Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): On a more serious matter, new clause 5 states that planning should create sustainable development, and that “sustaining” means
“the potential of future generations to meet their own needs by respecting environmental limits.”
Does the hon. Lady think there is a limit to how many people England can accommodate, and does she think her Government exceeded that limit?
Roberta Blackman-Woods: The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting intervention, but I will not be distracted and talk about that issue, because we have a serious matter in front of us—the measures contained in clause 1.
Mr Redwood: I would be grateful if the hon. Lady could explain who would judge civic beauty, which I understand is an important criterion in her proposed system.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: The right hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. It might be helpful if we discussed how to judge what is beautiful in civic terms. I will happily engage with the Minister on how we might set up such a system. We could have citizens’ panels and they could get advice from relevant bodies around the country. If the Minister were to adopt the new clause and discuss with us how the measures in it could be delivered, it would be a helpful and constructive way forward, so I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
Mr Redwood: My right hon. Friend has made an interesting point about need and demand. The Government have stated clearly that they will cut net inward migration from a quarter of a million a year to a few tens of thousands. Presumably councils should take into account the sharp deceleration in the need for new households.
Nick Herbert: That raises the question of the process whereby councils are now assessing need, and the potential confusion between need and demand. I think that communities will feel cheated if, having been promised the abolition of the top-down housing target that was set by the last Government—effectively by means of the regional spatial strategies—they see it returning through the back door in the shape of a planning inspector, and if local authorities find that they have no choice but to provide a level of housing that they consider to be unsustainable.
Mr Redwood: As the Minister may know, the borough unitary I mainly represent—Wokingham—has a local plan. It has identified land for 12,500 houses, which is a massive increase in development and well beyond the number many of my constituents would like. The authority has been prepared to argue the plan through; it wants to concentrate the development to get money for the infrastructure mainly from private sources, but the Minister decided to grant permission somewhere else, completely undermining the negotiations the authority wants to hold with the private sector. How does that help to get infrastructure?
Nick Boles: My right hon. Friend accuses me of things I have not done, but I am happy to take responsibility for all decisions of the Government, whether quasi judicial or otherwise.
Mr Redwood: Does the right hon. Gentleman not understand that the Minister’s intention is very simple and sensible? He does not want a commercial development of homes to be prevented by an affordable housing target that is not realistic for that development. Surely it is better to have some housing than none.
Mr Raynsford: If the right hon. Gentleman will bear with me, he will realise that, actually, the consequence of what the Minister is trying to do would be to destroy a policy that dates back to the days of the Conservative Government of the 1980s—I believe that the right hon. Gentleman was strongly supportive of them—who allowed it to come into being in order to ensure that it was possible to create affordable housing to meet needs in areas where there would usually be outright opposition to market housing. The reason for that outright opposition is that such developments would seriously compromise the character of an area. The rural areas in question do not want a mass of indiscriminate private sector development, but they do recognise the need for some homes for people who need to live and work in those communities. That was the basis of the policy, which was a product of his party’s Government. It was supported by my party, has remained in operation for more than 20 years and has secured a good supply of affordable housing to meet special needs. I would have thought that he would have welcomed it.
Mr Redwood: That was then and now is now. Then, we had working banks, a growing economy and people were able to invest and carry the costs. That is not true today, thanks to what the right hon. Gentleman’s party did in government.
Mr Raynsford: I am sorry to have to remind the right hon. Gentleman that it is his Government who have been in office for the past two and half years, over which time the economy, at the very best, has been grinding along on the bottom as the result of his party’s mismanagement of it. I do not, however, intend to go down that route. I want to return to a policy that has received widespread support from Members of all parties, including some of his hon. Friends, who have specifically welcomed my amendment. I hope that after he has listened more to my argument, he will recognise that there is logic to the amendment.
Mr Redwood: The Government are right to be concerned about the poor volume of house building that they inherited and that has continued for the past two and a bit years. It is right that they need to facilitate more development of more or less any kind. It will, by definition, be affordable because people will now build houses only if they can see a purchaser or tenant with reasonable security.
I have difficulty with the amendments proposed by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford). He and I would probably agree that we need more affordable housing of all kinds in this country. The biggest shortage is probably in affordable housing for sale. A large number of people would like to own their own home. It is one of the tragedies of the current situation that people in their 20s and quite a lot of people in their 30s are no longer able to obtain a large enough mortgage to afford the prices of homes in many parts of the country. We therefore have a new generation of people who do not have the access to home ownership that previous generations have enjoyed and taken advantage of.
That has come about because of a mighty land and property price bubble, generated primarily by the mortgage excesses of the previous decade and, to a lesser extent, by the capitalisation of the subsidies that the Government tipped into the housing sector to try to keep pace with the inflationary bubble that the banking and monetary policy was creating. We are using public money to chase a bubble, which makes it very difficult to get affordable housing to people. The public money then does not go around as far as it should, because land and property prices are so high.
How are we going to break into that conundrum? The Government are trying many things. They are trying to get a freer flow of mortgage money and cash to people at cheap prices, so that they can afford more. They are also working on the supply side to try to puncture the land bubble at a sensible rate, so that all homes become more affordable.
The danger with concentrating on so-called affordable homes for rent in the public sector is that, as the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich says, there is a big lottery element to it. If one was born in the right village or has lived in the right village for long enough, one might qualify for such property, but if one has moved around too much or has lived in a different village, there is no such opportunity. The lottery element is one problem with what the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting.
The right hon. Gentleman said that affordable homes would always be available, but of course they will not, because they will mainly be lived in by the people who first get them. Those people might decide to live in them for 20, 30, 40 or 50 years, so they will not be available to anybody else because they will be providing family accommodation to those people. We might say that that is fine, because that is the purpose of such homes, but they cannot both fulfil the intended role for the family who are lucky enough to get them and be available to a family that does not have them.
That leads to a distributional problem, because if somebody who takes on a heavily subsidised affordable rented house becomes very successful, we rightly do not tell them that they have to leave. That means that someone quite rich and successful can be living in a heavily subsidised house, which does not seem fair. It is better to move to a system of subsidising people rather than properties, by giving them income support and the means to achieve what they need—a house to buy, a flat to rent or whatever. It is subsidising property that has got us into all these awful arguments, and it is sending the wrong signals and drying up the market in all sorts of ways. There are not enough affordable properties, and an awful lot of developers are being put off.
I hope that the Minister will build on the ideas that are currently in circulation to allow some development to take place, and that he will not allow previous plans from better financial times to prevent that development. I hope he will consider the two important points that I have made—that it is surely better to subsidise people in need than particular homes, which can lead to the maldistribution of results both geographically and by individual; and that it is surely better to work on the land market, because it must be our ultimate aim to have a land market at prices that people can afford. Thanks to the mortgage and subsidy boom of the previous decade we are a long way from that, with the result that many of our constituents cannot access the housing that they need and would like.
Mr Redwood: The hon. Gentleman is right that the main problem is the lack of effective demand because of the banking and mortgage collapse, but does he not see that, because of that, there is little or no profit in these prospective developments and that that is why they cannot afford the 106 agreement-type levels common before the bust?
Mr Betts: I put to the right hon. Gentleman a point that has already been made very effectively: why, then, are the Government targeting only the social and affordable housing element of section 106 agreements? What about the rest of the obligations on developers? Do they not cause a problem too? In an earlier debate—I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was present—when challenged by his colleagues behind him about the need to ensure proper infrastructure, the Minister talked about the need for the community infrastructure levy to provide the resources to ensure that that infrastructure was provided. If developers have a problem with viability, why is he championing the community infrastructure levy and 106 agreements that are currently providing infrastructure for non-housing elements while targeting the housing element of 106 agreements? Why is that necessary? Again, we have had no answer from him.