Housing, Planning and the Green Belt
Nick's speech in the Commons Debate
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
Yesterday I was at a planning inquiry in my constituency. It should have been a situation in which a planning inspector signed off a neighbourhood plan produced by a village, but the process has in fact been stopped because of incompatibility with the local plan. It has to be said that the neighbourhood plan had not started quickly enough; nevertheless, it has been stopped.
In response to views expressed by the planning inspector, Mid Sussex District Council has proposed a 500-house settlement to the north of the village of Hassocks. The cumulative effect of that new development and others would be to increase the size of the village by a third. There are huge local concerns about the adequacy of nfrastructure, the decision to locate the settlement at the proposed site, the loss of countryside, the closure of a green space between two villages and so on, but the important point is that the parish council was preparing its neighbourhood plan, and it was proposing an increase in the number of houses. Neighbourhood plans have delivered more houses than expected. The parish council proposed a limited number of houses in that location, but 500 was completely out of kilter with the number it expected to produce, and the site of the proposed new settlement is not in the location that the parish council wanted.
During the inquiry, a huge number of members of the public were listening to the evidence given by not only elected representatives, but a vast array of QCs representing an equally vast array of house builders. Members of the public were not allowed to speak, but every time they just said, “Hear, hear,” or disagreed with a point in the way in which polite members of the public in West Sussex do, they were told to be quiet. They were silenced. A reform that was introduced under the Localism Act 2011 and that was designed to empower local communities—giving them the decision about where housing should be located—has suddenly regressed to the old-fashioned planning by appeal process, with decisions taken by the planning inspector and the public literally silenced. I suggest that we need to hold faith with the principle of giving communities more control over where housing goes.
In reality, more housing than expected was produced by the process of neighbourhood planning. I think that those on all sides can agree with the principles of empowerment, of taking responsibility, and of putting decision making into the hands of the local community. Upsetting neighbourhood plans undermines those principles and this very powerful reform.
We should understand why this has happened: developers have been gaming the system, and continue to do so. Developers, by not using planning permissions, have driven down the five-year land supply so that we have a planning free-for-all whereas we should have a planned system. Developers have conspired—I use that word advisedly—in Mid Sussex, as they have in other districts in my constituency, to delay putting local plans in place so that they can maintain that free-for-all, yet cynically they have not built.
Mary Robinson (Cheadle) (Con)
My right hon. Friend refers to the power of the local voice. I am sorry that my voice has gone a little, but I will still speak up for local people. That local voice needs to be heard in planning. My area falls within the Stockport local plan area, but that, in turn, falls under the Greater Manchester spatial framework. For four years, one of my villages has been trying to set up its own neighbourhood plan. The community has done a lot of work, but it is now worried about how its neighbourhood plan will fit in, as two other plans are being put in place. There were indications in “Planning for the right homes in the right places” that this would be addressed through a different methodology. Does he agree that we need to keep that approach?
Where possible, we need to respect neighbourhood plans. Of course the local planning authority retains the position of a strategic planning uthority, but we should not allow developers to bust neighbourhood plans by cynical means, which is what has been happening.
It is important to note that the housing that is now being built in West Sussex is far in excess of the level that was envisaged 12 years ago, when I was first elected to the House. The objectively assessed need for local authorities is now 61% higher than it was under Gordon Brown’s draft south-east plan, and it will be double that when the Government bring in the new housing need figures. New houses are being built. However, it is important that permissions actually translate into new homes.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) back to his place. I agreed with almost everything that he said. We can all agree about the importance of building more houses. He gave us his framing of the fundamental problem, and I agree that returning to the free market is not the answer, and nor is saying that we should hold to the current system, which is clearly not delivering. Somewhere in the middle, we have to identify a more radical reform that will allow us, as he suggested, to capture the uplift in the value of land between what it would be as ordinary land with an agricultural market value, and land with development potential, which suddenly becomes worth millions or tens of millions of pounds per acre. We have to think hard about how we do that.
I want to deliver a warning. Putting into the hands of local authorities powers of compulsory purchase that give them the ability to confiscate land at not the market value, but an assessed value that is far lower, might indeed have the effect that my hon. Friend suggests. While we must explore such ideas, that might also create wholesale property blight across the country, inconveniencing not just the owners of agricultural land, but communities more widely. I look at the effect of a proposed new town in my constituency, which is in the same district of Mid Sussex, but also falls into Horsham district. Neither local authority wants that, but it has been relentlessly promoted by a developer that does not even have an options on the land, against the wishes of the local community and the local councils. That has created an enormous blight on a large swathe of this part of Mid Sussex, because people are fearful that a new town might come and therefore the value of their properties is affected.
If we are to investigate such a reform, we have to be very careful to draw a distinction between previous powers exercised by Government in relation to compulsory purchase for new towns such as Milton Keynes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford set out, and the idea that we could somehow translate those powers to local authorities in a way that was not carefully constrained. That needs much more careful thinking, but it is undoubtedly the germ of an important idea.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we will need new thinking if we are to increase supply in the way that is necessary. We are not France or Germany. We have a much smaller country, and there are huge pressures on infrastructure, but reform might help to deliver infrastructure for local communities.
We need to produce more affordable housing, but we should try to apply the principles we latched on to a few years ago with the Localism Act, through which we ave communities the power to decide where they wanted housing and the responsibility to exercise that power. That yielded great results, because it meant that communities that had previously said no to developments started saying yes in a very positive way. We should be careful about principles that rely on such state intervention, control or indeed confiscation that they would be anathema to the public and many Conservative Members.
To read the Hansard of the full debate, see here.