Local Plans (Public Consent)


10.31 am

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con):

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing the debate and on his interesting and thoughtful speech.

The question that we are discussing is not whether we need more houses; clearly we do. The continuing undersupply of houses not only disadvantages young people, who need somewhere to live, and makes houses relatively unaffordable, but is a risk to the economy, as the Governor of the Bank of England has made clear. For all those reasons, we need to preface everything we say with the recognition that more houses are needed.

The question instead is how those houses are to be provided and whether a top-down planning system will be enough to provide them-and in a way that takes the public with it. Perhaps a system based more on incentives would deliver the houses. My argument, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, is that we need to move to a system based more on incentives, turning our back fully on the top-down approach. We attempted to do that, in part, in the Localism Act 2011, and the principle that power should be given to local people and communities is surely the right one. My plea today is that we keep faith with that localism, because it can deliver the additional necessary housing.

I want to give one example: that of a small village in my constituency. On the edge of the South Downs national park and in beautiful countryside, it now faces the potential prospect of fracking and airport expansion, on top of the continuing pressure on housing. The parish as a whole has only 458 people, with 226 in the core village itself. For years, the village has seen speculative development applications as a threat and has resisted them.

Recently, however, the village sat down as part of its neighbourhood planning process and decided for itself-overwhelmingly, in a referendum-to provide for 50 new houses. That decision was taken by a village with a total population of 226, because villagers decided that they wanted more affordable houses. The number of new homes was not imposed, given to them or required-they chose it. Local people overwhelmingly endorsed the move.

That powerful process of neighbourhood planning can turn the incentives around, so that instead of local people confronting what they do not want the whole time and resisting development, they instead ask themselves what they do want and what is necessary for their children. The process has been shown to have worked. Kirdford was the second village in West Sussex to have passed a neighbourhood plan; Arundel was the first, but those two were among the earliest neighbourhood plans in the country to have gone through by referendum. That is a testament to that policy, to its power and to the Localism Act, the principles of which I support.

Localism, however, can be undermined. It is undermined when the Planning Inspectorate charges in, exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) so eloquently described, adhering to an outdated set of rules or acting under orders-probably a mix of the two-and decides to impose still higher numbers of houses, or houses in a place that local people have not chosen in their proposed neighbourhood plans. Furthermore, in doing so, the inspectorate completely undermines any local support for the development proposed.

People then ask, "Where is this localism that we were promised?" We were all giving up our time-volunteers in the case of neighbourhood plans drawn up by parish councils-and spending a huge amount of it consulting with local people about where housing should go, winning around public support, but then seeing the whole process undermined, or even blown up, by idiotic decisions from the Planning Inspectorate, rewarding greedy, speculative development applications.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP):

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many developers simply want to push as many houses on to sites as they can, for their own financial ends and irrespective of what that will mean to the community? Developers do so because they believe that they can get away with it.

Nick Herbert:

I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

I have two suggestions for the Minister. He is listening, and I am grateful that he came through my constituency last week, sweeping past the village of Kirdford, which I have described, in his large ministerial car-

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles):

I have tried to bite my tongue for a long time in the debate, but I feel the need to point out to my right hon. Friend that I was driving my own car, without a driver or a private secretary. I was on my way to Chichester. Furthermore, on the A3 on the way back I had a tyre blow-out; I had to change the tyre myself.

Nick Herbert:

The lesson to the Minister is clearly either to take public transport or to be driven around in an enormous ministerial car. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him for coming to my constituency, then to Chichester, to meet local people and to hear for himself about the problem.

My suggestions are, first, to strengthen the process of neighbourhood planning-to make it easier, not harder, for local communities, to give them more support and to make the process less bureaucratic. Secondly, we should tackle the overweening power of the Planning Inspectorate. The inspectorate is out of control and it is defying localism. People do not want orders from a quango in Bristol. If we are serious about localism, we must deal with that.

The Conservative manifesto stated:

"To give communities greater control over planning, we will abolish the power of planning inspectors to rewrite local plans."

My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde said that if the Planning Inspectorate was not given new marching orders, hon. Members might decide for themselves that those marching orders should be given. I propose amendments to the Infrastructure Bill to send a clear signal to the Planning Inspectorate that what it is doing is undermining localism and support for local housing, and that that must stop.

The full debate can be read here.