Localism in planning
Good morning, Mr Hollobone. I will try to keep my remarks reasonably brief, to allow my hon. Friends the opportunity to participate in this debate, but the number who wish to do so is evidence of the growing concern in our constituencies about planning matters and the need to ensure that we strike the right balance between providing housing and ensuring that the countryside can be protected and that we keep the promises that we made to local people. I am therefore grateful for securing this debate.
I apologise to my right hon. Friend for intervening so early, but I am also serving on a Joint Committee, to which I need to return. I just want to say how much I welcome his securing this debate and the fact that so many colleagues wish to take part. I have made it clear to the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House that the national policy planning framework is not working to protect the green belt. There is greenfield development in the green belt designated for my constituency at the behest of a planning inspector, rather than local people, which is evidence that our system is not working. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend is raising these issues today.
Order. Eleven Members have indicated that they wish to speak, and I am absolutely determined to do my best to ensure that those 11 people speak. It would greatly help the chances of those who want to speak if they do not intervene beforehand; otherwise we simply will not be able to get everybody in.
I understand the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt). Protected landscapes, including the green belt, are specifically singled out in the national framework to ensure that they are not subject to these pressures. My concern is for the wider countryside, which does not have such designation, yet he points out that there is concern in those protected areas, too. That is another reason why we need to reconsider the matter.
We agree that we need more housing. Houses have never been less affordable. The gap between incomes and house prices is very wide, and there is clearly a problem. There is clearly a need for more houses, given the rising population, changing lifestyles and so on. That much is not in dispute.
The new Government agreed to approach those issues by moving away from the top-down approach of setting housing targets, so the coalition agreement was explicit:
"We will rapidly abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils... In the longer term, we will radically reform the planning system to give neighbourhoods far more ability to determine the shape of the places in which their inhabitants live".
The regional spatial strategies have been abolished. The top-down target has nominally gone in the south-east, but a number of problems have arisen, despite what the coalition agreement promised.
First, district councils in my constituency, and I believe elsewhere, do not believe that the targets have really disappeared. There is considerable danger that because of the way the process has been set up-with a requirement to conduct a strategic housing market assessment that may not properly take into account the downturn that we have had-and other pressures, which I will address, what those councils are really being told is that they have little choice but to reimpose the target that we said we were taking away. That damages confidence and removes the freedom that local authorities should have to deliver housing.
The whole theory of the localist approach is that, if we move to a system of incentives and encourage responsibility from councils, they will plan for additional houses in a way that does not set up conflict. Indeed, in my own area, whereas 51,000 houses were allocated to the four district councils that cover my constituency under the south-east plan, the current proposed plans of the four councils suggest that they will build nearly 40,000 houses, which is well over three quarters of the target originally set by the previous Government.
We must reject the false dichotomy that there is either a highest housing number or zero houses, with my constituents or councils rejecting the prospect of any house building. The councils are not doing that; they are actually planning for a very responsible level of housing, but it is important that they do that by consent and can carry their communities with them, which is the principle that we set out. If the emerging plans that they published are overturned by the Planning Inspectorate, or if the councils set a higher number than they want to build because they fear that some plans will be overturned by the inspectorate, that freedom has effectively been taken away. So my first key point is that we must not chase the target that we said we would abolish. If we chase that target, we will undermine confidence in the system that we said we would set up.
Secondly, although planning authorities are required to assess housing needs in their area-it is right that they should be able to do so-it is important that they also weigh up the availability of infrastructure to support those housing needs. We have a serious infrastructure deficit in West Sussex. We have an inadequacy of water and real pressure on unprotected countryside, which is important for agricultural use. We have pressure on school places and rural roads. The system will be failing if district councils are not able to adjust their figure to reflect that and say, "This is what is realistically deliverable in our area." Again, district councils feel under huge pressure to adhere to the original high housing target with little regard to such infrastructure considerations, which should be material and allow councils to set a reasonable level of housing.
Thirdly-this is the real point that I wish to make-there is now a growing risk that we will return to the bad old days of planning by appeal, under which the plans put together by local authorities are effectively overturned by the inspectorate. More to the point, before plans are fully in place, the inspectorate might be allowed to uphold appeals from speculative developers that are charging into my constituency-I understand that they are all over the countryside-and putting in applications in the hope that, in the climate that has now been set, the inspectorate will uphold them. I believe that those developers are responding to a signal that has been sent to them.
My right hon. Friend probably knows the district of Uttlesford as well as he knows his own constituency. Does he not think it is particularly iniquitous if the Planning Inspectorate makes the kind of decisions to which he has just referred when the district plan is not in place, not because of the planning authority's idleness or unwillingness, but because it is being held up by waiting for confirmation from the highways authority or the Highways Agency?
I strongly agree. My right hon. Friend makes his point very well.
The dangers of returning to planning by appeal are multiple. First, such a return is founded on the mistaken belief that the way to get house building moving is to send some kind of signal through the system and the Planning Inspectorate that such speculative applications are to be rewarded. That is not the way to get house building moving. We need a correct analysis of the real reason for the slow rate of housing starts, which is the economic downturn. In so far as the rate is increasing again, that is due to the upturn in the economy.
I apologise to my right hon. Friend for not being able to stay for all this debate, as I warned him. The process that he describes is exactly what is happening in Gloucestershire. There is evidence that developers are trying to submit applications under the wire before the democratically approved joint core strategy can be implemented-again, not due to any laziness in local councils. Local politicians are trying to distinguish between real housing need and demand, whereas the inspectorate appears just to be backing demand, and in areas such as his and mine, demand is virtually insatiable.
I agree with every word my hon. Friend says; he describes the problem precisely.
The first mistake is to believe that sending a signal and using the inspectorate in that way to reward speculative applications will contribute to getting construction going. It will not, because what is happening frequently is that developers are simply land banking permissions. They are not necessarily building. When they choose to build, it will be when they think that they can make a return and when there is demand for the houses that they wish to sell. What they are doing at the moment in many cases, in my constituency and elsewhere, is taking an opportunity to obtain a permission where they have absolutely no intention to build immediately.
The system is rewarding those developers by having insufficient regard to permissions that have already been granted. That is the second key concern. Given how the rules are set up in relation to the five-year land supply, the calculations that local authorities are required to undertake mean that they cannot include swathes of existing permissions that they have allocated, which places completely unrealistic targets on them.
In one district council in my constituency-Horsham-a rate of house building is now being required that has never been achieved in the area, even in the boom years. It is good news for the developers, who will not be developing for years but will secure planning permissions on greenfield sites. By setting up a formula that fails to give weight to unbuilt planning permissions, many of which are on brownfield sites, we are effectively moving not to the brownfield-first site policy that we should have but to a greenfield-first policy. That is an environmental disaster.
One problem on the Isle of Wight-and, I have no doubt, elsewhere-is that local people cannot afford housing because people from overseas come to the island.
More affordable housing is clearly needed, and there is strong support in local areas for that housing to be provided, to maintain the character of villages and ensure that communities remain strong. No one disagrees that more housing is needed, particularly more affordable housing, but as the policy is constructed with a five-year land supply requirement that pays insufficient attention to unbuilt planning permission and is effectively a greenfield-first policy, it will not deliver the affordable housing needed; it will simply enable developers to build their balance sheets.
There is disagreement about the number of unbuilt planning permissions nationally; the Minister has had an exchange about it. It would be helpful to have some up-to-date, reliable national figures. According to the four district councils covering my constituency and beyond, the total number of unbuilt planning permissions granted is well over 16,000 and the number of houses proposed to be built is 39,000. The number of unbuilt planning permissions granted is getting on for half the number of houses wanted, yet the councils are being told that those unbuilt permissions cannot really be taken into account when they set the number. That is the problem.
The practical effect of the policy is damaging to a principle that I know that the Minister adheres to strongly, as do I-neighbourhood planning underlying the publication of local plans. That was the most potent feature of the Localism Act 2011: neighbourhoods would be given the responsibility and incentives to plan for their own futures. In my constituency, some parish councils have stuck their necks out to prepare responsible neighbourhood plans, saying what amount of housing they can take. Some are taking an amount that they would not have dreamed of, and are now feeling considerably undermined. I cannot overstate how seriously I take that.
In my constituency, the parish councillors-good people-are all volunteers who have taken a considerable amount of local effort and, in some cases, risk to promote the plans, while speculative applications are coming in that are being granted either because the district council wants to grant them or, in many cases, because it fears that they will be upheld by the inspectorate. Such speculative applications are often completely contrary to what is wanted in the parishes under the neighbourhood plan. The consequence is that faith in the neighbourhood planning process, which could be so powerful and will deliver the local and affordable housing that we need, is in danger of draining away.
I have just forwarded to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, copying the Minister, a letter from three chairs of parish councils in my constituency. They specifically asked me to draw the letter to Ministers' attention. It says:
"Neighbourhood planning should encourage partnership working between parishes and districts. In truth, it is damaging the very fabric of these important tiers of local government. We also run the risk of damaging the trust of local people who have been allowed by government, and encouraged by parish councils, to engage in the neighbourhood planning process. To have their contribution disregarded will be damaging at resident, parish and district levels."
Those are not party political elected councillors; they are volunteers of no party who are committed to the neighbourhood planning process, and they feel that it is being chucked back at them by the actions of the planning inspector.
I will conclude by suggesting some remedies, so that I do not simply criticise what is happening and because I believe that the current situation is retrievable. It is not so radical a suggestion to abolish the Planning Inspectorate entirely. The Conservatives used to believe that we would not hand decisions to quangos-indeed, that we would get rid of quangos. I note that the Conservative party manifesto at the election, entitled "Invitation to Join the Government of Britain"-an invitation that I have now declined-says:
"To give communities greater control over planning, we will abolish the power of planning inspectors to rewrite local plans".
There it is. We set it out in those terms. I accept that that did not find its way into the coalition agreement, but that is the promise that this party made to local people, yet we are now effectively allowing the inspectorate to do exactly that.
We could also extend the moratorium on speculative applications as plans emerge. That approach is not necessarily the right way to go, as it would mean that there would be no way to incentivise areas that are not planning responsibly to continue.
I have three suggestions that I believe the Minister could follow, even if we are to continue reneging on our manifesto promise. First, we must give proper weight to emerging plans, not just pay lip service to them or produce written answers and say publicly that weight is being given to them. In particular, where applications are not supported by parish and district councils, the inspectorate should be required to take notice of that, yet it is doing exactly the opposite at the moment. That could be done by executive decision, and a signal could be sent from the centre.
An appeal decision on a wind farm has just come through, following the new guidance and a big policy change, but one of the points made by the Planning Inspectorate was:
"National policy has not been changed by the recent Ministerial Statements".
Surely, therefore, we must go slightly further than my right hon. Friend's first point might suggest.
I saw the response that my hon. Friend refers to, and I am sure that it will have raised the eyebrows of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who was clear about the signal he intended to send. Further clarification is now necessary. We need an unambiguous and published signal to be sent about the weight to be given to the emerging plans.
Secondly, we need a brownfield-first policy, not a greenfield-first policy, which means clarifying the issue of deliverability set out in the national policy framework. Unused permissions should not be discounted simply because developers say, "Oh, well, we can't build there". That should not be the definition of deliverability, entirely to suit the developers. Of course they will say that, because that is how they can secure planning permission for their greenfield sites. We must have a more intelligent approach.
Thirdly, we need to take proper regard of infrastructure, and guidance due to be published by the Government provides the opportunity to do so. The Minister kindly suggested that I should go to see Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, who has been responsible for drawing up the guidance, after I tabled an amendment to the Growth and Infrastructure Bill and made my points about the inadequacy of infrastructure. I accept that there is no impropriety and that Lord Taylor has properly registered his interests with the authorities, but I am concerned that not only is he producing the guidance on infrastructure, but he is a director of a company that is seeking to build a new town in my constituency. In doing so, that company is trying to overturn the local plan, which has just been produced by Mid Sussex district council. If we believe in localism, and having said that local authorities were to have the ability to set their own housing numbers and be in charge, we cannot allow people simultaneously to try to overturn those plans and be involved in the publication of guidance that is meant to reinforce localism. The system is making a serious mistake if it is permitting that.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that his proposals would provide an opportunity for people who are able to purchase only a house of a certain cost, in other words affordable housing? Does he feel that a portion of land should be set aside within a development, so that some land is processed for development now and some land is banked? We have that in Northern Ireland, and I want to see what he thinks.
That is an interesting suggestion. So far as further policy development is concerned, we should look at what measures can be taken to prevent land banking and at more radical reform of the planning system, which is undoubtedly constraining supply in a way that drives up prices. In the meantime, we need to make the system of localism that we promised work.
In my constituency, one chief executive of a district council, whom I will not name, told a group of parish councillors who were discussing with him their proposed neighbourhood plan, "Localism is dead." That is the message that people on the ground are beginning to receive. When we explicitly promised localism not only in the Conservative manifesto but in the coalition agreement, when we have just passed a Localism Act, when we have told people that they will be in charge in their local communities and when we have put on them the responsibility for planning sensibly, we must uphold their ability to do so. Allowing a quango, through the back door, to reimpose the top-down housing targets that we said we would abolish is damaging to the process of localism, to public trust and, if we persist, to the Government themselves.
I am a passionate believer in localism. I want to be able to go out and defend the policy. It could be made to work, but that first requires acceptance that it is going wrong.
Before I call the next speaker, John Mann, I thank Nick Herbert for his contribution. Owing to the level of interest in the debate, the Chairman of Ways and Means has given me permission to impose a three-minute time limit. I know that that is short, but it will mean that everyone gets in if there are no interventions. The running order that I propose is as follows: John Mann, Nicholas Soames, Annette Brooke, Caroline Nokes, Stuart Andrew, Bob Neill, Penny Mordaunt, Andrew Bingham, Zac Goldsmith, Chris White, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and John Howell. All should be able to get in. The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman has kindly agreed to limit her remarks to 10 minutes, which will give the Minister slightly longer-perhaps with interventions at that stage-to respond to any residual concerns. I hope that that is acceptable to everyone.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I have cut my speech accordingly. It is safe to say, and let it ring from every single rooftop tonight, "Localism is dead!", and the Conservative party admits it. We have heard an excellent speech, demonstrating the absolute betrayal of the Conservative party manifesto and of local communities, and a shift to the centre by the Government, the Minister and, in particular, his predecessor, who is now the Chairman of the Conservative party. That is in spite of the warnings of people such as myself about the national planning guidelines.
I have a few questions for the Minister-he will need his pen-which I am sure he will want to answer. Will he endorse my early-day motion 428, tabled today, on UK Coal? UK Coal is the largest landowner of brownfield sites throughout the country. I would be happy to have 10,000 houses on the site of Harworth colliery-destroyed by the regional spatial strategy and the inability to have flexibility. Will he endorse that approach?
Is it possible, where the regional spatial strategy has imposed housing targets on a local district council's core strategy, for a local council now to reduce those targets? Is it possible for a local district council with targets set-even if it kept them-to redistribute those targets between different communities, in order to shift more to the brownfield sites and away from the greenfield and green belt sites?
A wind farm application was defeated unanimously in recent months in the local council, because it was opposed by all local residents-I declare a vested interest, I am one of those residents-but it was resubmitted this week. What will happen when the council turns it down again? Will the developer win on appeal, after a second unanimous decision by a local authority backing its local population?
The community infrastructure levy is a tax on development-will the Minister remove this tax on self-build housing and on tiny developments to allow economic regeneration at the micro-level by small builders, family builders and young couples? The affordable housing levy means a tax in Hertfordshire of £186,000 per property for new properties. Will the Minister remove this new taxation for single developments and, I suggest, small developments of perhaps three to five? The tax was brought in by the national planning guidance and did not exist before-
I am pleased to support my parliamentary neighbour and close working friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), on his passionately argued speech this morning. In view of the time constraints, I say for the record that he did not make a single point that I am not profoundly in agreement with and wholly support. I was in the Chamber when you had your debate on such matters, Mr Hollobone, and many of the same issues have been raised today.
My hon. Friend the Minister has been extremely helpful and encouraging to Mid Sussex district council, taking the trouble to come down to see and talk to it. Will he acknowledge in detail the real quandary that district councils now find themselves in? In good faith, taking part in and using the values and ethos of the localism system, they find themselves constantly being hung out to dry. Frankly, it will shortly amount to a credibility question throughout the country.
Will the Minister accept that West Sussex county council's proposed announcement today or tomorrow of its support for a second runway at Gatwick will put further pressure on mid-Sussex district with an almost unsupportable torrent of applications? Will he see what he can do to give guidance to the Planning Inspectorate so that full weight is placed on the views of local authorities who have a clearly emerging plan when applications are brought to its attention?
I want to raise one more point with my hon. Friend. The process is susceptible to well-funded lobbyists and developers promoting pet projects that local people believe are out of all proportion to what they want in their community. An example of that in mid-Sussex is the wholly unsuitable Mayfield new town scheme on a greenfield site, despite the proposal having been reviewed and rejected when preparing the district plan and despite overwhelming public criticism.
Will the Minister take very seriously the points made by my right hon. Friend-in his usual way, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) also made a powerful point-about the credibility of the scheme to which we gave our name. We campaigned vigorously and local people signed up to it. They supported our party on the basis that it would be a scheme that we would undertake. I am afraid that we are falling woefully short of that target and ambition. I urge the Minister to support the views of my right hon. Friend.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). I agree with much of what he said. We are looking at aims that should be complementary, but are contradictory at the moment: protecting the countryside and green spaces, and providing much-needed housing through local decision making. Given the time constraints, I will give a brief report.
The good points that have scored highly for the coalition Government include scrapping the regional top-down spatial strategies, listening on the national planning policy framework, introducing brownfield-first, having three pillars of sustainability, and in theory not letting economic growth trump protection for the green belt, landscapes and urban green spaces. I am also keen on neighbourhood plans, which score high marks. However, the downside is that the numbers from the regional spatial strategies are retained. Core strategies are out of kilter timewise with neighbourhood plans. Local people should be able to say, "We don't want the houses there. We know we need them. We want them here." But there is not time. Inspectors are overturning.
It is important to know when we will get plan guidance and whether there will be consultation. Five-year plans must put brownfield sites first and include undeveloped sites with planning permission, and windfall developments. We want need, not demand. Areas for improvement include more social housing. More publicly owned land should be released and we should work proactively to bring more brownfield land forward and to stop interference with local democracy. Result: can do better.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on a fantastic opening speech. I cannot disagree with a single word of it. I served for 12 years on Test Valley borough council and I commend anyone to serve an apprenticeship on a local planning authority, which can show how vexed the world of planning and politics can be.
I want to make some basic points as briefly as I can. The first is about a brownfield-first policy. In Romsey, we have waited since 1983 for the brewery site, the only major brownfield site in the town, to be developed. At last, there is some real progress, but it has taken 30 years. There must be a far more robust mechanism than the local authority considering compulsory purchase time and again to try to bring it forward, at which point the developer simply suggests more enthusiastically that he was going to build something. It has taken 30 years to get the site developed while greenfield sites on the edge of the town and in surrounding parts of the borough come under immense pressure.
The five-year land supply is incredibly important. In Test Valley borough, developers have competed against one another at appeal to prove that for some reason or other their site will be developable but their competitor's site will not. At the moment, we have the spectacle of a developer competing against himself to prove that site No. 1, for which planning permission was granted on appeal, needless to say, is not developable so he is bringing forward another one. There is no guarantee that either site will be built on until prices are right and the developer believes he will maximise his profit, so there is an ever-growing land bank. My right hon. Friend may have mentioned that planning permission has been granted for 1 million houses throughout the country, but they are not being built. We must find ways to encourage developers to build on sites with existing planning permission.
The problem is not restricted to rural areas. In Bassett in Southampton, there is no town or parish council, but just a city council and residents' associations, which work hard to introduce neighbourhood planning. My constituent, Jean Wawman, recently wrote to me saying that developers constantly have the upper hand, and that article 4 directions to control houses in multiple occupation are clunky, cumbersome, time-consuming, and prevent local people from having real control over the character of their neighbourhoods.
Finally-I have only 30 seconds-there is no green belt in Hampshire, save for a small corner in the south-west, which is preventing the spread of the Bournemouth conurbation, which is not even in the same county. In my constituency, greenfield sites without the additional protection of being green belt invariably come under pressure for development, particularly for Traveller sites. That is a huge concern in villages such as Timsbury.
I urge the Minister to think again. There is no such thing in the Test valley as ordinary countryside. It is all extraordinary and deserves protection.
Over the past 10 or 20 years, every part of my constituency has been affected by overdevelopment. The old mills and industrial sites have been replaced with massive new housing, which has put huge pressure and strain on the local infrastructure. Our roads are congested and our schools are bursting. We now have a massive issue in the Guiseley area, where the council is desperately trying to find places for schoolchildren for the coming year.
Local anger and frustration with the local planning system cannot be overstated. Too many people believe that planning is something that happens to them, and when localism came in there was a feeling of hope that they would be able to have some input. Local communities' ability to develop neighbourhood plans is welcome, and I am fortunate that in my constituency rafts of people have come together to try to face the challenges head on and to take advantage of the opportunities to shape the future of their towns and villages. In Aireborough, Jennifer Kirby is leading a group that has provided workshops and involved children in the future that they want for their town. Parish councils in Horsforth and Rawdon are engaging actively with residents and their views.
The feedback I am receiving is united. People complain that despite their work, the local authority's five-year land supply supersedes everything they are doing. It has sent applications for thousands of new houses to the inspector for approval. If that plan did not have to be approved by the inspector, I wonder what the real figure would be. I suggest that it would probably be far more realistic.
The people I speak to are anxious about the green belt in our area. An urban constituency such as mine values its green belt, which helps us to identify our separate towns and villages. We are in danger of creating urban sprawl. We have heard from other hon. Members that developers are going to the inspector, and that is happening in my constituency. Developers have taken applications for some of our precious green areas to the inspector, and I hope that they will be turned down so that local people have time to determine where houses should be.
One parish councillor said to me that he is worried that nothing decided at parish level can change the decision made by those at unitary level, who themselves are hidebound by central Government housing targets. We need to address the problem urgently, because local people are rightly getting angry. Let us give local people the real power that we promised. Let us stop the developers thinking that they can do what they like, and let us seriously look at abolishing the inspectorate, so that we can even the playing field and tip planning towards having far more localism.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate? In relation to our history, he and I accepted an invitation at the same time, and my little role in the invitation was to be a part-author in the national planning policy framework. I pay tribute to the preliminary work that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) did on that.
I understand the strength of feeling on the issue. After my 24 years or so in local government before I came into this place, I am very conscious that ever since 1947, planning has been about striking a balance. We are absolutely right to cherish and protect valued landscape. Equally, for a party and Government who believe in aspiration, one of the most significant aspirations is to enable young people and future generations in this country to have homes that they can afford. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs that those things can be reconciled, and we need to see how best we can do that.
It is worth pointing out that from the dirigiste and centralised situation that we inherited, much progress has been made. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) about the significant advances that I am proud we were able to make with the national planning policy framework. We also need to bear in mind that other issues are already taken on board, including the question of materiality and the views of district councils. They are significant, and I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It is worth saying, of course, that it has been long-established planning law that decisions are taken according to all material considerations, and emerging plans can and should be a material consideration. What we may need to do-I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is working on this-is ensure greater consistency in the application of the policy by the Planning Inspectorate. I pay tribute to his work on strengthening the quality control in that regard. It is an important point that we need to deal with.
I wish to make another short point relating to the protection of green land and to brownfield-first. I note that the core planning principles in the NPPF refer specifically to using
"land of lesser environmental value"
and encouraging the use of brownfield land. On the question of housing supply and the figures relating to the five-year deliverable supplies, it is worth pointing out that footnote 11 to paragraph 47 of the NPPF specifically states:
"Sites with planning permission should be considered deliverable until permission expires, unless there is clear evidence that schemes will not be implemented within five years"
Perhaps my error was not to have that put in bold rather than in a footnote-I will own up to that-but we need to ensure that it is fully taken on board by decision makers. However, the provision is there for that to be achieved. We need consistency of approach, and finally, we must deal with the issue of delay by statutory consultees, which was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst). He is not unique in considering that, and I know that the Minister is already working on that case.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing this timely debate. I want briefly to give an example, make a request of the Minister, and put forward a suggestion.
The example I want to give is of a dementia care home, which was a high-rise building due to be built in my constituency on an undeveloped beach and unsurprisingly, also on a floodplain. It was an awful design, and in fact, the developer had to put in a subsequent application, because it had not realised that dementia patients might need nursing care and there was no provision for any nurses. The application reassured us that we could be relaxed about the flooding issue because-I am not making this up-it was a high-rise building, and therefore, in case of flooding, residents would be able to reach higher ground. The application was dismissed locally but overturned by the inspectorate. I give that example not only because it shows how the local voice has not been listened to, but to illustrate that this is about both the quality of services in our communities and the quality of the built environment.
The request I make of the Minister is that in his summing up, he emphasise how we can strengthen the local voice and give communities ownership of the quality of life that they want for their communities. In particular, that should happen through local plans, especially in communities such as mine, which do not have a great deal of capacity to develop such plans.
Finally, I suggest that where we have third parties, such as the Environment Agency, which is forming a view on such schemes and dismissing them as reckless and bonkers, we give some publicity to those decisions-there is definitely a gap in the market for "www.EAsaysno.com". We should consider other ways in which we can provide the potential buyers of homes or care home places with information about what they are taking on; for example, whether they are built on floodplains. The more we can influence developers to be much more responsible and raise the quality of what they are proposing for our communities, the better. Transparency with regard to the Environment Agency and other organisations would go a long way towards doing that.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), I spent 12 years on the local council. For some of that time I sat on the planning committee, so I have some knowledge of the way in which the planning system has worked, and I, too, am concerned about recent events. In the three minutes available to me, I shall try to crash through a few of the points that I wish to make.
In the High Peak in recent weeks, we have seen significant applications for development on greenfield sites. They have been refused by the local development control committee on High Peak borough council. Those decisions have been met with great approval and, in some cases, relief by local residents. However, they have then been overturned by the Planning Inspectorate. I want to be clear: neither I nor my residents in High Peak are nimbys. We are aware that there is some need for housing, and nobody would dispute that, but seeing such decisions being made by local councils and then overturned by the Planning Inspectorate is not what the process should be about. It completely devalues the faith that people have in the planning system.
I want to highlight a particular area called Harpur Hill on the outskirts of Buxton. Harpur Hill has approximately 900 to 1,000 houses, and applications are swirling around to more or less double the size of that small area. The residents association, which is headed up by a couple of my constituents, Ken Greenway and Pam Reddy, is really concerned. It sees the applications being refused, and then granted by the Planning Inspectorate, and it is wondering how some sense of proportion can be introduced. It is not saying "No houses", it just wants a proportionate number of houses in the area, because the infrastructure cannot cope with those huge numbers.
What can we do about the issue? My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) made some excellent suggestions, and I would agree with all of them, but we have a gap, which is not being helped with in High Peak. I grant that the local council has delayed the introduction of its local plan-wrongly, in my view-and a window of opportunity has been created. Developers are jumping through that window with great enthusiasm. They are putting in speculative applications for greenfield sites that are being granted by the inspectorate. That is creating what many people see as a free-for-all in the High Peak. The residents association in Harpur Hill has seen that going off, and it is concerned that the problem will come knocking on its door.
I am asking for a sense of proportion, which is what a local plan should bring, using local people and local councillors. However, it is not there in High Peak, and developers are making the best of that. Giving parish councils more say is an excellent idea. In Chapel-en-le-Frith, the parish council has now said that it will object to all applications because it is the only voice it has, even though it is not being listened to. I would like the Minister to give me some assurance that I can go back to my residents and say, "Yes, we are listening, we do understand this." The way it is at the moment, it is just not working. The High Peak is a fantastically beautiful area and I can understand that people want to live there, but at the moment it seems to be open season on development on greenfield sites, which I do not think is right.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate. I agree with everything that he said in his excellent speech, and I want to take the opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Minister for listening to concerns raised by many colleagues about proposals to reform the laws on permitted development. It would have been absolutely wrong for the Government to remove people's right to object to plans that would have an impact on their homes, and I am very pleased that he managed to find an alternative that would both encourage non-contentious extensions and preserve the all-important right to object. I wanted to put that on the record.
I join the debate today because I fear that we are losing sight of the huge emphasis that many of us in Parliament placed on localism before the election. Local authorities have been stripped of authority over such a long time and to such an extent that more often than not, even on absolutely local issues, they are simply overruled by the centre. I recognise that there has been some rowing back on that since the election. As has been said, there is great potential in neighbourhood plans, for instance. However, we cannot say with any real conviction that our planning system is genuinely local, despite the noises that we all made to our constituents before the election.
I know that the Minister will make the point that there is a real and urgent need for new homes, and that is obviously right-I do not think that anyone will argue with that-but before we give up for ever our precious green spaces, I would simply encourage him to acknowledge that the reason why we are not seeing new homes is not the planning system. Vast tracts of land are available for development but lying idle. There are 250,000 plots in the south-east alone. That is in addition to 31,000 acres of brownfield land. All could be developed now. It is worth pointing out also that roughly 90% of applications are successful; they go through. The problem is not a lack of permissions. It is more likely to be, as we have heard, a lack of access to finance. Therefore, even if we were simply to rip up the planning system, we probably would not see a net increase in development. We would simply see more development in the wrong places-in the most unneighbourly places.
As a rule, it must make sense to have a strong brownfield-first approach, and that should be crystal clear in planning law. We might even want to look at the US, where there is a tax bias in favour of developing brownfield sites and against developing greenfield sites. That is the case in a country that is far less compressed than our own.
It is also worth looking at empty homes. We do not know how many empty homes there are in this country-the figures are so unreliable-but some people put the figure at about 1 million. Clearly, that is an area where we should be making more inroads.
I want to finish by commenting on the national Planning Inspectorate and echoing the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs. If I were asked to design a body with the specific goal of alienating and enraging communities, I do not think I could do better. It is a remote, virtually invisible, unelected body that simply tramples over local wishes and opinion. Even where local people are absolutely united and backed up by their councillors, they are still routinely overruled. I am about to run out of time. I will simply say that if there is to be any point at all in being a local authority councillor, we have to do away with that organisation.
I am grateful to you, Mr Hollobone, not least because I intended only to intervene and you very kindly put me down to speak.
I agree very much with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, not least about abolition of the Planning Inspectorate, which seems to be one of the biggest excuses that I have come across in my term as a Member. Currently, Warwick district council is consulting on a proposed local plan, which has met with widespread disapproval from local residents, and for valid reasons-whether pollution, gridlock or infrastructure-that need to be taken into account. I appreciate that planning is difficult, but we need to engage more with our local residents on planning and collaborate with them and local parishes and town councils to ensure that they feel ownership of a plan in the end.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) has just mentioned the real and urgent need for new homes, but very few people in my constituency consider that there is a real and urgent need for so many homes. If we are not careful, words such as "localism" will be viewed with very little confidence indeed. We need to change things significantly and soon; otherwise the system will not have the confidence certainly of my constituents.
I am very grateful to you, Mr Hollobone, for allowing me to speak, especially as I, too, had only hoped to intervene. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate. I agree wholeheartedly with his comments that the emerging local plans should be given more weight by the inspectorate.
I have a particularly difficult constituency in terms of planning: 80% of it is an area of outstanding natural beauty; I have 10 historic market towns that are absolute gems-if there were a listed town status, all 10 would qualify-and I have the highest number of listed houses as a proportion of the housing stock of anywhere outside London. I therefore want to make three specific points to my hon. Friend the Minister.
First, I did praise the national planning policy framework when it came out, but I had one specific reservation, which has come back to bite our communities. As the Minister knows, one case in my constituency is now to be reviewed in the courts. It concerns the 20% historical under-provision. This is grossly unfair. It is quite reasonable to have a five-year land bank, but my council has a very good record of bringing forward developments. It has a very good new homes bonus rate. To impose an additional 20%, on top of the five-year land supply, is completely unreasonable and unsustainable. If we are not careful, we will lose those 10 historic market towns-we will lose those little gems that we have in this country.
Secondly, we must have a mechanism by which infrastructure is provided before large-scale developments are built. There is a lot of sewage flooding in my constituency. Thames Water's performance in my constituency is woeful. We had a case in which sewage flooded an existing community, and because the system could not put sufficient weight on Thames Water's representations, another 150 houses were given permission right next to where there was already sewage flooding.
My third point relates to solar farms. We have been assailed in the Cotswolds by applications for solar farms recently. I do not object to that necessarily, although there is no guidance to say what the impact should be on an area of outstanding natural beauty. Suffice it to say that there is no mechanism in the planning system for the community to benefit from these solar farms. They would be classed as large developments if they were housing developments. They are between 20 and 50 acres and involve many millions of pounds for the developer. If it were a residential development, the local community would get considerable benefit through the infrastructure levy, yet there is no such mechanism in relation to solar farms.
I therefore say this to the Minister. Let localism work. Let the local councils decide where to put these houses. In the Cotswolds, the number of permissions granted is now three times the historical 10-year rate. That is unacceptable and will lead to the loss of those historic communities in the Cotswolds.
Last but certainly not least-John Howell.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow, if somewhat distantly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). There was much in his speech with which I agree.
I have in my constituency the town of Thame, which has recently completed a neighbourhood plan. During completion of that neighbourhood plan, which took a year and a bit to come to fruition, the council's district plan was the subject of an examination in public under the old rules, under which the inspector could have interfered in where the housing went in Thame, but he did not. He said that he would interfere in where the housing went in Wallingford, which had no neighbourhood plan, but because Thame had an embryonic neighbourhood plan-an emerging plan-he would not determine where the housing would go; he would leave that to the people of Thame to determine during the production of their plan.
I think that that is a clear model for how the inspectorate should take into account emerging plans. It has set a very good precedent and one that I urge the Minister to get the inspectorate to follow. I remember from my days as a mere Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department that we frequently had to call in the Planning Inspectorate to stress the point of consistency in how it approached taking plans into account.
There is no excuse for a district council not having a local plan. It is a great shame that we could not have abolished the regional spatial strategies on day one of coming into office. We could not do that for a number of legal reasons: the challenges that it would have involved. It has taken quite a long time to get, on a rolling basis, the abolition of those regional plans. Nevertheless, councils that have looked at this have taken into account where the thing is going and have gone back, where they have had time, to look at the housing numbers. In many cases, they have found that the housing numbers now exceed those that were originally in the regional spatial strategy, but that is for them to decide.
The one thing that we have skirted around in this debate is not the housing targets, but the need for a robust five-year land supply. If we are going to say, "We have this number of houses to provide," we need to show the mechanism by which we are going to provide it. By insisting on a robust five-year land supply, we should be able to do that. Neighbourhood plans have to be in general conformity with the district council's plan, and that includes the five-year land supply, so there should be no difference at all between the two. There should be a great overlap between the two forms-
I am rather concerned about this five-year provision in a country in which we are cutting migration. That means a significant reduction-a significant lowering-in demand.
I understand my hon. Friend's point, but in some ways it is irrelevant. That is an issue for district councils to take into account.
Thank you all. Everyone has been exceptionally well behaved, and as a result, we can relax the no-interventions rule. The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman has agreed to keep her remarks to 10 minutes, so there will be plenty of time for the Minister to make his remarks and for hon. Members to come back, if they wish.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). He serves a beautiful constituency and he spoke passionately and in an informed way on behalf of his constituents. I agree with much of what he said, and I do not know whether that is a greater worry for him or for me-we shall see. I almost feel guilty for intruding on the Minister's misery, because his own side appears to be doing a very effective job in opposing his policies. Nevertheless, I want to share with him my concerns about the move away from localism and echo some of the points made eloquently by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Everyone spoke strongly and powerfully on behalf of their communities.
As we heard from hon. Members, localism was a key Conservative pledge during the 2010 election, and that was apparent in the early months of the coalition Government. When the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government introduced the Localism Bill in 2010, he claimed to be
"getting out of the way and letting councils and communities run their own affairs"
in order to
"restore civic pride, democratic accountability and economic growth-and build a stronger, fairer Britain."
Nowhere was the commitment to localism more fervent than in planning policy. The Conservative pre-election green paper, "Open Source Planning", exemplified the localist approach, but three years, on a gigantic U-turn has taken place. The NPPF and the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, along with reams of secondary legislation and vicious local authority cuts, have completely torn apart the Government's promise to instil localism in the planning system. Almost a year and a half on from the introduction of the NPPF, the full consequences of the Government's approach are starting to become clear.
In March, a Local Government Information Unit research paper concluded that, far from putting people at the centre of planning, the NPPF is at
"risk of undermining localism in planning".
The latest planning application statistics, released by the Department for Communities and Local Government, show barely any change in the number of approvals or the speed of decision making since the implementation of the NPPF.
May I remind the hon. Lady that when the NPPF was introduced, her party criticised it and she advocated the retention of regional spatial strategies and targets? Is that still Opposition policy?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We did not oppose the NPPF and I certainly did not argue for the retention of the regional spatial strategies. I must put that on the record.
In many places, planning criteria have worsened.
If there had not been a change in Government, a new town, which was not supported by any democratically elected person in any council, would be on its way by now in a beautiful village in Dorset. We have moved on from those top-down regional spatial strategies.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention, because, as she will hear in a moment, the Opposition are demonstrating a strong commitment to localism, which I am sure that she would want to applaud. Popular planning policies, such as brownfield-first, have been undermined by the NPPF-a point we heard hon. Members make today. Six months on from the introduction of the NPPF, any remaining claim the Secretary of State had to being a localist Secretary of State was exposed by the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, in which he mentions himself no fewer than 158 times. The 2013 Act, which the Campaign to Protect Rural England states
"marks a dramatic shift away from the Government's commitment to localism",
includes powers that allow the Secretary of State, from October, to designate a local planning authority as failing and to strip it of its planning powers, bypassing the local community in deciding planning applications. The Conservative-led Local Government Association said that that
"represents a blow to local democracy, by taking authority away from democratically accountable and locally elected councillors and placing it instead with the Planning Inspectorate"-
a body that has been the object of ridicule for hon. Members today. The LGA goes on to say that the legislation could prove
"counterproductive in terms of stimulating growth, since the removal of local decision making risks seriously denting trust at the local level. This could mean some communities are likely to be increasingly reluctant to accept new development in their areas."
The Planning Minister however was not done. In case anyone, anywhere, still thought that the Government's localist promise held any meaning, he turned his attention to stripping local people of their right to have a say on the high streets at the heart of their communities.
The Government's most recent move-brought in by the back door without any parliamentary debate whatsoever-temporarily allows shops to be converted into payday lenders, bookmakers or fast food shops, without any say for the local community. That is the exact opposite of what the vast majority of the public want. Polling shows that 76% of people would support the Government giving new powers to local councils to help them shape the high street in line with the wishes of the community. Can the Minister explain how his policy, which is the opposite of that, does not remove powers from local people?
I am interested in and intrigued by the hon. Lady's new-found localism. When her party was in power-for 13 years-it had planning at the remotest regional level. Having found localism, if she, unfortunately, came into Government, what would her party do specifically to ensure that local authorities had greater powers than they have now?
I will come on to specific things that a Labour Government would do in a moment. We are arguing very strongly that local people now have little say in what happens to their high streets. Is the Minister still arguing that local authorities should use article 4 directions to get round his new policy?
I shall now answer the question of the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) about what a Labour Government would do specifically to give powers to local communities.In May this year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) pledged that a future Labour Government would ensure that local people and councils have greater powers to stop the proliferation of certain types of unwanted shops or premises on their high streets, thereby showing that Labour is the party of true localism. That is the opposite of what we are now seeing under this Government, who are taking powers away from local communities, and the same is happening with neighbourhood planning. We want to build on neighbourhood planning, integrating it more clearly into the planning system and building on the success of places such as Thame in Oxfordshire, where 775 new homes have been planned for. We would like to see such success mirrored elsewhere. If we are to deliver the number of houses that we so desperately need, it is important that we work strongly with communities to gain their consent.
Our approach is a strongly localist one. We want to work with local communities to deliver growth and development, and the Minister could do worse than listen to his colleagues this morning.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Hollobone.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing this important debate. He, as everyone here would attest, is one of the most effective campaigners in modern politics. There is probably no one to whom we owe more gratitude for the fact that we still have sterling rather than the euro, and no one who has more responsibility for the introduction of directly elected and locally accountable police commissioners. Furthermore, the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill through Parliament just last night owes as much to him as to any other Member.
You can probably understand, Mr Hollobone, why it makes me a little nervous, therefore, that my right hon. Friend is now turning his sights on me and my portfolio, which is planning. If I were asked to rate my chances against him, I am not sure whether I would fancy my odds, but I will try to persuade him that he need not turn his sights on me or on our planning reforms, because although the reforms are clearly a work in progress and it is only a short time since the Localism Act 2011 was enacted and the national planning policy framework was brought into force, early signs are positive and it is worth being a little patient before rushing to conclusions.
I want to engage with all the points raised as best I can in the time available, but I will start with what I think is the big argument: what does localism mean? I want briefly to take everyone away from the question of meeting housing need, which seems to be the particularly vexed issue that taxes us today, to the other needs that we all recognise human beings and families have, and which in many cases local authorities have a responsibility to provide. There is the need for schooling. There is the need for environmental management for waste collection. There is the need for care for vulnerable children and adults. We all accept, respect and welcome the fact that local authorities have responsibility for deciding how to meet those needs, and in none of those cases do we think they should have the ability not to meet them. Localism means control over how the fundamental needs of the people who elect the authorities and reside in their communities are met; it is not about deciding whether the needs will be met.
We all must be clear about our corporate, collective failure, as a society, over not five or 15 years, or over the lifetime of the previous Government, but over several decades. We have failed to meet the legitimate housing needs of our population.
Does the Minister believe that homes for local people are more important than homes for people from afar?
I certainly think that in every local community we want, first and foremost, to provide housing for local people. However, in response to my hon. Friend's question and to the points he raised in his previous interventions, it is not the case that our housing need chiefly derives from the levels of immigration over the past decade, of which I am as critical as he. Immigration explains only about 40% of the formation of new households; the remainder is explained by the fact that we are all getting older and not dying as quickly as we used to. I come from a family that has four generations in it, as do many right hon. and hon. Members, but that was not common 30 years ago. Now, people in their 80s and 90s are much more common to all of us than they were when we were growing up, and they all need houses.
We have failed as a society and as a country to meet the need, and the Localism Act and the national planning policy framework make it clear that every local authority has a duty, first and foremost, to meet objectively assessed housing need. We do not allow local authorities to determine whether they will provide primary and secondary school places, or social care for vulnerable adults and children. We expect them, as branches of Government, to meet the responsibilities passed to them, and meeting housing need is among those responsibilities.
Does the Minister accept that in some areas it is difficult to meet endless need and demand? Certainly in a constrained urban borough such as Cheltenham, almost all the unprotected green space has already been built on or is right now under attack from developers. The problem is that in the end we will lose other things for which people have a need. Green space is good for local food production, physical and mental health, and for people's access to recreation, including free access to recreation for poor communities, which reduces health inequalities. Those are needs as well, and we cannot be totally single-minded and blinkered.
I certainly hope I am not being single-minded and blinkered; perhaps the hon. Gentleman thinks I am. I of course accept that almost every urban area finds it very difficult to meet its needs within its boundaries, and that is entirely accepted within all our policies. The regional strategies of the previous Government effectively completely removed any flexibility from local authorities, and that is why in the national planning policy framework we have the duty to co-operate.
I am happy to say that I have met with an authority that is a neighbour to the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and that authority is engaged in co-operation with his local authority to see how it can meet needs, not least those of the hon. Gentleman's town. As he says, his town cannot meet the needs within its own borders without threatening its precious green spaces. Such spaces are, if anything, even more valuable in relatively built-up towns than in the countryside, and there needs to be co-operation within broader areas to meet the needs of all our citizens.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's analysis. He makes a powerful and sophisticated case. Does he agree that the duty to co-operate is significant not only because it is the first time we have sought to have such a duty on a voluntary and localist basis-by agreement rather than imposition-but because of its link to incentives such as the new homes bonus and the reforms to local government finance with business rate retention, so that we can persuade communities that growth in the right place-I stress "right place"-is not a threat but potentially an opportunity that we can realise if we collaborate, sometimes across local authority boundaries?
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and puts the argument much better than I could. The Localism Act and the national planning policy framework attempt to achieve just that, replacing the previous approach of entirely denying local flexibility in how and where housing need was met.
It is right, briefly, Mr Hollobone, to give appropriately short shrift to the rank hypocrisy displayed by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods). She was a Member and a supporter of a Government who introduced regional strategies that tried to impose eco-towns on constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), and who introduced the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which had no democratic accountability at all. For her suddenly to pretend that she is now a localist rings pretty hollow.
I will move on to trying to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends-I seek not to persuade the hon. Lady-that localism is not dead but in gestation. At the heart of the Localism Act is the idea that control is gained from having a plan. A plan that fulfils the criteria of the national planning policy framework puts those with the plan in charge, and their decisions will not be overturned. Decisions might be challenged, but no challenge will be supported by the Planning Inspectorate. It all rests on having a plan, and the difficulty faced by many hon. Members and their communities is where no plan is in place. That is why so much of the discussion has focused on the question of what weight can be attached to emerging plans.
I want to share with my right hon. and hon. Friends the difficulty of the position that some of them want the Government to take, which is the suggestion that an emerging plan should immediately be given substantial weight in any decision on a planning application. That could simply create the problem that every community in the country that wanted to oppose a development might start the process of working up a neighbourhood or local plan and then take their own sweet time about it. That would immediately create an opportunity for communities to block all development by simply saying that they were engaged in a plan-making process.
That is why there must be a sense that a plan has reached a relatively advanced stage before it can be given substantial weight. Such a position has not been established by policy or Government, but over many years in the courts, as has been pointed out. I know that many people here think that an easy solution would be simply to abolish the inspectorate, but I say to them that all such decisions would then be taken by judges in courts. Developers will not stop challenging local decisions that they think do not accord with local or national policies. They will simply challenge them in the courts, at much greater cost to the taxpayer and, I suspect, to the not much greater contentment of residents.
The critical thing is to engage in plan making. The reason why I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends not to give up on the process is the good news that plan making is happening at a speed and intensity that has never happened before: three quarters of all local authorities in the country have now published a plan, and half of them have submitted a local plan to the Secretary of State. Some 800 communities in this country are now engaged in some stage of neighbourhood planning, and several hundred of them have already had their plan areas registered. The first three neighbourhood plans submitted to an examiner and passed as sound have passed their referendums, which is the first time that a Government have said to local people, "You get a vote on whether and how you develop in your local area."
The referendums passed not just by resounding margins, but on a greater turnout than for the county council elections taking place on the same day. In Thame in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), people turned out to the polls to vote on the neighbourhood plan and did not vote for a county councillor. Why? Because the plan matters to people. As has been pointed out, the plan contained proposals to build 775 new houses in one of the most beautiful market towns in one of the most high-pressured areas in the country.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, and nobody doubts his commitment to seeing this right, but does he not understand that it is precisely the backing and energy that he expresses that renders it so deeply unsatisfying for councils that go to all this great effort when their plans are overturned by spiv developers trying to take advantage of a very difficult position?
I entirely understand that. I might well wish that we were in a world where we could say to everybody, "You've got a year. Make as much progress as you can in a year, and nothing will happen in that year." My right hon. Friend will understand that, given the level of housing need and the appalling record of housing delivery even during the boom-when, frankly, money, developer finance and mortgages were not a problem-it is simply impossible for us to impose that kind of moratorium. However, I can tell him that in a matter of days, we will introduce the planning guidance that we have long promised and that will address the issue of the weight given to emerging plans. We will make it clear that once a plan has reached the point that, first, it has become specific and, secondly, it has gone through a fairly substantial level of public consultation, it will become something of real materiality-to use the lawyers' phrase-as a consideration in decision making.
My hon. Friend and I agree about housing need and the value of plans when they are formed-it is good to hear that weight will be given to emerging plans in the new guidance-but my concern is that he seems to be giving the impression that everything is going swimmingly; it is not. The very neighbourhood plans that it is so important for people to embrace-he believes in that as much as I do-are being undermined, because people will walk away if they think that the inspectorate will overturn those plans. It is therefore a mistake entirely to dismiss the idea of giving stronger guidance. Unless people have confidence that they can take such judgments without their being overturned, they will not engage in the process. That is the damage that is being done. Commitments on giving weight to emerging plans have been given before. They were given during the passage of the Localism Bill. So far, those commitments have not counted for anything.
Perhaps this is the core of our disagreement: my right hon. Friend argues that I am too sanguine, and I say that he is in too much of a panic. Even on neighbourhood planning, the fact is that the figures for April, June and July show that the number of communities engaged in it has gone from 650 to 710 to 750, that the number of plans designated has gone from 300 to 360 to 408, and that the number of plans published pre-submission has gone from 24 to 28 to 35, so progress is being made. I understand that people are concerned, which partly prompts them and gives them the incentive to get the move on that we all want in trying to avoid unwelcome developments.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way to my right hon. Friend, because I have only three and a quarter minutes, and I want to address the many points made in speeches.
The guidance that will be produced at the end of July will be in draft. It will all go on what is an explicitly beta website. In truth, what applies now is the inherited guidance on prematurity from the last Government-it still applies in all decisions made in courts and elsewhere by decision makers-but the new guidance will be in draft form later in the summer and will be available for everybody to comment on. I absolutely encourage my right hon. and hon. Friends to comment if they do not believe that the guidance goes far enough in attaching weight to the emerging plans. I reiterate, however, that the best possible thing is for them to look up from the here and now and to think about their community in 10 years' time-
Will the Minister give way?
I am sorry, but I will not give way again as I have many points to cover.
My right hon. and hon. Friends may miss one development that their communities do not like and that they would have opposed, and which would have been backed up by the inspectorate if their plan was in place. Perhaps they will, but they will be able to control and decide 10 years-worth of developments if they put in place a plan that meets their objectively assessed needs. That has been done in Thame, which will now determine its own future. There have been developments in Thame that the town did not like: it did not just say, "Right, we're giving up," but, "That makes it even more important to put even more energy into the process of producing a neighbourhood and local plan."
I therefore urge communities not to lose heart. Childbirth is a painful process and gestation is not without its pains and difficulties, but the process resulting in local communities having local plans and neighbourhoods having neighbourhood plans will-I promise-be one in which everyone feels that they are in control of development in their area in a way that was never true under Labour or previous Conservative Governments. We are involved in a revolution. Revolutions are not quick or painless, but this revolution is gathering pace and beginning to work.
I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to continue to write to me and to invite me to their constituencies to submit me to absolutely proper pressure, but not to give up hope. Every Government Member will be able to campaign with pride on the Localism Act at the next election in 2015, because by 2015 it will have delivered.