All 3 Bob Seely contributions to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023

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Wed 8th Jun 2022
Wed 23rd Nov 2022
Tue 13th Dec 2022

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

Bob Seely Excerpts
2nd reading
Wednesday 8th June 2022

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne
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I suggest that the Secretary of State addresses a problem to which national parks are particularly prone, where a historic lawful development certificate is acquired because a caravan was previously located there, affording huge development on the basis of permitted development rights over which the national park authority and the planning authority have no control. That is a power that needs to be grabbed and given back to local authorities.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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And areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I hear the important point about national parks, and the echo from my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) with reference to areas of outstanding natural beauty. The environmental protections in the Bill should meet that need, but I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend in Committee to ensure that the protections are there.

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Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I am shocked—shocked, I tell you—that a Liberal Democrat authority does not have a plan in place and, as a result, housing numbers are spiralling out of control. Imagine what would happen in other beautiful parts of our country such as Devon, in a community such as Tiverton, or Honiton, if Liberal Democrat politicians were in charge. I reassure my hon. Friend that this legislation will ensure that if you have a local plan in place—preferably one put in place by Conservative councillors—you will safeguard your green spaces and natural environment, and you will not have those developers’ friends—the Liberal Democrats—concreting over the countryside.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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On the Isle of Wight, we are separated by sea from the mainland. Our local building industry builds between 200 and 300 homes a year, and we cannot really build more. The standard methodology gives us ridiculous targets of 700-plus, and the nonsense of the mutant algorithm would have given us 1,200-plus. Even in the current consideration, we are forced to offer targets that realistically we cannot hope to build. What reassurance can he give the Island?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My hon. Friend makes an important point. I think it is the case that the thinker who coined the phrase “mutant algorithm” is my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), who is now an Under-Secretary in the Department and working with me and the Minister for Housing to address precisely the concerns that he outlined. We need to build more homes, but we also need to ensure that how we calculate need and how plans are adopted is much more sensible and sensitive.

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Lisa Nandy Portrait Lisa Nandy
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My hon. Friend is an outstanding advocate for her community and we on the Front Bench absolutely support her call for proper action to deal with the crisis of flooding around the country. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) is here; she knows only too well, too the impact that flooding has on communities up and down the country and the shameful way that we have been treated by the Government, with promises of action and measures. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said during the Secretary of State’s opening remarks, there is not a single mention of net zero in the Bill. What is the commitment, if it is anything at all?

I was starting to wonder what the Government had against Yorkshire, but then I saw yesterday that they had also casually scrapped the Golborne link. That decision appears to have been made in the face of pressure from Tory MPs ahead of a confidence vote in the Prime Minister. It is going to create havoc for people trying to travel by rail across the north-west and it plays into the real problems that we already have with east-west connectivity.

Then I saw that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) said that he had voted for the Prime Minister to keep his job after receiving assurances that there would be a funding review for his council. Can I ask the Secretary of State—

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lisa Nandy Portrait Lisa Nandy
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I certainly will, but I ask the Secretary of State: did he have knowledge of this? Did he sign it off? Let me say to him: that sounds awfully like corruption to me.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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The hon. Lady completely misunderstands and she gets it completely wrong. Several years ago, the Prime Minister realised that the Isle of Wight was the only island in the UK that does not have a multiplier. The Isles of Scilly get a multiplier of 1.5 and the Scottish islands get the Scottish islands needs allowance. I said to the Prime Minister, “Will you commit to rectifying this wrong, which is a policy flaw?” He said “Yes,” and I reminded him of that promise beforehand. Did I ask for a bag of cash? No, and it is completely untrue for her to say that, so she can get up now and apologise.

Lisa Nandy Portrait Lisa Nandy
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Of course I will give the hon. Member the opportunity—[Interruption.]

Lisa Nandy Portrait Lisa Nandy
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I of course gave the hon. Member the right of reply, but I am quoting literally and directly a quote on his website. If those are not his words and are not correct, I leave it up to hon. Members to judge. I am simply quoting his words to the Secretary of State and asking whether that is correct, because we have had a report today that says, in stark terms, that the Department—

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is a very serious allegation. Corruption has been alleged, but there is no basis for it and it should be withdrawn.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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This is a serious allegation. I am not in a position right now to weigh up one side of the argument against the other, because I do not have the evidence before me of whatever words were published and whatever words have been said. I ask the hon. Lady —[Interruption.] She cannot possibly be looking at her phone while I am speaking to her. No, no, she cannot possibly be looking at her phone while I am speaking to her! I ask her to get us over this part of the debate, and we can come back to this matter at another time. Will she please withdraw the—[Hon. Members: “ No!”] Do not shout at me when I am speaking from the Chair! Will the hon. Lady please withdraw the allegation of corruption, which is a very serious one, and perhaps find some other words to show that she disagrees with what the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) said. We can then proceed with the debate and, if necessary, come back to this point at another time.

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Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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I have a lot of respect for the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy)—she is not in her place but will be coming back very shortly—but I have to say that her speech was pretty dire, her allegations silly, and her withdrawal pretty mealy-mouthed. For the record, for those on the Labour Front Bench, and for anyone else who wants to listen, I make no apology for persuading the Government to treat the Isle of Wight like every other island in the UK. The Island is the most under-represented place in this country. I have twice as many constituents. We are separated by sea from the mainland, and I have to fight three times as hard to get any Government to listen to me. I make no apologies for speaking with passion and determination, and I make no apologies for fighting tooth and nail.

I shall tell those on the Labour Front Bench something else: we were not in the first round of levelling up, but by last December we were. We are now getting a new crane for Wight Shipyard, which means dozens of apprenticeships, and I am proud of that. If Labour Members want to insinuate anything about that, they are welcome to do so. I have one final piece of advice before I go on to the real issues here: the reason why there are so many of us here, not only in this debate, but in this House, is that, perhaps, we have a reputation for delivering for our folks. That is something that the Labour party may want to take into account. Anyway, that is almost a minute and a half of my life that I will not get back, so I shall now move on to the substance of the Bill.

The presentation of Tory MPs saying, “No, no, no!” to change is not true. We see the hundreds of thousands of unbuilt permissions and we worry. We know our youngsters cannot get on to the housing ladder and we worry. We see the loss of landscape in my patch celebrated by Tennyson, Turner, Keats and many others, and we worry. We see lazy developers relying on greenfield sites and we worry. We want the system to change. What we do not want is a system that keeps on giving to developers who give nothing back, who pocket development and then say, “More, please” like some inverted Oliver Twist. What we want is people who deliver for our communities and also for the nation.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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I would rather not give way as I have only one minute—

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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Okay, I give way.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson
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I know the hon. Gentleman was desperate to get an extra minute. He is making a really impassioned speech and I agree with much of what he has said so far. He mentioned developers snapping up greenfield sites. In my constituency, the local community rose up to protect a site called Udney Park Playing Fields in Teddington, and thanks to a legal challenge it is now protected green space. The developer, however, will not now sell the site back to the community despite a good bid to turn it into playing fields, because they paid over the odds and they will wait years and years until planning policy changes. Meanwhile, the site is going to rack and ruin. Do we not need powers to tackle that?

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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Order. We need short interventions, because there are many people who wish to speak.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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The hon. Lady makes a very good point. She will probably have to wait 10 to 15 years. There will be a form of planning blight on that land. We have the same with an awful development on my patch called Pennyfeathers, which I wish had never been built. I wish the Secretary of State or, indeed, the wonderful Minister for Housing, had the powers to say no to it; we could go back to having a vineyard and green fields there, as there should be.

I am very supportive of my colleagues on the Conservative Benches who have made speeches this afternoon, but let me turn briefly to amendments. Targets are the bane of so many of my colleagues. They need to be advisory, not mandatory, and I remind the Government that neighbourhood plan areas tend to say yes to more developments because they get the chance to shape them. If we do not feel that developments are being shoved down our throats, and that we can shape them more, the Government will have greater success.

The Secretary of State has heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) and others about the pernicious loopholes, the vandalism of sites of special scientific interest and the way people corruptly game the system. Why is character not grounds for opposing development? Why can we not shut down those loopholes that do such damage to our countryside, national parks and AONBs?

I know this is not a tax Bill, but fundamentally we need to find an effective way of changing the economics from greenfield to brownfield sites, so that the half a million or a million properties on brownfield sites are developed. We also have a second homes problem, not only on the Island but in Cornwall, the lake district and other areas. We need to respect property rights, but communities in my patch such as Seaview, Bembridge and Yarmouth must not become Potemkin villages that are empty for much of the year. We must have a community that stays there.

There will be a series of amendments to the Bill, and I assure the Minister they will be as supportive as they can be, but I will finish with something close to my heart: compulsory purchase. I want the Government to give more powers to councils for compulsory purchase. In Sandown, a town in my patch, a Mr Steven Purvis owns the Ocean Hotel and is fighting forced redevelopment tooth and nail. Nick Spyker owns the Grand Hotel in Sandown. Those places sit empty year in, year out.

Sandown is crying out for investment. The Island cannot afford owners who, for whatever reason, keep those properties as empty eyesores, damaging our communities, our public health and our economy. We must ensure that our councils have the power to say to people such as Purvis and Spyker, “Invest, or jog on.” There will be a lot of amendments to this Bill, many of them supportive, but we need to get a grip and we need to drive development and levelling-up forward.

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

Bob Seely Excerpts
James Grundy Portrait James Grundy
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First of all, I commend the Minister on what I thought was an excellent opening speech. It was the first time I have been in the Chamber when she has given one. I thank her not just for that but for the time that she makes available to Back Benchers such as me for discussions on levelling up. I know that we all greatly appreciate it.

I also commend my hon. Friends on the Back Benches who have done so much work in putting forward important amendments. I hope that the Government will, as they have indicated, incorporate the vast majority of those amendments into the Bill. It is important that some of the issues raised by Back-Bench colleagues are addressed, and so far, I have been heartened by what has been said.

On the Bill itself, I was heartened when the Minister spoke about infrastructure. As many people will know, the constituency of Leigh has wanted a bypass for 60 years and has been waiting for it to be completed for 40 years. The problem is that the Atherleigh Way bypass runs across three local authorities and two counties, and it is difficult to get this stuff finished under existing laws.

As Andy Burnham—the previous incumbent of my seat—used to say, Leigh is one of the largest towns in the north-west of England without a railway station. Well, I am very pleased to say that, after 60 years, Golborne station is being reopened, and I am hopeful that we will be able to get a station opened for Leigh as well. Of course, levelling up is a cross-departmental discipline.

On regeneration, Leigh Means Business, the local community interest company, has provided me with information stating that almost 25% of commercial property in the centre of Leigh is vacant and unused. I think that goes to the point made by colleagues about the importance of bringing back into use brownfield sites in red-wall town centres such as mine before we start chipping away at the green belt and the green fields on the edge of town.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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I am so delighted that my hon. Friend is making that point, because it is pretty much central to so much of what we want to see. We are accused of being nimbys and of saying no, no, no to everything, but we have a dozen-plus amendments because we want to find solutions for the Government. We loathe the top-down targets because they are fantastically un-Conservative, but we are desperate to try to find a way to change the balance between brownfield and greenfield development. Does he agree that if we can get that change in dynamic, we can fire up a development boom in this country? We could avoid so many of the stresses about greenfield development by focusing much more on brownfield.

James Grundy Portrait James Grundy
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I am glad that my hon. Friend says that, because before my slip was withdrawn this morning, I was meant to be in Greater Manchester speaking about Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s “Places for Everyone” strategic development plan. I attended a session about two or three weeks ago, and the point was made—not just by me but by others, including the CPRE—that if we focused on addressing the proper use of brownfield sites in Greater Manchester, we would be able to fulfil the target set under the “Places for Everyone” plan without taking a single piece of green belt. I am delighted that these issues have been brought to the fore. I served for 13 years as a councillor on Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council, and these arguments have been batted back and forth for many years, so I am tremendously pleased that we have been able to bring these issues to the fore.

On the technical matters, my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) said that he thought it might be better if a separate planning Bill had been introduced, and I think there is a strong case for that, but we are where we are. As I said, I am pleased that the Government intend to listen to the concerns of Back Benchers and incorporate a number of remedies that I think will be of great importance for improving the Bill.

There is, however, one matter on which, I am afraid, I am not entirely on board with the Government. I am sure that it will not come as a shock to anyone on either Front Bench that I am not a tremendous fan of elected Mayors. To my mind, the correct approach to reforming local government is through localism, and not devolution, because the problem we have with the form of devolution that the Government have chosen is that it creates a number of unaccountable sinecures that will be run by regional Svengalis. The problem is that this encourages a form of challenge to the Government whereby a regional Mayor of whatever stripe stands up and says, “The Government are terrible, give me more money.” [Interruption.] I see the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) is somewhat amused.

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Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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Following the last speaker, we will move on to the ministerial response.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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I am going to speak to new clause 34, and may make some broader points, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) did—I thank her for her great work and leadership on this issue. There are many good ideas that we have been discussing on all sides of the House today, and it is great to see such a brilliant Minister in her role and dealing with this Bill. Indeed, quite a few Ministers have been dealing with it, but I am glad that the buck has stopped with her. I welcome all and any measures to support levelling up.

The Isle of Wight is rich in so many ways, but economically is not necessarily one of them. We have a wonderful sense of community and a wonderful quality of life, but if I can achieve one thing in this place, it is to improve Islanders’ life chances and opportunities. I am delighted that in the last five years the Government have been listening more than they have done previously. We have got £120 million of additional investment. There is £48 million for the NHS—the build at St Mary’s is due to start in the next two weeks—and £26 million to rebuild the Island line. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago I was at Ryde Pier with my little hard hat on—a Boris look-alike or whatever—because the rebuild of the railway pier is now happening as well.

The hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) asked what levelling up has done. Actually, we have got a 240-ton-lift crane in East Cowes for our shipyard, which will drive dozens of new jobs and apprenticeships in shipbuilding on the Isle of Wight. The clippers that we see going up and down the Thames are made on the Island. We have lots of great things, including in training for Isle of Wight College.

One of the many things said by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), which really sticks with me is that, “Talent is shared out equality in our nation, but opportunity isn’t.” We feel that, in a poorer part of a rich area.

I turn to compulsory purchase. If we go to any town or city in this country, apart from brownfield—I will come to that—we see long-term empty, derelict buildings. In coastal areas, as the Minister will know—it is fantastic that she has agreed to come to the Island and we very much look forward to hosting her—that problem is especially acute, particularly with former hotels. In Sandown, which is a town with a really lovely, wonderful community, some of our most important and valuable sites have stood empty for years. The Grand hotel is owned by a developer who seems to be unwilling to develop his own properties. The technical ownership of the Ocean hotel seems to change every month as it is flipped through a series of highly questionable companies. It is one of the most important sites in Sandown, and it is derelict and vandalised. We need the compulsory purchase powers. I respect property rights, but actually we need those powers to be as strong as possible so that communities such as mine and the Isle of Wight Council can use them to do good.

I am going to try this argument: I want to be able to get the Isle of Wight Council to compulsory purchase from the Government. Camp Hill prison site—the third prison site on the Island—has been empty for nine years. For five years I have been asking for a decision on Camp Hill. The Government cannot decide whether they want to turn it back into a prison, give us the land, sell it privately and so on. If they can give us that land at a price that we can afford, we can do real good with it, and we can build homes.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet made the point that we want to propose good stuff. That is why, among 20 amendments and new clauses that we tabled, we have proposed new clause 34. There is an incredibly trite conversation around the issue, suggesting that those who object to top-down targets and the entirely depressing reliance on out-of-town, car-dependent housing estates plonked down in the middle of nowhere are somehow anti-young people or nimbys—a nimby is a local patriot, in my opinion—shouting, “No, no, no,” with their heads in the ground like ostriches. Actually, we are saying, “Yes, yes, yes” to so many ideas—we are trying to give the Government so many ideas—because we want planning and housing to be a success. We want to protect communities and, at the same time, we recognise that we need to build, but we want a system that is community-centred, environment-centred—environmentally friendly—and regeneration-centred.

When we have acre after acre of brownfield sites in towns and cities up and down the country, what on earth is the point of being reliant on developers lazily building on greenfield sites? That alienates older people in communities—they have their dog-walking routes and views ruined—yet so often, and especially in the home counties, those houses cannot be afforded by young people. All that happens is people move out of London. That is a problem in Essex, Kent and Hampshire. On the Island, the dynamic is slightly different because people retire to us, but either way, despite having increased our population by 50% in 50 years, one of the most depressing facts is that we still export our young people too often.

New clause 34, which would give us compulsory powers to act in the public good, is only one of a series of, I hope, good ideas supported by my right hon. Friend, me and many people. For example, I think that for new clause 21, on top-down targets, we have more than 55 colleagues. Regardless of what the Labour party does, we need to work together. We want to work together with the Government in a spirit of co-operation, but can they please trust us and listen to us?

Another example of a good idea, apart from new clause 34, is the new clause on having a “Use it or lose it” rule to stop planners land-banking. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that a fundamental problem is not that planners do not give out permissions—80% get passed—or that pesky nimbys stop everything, because we know that is a load of rubbish. The fundamental problem is that developers have a vested interest in only releasing land for housing slowly, because that keeps the value of land high, house prices high, share prices high and bosses’ bonuses high. I sound a bit like I should be on the Opposition Benches. I am a big fan of capitalism, but I want capitalism to work. I want the developer industry to serve the people of this country, not its bosses.

We will achieve that by getting a system that works, so we want a new clause for “Use it or lose it.” We want a new clause that says, “Okay, you will have a time here and if you do not build out, you’re paying council tax on that 200-house estate. If you haven’t built it, you’re still paying council tax come what may.” We want bigger sticks. We want some nice carrots for brownfield, but we want bigger sticks for developers, so that when someone gets a 1,000-acre site they actually have to do something with it, and they cannot just sit on it and inflate their share price.

We want what is in the public interest. As soon as some people become Ministers, they think they know best—I am sure that this Minister does not think that—and they want top-down stuff, because that is where they drive reform. However, we know that a community with a neighbourhood plan is more likely to welcome development. Why? Because they get to shape it. All the so-called nimbys actually think, “Okay, here’s a home for my kids, a home for my daughter and son-in-law, a home for my grandkids.” They buy into it.

That is why top-down targets fundamentally do not work. They create an incredibly divisive battle. The Government say, “You have to build this many houses.” We get ridiculous, absurd numbers for the Isle of Wight, considering that our indigenous population is meant to decline by 9,000 over the next 15 years. We get targets and local government is put under pressure. The developers then start plonking down greenfield permissions, because they cannot be bothered to look at brownfield sites, which alienates communities. It becomes fundamentally divisive and adversarial.

Changing economic incentives would revolutionise development in this country, so that it becomes a win-win for communities. We could create more disincentives for greenfield sites—a super-tax—so that every plot on a greenfield site has to pay twice the amount as those on a brownfield site. Some brownfield sites are dirtier than others, but if we had a tax that said, “Okay, you are giving up 1,000 acres of greenfield site in Cambridgeshire, Kent or Hampshire, but you are getting 2,000 acres of cleaned-up brownfield site” that would be a win. That is something we could accept. We need to think in much more creative terms and to move away from an adversarial system. That is why another amendment—along with new clause 34, which we love—asks the Government to look at the creation of incentives for brownfield and greater disincentives for greenfield.

Fundamentally, with the exception of one or two things, the Government are going in the right direction, but they need to go further. Another example is the new clause on character tests. Some shoddy developers have criminal records. They intimidate people, do not treat communities properly, never build out or build poorly. Why can that not be a reason to object? Do we not want to clean up the development industry? Do we not want socially responsible developers who do the right thing for their communities and actually make an effort? They can be rewarded by us supporting their development planning applications and we can stop people who want to build caravan parks in the wrong place but use loopholes. That is another of our amendments—it is a great amendment—which would do real good, so why are the Government not accepting it?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet and I, the 55 colleagues who signed new clause 21 on top-down housing targets, and many others, including the—I think—30 colleagues who signed new clause 34 on compulsory purchase, all want to say yes to this stuff. We want our communities to feel that development works for them—that it works for the old and young folks in communities, that it works to regenerate and that it works to protect our environment, which is so important to our future and which helps the whole process of community-led regeneration. In that spirit, we tabled new clause 34 and all the other wonderful amendments, which we look forward to discussing with the Government when they come up with a second date. My plea is for the Government to work with us on this issue, because want to make this a win-win, not a lose-lose.

Lucy Frazer Portrait Lucy Frazer
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As I mentioned just now, the Bill is not just about building; it is also about protecting the environment. A number of measures in the Bill will ensure that we protect our natural spaces—30% of our nature—and our local nature recovery strategies, which are due to begin across England as soon as possible, were committed to in the Environment Act 2021.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, following the talks between Ministers, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and me, we should have reached a compromise on a much more community-led, environmentally friendly and regenerative housing policy? As the Minister can hear, however, there is still considerable concern about making sure that we deliver the substance of these things as well as simply the words around them. Will that be reflected in the NPPF?

Lucy Frazer Portrait Lucy Frazer
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I reiterate my thanks to my hon. Friend, who has worked so hard with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet to make sure that we get our planning system right, on behalf of and with so many colleagues on our Benches. I assure him that we in the Department for Levelling Up—me and the Secretary of State—believe that we have come to a better solution. We are committed to delivering it, as I am sure my hon. Friend and others across this House will see in the policy that we will propose in the NPPF and bring forward before Christmas.

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Matthew Pennycook Portrait Matthew Pennycook
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I want to make some progress, so I will not give way.

We take issue with the Government making local housing targets unenforceable in the absence of a viable alternative to try to maintain supply.

We believe it is essential not only that the process by which the Secretary of State must designate and review an NDMP involves minimum public consultation requirements and an appropriate level of parliamentary scrutiny, but that the scope of an NDMP to override local plans is suitably constrained. On that basis, I commend amendments 78 and 79 to the House.

Part 4 addresses the new infrastructure levy, which is the Government’s proposed replacement for the present arrangement by which local planning authorities secure developer contributions. We believe the new levy is one of the most consequential aspects of the Bill and has potentially far-reaching implications not only for the provision of core infrastructure but for the supply of affordable housing. Although we fully appreciate that schedule 11 merely provides the basic framework for the levy, with a detailed design to follow, and that the levy’s implementation will take a test-and-learn approach, we are convinced that, as a proposition, it is fundamentally flawed.

As we argued in great detail in Committee, the deficiencies inherent in a rigid fixed-rate mechanism for securing both infrastructure and affordable housing, based on the metric of gross development value, almost certainly means the levy will prove onerously complicated to operate in practice and that, overall, it will deliver less infrastructure and less affordable housing in the future, while putting the development of less viable sites at risk.

For that reason, we remain of the view that if the infrastructure levy is taken forward, it should be optional rather than mandatory, with local authorities that believe that the needs of their areas are best served by the existing developer contributions system able to continue to utilise it. Taken together, amendments 81 to 83 and 91 would ensure that local authorities retain that discretion, and I hope the new Minister, whom I welcome to her place, will consider them carefully, along with amendment 86, which seeks to address a specific concern about how viability testing will inform the levy rate-setting process.

Amendment 84 seeks to ensure that if the Government insist it is made mandatory, the new infrastructure levy must deliver sufficient levels of affordable housing. Since the publication of the Bill, Ministers have repeated ad nauseam that the new levy will secure at least as much affordable housing as developer contributions do now, yet the Government have so far been unable to provide any evidence or analysis to substantiate why they believe it can fulfil that objective. More importantly, there is nothing in the Bill to ensure that the commitment made by successive Ministers with regard to affordable housing will be honoured. At present, proposed new section 204G(2) of the Planning Act 2008—in schedule 11, on page 291 of the Bill—only requires charging authorities to have regard to the desirability of ensuring that levels of affordable housing are

“maintained at a level which, over a specified period, is equal to or exceeds the level of such housing and funding provided over an earlier specified period of the same length.”

Put simply, the Bill as drafted would enable—one might even say encourage—inadequate levels of affordable housing supply to remain the norm by making them the minimum requirement.

If we want to ensure that the new levy secures at least as much affordable housing as is being delivered through the existing developer contributions system—and ideally more—we believe the Bill needs to be revised. That is not a view confined only to this side of the House. In the foreword to a report published only yesterday by the Centre for Social Justice, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes)—himself a former Minister in the Department—argues in relation to the levy that

“it would be good to see stronger safeguards in primary legislation, rather than in regulations, for protecting and increasing the existing levels of affordable housing supply funded in this way”.

Not for the first time, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Gentleman.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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One of the specific things that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and I requested in our agreement with Ministers was to make it easier for councils to increase the percentage of affordable housing. Clearly there is the economics of how that can happen, but we absolutely encouraged them to allow us to have that wording, so that in a place such as the Isle of Wight we could dramatically increase affordable housing as a percentage of housing. We actually put this at the centre of our plans.

Matthew Pennycook Portrait Matthew Pennycook
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Increasing the supply of affordable housing, which is at pitifully low levels, is a laudable aim. I agree with the hon. Member on that, and I therefore hope he can support our amendment 84, because it would achieve the objective in relation to the infrastructure levy by requiring charging authorities to ensure that levels of affordable housing are maintained at a level that, over a specified period, enables any given authority to meet the housing need identified in its local development plan, and I commend it to the House.

Turning to part 5 of the Bill, this concerns the Government’s proposed new approach to assessing the potential environmental effects of relevant plans and major projects—namely, environmental outcomes reports. Chief among several concerns we have about the proposed EOR system are the deficiencies of clause 122 in relation to non-regression safeguards. While we welcome the inclusion of this clause in the Bill as a means of constraining the use of the wider regulation-making powers in part 5, we are concerned that the clause as drafted contains a series of loopholes. First, use of the relevant non-regression provisions is entirely at the discretion of the Secretary of State. Secondly, the Bill stipulates that the principle of non-regression will only apply to the

“overall level of environmental protection”,

rather than specific aspects of it. Thirdly, the definition of environmental law used in the relevant subsection will limit the extent to which it can provide protection against potential future regression.

The Minister who responded to the debate on this issue in Committee provided some measure of reassurance as to why the clause is drafted in the way it is, but our concerns have not been entirely assuaged. We have tabled amendment 88 to ensure that the new system of environmental assessment would not reduce existing environmental protections in any way, and I look forward to hearing how the Minister responds to it in due course.

We want to see many other changes to the Bill. Among other things, we have tabled amendments and new clauses to ensure that the Government undertake a comprehensive review of the extension of permitted development rights since 2013; to allow local authorities to hold planning meetings virtually or in hybrid form; and to place a duty on local planning authorities to appoint suitably qualified chief planning officers.

Of particular importance to us is the need to ensure that the Bill fully aligns the planning system with the UK’s climate mitigation and adaptation goals. In Committee, Ministers argued repeatedly that existing local and national duties, requirements and powers are sufficient to ensure that the planning system responds as required to the climate emergency, yet that is demonstrably not the case, given that the system regularly throws up decisions that are seemingly incompatible with the need to make rapid progress towards net zero emissions by mid-century and to prepare the country for the changes that are already under way. That is likely to remain the case until the Government produce clear and unambiguous national policy guidance, in the form of a revised NPPF, and legislate for a purposeful statutory framework to ensure genuine coherence between our country’s planning system and its climate commitments. New clause 98 would deliver the latter, and I urge Members to support it.

Before I turn to a number of the substantial Government amendments that have been tabled since the Bill left Committee, I will speak briefly to new clause 114. As you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, despite a notional majority of more than 80, the Government are developing an alarming habit of allowing national policy to be dictated by the demands of amorphous groups of their own Back Benchers. In the case of onshore wind deployment, the Government’s weakness in the face of such demands is all ostensibly to the good, because Ministers are now seemingly committed to amending the NPPF to finally end the harmful effective moratorium imposed on onshore wind since 2015.

However, the written ministerial statement published last Tuesday provoked more questions than it answered. For example, what criteria will Ministers specify to determine what qualifies as a demonstration of local support for onshore wind projects, given that there is certainly no clear indication that the Government are minded to bring consenting for onshore wind in line with other forms of infrastructure, as it should be?

To take another, there is the assertion in that statement that we need

“to move away from the overly rigid requirement for onshore wind sites to be designated in a local plan.”—[Official Report, 6 December 2022; Vol. 724, c. 9WS.]

What is meant by that? The Minister will know that sites do not have to be identified in local plans to receive consent for onshore wind deployment, but there is a strong presumption that they should be, and rightly so. If we are to strengthen our energy security, cut bills and reduce emissions, we need local authorities to proactively consider the opportunities within their boundaries for the deployment of all forms of renewable energy, including onshore wind generation.

Given the degree of ambiguity that now surrounds the Government’s position, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Secretary of State has simply sought to buy himself the time he needs to get this legislation passed by alighting on a form of words nebulous enough to temporarily appease the warring factions within his party.

New clause 114, in contrast, is clear and unambiguous. It would require the Government to remove the onerous restrictions that the NPPF places on the development of onshore wind projects, and it would ensure that local communities have their say via the planning process, without imposing a uniquely restrictive consenting regime upon only this form of renewable energy generation. It would ensure that local authorities must at least explore the desirability of renewable energy deployment, including onshore wind, as part of the local plan preparation process, and I commend the new clause to the House.

Turning finally to a number of the Government amendments that have been tabled in recent weeks, Government new clauses 49 to 59 insert an entirely new part into the Bill, as the Minister said, that enables community land auction pilots to take place. As many Members will be aware, such auctions are not a novel concept, having been first proposed as far back as 2005. On paper, the premise appears entirely sensible. Landowners would have the freedom to voluntarily come together to grant options over land in the area of a participating local planning authority, with a view to it being allocated for development in the local plan. On the assumption that the option value would be significantly less than the market value for housing development, and that landlords will release said land at the lower price to realise the guaranteed short-term return, the authority in question will be able to exercise or sell the option, capturing some of the increased value uplift and using it to support local development.

In practice, the idea is riven with flaws. First, the circumstances for which this theoretical arrangement is designed—namely, a collection of small and completely substitutable land parcels with multiple landowners—bears little relation to the characteristics of the actual land market across the country.

Secondly, the idea that auctions will drive down land prices in the absence of any element of compulsion is frankly for the birds. One need only look at Transport for London’s disappointing experience with the development rights auction model to see how the proposed arrangement will fall short in that regard.