This week I spoke in a short Commons debate about local planning. I repeated my message that neighbourhood plans should be respected, and that developers should not be allowed to game the system so as to obtain planning permission on sites that villagers have protected.
Although changes I won a year ago have helped, too many neighbourhood plans across my constituency have been undermined - and not just draft plans, but those agreed with overwhelming support in local referendums.
In Henfield, developers managed to challenge the village’s neighbourhood plan by means of a judicial review. In Arun, neighbourhood plans have become victims of the failure to get a District Plan in place.
Hurstpierpoint’s neighbourhood plan has been overruled by a decision to allow development on a site in Sayers Common, while the draft neighbourhood plan in Hassocks has been sidelined altogether by the proposal to add 500 houses on a single site.
I have objected to this, pointing out that with other proposed development the village would grow by a third, an unsustainable figure. On Monday I will be taking part in a special session called by the Planning Inspector about this proposal, and I will repeat my concerns.
In this week’s debate, I pointed out to the new Housing Minister that this is not about opposition to more housing. Our councils are planning for two thirds more new houses to be built than in the old draft South East Plan.
With the Government’s new formula, which is designed to reflect housing need, the number of new houses will be double that in the draft South East Plan. These are huge increases which are already placing massive pressure on local infrastructure.
Not only is it better if local communities decide where these houses should go, we know from experience that neighbourhood plans actually produce more housing than expected.
The tiny village of Kirdford was one of the very first to pass a neighbourhood plan. Given the responsibility of looking ahead to the community’s needs, local people decided on a remarkable 25 per cent increase in new housing.
But now a developer is trying to build houses faster than the plan set out. Apparently the villagers’ decision, after all their work and 95 per cent support in their referendum, can just be dismissed.
This cannot be right. As I put it to the Minister, the Government believes that public confidence in democracy would be undermined if the EU referendum result were just ignored. The same argument applies at a local level.