Growth and Infrastructure Bill

5.1 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State's aims for the Bill-boosting infrastructure, cutting red tape and helping local firms to grow are laudable ambitions. I should like to focus on four aspects of the Bill: first, the balance between localism and centralism; secondly, the importance of securing proper infrastructure, both national and local, to support development; thirdly, the importance of the Government's broadband programme, including in national parks; and fourthly, the overall role of the planning system against the background of wanting to promote growth.

First, on localism, clause 1 allows, as has been noted, direct applications to the Secretary of State if a council is placed in what could be described as special measures. The criteria for so placing a council have yet to be set out. However, I hope we remember all the reasons why, over the course of the past two and a half years, the Government felt it was important to devolve power to people and communities, not least in housing and housing policy.

Devolving power in planning decisions is also important, because there is a great danger that people will feel that decisions may be taken away from them. If decisions are taken away from local communities, the danger is that responsibility is also taken away-the responsibility of community leaders to take decisions that are sometimes difficult. Another danger is the paradox of the top-down housing targets of the previous Government. The very high stated housing numbers that were never achieved did not deliver, but merely set up conflicts between local communities and the Government.

Mrs Main: Not only did the previous Government create conflict within communities, they skewed how communities developed. Developers moved into my constituency to deliver the targets-particularly density targets-and we ended up with heaps of flats, which were bought speculatively, but not enough of the family homes that the communities wanted. I therefore welcome this Government's approach. We can actually start to determine what we would like to be built rather than be told what to build.

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend expresses eloquently one virtue of ensuring that decisions can be taken on a local basis.

The power of the Government's changes to the planning system, which were set out in the Localism Act 2011, is this. They introduced the idea of neighbourhood planning, with communities judging for themselves where best to site housing and what is necessary for their areas. Neighbourhood planning is an incredibly good concept. I would like to see it flourish, but it is in danger of being undermined by a series of things. I hope that the Government will look again at the neighbourhood planning process and how it might be boosted, because it is the right way to provide sustainable levels of housing provision.

First, the concept has been undermined by the continuation of regional spatial strategies. I know that there has been a problem with the European Union holding up the effective abolition of the strategies, which has been legislated for by this House. However, while they remain in place-for instance, the south-east plan affects my constituency-the danger is that, in the absence of effective local plans, the countryside can be vulnerable to speculative housing applications, with communities powerless to oppose such applications, which, if rejected by local authorities, can be appealed to the Planning Inspectorate. The consequence of such applications is that the process whereby communities come together over planning in the neighbourhood is undermined, with local consent-which can be built for reasonable levels of housing-undermined too. The swift abolition of the regional spatial strategies is therefore essential if the process of neighbourhood planning is to proceed.

Second is the issue of expense. The Government provide some support to local communities to proceed with neighbourhood planning, but it is an expensive process. More support-not necessarily financial-has to be provided to local communities. That issue is not addressed in the Bill; it usefully could be. Such support is essential also from district councils. Some councils are unwilling to yield power. Localism is not a process whereby power is simply handed down to elected district councils; where possible, power should be placed in the hands of the people and communities. That is being undermined by some district councils that do not wish to support the process of neighbourhood planning.

Thirdly-this issue has already been raised in the debate-there is the question of whether the overall housing numbers set by the regional spatial strategies will simply be reinstated if the assessment of housing need undertaken by district councils comes up with the same number. We need to take a close look at the instructions being given to district councils as they assess housing need. Otherwise, the very principle that we set out in the Localism Act 2011-that regional spatial strategies should go and that powers should be handed down to local communities-will, in effect, be undermined. If the Planning Inspectorate ends up taking decisions that should have been taken locally and imposes the same numbers as those proposed previously, nothing will be gained and localism will be undermined.

It is worth restating the virtue of the neighbourhood process. It means that communities will plan responsibly, with local democratic buy-in to the housing levels arrived at, because there will have to be a referendum. I know from my area that where parish councils are setting up local plans, they are-perhaps for the first time-looking carefully and responsibly at where a sustainable level of housing provision could be sited. The sustainable provision we wish to see in future years will be threatened if we slip back into a top-down approach, which is clearly the risk in clause 1.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I commend the right hon. Gentleman on the points he is making. Does he agree that one of the problems is the difference between housing need and housing demand, which in some areas is virtually insatiable, and that it was important for the national planning policy framework that local councils should be given the power to balance economic growth with social and environmental requirements, even though this has not yet been taken very seriously by many local planners?

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend puts his finger precisely on the right point. If that balance were not achieved properly, it would be possible to come up with huge projected levels of housing in the areas I represent, because there is an almost infinite demand for housing from people wishing to come and live in West Sussex. Unless that balance is achieved, there will not be a sustainable level of housing provision in the local area.

The Bill rightly focuses on the need to secure national infrastructure, and on the importance of speeding up decisions so that that can be achieved. I strongly support that, but I want to talk about the related issue of the levels of local infrastructure necessary to support housing development. I represent a rural constituency with no large towns; it has only villages, small towns and countryside-and important countryside, at that. It already has problems with congested roads and, in some villages, of over-subscribed local schools, although I am pleased to say that the latter issue is partly being addressed by the Government's policy of allowing free schools to be set up.

Worst of all, however, is the problem of sewage. The levels of development in some villages have not been matched by adequate sewerage provision. When combined with the lack of an adequate water supply in the area, that can result in sewage flowing though people's gardens after not particularly heavy rainfall. There is inadequate local infrastructure to support the present level of housing provision in those villages. What are we going to do to ensure that proper levels of infrastructure are put in place to support the necessary additional development?

There is a general acceptance in the communities I represent that additional housing is needed. There is a lack of affordable housing in the villages, and people recognise that some additional housing will be necessary. The question is whether it will be provided on a sustainable basis with proper provision for the infrastructure necessary to support it. I want to ensure that the provisions in the Bill will continue to allow funding for such infrastructure provision, so that the appropriate level of development can go ahead.

A further issue relating to infrastructure is that of broadband. West Sussex is a rural county that is relatively close to London-my constituency is only 50 miles away-and it is surprising that it should contain three of the four "not-spot" areas in the country, in which broadband can barely be obtained at all. One of them is in my constituency, where broadband provision is already very poor. I therefore strongly welcome the Government's measures to secure a reasonable level of broadband speed and 100% coverage across the country, followed by a high level of provision of superfast broadband.

Such provision will be essential if we wish to foster local economic growth and the levels of infrastructure provision that businesses require in today's connected world.

Such broadband provision is no less important in national parks. The outstanding landscape of the South Downs national park is in my constituency, and the communities in the park will also require high-speed broadband. Farmers who wish to diversify, for example, do not want to be disadvantaged, and the local economy will not be sustainable unless such broadband provision is secured. Last year, I raised the issue of a local farmer who was paying huge sums of money for broadband provision, which was creating an impediment to the successful diversification of his farm enterprise. I therefore welcome the proposals to improve broadband provision.

I am concerned about the provision in clause 7 that will override the key purpose of a national park to conserve beauty, and I would like to hear more from the Government about that. I need to understand more about the practical effects of that provision, and about the precedent that it will set. I need to be persuaded that it will not damage the landscape, which it is so important to preserve, although I of course see the importance of securing improved broadband provision.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I support my right hon. Friend's remarks. My constituency contains areas of outstanding natural beauty, and the provision could be interpreted as undermining the protections that are at present afforded to his and my constituencies. Will he join me in asking the Government to look at the measure carefully, to ensure that it does not set a precedent for other projects?

Nick Herbert: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's remarks. She expressed herself in the same way as I have sought to express myself-by seeking reassurance that these provisions will not damage the landscape. The whole purpose of these high landscape designations, whether they be areas of outstanding natural beauty or national parks, is that they ensure a level of protection that cannot be overridden. That is their very purpose, so we need to be careful before legislating for any provision that might then set a precedent for further erosion of such protection in future. I simply say that we need to be careful and that I need to be persuaded of the benefits of these measures.

My final point is about the role of the planning system in relation to growth. There is a simple fact here-that we have had high levels of growth with the existing planning system in this country under Governments of both persuasions over the course of the last few decades. The planning system is not in itself necessarily an impediment to growth, and the lack of growth cannot be laid at the door of the planning system. Nevertheless, in an increasingly competitive world-despite the fact that we can observe Britain's projected growth as being higher than that of our European partners and approaching that of the United States-we need to compete with the best. That means that any blockage on the speed of planning decisions needs to be removed. I welcome Lord Heseltine's review to that effect. He said that it was not about undermining the principles of the planning system; it was about ensuring that it works more speedily. That is what I suggest we need to focus on-policy clarity and speeding up decisions, not undermining the process in its entirety.