Long-term Plan for Housing

Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Excerpts
Thursday 11th January 2024

(6 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Portrait Baroness Taylor of Stevenage (Lab)
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My Lords, there surely cannot be any debate on the fact that we are in the midst of a catastrophic housing crisis, which figures from Shelter tell us leaves almost 300,000 of our fellow citizens homeless every night, including 123,000 children, and over a million families on social housing waiting lists. A planning policy framework doing its job would at least put the steps in place to start delivering the numbers of homes that would resolve this crisis, but this plan is neither long-term nor a plan to deliver housing.

Sadly, the Government’s caving-in to Back-Benchers in the other place, and developers on housing targets, means this planning policy framework will mean housing delivery falling far from the mark for the foreseeable future. Data published this week showed that consents are at an all-time low, 20% down on last year, and the National House Building Council shows a dramatic fall in registrations, down 42% in quarter two compared with last year.

Commitment to delivering real improvement in housing delivery has to be called into question when we have had no less than 16 Housing Ministers since 2010, and when the Secretary of State delivered his statement on this planning policy framework to a press conference, rather than in Parliament. The National Planning Policy Framework should provide the link to ensure that local councils are taking into account the strategic need for housing, industrial and commercial land, food and farming requirements and the whole range of environmental issues as they apply in each area. Local plans are vital to deliver what is needed across the country, but also to engage local communities in how that is done and to provide the protections needed against speculative, unwanted or dangerous development.

However, the level of uncertainty the Government have generated by flip-flopping over their commitment to housing, by failure to create proper industrial strategy and failure to take environmental issues seriously enough, has fatally undermined all of that and has now culminated in 58 local authorities either scrapping or delaying their local plans as they wrestle with the uncertainty over housing targets. Yet this Statement seems to unequivocally point the finger at local authorities.

I suggest that the Minister in the other place might want to look in the mirror here. The example closest to home for me was that after extensive local research, two years of intensive public consultation and partnership working, and an extended three-week public inquiry, our Stevenage local plan was submitted to the Government on time—and then sat on the holding direction on the Secretary of State’s desk for 451 days until it was finally approved.

It is not just on housing that this framework fails to deliver. Because we have no proper industrial strategy, it is almost impossible for local plans to meet the needs for industrial commercial permissions, and the honourable Member for Buckingham in the other place raised on 19 December that it does not meet the stronger protections for food production land use either, with a wishy-washy statement quoted by the Minister:

“The availability of agricultural land used for food production should be considered”.

What does that mean? Question after question when the Statement was debated in the other place, largely from Conservative Members, sought clarification of exactly what is meant by the fact that housing targets are an advisory starting point. The best the Minister could come up with was:

“I cannot pre-empt or suggest exactly what that will mean in all instances”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/12/23; cols. 1275-6.]

One senior member of a respected planning stakeholder body told me that they stopped taking notes at the Secretary of State’s press conference on this topic because what he said just did not make any sense. Can the Minister please tell us how this process of advisory starting points for housing targets will deliver the 300,000 homes a year that are so urgently needed? We need to be clear here. There will be no levelling up unless we are at least aiming to provide a safe, secure, affordable and sustainable home for everyone. How does this set of policies deliver that?

On the key issue of resources, this is crippling local authorities’ ability to deliver against their planning obligations; indeed, the Royal Town Planning Institute reports 90% of local authorities as having a backlog of cases and 70% as having difficulties in recruiting. How will the Government support local authorities to resource their planning function as demand increases when their budgets are squeezed by the skyrocketing costs of children’s services, adult social care and, of course, homelessness? How do the Government reconcile their threats to remove planning powers from local authorities that do not meet the three-month deadline for delivery of their plan with the absolute obligation for authorities to consult local people? With a significant change on the issue of housing targets, surely it is understandable that further consultation must be undertaken. Has that been taken into account? If, as the Secretary of State has threatened, recalcitrant local authorities have their planning powers removed, who will undertake the planning work for their area? The Planning Inspectorate is already underresourced and its involvement in local plan-making would be a significant conflict of interest.

Time and again in debates during the passage of the levelling-up Act we were told that the Government would not accept amendments because provision would be included in the National Planning Policy Framework; for example, on ensuring that housebuilders focus on healthy homes and on making specific provision for housing for older people, flooding, access to open space, protections for historic buildings and a wide range of environmental issues. What assessment has the department carried out to ensure that all those issues—all those promises that were made to us—are incorporated into this new set of policies?

I return to my initial point: without a determined effort to deliver 300,000 homes a year, which we will need to resolve the housing crisis, we will continue to see the shameful situation where children are homeless, where they share beds with their parents because of lack of adequate space, where permitted development allows appalling housing conditions to prevail, and where poor housing affects the health and life chances of a whole generation. Perhaps it is time for a new ITV drama, “Mr Bates versus DLUHC”. In failing to tackle this through a clear housing strategy and the policies to support that, including targets, this policy amounts just to failure and another missed opportunity.

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.