Town and Village Plans

Nick's speech in the Westminster Hall debate

 

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)

First, I say to the Minister that this is not about opposition to housing. In West Sussex as a whole, when I was first elected, the draft south-east plan proposed an amount of housing far below what is now being built under the new system. The objectively assessed need for West Sussex produces 66% more houses than the draft south-east plan, and the new formula will produce nearly double the draft south-east plan. It is placing massive pressure on local infrastructure.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) said so well, neighbourhood plans produce more houses by consent. If we allow neighbourhood plans to be bust, then we undermine the principle of consent, and in the end, fewer houses will be built by consent. That leads us to only one policy—the imposition of housing, which will be massively unpopular.

The Minister must understand that developers are gaming the system. They are ensuring that five-year land supplies are not adequate. Consequently, neighbourhood plans—either in draft form or, worse, when they are made and approved by large referendums—are being broken through. Some of the solution lies in his hands. The Government produced a helpful improvement to the situation last year, but his predecessor refused to entertain call-ins or appeals. When the Minister comes to take any decisions that might be in the balance, he must be mindful of the importance of supporting the neighbourhood planning process.

In the end, the Government face a fundamental choice. They can hold to the Localism Act 2011, a flagship policy that empowered local communities and gave them responsibility, including for decisions about where to locate housing. We are now in a difficult position; public faith in the policy of localism is being gravely undermined by people’s feeling that developers are simply overriding neighbourhood plans or that the Government apply rules that are too tight and do not recognise the power of giving local communities the control that they should have.

The Minister for Housing (Dominic Raab)

As ever, Mr Hollobone, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) on securing the debate. He spoke forensically about the issue and eloquently about his constituency. He highlighted the importance of neighbourhood planning, which has been giving people real power to shape the development of their communities since its introduction in 2011.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to points raised in the debate and take up the generous offer from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) to listen carefully to concerns. Hon. Members will know that, given the Department’s role in determining certain planning issues, I cannot comment on the detail of individual plans or planning cases. However, I can talk about the practice, the framework and the parameters that create the principles guiding the relationship between neighbourhood plans, local authorities and central Government strategy. I hope also to address the interesting points made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew).

I know that many hon. Members have been directly involved in encouraging and supporting communities in their constituencies to take up neighbourhood planning; I recognise the role that MPs play in the process. I assure all hon. Members that we continue to support the principle of neighbourhood planning and that we are already looking at teething issues and wrinkles to be ironed out. In September, we announced our largest ever support package for neighbourhood planning: a £22.8 million programme that will start in April and provide communities with the help and resources that they need to develop plans up to 2022.

Before I address the important points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk, it is worth reminding ourselves of the wider national context and the big picture on housing. In order to meet demand, we have to deliver 300,000 homes every year by the mid-2020s. We have to provide the homes that Britain needs, but we also have to make them affordable for real people on low and middle incomes. As hon. Members have said, we have to build a lot more of the right homes in the right places. I take that point. There were 217,000 net additions to the housing supply last year. That was the highest level in a decade—an increase of approximately 70% on what was achieved in 2009-10—so there are positive signs, but there is still a long way to go.

We need to be mindful of how we tailor the vehicle, both in the context of local democratic affairs—points were raised today about carrying communities with us—and with respect to the overarching national demand and our mission to build the homes that the next generation needs.

It is absolutely crucial that local authorities play their role by producing up-to-date local plans and identifying a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites. Local plans and a five-year supply of housing sites can provide clarity for communities and for developers who want to do things the right way regarding where new homes should be built. That means that development is planned and is not the result of speculative applications. I have taken on board the points made by my right hon. Friends the Members for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) and for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) about some developers. I emphasise “some” developers; let us not tar all developers with the same brush, because, as I think hon. Members have said, there is good practice, but there is some bad practice as well.

As of today, 26 authorities are still to publish a local plan and 131 local authorities have a local plan that is older than five years. So, the big picture is that overall we are doing quite well, but there are certainly areas and pockets where we need to do better. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has written to 15 authorities, giving them until the end of this month to justify why they do not have a plan in place and why the Government should not intervene. He has put other authorities on notice, explaining that a consistent failure to make sufficient progress in that regard cannot be tolerated indefinitely.

I turn to neighbourhood plans. They are, of course, voluntary. They rely on the enthusiasm and the hard work of local people, and, in the round, local communities. They are a powerful set of tools for communities to say where development—such as homes, shops and offices—should go, what it should look like, and what facilities should be provided. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who, as neighbourhood planning champion, has championed the cause of the right kind of local plans.

Neighbourhood plans undergo consultation, independent examination and the community referendum before coming into force as part of the development plan for their area. I take the point that was made by the hon. Member for Stroud about referendums, even though I was probably on a different side from him in our recent, bigger referendum. In this context, however, referendums are important, because they ensure that neighbourhood plans have genuine support and, as a result, some clout and some force. Their status as part of the development plan is very important, because planning applications must be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

Since the introduction of neighbourhood planning by the Localism Act 2011, 2,300 communities have begun the process of shaping the future of their area. I think that about 17 of those are within the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk, and I recognise the local initiative that goes into such local lans. I also understand the point that he made about encouraging and not stifling that initiative, which is crucial.

Nick Herbert

Does my hon. Friend accept that the undermining of a referendum by failing to observe what the referendum has decided is, in its own way, just as damaging at a local level, in relation to a neighbourhood plan, as it would be at a national level if a decision made in a national referendum was not observed by the authority concerned?

Dominic Raab

My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and he is tempting me to muddy the waters of this debate in a typically mischievous way. I will accept that if we argue for the principle of democracy through a referendum and say that the result of the referendum needs to be delivered, and we then put in place a system of local referendums—often, people care even more about the issues in such referendums than they do about those in national referendums, because the issues relate to people’s local environment or their quality of life—it is important to make sure that they are respected.

We endeavour to continue to make the neighbourhood planning process stronger and simpler, to ensure that it is attractive to even more communities. This week, for example, we are implementing powers in the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017. Those reforms make it easier for communities to keep their neighbourhood plans up to date as local circumstances change—they will change from time to time—and ensure that neighbourhood planning groups are made aware of local planning applications.

Other important reforms set out in the Act came into force last July. Those reforms require decision takers to respect neighbourhood plans earlier in the process, following a successful referendum. There will be further reforms this July, requiring local authorities to set out their policies on supporting neighbourhood planning groups.

I take this opportunity to welcome another neighbourhood planning success. The 500th successful neighbourhood planning referendum has just taken place; they are clearly catching on, notwithstanding the point that the hon. Member for Stroud made. That is quite an important milestone, which was reached by communities in Leeds, Suffolk and Lincolnshire. Those three communities are very different from each other, to touch on the point that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods), made. However, they all went to the polls on the same day, and between them they allocated land for employment, homes and local green spaces; those things can come together. Those plans are now the starting point for determining planning decisions.

Our planning policy is clear that where a planning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted. However, we recognised in 2016 that, in some cases, neighbourhood plans were being undermined because the local planning authority could not demonstrate a five-year land supply of deliverable housing sites, which is one of the key issues. That meant that even recently adopted neighbourhood planning policies were not being given enough weight in determining planning applications. I know that that is the crux of he experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk, and the point that he wanted to make in this debate.

Communities who had worked hard to put their neighbourhood plan in place were left frustrated as decisions went against the plan, despite their having done everything that was asked of them. As hon. Members have argued, that can only undermine confidence in the referendum process and the localism agenda. Seeking to remedy that, we issued a written ministerial statement in December 2016 to ensure that national planning policy provided additional protection to precisely those communities. The change that was made protects neighbourhood plans that are less than two years old and that allocate sites for housing, as long as the local planning authority has more than three years’ supply of deliverable housing sites.

We will take forward that protection in the updated national planning policy framework, which will be published for consultation before Easter—I think there was a question earlier about its publication. I suspect that that will be the beginning of the dialogue and the debate, not the end of them.

The national planning policy framework will be amended to give local authorities the opportunity to have their housing land supply agreed on an annual basis, and fixed for a one-year period. I hope that that gives some reassurance. Through these new policies, alongside the tough action to get local plans in place, we hope to ensure that we get the right homes in the right places. That is the delicate line that we seek to tread here.

I should just say a few words about neighbourhood plan examinations, because of the significant legal weight afforded to neighbourhood plans. The plans need to be carefully examined in a fair and transparent way. If we had longer today, I would go into the matter in more detail. Effectively, the examinations are the check that, once passed, allows the referendum to proceed, which gives real force to the localism agenda in this sector.

I am conscious of the time that I must give my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk to allow him to wind up this debate. I appreciate that important issues have been raised today, whether they are in rural, urban or suburban constituencies, and I understand how deeply felt are the concerns about them. We will continue to protect neighbourhood plans in national policy, and decision takers—whether that is the local authority, the planning inspector or the Secretary of State himself—must respect that national policy.

Sir Nicholas Soames

Will my hon. Friend give way on that point before he sits down?

Dominic Raab

I am conscious that I have only eight seconds left and I really ought to give my hon. Friend he Member for Mid Norfolk the opportunity to wind up the debate, but I will give way briefly to my right hon. Friend.

Sir Nicholas Soames

Have the Government considered, or are they considering, limiting the amount of time for which builders can hold on to land before building on it?

Dominic Raab

As a new Minister, lots of helpful suggestions come my way. That is something that we will consider, in the context of both the Letwin review and some of the interesting policy submissions that have already been put to me. I undertake to have a look at that point.

 

To read the Hansard of the full debate, please see here

 

Joe CoombesPlanning, Housing