On 23rd March, the Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, supported an amendment at Committee Stage of the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill. The amendment, tabled by Baroness Royall, sought to protect the right of local authorities to impose section 106 requirements on smaller developments. It was withdrawn after the debate. Baroness Williams of Trafford responded on behalf of the government.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I support Amendment 102B which has been tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. I also wish to speak on the removal of Clause 143 from the Bill.
As has often been noted during the passage of the Bill, the House is being asked to vote on clauses that are essentially empty, their content to be defined in regulations by the Secretary of State at some future date. I appreciate the effort that the Minister has made in the last week to put more information before the Committee, but I think we can all agree that there are still some gaping holes.
Clause 143 is a prime example of an empty clause, handing as it does sweeping new powers to the Secretary of State with regard to the control of Section 106 requirements but providing no detail of what these regulations would look like. Without the content of these draft regulations being made available, the Committee can only speculate as to what the Government intend to do with the new powers handed to the Secretary of State in Clause 143. Luckily, as other noble Lords have already made clear, we have good grounds from which to speculate, given the Government’s attempt last year to remove Section 106 planning obligations on developments providing fewer than 10 new houses. It was overturned, of course, on judicial review.
With this in mind, I want to make two brief points about the proposed legislative changes. First, there is the long-established principle that local authorities are best placed to decide planning obligations to ensure the provision of affordable housing in their areas. Such a principle is directly in accordance with the Government’s stated localism agenda. We have been told repeatedly by this Government that devolution of power, not centralisation, is the way forward. Indeed, only yesterday, in response to a supplementary question I asked on the Floor of this House, the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, batted back a reply, saying:
“The entire point of our devolution revolution is that all authorities will have the power to set their own policy agendas and target their spending priorities to match. Local leaders know best what is right for them”.—[Official Report, 22/3/16; col. 2227.]
But here we are presented with a clause that would allow the Secretary of State to ride roughshod over the needs and concerns of local planning authorities. I recognise that there is a legitimate concern that the burden of Section 106 requirements can make small developments unviable for some developers. Where this is the case, central government needs to work with the local planning authority to facilitate an equitable compromise. Blanket exemptions cannot be the way forward.
Provisions for independent dispute resolution in Clause 142 will, I hope, be a good example of how government can better facilitate local authority needs with regard to affordable housing. Clause 143, however, removes the discretion of local authorities to judge how best to serve local needs and places the power in central government hands.
More important than a point of principle is the fact that any future removal of Section 106 requirements from smaller developments is likely further to imperil the provision of affordable housing in many parts of the country. This was made clear by the Government’s previous attempt at policy change. The needs of local authorities regarding Section 106 requirements on small developments can vary immensely from one local authority to another. The noble Lord, Lord Best, has already helpfully quoted the examples in Shropshire, where 80% of new housing developments are built on sites of fewer than five units, and Hambleton, where 89% are on developments of fewer than 10. There can be no doubt that the removal of these developments from Section 106 requirements would drastically undermine the provision of new, affordable housing, particularly in rural areas where there is already a critical undersupply.
I hope the Government will think very carefully about this before they decide to proceed. More important is for the Minister to provide us with further details about the proposed content of these regulations before Report. It would seem a gross dereliction of duty for this House to approve sweeping new powers for the Secretary of State without some sort of idea about how the Government are hoping to use these new statutory powers.
Baroness Williams of Trafford: The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans asked when we were going to consult on the powers. We are already engaging with key partners to identify those measures that would best support the delivery of new housing, and we will consult on our proposals in due course. Restrictions or conditions will be introduced through affirmative regulation, so Members of both Houses will have a chance to scrutinise any measures that we introduce. That means we can bring about a more consistent approach to how Section 106 agreements can be used in relation to affordable housing provision. It will reduce a key element of uncertainty for developers and, in doing so, support housebuilding.
The noble Lords, Lord Young and Lord Best, and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked how we anticipate using the power in Clause 143(2)—would it be used to restrict right to buy, and what about the rural aspect? The broad power proposed allows for a distinction to be made depending on the size and nature of the proposed development, such as rural sites, where restrictions may not be appropriate, and the distinction in relation to the types of affordable housing that may be restricted. This is intended to focus any restrictions where they would have the most likely benefits in encouraging housing development more broadly, rather than, as the noble Lord says, restricting it. For example, we could use this power to address the particular problems faced on small sites, as I have said, and we are working with stakeholders to identify how we can best use the power to address the issues and support the delivery of new houses. I should also say that the restriction provision would not apply to existing Section 106 agreements.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, is concerned about the Government not supporting rural areas. As I say, this provision gives us the flexibility to target our regulations in a way that would best benefit overall housing delivery. For example, as I said, restrictions or conditions could apply differently depending on the type of sites, such as rural areas.
Amendment 102B, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Royall and Lady Parminter, inserts a new clause that would enable the Secretary of State to empower local planning authorities to require affordable housing contributions, in cash or kind, from small-scale developments and in rural areas. However, I do not think that it is necessary. Local authorities can set affordable housing policies in their local plans, which will take account of local housing need. Section 106 agreements can then be used to secure affordable housing delivery. They can also be used to agree financial contributions in lieu of on-site affordable housing contributions. Indeed, there is evidence of local planning authorities making very good use of this, including seeking contributions from small-scale developments and in rural areas.
The use of this power will allow us to bring about a more consistent approach to how Section 106 agreements can be used in relation to affordable housing provision. This could include conditions on how planning obligations are sought for affordable housing on particular types of sites. Such conditions could help address the problems that affordable housing negotiations can cause for particular types of sites, such as those identified in this amendment.
I will finish by saying that the Government will consult on the approach to any restrictions or conditions brought forward. Measures implementing this power will be set out in regulations. These, including any amendments to the definition of affordable housing, will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and noble Lords will have ample opportunity to scrutinise any amendment to the definition. I hope that, with those words, the noble Lord will feel happy to withdraw his amendment.