Housing and Planning Bill
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Half of my exceptionally beautiful constituency consists of the South Downs national park. Much of the development is therefore forced outside the park, which rightly has high levels of landscape protection. This creates a great deal of pressure on the communities outside the park, and it is therefore unsurprising that planning matters are the single biggest issue in my constituency. That reflects the tension with which we as policy makers have to deal. On one hand, we must acknowledge that it is in the national interest to build more houses. The Secretary of State has rightly identified the fall in home ownership and the lack of affordable housing as a serious national problem—perhaps our most pressing one. On the other hand, we must also acknowledge that it is in the national interest to protect the countryside and our communities.
I agreed with a great deal of what my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) said, but the difference between the countryside and shoes is that the supply of land in the countryside has been deliberately constrained by planning legislation for a very good reason—namely, to prevent random development. The challenge for us is to find a way of increasing supply while protecting the countryside as far as possible.
Mr Bacon: I represent a rural constituency and I have yet to meet anyone who does not want to live in a house, even in a rural area. Is not the problem that people do not have enough of a voice in what gets built, where it is built, what it looks like and who gets the chance to live in it? If we can change all that, we can change the conversation about development and environmental protection.
Nick Herbert: I agree with my hon. Friend about that. People often have legitimate reasons for being concerned about development, but a silent group of voters, perhaps a majority, cannot get their foot on the property ladder—those who face high rents, for whom the dream of home ownership is a long way away—and we need to ensure that their interest is represented, too.
There is perhaps something of an ambivalence at the heart of government policy making now. We started off, rightly, with the Localism Bill, the theory being that we should devolve power to local communities and that would be a better way of incentivising house building. There is some evidence, particularly through neighbourhood planning, that that policy approach works, but more recent Bills have sought to take more powers to the centre as a means of driving through house building. That approach will not work, any more than it worked under the previous Government.
That policy ambivalence is perhaps reflected in a split personality on the part of the Government. Kindly Dr Jekyll rightly comes to the House to say that regional spatial strategies are to be scrapped, but at night the Treasury doors are unlocked and Mr Hyde emerges. He uses the Planning Inspectorate to drive up housing numbers, but that interference by the Planning Inspectorate can cause delays in the system, preventing plans from being completed. Kindly Dr Jekyll believes in neighbourhood planning and wants to speed it up, but evil Mr Hyde is allowing a system where speculative planning applications can be allowed against the wishes of local communities. Kindly Dr Jekyll remains committed to a plan-led system, but Mr Hyde, in this Bill, is allowing the Secretary of State to take powers to grant planning permission directly for major infrastructure projects and give permission in principle, perhaps not just on brownfield land, but for other sites too. We need clarity about that.
I suggest to Ministers that we need to address four issues if we want to encourage public support for house building rather than see continuing resistance. First, we need to keep faith in localism. Neighbourhood plans give people power and responsibility to determine what they want rather than what they do not want, and they have resulted in people electing to have more houses than expected. Secondly, people have legitimate concerns about the provision of infrastructure to support housing—not just major infrastructure, which is dealt with under this Bill, but local infrastructure. People need to be assured that there will be adequate school places, that GP waiting lists will not increase and that there will not be excessive traffic on their roads.
Thirdly, good design is at the heart of building public support for housing, and in that respect I strongly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk about the value of “self-build”. That perhaps wrongly suggests that people are going to be encouraged literally to build houses themselves; we are talking about opening up the market to a broader range of suppliers. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State presided over the national planning policy framework, and we must recall that he explicitly said in his foreword that there were three dimensions to that framework: the social, the economic and the environmental. We must not lose sight of that environmental dimension as an important factor that the planning system must address.
Finally, we need to look at more fundamental barriers in our planning system, and again I find myself in agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk about that. There is a real question as to whether we will ever be able to build in the south-east at the rate that will be required to lower house prices and make housing more affordable. We face serious regional imbalances in this country, as much of the demand for housing is focused on areas in the south. We need to look more radically, not just at the rebalancing of the economy that is needed, but at the whole operation of the planning system, to ensure that it meets the needs of people and that housing can be made affordable for everyone.