Housing and Planning Bill

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I have tabled two sets of amendments to deal with concerns about the operation of the planning system. Those concerns are shared by a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends, who support the amendments.

New clause 48 addresses the fact that neighbourhood plans can be undermined by speculative developments that are granted planning permission but that run contrary to those plans. Neighbourhood planning has been a great achievement on the part of this Government, who have given communities power. Often neighbourhoods plan for far more houses than they originally intended or were allocated. Responsibility for the plans has been transferred to neighbourhoods and they are popular, but support for them relies on their integrity, and that support is undermined when speculative developers try to get in applications ahead of the completion of neighbourhood plans or even after they have been completed. They bang in their applications, and either they are upheld by the local authority, which is fearful of losing an appeal, or the developer makes an appeal that is upheld by the planning inspector. The development is then allowed to go ahead, which leads people, including groups of volunteers, to ask, “Why have we spent literally years working on this neighbourhood plan for where developments should go—a power that was given to us, the community—only for it to be overturned by a developer?”

Sir Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): So many people in towns such as Buntingford and the villages in my constituency spend so much time surveying opinion and considering all the aspects of the heritage of their village in order to come up with a neighbourhood plan for their community. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is wrong that that can then be trashed by an application by a speculative developer? These plans need to have a proper place and proper respect.

Nick Herbert: My hon. and learned Friend puts his point extremely well. I happen to know
about the situation in Buntingford and how angry people are about speculative developments in his constituency.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): That echoes what is happening in Chapel-en-le-Frith in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when people’s faith in the neighbourhood plan on which they have worked long and hard is undermined, that breaks down their faith in the planning system from top to bottom, because that is what they focus on at the start?

Nick Herbert: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. The whole point of the policy of localism and neighbourhood planning is that people are told explicitly that they will have control and be able to determine where development goes and protect land that they do not allocate for development for a period of, say, 15 years of the life of the plan. If that is overturned very quickly, or even as they complete their plan or just before it is passed by a referendum, that undermines confidence in the whole policy of localism. That is bad for the policy of neighbourhood planning and for the Government’s policy of localism. It means a return to a system of planning by appeal and a developer-led system, which undermines support for new housing, when what we want is a plan-led system. For all of those reasons, the policy that allows speculative developers to creep in at the last moment and undermine plans is wrong. That loophole needs to be closed.

Developers have the right to appeal against planning permission that is refused, but the community has no right of appeal, which is part of the problem. The only recourse is to invite the Secretary of State to call in an application that appears to run contrary to national policy, but that is very much a last resort. Many of us have been grateful to the Secretary of State when he has been willing to do that because something appears to have gone wrong in a local area, but that is not a process on which we necessarily want to rely.

Before the election, I and others proposed a community right of appeal, which commanded a lot of support in this House. We are now proposing a more limited, neighbourhood right of appeal. That would give communities or defined people in a community, such as a parish council, the ability to mount appeals against speculative planning applications that are granted if they run contrary to a neighbourhood plan or an emerging neighbourhood plan that is very close to being completed. That would allow a form of redress and introduce a check into the system. It would send a clear signal to developers that the abuse of the neighbourhood planning process is no longer allowed.

A number of organisations, including the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Civic Voice, support the proposed neighbourhood right of appeal, which I think would create a sensible balance in the planning system and strengthen the very good policy of neighbourhood planning.

The second set of amendments contains amendments 80 to 87 to clause 115, which places a new duty on local authorities to report on the financial benefits of proposed developments. The problem with the clause is that it is not balanced by any duty to assess the costs of proposed developments. It undermines public support for new housing when people see that inadequate infrastructure is provided to support it. If people are already concerned about access to the local school of their choice, the congestion on local roads, the waiting times at their local GP surgery or even more immediate and profound things such as the ability of the sewerage system to cope with increased development, which has been an issue in my constituency, and additional infrastructure is not provided when new housing is built, thereby exacerbating those problems, it undermines the support for new housing. If we address the infrastructure deficit more effectively, it will build support for the new housing that is so desperately needed to give people the chance to get a foot on the housing ladder.

This set of amendments would simply require local authorities, as well as assessing the benefits of proposed developments, to assess the costs. Those costs would include the infrastructure costs. This proposal would not prevent development, but it would require a proper assessment of the costs, which is not otherwise being done. There is a problem in that local authorities have a shared responsibility in this area. The local authorities that are granting planning permissions or making plans are not always the same authorities that are responsible for providing the elements of infrastructure, which are often county councils. Policy is not joined up in that respect. There have been repeated attempts through guidance and assurances to address infrastructure concerns, but they have not been adequate to meet local concerns. These amendments would again provide a reasonable balance in the system.

I hope that the Minister will consider my amendments favourably. If he is unable to accept them, I hope that he will at least say what he proposes to do to address the very legitimate concern on the part of local communities that if development must come, it should first be in accordance with neighbourhood plans and secondly be matched with suitable infrastructure to support it.

Brandon Lewis (Minster of State for Housing and Planning): I  welcome the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on ensuring that communities have a strong voice in planning. My right hon. Friend focused, in particular, on infrastructure. He is quite right to draw attention to the cost of development, so I thank him for doing so. It is right that new development should be supported by an appropriate level of infrastructure and that developers should provide support to put that in place. That is what the negotiations on section 106 and the community infrastructure levy are for. We would expect any significant infrastructure that would be needed to support a proposed new development to be a material consideration for the planning decision, and therefore covered in detail in planning reports for a local authority. We would therefore expect the costs associated with putting the necessary infrastructure in place to be covered.

I believe that the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs about neighbourhood plans are a clear indication of the strength of feeling that people have about ensuring that their voices are heard. I very much appreciate the intention of the amendment, as the Government place great importance on neighbourhood plans. However, I hope that I can convince him and other colleagues that these amendments are not necessary at this stage.

Neighbourhood plans give communities the power to shape the development of their area. When a neighbourhood plan is made, it becomes part of the development plan and attains the same weight in law as a local plan, as it forms the basis for decisions on planning applications. The law is clear: decisions should be made in accordance with the development plan, with material considerations taken into account. The national planning policy framework is also very clear. It states:

“Where a planning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted.”

That is well understood by local planning authorities.

I want to be clear that a “made” neighbourhood plan is a clear indication of a community’s vision for its local area, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) has outlined, and it should be respected as such. I would expect local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate to give due weight to neighbourhood plans as they progress towards adoption. The NPPF itself is clear that the more advanced the plan, the greater the weight that may be given. Communities have their say throughout the local and neighbourhood plan-making process. Indeed, neighbourhood have the ultimate say with their referendum. Their views must be considered when decisions are taken on applications. The Bill speeds up and simplifies that neighbourhood planning process, which underlined the importance we place on it.

The system is therefore already geared towards ensuring that communities’ views are taken into account, and local authorities must respect that. If communities are concerned that their plans are not being respected as they should be, the Secretary of State has powers to intervene. I can confirm that the Secretary of State will continue to consider intervention to recover certain appeals where there is a made or submitted neighbourhood plan. I can further confirm that I intend shortly to lay a revised ministerial statement extending and confirming the current recovery criterion for a further six months. During that period, we will continue to review the measures. I hope that my hon. Friends who have spoken tonight and others who are interested will work with us and feed into that period.