UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 626-i
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
COMMUNITIES AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT COMMITTEE
PLANNING, HOUSING AND GROWTH
MONDAY 15 OCTOBER 2012
MARK PRISK MP AND NICK BOLES MP
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 – 136
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
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Taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee
on Monday 15 October 2012
Mr Clive Betts (Chair)
EXAMINATION OF WITNESSES
Witnesses: Mr Mark Prisk MP, Minister for Housing, and Nick Boles MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Planning, Department for Communities and Local Government, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: We welcome both new Ministers in the Department to our session today on planning and housing. I wonder whether, just for our records, you could say who you are and your particular departmental responsibilities. That would be helpful.
Nick Boles: I am Nick Boles, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Planning and Development.
Mr Prisk: I am Mark Prisk, Minister of State with responsibility for housing and local growth.
Q2 Chair: You are both welcome, and congratulations on your appointment. I have spoken personally to both Grant Shapps and Greg Clark and congratulated them on their movement upwards. I have thanked them in their personal capacity. I think it would be appropriate if I put on the record my thanks to Bob Neill. I have already thanked Andrew Stunell at a debate in Westminster Hall, but Bob was particularly assiduous in his dealings with the Select Committee and me personally. He came regularly to the Committee and always gave us good evidence. We did not always necessarily agree with what he said, of course; we do not have to. Nevertheless, he was always very helpful, particularly, as I remember, on issues to do with the fire control centres. He allowed a good deal of confidential briefing to be given, and the way he treated the matter before the Select Committee was important. He involved me and members of the Committee in what was a difficult and complicated subject, but it was typical of the way he behaved as a Minister. I would like to put on record thanks to him for that.
Mr Prisk: Thank you very much for those remarks. He will read the record, but we will also pass those on. We certainly felt he was a very effective colleague. Can I also say that we welcome this early opportunity to engage with the Committee as Ministers new to the subject? We very much feel that, whether it is on investment, planning reform or access to finance, there are some important opportunities for discussions between the Committee and the Government, and also for how we can deliver what we all recognise has been a long-standing issue, regardless of who is in government. We recognise that there are shortterm challenges, but also a longerterm issue, as to how we make the housing market less dysfunctional, whether it be rented or owner occupied. We very much welcome this chance to engage with you. I may be less sanguine about it in an hour and a half’s time, but that is certainly my view at the moment.
Q3 Chair: That is a challenge to us. To begin with Nick, only a few months ago we went through a very long and rigorous consultation on the NPPF in which Greg Clark, the then Minister, very appropriately involved the Select Committee. We made our response and he took account of that in the final version of the NPPF, which generally commanded fairly widespread support. It is therefore slightly surprising, is it not, that only a few months later, before the NPPF has hardly bedded in and started to influence local planning decisions, we are back with another significant package of reforms?
Nick Boles: Thank you, Chairman. It is great to be here for my first ever appearance before a Select Committee. I am suitably nervous. I am sorry if I splutter slightly, but I am suffering a bit from a cold.
If I may put it like this, maybe appropriately you could talk about the grand architecture of a policy and then the finer building details. The NPPF was a huge reform and a huge exercise in conceiving it intellectually, designing it, consulting on it, taking it through Parliament and it being amended in various ways. That having been put in place, it is a huge achievement and one that, certainly in the last four or five weeks I have been in the job, everybody seems to think is a good idea and is beginning to work. Local government, the construction industry, housebuilders, developers and also some of the environmental and other lobbyists, who have a lot of concerns about how we make use of land and how we develop, have very positive about it. There is general consent, which I certainly share, that the NPPF is absolutely the right architecture for our national approach to planning policy.
That does not mean, however, that every single detail of how the planning system operates is perfect. Having got the broad architecture right, we are now going through a process of identifying various other tweaks and tighteningups that can be done that would then improve the operation of the planning system. The proposals brought out at the beginning of September are some of those; there are other things. We have announced that Lord Matthew Taylor is leading a review of planning guidance. That is another follow-on into the detail. The broad design is right, but we have more work to do on the way it operates.
Q4 Chair: To come back to that, the review of planning guidance was flagged up when the NPPF was finalised. It was accepted that the framework was in place but the guidance that underpinned it was going to be reviewed. That was specifically referred to, so it was not an afterthought or something additional. It looks very much as though the package before us, which presumably you inherited when you got to the Department, was an afterthought. Growth still is not happening, so we have to do something else, and this is the “something else”, rather than a seamless roll-out of a continuing review of the planning system.
Nick Boles: I do not accept that. Though the package was announced the day before I was appointed, I fully support every element of it.
Q5 Chair: Otherwise it would be your last day in the job.
Nick Boles: Exactly. Let me just pick out one of the elements that will occasion some debate: the idea that where planning authorities are consistently and persistently failing to take decisions in a timely fashion, or take decisions that are in accordance with their own policy and national policy, there will be a possibility for developers to take applications directly to the Planning Inspectorate. That is obviously not a change in the nature of how we approach planning; it is observing that, where there are some authorities consistently failing to deliver the policy, we are going to put in place a system to accelerate the process. I guess that the balance of the big reform was that we want to put local authorities in the driving seat, but that places certain responsibilities on them to fulfil the functions of a planning authority for local people. If they do not do that, we are going to look at how we can encourage them to do so.
Q6 Chair: If that was part of a seamless policy, it is probably surprising that it was not flagged up as was the review of planning guidance at the time the NPPF was announced. I am sure we will come back to some of the more detailed issues in due course. In terms of the changes, are you saying, therefore, there is no change at all to the fundamental objectives which the Government have laid down in the NPPF, and this is just a bit of tinkering?
Nick Boles: No; seriously, there is no change at all. We want to have a planning system that delivers development that is consistent with environmental objectives and local concerns. We think the best way of doing that is to have a very slim set of national policies and to put local authorities that are duly elected into the driving seat with policies that are driven by a local plan. It is incredibly important that they get a local plan in place so it is clear to everyone what they are trying to achieve; that decisions are taken with reference to that local plan and to the much slimmer set of national policies; and that there is a presumption of sustainable development if any particular application is in accordance with those policies. That is what the policy was, and nothing that we proposed on 6 September in any way resiled from that.
Q7 Chair: One of the successes of the NPPF process was that there was widespread consultation, and it was listened to. How many of these measures will now be consulted on properly and formally?
Nick Boles: There are quite a number of measures; I would have to come back to you to give you absolute chapter and verse. To give you an example, one of the ones that is proving to be somewhat contentious-no doubt you will be asking us about it-is the extension of permitted development rights for extensions. We are going to have an eightweek consultation on that. We will be including consultation where it seems right and proper to do so.
Q8 Chair: It might be helpful if you could set out a framework for all the proposals and indicate to us the likely timeframe and consultation arrangements.
Nick Boles: I am very happy to do that; we will write to you.
Mr Prisk: Would it be helpful if we did that from both our points of view?
Q9 Chair: It would be.
Mr Prisk: It would give you the rounded picture. I am concerned that, obviously, sometimes planning affects some of the housing decisions, and vice versa, so if that would be helpful we are happy to do that jointly.
Q10 James Morris: If I may ask a philosophical question, we did quite an extensive inquiry into the financing of new housing supply. One of the clear things that came out of it was that the evidence that the planning system was to blame for lack of growth is pretty thin. I wondered where you were at. The Government are placing huge emphasis on the reform of the planning system, possibly for good reasons, but is it sufficient? Is it the key to unlocking housebuilding growth, for example, or are there other factors that are more important?
Nick Boles: I will give a very short answer and then Mark will give a longer one. Of course, it is not on its own sufficient. I think it is necessary. Ultimately, the planning system decides how much land is brought forward for development. Because we have historically, for a number of decades, been bringing forward too little land for development, the price of development land is some of the highest of any country with which we would normally compare ourselves. The planning system is at the heart of the very longterm problem, but there are also more immediate problems with finance and credit, and we have a whole suite of policies to deal with that, too.
Mr Prisk: I think that is the point, in the sense that some people argue it is either demand or supply. I do not buy that. I say that partly as a Minister but also as a chartered surveyor who used to work not in the residential market but certainly in the commercial market. There are substantial issues around stalled sites and demand issues, whether it be a targeted group like firsttime buyers or whatever, so planning reform is an important part of that. There are substantial elements of the planning system that we are looking to address-indeed, we will also look at some of the issues around building regulations-where it is not fit for purpose and reform is important. Clearly, if that was the only element, we would be ignoring some of the other elements to it. We need to deal with supply and demand, and planning is an important part of that.
Q11 Mark Pawsey: Nick, it is very clear from the NPPF that this is a planled system and yet large numbers of local authorities still have not prepared a local plan. What steps are you taking, or intending to take, to ensure that local authorities put as many resources into planmaking as they currently do into development control?
Nick Boles: I strongly welcome that question, because it is absolutely critical. The thing works only if people do local plans. There is good news but also some slightly less welcome developments in certain areas. The good news is that planmaking is accelerating. We now have 148 authorities, which is 44%, with sound plans adopted and in place, and an additional 71 with published plans, taking us to 65% of authorities. As a comparison, when we came into office, fewer than 60 authorities had plans, so it is coming on apace, and that is partly because the NPPF places such weight on it and, having removed the requirement for regional strategies, it makes it more important that people have local plans. Some authorities have been rather slow about it, and we are going to use every aspect of the bully pulpit of government to try to persuade them to do so.
There is one authority I know of that I have mentioned in questions in the House. The City of York has not had an adopted plan of any form for 40 years. No doubt there are reasons, but I think that is simply unacceptable; that is failing local people. There are sometimes suspicions that some authorities would almost prefer to be able to blame government centrally through the Planning Inspectorate for any development decisions, and therefore that is one of the reasons they do not adopt a plan. If that is true-I am sure that it is only in a very few cases-we will be making it clear that that is not acceptable.
Q12 Bill Esterson: I would like to follow up that question. You said that no doubt there were good reasons within some local authorities. That is undeniably true. Rather than using your bully pulpit, is not the solution to allow authorities to work with their neighbours to come up with the numbers that are required in a region or area rather than try to fit numbers into a borough where there is not the physical capacity or opportunity?
Nick Boles: I do not think there is a conflict between what you are suggesting and what I was saying.
Q13 Bill Esterson: How is that achievable under these proposals?
Nick Boles: Under the NPPF there is a duty to co-operate, whereby authorities need to work with other authorities to make those sorts of cross-border plans exactly as you are talking about. There are certain authorities that do not have much room for manoeuvre, maybe because a lot of the land that is currently not developed is green belt. There are limitations on what they can do and they need to form a slightly more crossborder view of the plans for the future. Many are already doing that. Many of the plans that have been adopted were formed on the basis of that duty to co-operate, so that is working well. Nobody will ever persuade me that there is any good reason why an authority should not have a local plan for 40 years. There is no good reason for that.
Q14 Bill Esterson: But using the exception is not necessarily good practice for the rule, is it? Authorities that have lost very large numbers of planning officers due to cuts in local government are not in a strong position, are they?
Nick Boles: People can make excuses.
Q15 Bill Esterson: It is not an excuse, Minister, is it; it is the reality?
Nick Boles: I think it is an excuse, because the Local Government Minister has pointed out that many smaller districts have decided to merge their planning departments with neighbouring districts so that they can recruit a higher quality of planning officials to be able to cope with the workload. A number of authorities have improved their performance despite the cut in resources. Surrey Heath has increased the proportion of major applications decided within 13 weeks by 58%, from 42% to 100%; Coventry has improved its performance on the same measure by 44%, from 54% to 98%. Nobody is going to persuade me that Coventry has not also had to deal with some pretty tough financial settlements. It is possible to do it well. You just have to think creatively about how you are going to resource it and understand that this is an absolutely essential priority and responsibility of local authorities and they need to discharge it.
Q16 Bill Esterson: So you will make sure the support is there for authorities who need to cooperate.
Nick Boles: Yes. The Local Government Association has a support network. PINS provide support and the Department provide support to anyone who finds obstacles to getting the plan in place.
Q17 Bill Esterson: Moving on to major infrastructure, you announced big changes on 6 September. What new areas will be brought within this regime? Can you also talk about how the thresholds might change?
Nick Boles: Thank you for that question. We are consulting informally at the moment on what should go in. A lot of it is up to other Government Departments to work out how this would work. The broad intention is that we should be adding business and commercial developments of significant national significance in terms of scale to the major infrastructure regime. That would include big business in science parks; R and D facilities; storage and distribution centres; minerals extraction; major industrial developments, like oil refineries and big chemical works; conceivably major manufacturing plants; and other development which would be linked to major infrastructure. At the moment it is focused on pure infrastructure, and the idea is that some business and commercial developments of a significant scale should go into that, but we are talking to other Departments about exactly what should go in and how those criteria should be defined, and when that is ready we will obviously share that with you before anybody else.
Q18 Bill Esterson: Will there be a national policy statement for office development?
Nick Boles: I do not believe there will be a national policy statement; we do not need to do that, but there will be a clear set of criteria about which commercial developments will be counted as major infrastructure. It is not going to be a case where somebody wants to put up another office in Victoria Street. It is a major development that has potentially national significance in scale. You will understand that these proposals were announced in outline form only at the beginning of September, but as soon as we have more detail we will share it with the Committee before anyone else.
Q19 Bill Esterson: You have mentioned business. What about residential? Will that be covered by the major infrastructure approach?
Nick Boles: What we have said is that the Secretary of State is going to look at his call-in powers, which currently he uses very, very sparingly in relation to major residential developments, and be open to calling in applications more often on major residential developments when they are of such a scale that they have more than purely local significance. We do not believe it will be necessary to bring such developments into the major infrastructure regime. To do so would fly somewhat in the face of everything we have said about how, particularly on residential development, it is the local plan with the NPPF behind it that should be in the driving seat, so we believe that going through the callin procedure is probably the better way to deal with that.
Q20 Bill Esterson: Do you think that primary legislation will be needed?
Nick Boles: Mr Esterson asks me a question that I am spectacularly bad at answering. I have not been an MP for that long-though that is no excuse-and I am never very good at working out whether or not something requires legislation. You will not mind if I quickly refer to my notes. This one is secondary legislation. As an aside, I find it extraordinary that whether or not something requires primary legislation does not seem to be related to its importance or otherwise. It seems possible to do some very important things through secondary legislation, and other things that seem rather banal require primary legislation. I apologise for that, but this one is secondary legislation.
Q21 Chair: It seems that in this there has been a significant change of policy. When the Planning Act 2008 was brought in, the IPC was set up to deal with major infrastructure projects. The Government have now changed it so part of the Planning Inspectorate deals with them, but we were told that no significant change of policy was attached to that. The whole idea was that there would be a national policy statement for every area that was covered by the major infrastructure route for planning applications, the reason being that there would be a needs assessment done as part of that policy statement. Therefore, with each planning application you would not have to decide, as we did with Heathrow airport, whether extra capacity was needed. That would be done in the policy statement, and then you would look at whether the planning application was the appropriate one for that particular site. If we are now going to have a major infrastructure route for schemes where there is no national policy statement, is that not a fundamental change of policy?
Nick Boles: The question is: how would you go about doing a national policy statement for all commercial and business activity?
Q22 Chair: Or whether those activities should be part of this route for major infrastructure projects.
Nick Boles: No, because what everybody has to recognise-indeed, Chairman, your party spends a lot of time pointing it out to us-is that the economy is having a difficult time and we need to get growth going. Like the Government of which you were a supporter, we believe in rebalancing the economy away from excessive reliance on the financial services industry based in the south-east. It is a very clear priority for this Government, and has been for a very long time, to try to encourage industrial and commercial developments of a broad kind away from a narrow concentration on one industry in one part of the country. That has been clear ever since this Government came into office, but we need to take further steps to ensure that planning is not holding that up.
Q23 Chair: Does it come back to the issue that planning is really the obstacle to growth, in your view?
Nick Boles: It is not an obstacle to growth when it is working well. Just a few weeks ago I had a meeting on a very major scheme, in that case a residential one, where the local planning authority were saying to me informally that it was of such a scale that it would completely overwhelm their planning department. It was the sort of scheme that they might deal with only once in every 20 years. Of course, no authority will staff up to be able to deal with something like that permanently when it comes along so rarely. They were asking what they could do because they thought they might not be able to do it; and, if they did do it, either all of their other planning work would gum up or they would end up doing it very slowly. There are certain very big and complex schemes that involve all sorts of broader issues and it is right that those are not delayed, thereby delaying growth and employment creation, just because local authorities are not in a position to deal with them expeditiously.
Mr Prisk: I think that is a very good point. In looking at stalled sites in the last three or four weeks, one of the things I have discovered is the issue of capacity. We were talking about how we encourage local authorities. One issue I have found is the ability of local authorities to try to be positive about a scheme which is very substantial and their planning departments may face only once in a lifetime. Very often they are struggling in capacity, skill base and so on. It is quite important that we give consideration to that.
Q24 Chair: When you determine which schemes are going to go the major infrastructure route will one of the criteria be an authority’s capacity to deal with it? Some authorities would be perfectly capable of dealing with major projects; others might not be. Is that one of the criteria you are going to use?
Nick Boles: I am sorry; I hope you do not mind, but I will come back to you with details of the suggested criteria when we have concluded discussions inside government as to what they should be. It would be a mistake and unfair to other Government Departments to jump the gun, but we will come back to you as soon as we have further details.
Q25 Chair: But that is a planning issue rather than a departmental one, is it not?
Nick Boles: Nevertheless, it would be wrong of us to charge straight in on the hoof without having reached agreement across Government.
Q26 Chair: We will be interested to see your response in writing, perhaps in due course.
Nick Boles: Absolutely.
Q27 Mark Pawsey: I wonder if I might ask some questions about housing development where numbers have lagged substantially behind those that need to be built to meet household demand. We heard in our report that one of the big issues is that the availability of finance is holding things up. There are 400,000 unbuilt consents. Isn’t that evidence that planning is not the problem?
Mr Prisk: I think we have to be slightly careful about the 400,000. Having looked at this both before I came into politics and now as a Minister, the 400,000 is a cumulative number. Many of the schemes that make it up will include projects that have a four or five-year, sometimes seven or eight-year, programme. You can look at the numbers and say that we need, roughly speaking, household formations of 232,000, and therefore we want to see that sort of pattern of development each year, and therefore 400,000 sounds like a useful backstock. However, actually, when you look at the schemes that make that up, and recognise that they very often reach out over four, five, six or seven years, you begin to realise that 400,000 is quite a small proportion. My own view would be that the 400,000 is welcome. It would be difficult for commercial reasons, either for the builder or for the site, to get all of those into action, and that is why we need to think further about both demand and supply issues.
Q28 Mark Pawsey: Do you have a view about the number of consents that you would like to see within the system in order to be able to meet this built-up demand?
Mr Prisk: I am always wary of trying to name a magic number. The reality is that for the last 20 or 30 years as a country we have been building at roughly half the rate of housing need, so we have a cumulative build up. My view is to look at the programmes in place, recognise the state of the market-this is one of the issues particularly in the owneroccupied market-and then to look at how we can best maximise the numbers, so, whether it is using public land to get that up and running, whether it is helping first-time buyers, whether it is looking particularly at the sector that is often forgotten, which is the private rented sector, or looking at the investment programmes, it is thinking in the round about supply and demand rather than trying to pluck out a magic number. We are trying to avoid the top-down numbers that we have perhaps assumed previously.
Q29 Mark Pawsey: You referred earlier to stalled sites. Are there any measures that can be taken to bring forward sites that have been stalled more quickly?
Mr Prisk: The crucial issue, certainly in my experience over the last four or five weeks in getting into a number of the very substantial sites around the country, is to look at the capability of that site where there are, frankly, bureaucratic conflicts and challenges around infrastructure, and, on a site-by-site basis, trying to unlock those. We have been able to make some quite important progress in that regard.
When it comes to public sector land, there are some other important issues; that is, making sure that we bring forward such land. We have now been able to sell land which will release 33,000 units. For the first time-I find this slightly extraordinary-we have got the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health, Department for Transport and so on to put their strategies in the public domain for all to see. We said on 6 September that we needed to accelerate this. We see an important role for the Homes and Communities Agency in accelerating transfers to it. I suspect that members across the Committee will recognise that very often a town centre is trapped because two or three agencies in the public sector have different interests, and trying to assemble that site to be able to unlock the whole thing becomes hideously complicated. On 6 September our view was that we needed to accelerate the public sector land side particularly by using the Homes and Communities Agency and by developing what Tony Pidgley has suggested in his report, which is a stronger onestopshop approach, so we can be more holistic in the way we deal with this.
Q30 Mark Pawsey: Nick, the NPPF has a clear brownfield first policy. It is quite right that previously developed land should come forward for housing first, but in order to achieve the kind of housing numbers that we need to deliver, are you content for greenfield and even greenbelt land to be used for housing?
Nick Boles: I think it is incredibly important to draw a clear distinction between greenfield and green belt. Green belt is land that is protected through local authority decisions in their local plans. The continuing protection for green belt was restated very clearly in the NPPF and, if I may say so, was restated even more clearly by the Secretary of State in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference last week. It is not in doubt. It has always been the case that local authorities can vary their own green belts but only if they do so through local consultation and the local planning process. Green space is not necessarily protected. Obviously, there is certain other non-green-belt land that is protected: AONBs, SSSIs, national parks and the rest.
Q31 Mark Pawsey: There is a preference for brownfield sites.
Nick Boles: There is a preference for brown field, but, quite simply, given our housing needs and our persistent failure as a country over 20 years to build enough houses to satisfy those needs, there is not enough brownfield land that is economically viable. That is the critical point. It is not just enough to say there is brownfield land, you can build on it. If there is no way it can ever be economically viable to do so, obviously that land is not really going to be a solution. There is no way that we will be able to meet our needs with brownfield land that is economically viable. The good news is that it is a very small proportion of the overall amount of green space in the country-even a very small proportion of the overall amount of green space in the south-east-that is needed to be able to meet our housing needs. We are not, as so many people try to suggest, a hugely developed country. Well under 10% of our land is developed in any way at all. Even in counties in the south-east, it is still very low, so we do not have to do much, but we are going to have to do some on green space.
Q32 Mark Pawsey: So you do foresee some circumstances in which green belt could be used for housing development on the assumption that there is other land that goes into the green belt.
Nick Boles: It is important to be clear about this: there is absolutely no change in green-belt policy as a result of the announcements made at the beginning of September, or indeed anything that has been said or done since the NPPF was brought in. It has always been the case that local authorities have been able to alter greenbelt boundaries if there are very strong reasons for it, but they have to go through a proper process in doing so. It has always been the case that there are lots of brownfield sites inside the green belt. Obviously, it is a good thing to develop it because that is brownfield land and there is a presumption in favour of brownfield land. There is nothing new and different here. That is not, frankly, up to us. We are standing behind local authorities’ protection of green-belt land. They individually can decide with local people what they want to do to maintain that protection consistently with fulfilling their housing needs.
Q33 Mark Pawsey: This Committee was quite interested in the idea of selfbuild land. In our report on financing we saw some interesting examples of that when we visited the Netherlands. It is important to say that self-build is not people physically building the houses themselves but acting as an individual developer on an individual site. Do you see that as a solution to some of our housing difficulty, or is it very peripheral?
Mr Prisk: I think it is crucial. The numbers in the last year we have got are about 13,800 for the period 2010-11, and that is one of the lowest proportions of any modern economy when you look around other countries. We have tried to understand this issue. My predecessor was, quite rightly, very passionate about this issue, and I share that view. There are at least 100,000 people currently looking for plots to be able to build themselves or-perhaps slightly broader than that-custom-build homes. This is a really important addition to the melting pot.
Therefore what we are looking to do is build on the work that my predecessor did in getting an action plan led by the sector itself as to how it can be grown in the UK. We then put up a £30 million fund to try to unlock some of those early custombuild ideas. We put that fund in place in July, and my understanding is that we have two schemes involving 20 units already approved. Of course, this is for multiple units in that sense; that is what the fund is there for.
Tomorrow, I will be part of the Government’s selfbuild workshop where we are looking at not only drawing on the expertise of our Dutch colleagues but also how local authorities can participate in this along with local people, community groups and developers. This is a very exciting aspect because it allows people, first, to be able to build their own homes and, second, it starts to inject a degree of innovation and new ideas into the design of family homes, and that is something to be strongly welcomed.
Q34 Mark Pawsey: Flexibilities in planning requirements need to go hand in hand with that.
Mr Prisk: The NPPF already recognises, in many ways, how that selfbuild community can develop, but we are also thinking about what else we could do, and hopefully I will be able to come back to the Committee in the next few weeks with further details on that.
Q35 Bill Esterson: Coming back to Mr Boles’s comments about brownfield and green belt, you were the director of Policy Exchange when it published a report saying that the green belt should be abolished.
Nick Boles: I am absolutely certain I was not the director then. I was the founder of Policy Exchange and was its director until 2007.
Q36 Bill Esterson: That was when the report was published.
Nick Boles: I can promise you I had nothing to do with any report that said that thing. I should also point out that Policy Exchange published many proposals that I did not agree with. If you are the director of a thinktank you are not an intellectual dictator; you just hold the ring and encourage an intellectual ferment, but I promise you that that one was nothing to do with me.
Q37 Bill Esterson: That is an interesting concept. There is a perceived difficulty in the development of brownfield and an attraction in the development of green belt, which is at the heart of a lot of the debate on the issue about whether brownfield or green belt should be developed. Do you think there is a role for you in levelling the playing field between brownfield and green belt to ensure that perhaps some of these sites which are potentially very difficult can be brought forward earlier so that green belt is not built on?
Nick Boles: I do not think there is much more of a role for Ministers than has already been expressed through the NPPF in suggesting there is a presumption in favour of trying to develop brownfield if you can and a protection for green belt. One thing I observe-it is not a matter for Ministers-is that we are slowly and gently moving towards the introduction of the community infrastructure levy. Local authorities that are introducing this are enabled to specify different rates for different kinds of development. So far relatively few authorities have developed this. Many of them specify different rates for residential and commercial.
A question I ask of the local authority community is whether they might think about whether another kind of category could be to set a different rate of community infrastructure levy for greenfield as opposed to brownfield. If, as is often the case, developing a brownfield site is more expensive than trying to develop a greenfield site, and the local authority would prefer-as most of them do because they have to be elected by local people every few years-to develop brownfield sites, maybe one way of nudging development into brownfield and making up for some of its economic problems would be to set a different CIL rate, to use the jargon, from that used for green belt. I should probably have checked but I did not anticipate this question; I do not know whether anybody has done that yet. I would be interested to see if they have, but I do not think it is the role of Ministers to intervene in that. The whole point of CIL is that it is up to local authorities. They have to get it examined and everything else, but it is nothing to do with me.
Q38 Bill Esterson: The point that has been put to me is that at the moment you have a lot of brownfield sites that are already in local plans, or could be, and as a result of some of the announcements on 6 September developers may well challenge whether or not they are viable. Mr Prisk has already made the point that some of the 400,000 notional housing developments might not be viable. That might allow developers to challenge and overturn local plans and, therefore, argue that they can build where they like because the local plans are not robust. How do you get around that problem?
Nick Boles: Even if people were able to demonstrate that a particular brownfield site that may have been included in a local plan that was drawn up at the height of the boom in 2006 was no longer viable, they would not be able just to go anywhere; they still have to look at other sites in the plan. Equally, we need to be realistic. The fact is that there are millions of people in this country who cannot get a home, whether to rent or buy, of their own. There are millions of people with young kids who cannot get a place with any green space at all for those kids as they grow up. Frankly, it is not good enough for a government of any stripe just to say, “Well, you could always get a flat or house on a brownfield site, if it ever becomes economic to develop it.” If it is not economic to develop it, it is not available and it is not an option, in no way will it meet those people’s aspirations. Our responsibility as government and local authorities’ responsibility as local government is to come up with solutions that are viable and meet those people’s housing needs, because their housing needs will remain whatever.
Q39 Bill Esterson: I completely accept that point, but the point is that if it leads to a development freeforall there will be other consequences. I hope you agree that is not desirable either.
Nick Boles: Absolutely not, but it would not lead to a development freeforall because they would still have to look at other sites that had been allocated in the local plan. It becomes a problem, which has happened and is happening in relatively few examples, where authorities are not bringing forward a full fiveyear allocation of sites. Where they think they can get away with two or three years, that is a real problem. That makes the freeforall that you and I do not want to see more likely, if they are not properly putting together a plan with a proper available and viable supply of sites.
Q40 Heather Wheeler: I am very interested in the NewBuy scheme, and also the differences between smaller builders and the fact that their sites tend to be exponentially more expensive because they have not got the economies of scale of large sites. Have you begun discussions on this with the Local Developers’ Forum? We all have constituents and talk to people. It is absolutely fascinating how the smaller builders are ready to go but they are just much more expensive sites to get on with, and the extra 5% for NewBuy just does not seem to be enough.
Mr Prisk: The NewBuy scheme in terms of providing a mortgage indemnity underpin for those looking at the higher loan-to-value ratio kicked off only in March. The Home Builders Federation tell me that in the seven months they have got some 1,500 reservations. That is an encouraging start. The point about smaller builders is an interesting one. Inevitably, as a mortgage indemnity insurance scheme it is looking to be able to help, and it is easier for the larger builder, when looking to provide that support, to offer what the lenders regard as single cells. There is a challenge. I am talking both to builders and particularly lenders about what is termed multi-cells; in other words, essentially where lenders are looking to a series of smaller builders who will be part of a single element of that mortgage scheme. Although at the moment we have got 30 builders and the six principal lenders, so they represent about 75% of the mortgage market in play, the Home Builders Federation tell me that they have now got quite a long queue of the smaller builders wanting to come into the scheme; that is encouraging. However, you are right to flag this up with lenders. It is something on which I want to work with them and impress upon them. We want to see a wider number of multi-cells, and it is an important aspect of growing what has been a reasonably successful programme, even though it has been in play for six or seven months.
Q41 Heather Wheeler: That answer is really helpful. The multicell element is the key to this; it really is. As regards the aspiration of 100,000 new homes, 1,500 is a little small. We have to start somewhere, but I am just wondering at what stage it absolutely kicks in and will kick on.
Mr Prisk: As to the game plan for the NewBuy scheme, we put in place a contingency fund for a maximum of £1 billion. We reckoned that could support up to 100,000. We have talked to the Home Builders Federation in the first year. Quite understandably, they feel that in the current market environment, starting the scheme, 25,000 is a reasonable target. I understand that. That does not mean that if new opportunities come forward and we can go further than that-we will be looking for those-we will ignore them. I am keen to build on that, but the 100,000 is, if you like, the Government quite rightly saying that they know the Home Builders Federation are saying they are going to do 25,000, and that they may well do more than that, but we need to make sure we have a proper contingency liability here. We have put that in place for up to £1 billion.
Even a year ago, many of the estimates of where the housing market would be now were radically different from where they are, and I suspect it will be the same again in another year’s time. I think that in this instance we have chosen to take some care and put that additional funding in place, but do I want to see more than the current number? Absolutely.
Q42 James Morris: Mark, I want to ask you about the private rented sector to which you referred earlier. Clearly, there are projections of increasing demand for the private rented sector in the UK over the next few years. The Montague review, which was published in August, made some recommendations about how we can try to unlock institutional investment in the private rented sector. What is the timetable for implementation of the recommendations, and how do you see us unlocking the potential in the private rented sector?
Mr Prisk: This is a really important opportunity. Over the last 30 or 40 years there has been an awful lot of conversation about what I would call social and owneroccupied housing. We can identify which governments or political parties tended to talk more about one or the other, but often the one in the middle-private rented-has tended not to attract the same level of interest, particularly in terms of investment. The work that Sir Adrian Montague and his team have done is crucial.
As to the three elements of 6 September that I would suggest to the Committee are crucial, the first and numerically most obvious one is the £10 billion debt guarantee designed to underpin institutional investment in private and affordable housing. What we have learnt-and Sir Adrian Montague’s report has suggested-is that, when you look at Germany, Sweden and some of the other countries with a strong private rented sector, it is a matter of drawing in the key institutional investors, particularly those looking for long-term return who very often have developed an effective brand and product. I do not mean that in a superficial way; I mean someone who has identified a quality service that prospective tenants can identify with; they know what they are going to get. If we are to change private rented this is the way to go. The £10 billion debt guarantee is crucial to that role. It is allied to what Adrian Montague suggested, which is putting in place an equity fund of £200 million and making sure we get together a task force of experts to be able to push this forward.
Q43 James Morris: Even if this was successful and we went down that route, the reality is that the market is still dominated by smaller players. I wonder what the Government’s thoughts are about continuing to help smaller players, because the characteristics of the private rented market in the UK are lots of small landlords.
Mr Prisk: Yes.
Q44 James Morris: What can the Government do to improve the market at that level as well as improve it at the macro level?
Mr Prisk: I have asked some of the existing residential landlord organisations to bring forward their thoughts about some practical changes both in operation and investment. It is both aspects. You cannot look just at the investment criteria or tax regime around this. It is important that we think about some of the smaller players. Some of those are looking to come together to be able to attract finance. I do not think the £10 billion guarantee is solely for the superlarge funds. We are wanting to make sure that it is a broader base, so I take your point.
As to the task force, one of the challenges is how we accelerate this. One of my concerns is to make sure that, alongside the fund and debt guarantee, there is a team of experts who draw on established practice and can start to progress this. You asked about timetables. We have already invited expressions of interest in the fund of £200 million; similarly, we have already invited expressions of interest from the major players and others in the debt guarantee, so those are in train. We would expect to be able to publish the details in November.
Q45 Heidi Alexander: I want to ask a very general question about your views of the private rented sector. It strikes me that that sector is second choice for lots of people. Many people who live in the private rented sector would ideally like to own their own home. In my constituency many people in the private rented sector want to live in social housing because of the disparity between the rents. In terms of your own views, would you agree that the private rented sector is the second choice for many people? Therefore, is it right to be focusing such efforts on enhancing it and making it even bigger?
Mr Prisk: I have always taken the view that owneroccupied, private rented and social housing need to be looked at holistically. One of the dangers is that we have tended in politics to look at one or the other and forget that if there is a problem with one it has an immediate knock-on effect on the other. Your question highlights the point that very often the fact we have not built enough housing generally means that some of your constituents regard this as a second choice sub-sector. My view of private rented is that we do need to invest in more homes generally. Some of the problems we see, whether it is private rented or otherwise-overcrowding and so on-are an expression of lack of supply. That is why it is important we get investment into that sector, alongside the affordable homes programme and what we are trying to do to encourage demand and supply in owneroccupied housing. We need to see the three together because, as you rightly say, there is an overlap between them all.
Q46 Simon Danczuk: Mr Boles, what evidence do you have that section 106 requirements are holding up development?
Nick Boles: As Mr Prisk has said, there are a number of stalled sites. While many authorities, including yours in Rochdale, have been incredibly progressive in having very constructive negotiations with developers to renegotiate the affordable housing element of section 106, there are some authorities that are more resistant to that who sometimes seem to get hung up on percentages rather than actual buildings. It is in those cases that we want to create an opportunity for developers to do a renegotiation with the inspectorate in which they would have to justify that the previous agreement was not viable. They cannot just ask; they have got to be able to demonstrate that it is not viable. We would much prefer that most local authorities do what Rochdale has done and be very forthcoming in having negotiation with any developers in that situation.
Q47 Simon Danczuk: The Homes and Communities Agency suggests there is very little evidence that section 106 requirements are holding up development. Is there any evidence that those requirements are holding up development?
Nick Boles: We know that there are about 1,400 stalled housing sites and that they account for about 75,000 units.
Q48 Simon Danczuk: How many of those are due to section 106 requirements?
Nick Boles: It is very difficult to say. It is quite hard to say why nothing is happening. You do not always have clear reasons attached, but nevertheless the development community has made it very clear that one of the issues is that certain local authorities are not good at coming forward and entering into renegotiations. We want them to do that. The truth is that, if you are right, the change we will be putting in place will not be needed. Yippee-nobody would be happier than me if the inspectorate does not have to renegotiate any 106 agreements because all local authorities understand their responsibilities and are as proactive as your local authority, but at the moment there are some indications that that is not the case and this is, as it were, a shot across the bows of those who are being more recalcitrant.
Q49 Simon Danczuk: So there is no evidence; it is based on ad hoc information.
Nick Boles: There is evidence. We have been told by the various representative organisations in the development community that this is an issue with some local authorities, so we are trying to flush them out and make them behave as your local authority is behaving.
Q50 Simon Danczuk: Let us come to the developer community. They have sponsored and funded your political party, the Conservative Party, in a big way. People out there think that that is why you are bailing out developers who have paid inflated prices for land. What would you say to the people out there about that?
Nick Boles: The Government that you used to support-I believe that, like me, you were elected in 2010, but presumably you supported it from the outside-agreed with us that house building is too low and has been too low for a very long time. There are many people in your constituency, and the constituency of every member of the Committee, who are faced with housing situations that, frankly, we should be ashamed of. The only people who will build houses are house builders, and the only people who will pay to build houses are developers and housing associations. Of course, they have a profit interest; all private companies have a profit interest, but it does not mean that they are not also doing a social good by building houses.
Nobody gets housed by a section 106 agreement; nobody can keep out the rain by waving that piece of paper. You get housed and keep out the rain only by having a roof over your head, and you build a house only if it is economically viable to do so. The same would apply to housing associations. They cannot build houses if it is not economically viable to do so, and the same applies to developers. We are trying to get houses built, which I believe is our responsibility, not to worry too much about whether somebody is making a profit by building them.
Q51 Simon Danczuk: Developers are making a profit. The point I am putting to you is that the public out there think you are now helping them by renegotiating section 106 moneys. You are attempting to help your mates who have sponsored your political party. What do you say to the people who think that?
Nick Boles: What I would say is that you might think that.
Q52 Simon Danczuk: The public think it.
Nick Boles: You may think the public think that. Nobody has written me to suggest so; nobody has shown me an opinion poll that suggests that is the case. If you would like to provide the evidence I will be happy to write to every single member of the public to explain to them that houses get built by people who have an interest to build them. That can be housing associations and it can be private developers, and I welcome all house building, whatever the motive.
Q53 Simon Danczuk: You said earlier that the whole point of CIL is for local authorities to decide how they use it. Why do you not let that apply to section 106 moneys? Why do you not let local authorities renegotiate? You are proposing to legislate on this. Why do you not leave it to local authorities and have some localism in that?
Nick Boles: What I find extraordinary, Mr Danczuk, is that your local authority in Rochdale is an absolute example to the rest. It has renegotiated two major schemes, one on the Akzo Nobel site, where there was a 106 agreement that they had previously negotiated at a different economic time. They recognised it was simply not possible for the developer to fulfil it. They very intelligently renegotiated that scheme, and as a result buildings are going to be built. Your constituents will have roofs over their heads as a result of the renegotiation of the section 106 agreement. If local authorities are willing to do it off their own bat, they need have nothing to fear from this proposal or the Planning Inspectorate. It is only in those cases, fortunately few, where local authorities refuse to do this that they will have to understand that there is going to be another route available to developers, but only if those developers can demonstrate that the scheme is not viable with its existing agreement.
Q54 Simon Danczuk: I am more than happy to dedicate this meeting to the Akzo Nobel site in Littleborough in my constituency, but I will not do so because it will take a considerable amount of time. As to the legislation you are proposing, this will delay development, because, as happens with the planning system, any interference, some with the right intentions, will slow down and stop development from taking place. Developers will come forward in an attempt to increase their profits and reduce the section 106 contributions they have to make. There could be an intention that results in a reduction in the building of social and affordable housing.
Nick Boles: Mr Danczuk, I look forward to receiving your full support and that of your party colleagues in the House of Commons, so that we get these changes through the House of Commons and House of Lords as quickly as possible and there will not be any excuse for anyone to delay. The truth is that in most cases developers are negotiating perfectly happily with local authorities, and in a very few cases they cannot make any mileage or headway, and we are coming to the aid of the people who will be housed by those developments going ahead.
Q55 Simon Danczuk: You do not believe there will be any reduction in the number of social houses that are built as a consequence of this.
Nick Boles: No, my colleague has just announced very substantial financial support on top of the extremely large programme we already have that will build far more affordable housing than any that might be lost. Do remember, please, that, as the Secretary of State keeps on saying, 50% of nothing is nothing. It sounds better when he says it, but it remains true even when I say it.
Q56 Simon Danczuk: What is an acceptable reduction in the proportion of social housing on a particular site? I ask that because Mr Prisk as Housing Minister visited the Saffron site in Croydon. That reduced from 35% to 5% the proportion of social housing on that site. Are you comfortable with that sort of reduction?
Mr Prisk: Perhaps I ought to answer that. The Saffron Square development in Croydon was stuck in the system for three years, and not a single home was being built. What the developers did in Croydon-I pay tribute to Croydon’s officers for recognising that they were getting nothing out of this-was to sit down and renegotiate. The result of that change is 114 additional affordable homes as part of the package when there were none. That is an important change. It underlines the point Mr Boles is making that, much as we might like to think that some of the section 106 agreements were viable three or four years ago and we would love to see them happen, if they are not happening we would far rather make sure we get a sensible negotiation so we get some of those happening and under way. I do not think it is about us trying to prejudge contract by contract what percentage should be involved. What matters is to get the proportion under way. There are some very good examples of where those negotiations are bringing forward housing, and Saffron Square is one of them.
Q57 Simon Danczuk: In terms of the Planning Inspectorate’s role in all of this, you have talked about their need to examine the affordable housing element of section 106 moneys. Will they have any remit in regard to the use of that money for other purposes, whether it is building a school, road or something like that?
Nick Boles: The only aspect of 106 agreements to which this new provision is going to apply is affordable housing. The Planning Inspectorate are already expert in looking at the viability of these things. People are currently able to go to the Planning Inspectorate to appeal 106 arrangements after five years have elapsed to check their viability. We hope this will catch very few authorities because those who are perhaps being a little backward in coming forward will see there is another route becoming available and will decide to start negotiating themselves in good faith.
Q58 Simon Danczuk: The Government announced on 6 September that, “Building on the success of the Affordable Homes Programme, [they] will invite bids to provide up to an additional 15,000 affordable homes through the use of loan guarantees, asset management flexibilities and capital funding.” Speaking to some housing associations, they are still concerned that no meat has been put on the bone; they are unclear about how to go about that; there is no guidance in terms of being able to pull that money down. Five weeks on, what is the reason for the delay?
Mr Prisk: One of my first jobs was to make sure I talked to the National Housing Federation, which was exactly what I did. They have all been very positive about the additional funds. We are talking to them at the moment about the specific details, but there is no delay in terms of them being able to implement their programme.
Q59 Simon Danczuk: But as yet there is no guidance in terms of being able to draw down that money.
Mr Prisk: They are perfectly clear about what they need to do. It is fair to flag up as well that a number of them have asked where they go after 2015. I do understand that issue. I said to them then, and I will say it to the Committee now, that we are mindful of that fact; what I do not want to find is that 18 months out from that period they are not quite sure what the pattern will be. I will want to address that issue; otherwise, there is a danger that you get into the last year or so when programmes are identified for the last 12 months and the worry is what happens at the end. That is the bit I am concerned about. The National Housing Federation have, understandably, raised that and I want to talk to them about it in more detail.
Q60 Heidi Alexander: In densely populated urban areas there will be few sites of a certain size where you can deliver a significant number of new homes. Do both of you accept that realistically you can develop that land only once in the next 50 years? Therefore, if you are reducing the contribution of affordable housing on those big sites-it might be for 3,000 homes-in effect different people will have access to housing, and people who need genuinely affordable housing will not have access to those homes on those big sites in innercity areas? I can think of a number in Lewisham where it is absolutely imperative to get genuinely affordable homes built. My fear is that what you are proposing means that the council has less ability to negotiate on those big sites that perhaps come along only once every 30 or 40 years.
Mr Prisk: There is always a challenge in urban areas. I am a great believer in reusing and renewing land, the existing housing stock and the built environment. One of the issues we have not reflected on is necessarily how we make better use of mixed use development, because that is an area where there is opportunity, especially in boroughs like Lewisham, which is in a constrained urban area, as it were. Therefore, its ability to be able to make the very best use of its land and buildings is a challenge. The fact that we are levering £15 billion additional private money into the Affordable Homes Programme is really important, because it is starting to bring in other players who are very strong, not just in terms of development but also how you make the best use of land. There is sometimes a debate about how densely you should build. If you look at, dare I say, the leafy suburbs of other parts of London, or even the Pimlicos and Belgravias, they often have some of the highest housing densities. It is not so much about that aspect but how you best use your existing land and building stock. Our view would be that the Affordable Homes Programme, alongside the other roles, should enable boroughs to make good progress. Lewisham has done rather well in terms of affordable homes; it has built 870 in the last full year. That is encouraging, but there is pressure there and we are very sensitive to that fact.
Q61 Heidi Alexander: In Lewisham we could do with 10 times that number of affordable homes and the land is not available. When that land does become available you have to make sure you are not selling your residents short in terms of securing affordable homes through it. You talked about mixed communities and the desire to see developments of a mixed nature, but, surely, what you are proposing here, through the changes to section 106, will mean a reduction in mixed sustainable communities and developments coming forward, because you will be building a greater amount of one particular type of housing.
Mr Prisk: No; I would differ. To give you a slightly different geography, I was looking at a deal done in Newquay where a site was to be developed. There was a push for 45% affordable homes, and nothing happened for three years. Now it has gone for 31%. It has got that affordable housing in the stock. 31% is still a very good rate, but what has happened is that we have got the site being developed, and that is the crucial bit. People say, “Hang on. Does section 106 mean zero?” No, it does not. It means recognising the market conditions and asking the authority and developer to sit down to see what is realistic and viable now. That is an important shift, because we have to recognise that it has been pretty tough in the market out there in the last three or four years. Some deals that might have stacked up and looked sensible and were viable three or four years ago are not now. The question is: do we stand on ceremony and say we must absolutely have a rigid percentage, or do we try to make sure we get the best deal that is available? The latter is probably the more pragmatic approach.
Q62 James Morris: Nick, those of us who follow these things are intrigued by the fact that your predecessor went by the title of Minister for Planning and Decentralisation. Some of us have noted that the word “decentralisation” has somehow been erased from the CLG’s nomenclature. I wondered whether that reflected a sense that the Government started with a philosophy of wanting to push localised planning and that localism was the heart of the planning reforms, giving communities more power and devolving power from the centre. The Secretary of State recently used the term “muscular localism”. Is there not here a policy retreat away from localism?
Nick Boles: I am grateful for the question because I want to be able to reassure you that, while I am certainly not as muscular as the Secretary of State, I am definitely as much of a localist. Indeed, Policy Exchange and Localis, the two thinktanks where both you and I have worked in the past, have been at the forefront of spreading the ideas of localism in the Tory Party and the centre-right more broadly-a place where those ideas have not always flourished in the last 20 or 30 years. There is no retreat. The specific change in the word “decentralisation” was because of a feeling that people wanted titles of jobs to be about the powers for which you had responsibility and “decentralisation” was a rather nebulous word. In addition, although Greg Clark has moved to the Treasury, he has kept his responsibility for the cities programme. He is very passionate about that. Given that much of that is about city deals, having a Treasury Minister negotiating them is probably a good thing.
The reason you should not be concerned is that, having spent a few weeks looking at all of the different things on my plate, for every brand new baby Minister it is a process of huge euphoric excitement at the beginning-you have a box of tricks-and then a steady realisation of how little room for manoeuvre you have. The area where I am most excited about the potential is neighbourhood plans. I think that neighbourhood plans, which in planning is bar none the most decentralised and localised innovation we have brought in, will be the thing that really transforms the rate of development in this country but also its acceptance by local people. Much more than the other things we are doing, that is where the future lies. Unfortunately, it takes a while and it is complicated and difficult, and it is only when we have got a feel for it-
Q63 James Morris: I hear what you say, Nick, but is not the reality that there is a tension here? At the same time as we are talking about neighbourhood plans we are giving the Secretary of State a significant amount of power to call in planning applications. We are strengthening the Planning Inspectorate and putting more power into the hands of a non-democratically accountable body away from local authorities. Should we not be encouraging local authorities to formulate these local plans and get the kind of localist organic development we are seeking, rather than conceding, if I may put it this way, to Treasury pressure to impose more central control when we need to decentralise a lot further?
Nick Boles: I should take responsibility for the fact that I have so spectacularly failed to communicate to you the true intention behind these proposals. It is absolutely not to go back into a centralising mode. The point is that we want local authorities to take the lead, but they have to take responsibility when they do so. They cannot just abdicate. When I say I am a localist, I do not mean that local government should be the most powerful thing in the land, but that decisions should be made as close as possible to the people they affect so those people feel as though they really have a stake in those decisions. There are times when some local authorities, frankly, abdicate their responsibility. In education we have liberated schools through the academy programme, building on one of the best reforms of the last Labour Government. We have extended those freedoms to a huge range of schools, but if they fail their students there is a category of special measures that schools can go in and then there will be central intervention to make sure those schools are handled responsibly. Exactly the same regime applies to foundation trust hospitals, which is another good reform of the last Labour Government-one from which they seem, curiously, to be backing away-where hospitals are allowed to run themselves, be free and autonomous, and stand on their own two feet, but if they fail there is intervention until they can stand on their own two feet again.
Be very clear that in the very few cases we will be saying to local authorities, “Because you have consistently failed to make decisions in a timely fashion, or in accordance with your policies, we are effectively giving developers a route to the inspectorate.” That will be for a very short time. Just as with schools the focus will be to find a new approach that means they can have autonomy again, similarly we will be working intensively with local authorities to help them get to a point where they can resume their responsibilities as soon as possible. This is a very important point. This is not recentralisation; this is making sure people understand that with more power comes more responsibility.
Q64 James Morris: How are you going to achieve your goal of getting local authorities to create these local plans? Are you providing them with new incentives? How is the Department going to ensure that we have consistent local plans across the country, because they do form a very important basis of what we need to achieve?
Nick Boles: It is a combination of the bully pulpit and carrots and sticks. The truth is that we are already having great success. The rate of planmaking is probably higher than it has ever been. We have every reason to be optimistic, but no doubt there will be a few laggards, and we will be finding different ways-I do not want to reveal all of my hand at this stage-to make being a longterm laggard painful.
Q65 Heather Wheeler: I want to move to a slightly different area: the award of costs in planning inquiries. On 6 September the Government announced some changes on the basis on which costs would be awarded in planning appeals. I wonder whether you could flesh that out a bit more.
Nick Boles: I want to be clear what you are asking about. Currently, the Planning Inspectorate can award costs only where the developer asks them to. We have heard from a number of developers that sometimes they are reluctant to ask because they have an ongoing relationship with the particular local authority; they are going to have other fish to fry with that local authority in terms of further applications. Therefore, they are disinclined to ask for those costs to be awarded. It is certainly true that it is a relatively small number. The number of cost awards equates to only 3.7% of total appeal decisions.
We are saying that in certain cases-again, used sparingly-where an authority has, we feel, been egregious in its failure to make decisions according to its own policies, the inspectorate will have an independent ability to award costs, even if the developer has not asked. This is part of the hand of carrots and sticks. We want to be able to back off. I would love to put the inspectorate out of business because all local authorities were always making decisions quickly in accordance with their policies and with a much reduced level of national policy, but where they do not we need to find ways of making it worth their while to change their behaviour.
Q66 Heather Wheeler: As this is in effect a penalty for poor performance, are you thinking that that cost would be passed, say, to the Environment Agency if it had been very slow in coming up with any advice, rather than the local authority itself?
Nick Boles: It is an extremely good question. I am not even going to pretend to know whether what we are currently proposing relates just to that. I thought it related just to failures by local authorities, but I will check. I am going to the inspectorate next week, but I will check before then and write to the Committee with a specific answer about whether it relates to any other statutory agency. That is an extremely good question but I am afraid I cannot pretend to know the answer.
Q67 Mark Pawsey: Nick, I want to stick with the inspectorate. A view was expressed in the 6 September statement that sometimes the inspectorate did not deal with things fast enough, and one objective was for the inspectorate to get on with things more quickly. Does that not mean that some other things that the inspectorate is going to do will be done less quickly? How will you prioritise it and work out what the inspectorate should be speeding up and deal with that opportunitycost problem?
Nick Boles: You are right. There is always a balance between asking an institution to take on responsibilities and their ability to fulfil all of their existing functions. I think that partly people’s concerns derive from a feeling that somehow huge numbers of authorities would be in special measures and all of their applications will go to the inspectorate. That is absolutely not our intention, and we will be publishing the thresholds and criteria for when an authority is perceived to have failed. It will make clear that it will be very few.
Q68 Mark Pawsey: At the moment people do not know what the thresholds are; that information is going to come forward.
Nick Boles: It is going to come forward; we are looking at the precise details of how we measure it and how to construct it in such a way that not too many people are caught by it, but equally that a clear message is being sent. I would point out that in the case where the inspectorate is dealing, for a very short period of time, with an authority’s applications they will be receiving the fee income for those applications. Certainly, when we spoke to the chief executive of the inspectorate he was very confident of their ability to match resources to the priorities we are putting forward.
Q69 Mark Pawsey: One of the reasons for the inspectorate intervening is that the local authority is acting too slowly, but in this instance we are criticising the inspectorate itself for acting too slowly. Is there not a certain inconsistency there?
Nick Boles: I certainly have not criticised the inspectorate for acting slowly. We are all aware of instances. It would be a fairly miraculous government agency that did not sometimes fail or take a bit longer. That would be true of every business in the country, but I am certainly not criticising them for taking too long about things, but it is true they will have to plan resources against these priorities. If they have a particular issue and they think we are asking them to do too much, I hope and expect they will come to me and send me off to the Treasury armed with the message that, if the Chancellor wants us to assist growth, we must resource the exercise properly. I have no sense that there will be any problem on that, and if there is we will deal with it.
Q70 Mark Pawsey: You do not have any sense that the Planning Inspectorate requires more resources to do the work that it is being asked to do.
Nick Boles: Certainly not more resources that are currently not resourced. If they are taking on the task of dealing with applications they will receive the fee income that currently funds the process in local authorities.
Q71 Chair: James referred to localism. We started off with localism. Then we moved on to something the Secretary of State called “guided localism”. The next stage was “muscular localism”. We now seem to have got “monitored localism” where the powers are being given to local authorities and somebody will sit and consider whether they use them properly. If not, they will intervene. Minister, you described how that happens with schools. Criteria are laid down. An Ofsted inspector goes in, and they are scored. If they do not conform to the standard, eventually someone can intervene and deal with them. In the case of planning authorities, who is going to lay down the criteria? Who will assess against the criteria? Who will make the decision to intervene?
Nick Boles: It will be very simple. As I think we have already made plain, we are looking at only two measures: timeliness-whether they are dealing with applications within the guide periods for different major and minor applications-and effectively the quality of their decisions. If you are consistently having decisions overturned by the inspectorate on appeal, the implication is that your decisions are consistently not in accordance with either your policies in the local plan or the relatively small set of national policies in the NPPF. We will be looking at two things: timeliness and the number of appeals as a proportion, because some people have a relatively small number and others have a huge number of applications. We will be looking at those two things. We have not yet finally concluded-as soon as we do we will publish it-exactly the level of both, but the intention is that it will catch very few; that it will be an entirely objective measure of whether something is or is not acceptable; that they will remain in special measures for a very short period of time; and that we will work very hard to make sure they are able to resume their independent responsibilities as soon as possible.
Q72 Chair: In terms of the timeframe-presumably there will have to be legislation and then some period of assessment of a local authority’s performance-when do you expect that the first authority could be put into special measures?
Nick Boles: That is a very good question, and I do not know exactly what month that works out at. We are looking at last year’s measures, so there will have to be a year’s measure to go on. That data is already collected. The reason I am being a bit vague is that there is a wrinkle. Currently, the data on timeliness of decisionmaking does not take into account the fact that many authorities-we are encouraging them to do this-agree planning performance agreements on certain major schemes. It might be that they are taking a long time by full agreement upfront with the developer. The data we currently collect does not exclude that. We are going through a process of trying to work out what we can do on the existing data and what we can do once that data does take into account planning performance agreements. That is why I cannot be absolutely specific about when it will bite, but I will come back to you once that is clear. There is that change, which I hope the Committee would recognise is right, to exclude planning performance agreements from the denominator, as it were; otherwise, you are penalising people.
Q73 Chair: If you have not got a way of taking account of planning performance agreements on past criteria it would be very difficult to do it.
Nick Boles: We have not collected the same data set.
Q74 Chair: Basically, any data is usable only from the current time, is it?
Nick Boles: No. There will be criteria that say an authority is regularly too late in its decisionmaking, but there will be an ability to look closely and to take representations. If they say, “Half those applications were under PPAs”, we are not foolish; we are not going to force somebody into special measures.
Q75 Chair: It is not totally quantitative then, is it, because there is a qualitative judgment that comes in?
Nick Boles: It will be totally quantitative once the PPAs are taken into account.
Q76 Chair: When decisions start to be taken on data that does not separate out those particular issues of planning performance agreements there is a qualitative element in the judgment of the Secretary of State to intervene.
Nick Boles: But in the sense of a qualitative review after a quantitative trigger, so you will be looked at only if you have failed on the quantitative measure, which will be published and will be very clear. But if you say, “We had a load of PPAs in there and we are performing perfectly normally”, there will be a qualitative review to say, “Okay, we see that you’re not failing; the data just caught you in that one year.” We want to get this started; we do not want to wait until the new data is available. Equally, the whole point of this is to be doing it to a very few authorities and for only when there is very good reason. Obviously, if they can make clear there is not a good reason and the objective data has not provided a complete picture, for that time we will take that into account.
Q77 Chair: As to what the Planning Inspectorate may do, currently they are not used to dealing with applications at first instance by and large. A local authority with good practice would be expected to put out proper notices; maybe write to people who will be affected; to listen to their representations; to hold public meetings in an area; to put on exhibitions in conjunction with the developer; to hold a meeting in the town or city hall; and to listen to people’s views at the planning board. Would the Planning Inspectorate be expected to follow all of those stages and steps and the full range of consultation measures in which a local authority now engages?
Nick Boles: Some of those steps we will continue to require local planning authorities to fulfil, for instance the putting up of notices. Clearly, the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol are not going to be able to organise that. There will be certain of the slightly more administrative processes that will continue to be conducted by the planning authority, and the more qualitative decision-making processes will be conducted by the inspectorate. We are working out the full details of this; they will be published and there will be plenty of time for people to comment on them. I would rather not anticipate decisions that I might think I have made but I suspect have not been approved by my elders and betters.
Q78 Chair: It is a fairly fundamental principle. Will local communities and individuals in those communities get as much consultation when the Planning Inspectorate takes these decisions as they do currently with the local authority?
Nick Boles: Yes.
Q79 Chair: So anything that the local authority does now as part of its arrangements-
Nick Boles: It will get the statutorily required level of consultation.
Q80 Chair: That was not the question I asked. Many authorities go well beyond the statutory requirements.
Nick Boles: But remember: we are dealing with authorities that are failing and are doing things too slowly.
Q81 Chair: Maybe there is too much consultation.
Nick Boles: I do not know, but I suspect that the overlap between authorities that are doing things too slowly and are having their decisions regularly overturned or appealed and those who go overboard on consultation and talk to everyone will be vanishingly small- possibly zero-because by and large doing more proactive consultation is a sign of good conduct by a local authority; it is a progressive approach that we support. I do not think it will be a problem. I accept that theoretically there might be a situation where an authority that is used to doing a certain level of consultation over and above the statutory requirement will not be doing it because the inspectorate will be doing it, but I think that will be a Venn diagram in which there is no overlap.
Q82 Chair: But in the cases in which there are-
Nick Boles: I do not think there will be, but, if there are, we will look carefully at them.
Q83 Chair: One of the categories you are looking at is where local authorities have a lot of decisions overturned on appeal. When the Planning Inspectorate take the decision at first instance, who hears the appeal?
Nick Boles: There will not be an appeal process.
Q84 Chair: There will not be an appeal process?
Nick Boles: No. The whole point is that this is intended to be an extremely temporary, exceptional period. Of course, there is always an appeal process: you can go to court. That is true of everything. You can JR it, but there will not be a process of appeal of the inspectorate’s decision, because this is not how it is meant to operate. This is a last resort while we make the authority take the steps it needs to take to become a proper planning authority.
Q85 Chair: So we now have two fundamental changes to the planning system in this country. We are taking away the right of local elected councils to take the decision at first instance and taking away the right of appeal from the applicant. Does this not go absolutely to the heart of the whole planning system in this country in one fell swoop?
Nick Boles: I disagree, because it will happen in a very small number of authorities for an extremely limited amount of time-a maximum of a year. It is going to be a reflection of those authorities’ failure to discharge their responsibilities. Localism does not mean local authorities doing what the hell they like; it means them fulfilling their responsibilities towards the people who put them there and exercising their powers responsibly. If, as a planning authority, you are consistently failing to take decisions on time and consistently failing to take decisions according to your policies, you are failing. This route is a temporary exception that will be applied to very few and will revert to the normal situation, which is what we want for everyone, where local planning authorities do their job and make decisions according to their plan and those few national policies that we have in place.
Q86 Chair: Could I suggest, Minister, that a change of fundamental principle is a change of fundamental principle, whether it applies on a permanent basis or on a temporary basis for a day, a week or a year?
Nick Boles: That may well be your view, but I do not recognise that as what we are doing.
Q87 Bob Blackman: Moving to a less controversial area, regarding the new announced policy on permitted development, could you explain the rationale for a threeyear free-for-all?
Nick Boles: Firstly, it is not a free-for-all. We are not in favour of free-for-alls. The suggested change on permitted development for extensions is certainly not a free-for-all; the limits are very precise. We are extending the size of permitted extensions, but under very strict limits. We are maintaining that all building regulations will have to apply; the right to light will still have to be respected; the Party Wall etc. Act will remain in place; and local authorities will, as now, have an ability, through Article 4 directions, to be able to make a case for why this permitted development should not apply to their area. It is, then, quite a limited proposal. The reason why we want to bring it in initially for three years is two-fold: firstly, we have a growth problem.
If I might just make an observation, Mr Chairman, it is that the economic situation, which is ultimately what planning and development is linked to, has not been a subject that we have discussed much in this Committee, but we have an urgent need to support growth. There are members of your Committee who believe that the way you support growth is by spending and borrowing more money. That is not the view of this Government. The view of this Government is that another way that you support growth is by cutting regulations in order to encourage entrepreneurial activity and householder investment, and the rest.
The reason why we have said three years is because we want to encourage people to do these extensions in the next three years, because the construction industry is having a miserable time, and traders who have been, as it were, taken in by the construction industry are having a miserable time, and we want to support them. If, at the end of the three years, it has, as I fully expect, become completely accepted-just like the last lot of permitted development on extensions is now completely accepted-and everybody is happy with it, we may look at keeping it in place. For the moment, however, we are proposing to have it for three years, because that will stimulate activity in those three years, when we really need construction activity in local areas.
Q88 Bob Blackman: Let us examine that statement in some detail. The LGA say that just under 90% of homebuilder extensions are granted anyway, so we are talking now about just over 10% of applications that would not be accepted by a planning authority, which would now be allowed, because most of these would be gross distortions, particularly in the urban and suburban areas. I can speak for London here, where the position is that, in both semi-detached and even detached areas that are in very close proximity to one another, the proposed extensions under permitted development will be unwieldy, have huge light issues, and will be a blight on the individuals who live either side of them. You are then proposing, for the urban and suburban areas, that people will just be able to get on with it, and tough on the neighbours. What is your reaction to that?
Nick Boles: What I find curious about that position and, indeed, the LGA’s position, is that, on the one hand, they are saying that 90% get passed anyway, and what that means is that you are requiring 90% of all people who want to do this very reasonable thing-which is to put a little bit on their house so that they can cater for a growing family-to go through an entirely unnecessary bureaucratic process, which is expensive. Although the planning fee may not seem very much, most of the time, if you are going to put in a planning application, you tend to then engage a level of design, architectural and other advice, which tends to cost you rather more, so the estimates that you see are of around £2,000 being spent on that process.
Q89 Bob Blackman: Sorry, could I just cut across you there? Would you not accept that part and parcel of that is to make sure that the design fits in with the existing housing, rather than being a jerry-built function?
Nick Boles: Building regulations will apply. We have never said anything about building regulations. We have one of the most constraining set of building regulations of any modern country, and those regulations will remain thoroughly in force for this. You made a point in your initial question that there would be severe effects on light. The extensions, as now, will only be able to be single-storey, will be subject to the right to the light, will have limits on how much of a property garden or backyard they can take up, and will have restrictions on the heights at the boundaries. There are some very clear restrictions that will mean that they will not have a huge effect on the enjoyment of light by neighbouring properties and, if they do, all of the remedies under the right to light will pertain.
If I could just return to the point you made about the percentage, firstly, my question is whether it is reasonable to ask people to spend that amount of money for something when 90% were going to do something entirely reasonable in the first place. Secondly, there is the question of how many people are being put off by the fact that they have to go through that process. How many people cannot afford to move now, because there is no credit out there for a larger mortgage? Stamp duty is high and there is no particular prospect of it coming down, because we inherited the worst budget deficit in our peacetime history from the last Government. There is a lot of constraint on moving to a large property; therefore, is it not right for us to be backing those people who have that aspiration to stay in their home and have a little bit of extra room, using the property that they acquired, over which they have ownership rights, within limits that respect the rights of their neighbours?
Q90 Bob Blackman: Fine, I accept that position. The clear point here, though, is that some 11-12% of planning applications are rightly refused by local authorities at the present time. If the individuals go to appeal, the vast majority of those planning decisions are supported and, therefore, we are now saying that many of those-some 22,000 a year, probably, across the country-would now be allowed under this new proposed permitted development.
Nick Boles: Sorry, it is not clear that all of those that were refused would now be allowed under this, because there are very strict limits on this proposal too. Many of them are probably for two or three-storey extensions. People will lob in an application for the most ridiculous things and, quite rightly, they get batted back. I completely accept that many people have a different view than the Government on this, and that many local authority leaders, particularly in outer London, have a different view. I have met with Lord True from Richmond, I have met with the leader of Sutton Council, and I am meeting with the leader of Bromley Council, I think, tomorrow. I am happy to meet with anybody who has those concerns. The simple question is: is it really such an appalling thing to take a permitted extension right on a terraced house from three metres to six metres, when it is single-storey and it cannot use up more than half the garden-so, if the garden is not 12 metres, it cannot be six metres; it has to be no more than 50% of the garden. I can see it is a liberalisation; that is what we intend. We came into Government to do things like that, but I do not see it as a crime against humanity.
Q91 Bob Blackman: We had better agree to disagree on that particular issue, certainly in outer London. The other impact on this, of course, is that local authorities across the country already have quite strong schemes of what is allowed under permitted development rights, but local authorities have slightly different views about what is permitted and what is not under an existing localism view. This policy seems to cut across that now and will have a severe impact, particularly in areas where, let us say, people have failed to put planning applications in and done extensions that go beyond the permitted development areas, and local authorities then enforce against those decisions and take action. How would the new policy impact on those positions in the future?
Nick Boles: Enforcement will remain important where people have done things that are outside the state of the law, so that will be the case. In terms of the variations that local authorities make to permitted development, currently they can have variations over and above the basic minimum, which is the existing permitted development rights, which are universal, unless they have gone through an Article 4 process.
Q92 Bob Blackman: We are going to come on to Article 4 in a moment.
Nick Boles: It remains the case that local authorities can go through the Article 4 process if they want to put in place a slightly more restricted or particular permitted development regime locally. It is not a simple process and it is not meant to be a simple process, but it is a process that local authorities have used and, no doubt, they will use it, in some cases, to do this. The policy that we are putting in place cannot be tailor-made for Richmond; it is a policy for all of the people living in houses in the country, knowing that we are giving them the chance to extend a little bit more to be able to cater for their family needs.
Q93 Bob Blackman: Can I cover Article 4, then, at this point? One of the issues that occurred, certainly under the previous Government, was an encouragement of reducing the number of conservation areas and keeping them to be proper conservation areas, where there was an architectural reason to do so, and of reducing Article 4 areas as well, for the simple reason of saying that there was to be no discouragement of development. Are you now suggesting that local authorities should enhance the number of Article 4 areas and enhance the number of conservation areas to protect against unreasonable development?
Nick Boles: I do not want them to. Personally, I would like every local authority to embrace this very reasonable liberalisation in the interests of their residents. I think that they should, but they have a right, under the law, to go through a process of Article 4. That right will remain, but I am certainly not encouraging anyone to go down that route, because I would hope that they would, if nothing else, try this for six months or a year, see how it operates-does the world come to an end, to which the answer, I suspect, would be that it will not-and then probably decide that they can live with it after all.
Q94 Bob Blackman: Finally from me, at the moment, people who carry out work under permitted development are encouraged to get a certificate of lawful development following that work. That, of course, safeguards them in terms of selling the property and, indeed, makes sure that the local authority properly registers the development that has taken place. Is there any change in policy to that?
Nick Boles: There is no intention to change that.
Q95 Bob Blackman: Are there any proposals about charging for those certificates and for the impact that the local authority will then have on the work that they may have to do?
Nick Boles: We are not proposing any changes to that at all. It is something that is sensible, as you say, so that the householder or the propertyowner has protected themselves for the future, and that will remain the case.
Q96 Heidi Alexander: I have found this exchange quite fascinating, to be honest. Are you honestly saying that you think that people are put off from building extensions and conservatories because of the cost of the planning fee, and not the cost of the £2,000 conservatory or the £5,000 extension? Do you think that the reason why people are not doing this at the moment is because of the planning fee?
Nick Boles: No. I think, Ms Alexander, you will note what I said, which was that it is, of course, not just the planning fee, because the planning fee is an amount but it is not an enormous amount; it is the fact that, if you are going through a planning application process, you then feel that you need to get a whole lot of technical, architectural and design advice, and maybe even a planning consultant, to help you get it through, because you know that you have to tick various boxes and jump through various hoops. The estimate is that the total cost of the advice that people get when they are submitting these applications averages out at around £2,000, which, as a proportion of the cost of your extension, is quite a lot. Therefore, if it is a reasonable thing to do, I think certainly some people have been held back by the fact that they are going to have to spend £2,000 on a process that does not pay for a pane of glass.
Q97 Heidi Alexander: Personally, I think it is the cost of doing the work itself that is prohibitive, and not the planning process and fee, but we probably disagree there. I just wonder what impact you think this is going to have on the amount of enforcement work that local authorities are going to have to do retrospectively after all these conservatories and extensions have sprung up?
Nick Boles: I think there will be dramatically less enforcement work because, of course, most of the reasonable extensions that most reasonable people want to make will now be permitted, so there will be no need for enforcement work. Because there was a very tight constraint on permitted development and extensions previously, enforcement work was required to enforce against extensions that I think most people would feel were perfectly reasonable. We are trying to bring the law into line with common sense, and that should mean that there is less enforcement work.
Q98 Heidi Alexander: How is anyone going to know? I have quite a small terraced house and I certainly have a small garden in my terraced house in London. If I were to extend it six metres, it would cover the whole garden.
Nick Boles: You could not, because the law is very clear that it will be six metres or 50% of your garden-no more than 50%.
Q99 Heidi Alexander: Who is going to know that I have not-
Nick Boles: You have neighbours, presumably. If you do not have neighbours, to some extent why are we worrying? The whole point is that I thought that we were going to be blighting your neighbours. You cannot have it both ways. If your neighbours are not going to notice, then probably it has not been that bad.
Q100 Heidi Alexander: My point is: who, from the local authority, then goes round to look at what the problem is?
Nick Boles: Neighbours, presumably, will call, if they feel that there is a problem.
Q101 Heidi Alexander: In respect of enforcement, there is more retrospective enforcement.
Nick Boles: No, I disagree, because much more will be permitted. I think one of the interesting political differences is in this presumption that, generally, most people are reasonable and try to do the right thing, and do not try to go war with their neighbours, and then some very few people, unfortunately, do try to go to war with all of their neighbours. Most people will find that a six-metre or 50%-of-garden permitted development right will be ample for all of their needs and, therefore, there will be no question of an enforcement notice being required. At the moment, because the regime is quite constrictive, many more people push it to the limit, and that is what creates an industry for the enforcement people.
Chair: We still have one or two more questions to raise with you, Minister. I realise we have been here for a quite a long time, so if colleagues could just concentrate on the key issues now, that will be helpful.
Q102 Mark Pawsey: I am afraid I want to stick with permitted development rights and the issue of change of use from commercial to residential. We can all agree that it makes sense, if there are vacant commercial properties and there is the possibility of conversion to residential at a time of housing shortage. That makes sense. The first point to ask you is: in the proposal of change, is this is a temporary change along the lines that you have just spoken about, or is this a more permanent change?
Nick Boles: The proposal is one that we have been looking at for a number of months-actually, before I came into the post. We have not yet reached any final decisions on the specific question of whether it is just for a period of time or for longer. When we have made all those decisions, we will then be putting out proposals and will share them with the Committee before anyone else. We do not, however, have a clear position that I can share with you now on that.
Q103 Mark Pawsey: Could I ask you why it is felt necessary at all, given that, in the NPPF, there is a statement that says, “Local planning authorities should normally approve planning applications for change to residential use […] from commercial […] where there is an identified need for additional housing in that area”. If that presumption exists in the NPPF, why the relaxation?
Mr Prisk: Can I weigh in here slightly, partly because this is very important in my brief as well and also partly just to give Mr Boles a break. Teamwork is slowly building. What I would say is there is a really serious issue here about our town and city centres around empty space. I think what we felt was that, if you change the default position, in which the PDR in this circumstance says that there shall be a change of use but you keep the opportunity for the local authority to set out why they feel there should be an exemption, it will really help in a particular regard. One of the things I have been struck by in the last four or five weeks, but I have seen it previously when I was wearing my professional hat, is, where someone, for example, is thinking about a hotel that has become derelict, is in long-term decline or is empty in the middle of a town centre, if they are going to think about whether they can get that back into constructive and profitable use in residential, the big risk for them is whether they will get planning change. This helps by removing that planning risk for that developer and for the investor, and will accelerate the ability to get some of those projects back into use in town centres.
Q104 Mark Pawsey: We accept that there could be many units. Hotels might have 300 bedrooms. You could have a pretty substantial office building. Is that not, however, going to have an impact on local facilities that ought to be taken into account by the local authority in determining whether or not this kind of change of use should go through? Are we not in danger of having some unforeseen consequences, which are substantial use of residential accommodation in areas that are really not intended to have them?
Mr Prisk: That is exactly why it is a PDR that allows a local authority exemption. Most local authorities are very alert to those areas where an office building has been sitting there as a blight for far too long and they want to get it back into use. There will, however, be other areas-you are quite right-that they will feel are quite sensitive and that are critical to the development of how they establish their new local plan or whatever. The change here, then, is a shift in the default position, but it still allows the local authority to be able to turn round and say, “We would still like to have an exemption in this part of the area”.
Q105 Mark Pawsey: We are, then, intending a permitted development right that has restrictions attached to it.
Mr Prisk: It is allowing them to make sure that the permitted development rights allows a change of use, unless the local authority has come forward wishing to seek an exemption. Some will and some will not. Some will for certain parts of their district; that is the other point.
Q106 Mark Pawsey: I think we would have concerns about where the presumption lies. Can I also ask you about the change of use for outoftown warehouses, and the possibility that some of those might be transferred to retail use? There are some concerns from the British Council of Shopping Centres that that might lead to adverse pressure on our town centres, and we have just had the Portas review arguing that we should be making strenuous efforts to defend our town centres. Is there not a concern that this policy might go in the opposite direction?
Nick Boles: The only things we are looking at are changes of use from a variety of commercial uses to residential. We are not looking at the possibility of changes of use from commercial uses to retail.
Q107 Mark Pawsey: So, are the concerns of the British Council of Shopping Centres unfounded?
Nick Boles: I have stated the position. If they have concerns about something else, that is not for me to say. The position is clear: we are only looking at this change of use from commercial uses to residential.
Q108 Heidi Alexander: Are your proposals around permitted development going to apply also to houses in multiple occupation?
Nick Boles: Yes, they are. The only reason why I am hesitating is because, literally just before I came here, I was introduced to the concept of different levels of houses of multiple occupation. There is one under six and there is one above six. My understanding-I think I can remember this-is that, currently, if we were to permit the development from a commercial use to an HMO of under six, that would be included, but there would not be a permitted development from a commercial use to an HMO of over six.
Q109 Heidi Alexander: Sorry, I should have explained myself more clearly. I was talking about permitted development in terms of extensions and conservatories. I have moved on from commercial to residential.
Nick Boles: I am sorry-I was muddling up.
Q110 Heidi Alexander: In terms of permitted development around conservatories and extensions, is that going to apply to HMOs?
Nick Boles: My understanding is yes, but, if I may, rather than put it absolutely 100% definitively on the record, I will come back to you with a very clear answer. However, I think the answer is yes.
Q111 Heidi Alexander: We had a number of submissions, particularly from residents in Southampton, who are very concerned about HMOs in that city, and the nuisance and problems that those properties cause. They are very fearful that extensions and additional people living in extra rooms could cause real problems.
Nick Boles: I will confirm the position, but if I could also just make clear, if I did not earlier, that we are going to start-I hope within a matter of a week or two-a consultation process in which it is exactly these points of view that we will be hoping to get, so there will be an opportunity, if the position is as I think it is.
Q112 Heidi Alexander: My last point on permitted development is that I do not have people speaking to me who are concerned about the planning process in respect of extensions and conservatories, but I do have lots of people who contact me around the permitted development that is allowed to change estate agents to betting shops, and that goes on in terms of changing pubs to retail. Will you or will you not introduce a separate Use Classes Order for betting shops and pubs?
Nick Boles: I am not responsible for the particular decisions about that area of policy, but we are happy to take any representations from you on that. It is not currently part of our plans and it is not part of a package. I know that there are many concerns, shared widely, about betting shops, and the proliferation of them in certain places, but we are not currently planning to do anything through the Use Classes Order on that.
Q113 Simon Danczuk: Just returning to the issue of green belts, in the statement that the Government made on 6 December, it was said, “There is considerable previously developed land in many greenbelt areas, which could be put to more productive use. We encourage councils to make best use of this land.” Does the Department have a list of these sites in terms of where this land is?
Nick Boles: I do not think so, and the truth is that one knows, just from what happens, that there are many such sites. Just to give you an example: in 2010, 2% of dwellings that were built in that year were built on green belt. Not all of them but the bulk of them will have been on previously developed sites-quarries and other such things-but I do not think we have a national list. We are not great believers in keeping centralised, nationalised lists of everything.
Q114 Simon Danczuk: No, I learned that from the previous question that I asked. In terms of these sites, I am just concerned about the cost of infrastructure to open them up for them to be able to be used, and weighing that against the cost of reusing brownfield sites.
Mr Prisk: I think the point is that what we are talking about here very often is something that was a previously developed site within the green belt-an old scrap-yard or whatever. Therefore, of course, having already been developed, it already has road access and it will very often have water and electricity, so, although I understand the practical concerns, I suspect they are far less than may be feared.
Q115 Simon Danczuk: My second question is very much about the Chancellor’s statement on 2 September on the BBC, which you will be familiar with, because it attracted quite a lot of attention. He said that, “Swapping some bits of the green belt for other bits” was a good thing. He said, “Those powers already exist but are not widely used. I would like to see more.” What did the Chancellor mean by that?
Nick Boles: He is right that those powers do exist, because remember that, although we have a national policy that the greenbelt protection should remain, they are defined by local authorities, and local authorities have always been able to vary them. Some do and some do not, and that is a position that has not changed. We are not changing that in any way, but the Chancellor is interested in economic growth, as I hope everybody in the Committee is, and I am sure he is keen for everybody, not just local authorities, to do everything in their power to support economic growth.
Q116 Simon Danczuk: Are we going to see more of this swapping? He wants to see more, but will we see more?
Nick Boles: It is very important, Mr Danczuk. Even though some members of the Committee have concluded that we have reverted to being centralising types, some things are not for us. Some things are not for Ministers. Local authorities will decide what they want to do with their greenbelt protections. The only thing I would say to reassure you is that the amount of green belt now is substantially more than it was in 1997, so the rate of greenbelt classification is faster than the rate of development on any kind of land. I do not think that the somewhat hysterical concerns that some people express about the threat to the green belt are borne out by the figures. Some 13% of land in England is green belt; only 8% or 9% is developed in any way at all.
Q117 Simon Danczuk: Sure, but you would describe him, as you did earlier, as one of your elders and betters. The Chancellor-
Nick Boles: He is actually five years younger than me, which is always rather galling, but better he certainly is.
Q118 Simon Danczuk: He said, “I would like to see more”. He is pressing the point. He is a very important person in Government. It is not me saying it is about centralising; it is your Chancellor saying this. What is going to change? That is what I am asking you.
Nick Boles: Can I just say: there are lots of things I would like to see more of that, as Ministers, we do not have the power to bring about, nor do I believe we should have the power to bring about. Local authorities are the ones who decide what they do with their greenbelt protections, but we all want to see local authorities finding ways to meet their housing need and finding ways to support growth in our economy.
Q119 Simon Danczuk: You said in answer to a question from Stuart Andrew MP on 21 September, “I can reassure him, for now, that there is nothing to stop Leeds City Council maintaining the protection of green-belt land in its local plan”. What changes are you planning then?
Nick Boles: I knew, Mr Danczuk, it would be you. Can I just say that that was just a revelation to me, because normally I do not write the answers to questions, which you can probably tell, and which is why I walk into so many headlong traps. Because it was my first time ever at PQs, I had written out that answer, and I had not written “for now” in there. I did not believe it. I asked my Private Secretary to check the tape, because I did not believe I had said it, but I did say it and I accept that I said it. There are no plans. I have no plans. There are no plans. My Secretary of State, who is a muscular localist and a muscular boss, let me assure you, has made it very clear and plain that there will be no change to this policy.
Q120 Chair: Just to be very clear, a local authority, therefore, can give approval for a development in a green belt-indeed, do a swap-without triggering a review of its total green belt or in any way weakening the protection given to every other site in its green belt.
Nick Boles: Certainly the latter, but it has to go through the proper processes. Local authorities cannot just run things without consultation. There is not a free-for-all for them either; they have to go through their process of consultation of the local plan. If they are going to deviate from the local plan, there is-
Q121 Chair: That is the point I am trying to get at. It may not be quite as simple, as has been portrayed, as saying, “There is a bit of brownfield land in the green belt there. It would be good to develop that and put something else in the green belt.” That would require a complete review of the whole green belt in an authority, which would be quite a lengthy process.
Nick Boles: You are much more experienced in this, Mr Chairman, than I am, but my sense is that, because development sites are so hard to find, particularly for those authorities that are operating in an area which has a lot of green-belt land, they are all pretty alive to those relatively few sites in their green belt that are previously developed or, in some way, lend themselves to further development. Most of them, then, are thinking about those pretty proactively, but of course they cannot just suddenly decide; they too have to follow a plan.
Q122 Bob Blackman: Can you just explain the rationale behind the review on both local and national standards being brought together? There are some misunderstandings about this, and I think it would be very helpful if you clarified this issue.
Nick Boles: I am going to ask Mark to do that bit because I do not have responsibility for local and national standards, but I will talk, if you want me to, about planning guidance.
Mr Prisk: I think the thing is that most people who work in the field will know that, over the years, very often with the best of intentions, a series of different codes and standards-some local and some national, so, in London, you have the London Housing Design Guide, for example, but you also have the Code for Sustainable Homes, which is a national code-have been built up in a series of layers. The difficulty is that, very often, when you look at them, there are both gaps and conflicts. The feeling was that what we wanted to try to do was to rationalise this, so that there is something that is coherent and simpler but also, I think, easier to both enforce and to easy to understand as an applicant. The intention, then, is to deal with that, rather than changing any policy. It will, however, be quite wide. It will be national and local standards, and it will incorporate building regulations and the framework that they create, to try to get something that is coherent and simple.
Q123 Bob Blackman: Will it learn from best practice and, therefore, be an improvement as opposed to removing some of the safeguards and design principles that were put into those codes?
Mr Prisk: Yes, and I am a big fan of good quality design principles. I think our view is that, on the one hand, we have asked the stakeholder groups-those who are directly involved and have an interest-to steer this process, but we have then asked a separate, independent expert panel to try to look at some of the aspects of this, and very often to bring that independent judgment, so the steering group can develop a proposal. I think it is also important to stress that this is something that we have set out we want to see ready for the spring of next year. I do not want to have another 18 months examining our navel on this one. As you know, Mr Blackman, there are a lot of interweaving elements to this, and I think, if we could get to a simple, more coherent approach, given that some of the quite well intentioned different codes sometimes do not work together, that would be a real bonus.
Q124 Bob Blackman: In certain places-Nick, you may well come on to this-there is guidance on what happens at a local authority level, and local authorities have their particular codes. The key concern here is whether there is going to be an attempt to override them.
Nick Boles: Certainly not overriding, but we do want to slim down guidance. The guidance has just proliferated. We now have, apparently, about 6,000 pages, and the irony is that, if you have 6,000 pages of guidance, it is bloody hard to know where to be guided. It is only if you have a relatively clear, simple and restricted number of guidance materials that they will have an impact on people’s decision and policies. We have asked Lord Taylor to conduct this review with the Department, with the clear aim of trying to reduce the amount of guidance by 60-80%, but we will see where he gets to. I think you will end up with clearer, more effective guidance, which will genuinely make people’s behaviour change, than we have at the present.
Q125 Bob Blackman: One specific area that I think will be helpful is the separation distance between properties and wind turbines, which certain local authorities have introduced and has been warmly welcomed by local people. Is there going to be an attempt to change that position?
Nick Boles: I do not have any particular intention to change that position, but I am aware that the Minister for Energy, Mr Hayes, has started a consultation to look into the effect of wind turbines on local communities. It may be that, as a result of that consultation, there will be new policies and new positions that the planning authorities and the Planning Inspectorate will want to take into account. At the moment, however, I think he has just announced that consultation.
Q126 Chair: Just one brief follow-up: in terms of the guidance, isn’t one of the issues that, if it can be shorter and more effective, that is certainly welcome, but this guidance has to cover a lot of eventualities. Particularly for smaller authorities, and the case you mentioned before, which may have a development put in front of them that they have not seen in the last 10 years, having guidance to fall back on is often extremely helpful and can shorten the process in which they are able to determine properly the application. Should that not be a factor that should be taken into account when we are looking to all of this?
Mr Prisk: Yes, but if you have a series of layers that have built up over a period, that can be incredibly confusing for a local authority, so I think our view is that local authorities will still, as they do, set their standards; what we are trying to do is to make it easier for them to know what the key benchmarks are.
Q127 Chair: Are the LGA and the professional planning organisations going to be thoroughly involved in this rewriting of the guidance?
Nick Boles: Absolutely. The LGA’s councillor Mike Jones, who is their lead member on this, is on Lord Taylor’s panel in a personal capacity, as is Trudi Elliott from the Institute, so there is some good professional input, plus they will then be going out and talking to a whole load of people-planners and others.
Q128 Mark Pawsey: Chairman, I just wanted to ask a couple of questions about public land and empty homes. Mark, you referred to surplus public land being used for housing. Different Governments have been talking about that for 30 years; why should your approach succeed?
Mr Prisk: I think what we are trying to do is not only put in place a mechanism-for example, additional funding for this-but also look at how we create incentives. Mr Boles mentioned earlier the importance of sticks and carrots. I am generally, on the whole, a carrots man, and what I mean by that in this context-it may not necessarily be immediately obvious visually, I appreciate-is that I generally take the view that carrots are important. That is why I think the new homes bonus is a really important change here, because it is not just about new homes that we build as new; it includes empty homes, which is a really important shift. I think, for a lot of local authorities, it is quite awkward and quite difficult in their locality to deal with those long-term empty homes, but if there is a clear bonus for it, that is encouraging them to recognise the impact of empty homes over a long period.
Q129 Mark Pawsey: That would certainly act as a driver for local authority-owned land, but how about MOD land? How are you going to make some of these Government bodies that are sitting on land release it in the way that we all know is necessary?
Mr Prisk: As I said earlier, we have already managed to sell land which will provide 33,000 units. For the first time, we have got the MOD and others to publish what their proposals are in terms of public land. We have now set out the proposal that the Homes and Communities Agency take the lead. Also, one of the things I am doing is working site-by-site with those opportunities that are perhaps stuck by some of the major agencies, to work directly with the Secretaries of State to make sure we unlock them. I think that combination of incentives, a change in the arrangements and also making sure there is a Minister driving this should help bump up that number from 33,000 houses.
Q130 Mark Pawsey: On empty homes, a large chunk of them are owned by local authorities and housing authorities. The private rented sector is growing-it is a bigger sector of our housing market than it has been for many, many years-and it is more professional. What about letting private residential landlords bid at auction for vacant localauthorityowned homes?
Mr Prisk: It is a very interesting idea. I have not heard that one before and I would like to have further consideration of it. My view with empty homes is we have 279,000 longerterm empty homes. We need to be slightly careful not to look at the full picture, because that can be more of a temporary situation. The new homes bonus is important because it incentivises the local authorities you are talking about, but I am more than happy to look at other innovative ideas to see what can usefully trigger people to bring them back into use.
Q131 Chair: Just in terms of the sell-off of public land, is the Government going to make sure that, where it sells off in the current economic climate, which is probably at a relatively low market price historically, developers are going to have to build on that land quickly and not sit on it until the price of that land rises at some stage in the future?
Mr Prisk: My view on this has always been that, where we get that land released, one of the first things I am going to be looking at right from the start is how many homes are going to be built and when are they going to be built. That is what is certainly motivating me. That means making sure that we look at these sites one by one, and making sure that it is not, as you have suggested, Chairman, something that is simply a long-term punt. I think that is important.
Q132 Chair: Would that go for land other than CLG land? Would your Department take an overview of all the sales?
Mr Prisk: Yes. The point about having the Homes and Communities Agency draw in some of the MOD sites and Health sites and so on-challenging as that will be, I suspect, for me with various Secretaries of State, but nevertheless very important-is that we can start to drive that forward. It has been very encouraging, and I have had full support from the Chancellor and other Cabinet Ministers to make sure that we make that happen.
Q133 Chair: Finally, on a slightly lower scale, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced that, where broadband street cabinets and other infrastructure are installed currently and need some prior approval from councils, in the future they will not need it, except in Sites of Special Scientific Interest. My understanding is that currently councils cannot refuse permission for these cabinets simply on aesthetic grounds or because they think there are too many in an area; they can only do so where they cause an obstruction or where there is a health and safety issue involved. Why are we taking away the power from councils to refuse something for which there is a health and safety risk in putting them in a particular location?
Nick Boles: There are two levels of answer. There is the philosophical level, which is, “Does one think that the only legitimate decisions are the decisions that are taken by elected authorities, or do you sometimes think that some decisions can be left up to businesses and local people to take for themselves?” The truth is that there is a balance and a dividing line. We already have some things. We already have permitted development rights for many things, and that is because we think that, by and large, actors will behave responsibly and the impact on their neighbours will be sufficiently slim. There are others for which we do require a process.
What we are saying is that, given that there is an urgent need-no aspect of infrastructure would have a greater transformative effect on growth potential, particularly in rural areas than a wide roll-out of broadband-it is right to shift the boundary a little in favour of this. We are doing it, again, for five years, so it is something that we can look at in five years’ time as to whether we want to continue it, but at the moment it is only for five years. It does, however, seem to me to be a reasonable moving of the balance.
Q134 Chair: If one of these cabinets causes a health and safety problem or causes an obstruction; the local authority is going to have no power to deal with it.
Nick Boles: There are powers that they have outside the planning system. There are regulations that exist outside the planning system. They will not require planning permission but that does not mean that you can put them anywhere. They will not require planning permission, but if you do something that is clearly a danger to the public, the enforcement authorities will come down on you.
Q135 Chair: What powers of enforcement will the authority have?
Nick Boles: There are rules that exist beyond the planning system. They will not require planning permission is the point.
Q136 Chair: It would be helpful to just drop a note to us about what those rules might be, because I think, without any planning enforcement powers, I am just not sure what they are.
Nick Boles: I would be happy to do that.
Chair: On that small but very important point at the end, thank you very much indeed to both of you for coming. We had a long session, and thank you for coming and answering our questions so fully.
Nick Boles: Thank you very much.
Mr Prisk: Thank you.