Sharma responds to debate on green belt in Coventry

Alok Sharma responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on Government policy on the green belt in Coventry.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Let me start by congratulating the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this important debate. He raised a number of issues around the housing market and the White Paper, which I will address, but first perhaps it would be useful for me to focus on the green belt, a subject that he raised and that many Members of Parliament regularly raise.

From the outset I want to be clear that we, the Government, are committed to maintaining the strong protection that the green belt enjoys. The hon. Gentleman talked about a local plan; he will know from his experience that the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in the planning system. That means that, unfortunately, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the merits of the Coventry local plan or indeed to discuss local decisions. While I understand that the inspector found the plan to be sound, it is now for the local authority to decide whether to adopt it; it is a local decision. I add at this point only the comments from Councillor Linda Bigham, the Labour cabinet member for housing at Coventry City Council, who noted in the Coventry Telegraph on 2 November:

“I’m delighted to see the Local Plan approved, subject to being approved by cabinet and full council.”

However, it would be appropriate for me to set out our national policy and talk about what more we will do to protect our natural environment.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Councillor Linda Bigham; he is quite right that she did say that, but may I point out that I am only talking about my constituency in Coventry?

The hon. Gentlemen’s point is on the record.

The fundamental aim of green-belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by protecting the openness of the green belt. It is a national policy but one that is applied locally, with green-belt land defined and protected by local planning authorities. That protection is enshrined in the national planning policy framework, which makes clear that permission to build on green-belt land should be refused except in “very special circumstances”. These circumstances do not exist unless the potential harm to the green belt is clearly outweighed by other considerations. That is by no means an easy bar for developers to clear: the percentage of land covered by green belt has remained at around 13% since 1997, and since 2014 the change in total green belt area has been less than 0.5%.

As the policy is implemented locally, it is possible for a local authority to re-draw a green-belt boundary, but only in exceptional circumstances and, even then, only after consulting local people and submitting the revised local plan for formal examination. The inspector then has to consider whether the plan is sound and will find it sound only if it is properly prepared, justified, effective and consistent with policy in the national planning policy framework.

It is important that local authorities plan effectively for the new housing required in their areas. Local plans should be drawn up by the local planning authority in consultation with the community. This process should begin with a clear understanding of the number of homes needed, but I should stress that although calculating need is an essential first step, it is not the only stage in the process. The hon. Gentleman alluded to the local housing needs consultation that just closed on 9 November; I want to make it clear that that consultation is not about imposing top-down targets from central Government, but about local areas making an honest assessment of their housing need.

Local planning authorities then need to determine whether there are any constraints—including green belt—that prevent them from meeting the housing need. Where constraints exist, local authorities are under a duty to co-operate with other planning authorities to establish whether housing need that cannot be met locally could be met over a wider area. If we are to ensure that more homes are built in the right places and at prices that our constituents can afford, we need to make sure that enough land is released strategically and that the best possible use is made of that land. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I agree on that.

The Government want to retain a high bar to ensure that the green belt remains protected, but we also wish to be transparent about what this means in practice so that local communities can hold their councils to account. The national planning policy framework is clear that green-belt boundaries should be amended only “in exceptional circumstances” when plans are being prepared or revised, but it does not define what those circumstances are. The housing White Paper published in February—the contents of which I will speak more about—sets out proposals to clarify that such circumstances will exist only when local authorities can demonstrate that they have fully examined all other reasonable options for meeting their identified housing requirements.

The White Paper proposes that the options could include making effective use of suitable brownfield sites and the opportunities offered by estate regeneration; the potential offered by land that is currently underused, including surplus public sector land; optimising the proposed density of development; and of course, fully exploring whether other authorities can help to meet some of the identified development requirements. We are currently considering the responses to the housing White Paper and we intend to consult on a revised national planning policy framework, to clarify those points early next year.

Of course, not all the green belt comprises the rolling countryside that the phrase often conjures up. Public access can also be limited, depending on ownership and rights of way. For that reason, the housing White Paper also proposes that, if land is removed from the green belt, local policies should require the impact to be offset by compensatory improvements to the environmental quality or accessibility of remaining green-belt land.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points that challenged the Government’s house building record. Over many decades, Governments of all political hues have not built enough houses—that is a starting point that we should all agree on. The housing White Paper is a really good blueprint of how to get more houses built. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for more focus on build-out rates—we set out much more transparency in the housing White Paper. I also agree with him on issues related to viability assessments, which we consulted on in the local housing needs assessment consultation that just closed.

The hon. Gentleman talked about affordable homes; I point out that since 2010, 333,000 affordable homes have been delivered. He is aware that in the last few weeks, the Government made several announcements that have been hugely welcomed by the social sector. First, an extra £2 billion has been announced for affordable homes funding, taking it up to £9 billion; they have given certainty on rent from 2020, with rent increases of up to consumer prices index plus 1%, which is something that the sector has been looking for in terms of certainty. In addition, the Prime Minister announced that there will be no local housing allowance cap for the social sector. Those elements in combination have been hugely welcomed by the sector. I encourage the hon. Gentleman not just to listen to me but to talk to housing associations and councils in his area to see whether they share that view. They have certainly said to me that as a result of these changes they will be able to build more affordable homes and social homes, and to bring forward the building that they had planned. We should all welcome that.

On the number of homes being built, let me set out for the record that net additions have increased in the past couple of years; there were almost 171,000 in 2014-15 and almost 190,000 in 2015-16. The figures for 2016-17 will be published shortly. However, although we have made some progress, I acknowledge that more needs to be done. That is why we are putting a focus on housing, and why the Prime Minister has clearly set out that it is her mission to ensure that housing is a top priority when it comes to domestic policy.

It remains for me to thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this valuable debate. I repeat that we will maintain strong protections for green-belt land in national policy and that a local authority may choose to amend its green belt only in exceptional circumstances.

I may have misunderstood the Minister, but I asked whether he would meet me and one or two residents to discuss the situation. I know that there are certain things he cannot talk about.

I have not finished yet. I hope to give the hon. Gentleman some comfort on that point.

The Government have a bold and ambitious agenda to build more homes. I am proud of that and we make no secret of it, but that does not mean that we will concrete over the beautiful landscapes for which our country is well known throughout the world. Building more homes and protecting our landscapes can go hand in hand. The Government are fully committed to our pledge to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we inherited it. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question about whether I will meet him and some of his residents is: of course I will.

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