Planning, housing supply and the countryside
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) on securing this debate, which I am delighted to co-sponsor.
Two years ago, we passed the Localism Act 2011 and promised local people that they would be given a greater say over matters that they care about, including development. It was part of a deliberate programme of devolution of power to people and communities. Ministers promised, and continue to promise, that power will transfer to local people in accordance with our manifesto and the coalition agreement. I fear that, two years on, people’s faith in that promise will be considerably undermined if we allow, by the back door, the re-entry of top-down decision making that effectively denies the localism that was promised.
Let us consider the first problem. Central to the Government’s new planning policy was the principle of sustainable development. Paragraph 14 of the national policy framework states that this is the
that should run through
“both plan-making and decision-taking.”
There are two words in the phrase “sustainable development”; it is imperative that proper weight be attached to the first of them.
Many in communities in my constituency are concerned that inadequate consideration is given to the availability of infrastructure to support development proposals. We have congested roads, over-subscribed schools, serious flooding issues and countryside that is valued and in short supply. Half my constituency is protected landscape, forcing all development proposals into the other half that is not.
Under the new system, local authorities are required to make an assessment of housing need, but surely that cannot be the last word. If sustainable development means anything, local authorities must be free to decide how many houses can be built—not just how many are necessary—to match that need, otherwise we might as well return to the top-down targets. The Campaign to Protect Rural England’s Sussex Countryside Trust, in my constituency, makes the point well:
“The figures generated by the Strategic Market Housing Assessment are an assessment of need without constraints. These figures cannot simply be passported into an emerging local plan without an effective analysis of the limitation imposed by the supply of land for new development, historic underperformance of infrastructure or environmental constraints.”
Are local authorities free to make such an assessment and, regardless of the housing need that they assess, then decide how many houses can be delivered sustainably in their area? Or is an assessment of need the last word? The Government are driving hard at the demand to provide more housing. The “sustainable” part of sustainable development, promised in the Localism Act, is being put in the second rank.
A second issue is whether there is proper assessment of the available infrastructure. That issue was raised by me and many of my hon. Friends during consideration of the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 in December 2012. I moved an amendment stating that infrastructure needs should be taken into account when drawing up local plans. I was grateful to the Minister for what he said in response:
“I will look at making sure that the guidance that is provided in a much reduced set of planning guidance is very clear about the need to plan positively and specifically for infrastructure that is required to support the development and to ensure that it is brought on stream in good time for that development.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 605.]
That was a pledge that there will be very clear guidance on the need to plan positively for infrastructure, but when the guidance was published in beta form—it was a draft—on 28 August, I think I am right to say that there was no such reference to infrastructure. My second question to the Minister is whether he will in fact introduce that guidance on infrastructure, as he promised in the House last December.
Another key way in which faith in localism will be undermined is if we return to the bad old days of planning by appeal, and allow the Planning Inspectorate to overturn planning applications. That is happening time after time, and it is hugely undermining faith in localism in my constituency and elsewhere. It is undermining faith in the whole system that we have set up to encourage people to take responsible decisions on planning in their local area. That is not just my view. In a briefing today, the Local Government Association said that the Planning Inspectorate’s
“apparent disregard for sites identified in emerging local plans not only undermines the principles of a plan led system and local determination set out in the NPPF, but also seriously undermines local communities’ trust in the planning system. This results in resistance to further local development, general local resentment, and development that does not reflect the needs of local communities as set out in the draft published local plans.”
In a letter to me on 6 August, the Minister said that
“decision takers may give weight to relevant policies in emerging plans”—
that is, plans that have not yet been completed, which is important, because they are either district councils’ plans, or emerging neighbourhood plans, in which people have put a great deal of effort into deciding where development should go. If those plans were given no weight, speculative applications would be allowed, and we would get a system that was not plan-led, but developer-led, which would effectively amount to a free-for-all on our countryside. However, when the guidance was published, it actually stated that
“arguments that an application is premature are unlikely to justify a refusal of planning permission other than in exceptional circumstances”,
so will the Minister consider allowing more weight to be attached to emerging plans, so that an indication by local people of where they do, responsibly, want development, and also where they do not, is taken on board by the Planning Inspectorate? If that is not taken on board, again, we might as well return to the top-down system that we had before, which did not deliver the new housing that we needed, and we cannot justify promising to people that we are delivering localism.
I understand why the Government were concerned about the situation they inherited. There was a low level of housing starts, and we have to accommodate this country’s housing need. There are important generational arguments about the lack of opportunity for young people and their ability to get their foot on the housing ladder, but allowing top-down targets to return through the back door—indeed, even encouraging them—will not deliver the additional housing that is needed. It will merely deliver a great deal of pain—pain politically, as people see that the promise of localism was not in fact real, and pain because such top-down targets will not help people to get their foot on the property ladder and will not have a significant effect in reducing property prices.