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Communities and Local Government

Volume 520: debated on Tuesday 21 December 2010

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the way in which one area in my constituency, Devonshire Park, is being treated. It feels that it is under attack from the planning system. I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who has responsibility for such matters, is present. I will end by making a constructive suggestion on how Devonshire Park could be a pilot under the Government’s Localism Bill.

Devonshire Park is a small part of Birkenhead, which began to be built during Disraeli’s great reforming Government. It was that Government who, in the late 1870s, forged a new tradition for the Tory party. That was the beginning of one-nation Toryism. While Disraeli was doing that great work here in Westminster, the burghers of Birkenhead were building up their town. This small part of Birkenhead is rather finely built: the houses are set back from the road, are mainly detached or semi-detached and are large, decent family houses with gardens. The walls, which are such a feature of Birkenhead, are particularly interesting in this area, because much of the stone came from the nearby Storeton quarry.

It would still be a most peaceful community, but times change. A quarter of its 477 houses have been made into flats. That is double the proportion in the nation as a whole. That is not what worries my constituents the most, nor does it worry them that the houses make very good residential care homes for frail elderly people from Birkenhead and beyond. What worries my constituents is the number of homes that have been converted for institutional care use, such as rehab centres and support units for single mothers. My constituents feel that having 16 such institutions in such a small area begins to change the character of the local neighbourhood. They are not nimbys and are not saying that they do not want any such institutions in their back garden; they are just saying that they have rather a large number. They oppose developers who try to buy up property to convert yet more family homes into centres for use by institutions.

The chairman of the residents association, Robbie Bell, says that Devonshire Park is a

“community that other areas would aspire to.”

He, like me, wants the community to grow in spirit, so that it protects what it has and builds on it. The area is under attack, not from the normal forces of yobbish and criminal behaviour, but from developers. The area is targeted by developers who wish to buy up the homes and to create more institutional care homes, adding to the 16 that already operate in the area. I have already made the distinction between institutions such as drug rehab centres and support centres for single mums, and the residential care homes that do not trouble the local community.

I hope that the Government’s Localism Bill will come to the community’s rescue. From reading the Bill, I am not sure whether the Government have yet settled on their views in all areas. I therefore want to be positive and suggest that Devonshire Park would like to be No. 1 on the Government’s list to try out the neighbourhood development plans and neighbourhood development orders that are mentioned in the Bill. Across the country, there are examples of conservation areas, where the physical environment is protected. The Devonshire Park residents association wants the Government to consider whether we can use the neighbourhood development plans and orders in the Bill to move from protecting the physical environment to protecting the character of an area.

We all know that as we can kill people in different ways, so can we kill areas in different ways. There can be planning blight or local authority neglect, or we might have earthquake or fire. Alternatively, an area can come under attack from developers who, like the thief in the night, are constantly looking out for the opportunity to change the very nature of an incredibly strong community, which makes it feel under attack. My view is that the Localism Bill might ride to the rescue of such communities. I hope that the Minister might give my constituents hope that they can be the first through his door, suggesting how they would like the idea of a local development plan to become reality and protect them and people in similar areas of the country.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), recently made a written statement about the award of jubilee city status in 2012. That continues a practice of creating new cities that was seen at the times of the Queen’s silver and golden jubilees and the millennium celebrations.

The granting of city status to existing large towns or urban districts reflects changes in Britain’s demography. After all, the original definition of a city was a large town with a cathedral. Many cathedrals were built in the middle ages, and thus the status of many cities in no small part reflects their historic importance. It is therefore much to be commended that the diamond jubilee provides an opportunity to create new cities and to recognise the changing identity of where people live.

However, city status is partly a celebratory designation and does not change the status of a place for the purposes of the Local Government Act 1972 or any subsequent amendments to it. I hope that the diamond jubilee will also provide an opportunity to recognise the historic identity of many of England’s larger towns that do not aspire to be described as cities but would welcome back the right to be described as boroughs.

The English and Welsh boroughs played an important part in our nation’s history. Borough status was granted by the Crown by royal charter because a town had achieved significant status or for particular achievements, and boroughs were entitled to return Members of Parliament. Most could return two Members, although under their charters a handful could return only one. Banbury became an episcopal borough way back in the time of the Plantagenets, and it was granted a royal charter for borough status by Queen Mary Tudor in 1554. Under that charter it was entitled to return a single Member to Parliament, and I am thus the 46th Member of Parliament for Banbury. A subsequent charter was granted by James I in 1608.

If colleagues take a walk through Central Lobby to St Stephen’s entrance and look up at the window, they will see there in stained glass the coats of arms of the boroughs at the time when the House was rebuilt after the fire. There, immediately opposite the statue of Somers, are the coats of arms of Banbury, because at that time it was recognised that the English boroughs were part of the fabric of our nation.

The reorganisation of local government in the early 1970s broadly divided England into two tiers, counties and districts. It was decided that only districts could have the opportunity of describing themselves as boroughs. Effectively, the only boroughs remaining are those communities that, at the time of the 1972 Act, were large enough as boroughs to become stand-alone district authorities. Smaller boroughs such as Banbury were wiped off the map and given no more than charter trustee status. In other words, the district councillors who represented the former borough of Banbury were designated as trustees of the borough’s charter. It was only comparatively recently that former boroughs such as Banbury were able to acquire town council status, which is the equivalent of being a parish council.

I can report to Ministers that, since Banbury acquired town council status, there has been a considerable regeneration of civic and community activity. Banbury is an English market town that is proud of its history and traditions and the history of our nation, as shown by the fact that it is, so far as I know, the only town in Oxfordshire that, every year since 1940, has held a battle of Britain service and parade to give thanks for England’s deliverance at the battle of Britain.

Banbury does not aspire to be a city, but it is the largest town in Oxfordshire after the city of Oxford, and it would like to be recognised for what it always has been—an English borough. Banbury does not aspire in any way to compete with Cherwell district. Indeed, as local residents, we are proud to be part of Cherwell and of Cherwell’s achievements. It is a distinctive area of England.

More than 40 years have passed since the 1972 Act, and there is no risk of anyone becoming confused between a Banbury borough council and Cherwell district council, just as no one is confused between Banbury town council and Cherwell district council. Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government state that, under the 1972 Act, only district councils can become boroughs. I understand that point, but I want to tell my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that I have a solution.

As the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office made clear, the creation of new jubilee cities will be done not under an Act of Parliament, but by exercise of the royal prerogative. On exactly the same principle, I suggest that the Queen could exercise the royal prerogative to create jubilee boroughs. Any town in England with former borough status could apply to become a jubilee borough. That would not require an amendment to the 1972 Act. There would be no confusion between jubilee borough celebratory designation and boroughs that are district councils. It would enable recognition of an important part of English civil life and cost not a single penny—

I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and your family a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. I extend that to the Under-Secretary and all hon. Members.

I want to speak about the housing market renewal programme or, more accurately, the Government’s scrapping of it. On 17 May, the Chancellor announced that the Government would implement £6.2 billion of in-year cuts. Further details were announced seven days later, outlining £1.65 billion in local government funding cuts. The harsh reality for the housing market renewal programme became clear a month later in a written ministerial statement, which revealed that it was targeted for cuts. The comprehensive spending review later revealed that there would be no bespoke funding for housing market renewal beyond March 2011. That is in stark contrast with the previous funding settlement of £1.2 billion between 2002 and 2008, and a further £1 billion from 2008 to 2011.

The programme was introduced in 2002, and I am particularly proud of it, not least because it was the flagship regeneration scheme of my predecessor, Lord Prescott. The intention was to renew failing housing markets, improve neighbourhoods and encourage people to live and work in those areas. Gateway’s success in my area speaks for itself. More than 1,500 homes were refurbished, thereby improving lives and transforming disadvantaged neighbourhoods; 615 new energy-efficient homes were created; more than 800 families were moved to decent homes; more than 300 local jobs, as well as dozens of apprenticeships, were created, and more than 600 of the worst properties in the east and west of the city have been demolished.

The effects of the Tory-led Government policy for residents in my constituency and in that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) have been disastrous. People have been left to live in houses surrounded by derelict properties, with damp seeping under the carpet, and decaying walls and floors. They have been left surrounded by abandoned properties, which are subject to vandalism. The elderly have found themselves stranded in boarded-up estates. Children are playing in dangerous and filthy conditions, while their parents have had their hopes and dreams stolen. Joanne Turton, a constituent, described her situation as living in limbo and as absolute cruelty. She asked me what she and her family have done to deserve that treatment.

My constituents do not care about party politics or political point scoring, or about where the fault lies—they are desperate for answers—but I do not share their restraint. As far as I am concerned, the blame lies firmly with the Tory and Lib Dem Government, which is why it is their responsibility to clean up the mess.

At the onset of this situation, I wrote to the Department for Communities and Local Government to express my concerns, and to invite the Housing and Local Government Minister to visit my constituents to see the damage for himself. Not surprisingly, the response to my invitation was that his diary is full and that he could not come to see the mess. I received a sort of response, but that underlined the absolute mess of the policy. There is a complete lack of a plan B, and there are no contingency, exit or transitional plans.

The suggestion was that the £1.4 billion regional growth fund would cover the loss of funding resulting from the abolition of regional development agencies, and cuts in funding to transport, housing and other Departments. However, £1.4 billion is simply not enough, and it clearly does not help my constituents, who deserve better than insubstantial answers and pretend solutions. Those who were selling properties have experienced a substantial decrease in the value of their homes, and those who were renting have been left with substandard housing. It is an utter disgrace to leave people in those conditions—to steal their dreams, hopes and dignity. One constituent described it thus: “It’s like we’d packed our suitcases to emigrate to our dream destination. We are on the flight and all’s well. We’re at 36,000 feet when the Government changes hands, and the new Prime Minister orders the captain to turn off the engines as we are about to prepare for landing, leaving absolute carnage.”

I contacted my local authority yesterday, when it confirmed that it needs £9 million to sort this mess out. Will the Minister tell me and my constituents what he will do to ensure that they enjoy a worry-free Christmas and a happy new year?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the Localism Bill, which is a fantastic early Christmas present for Northamptonshire. My constituents now hold out the hope once again that they can control the over-development and lack of infrastructure in their community, which was a feature of the past decade or more. Northamptonshire was part of a regional spatial strategy. It was decided that it should be the fastest-growing county in the country, but we have been poorly served by a lack of infrastructure in schools, hospitals, roads and access roads to deal with the amount of housing that has been forced upon us.

West Northamptonshire development corporation took control not only of the planning strategy for housing, but of planning itself—away from Northampton borough and Towcester—and local residents have had to sit on their hands while feeling a distinct lack of local democracy in the planning that has been forced on them. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend on deciding to get rid of the RSS and to scrap the WNDC as soon as possible. In the year ending 2010, the WNDC spent almost £20 million of taxpayers’ money, but local people have very little to show for it.

As well as that top-down control, we also had the west Northamptonshire joint planning committee forced on us by a statutory instrument in 2008. Although technically owned by the local councils, the committee has been required to come up with a plan to build up to 20,000 new houses in my constituency, many of them on greenfield sites, including beautiful villages that were listed in the Domesday book, such as Collingtree, Denton, Brafield-on-the-Green and Hackleton. I am grateful to Front-Bench colleagues who visited my constituency before and after the election to try to set at ease the minds of people who felt that their communities would be ruined. I hope that the committee will not progress any such plans. Indeed, it received 6,000 complaints from local residents about its proposed strategy.

The problem is how we get from where we are today to where we want to be after the Localism Bill is on the statute book. Our problem is that some of the councils want to get rid of the west Northamptonshire joint planning committee now and others are afraid of creating a planning vacuum if we walk away from the committee but have nothing to put in its place. I would be grateful if the Minister clarified how we can move from the present situation, with the west Northamptonshire joint planning committee still in place, to where we want to be—with a local development framework and with local communities deciding how much housing they should have and where it should be. The gap could be as much as eight to 12 months, and councillors are very concerned about what might happen with developer options on sites in the event that we no longer have a top-down plan in the absence of the bottom-up framework. That is a key question for my hon. Friend the Minister.

In Northamptonshire, we are beset by wind farm applications. We are not a very windy county, but my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and I have some 15 wind farm applications between us, many in beautiful areas where communities are desperately unhappy about them. Is there any scope in the Localism Bill to include greater opportunity for local communities to have their say and influence both the location and number of wind turbines? We need to introduce renewable energy in Britain, and it will form a key part of our energy security in the years to come, but we need far greater accountability so that local communities can have their say and be a part of the planning process from the bottom up, rather than being told what to do by top-down government.

To conclude, I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all those hon. Members in their places a very happy Christmas and new year.

It has been a wide-ranging debate, which perhaps reflects the remit of the Department. I shall try to address the issues raised by hon. Members in order.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) made a characteristically graceful speech that argued a serious point. I have a lot of sympathy with the issue that he raised, and I was of course especially taken by the historical context and his reference to Disraeli. It may be of some comfort to him to learn that a portrait of Disraeli sits behind my desk—

He is indeed keeping an eye on me. I have long suspected that the right hon. Gentleman and I would both be comfortable within the tradition that Disraeli founded, but I shall not ask him to change his position too much in the Chamber just before Christmas.

The right hon. Gentleman made a serious point about repeat planning applications and gave some serious examples of what has happened in his constituency. I have had similar examples in my constituency and I suspect that many right hon. and hon. Members could say the same. Many of us have heard horror stories of communities—and, indeed, local authorities themselves—sometimes feeling worn down by repeated applications from the same developer on the same site. The right hon. Gentleman has seen that with particular types of development in his constituency, and I have certainly had to do battle on behalf of my constituents over repeat applications to develop back gardens, for example. That is a real threat in many suburban areas. It is important, therefore, that we take steps to prevent the system from being abused.

People of course have a right to make planning applications, but there are measures, to which I will come now, with which we can seek to control them. At the moment, a local planning authority can decline to determine a planning application, if it has refused permission for two “substantially similar” applications on the same site, or if one such application has been refused by the Secretary of State on appeal within the past two years. It is worth reminding local authorities, and members of planning committees and their officers, that they are entitled to use that safeguard, and not to be browbeaten, perhaps, in some circumstances. The relevant provisions are in sections 70A and 70B of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, as amended.

The decision on whether an application is the same or substantially the same, and therefore on whether a determination can be refused, is for the local planning authority. Obviously, it has to take care, because it is justiciable, but provided that it acts within the context of public law in decision making, that safeguard is open to them. It is a discretionary power, however, and does not preclude an amended application from being made—once a developer has listened and addressed objections, as I hope would be the case—that does not fall foul of the provisions,.

I can confirm to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead that the Government intend to apply similar principles to neighbourhood plans drawn up under the Localism Bill. The Bill would allow local authorities to decline to consider a repeat proposal for a neighbourhood development order—the mechanism for, in effect, giving consent under the Bill. I hope that his point has been taken on board in that regard.

Under the Localism Bill, what new powers would the residents in Devonshire Park get to prevent the sorts of attacks they have faced over the past four years?

The Localism Bill would create the concept of a neighbourhood plan, which could be incorporated in Birkenhead borough council’s statutory development document—its planning framework, as it is generally called. It would permit residents of Devonshire Park to apply to the local council to be recognised, as I am sure they would be in these circumstances, as a neighbourhood forum for the purposes of producing a neighbourhood plan. That would enable them to set out their vision for the area, which, subject to a referendum and getting support from their fellow residents, the local planning authority would incorporate into its plans, unless there were strategic reasons to the contrary.

That a significant safeguard would enable residents to put in place protection against particular types of development, if they thought they were not sustainable. It would, of course, have to be consistent with national policy that we will be setting out in the national planning policy framework, and with our support for sustainable development. However, it is exactly the sort of vehicle that the right hon. Gentleman and his constituents are seeking. I would be happy to talk to him as the Bill progresses to ensure that he and his constituents are in a position to take advantage of the provisions.

I also hope, of course, owing to the requirement in the Bill for pre-application discussions on any scheme of any significance, that developers themselves will recognise and take heed of the concerns and aspirations of local communities, and adjust their developments accordingly. We are trying to move to a much more collaborative and front-loaded approach to planning, rather than repeat applications and the threat of a decision by appeal at the end. I am happy to keep the right hon. Gentleman informed on progress on those matters.

Let me now go back further than the Disraeli period—to the Plantagenets, as I understand it—and address the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I am sure that he was not there at the time, but he has a degree of erudition that clearly indicates that he has gone that far back in researching borough status for Banbury. Those of us who watch “Lark Rise to Candleford” will be well aware of the status of Banbury within Oxfordshire, and not just as the home of Banbury cakes, but as a major town. I understand the sense of where my hon. Friend is coming from, because we as a Government recognise civic pride as a valuable part of the big society. That said, these things are not quite as easy as one might wish. My hon. Friend is a distinguished lawyer, and he is quite right about the constraints on achieving the ambition that he set out.

At the current time it is not possible for any authority, other than a district council, to become a borough. There may be no confusion among the residents of his area about Cherwell district council and a borough of Banbury, but I would not like to guarantee that that would apply everywhere else. [Interruption.] I see the right hon. Member for Birkenhead smiling. One can just imagine the confusion about what was the historic borough of Birkenhead and the borough of Wirral, of which it is now a part. I can see the same thing happening in my constituency, with confusion about the former borough of Bromley and the current borough of Bromley, one of which is much larger than the other, which happens to lie within it. Things are not quite so simple, so we will have to be a careful. We will of course consider the position, but the route suggested is not to create a new type of borough, which could confuse people even more. Rather, if Banbury wishes, it can apply for city status under the jubilee provisions.

We do not want to be a city; we want to be a jubilee borough. It is not the same as wanting designation under the Local Government Act 1972; it is something completely different. If, as with cities, Ministers are not willing to pursue that under the royal prerogative, we will have to petition the Privy Council and see where we get. The proposal will not cost anything. I just hope that Ministers will show a little more imagination.

I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but he will understand that it is difficult to pluck out one case. Banbury can call itself a town council—it has a mayor, and civic regalia and plate, and it can use its coat of arms. I hope that he will reflect on the matter, if that is not a proportionate solution.

Let me turn to the speech of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and the pathfinders. It is fair to say that Hull city council will receive more than £23 million this year to take forward projects in east and west Hull. Of course there have had to be reductions, but I am sorry—the hon. Gentleman made the only speech that sounded a vaguely partisan note—but responsibility for that ultimately lies with those who created the difficulty and the deficit that we now have to deal with. There are other options open in housing market renewal areas, and local authorities can continue to apply to the regional growth fund. There is also the new homes bonus and the new affordable rent programme, including new empty home funding, so there are other options available. Indeed, I note that Hull is working on a local enterprise partnership, which I believe will also open up real opportunities. We want that taken forward, but that cannot be done under the previous, unsustainable financial position. I understand the difficulties, but Hull is being imaginative, and the local enterprise partnerships will offer it real opportunities.

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), I say that the Localism Bill is coming forward very soon. Localism will enable neighbourhood plans to have regard to issues such as wind farm development. Our reforms will apply equally to wind farms that are considered under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which of course have to be consistent with national policy, as I have said. We are also taking steps on changing planning structures, and if my hon. Friend keeps in touch with me on those matters, I hope that we will be able to discuss how to translate the existing, top-down structures into something more democratic. The Localism Bill’s proposal to abolish the regional spatial strategies will give much greater scope to local authorities such as hers to develop in the right place, and in a way that is appropriate to the context of local communities.

Having dealt with that, may I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all hon. Members a very happy Christmas. If anyone is short of a present—the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East will be glad to know this—the Department for Communities and Local Government still has some 5,000 branded Office of the Deputy Prime Minister promotional biros available.

Thank you very much, Minister. I am sure that we all want to wish you and all other Members a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. Perhaps we shall want to reflect on the question of the biros, however.