Theresa Villiers is a former Environment Secretary, and is MP for Chipping Barnet.
When Rishi Sunak visited Finchley on a punishingly hot day in August he told a packed church hall full of Conservative Party members that he wanted to abolish top-down housing targets. In that same month, his team told the publication Housing Today that Rishi did not believe in “arbitrary top down numbers”.
On the Laura Kuensberg Show, the returning Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, recently confirmed that the some of the calculations made in the past to assess housing need (an assessment which forms the basis of target-setting) have been wrong and that “we need to rebase that”.
So the new Prime Minister and Secretary of State have acknowledged that the grave concerns expressed on the backbenches about the impact of excessively high housing targets have some validity.
With Report Stage of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill imminent, they have an immediate opportunity to deliver legislative change to tackle this problem. They could bring forward Government amendments to scrap centrally determined housing targets and would receive huge plaudits from MPs if they did so.
These targets have been pushed up and up in recent years, increasing pressure to allow building which in the past would have been firmly rejected as an overdevelopment, or turned down because of insufficient capacity within local public services or infrastructure.
I have been following planning matters since I was elected as an MP 17 years ago. I have never known a time when there were so many applications for blocks of flats which are entirely inappropriate in a low-rise suburban neighbourhood like my constituency in Barnet.
I know that my colleagues representing rural areas feel the same sense of despair about ever-increasing pressure to build over green fields and agricultural land. It has started to feel as though we are under siege.
Time and again, at council planning committee meetings or in appeal hearings the demand is made: “you have to let us build here because otherwise you won’t hit your target”.
Where planning committees refused to be bullied into approving an application, there is the risk that the Planning Inspectorate overrule their decision on the ground that the project is needed to meet the target, adding insult to injury by landing the local authority with a large bill for the developer’s legal costs.
This erosion of local control over planning is compounded by the obligation to demonstrate that an area has a supply of sites capable of meeting the targets by producing what is known as a ‘five year land supply’. If this cannot be shown, there is not a blade of grass or square foot of land which is not in danger of coming under the bulldozer. And yet the process of producing the list of sites is heavily influenced by developers who send their expensive lawyers to hector both planning inspectors and councils at public hearings to determine the local plan which contains five year land supply.
Once a site is forced on to that list, the chances of preventing development there are severely reduced, no matter what the heritage, biodiversity or community value of the land.
Another issue which urgently needs to be addressed is the fact that so many homes in scenically beautiful areas are being removed from the residential rental market to be used for short term holiday lets instead. This trend is making it harder and harder for people to find places to live, hollowing out communities from Cumbria to Cornwall.
I and many of my colleagues on the backbenches believe that we cannot go on as we are. This sentiment is shared by the Better Planning Coalition. Led by the CPRE, the Countryside Charity, this consists of an extensive list of organisations with a combined membership totalling over eight million people.
I very much agree with the coalition’s goals that planning should be democratic, that it should deliver houses that are affordable, that it should protect our precious heritage, and that it must play its part in delivering net zero and nature recovery.
The modern era has witnessed catastrophic loss of habitats and wildlife and it should be the mission of every MP to put a stop to that. That does not mean that the way we currently protect nature via the planning system is immutable and should never be changed. For example, there may well be alterations we should make to the Habitats Regulations inherited from the EU.
Indeed, Defra has already been undertaking important work on how biodiversity commitments, for example on great crested newts, can be delivered in a more pragmatic way, focusing on the overall population within a broader area, rather just on individual development sites. Done right, this approach could unlock land for new homes, without compromising nature recovery.
But I am concerned about the proposal in the Retained EU Law Bill to remove all EU law from the statute book by the end of 2023, unless departments have brought forward fresh legislation to keep it in force. I agree that we should review inherited EU rules to see if they are right for our domestic circumstances. In many instances we can and should do better in the way we regulate than was previously possible when compromises had to be reached with 27 other countries.
We can maintain the highest standards and outcomes but deliver them in a way which is more modern, more flexible, more proportionate and less costly. But it is hard to see how we can fully assess the vast corpus of retained law on nature, climate and the environment in less 18 months.
I hope that the new administration will think again about this timetable. Regulatory reform is vital for our future prosperity, and it is a vital next step in the Brexit project. But it will take time, and if a hard stop inflexible sunset clause left us with a period when regulation had lapsed without being replaced, there is a risk that predatory developers would have even mor scope to build without regard for the long term environmental and social consequences.
In conclusion, we need positive solutions which deliver the homes we need in the right way in the right places; solutions which address cynical landbanking by oligopolistic developers which so often is the reason why permissions remain unbuilt; solutions which get empty homes back into use and which end perverse incentives to switch from long term home rentals to holiday lets; and above all, solutions which garner support from local communities.
Home building should be something that is done in partnership with local communities, not inflicted on them as if they were some force-fed foie gras goose.