Neighbourhood Planning Bill
Nick's speech in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill (Second Reading)
I welcome the opportunity to talk about neighbourhood planning, not betting shops. I shall speak to new clauses 7 and 8, which attempt to deal with the problem of undermining a very good policy that the Government have pioneered. The good policy is that of neighbourhood planning, which embodies the spirit of localism by giving local communities control over where development takes place. People are empowered to take responsible decisions about development. It changes the terms of the conversation from communities resisting the imposition of development to one where communities ask themselves what they want in their area. Where communities have taken neighbourhood plans forward, they have produced more housing than was anticipated in local plans. Neighbourhood plans are therefore not a means by which development can be resisted. Rather, they ensure that communities have a proper say in where development should go.
The basis on which communities have been encouraged to embark on neighbourhood plans is that for a period of 15 years they will be able to allocate sites where development will take place, and sites where development will definitely not take place and which will be protected green spaces. Many hon. Members, including me, appeared before our local parish or town councils and encouraged them to take forward neighbourhood plans on the basis that they would be protecting themselves from future development if they did so.
These neighbourhood plans are a very good thing, but they are immensely burdensome on local communities. It is volunteers who draw up the plans, and the process takes years. We are probably making it unnecessarily complex, with much inspection of the plans; they have to go through many hoops. The responsible volunteers who sit on the neighbourhood planning committees to draw up the plans often face a great deal of criticism from parts of their community that may not want development on sites whose suitability the committees have to assess. The individuals concerned put a great deal of time and effort into the plans.
West Sussex was one of the earliest counties to produce neighbourhood plans. When they were submitted to referendum, support for the plans was very high among the local communities. One of the thorniest questions in planning is what happens when communities are confronted with development that they really do not want. We embarked on the policy of neighbourhood plans with confidence that they may be a means of settling that question in a way that produced local housing in the area. One small village in my constituency, Kirdford, has only 120 houses at its centre. People there actually produced a neighbourhood plan for another 50 houses—a very big number of additional houses—because that was what they wanted, and they wanted that housing to be affordable and for local people.
So, turning around the incentives is a policy that works, but what has happened subsequently is a matter of considerable concern to those who have embarked on these plans and to many hon. Members on both sides of the House, because the plans have unexpectedly been undermined by speculative developers in two ways. First, even when a plan is made—in other words, when it has gained approval in a referendum—the local authority may not have a five-year land supply. As a consequence, a planning permission is allowed that goes against what is provided for in the neighbourhood plan. It is allowed either by the local authority, which is fearful of an appeal by the developer, or on appeal. If there is not a five-year land supply, that is held against the neighbourhood plan, and that has, in some cases, allowed development to go through, even where local communities thought they were protecting their area.
Reading new clauses 7 and 8 carefully, I am not sure they cover the situation to which the right hon. Gentleman has adverted. Briefly, in the Tettenhall area of my constituency, the local neighbourhood plan has a more than 50% turnout on a referendum in July 2014; the local neighbourhood plan goes through; there is then an application for a site called The Clockhouse; the local authority refuses planning permission; the case goes to the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol, which, in a 17-page decision, makes two brief references to the neighbourhood plan—and allows the appeal. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure me that new clauses 7 and 8 would deal with the local neighbourhood plan being overturned by the Planning Inspectorate in contradistinction to the planning authority—in this case, Wolverhampton City Council, which refused the application?
It may be a weakness in these new clauses that they may not deal with a situation where the Planning Inspectorate takes such a decision. I will not be tempted down a line I have pursued in the past, which is to question whether we should have a Planning Inspectorate at all under the provisions of localism; indeed, one Conservative manifesto promise was to abolish the power of the Planning Inspectorate to rewrite local plans, but we seem to have lost sight of that.
Will my right hon. Friend just expand on that point? Why is he no longer in favour of abolishing the Planning Inspectorate? In my experience in Sutton Coldfield, it adds precisely nothing to the process.
I am very glad to be pushed into a more moderate and Conservative position on this issue than the one I previously took. What I am focused on is ensuring that the Planning Inspectorate takes the right decisions should such developments be called in, and, more particularly, that local authorities take the right decisions in the first place. We should be minimising the number of appeals that have to go to the Planning Inspectorate because a wrong decision is made or because a decision appears to be in breach of national policy, and that means getting the national policy right. My contention is that national policy should give primacy to made neighbourhood plans, because these have been approved in local referendums.
Has my right hon. Friend also come across cases, which I am now seeing, where the local plan clearly has a five-year supply of land, but because it is concentrated in a major settlement—to concentrate the infrastructure and the development gain—an appeal can still be lost in another village, which naturally wants to protect itself because the development the local community agreed to was going to be concentrated in a new settlement?
Yes, my right hon. Friend makes the point very well.
The first way in which neighbourhood plans can be vulnerable to speculative development—even when it was thought that they would protect areas—is when there is not a sufficient five-year land supply in the local authority. The problem with that is that the five-year supply is not always properly in the hands of the local authority, but depends on the ability and willingness of local developers to build. Developers are undoubtedly gaming the system so as to secure speculative development applications and planning permissions, in a way that is deeply cynical and that is undermining the principles of localism and community control.
My right hon. Friend is very good to give way on this matter. Does he agree that in mid-Sussex, which he and I both represent, we have seen some extraordinarily unscrupulous behaviour by the house builders, who have been gaming the situation and abusing the plans, and thus have done something very bad for Government policy by undermining the credibility of a really good idea?
I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. The actions and behaviour of developers in mid-Sussex have also caused a delay of the plan, which has delayed the building of essential new housing as well as undermining neighbourhood plans.
There is a problem with the measure of the five-year land supply, which should be assessed in an accurate and honest way and not in a way that is capable of being gamed by the developers.
The second way in which neighbourhood plans can be overridden is when local authorities do not have a plan. Clearly, that is not a satisfactory situation, and the Government are seeking to address it. The problem is that this allows for a free-for-all in the area. Apparently that free-for-all can include neighbourhood plans, in the sense that when the local authority is drawing up its plan, it can override the neighbourhood plans not just with the allocation of strategic levels of housing, as was always envisaged, but with the requirement that neighbourhood plans wholesale are rewritten, as has been suggested to some communities in my area. Neighbourhood plans can also be overridden because the needs of a local plan, which often now have to provide far more housing than was originally intended, are said to come first. Those are problems for the principle of responsible neighbourhood plan making and local democracy.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that in its call for evidence in October 2015, the Local Government Association invited the Government to look again at the methodology for five-year land supply in local planning authorities? Does he not think that it might be considered potentially quite draconian to put a de facto moratorium into this Bill?
I am not proposing a moratorium, because I think it is essential that we build houses in this country and, as I have said, neighbourhood planning has produced more housing than was expected.
There is a real danger that if we undermine public support for neighbourhood planning we will undermine the principles of localism and will not get people to participate in neighbourhood planning in future. As I have seen in my constituency, neighbourhood planning, about which people were slightly cynical in the first place but became enthusiastic, is now being described in a very detrimental way, and some communities are saying that they will not go ahead with neighbourhood plans.
I very much agree with my right hon. Friend, as he knows, and he is making an impeccable defence of the position, but may I urge him to correct one tiny point? It was never envisaged in the first place that there would be a sequence that involved a neighbourhood plan first and a local plan second. It was, on the contrary, envisaged that all local authorities would proceed immediately towards the new-style local plans. It is a gross dereliction of duty on the part of those that have not thus proceeded. He is therefore right, and my hon. Friend the Minister is right, to press forward with new-style local plans everywhere without delay.
Yes, I agree with my right hon. Friend. The authorities should come forward with the plans. It is also true, though, that sometimes the plans have not come forward, as in mid-Sussex and in Arun, because they have been sent back by the inspector, and the inspector, in causing delay, has allowed a situation where the housing number increases. That then puts at risk all the areas that created neighbourhood plans with an allocation that they thought was accurate according to the original assessment in the draft plan, but now is not so. It is not just the fault of local authorities that plans have been delayed, and it is undesirable that we have a situation where the cart has come before the horse.
My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) is absolutely right that it is a gross dereliction of duty. My local authority is in that category, and the net result is that we do not have a single neighbourhood plan, despite the fact that I have written to every single clerk and every single town and parish councillor in my constituency. We need to put powers in the Bill to make sure that every local authority has a local plan, so that the good people in our constituencies can go forward with their local plans in the confidence that they will not be derailed by speculative developers.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that if the Government are willing to listen to this argument, as I believe they are, and come forward with proposals to deal with the situation—should the measures I have tabled not be the right way to do so—we will rebuild confidence in neighbourhood planning and it will proceed.
The measures I have tabled work as follows. New clause 7 addresses the first problem I set out. It would require planning authorities to consult neighbourhood planning bodies on decisions to grant planning permission. Where a planning authority wanted to approve a major development against the wishes of a neighbourhood planning body, the planning authority would be required to consult the Secretary of State before granting permission.
The five-year land supply is dealt with by new clause 8, which would empower the Secretary of State to issue a development order to: clarify the means by which housing land supply is assessed; define the minimum amount of time before a local planning authority’s failure to meet its housing targets would result in its local plan being out of date; and specify that neighbourhood plans should be taken into account, notwithstanding the lack of a five-year supply of housing land.
I very much hope that the Minister will respond to the new clauses in the spirit in which I have tabled them. There is a genuine problem here, but it is capable of being addressed without undermining the need to build more houses in this country. We must respect local communities that do the right thing and embark on the plans, because there is a real danger of undermining localism and communities if we do not act to ensure both that the principles of neighbourhood plans are upheld and that made neighbourhood plans that have been approved by the local population in a democratic vote cannot be overturned by speculative developers.
My right hon. Friend is being most generous in allowing interventions. Does he have the problem that I have in my constituency, namely that the district council has very nearly, but not quite, given sufficient permissions for the set number of dwellings for the planning period, but the developers given the permissions do not make the building starts, so when the next scheming developer comes along, the district authority says no, but the planning inspector says yes, because the area has not built up to the number? Building is in the control of the developers, but the permissions are in the hands of the council.
My right hon. and learned Friend puts the point incredibly well. That is exactly how developers are able to game the system and why the way in which we calculate the five-year land supply is fundamentally flawed and is giving rise to this injustice. The loophole has to be closed, and I very much hope that the Government will do so.
…I will not take an intervention now, as I am conscious of the time. What I will say to the hon. Gentleman, who clearly has a real passion for this issue, is that I am prepared to talk to colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and see, as part of its wider review of these issues, whether it would be helpful to issue guidance to local authorities so that they are aware of the powers that they have and how the NPPF works in this area.
Let me move on now to the main issue of the debate, which was in relation to neighbourhood planning. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who put their names to new clause 7 for the opportunity to debate an issue in which so many people in this House have a strong interest. I am talking about the role of neighbourhood planning groups in our planning system.
There are many champions of neighbourhood planning in all parts of the House. As the Planning Minister, I am very grateful for that support. The encouragement and support of a trusted local MP can undoubtedly help with many aspects of the neighbourhood planning process.
It is worth taking a quick moment to say why neighbourhood planning is so important. Research tells us that 42% of people say that they would be more supportive of proposed developments if local people had a say in them. There is strong evidence that those plans that have included housing allocations have increased, on average, the allocation above what their local planning authority was putting in place. To put that simply, where we give people control of the planning system, they plan for more housing. It is therefore crucial that the plans that people have worked so hard to produce are given proper consideration when local planning decisions are made.
In responding to new clause 7, I want to reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) that measures in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 that were commenced only on 1 October, the measures in this Bill, and in particular the written ministerial statement, which he referred to in his remarks, that I made yesterday, will address the concerns that he has raised. The national planning policy framework already says clearly that, where a lanning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton pointed out, the issue here is that, where a local planning authority does not have a five-year land supply, that is not a normal circumstance and the presumption in favour of development in some cases—not all—overrides neighbourhood plans.
In the written ministerial statement, I made it clear that from yesterday, where communities plan for housing in their area in a neighbourhood plan, those plans should not be deemed out of date unless there is a significant lack of land supply—that is, under three years. That applies to all plans for the next two years, and for the first two years of any plan that is put into place. That will give a degree of protection that has not been available. The message needs to go out clearly from this House that local authorities must get up-to-date plans in place to provide that protection for neighbourhood plans. I hope that that reassures people. As I said, I have written both to the Planning Inspectorate and to local councils on that issue.
I hope that my right hon. Friend feels that what I have said is part of the solution. I was attracted to part of his new clause 7. It refers to the idea that parish councils and neighbourhood forums should be told if there is a planning application in their area. At present, they have a right to request information, but they are not necessarily told. If he does not press new clause 7 and with his permission, I will take that proposal away and seek to insert it into the Bill in the Lords.
On new clause 8, which deals with the five-year land supply, the written ministerial statement partly addresses that concern, but the other issue that my right hon. Friend touched on was whether, once a five-year land supply has been established, there should be a period that it holds for. The local plans expert group made some very interesting recommendations in that area. We will look at them as part of the White Paper, so I can reassure him that the Government are actively considering that issue and will return to it. I hope that he feels that with the changes in the 2016 Act that have just been brought into force, the changes that we are making in this Bill, the written ministerial statement, the fact that I will accept part of his amendment and what is going to come in the White Paper, there is a package that underlines this Government’s commitment to neighbourhood planning. I thank him on a personal level for the priority that he has given to the issue. I found my discussions with him very useful.
On amendments 28 and 29 in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), I should say that I am always grateful for his advice and suggestions. He is a champion for his constituency and the whole House understands how passionately he feels about the green belt in his constituency. As someone with green belt in my constituency, I both understand and share that passion. The green belt has been a feature of planning policy throughout the post-war period, and although its boundaries have changed over time, the underlying objective of preventing urban sprawl remains as relevant as ever.
I make it clear to the House that the Government’s policy on protecting the green belt and national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special cientific interest remains unchanged. The national planning policy framework is very clear that it is for local authorities to decide whether to review green-belt boundaries but that they should do so only in exceptional circumstances. There needs to be public consultation and independent examination of their proposals. In relation to applications to build homes on green-belt land, again there is very strong protection. The NPPF says that inappropriate development is by definition harmful to the green belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.
You can read the full debate here: http://tinyurl.com/jykjxcx