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Planning (Community Involvement)

Volume 450: debated on Monday 16 October 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

This debate is prompted by concerns arising from the interim report on the land use planning process produced by Kate Barker. My fear, and the fear of many of my constituents, is that it will effectively lead to calls for a reduction in opportunities for community involvement. In fact, I contend that there is too little community involvement in the planning process and that what we have should be made to work better and even enhanced. It should not be diluted or removed.

In my experience, and mine is no exception, there are few areas where there are not tensions between developments—usually housing, but not always—and the local community. Without touching the heights of hyperbole, I submit that in my experience of 25 years as both councillor and MP, the planning process has been the single most significant vehicle for local people's engagement in the local democratic process.

Shortly after being granted this debate, I was contacted by a faith community in my constituency. Its comments and experience of the system demonstrate that, while the present approach has many potential components for community participation, those are very limited in practice. It is at this point that I regret not wearing my reading spectacles because my office has supplied me with a rather poor photocopy. Basically, my constituents point with some approbation to a number of Government documents. Those include the UK sustainable development strategy and the sustainable communities plan, the sentiments of which they welcome. They have also raised the issue of the contents of the “Diversity and Equality in Planning” document, which was produced by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in January 2004.

If I may, I will allow my constituents to speak for themselves for a short time by reading what they have written to me:

“This document”—

the “Diversity and Equality in Planning” document—

“is not well known by Planning Officers in our experience, for whom a ‘one size fits all’ attitude is deeply entrenched, arising from complacency but effectively resulting in widespread discrimination against significant parts of society, especially ‘hard to reach’ groups, including many faith communities.

We are therefore concerned that the current Regional Spatial Strategy reviews and Local Development Framework preparation are accompanied by effective and widespread community involvement. ‘Statements of community involvement’ are required as an integral part of the new style LDF. Time will tell whether these SCIs will deliver more effective consultation both with policy and major planning applications. Much will depend on individual authorities' willingness to engage in genuine consultation and take note of responses from the community.”

While those are the views of just one group in my constituency, I believe from experience that they are very representative of the concerns regarding involvement in the planning process, and that involvement is under threat.

Streamlining the planning process is a bit like trying to streamline democracy. As Winston Churchill once said—it is not usually my habit to quote Conservative politicians in aid of my arguments—democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the rest. In other words, you win some and you lose some. There is rough and smooth for all parties, and the planning process is no exception.

Communities in my constituency are in continual conflict with planners and developers over excessive and overbearing housing and office developments. We are not talking about nimbyism. It really disappoints me when civil servants and sometimes even Ministers caricature local opposition to planning applications as nimbyism. My constituents often recognise the case for development, especially on derelict and redundant industrial sites. They do not want to see decaying eyesores on their doorsteps, but they want to ensure that there is some semblance of sustainability and sensitivity to their needs and to the problems and character of their neighbourhood. Such key considerations often get lost in the pursuit of profit.

All too often, we see planning applications submitted at densities of up to 80 or 90 properties per hectare. In most cases, local opposition, in which I have been proud to be involved regularly, has reduced that to 50 or less.

If one asks businesses and developers, as Ms Barker did in her review, whether the planning process is an obstacle to enterprise, they are bound to say that it is. All regulations, whether health and safety measures, the minimum wage, anti-discrimination legislation or environmental protection requirements, to name but a few, are unpopular in certain quarters, but they need to be weighed in the balance. We certainly do not want community involvement in planning to be offered as a glib sacrifice to the cutting of red tape or even to globalisation. Businesses are answerable to their shareholders, and the bottom line of their balance sheet matters. There is nothing inherently wrong in that approach, but community involvement in the planning process, including resistance to demands for overbearing development or inappropriate planning permission is very much regarded as a debit on their balance sheets.

From a community point of view, however, the planning process is already skewed in favour of the developer. Applicants have a right of appeal against refusal, but communities do not. The argument is that the elected council that determines the planning application represents the community interest, but sometimes councils give themselves planning permission. Occasionally, they simply get it wrong, as the wool is pulled over their eyes. My hon. Friend the Minister may have heard of Silver Cross prams, whose factory was based in my constituency for most of the last century. Some years ago, consultants were appointed to “rescue” the company, and said that half the site had to be redesignated for housing to subsidise its recovery. Having held a gun at the council’s head, they received planning permission, and departed with cash for the sale of the land, leaving the company’s recovery to someone else. That was all legitimate, but quite wrong in the eyes of the local community. A third-party right of appeal would at least have allowed a challenge to that travesty, with which the community must now live in perpetuity.

The UDP—unitary development plan—process demonstrates the way in which the community must play catch-up. Only objectors can be represented at inquiries, but the UDP has been overridden on scores of industrial brownfield sites in my area that have been redesignated for housing. Given the omission of the community from the key inquiry stage, it is vital that it retain the right to challenge each departure from the UDP. At this point, it is appropriate to refer to the regional spatial strategy. Despite its importance, the RSS is regarded very much as a top-down, inaccessible part of the planning process. For example, housing targets set at that undemocratic level often result in the die being cast before planning applications are made at local level, which is when they can be challenged by communities.

Those planning issues affect my whole constituency. Applications for over-intensive and inappropriate development have been made, and continue to be made in Pudsey, Yeadon, Horsforth, Rodley and Farsley, but I wish to concentrate on the experience of the town of Guiseley. Planning permissions over the past six or seven years have given the go-ahead for about 1,200 extra homes—a 30 per cent. increase, I estimate, in the size of the town, without a commensurate increase in local infrastructure to support it. In my area, developers, as I said, invariably submit plans for housing with a density of 70 to 90 properties per hectare on brownfield sites, which is well above the 30 to 50 properties per hectare indicated by PPG 3. They argue that the sites fulfil PPG requirements for greater density, because of transport links and other factors. In almost all cases, community involvement and pressure has led to the rejection of initial planning applications, and subsequent ones are reduced to about 50 properties per hectare—in some cases, that is almost half the figure in the original application.

Developers or even planning officers point to a local station, for example, or the existence of a major road corridor with bus services, as evidence of good public transport links. The community, however, points to a station at which trains do not stop, because they are full as a result of lack of capacity and overcrowding at peak times. They point out that bus services have been reduced and become far less reliable in the 20 years since deregulation was introduced. Section 106 agreements can be used to derive a contribution from developers towards infrastructure, including crossings, road improvements, open space, public transport and school buildings.

However, it is often the cumulative effect of developments, rather than a single development, that creates the pressures and it is difficult, therefore, to apportion section 106 contributions to individual developments over time to address those cumulative effects. Many local authorities do not have a coherent strategic approach to the negotiation and use of 106 moneys. Certainly, in my experience, there is little community involvement in determining how it is used. All too often, it is used in a very ad hoc way.

No one can deny the need for affordable housing, but developers will often come up with reasons for having less affordable housing than is needed. The cost of decontaminating land is a favourite excuse, or developers offer to build at lower densities if they do not have to include a full quota of affordable homes. Councils’ role as the “people’s champion” in the planning process can be, and often is, overstated. They are not always on the ball when it comes to promoting community involvement.

Statements of community involvement, required by the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, often pay lip service to community requirements. There is a crying need—so far unmet—for an action plan in areas such as Guiseley and other parts of my constituency, such as Horsforth and Pudsey, to be drawn up with the local community to address how the area can cope with substantial growth in new house building. The 2004 Act allows for those action plans, but we have yet to see them emerge in the communities that I represent.

All that adds up to one inescapable conclusion: the present system for community involvement in planning is limited. Even as it stands, it is not being used to its full potential, but to move away from what we have got—which may be what Barker recommends—would be a retrograde step that must be resisted. While I welcome the Government’s commitments in the policy document “Public Involvement: the Government’s Objectives”, there is a wide gap between the aspirations and the experience of people on the ground. I have listed some of the challenges to greater participation, but there are others, which are also undermining the credibility of the system.

A significant challenge relates to the poor implementation of existing regulations, such as statements of community involvement. Many—57 out of 168—SCIs have been sent back by the planning inspectorate because of basic procedural flaws, including the failure to consult parish councils and other important community organisations. That seems to indicate that some local authorities are not prioritising the basic requirements of SCIs, let alone including new ways of having dialogue with their communities.

The ambition of the 2004 Act for greater participation is not being met, largely because of a lack of resources and a culture in the profession that continues to believe that “We know best”. While planning aid has made some difference, many individuals and communities get little or no support with the technical language and procedures of the planning process. Developers often have access to professional expertise to make their case, while important community voices are not heard.

The second and greatest challenge—as I have already suggested—comes from Kate Barker’s interim report. That report, along with annex A of the energy review—a preserve of the Department of Trade and Industry—has raised questions about the merits of public involvement in everything from major infrastructure projects to the details of local development frameworks. My concern—shared by many people in my constituency—is that those two documents constitute an assault on local constitutional arrangements, based on a very narrow economic analysis of the benefits of the planning system. At the very least, it sends the wrong message to the profession and the public.

The interim Barker report does not provide any analysis of the very significant barriers to public participation that exist in the system now. Nor is there any discussion of the wide range of institutionalised advantages that the development industry currently enjoys. On only one occasion does the report touch on the unequal distribution of rights of redress. Paragraph 4.32 states:

“It is also the case that not all the processes work against development: the lack of a third party right of appeal can work to favour economic growth, for example, as applicants can appeal a rejected decision while opponents of development are not able to appeal a successful application.”

That celebration of the absence of basic rights of redress in planning for communities illustrates the review team’s inability to consider the wider importance of planning in local government.

I am also particularly concerned about proposals to abolish the right to be heard in the preparation of statements of community involvement. The interim report raises further concerns about existing levels of consultation in the planning process. Paragraph 3.36 describes the requirement for statements of community involvement as

“overly prescriptive about consultation, and process driven”.

It alleges that:

“complexity is compounded by the large range of statutory consultees, local groups and other stakeholders who are engaged in the decision-making process”.

There appears to be a growing view that the right to be heard in testing the statements of community involvement established by the 2004 Act may be under threat.

I accept that although SCIs can and should be made more effective, the withdrawal of that right would send entirely the wrong message to planning professionals and communities. It implies that participation is to be cut back and that the Government believe that participation has gone too far, when precisely the opposite is true. Great care is needed to ensure that that message does not further compromise effective community participation.

The Barker report also appears to question the established plan-led system. For example, paragraph 4.30 states:

“The nature of the plan led system may also be causing a sub-optimal supply of development, partly as plans may reflect some of the structural problems identified above and in part because investment opportunities that arise after the plan has been agreed may have more difficulty gaining approval if not in accordance with the plan.”

One can only assume that correcting the problem will lead to the final report softening the emphasis on a plan-led system. That would have a huge effect on the participation debate, because there is little or no point in having robust community rights of participation if the final plan has only a limited impact on the way decisions are reached. Many communities would simply ask, “What’s the point in participating?”

Where do we go from here? As the final Barker report is due out in December, can my hon. Friend the Minister give some assurance that public participation will be carefully considered in any reform package? In particular, we need a more balanced analysis of planning that does not focus solely on the needs of business; it is public legitimacy that requires support if we are to deliver the integration of sustainable development objectives. From my reading of the interim report, it is difficult to see how Barker’s analysis of the “problem” of community involvement can be squared with existing Government policy, which aims to enhance it. I hope that my hon. Friend can reassure me on each of the points I have raised.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on securing the debate. He has a long record of advocacy on this issue and continues to raise his concerns on behalf of his constituents.

One of the key aims of the Government’s reform of the planning system centres on community engagement. We want both more and better-quality community engagement. Our aims were first set out in “Community Involvement in Planning: the Government’s Objectives”, published in February 2004. They were confirmed in the cornerstone of Government planning policy, to which my hon. Friend referred, planning policy statement 1, “Delivering Sustainable Development”, published in February 2005.

In its key principles, planning policy statement 1 states:

“Community involvement is an essential element in delivering sustainable development and creating sustainable and safe communities. In developing the vision for their areas, planning authorities should ensure that communities are able to contribute to ideas about how that vision can be achieved, have the opportunity to participate in the process of drawing up the vision, strategy and specific plan policies, and to be involved in development proposals.”

The statement goes on to note that community involvement in planning should not be a reactive, tick-box process, but enable the local community to say what sort of place they want to live in at a stage when it can make a difference. Effective community involvement requires an approach that tells communities about emerging policies and proposals in good time, and it must enable them to put forward ideas and suggestions and participate in developing proposals and options. It is not sufficient simply to invite them to comment once the proposals have been worked up. Consultation on formal proposals is required, and such an approach must ensure that consultation takes place in locations that are widely accessible, and it must provide and seek feedback. Involvement is clearly more effective the earlier it takes place in the process.

Through the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, there is a statutory requirement for local authorities to consult the local community on local development frameworks via the statement of community involvement, to which my hon. Friend rightly referred at length. This ensures that groups are involved in development plan processes. The statement of community involvement also has to set out the local authority’s policy on involving its community in consulting on planning applications.

Regional planning bodies are also required to prepare, publish and keep under review a statement of public participation on regional spatial strategies, to which my hon. Friend referred. The regional planning body, in preparing the RSS, should work in partnership with regional organisations and encourage community involvement, so that key organisations and the wider community can be involved and inform the strategy’s content.

My Department has produced material to help local authorities in preparing their statements of community involvement. Our good practice guide, “Creating Local Development Frameworks”, contains a chapter on producing statements of community involvement, and we undertook a comprehensive roll-out programme in the autumn of 2004, including seminars in each region on statement of community involvement production. We are taking every opportunity to encourage good practice, including close liaison between planning and local government group officials within the Department, to ensure that local authorities take an approach that will enable the best use of their sometimes scarce resources, and to avoid the danger of consultation fatigue.

Statements of community involvement have played an important role in getting the message across to local planning authorities, developers and the public that effective community involvement is a central and underlying principle of the “new” planning system. Some 300 statements of community involvement have been submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for scrutiny. Nearly 120 have been adopted, and a further 88 have received a binding inspector’s report. Out of this total, one statement has been found to be “unsound” by the Planning Inspectorate.

My hon. Friend referred to the inspectorate returning a large number statements of community involvement because of procedural flaws. There was a specific problem with a small number of the first statements to be submitted, in that authorities had failed to consult parish councils adjoining their area. That matter has been resolved and authorities are clear about the regulatory requirements. I trust that my hon. Friend accepts that this is a developing process and that, as people become more skilled in it, they should get better.

At the other end of the spectrum, we already have, I am pleased to say, a number of very good statements of community involvement, such as those developed by Plymouth council, among others. They state their council’s aim to go further than the minimum requirements to ensure more innovative, effective and wide-ranging community involvement. Importantly, they also include comprehensive coverage of how the council will engage with hard-to-reach groups—another issue to which my hon. Friend referred.

The Government are committed to ensuring that planning policies and practice take account of the communities that they serve and reflect the lives that people live today. Widespread social and demographic changes over the last three decades mean that equality and diversity issues are no longer minority considerations. Local planning authorities need to keep up with that change. It is very important that the views of the widest community are canvassed when local planning issues are considered.

Statements of community involvement should be aligned with other work done by councils and their local strategic partnerships to ensure that documents within the local development framework effectively reflect the sustainable community strategies—strategies that are the vision statements setting out the plans for improving the economic, social and environmental well-being of each council’s area. My Department will publish revised draft guidance on local strategic partnerships and sustainable community strategies later this year, and we have also commissioned the Royal Town Planning Institute to write guidance providing practical advice on how to improve the relationship between local strategic partnerships and spatial planning. That guidance will be issued alongside local strategic partnership guidance later this year. We are working closely with a range of departments and practitioners to make it as useful as possible.

My hon. Friend identified the need to address issues around housing growth. I assure him that we are aware of the matter and we are examining how best to do that. It is already my Department's policy to encourage developers to enter into more consultation with local communities on large sites prior to the submission of planning applications.

My hon. Friend raised the subject of section 106 agreements. In August 2006, we published “Planning Obligations: Practice Guidance” and a model section 106 agreement, the aims of which are to improve the development, negotiation and implementation of planning obligations. The Government are also considering responses to their proposal for a planning gain supplement as a means to provide additional funding for the infrastructure necessary to support growth. There will be further announcements on that by the end of the year.

My hon. Friend mentioned his desire for third parties to have a right of appeal—a matter that he has raised on several occasions. Third parties do not have a right of appeal in the way that applicants do because it is the responsibility of local planning authorities to act in the general public interest when determining planning applications. Local authorities must determine planning applications in accordance with the development plan for the area unless material considerations indicate otherwise; those can include views expressed by local residents and other parties.

The Government do not propose to change that position, because in our view it goes straight to the heart of the democratic process. I am sorry to have to disappoint my hon. Friend. Elected members must be allowed to reject their officers’ advice, because it is the councillors, not the officers, who are answerable to their electorate. A third party right of appeal could be used to delay or effectively veto many otherwise acceptable developments, which would bring benefits to local communities in terms of homes, jobs and regeneration of neighbourhoods.

I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my desire to see more people get the chance of a step on the housing ladder, as well as better choice and quality for those who rent. In the Yorkshire and Humber region—an area that he and I both represent—the current target for provision of homes is nearly 15,000 a year for the next 10 years. The Yorkshire and Humber plan is being revised and it will need to set a new target for the provision of homes that is high enough to deliver sustainable communities with high quality, affordable housing for future generations.

My hon. Friend referred to people having difficulty accessing the planning process. Both individuals and community groups rightly complain that they cannot afford professional advice on planning issues compared to big developers or local authorities. As he said, it is for that reason that the Planning Aid organisation exists. It provides free expert planning advice to people and communities who could not otherwise afford it. My Department is providing £5.3 million over five years to Planning Aid to expand its services on a national basis. We have also supported the expansion of so-called e-planning services, which enable people to access more information online, and 95 per cent. of local authorities are now rated good or excellent in provision of such services.

Following Kate Barker’s report on housing supply, the Government accepted the case for a significant increase in supply. We accept that proper community involvement is necessary if we are to realise our aim to increase house building in England to 200,000 units per year in the medium term. As my hon. Friend mentioned, Kate Barker’s interim report on her review of land use planning was issued in July. It provided a helpful analysis of how the planning system currently impacts on economic development. Although I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s concern about some aspects of the report’s analysis, it is important to remember that it was an interim report. Kate Barker has made it clear that it is vital that her final recommendations do not advance business interests above environmental and social interests.

I assure my hon. Friend that, wherever possible, we want communities and individuals themselves to have control over the decisions that affect their lives and that, when they have a contribution to make and where they are part of the solution to problems, they are not held back. Better community involvement requires a change in the culture of planning. I hope that what I have said today provides some reassurance to my hon. Friend.

Certainly—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Eleven o'clock.