Nick speaks in Commons debate on planning

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)

The last time I was in this Chamber, I had cause to warn the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), that in Sussex we have a habit of burning an effigy of people who have particularly irritated us. At the moment, those who run Govia Thameslink Railway are at the top of that list, but running a very close second are those responsible for undermining the neighbourhood planning policy, which should be heralded as such a great success for this Government. It was the policy by which power was to be returned to local people, who were to have control over where development went. Decisions taken in neighbourhood plans are entered into by the whole community, having been drawn up by volunteers and then voted on by that community in local referendums. Just as we are now debating nationally the importance of honouring a referendum result, so it gravely undermines democracy locally when decisions taken by local communities can be so easily overridden. I am afraid that is exactly what is happening.

I very much welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his place. I hope that he will take this message back to his Department. This is like groundhog day: we have had this debate endlessly in this Chamber and on the Floor of the House, and we are constantly told, “Yes, the Government understand the problem and will do something about it.” Indeed, in December 2016 Gavin Barwell, then the excellent Housing Minister and now the Prime Minister’s excellent chief of staff, introduced helpful new guidance precisely designed to deal with the problem, ensuring that neighbourhood plans would be respected and that speculative developers could not win in the way my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) has ably described. The problem with that guidance is that it can apply only to neighbourhood plans made up to two years before the date of that guidance, and if local authorities did not have a three-year land supply it did not work at all.

Subsequent to the introduction of those new measures, I have had at least two decisions taken right up to the Planning Inspectorate or the Secretary of State and then lost on appeal because that guidance could not be used. It offered no protection to the local community n those technicalities and the speculative developers won. It is important to underline my hon. Friend’s point: that is not the way to increase house building in this country. We stand united in our desire to increase housing supply, which is a political, economic and social imperative. Everybody gets that, but the whole point is that neighbourhood plans delivered significantly more housing than was anticipated and, best of all, they did it with local consent.

Local communities were brought together and told that they would be given power. They were asked to accept responsibility and they did so, taking difficult decisions, sometimes in the face of strong local opposition, and agreed that development should go in certain places while other places should be protected. Those communities worked on the assumption that what they had been told was true, so those areas were to be protected for the 15-year life of the plan. However, almost within months they see that meant absolutely nothing; the developers could simply charge in.

Worse, those communities were given promises by their local Member of Parliament that everything would be made better by the new guidance, from December 2016, which the Campaign to Protect Rural England, I and hon. Friends who worked on it all said would help. No doubt it has helped in some circumstances, but by no means all, as I indicated. What happens then is support for neighbourhood plans collapses. In West Sussex, I now find it difficult to persuade communities that have not done neighbourhood plans to enter into them. They say, “Look at what happened in the neighbouring village. They went through this process, which costs a lot of money and costs the volunteers a lot of grief. Is it really worth it? The developers come in and simply overrode the plans anyway.”

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con)

My right hon. Friend is putting a powerful point to the Minister about the undermining of trust in the system. Does he agree that something else is going on? Where, in my case, the district council agreed to put housing in the right place, down by the main road—the A11 in this case—the developers are banking those permissions for later, because they know that they will get them, and using the five-year land supply to force the wrong development in the wrong places. Not only is trust in the system undermined, but we are getting the wrong development in the wrong places, which is deeply undermining people’s ability to say yes to new housing. It is compounding the problem.

Nick Herbert

My hon. Friend puts it incredibly well, and I strongly agree. That is why this is so cynical. We have to understand that developers are not just taking advantage of a loophole but gaming the system. As a consequence, I believe we are building fewer houses than we could if developers had to do what policy should require and deliver. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) has been charged with looking at this, and that is important, but there are changes we could make in the meantime, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk has suggested.

I will make two final points to the Minister. First, the Government are incorporating the guidance they issued in December 2016 into the new national policy framework. Could they look again at the threshold for the three-year and supply and the longevity of the test? Under both those things, the suitability of this as a remedy is being lost. It is not as effective as it should be. Could the Government also look at the wording they are using to incorporate it? It defines “recently brought into force” neighbourhood plans as meaning

“a neighbourhood plan which was passed at referendum two years or less before the date on which the decision is made.”

That is leading some to believe that neighbourhood plans simply fall after two years, which I am sure is not what the Government mean. It would be helpful to clarify that they do not mean that.

Secondly, and more importantly, our policy needs to change and we need to move away from five-year land supplies to delivery as the test. That is the fundamental change that needs to be made if we want to build houses and we wish to do so with public consent. I suggest that is the better way to do it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government (Nigel Adams)

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Sir Christopher, for the first time in this hot seat. It is also a great pleasure to have listened to some fantastic contributions from colleagues from across the House.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge). Everyone who has contributed to the debate has been an outstanding champion for their local area. It was heartening to hear so many passionate speeches from right hon. and hon. Members. Before I respond to some of the points made, I thank my hon. Friend for his continuing work to raise such important issues. He has great knowledge of the area and has spent many years of his professional life in the sector. I also read his well-informed “Red Box” piece in The Times today.

Many years before I was elected—before I had even considered going into politics—I asked the Member of Parliament for Selby at the time, the late Michael Alison, “What takes up most of your time?” He told me about the various issues, and I asked, “What about planning?” He said, “Planning is simple—I ignore it, don’t get involved in it and leave it to the council. That’s the way forward.” Times have changed a bit, because I think we can all agree that planning takes up an enormous amount of our time in this day and age.

I should point out that the Secretary of State, as Members know, has a quasi-judicial role in the planning system. I am sure everyone understands that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the detail of individual decisions or plans, but I can talk about the issues that have been raised more broadly. I will set out our national policy aims and then speak more generally about the technical points of each case. I just need a steer on when I am meant to be finished by, following the 25-minute suspension.

Eddie Hughes (Walsall North) (Con)

Eight minutes past.

Nigel Adams

I have about nine minutes left—that is about right. My thanks go to a great Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Issues with the current five-year land supply model and slow build-out were a key feature of the housing White Paper. The Government are seeking to address that through a package of reforms to the planning system, including revising the national planning policy framework, which will be published this summer. The review of the NPPF is fundamental to delivering the 300,000 homes a year we need, and sets out a comprehensive approach to ensure that we get the right homes, built in the right places and to the right quality.

The revised framework implements around 80 reforms that were announced last year, and retains the emphasis on development that is both sustainable and locally led. Those changes include clearer expectations of local authorities and developers to deliver their commitment to unlock land, fulfil planning permissions, provide essential infrastructure, and ensure that homes are built to meet the diverse needs and expectations of communities. The measures include a standardised way of assessing local housing need; reforming the plan-making system to ensure that every part of the country produces, maintains and implements an up-to-date plan; and an opportunity for local authorities to have their five-year housing land supply agreed on an annual basis. The last two points are particularly relevant to today’s important debate.

It is important that local authorities plan effectively for the new housing required in their areas. Ultimately, new homes need to be provided through up-to-date local plans, produced in consultation with local people. Up-to-date plans, produced in consultation with communities, are a vital element of the planning system. They are the starting point for planning decisions by planning authorities and inspectors. I welcome the progress that Babergh District Council, working with Mid Suffolk District Council, has made with their local plan preparations. I understand that the local authorities are aiming to submit them for examination by the Planning Inspectorate in spring next year.

It is important that adequate land is available to build the homes we need. Local authorities play their part by producing up-to-date local plans and identifying a five-year supply of housing sites. That provides clarity to local communities and developers about where homes should be built so that development is planned rather than the result of speculative applications. Every right hon. and hon. Member in the Chamber will have had experience of that. I have great sympathy with communities that feel that they have no control over planning, and nobody wants to see companies overtly gaming the system. However, we need more homes, and that is why communities should consider a neighbourhood plan—championed by many right hon. and hon. Members here today—to give them more control over the issue.

Demonstrating a deliverable pipeline of housing sites has been a long-standing Government policy. Since the existing NPPF was introduced in 2012, local planning authorities have been asked to identify and update annually a supply of specific deliverable sites, and to demonstrate a five-year land supply. Where the local authority cannot demonstrate that, the lack of supply means that plan policies are not considered to be up-to-date, and applications are assessed against the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

However, the presumption in favour of sustainable development does not, and should not, mean development at all costs. Any adverse impacts of the development will still need to be taken into account. The housing White Paper acknowledged that the current policy has been effective in bringing forward more permissions but has had some negative effects, as we have heard today from my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk. In response, we have proposed reforms to how land supply is calculated. The draft revised NPPF includes proposals to allow local authorities to agree their five-year housing land supply position on an annual basis and to fix it for one-year period. The Department believes that taking up that opportunity should reduce the number and complexity of appeals, and provide greater certainty to all parties.

James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con)

The Minister is making a fantastic speech. I am glad he has reached that point about appeals, because it seems to me very welcome that once someone has the five-year land supply and it has been signed off, they then have 12 months of security. At the moment, as soon as a council says, “We’ve got the five-year land supply,” there can be an immediate appeal by a developer and the certainty goes away. The issue therefore arises with councils that do not yet have the five-year land supply and do not have that security, but are giving many permissions. Can there be greater flexibility on that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) suggested?

Nigel Adams

My hon. Friend raises a valid point. We are hopeful that that will go a long way to eradicating some of the issues that he and right hon. and hon. Members have experienced. The idea is that it can be fixed at a one-year period. We will also see what other reforms are proposed as part of the review that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) is planning.

It is worth mentioning that in return for being allowed to agree their five-year housing land supply position on an annual basis and to fix it for a one-year period, local authorities will need to be more realistic in planning to meet housing needs. The draft NPPF includes further clarity on how to calculate five-year land supply, and we intend to provide further guidance to support local authorities in their role.

I know my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk has concerns about the time that it takes to build homes after sites are identified and permission is granted. The Government want homes to be built faster, and expect house builders to deliver more homes, more quickly and to a high standard. However, as my hon. Friend mentioned, it is important to recognise that after planning permission for new homes is granted, a variety of factors can prevent development from starting and can slow down delivery.

Last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset was commissioned to examine what can be done to speed up building on major sites. The review has been looking into the build-out of sites that have been granted planning permission. The aim is to close the significant gap between housing completions and the amount of land permissioned for new homes. The initial analysis, which was published last month, has presented some nteresting findings on the delays in building out large sites and what helps to speed up build-out rates. I look forward to reading the final report, which is due in the autumn.

Coming on to the points raised by right hon. and hon. Members, my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk talked about local communities not having a say on speculative development. Applications for speculative development are still subject to local consultation, as are all planning applications. He also mentioned, as others did, that existing permissions are not being taken into account. The draft NPPF encourages the use of shorter timescales for starting development before the permission will expire, to encourage developers to build the permitted homes more quickly.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), who is flying the flag brilliantly for Her Majesty’s Opposition, talked about viability assessments. We recognise those concerns and, again, the draft NPPF includes new policies on viability assessments. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) talked about burning effigies at the start of his speech; that was slightly worrying, as I live in York, where Guy Fawkes was from. I hope my right hon. Friend takes that into account. Neighbourhood planning protection was included in the draft NPPF. We consulted on the draft wording, and I thank him for his continued work and suggestions in this area. We are considering those responses and will publish the final NPPF in the summer.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), who I cannot see in his place, talked about what we are doing to encourage small developers. We need to support small and medium house builders and bring forward a greater variety of sites. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who does a fantastic job as the champion of neighbourhood plans, said that the Government do not know how many authorities have a five-year land supply. Guidance is being produced to advise local planning authorities on how to publish their supply figure, so it will be publicly accessible.

I thank and pay tribute to Councillors Lamb and Stephenson, the hard-working councillors of my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), who continue to fight for their local communities but appear to be being ignored by their local council, Leeds City Council. I hope that Leeds will have heard today’s debate and my hon. Friend’s excellent contribution. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) talked about the reporting of a five-year land supply. Alongside the—

 6.08 pm

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14))


To read the Hansard of the full debate, see here