MP warns against back door housing targets

Arundel and South Downs MP Nick Herbert has warned that housing numbers must be sustainable, and that allowing a "developer-led" approach will not deliver the additional housing that is needed, but "merely deliver a great deal of pain".

Speaking in a Westminster Hall parliamentary debate which he co-sponsored last week (Thursday 24 October), Mr Herbert said that housing targets set by district councils should take into account local ability, including the availability of infrastructure, to support the numbers.

The MP said: "Many in communities in my constituency are concerned that inadequate consideration is given to the availability of infrastructure to support development proposals.  We have congested roads, over-subscribed schools, serious flooding issues and countryside that is valued and in short supply."

Last December the Planning Minister, Nick Boles MP, responded to an amendment moved by Mr Herbert by agreeing to bring forward new planning guidance that would be "very clear about the need to plan positively and specifically for infrastructure that is required to support development."  However, the Arundel & South Downs MP did not believe that such clear guidance had been issued.

Mr Herbert also expressed the view that faith in localism would be undermined "if we return to the bad old days of planning by appeal" by allowing the Planning Inspectorate to override local plans.

Following concern in villages such as Hurstpierpoint and Angmering that speculative developers were putting in planning applications that ran contrary to preferences expressed in draft neighbourhood plans, Mr Herbert called on the Minister to "consider allowing more weight to be attached to emerging plans, so that an indication by local people of where they do, responsibly, want development, and also where they do not, is taken on board by the Planning Inspectorate."

He said: "If those plans were given no weight, speculative applications would be allowed, and we would get a system that was not plan-led, but developer-led, which would effectively amount to a free-for-all on our countryside."

In conclusion Mr Herbert said: "There are important generational arguments about the lack of opportunity for young people and their ability to get their foot on the housing ladder, but allowing top-down targets to return through the back door - indeed, even encouraging them - will not deliver the additional housing that is needed.  It will merely deliver a great deal of pain - pain politically, as people see that the promise of localism was not in fact real, and pain because such top-down targets will not help people to get their foot on the property ladder and will not have a significant effect in reducing property prices."

Mr Herbert was joined by a further 16 MPs, representing constituencies across England, all of whom expressed concerns about the planning system.

Responding, the Minister, Nick Boles MP, said that the historic failure of all governments had led to an acute housing crisis where "the percentage of first-time buyers in England who were able to buy a home without their parents' help fell to its lowest level ever, under one third ... the average age of first-time buyers has crept up and up, and is now nudging 40 in many parts of the country."  The Government needed to ensure that sufficient houses were built to meet this increased demand.

He told Mr Herbert that he believed the new planning guidance addressed the concerns which MPs had raised about infrastructure, and went as far as possible to allow weight to be given to emerging plans.  However, he invited Mr Herbert to meet civil servants in his Department to discuss these issues if he felt that the provisions were insufficient.

Speaking after the debate Mr Herbert said: "Every backbench MP who spoke in this debate raised similar concerns about the planning system.  I don't think that the Government can be in much doubt that there is a great deal of disquiet about how the Localism Act is being applied.

"I continue to believe that the principles of localism in the Government's planning reforms are right, but they must be allowed to work.  I will be taking up the Minister's offer to meet with his officials to discuss specific issues around the guidance over infrastructure and emerging plans, neither of which I believe are sufficient."



1.     Mr Herbert's full speech can be read here:

2.     A full transcript of the debate, including the Minister's reply, can be read here:

3.     The debate was granted by the Commons Backbench Business Committee after three Conservative MPs, including Nick Herbert, and others called for it.