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HCLG Select Committee hear about MHCLG's priorities

Wednesday 14 March 2018

On Monday the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee heard evidence from a number of MHCLG spokespeople about their priorities for housing.

During the one-off evidence session the Committee heard oral evidence from Housing Minister, Dominic Raab MP, Minister for Housing and Homelessness, Heather Wheeler MP, Deputy Director for Homelessness, Fiona Darby and Deputy Director for Planning Policy, Nico Heslop.

There was a big focus on house building, in particular the gap between planning permission granted and build out rates following Teresa May's announcement in the Commons earlier this month to get tough on planning, however, other areas were also covered. We have highlighted the key ones below:

House building targets

Bob Blackman, Chair of the Committee, asked the panel for their opinion on how the Government was progressing towards the target of building 300,000 new homes by the middle of the 2020s. Dominic Raab, Minister of State for Housing, Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) explained that the target was dependent on affordability of homes coming down. Planning reforms and release of public sector land would also contribute to progress he explained. Further support to local authorities would be supplied in order to ensure infrastructure to new developments was delivered, he added. When asked, Raab was confident on the number of house building starts and the longer-term work underway to encourage home ownership and ensuring houses remained affordable.

Borrowing for building

Blackman asked why the Government was not allowing local authorities to borrow more to build more social housing. Raab explained how the department were engaged with the Treasury on ensuring that local authorities could borrow finance. He advocated a balanced approach to protect the public purse whilst building new homes at the required rate. Liz Twist (Lab, Blaydon) asked what consideration had been given to raising the debt cap for all councils. Raab said he had focussed on areas with highest demand but would be happy to keep the issue under review in case modifications were required. Twist said the cap was an 'artificial barrier to development'.

Empty homes

When pressed about the number of empty homes and Government strategy towards the issue, Raab said the Government would soon bring in legislation that would allow councils to double the council tax on empty properties although he would not give a firm date on when that legislation would be introduced. Kevin Hollinrake (Con, Thirsk and Malton) then asked the minister how many councils had used their existing powers to tax empty homes under existing powers. Raab said he did not have the information to hand, although Heather Wheeler MP, confirmed that her local council had done so recently.

Unused public land

Mark Prisk (Con, Hertford and Stortford) asked the panel what more was being done to turn unused public land into potential housing sites. Raab agreed that it was an area of serious focus and explained the aim was for enough Government land to be released by 2020 for 160,000 new homes. He said he would be working with Homes England and the Cabinet Office to deliver more homes for purchase.

Liz Twist asked about protection for greenbelt sites and Raab explained that he wanted to focus on brownfield sites and again, was working with Homes England to find viable sites that were fit to build on.

Planning policy

Jo Platt (Lab, Leigh) asked if planning policy would be free from further changes to encourage building and development. Raab said he hoped the Government had achieved the right balance of support for both local authorities and for developers.

Mary Robinson (Con, Cheadle) asked what steps the Government would take to ensure local authorities would both publish and implement local plans. Raab commented that further 'encouragement' to the 15 councils had been issued from the Secretary of State, and that he was optimistic those councils would soon make progress in this area.

Following a question from Matt Western (Lab, Warwick and Leamington) Raab explained his vision for sustainable communities and his goal of working in collaboration with communities across the country and not being too 'prescriptive' when it came to building homes. The social housing green paper would be a key part of this jigsaw, he said.

Kevin Hollinrake (Con, Thirsk and Malton) asked about local plans and how the Minster planned to enforce local authorities who did not publish local plans. Authorities would soon start to lose control, Raab explained, decalring he would 'chase up' those that did not cooperate.

Viability tests 

Mark Prisk (Con, Hertford and Stortford) suggested some developers used viability tests to renege on promises to build affordable homes and asked how the minister planned to tackle that practice. Raab said he would be looking at proposals for how local authorities could hold developers to account on their pledges. He said he wanted the relationship between authorities and developers to be more contractual in nature, with the possible use of financial penalties.

Hollinrake asked what rights local authorities had if a developer were to change the amount of affordable housing being built. He suggested the power to de-allocate the site would be a powerful tool, stating 'we would not rule that out at this stage'. He also added how he hoped to work closely with developers, but admitted the department needed some 'sharper teeth' on this issue. Matt Western called for greater transparency in future viability tests and suggested additional rules could be introduced when land was purchased.

Help to Buy

Helen Hayes (Lab, Dulwich and West Norwood) asked about the additional funding contributed to Help To Buy, given the evidence that the programme was driving up house prices in some parts of the country. Raab told the Committee that 145,000 individuals had been able to purchase their homes through the programme, with 14 per cent of new houses built since June 2015 having been supported by funding generated through the Help to Buy scheme. Hayes asked if housing developers were becoming dependent on the funding from the scheme and whether the programme was sustainable. Whilst the Government was very keen to build more homes and use the home building programme to support social mobility, he explained, the scheme would be kept under constant review and he would update Parliament on the programme before the end of the year.

Following a question from Hayes about monitoring the impact of Help to Buy had had on the profit of home builders Raab said he would look at the issue and write to the Committee.

Funding for homeless provision

Blackman said many local authorities were concerned about the level of funding for provision of services for the homeless. Housing and Homelessness Minister Heather Wheeler outlined the details of the New Burdens Fund and other funding streams the Government had established. A review of the funding scenario would be carried out within two years, she said.

Blackman asked what steps were being taken to reduce the dependence on temporary accommodation. Wheeler commented that the new grant would help councils change the way they thought about homeless provision, and that office blocks in many local authorities were being changed into flats. Blackman warned that such an approach could drive up the cost of office space; the Minister concurred and agreed that there were crucial issues regarding supply that needed to be addressed.

Helen Hayes said the funding review, after two years, would not give local authorities the certainty they needed to operate and take on the issue. She called on the Government to act sooner rather than later and assure councils that support and finance would be long term. 'There will be money moving forward' Wheeler said in response.

Leasehold reform

Hollinrake asked about the cost of extending a lease and whether the Government were considering acting and legislating on this issue. Wheeler said the Government were looking at the case, but warned that it was currently a judicial case at the moment and informed the Committee the case was incredibly complex, suggesting no conclusions should be drawn from its judgement. Raab said he would 'wait and see what the courts say about it'.

Watch the session on Parliament TV