Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
t is my honour and pleasure to move the Second Reading of my Bill today. My interest in this subject was initially prompted by the fact that I represent the very rural constituency of South Norfolk, which has many young people who find it very difficult to get on the housing ladder or to find any place to live when they grow up and leave home. The idea of being able to stay in the area, let alone the village, where they grew up or to be near their parents is sometimes completely outwith the range of possibilities for them in a very rural area with many small villages. Of course, some young people will go off to big cities—in our case, to Norwich or cities in Essex, as well as to London or elsewhere—but the fact is that we do not have enough housing in our rural area. What has become apparent to me, and it would be apparent to anyone who takes notice of the debate across the country, is that the problems of housing are just as acute in many urban areas. In some cases, the problems elsewhere are even broader.
There is a very important but underestimated issue about how we unlock the energy latent in the population and deploy it to get more housing. The fact is that many millions of people in this country would like to get a piece of land and build their own house. The National Custom and Self Build Association estimates that about 1 million people would like to do it in the next 12 months, and that more than 7 million people would like to do it at some point in their lives. The availability of means to turn this latent desire or pent-up demand into something real—in my view, it would do a great deal to fulfil the nation’s housing needs—have been remarkably lacking. We have a housing market, if we can call it that, that is sclerotic.
Slightly more than 12 months ago when I was at the party conference in Manchester—I have recently returned from this year’s conference—house builders were still talking about how the housing market was quite fragile. They said that there was no certainty about the recovery, and that the sector still needed support. Yet only two or three months ago, the newspapers were full of stories about a housing bubble. It is quite remarkable how one can go from near stasis or sclerosis to a housing bubble within 12 months. It seems improbable that that would happen if we had a well-functioning housing market. In fact, it happened because we do not have a well-functioning housing market: the supply of housing does not rise to meet the demand for housing. We have a systemic problem or a sustained disequilibrium, to use the jargon, between the number of people who want houses and the supply of houses. There are a whole range of very understandable reasons for that connected with the structure of our planning system and the number of large-volume house builders who provide a great deal of the housing in this country, as well as the interplay between those two factors and between the large-volume house builders and the capital markets.
Although we do not have equilibrium, it is no good blaming anybody. I attended the debate on housing supply in the summer, which was moved by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds). I found it a rather appalling and depressing experience, because the first hour and a half was taken up with hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber essentially shouting numbers at each other about who had not done what. Shouting numbers will not get us far. Indeed, announcing targets will not necessarily get us far. If targets were the answer, we would probably have solved the problem by now.
One of the most interesting facets of public policy in recent years has been the widespread recognition, for example in policing, health and schools, that targets have often made the situation worse and allowed people to game the system. I am not sure that that is quite true of housing, but there is certainly a broad recognition in many areas of public policy that instead of worrying about numbers and setting targets, one should focus on removing the blockages that prevent the system flowing smoothly. In other words, to use the term of art coined by John Seddon, the occupational psychologist and management thinker, if one spends more time studying “how the work works” and attempting to remove the blockages in the flow of how the work works, one frequently gets improvements in performance much greater than any target one would have dared to set. We have seen that again and again in different parts of local government, where we have had startling successes in performance improvement by taking that approach.
People have asked me whether it would make a difference if we had a statutory right to get a piece of land and build a house. They ask whether I can point to a number and say, “That is how many extra dwellings would be created as a result.” The answer is, “No I can’t, and I’m not even going to try,” because the question misses the main point: that there is enormous pent-up demand among people who wish to get a piece of land and build a dwelling of their own, but it does not have an outlet because the blockages are too severe.
My humble Bill seeks to do two things: to create a register containing information on people who wish to get a piece of land and build a dwelling—individuals and associations of individuals—and to ensure that local councils have regard to that register when bringing forward their housing plans. I believe that such house building could make a significant difference if it were built into the warp and weft of the housing plans of local authorities and became, as it were, part of the new normal. A number of other steps would need to be taken in parallel for it to become part of the normal landscape, rather than an activity for an eccentric or highly wealthy fringe, as it is still too easily characterised. I will say more about the things that need to happen in parallel later, but I just say, to emphasise the point, that we need to take a broader view of the parameters of what is possible in trying to make our housing supply function properly and rise to meet demand.
This agenda touches on a far broader range of issues than I at first realised. It is not just about rural areas and urban areas, but touches on social cohesion, reoffending and disability. Stella Clarke, who runs the Community Self Build Agency in Bristol, has young people, who 10 or 15 years ago would have been rioting, literally building their own stake in the community. She has found a way to help young unemployed people who are in housing need to take action to shape their own future. Ex-service personnel, who had always had the accommodation that they needed provided for them in the forces, but who sometimes lose their way when they leave the discipline of the military environment, have been helped in the same way.
The front page of the Community Self Build Agency website quotes a local resident who was helped by the agency:
“I was encouraged by the local council to apply for the CSBA Scheme, I rang them and said; ‘I am disabled, unemployed, on benefits and I know nothing of building.’ They said; ‘You fit all the criteria!’ I have never looked back.”
We need to open our eyes to the parameters of what is possible if we are to unlock the energy of our people.
There are many people I need to thank for their help and advice on the Bill. First, the Minister’s terrific team at the Department for Communities and Local Government has helped me enormously in making the Bill technically sound. I thank Ted Stevens, who until recently was the chair of the National Self Build Association, which is now called the National Custom and Self Build Association, as well as his successor as chair, Michael Holmes, and the association’s members and supporters.
Ted Stevens was instrumental in a visit that was made by the all-party parliamentary group on self-build, custom-build and independent housebuilding—we were looking for a snappy title, Mr Speaker. We will shortly be changing the title to self-build, custom housebuilding and place-making, which I wish we had called it in the first place, to connote the important difference between building boxes on the one hand and using a bit of thought to shape places and communities that work as places to live on the other.
Ted Stevens was instrumental in helping the all-party group with our trip in the summer to Berlin to look at the Baugruppen, or building groups. More than 300 such groups have sprung up in Berlin, delivering more than 5,000 dwellings. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) in his place, who came on the trip. We were accompanied by senior officials, right up to director general level, from the Department for Communities and Local Government, as well as a range of housing experts from around the country, including from the Scottish Government. It was an extremely enlightening visit.
One thing that became apparent was that if the local authority—in this case the Berlin senate—co-operates with and encourages activity by people from the bottom up, there can be a surprising range of results and a surprising speed of delivery, and more can be done than is currently done in this country to meet housing need. I think we could import some of the ideas that we saw in Berlin to this country. I am conscious that one cannot just take a model and lift it across, because one has to take account of local circumstances, but the fact is that the Baugruppen have contributed nearly 200,000 dwellings in Germany. It is not a small sector, but a significant one.
I received an e-mail from a lady in Yorkshire a few months ago who had heard about my Bill, saying that she and her husband had been looking for a piece of land for five years, and that they were no further forward now than on the day they started. She said, “It seems as if in this country it will never be, as it is in Germany, a middle-age right of passage that you can go and get a piece of land and build a house.” In Germany, if somebody wants a piece of land, they go to their local authority and say, “I’d like a piece of land please.” The way the system works in Germany is that the land is, in the first instance, sold by landowners to the local authority. I am not saying that we necessarily need to repeat that system here; I do not think that we do. I am just telling the story because I think that it is illustrative.
When someone asks for a piece of land, the local authority says, “Would you like a big one or a small one?” The big ones are slightly disproportionately expensive to subsidise the smaller ones, which are slightly disproportionately cheaper. That is relatively easy to do and there is no chronic shortage; and that in a country where, as anyone who has been listening to Neil MacGregor’s wonderful programme about Germany on Radio 4 will know, a third of the land area is forest. I will not segue into a great soliloquy on the importance of hugging trees and the German soul, because it would be outwith the bounds of this debate, but the fact is that there is plenty of land and it can be done.
One thing that people do not understand in this country, which they really should—I have dwelt on this and have tried my best to get the point across—is how much land we have. Only 1.2% of the land area in this country is taken up by houses. We could double the number of houses in this country, if they took up the same amount of land, and still have 97.6% of the land not being taken up by housing. Surrey has more land devoted to golf courses than to houses, and that is in the rich south-east. These are important facts—I am not making them up.
I have taken the official statistics from the Department and asked The Daily Telegraph to publish them. The senior political correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, Christopher Hope, has been running a very successful campaign for years to point out that the wicked Conservatives wish to concrete over England. Sometimes he gets one of his reporters to phone me up, and she says, “You’re a rural MP. You’ll be worried about all this extra housing.” I then give the reporter 10 or 15 minutes on why we need more houses, and because she phoned me and it would be really rather rude to put the phone down, she has to sit and listen. I know full well that they will not actually quote me, and they never do, and then instead I see a quote from somebody else saying, “It’s disgraceful—there are actually people who think we should have enough houses for everyone in this country. It’s wicked.”
The fact that Mr Hope is my brother-in-law is simply annoying, but I hope that at some point I can persuade him to publish the facts about what is going on. A ludicrous dichotomy is emerging—the idea is that people either want to concrete over England and do not care about beautiful scenery, or they only care about beautiful scenery and do not want there to be enough dwellings for all of us to have somewhere to live. I do not know anybody who falls into those categories. Most of the people I talk to both love beautiful scenery and want somewhere to live. My firm belief is that both are possible, and I hope that my Bill will make a contribution to making that happen.
Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s bravery in taking on the Telegraphin the form of his brother-in-law. According to the national land use database, 5.4% of land is homes and gardens, and only 1.1% is the homes themselves. Not only are we not concreting over the countryside, we are dedicating a large percentage of the land that is developed to gardens.
Mr Bacon: Indeed. When I talked about 1.2% of the land—the hon. Lady said 1.1%—I was referring to houses. She is right that gardens take up at least another 2% or 3%. I believe that railways take up 2.2%, and that the built environment as a whole, including absolutely everything—factories, offices, roads, railways, churches—takes up about 9% or 10%, so 89% to 91% of our land area is not built on.
I am sure that there will be discussion of the green belt, but I will not dwell on it, partly because we do not have any green belt in Norfolk. Searching Google images for “green belt” gives maps of where the green belt is, showing that none of it is in Norfolk. We have a huge amount of land, and the green belt is an unfortunate distraction. It has been created in such a way that there are places that are not in the green belt, including in my constituency, that I would be horrified to see built on. I would sit in front of the bulldozer to prevent it. There are also places that are in the green belt but probably should not be. We need to be more intelligent about that. Personally, I think people’s instinct to preserve beautiful countryside is good, and I completely support it. The Campaign to Protect Rural England wrote to me saying, “We’re interested to hear that you’ve got a Bill, and we are quite supportive of this sort of approach, even though you might think that all we’re interested in is hugging trees and protecting wild animals.”
Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I, too, am concerned about the issue of the green belt. We do not have any green belt on my island, but a lot of people talk of it as though it were green belt and are surprised when building on it is not stopped.
Mr Bacon: My hon. Friend has a good point. The Isle of Wight is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. If we had the north American approach of zoning, which is much harder-edged and makes it absolutely clear whether somewhere can ever be built on, we might make more progress. That is probably outwith the terms of the debate, as would be a long discussion of the green belt, but it is an important point because it relates to people’s deep instincts about land use. Those instincts are sound in many ways, because we want to protect beautiful countryside. As a representative of a rural area with a lot of farmers, I should say that we also want to keep land to grow food on.
Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I trust that my hon. Friend recognises that to a developer, the choice between developing a brownfield site, which may have problems of industrial waste or contamination, and developing a greenfield site, which carries none of that extra development cost, makes them much more likely to want to pursue a greenfield or green belt option rather than a more challenging industrial brownfield option.
Mr Bacon: I completely take my hon. Friend’s point. I suppose I would reply, with the Irishman, “I wouldn’t have started from here”, but the developer is presented with the narrow choice that my hon. Friend describes. I should say in passing that one event that I attended at our party conference featured someone from the London assembly who was trying to get some brownfield sites in London made available for housing. They kept on encountering planners who said, “Hands off our strategic industrial land. We need to keep some brownfield land.”
The argument is complex and nuanced, and my hon. Friend is right about the costs of dealing with contaminated land, but in a more fluid and well-functioning world, the responsibilities that sit within the public realm for making land available for use and providing services for it would work differently. In Victorian times, the local councils or corporations—those great Victorian institutions—took it upon themselves to build the infrastructure they needed, such as roads and sewers. The fact that they did that so well is the reason why it has lasted so long and why we now have 100-year-old sewers that need to be replaced through private finance initiative schemes. The only reason they have lasted so long is that the Victorians did such a good job. They went into the market and issued bonds, and they borrowed money. The Bolton Corporation, the Corporation of Birmingham and other great Victorian civic institutions, from when local authorities had a bit of self-respect, did great work and provided the environment in which private individuals could build. Many splendid developments were built, quite dense and quite high, and we can see many still standing in London and our other great cities.
The problem that we have now is that strategic land promotion is, in a way, done by the wrong people. I will come on to the issue of volume house builders, but I will mention them now since my hon. Friend has triggered the point. I do not blame volume house builders for acting in a rational manner, and people who are surprised that they construct dwellings only when it is profitable to do so need to wake up and smell the coffee. Of course that is how they will behave, and we cannot be in the slightest bit surprised. The point is not so much that we encourage them to do a quick job and get out, leading to buildings of substandard quality and durability and poor longevity, but that we require them to do that. They are forced to act in a deeply sub-optimal way in a flawed system. We need a much more patient approach to the employment of the capital that is needed.
We can look at some of the ancient estates that undertook construction years ago, including in London, and still own the properties that were built, or at least the freehold to them, many decades or hundreds of years later. One is the Duchy of Cornwall—there are not that many 600-year-old private ducal estates with the explicit purpose of providing an income for the heir to the throne, but it has been doing its job quite well for 600 years.
Mr Spencer: Surely the planning authority is the ultimate authority, and local authorities should be much more robust in forcing developers to consider brownfield sites before they allow greenfield sites even to be considered. I do not know whether my hon. Friend’s Bill would assist in any way in freeing up brownfield sites first.
Mr Bacon: My Bill is silent on brownfield sites, but the Minister might have something to say about them.
Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing his Bill, which I am here to support. I had not anticipated making an intervention about the much bigger issue of devolution in England, but he is making a strong case for enabling local authorities to have the independence, the powers and the finance to make decisions and judgments as they see fit. That would enable the sort of building that we saw in Berlin, which the Berlin local council initiated just after the second world war. The marvellous dwellings that we saw would not exist were it not for that freedom and finance. Perhaps I can draw him, provided that he does not go out of order, into the argument about freeing up local authorities to get on with that.
Mr Bacon: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and the issue is broad and deep. The fact is, many people who go into the planning profession do so because they are driven by a desire to help shape the community and provide better places for us to live. Then they get into a local authority, with the extraordinarily complex planning environment in which it operates—I commend the Government for scything away hundreds of pages of planning law so that an ordinary lay person can read it and have some hope of understanding it—and suddenly find that instead of being able to help shape the community and think logically, they are the person who says no the whole time.
They do not like being that person, so the good ones often leave. That is a dreadful caricature and it is not true that the only people left are the malign and mediocre, but hon. Members will get the point.
Some people who go into planning with the best of motives end up leaving. I have met such people, and when I present that caricature they say, “Yes, I used to be one of those people; I found I couldn’t do anything.” Think about where planning authority power sits. My local district council is the council tax raising authority and the planning authority, and 1p on council tax raises only about £60,000 for it. Will it be able to stand up to a large developer? There is an enormous asymmetry of power; it cannot take rounded decisions in a responsible and representative way on behalf of the people it governs locally, as I and the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) would like. Once again, however, I fear that reforming the whole of local government and making it flow and function as it should is probably outwith the terms of my Bill.
On patient capital and the Duchy of Cornwall, let me talk about Poundbury, which is an urban extension of Dorchester. I went there last year with the Public Accounts Committee when we were looking at the Duchy of Cornwall, and again this summer with a number of colleagues. As for the Georgian pastiche—like sugar in tea, some people like it and some people do not—I happen to think that if it is well done, and some of the pastiche in Poundbury is extraordinarily well done, it is rather good, and it is built to a very high standard. If one stands near the farmhouse and some of the oldest developments that have been there for nearly 20 years by the mature trees, one would swear one was in Islington or Camden 150 years ago. People like that and want to live there.
What is really interesting, however, is that Poundbury is now 21 years into a 33-year project. Last year, they had done more than 1,000 dwellings and 1,600 jobs. Now they have done 1,200 dwellings and more than 2,000 jobs. The target for 33 years was only 2,200 jobs, so they have nearly reached the target in two-thirds of the time. The dwellings are becoming more and more attractive, and the most fascinating thing is that when firms such as Barratt are allowed to build there, they have to build to a very tight design code, and they pay a premium for the land compared with what they pay elsewhere. On the surrounding land belonging to different land owners there is a halo effect, because people look at it and say, “Phwoar—I’d like some of that!” Instead of boxes on the greenfield at the edge of the town, which is easier and cheaper to build on than the brownfield mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), the value of the last house built is higher than that of the first house built, which is rarely the case in most big house building developments.
I will make a bit of progress and try to whizz through the rest of my thank you list because I would like to get on to the substance of my Bill. As it is such a humble little Bill, I hope that will not take too long.
Lord Richard Best, president of the Local Government Association, has been enormously helpful and supportive to me, as has a group called Housing People, Building Communities in Liverpool. It has an award-winning self-build project on land provided by the Roman Catholic diocese. I recently met the Bishop of Rochester, James Langstaff, who leads for the Church of England on land and property. He is hoping to link the dioceses across England with the vanguard councils that were recently announced by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The National Housing Federation has also been amazingly helpful and supportive. Being at the cutting edge of technology, I am sure that the Minister will be aware that 12 November is #housing day. I am even more impressed by its December Christmas campaign, Ho Ho Homes for Britain. Somebody should probably get an award for that, even if it is only a bar of chocolate.
Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is indulging in what I think I can accurately describe as preliminary dilation. If it is of any encouragement or succour to him, I have the very keen sense that the House is enjoying his preliminary dilation, and I am a little alarmed by the thought that he might, as he put it, “whizz through” the rest of his remarks. I do not think we would want him to do that.
Mr Bacon: I feared that my speech would be more like Oscar Peterson than J. S. Bach, and so it is proving, but I will conclude my thank you list because I want to move on. Lloyds bank has been tremendously supportive to the planning sector. Stephen Noakes is head of mortgages at Lloyds bank, and the current chairman of the Council of Mortgage Lenders. He supported our all-party group on self-build, custom-build and independent housebuilding when we had a meeting last year with the university of York. It launched a report on blockages in the self-build and custom house building sector, and Stephen Noakes was a sponsor of that report. Earlier this year we had a meeting with Kevin McCloud in a Committee room upstairs. The meeting was packed with MPs and peers, Stephen Noakes was also there and I found myself on a panel with him at the party conference. Earlier this week Lloyds bank announced a £50 million fund for small house builders to encourage a sector that has been decimated.
When we consider what happened after the housing crash, and the fact that many big banks, including Lloyds bank, decided at the highest level to shrink their exposure to property on their balance sheet, the fact that such institutions are making long-term commitments is extremely welcome. Lloyds bank has created the Lloyds bank commission on housing to explore and address such issues. That is chaired jointly by two of the Minister’s predecessors—my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) and the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), and they will bring together in that commission a range of housing experts.
On the front of a recent document Shelter asks the extremely important question:
“Where are our children going to live?”
When one looks at the Lyons review, which was commissioned recently by the official Opposition—I think I have a copy of it somewhere—the front page title is:
“Mobilising across the nation to build the homes our children need”.
I was given the review only yesterday so I have not had a chance to look at it all. I have heard it slagged off in newspapers, probably by people who have not read it all. I am sure it contains things I would agree with and things with which I would disagree, but it is an interesting and important contribution.
Emma Reynolds: Interestingly, the report contains a section on the subject of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, which I will talk about in my remarks, and it has been widely welcomed by the sector and the industry.
Mr Bacon: I am glad the hon. Lady says that, and I look forward to reading it with interest.
I was talking to Shelter at a meeting and trying to distil my policy. I have not come to this as a housing expert, but I look at the world and think that if we had got things right there would not be a problem, there would be an equilibrium between supply and demand, and I would not have to stand here in the first place. I distilled my policy down to six words: everyone should have somewhere to live. That is it; that’s what I know. More than that I do not know, and the rest in some ways is details. We must ensure that everyone has somewhere to live, and at the moment they do not. I think we need every available shoulder pushing on that wheel. Of course, if a big rock is in front of the wheel we need to move it out of the way, but I am up for any idea that increases the total supply of housing, particularly if it is done to the highest possible standard.
One simply cannot tell which parts of Poundbury are affordable housing. When they are pointed out, people look at them and think, “Phwoar—I’d like to live there.” They have no particular special status; people are taken off the local housing list like everywhere else, and Poundbury has its share of social problems. However, the shape of community that has been created does something to lessen some of those problems.
A YouGov survey two years ago indicated that 75% of people do not want to buy the product of the volume house builders which, as I said earlier, I think are acting rationally inside a systemically flawed system. One of the main constraints on supply is that the standard house models of the volume house builders are attractive to only a small proportion of the total numbers of would-be buyers in the population. That makes it difficult to get above an average of 2.6 sales per month per site. Where there is a custom-build approach—or, as I might venture to call it, a customer-build approach—they can get two, three or four times that level of performance.
There is a wonderful development—it is not an experiment; it has happened—in the Netherlands in Almere on the opposite side of the ?sselmeer from Amsterdam. Many, many dwellings were allowed—it now has 3,000—and most are self-build and custom build. When the volume house builders around the edge were basically in stasis and nobody was buying their dwellings, there was a hive of activity in the middle of that development because the building of houses was being treated as if customers mattered.
A colleague recently retailed to me the story he had been told about a former Conservative MP who had been on the board of a major house building company. The former MP had said, “I have been on the board of this big PLC house builder for eight years. We have talked about land acquisition, finance, buying other businesses, the supply chain, cost control, staffing levels and skills. The only thing we haven’t talked about is houses.”
The truth of the matter is that we do not really have a housing market. If we did, there would be enough houses for everyone. What we have is a land market—which is very tightly controlled—and volume house builders which have access to the open capital market act rationally: they build when it is profitable to do so and take out an insurance policy to cover the down side. A farmer who is getting 3.5 tonnes of winter barley from a field is very happy if someone gives him £4,000 a year for the next 10 years for an option to apply for planning permission to build houses on it one day. That may never happen, but the only entity that can afford to do that is a large, well capitalised house builder. Small house builders cannot possibly do that.
It is even worth a large house builder’s while to employ someone—at considerable expense—to work out how to remove a joist that costs £76 from a roof. It is worth the investment of thousands of pounds and a considerable amount of time to figure that out, because for 1,000 houses on one site it will save £76,000. For someone who builds 9,000 or 10,000 houses a year, it will save £750,000. Over 10 years, that will amount to £7.5 million. What business would not want to save such a sum? But then along comes the purchaser, accompanied by the sales agent who, for some strange reason, often drives a pink Fiat. The sales agent is trying to sell that rather pretty little shoebox, containing furniture that is manufactured to deceive the eye. The width of a double bed in most show homes is about 3 feet 11 inches or 4 feet. Furniture for show homes is not furniture that could be used: it is specifically designed to make the rooms look bigger. The prospective buyers, perhaps a husband and wife with a baby, say, “We are thinking of having another baby. Can we extend into the roof?” But they cannot do that because the design, to save that £76, makes that impossible. The whole thing would fall down.
In a customer-driven environment, from the beginning the customer would say, “This is what I want now, and this is what I may want in the future”, and the market would respond. Some mathematician has worked out that if someone buys a Mini Cooper from the factory in Oxford, there are 126,000 different permutations to choose from.
Mr Spencer: My hon. Friend mentioned the Duchy of Cornwall. The Prince of Wales is on record several times talking about UK architecture and the occasional carbuncles that it produces. If the market allows individual designs, someone’s aspirational design is likely to be someone else’s carbuncle. How will the Bill address that differential in taste and aspiration?
Mr Bacon: The vast majority of our built environment that is worth protecting was built before the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, when there was much less control on what could be done. Also, when people are spending their own money on assets, they are likely to do so in such a way that protects the value of those assets. Aesthetics vary: every beautiful Georgian terrace we see—except those that were built on green fields—was built on land that previously held a beautiful row of black and white cottages from the 14th or 15th century that was knocked down to make way.
Imagine a world in which people could go along to a site and the sales agent with the pink Fiat said, “Here are some choices for you. You might want a big plot or a small one. Your tastes might tend in the direction of very traditional architecture or of something very funky. If the former, you might want to think about these architects and builders. If you want something more contemporary, you might want to consider these architects and builders who have a lot of experience in that sector. We have some examples of work they have done earlier and we can attest to their quality.” That could be the normal approach, but at the moment it is anything but.
Interestingly, the UK is an outlier in this area. In Canada, Germany, France, Sweden and Ireland, self or custom build often accounts for more than 50% of the market. In Italy, it accounts for more than 60% and in tiny Austria it is 86%. In this country, self-build is still seen as an elite club that is open only to a small number of people. As Kevin McCloud has said, we build some of the poorest-performing, most expensive and smallest homes in Europe. If someone wants a home with triple-glazed windows so that it costs nothing to heat, we have no suppliers who can supply that. I do not know anyone who would not like a house that cost nothing to heat, but triple-glazed windows are not available here, although they are in Germany. They should be available here, too.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I am hugely enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech. Is there, however, a greater problem with the planning system than he has outlined so far? Planners instruct builders on the precise colour of the bricks that they must use. With that level of ridiculous detail, people cannot let their imaginations run wild on bespoke houses because they will not meet the conditions laid down by the bureaucracy.
Mr Bacon: My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said earlier, people go into planning with the most benign intentions, but they end up becoming the person who says no. They find that they do not like that and they leave. That means that those left in planning authorities can be the less imaginative and creative, who like exercising their little bit of power. I know someone in South Norfolk who built a house and he said that after his seventh attempt to get the gutter colour right, he told the planner to choose. But that person is employed by the taxpayer and should have better things to do. The people who work in local planning authorities are as much victims of the system as everyone else. Perhaps a quarter of them should not be there, but most of them would like to do a good job. They would like to have more ability to help their local communities properly in a true place-making way, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North describes.
The Government have done a lot in this area. The Budget provided £150 million for service plots, and the Government have announced a significant range of housing schemes in recent years—the local infrastructure fund, the Growing Places fund, the new homes bonus and Help to Buy, as well as the more recent starter homes money. The Minister can say more about those if he wants, but my point is not that nothing is happening. It is that it is not happening quickly enough. We need to make it happen quickly if we are to solve the housing needs of our people.
One crucial problem is that, because the supply has not been flowing properly, the cost of buying a house has risen considerably compared with the average income. It used to be three to four times income. In South Norfolk, it is now 8.2 times average income to buy the average dwelling, and it is the same in Harlow. In mid Suffolk, it is 8.6 times. These figures are from a “Home Truths” card for the east of England—the National Housing Federation has produced a card for each region of the country. In South Cambridgeshire, it is nine times average income, in St Albans 10.5 times, in Welwyn Hatfield 11.9 times and in Hertsmere it is 13.4 times. In a well-functioning, flowing market that would not be the case.
In my view, the word “customer” should apply in the broadest possible sense. As I said, my policy is that everyone should have somewhere to live, but not everyone can afford to buy a house, and we need to recognise that. It follows that people without the money to buy a house should also be treated as customers. I want to see a world in which a person can say to a housing association, “I can’t afford to buy a house, but I am a human being and I don’t want to live in a ditch. I would like to have somewhere to live, and I understand that you provide housing for people like me”; and I want to see a world in which the housing association replies to such people or groups of people, “How can we help create something you want to live in and then rent it to you?” I know that can happen because it is happening now—tens of thousands of houses are being built this way across Germany and other parts of the continent—but not here. If we treat house building as if customers matter, we will go a long way towards solving the problem.
My humble Bill would require each local authority to keep a register of persons—individuals or associations of individuals—who are
“seeking to acquire serviced plots of land in the authority’s area in order to build houses for those individuals to occupy as homes.”
In the Bill, the word “house” includes a dwelling that forms part of a building, and “serviced plot of land” means
“a plot of land which satisfies such requirements about utilities and other matters as may be specified.”
For example, if a group of people got together to take over a derelict commercial building in an urban area, do it up and turn it into a series of dwellings, and if they got the co-operation of the local authority, that would fall within the scope of the Bill as a serviced plot.
Clause 1 identifies the relevant authorities that in each area would be responsible for observing the Bill: district councils, county councils in areas with no district councils, London borough councils, the Common Council of the City of London, the Council of the Isles of Scilly and other authorities, such as the Broads Authority, national parks and so on. The Government’s vanguard councils, with a bit of help and pump-priming money, are experimenting voluntarily with registers to see what is easiest and most cost-effective, and the last thing I want to do is place extra burdens on already overburdened councils.
Mr Spencer: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case and is slowly winning me round. However, if there was a plot on which 10 houses were to be built, a section 106 agreement, as well as infrastructure for sewerage and top water, would be needed. How would the 10 individual purchasers arrive at an understanding to pay the section 106 money, the sewerage connection fees and other ongoing costs?
Mr Bacon: It could be done in lots of ways. I am grateful to my hon. Friend because he draws my attention to something I should have mentioned earlier. The long title of the Bill states that one of the purposes of the Bill is
“to allow volume house builders to include self-build and custom-build projects as contributing towards their affordable housing obligations, when”—
and for the avoidance of doubt, I should have written “and only when”—
“in partnership for this purpose with a Registered Landlord”.
There is no reference to that in the text of the Bill, and there is a reason for that. I had planned to suggest to volume house builders that they could do this too, but on advice, owing to concerns from the affordable housing sector, the Department for Communities and Local Government and others—particularly in the other place, there are many experts who have forgotten more about section 106 agreements than my hon. Friend or I will ever know—it became apparent that I would have been treading into deep waters unnecessarily and that much of what might be needed could be done by guidance and regulations from the Department. For a technical reason, however, the words about volume house builders in the long title have had to remain: this was the Bill that was presented, so I have to keep the long title on Second Reading. If it gets into Committee, however, I will move an amendment deleting those words so that the Bill is silent on the question of section 106 agreements and volume house builders—there is no definition of volume house builders in law anyway. There was much justified concern that this approach might have been open to abuse, and it was certainly not my intention to allow that.
In defence of volume house builders, whom I do not blame for behaving rationally, there are some—in particular, Mark Clare, chief executive of Barratt Developments—who are across this agenda and thinking broadly and deeply about what they can do to help. For example, Barratt is providing plots for local small builders alongside its big developments to encourage diversity and choice. I commend that approach tremendously. Barratt is a high-quality operation, and as it does that, more will follow. In their negotiations with big developers, local authorities could start discussing how volume house builders might incorporate that into their big developments, but I would rather it be done on a case-by-case basis—local authority by local authority—rather than have us tell them from above what has to happen. That is not likely to work.
Clause 1 deals with the establishment, maintenance and promotion of the register, and clause 2 deals with the duty as regards the register. It states that local authorities, having established the register, must have regard to it in bringing forward their housing plans. The meaning of “have regard to” will vary enormously. What is appropriate for the London boroughs of Hammersmith or Newham, depending on conditions and the amount of land available, will be very different from what is appropriate for a national park, which is also a local authority, for a suburban area, a rural area such as South Norfolk or a market town. So I have not tried to define exactly what it would mean. Instead, the Bill provides that the Secretary of State could issue guidance and make regulations about what it means.
Just yesterday, the Government published their “Right to Build: supporting custom and self-build” consultation document. It is thorough document and I commend it to hon. Members. It is an index of how serious they are about talking to local authorities about what will work locally and how to make this the new normal without its becoming a bureaucratic and burdensome exercise.
I do not pretend that the Bill will change everything overnight. We have a serious issue with our housing need that has not been solved for a generation, and we are not going to solve it overnight. However, I contend that if we open up choice and empower the customer—I mean “customer” in the broadest sense, including those in the market for affordable rental properties—we will start to make a significant difference. We need every available arrow in our quiver if we are to start to solve this problem, which has been going on for far too long. If we can unleash the energy of our own people, we can make a tremendous difference. As Rod Hackney, the architect who used to advise the Prince of Wales, said, it is a dangerous thing to underestimate human potential and the energy that can be generated when people are given the opportunity to help themselves. I believe that my Bill would contribute towards helping people to help themselves, and I commend it to the House.
24 October 2014