—but it represents a major change in government housing policy, which was not there when the levelling-up Bill was introduced. As the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, said, this was introduced to head off a rebellion in the other place. As a result, the targets are advisory, not mandatory, and we are already seeing a result—not just in plans being withdrawn but in South Oxfordshire doing something unheard of in planning by deleting from its plan for development sites that had already been included. We may end up with more up-to-date plans eventually, but they will have fewer homes in them than the country needs. How will a democratically elected Government, committed to building 300,000 new homes a year, deliver that if they are totally dependent on the good will of local authorities that do not share that commitment?

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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My Lords, we announced a number of different changes at the end of last year. However, as I said to both the noble Baronesses, the standard method for assessing housing need remains the starting point for local authorities. It is only in exceptional circumstances that we would expect them to move away from that, and that must be well evidenced. In such circumstances, where it is not appropriate for that area, there is a way and method for those local authorities to put forward a well-considered and well-thought-out local plan, which would have a much better chance of being delivered than something that does not command local support and does not suit the needs of the local area.

We have made other changes that may result in the changes that my noble friend talked about—for example, by removing the buffers needed on land supply set out in local plans. They go over and above the amount of land needed to deliver against the assessed housing need for an area. Where local authorities have done the right thing, put a plan in place and identified the land they need to deliver against the local housing need in their area, it is not the right way forward to require those local authorities to hold a 5% or 10% buffer on top.

Lord Best Portrait Lord Best (CB)
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My Lords, I pick up on a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. If we could see the production of decent, accessible, energy-efficient, companionable, new retirement housing for older people needing and wanting to rightsize, we could free up tens of thousands of family homes, which are so badly needed. The planning system can allocate sites, not least urban sites that regenerate town centres, and those absolutely essential local plans can stipulate requirements for a proportion of such housing in all major developments. I add that at the same time removing stamp duty for purchases by those over pension age would stimulate the market, increasing revenue to HM Treasury through the chain that follows, and that housing for older people saves massive sums for the NHS and adult care services. Will the Minister get behind all those trying to boost the output of well-designed homes for the estimated 3 million older people who are interested in downsizing and rightsizing?

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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I absolutely support the remarks by the noble Lord on needing the right housing to meet the needs of people at all stages in their lives. There are changes within this update to the NPPF that will encourage the delivery of older people’s housing, including retirement housing, housing with care and care homes. In addition, the Government have the Older People’s Housing Taskforce, which is exploring broader changes that we might wish to see to encourage housing for older people to be built in the areas where it is most suitable and most needed. Also, there is the point that the noble Lord made: ensuring that we have the right solution for older people has a knock-on effect throughout our housing supply on the availability for those who may be trying to get on the housing ladder in the first place.

Lord Bishop of Chelmsford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford
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My Lords, the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community recommended that the Government adopt a long-term plan to address the scale of the housing crisis in the UK. I am glad to see that they have adopted the language of long-termism, as the UK’s housing has been held back by short-term planning and decision-making for far too long. However, I believe that such a plan must be holistic, taking into account all elements that make up a good housing strategy, with consideration of both new builds and existing buildings. What plans do the Government have to improve the quality of the homes that we already have, for example by undertaking a programme to upgrade EPC ratings, or by equalising the rate of VAT on repairs for existing houses with that for constructing new homes?

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right that, when we consider the quality of people’s homes, we absolutely need to think about existing stock, not just new homes. When it comes to new homes, we have just launched the consultation on the future homes standard, which will have in place regulations that mean that all new homes built from 2025 onwards will need to be net-zero ready and have much higher levels of energy efficiency. They would most likely have heat pumps installed as a way to deliver those net-zero targets. When it comes to existing homes, we have a huge range of government support in place to support increased energy efficiency. A lot of that has focused initially on those on low incomes: for example, looking at social housing, there is the social housing decarbonisation fund. We are broadening that out to support other people too. We have the boiler upgrade grant, which allows people to replace their old boilers with heat pumps, with a significant proportion of those costs met by government. We have debated VAT a number of times in this House, but I will say that we have introduced a reduced rate of VAT for energy-efficiency measures, and we extended the scope of the measures that that covers in the most recent Autumn Statement.

Lord Naseby Portrait Lord Naseby (Con)
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My Lords, as the National Planning Policy Framework’s primary purpose is more homes, is it not strange that His Majesty’s Government have yet to make any statement about a new concept of the new town movement? You can see on the ground the wonderful work that was done as long ago as the 30s with the garden city just alongside the A1—I drove past it yesterday. Then there are the new towns. My former constituency was Northampton, and there is the new city of Milton Keynes, which was only a village before. That concept surely has to have a role, modernised to meet today’s requirements in the future.

Secondly, my noble friend quite rightly says: “Yes, more new homes”. But is not the problem at the moment that the developers do not have the confidence that she clearly has? The figures for 2023 are very low. Are they not going to be only marginally better in 2024? Against that background, will His Majesty’s Government bring in new incentives for young couples to be able to provide some of that demand, so that developers can have some confidence to move forward?

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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My noble friend makes two very good points. England has a proud history of new town development, and well-planned, beautifully designed, locally led garden communities are playing a vital role in helping to meet our housing need, through providing a stable pipeline of new homes. The Garden Communities programme supports local authorities to build places that people are happy to call their home. That programme was launched in 2014, and has awarded over £58 million of capacity funding to assist places to deliver their proposals for housing. A further £12 million has also been invested to deliver the infrastructure critical to unblock the delivery of homes. The 47 locally led garden communities have the capacity to deliver over 300,000 new homes by 2050. That is something that the Government absolutely continue to support.

The number of planning consents being down was referenced by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor. When it comes to the wider conditions in the housing market, we recognise that this is a challenging time. The broader economic conditions we face due to very high levels of inflation, and the high interest rates that are in place to bring that down, make it harder for people to get on the housing ladder. That is why this Government have been focused, laser-like, on tackling inflation. We met our commitment last year to halve the level of inflation, and are back on the road to the Bank of England’s 2% target. That is the most effective way in which we can make sure that people are able to afford their mortgages and access the housing market in the way they wish to. But there are also important things that we can do—for example, ensuring that our affordable housing programme continues throughout this period to provide more stability and certainty in terms of the pipeline of new homes while it is a difficult market out there for housebuilders.

Lord Carrington Portrait Lord Carrington (CB)
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My Lords, may I ask the Minister, following on from the question from the right reverend Prelate, about the certificates—the EPCs? We have had a problem and a review on EPC measurement. Could she let us know where we are on that review?

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Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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My Lords, my understanding is that the Government launched an EPC action plan to take forward a number of changes to EPCs. We are well on track for delivering against the majority of actions within that, but we continue to look at it. We recognise that there is potentially the need for wider reform to energy performance certificates; we are looking at that very closely and doing further work on it.

Lord Berkeley Portrait Lord Berkeley (Lab)
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My Lords, I have the honour of serving on the Built Environment Committee in your Lordships’ House, along with one or two other colleagues here. We have been listening to evidence in the last few months from builders, planners and Ministers about why the 300,000 target has not been reached. I think the low point for me was evidence from an Environment Minister and the Housing Minister, who sat next to each other trying to explain why it was all very difficult. At the end of the evidence session, I thought, “When did they ever talk to each other? It is as if they are in completely different silos”. We have heard answers from the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, this afternoon about the importance of the environment. She mentioned affordable housing once or twice. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, mentioned that it is only in the NPPF once, I think; I may have that wrong.

When I looked at the Housing Minister’s Statement on 19 December when he launched this, I was astonished to read one paragraph which used several phrases which to me indicate what is really important for this Government. One phrase was “gentle density”—I do not know what that means, but perhaps some experts can tell me—on the design of mansard roof development. Does that really go in a Statement? There was “well-designed places”—we know what that is—and then,

“‘visual clarity’ on the design requirements”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/12/23; col. 1266.]

Also, the word “beauty” comes into it, as the noble Baroness said. These are all very good things, especially if you want a lovely new house in the countryside, miles from anywhere, but are they the priorities for affordable housing? This is the problem. We have lost sight of what is important. I live in Cornwall and the lack of affordable housing there is just terrible. If we are to say that everything has to be a “gentle density” with “visual clarity” of place, I do not think we are going to get there—until we concentrate on what is important, which is affordable housing.

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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I do not think that the delivery of more affordable housing and the delivery of more beautiful housing need to be in tension with each other. In fact, the right housing in the right place allows more support for development to go ahead, which is one of the big barriers we see to delivering more housing in local areas, and affordable housing should be beautiful housing too. Noble Lords have had a lot of debates in this House about the standards within our homes, particularly within our social housing. We should be no less ambitious for the standards that people enjoy in their housing, whether it is social housing, affordable housing or private housing. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, talked about space for children to play, for example. Taking into account that kind of amenity is important for the right development to go ahead. We should recognise that we have made significant progress in recent years in building more houses. We have had some of the highest housing delivery in the past four years that we have had in the past 20 years, and we seek to continue that, but without those measures necessarily needing to be in tension. The noble Lord spoke about Ministers talking to each other in different departments. I reassure him that, particularly on these areas that cut across different interests and on something like net zero or environmental impact, we bring together the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, my department and Defra to work together to provide solutions on these issues.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I shall follow the theme of social housing. I declare my position as a vice-president of the LGA and the NALC. Responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, the Minister said that the Government are committed to social housing. We have just heard that again, and it is great, but the Minister may be aware of a document from the National Housing Federation, Lets Fix the Housing Crisis: Delivering a Long-Term Plan for Housing. This crosses over with her former departmental responsibilities. It asserts:

“The wider fiscal, societal and economic benefits of social housing are poorly captured in current cost benefit analysis”,

and, particularly, in the Government’s Green Book. The NHF stresses that we need housing

“in the right location, with the right support for those who need it”,

which sounds very much like the Green Party’s Right Homes, Right Place, Right Price. Does the Minister agree that planning needs to think about this social element as well as the purely spatial element? We have been relying on the market for decades now. It has not worked out very well and has given the crisis we have now, plus the terrible privatisation of right to buy. I will pick up a point from the noble Lord, Lord Crisp: one of the things that the NHF report highlights is the increase in the long-term cost of housing benefit as a result of the increase in the number of retired people who are in private rental housing now. Do we not have to join up far more planning and financial considerations and pure human considerations to secure an affordable place for everybody to live?

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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My Lords, a number of the changes that we are making to the NPPF address some of the noble Baroness’s concerns. They are all about allowing a local area, using the evidence of local need, to produce a plan that works for that area. The noble Baroness touched on the Green Book and how we value social housing but also wider social benefits when we look at value for money in government projects. The Government have done work on reforming the Green Book over a number of years to ensure that we better take that into account. There is also better assessment of national well-being as a factor when we look at policies. We are looking, for example, at valuing our green space more clearly in our policy assessments, so that we can take a more well-rounded look. That is at the heart of my department’s mission. When looking at levelling up across the whole of the United Kingdom, one point that often gets made is that the old ways of doing things incentivises you to invest only in London and the south-east. While that is incredibly important, we know that investing in communities across our country is how we will actually deliver for people, and that is what my department has been created to do.

Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley (LD)
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My Lords, the Minister has said that it is not the purpose of this long-term plan for housing to address the need for more homes for social rent. She has also said that the Government are absolutely committed to increasing the supply of affordable and social housing. In the face of the 14% increase in the past year of people in temporary accommodation in our country—a trend which is likely to continue rising—what is the Government’s short to medium-term plan for getting more long-term homes for those being forced to live in temporary accommodation?

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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As I have previously said to noble Lords, we have over £11 billion for the affordable homes programme, but a number of other measures were announced, most recently in the Autumn Statement. For example, the local housing allowance uplift will help with the affordability of the private rented sector, reducing the chances that people might move into temporary accommodation. We also have the Homelessness Reduction Act, which is matched by funding to try to prevent people moving into temporary accommodation altogether. At the Autumn Statement, we also announced additional money for local authorities to increase the supply and quality of their temporary housing to bring down the costs of putting that provision in place so that we can invest in the longer-term solution, which is more affordable housing available to more people.