All 2 Baroness Blackstone contributions to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023

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Tue 17th Jan 2023
Mon 4th Sep 2023

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

Baroness Blackstone Excerpts
Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Lab)
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My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, has just implied, there are few areas of public policy—in fact, I think there are none—that can do more to address the Government’s welcome aim to level up than a substantial increase in social and affordable housing. The enormous disparities that exist in the quality of UK housing are a source of huge inequality between those on low incomes and the better off. These disparities contribute to a poverty-stricken environment for many thousands of children and young people who are growing up in appalling housing conditions—conditions that affect their physical and mental health and damage their educational opportunities. That in turn blocks the development of skills needed to improve their communities and, more broadly, to create economic growth. That vicious circle must be broken, and any notion of genuine levelling up is for the birds unless it is.

It is hugely disappointing that successive Conservative Governments have totally failed to address the crisis in housing supply, in which over 4 million people have serious housing needs. It is scandalous that the supply of social rented housing has fallen by 85% since 2010. I hope the Minister will agree that that must be rectified as a matter of urgency. It is not possible to be confident that the Bill will reverse this decline by making it possible for both local authorities and housing associations to greatly increase the provision of social housing.

The introduction of an infrastructure levy, which will largely, although not completely, replace Section 106 agreements that require developers to contribute to social house building, is flawed. There is a danger that the levy could lead to a diversion of developer contributions from affordable housing to other forms of infrastructure. How do the Government intend to limit that? I would be glad for an answer from the Minister.

How will the Government also make sure that there is a system that promotes more ambitious social housing targets, rather than existing levels of underdelivery becoming the new acceptable standard? It is not clear that the infrastructure levy will actually deliver more social housing than the current system. To do so, the levy should be set at a level that will cover all the costs of social and affordable housing specified in each local authority’s plan. It should be paid in advance or, at the very least, phased through the development rather than requiring local authorities to borrow against the expectation of infrastructure levy income later.

The Bill should provide a valuable opportunity to build into the planning process ways of mitigating the effects of climate change and of meeting net-zero targets. It is therefore welcome that the National Planning Policy Framework recognises this potential contribution. Further consultation is to take place on what is needed, which, crucially, should include changes to enable new methods of demonstrating local support for onshore wind development and the repowering of onshore wind. However, it is worrying that these decisions and other changes contributing to a net-zero carbon future will take place after the Bill’s passage and with limited parliamentary scrutiny. We are not currently on track to meet our net-zero targets, and I would be grateful if the Minister could say how the Government intend to use the planning system to help this happen.

Lastly, I wish to express concern that the Bill centralises decision-making in a way that denies local communities the ability to make and then implement decisions based on their assessment of what is needed. As currently drafted, the Bill certainly makes national development management policies a threat to local democracy. Clauses 86 and 87 transfer substantial policy-making powers to the Secretary of State. Assurances from the Government that there was no intention that these clauses should lead to an undemocratic effect, and that local development plans would continue to take precedence, are not convincing. A legal opinion from Landmark Chambers states that the Bill

“radically centralises planning decision making and substantially erodes public participation in the planning system”.

Legal safeguards must be introduced. Attempts in another place to amend these clauses were rejected by the Government, and I ask the Minister why. Ministers are apparently still determined to appoint themselves extraordinary powers and to override local policies. So I conclude by inviting the Minister to bring forward amendments to these clauses in Committee. If she declines the invitation, I assure her that others will do so.

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

Baroness Blackstone Excerpts
Baroness Hayman Portrait Baroness Hayman (CB)
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My Lords, I think I can beat the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, on his 50 years’ involvement with housing, because when I left university aged 20—which was more than 50 years ago—my first job was with Shelter, a newly formed organisation. I have not been involved in housing a great deal since, but that experience left me with an abiding conviction of the harm that is done to children and families, and to the prospects for individuals, by living in homes that are not fit for human habitation, that are not to the standards that we need, that are not secure and that deprive them of opportunities. So I very much welcome the amendments in this group that we have heard proposed very eloquently.

My two amendments are not about those high-level aspirations; they go back to the theme of delivery and how we actually make this happen. One deals with the supply side and the other with the demand side.

My Amendment 282H deals with rooftop solar power and the problem of getting affordable and clean energy to people. I am extremely grateful for the support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Sheehan and Lady Blackstone, and of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who had brought forward his own amendment on this subject in Committee.

This amendment requires the Secretary of State to make building regulations to ensure that, in England, new homes and public and commercial buildings, as well as existing public and commercial buildings, are fitted with solar panels. It recognises that of course flexibility is needed: there will be circumstances in which design optimisation and practical constraints mean that it would not be possible or useful to put solar panels on every building. However, the default position should be installation, because that is how we give householders the opportunity to minimise the energy consumption of their homes and to live in warm homes at reduced cost.

The Government recognise this. They know that solar power is one of the cleanest, cheapest forms of energy, and they have therefore set a national target for 70 gigawatts from solar by 2035. This is not only to reduce emissions but to reduce our reliance on imported fossil fuels; this is not simply a net-zero issue but an energy security issue. It will also reduce the cost of energy bills for consumers, which, in the current situation with spikes in energy prices, means energy bills for the Government or taxpayers as well, because we have to subsidise those bills. In spite of these ambitions, the CCC’s recent assessment was that the Government’s solar targets are “significantly off track”. This is the same issue we were talking about earlier—that of delivery, rather than aspiration.

A recent report by the CPRE found that installing solar panels on new buildings, warehouse rooftops and other land such as car parks could provide at least 40 to 50 gigawatts of low-carbon electricity, contributing more than half of the national solar targets. Proposals in this amendment have widespread support—for example, from the Skidmore review, the Environmental Audit Committee and industry stakeholders such as Solar Energy UK. The provision would place no burden on households; indeed, it does the opposite, because it reduces financial outgoings. We all know that the cost of retrofitting—which we are doing constantly because we did not have the right standards in the first place—is more expensive. I hope that the Minister will think carefully about his response to the amendment.

My other amendment, Amendment 282L, deals with energy efficiency. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, who is very sorry that he could not be here, and to the noble Lords, Lord Stunell and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for their support.

I am not going to weary the House by repeating at length the arguments on energy efficiency that I and many others have made on the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, the Energy Bill and this Bill. We have spoken at length on why it is crucial, can achieve multiple policy aims and will provide opportunities to contribute to levelling up, such as cheaper heating, rapid emission cuts, addressing the health implications of poor quality and damp homes, job creation in sustainable areas, high-quality skills and creating homegrown industries that can be rolled out across the country, because housing and buildings are everywhere. I will not repeat and lay down a list of all the reports, parliamentary and external, that have endorsed the need for both a coherent strategy and urgent action on energy efficiency. Yet the CCC recently concluded that the Government continue

“to avoid big, impactful decisions and action”

in relation to emissions from buildings.

This amendment is practical and unprescriptive. It merely requires the Government to consider all the options available and to produce a comprehensive plan, so that industry and the public have certainty, clear direction and clear milestones. The sector is poised to take action to scale up what could be a hugely productive market, but time and again in this area we have seen schemes start with a blaze of glory and then splutter into nothing. They have reduced confidence—confidence in the sector and in home owners, householders and tenants to support this.

This is an important time for the House to make clear its view on energy efficiency. We passed an amendment on energy efficiency on the Energy Bill. Tomorrow, along the corridor, they will be discussing that amendment. It will come back to us on ping-pong. It is important that we continue to talk about this. It is also important because we have a new Secretary of State: she will have an enormous in-tray but also opportunities. There is an opportunity for what we have been talking about all evening—strategic and comprehensive leadership. This amendment gives her that opportunity, and I hope it will be supported.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Lab)
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My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 282H, from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on rooftop solar. Before speaking to that, I briefly record my very strong support for both Amendments 191A and 198, which would impose a duty to make regulations to promote healthy homes and neighbourhoods, and to reduce health inequalities, which are at a horrifyingly high level. I say this with some experience of both education and children’s health. I believe that it is especially important that children and young people have access to good, open, public space which enables them to benefit from exercise outside, within easy reach of their homes. It should be somewhere they can go without having to be taken on a bus or in a car a long way from where they live.

I turn to the rooftop solar amendment, which in no way suggests that it is an alternative to other important renewables, in particular onshore wind—which, rumour has it, I am delighted to say, the Government are at last coming round to accept will be needed on a much greater scale than before. Solar roof panels are also not an alternative to heat pumps. They complement them, and in so doing make the cost of heat pumps more affordable and avoid driving up consumers’ costs unnecessarily. Solar Energy UK estimates that, in a typical heat pump heated home, installing solar panels leads to an annual saving of around £1,500 a year.