Neighbourhood Planning Bill (Consideration of Lords amendments)
Nick's speech in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill (Consideration of Lords amendments)
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
I am grateful to Madam Deputy Speaker and to my hon. Friend the Minister for giving me the opportunity to speak to two amendments that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I have tabled: an amendment to Lords amendment 4 on neighbourhood plan notification, and an amendment to Lords amendment 23 in relation to the powers that may be given to local authorities to set up new towns. I have two sets of concerns in relation to those amendments.
First, on neighbourhood plans, may I echo what the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) just said about the value of neighbourhood plans in often producing more housing than anticipated? That is the case nationally and that was recognised in the Government’s White Paper. In my constituency, neighbourhood plans have, quite often unexpectedly, produced more houses than local villages were required to produce, because the incentives are turned around and people start to ask themselves what they want in their villages rather than what they do not want. The development of neighbourhood plans, giving local communities control over their own area, has been a very important and welcome localist reform introduced under this Government.
However, the last time we debated the Bill, I said, as I have on many previous occasions, that it is important for the neighbourhood planning process not to be undermined by speculative development applications which are then upheld either by the local authority or on appeal by the planning inspector. That has the effect of demoralising those who subscribe to the neighbourhood plan: those who are either in the process of drawing up plans but are at a late stage, or those whose plans have actually been made and are subjected to a referendum. There is then real local anger when it turns out that a neighbourhood plan which they thought would give protection to certain areas of their local community while allowing for housing in others does not give that protection at all when, because there is not a five-year land supply or for some other reasons, the development application is allowed. There is a real danger—I stress this to the Minister—of confidence in neighbourhood planning being undermined if the widespread perception is that the plans are not worth the paper they are written on. I believe that this is an important issue that the Government still need to address.
I recognise the considerable steps forward taken when the Minister agreed in Committee to measures that would give protection to made neighbourhood plans in relation to the five-year land supply issue. I was very grateful, but he will understand that I was utterly dismayed when, last Friday, I received a letter from the planning inspector informing me that a speculative application in the village of Hassocks in my constituency had been upheld against the wishes of the emerging neighbourhood plan. For whatever reason—the Minister might be able to explain why this happened—the welcome measures that he announced when we last debated this issue were of no help in that situation.
The parish council, which has worked very hard on its neighbourhood plan, is now demoralised and is seriously considering whether to bother going ahead ith its neighbourhood plan. Why should it bother if this plan can simply be wrecked by developers and, worse, those speculative applications are then actually upheld by the planning inspector who of course sits in the Minister’s shoes? I take at face value and accept the Minister’s assurance that the Government are serious about protecting neighbourhood plans, but I tell him that the measures that he has announced so far do not go far enough to achieve that. Villages all over my constituency are now saying that they wonder whether the neighbourhood planning process is one they wish to continue with. We must stop that message getting abroad.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD)
I praise the right hon. Gentleman for the work and leadership he has provided to many right hon. and hon. Members who have had exactly the same experience as in Aireborough, for example, on this issue. We hear this nonsense that we are not even allowed to go through the neighbourhood planning process unless we entirely agree with the decisions that we have campaigned on and objected to for many years. Does he agree that, working with organisations such as Community Voice on Planning and others, the Minister and his officials now need to sit down and do this properly so that we get the kind of localism that we all thought we were voting for and that he and I supported in 2011?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I know that the Government have to square the circle in that they want to see a considerable increase in housing, which is the right ambition so that we can spread opportunity in a country in which house prices are out of the reach of so many young people now and rents are correspondingly high. As I say, the Government are right to seek to address that, but the whole point about neighbourhood planning is that it delivers more houses than was expected. This is not a measure to stop house building; it is a way to ensure that we have a system that is planning-led and not developer-led, so that we do not have a return to the unwelcome days of planning by appeal.
I tabled my amendment with the support of many right hon. and hon. Friends who are equally concerned about this issue, as the Minister will know. It states not just that the neighbourhood forum is entitled to give its views to the planning authority about a planning permission that will have an impact on its emerging or actual neighbourhood plan, but—this is the crucial wording—that the authority must “take into account” the views of the neighbourhood forum. It is very important that that happens.
Frankly, I would personally rather go much further. It is not within the scope of the amendment or the Bill to do so at this point, but I would give much more weight to emerging neighbourhood plans and I would make it very hard for neighbourhood plans to be overturned. The Minister will find that unless that happens in the future, the neighbourhood planning policy will start to be eroded. I hope that the Minister will nevertheless go as far as he can at this point to give the required reassurance to local communities that it is worth pursuing a neighbourhood planning process, that neighbourhood plans will be respected and that speculative evelopments will not normally be allowed. I would like to understand what I should say to the people of Hassocks about the decision that the Minister made, which has so dismayed them.
Let me deal secondly with the proposed delegation of powers to local authorities to create new towns. I have no objection in principle, speaking as someone who has always advocated localism, to the delegation of these powers, but I want to talk about one possible practical effect that this House should consider when it comes to the making of the future regulations that would allow this to happen.
At the moment, the powers of compulsory purchase that are needed for the creation of new towns under the New Towns Act 1981 rest with the Minister, which I think is right because the compulsory purchase of land is a serious step. Essentially, the state is confiscating land from private ownership, and I think that that should be authorised by Ministers, after very careful consideration. If the power is handed to local authorities, we will risk the creation of serious blight all over the country when authorities, working with developers, consider that they may have designs on land that was previously not available for development or where developers have no options.
In my constituency, a proposal for a new town has been strongly rejected by the two district councils concerned, Horsham and Mid Sussex. Both councils are planning for the right number of houses to be built elsewhere in their districts, but this is an inappropriate location for a new town. The developer, Mayfield, owns very little of the land concerned, and has options on very little of it. A huge number of landowners, responsible for some 4,000 acres of the area, are saying that they do not want their land to be developed. The new town, therefore, could only be built in future in the event of compulsory purchase of the land.
The developer has sought to disrupt the planning process at every stage, arguing against the plans of Horsham and Mid Sussex district councils in an attempt to get its own way. I should point out that an adviser—a paid adviser—to this new town promoter is Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, who was the promoter of the amendment. He declared his interest properly, but it is nevertheless important for us to understand that. Lord Taylor gave the game away when he moved his amendment. He said that what he wanted was a device whereby it would be possible
“to capture the value of land in order to create supplements.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 March 2017; Vol. 779, c. 1894.]
I want the House to understand what Lord Taylor meant. He meant that he wanted to give powers of compulsory purchase to local authorities so that local authorities could purchase land at below the market rate.
Huge blight has already been created in that part of my constituency because of the predatory activities of a developer that does not have sufficient options on the land for a new town in an area where it will never be built. Can the House imagine what would happen were we to give these powers to local authorities which, all over the country, could start to consider where, using powers of compulsory purchase, they might acquire at below the market rate land on which they simply had designs to build?
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab)
Under the code of conduct on standards in public life, someone who has declared an interest—certainly in this House—is prohibited from moving an amendment in which that person has a pecuniary interest in relation to any organisation, as has been the case ever since the Nolan Committee reported in 1996. Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that the House should reflect on that?
I should emphasise that Lord Taylor made his interest clear when he moved the amendment. As for the rules in the other place, I am not aware of them, but it is the case that Lord Taylor has had in the past, if not currently, a commercial interest with one of the developers that would stand to gain from the transfer of powers that may be effected by the permissive legislation that the Government wish the House to accept.
I believe that this raises a question of principle, namely whether the powers of, specifically, compulsory purchase should ever be delegated to local authorities. I suggest to Members on both sides of the House that we should not allow that. While it might be appropriate to delegate other powers to make it easier for new towns to be established by local consent, I think it would be a grave mistake to delegate powers of compulsory purchase in a way that would cause Ministers to lose control altogether of the process whereby land may be compulsorily purchased. It would have the effects I have described in this area all across the country. The amendment would forbid such a transfer of power in this specific instance in relation to powers of compulsory purchase, and I seek reassurance from my hon. Friend the Minister that the Government have no intention of allowing such a transfer of powers of compulsory purchase. He will know that this is also of huge concern to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who is unable to be here today but shares my concern about the impact of the Mayfields new town, which crosses both our constituencies.
My hon. Friend is an excellent, conscientious and assiduous Minister, who is always willing to listen to concerns of hon. Members on both sides of the House; I know that from personal experience and the way he has responded to me before. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the decision he took on Friday and about this proposed transfer of powers, and would be very grateful if he would reassure me on both counts.
Gavin Barwell (Minister for Housing and Planning)
Let me briefly respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert).
The hon. Gentleman asked whether a council can designate particular sites for housing for the elderly, and the simple answer is yes, it can. They have powers to do that already, and in the guidance we issue we might want to look at the extent to which we allow that to be a matter for local decision making, or whether it is something we wish to promote.
The hon. Gentleman made two vital points in relation to neighbourhood planning. First, neighbourhood planning is not just for affluent rural communities. This is an opportunity for communities right across the country to have more of a say about how they develop in the future and how we make the tough and difficult choices hat must be made in order to provide the housing we so desperately need and the land for employment and other community uses. The Government are very much committed to ensuring that neighbourhood planning is not just for affluent communities and that we see it adopted right across the country. I have said before that I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the role he personally has played as an advocate of this policy. He will know that we make additional financial support available to groups in deprived areas, recognising that they need capacity support to produce the plans, and we recently confirmed that that support will be going forward over the next few years. He made a crucial point, however.
The hon. Gentleman’s second point was picked up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs, but it is worth reiterating from the Dispatch Box. Although at the moment the sample size is relatively small, there is clear evidence that neighbourhood plans that allocate sites for housing have actually provided for more housing than their relevant local authority was going to propose. I do not wish to make a party political point, because I am trying to encourage consensus, but I believe in passing power down to people, and it is a very powerful argument for doing so when we trust people to make decisions about their area and they respond in exactly the way we would want.
That is a good socialist principle.
Both sides of the House can lay claim to that good localist principle. The evidence is clear, and that is why the Government are keen to see neighbourhood planning turbocharged around the country. I will say a little more about that shortly, but first I want to respond to the points my right hon. Friend made, because the overall argument is relevant to both aspects.
I will deal with my right hon. Friend’s two amendments first, and then come on to the particular planning application he refers to. On amendment (a) to Lords amendment 4, the Government absolutely agree with him about the importance of neighbourhood forums and parish councils having sufficient time to consider planning applications when notified by local planning authorities, and, crucially, about the importance of their views being taken into account when local planning authorities make decisions. I can assure him and the House as a whole that we intend to update the secondary legislation to provide requirements for where forums and parish councils are automatically notified of planning applications under the new provisions.
The provisions will be consistent with the existing provisions in the development management procedure order relating to consultation on planning applications. They will include providing that a local planning authority must not determine any planning application where a parish council or designated neighbourhood forum has been notified and wishes to make representations before a minimum of 21 days has elapsed. It is already the case that a local planning authority must consider the representations received and whether considerations are raised that may be material to the application, but detailed requirements relating to the operation of the planning application process best sit in secondary rather than primary legislation, to ensure that we have the flexibility to keep procedures up to date. It would not surprise me if my right hon. Friend wanted to come back with further suggestions, and it is much easier to ake suggestions if the matters are in secondary legislation. Having provided him with all the reassurances he wanted, I respectfully request that he does not press his amendment.
It is not necessarily for me to defend amendment (a) to Lords amendment 23, but let me say what I think Lord Taylor was driving at and then reassure my right hon. Friend on his particular points. At the moment, when somebody owns a piece of land that is not designated as suitable for housing or any other use and then, through a local plan process, the council changes that designation, the landowner sees a significant uplift in value. If a company or individual then acquires rights over that land and secures planning permission, there is a further uplift, and that planning permission may be traded several times. At the end of the process, several organisations or individuals have made a great deal of money and there is not a great deal of value in the land for providing the infrastructure that all our constituents tell us is vital to go along with housing. I think Lord Taylor is considering the extent to which, when changing the designation of land, the public sector can try to secure that land early in the process, avoiding the long chain I described and ensuring that more value is available to provide the required infrastructure.
Having said that, it is important that I provide my right hon. Friend with clarification about the regulations that will be made. I reassure him that the functions that could be transferred would not include functions that are the prerogative of the Secretary of State. Under the New Towns Act 1981, any compulsory purchase order sought by a new town development corporation must be submitted to and confirmed by the Secretary of State. That is the case for compulsory purchase orders sought by all bodies, and there will be no change to that position. That will be clear from the regulations, which will, subject to the enactment of this Bill, come to this House for approval. On that basis, I hope that my right hon. Friend will withdraw amendment (a) to Lords amendment 23.
Jim McMahon (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab)
An important point that needs addressing relates to the conflict of interest of the Member in the other place. It is perhaps not something for now if the Minister does not have the information, but we need a commitment that it will be looked into seriously.
It is not an easy question for me to answer, because I am not aware of the nature of Lord Taylor’s interest in this matter, so I cannot really respond to it at the Dispatch Box. However, I am sure that his attention will be drawn to the concerns raised on the Floor of the House and that he will make the record clear.
I want to say a few words about neighbourhood planning in general and address the specific point about the application mentioned by my right hon. Friend. He will understand that I must be careful about not saying too much about particular applications, even after a decision has been made, because the decision letter is the record of the decision, but the key point to draw the House’s attention to was that a relevant neighbourhood plan was not in place. Work was under way to prepare one, but that work was at a sufficiently early place to mean that I was unable to give the plan a great deal of weight in making my decision.
A clear lesson for when such decisions have to be made—if it is possible to spread this out to the generality—is the importance of two things. First is that the relevant local council above has a five-year land supply in place so that the presumption does not apply. Second is ensuring that the processes for producing neighbourhood plans are as streamlined as possible from the point at which people start work on them to when they receive examination. It is worth putting on the record that the Bill will give plans weight at an earlier stage in the process—as soon as they have gone through examination. We want to make that process as quick as possible, so that planning decisions that undermine what a community is trying to achieve are not being made during the preparation of plans.
I have a couple of general observations that will allow me to give my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs the clear assurance he wants. I am a real advocate of neighbourhood planning, in which I strongly believe. There are tensions in public policy, and it is important that Ministers are honest about that. If the Government were to give complete protection to all neighbourhood plans in all circumstances, there would be a danger that in areas with a large level of neighbourhood plan coverage but where a local authority does not have an adequate five-year land supply in place and is not delivering homes, we would have no mechanism for getting homes delivered. There has to be a balance, and I tried to strike the right balance in the written ministerial statement we published before Christmas, but the Bill will bring plans into force quicker, will make it easier to simplify plans and to change the areas covered by plans, and will put more pressure on councils to engage with neighbourhoods that want to produce a plan. We are taking a significant step forward from the written ministerial statement.
More widely, my main reflection having been in the job for eight or nine months is that it is a great privilege to serve in this position, but the thing I like least about my job is having to take decisions on planning applications for places I do not know. One of my main objectives is therefore to ensure that, across the country, we get local plans in place that are up to date, that have a five-year land supply and that are delivered by local authorities. I say clearly and categorically to my right hon. Friend from the Dispatch Box that if a council has an up-to-date plan, has a five-year land supply and is delivering the required number of homes each year, I do not expect my inspectors to be overturning the planning decisions of local communities in anything other than the most exceptional circumstances—I have to add that last caveat because all Members will know that sometimes councils take decisions on individual applications that are contrary to their plan because in a particular case there are pressing reasons for it being the right thing to do. If councils are doing the right things, the Government should generally leave the decisions to local authorities. That is where I am trying to get housing and planning policy to, and I know the Secretary of State shares that view.
Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab)
I share the Minister’s view that decisions should be taken locally. It is costing Lancashire constabulary an absolute fortune to police the fracking protests in Lancashire. Can he explain why that decision was taken by Lancashire County Council and then overturned by the Secretary of State, who pproved the planning application, which is now costing £14,000 a day to police? If local people know best, why was it not the case then?
There are exceptions to every rule. Although I cannot get drawn into discussing that case, perhaps I can give some hypothetical examples. Certain types of application raise issues of key pieces of national infrastructure that have relevance beyond an individual local community. I invite hon. Members to imagine that a neighbouring local authority to their own were considering an application for a large out-of-town retail centre, which would clearly have implications for local high streets not just in that authority’s area but in neighbouring areas, too. There might therefore be an interest in ensuring that all those wider communities have a say, rather than in the decision being taken by a specific local authority.
I will happily talk to the hon. Gentleman outside the Chamber, but there is a difficulty. I cannot discuss individual applications, so I will not take a further intervention. I am happy to have a separate discussion.
There have been no votes on the two areas on which the Government disagree with the Lords amendments, which I hope sends a clear message to the other place about the unanimity in this House on pubs and planning conditions. I hope this will be the last time I speak on this Bill.
I shall end my contribution by saying that the Bill, on its own, is not the answer to the housing problems we face in this country, but it makes an important contribution: by supporting neighbourhood planning, which is delivering more housing in those communities that adopt it; by speeding up our system, through the reform of planning conditions and compulsory purchase; and, vitally, by ensuring that we do a better job of getting up-to-date planning policies in place right across this country.
Finally, on my behalf and that of the Secretary of State, I wish to thank the outstanding officials in our Department for their work on this legislation. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), one of the stars of the Government Whips Office—given my background, that is a very high compliment —and my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) for their support during these proceedings.