This Bill does not mention climate change which is the biggest existential threat to all of humankind; it is not just about the north or the south but the whole world and the Government have been deficient in mentioning it and putting it into a context that can make a difference.
It is now three years since the Conservatives won an election promising to level up the country and you would have thought that, finally, the levelling up Bill might give us an idea of what levelling up actually means. Moving from the intangible levelling up to very real regeneration, I note that the Bill is another missed opportunity to make the planning system fit for the 21st century.
My speech at Second Reading:
I have a few criticisms of the Bill, not least the fact that it does not mention climate change. As I have often mentioned, climate change is the biggest existential threat to all of humankind; it is not just about the north or the south but the whole world. The Government have been so deficient in mentioning it and putting it into a context that can make a difference.
It is now three years since the Conservatives won an election. They promised to level up the country. You would have thought that, finally, the levelling up Bill might give us an idea of what levelling up actually means. Voters might have thought that they would have been levelled up before the next election was due, but apparently not. It has been three years of economic decline and mismanagement, and the Government concede in this Bill that we have not levelled up yet, and fail to set any timescale for when we will be levelled up. Perhaps the Minister could give us an indication of that timetable.
Moving from the intangible levelling up to very real regeneration, I note that the Bill is another missed opportunity to make the planning system fit for the 21st century. The Green Party now has hundreds of dedicated councillors across the country, and one of the things that infuriates them most is the planning system. Whether they are a lone ward councillor trying to interact with the system or the chair of a planning committee who has their hands tied by national planning policy, making it impossible to make the best decisions for their local community, what is obvious is that we have a centralised bureaucracy that does not work. The planning system should unlock our transition to a clean, green country with warm, insulated homes and beautiful, human-scale communities. It should give communities a strong voice in shaping their own local environment, while protecting the global environment by design.
We need to move away from the current system, where there is a shadow banking system of developers buying land, obtaining planning permission and then selling the land for a huge amount of profit for very little work. Around one million new homes that have been granted planning permission are not being built, so we need to unblock the system and get those homes built. If the developers will not do it, it should be opened up to communities, councils and social housing providers to build the homes instead.
The Bill should unlock more social and affordable housing. People do not necessarily need to own their homes, but nor should they be condemned to a lifetime of spending extortionate amounts of money renting poor-quality homes from private landlords. More than one million people are on waiting lists for housing while we lose around 22,000 social rented homes each year. We have to turn that tide. The Bill is an opportunity, and it has failed.
It is difficult to put a finger on this Government’s biggest failings over the past 13 years as there are so many of them, but scrapping the zero-carbon homes standard has to be up there. To this day, people are buying newly built homes, expecting them to be built to modern standards, but they have got terrible insulation and cost a fortune to heat. The Bill is an opportunity to ensure that every new home is warm and green, and I look forward to bringing amendments on that.
Homes are just one part of the equation for building green communities. It is time to end the car dependence that is designed into the planning system. We can legislate for the creation of 20-minute neighbourhoods, where people can access key facilities such as schools, healthcare and public transport within a short walk from their homes. We can build walking and cycling networks into the planning system and ensure that key routes, such as old train lines, are protected and developed into safe cycling routes.
After a lost decade of austerity and starving councils of funds, it is no surprise that local planning departments are bursting at the seams. As we have heard, there is a huge shortage of planners who want to work in the public sector when the private sector is so much more lucrative. This is perhaps most apparent in planning enforcement, which is failing massively.
Finally, I have thought about democracy and public participation in this. We really have to look at what needs national oversight, participation and prescription, such as tackling the climate emergency, and what can be left to local councils and communities to decide. The Bill builds in more centralisation of key decisions and will force councillors to make more and more inappropriate decisions based on very poor rules set in Westminster.
Read the whole debate here