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Planning Control

Volume 521: debated on Wednesday 12 January 2011

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke.

I am very pleased that I have secured this debate on the subject of planning, which is so important to my constituency and to those of many other hon. Members. I congratulate the Government on introducing the Localism Bill at this early opportunity, and I am delighted that the Bill will have its Second Reading on Monday. It will at last abolish the regional spatial strategies and the top-down housing targets implemented by the previous Government. The regional spatial strategy for the east midlands required nearly 40,000 houses to be built in Northampton borough and South Northants district. The figure was not derived from local housing need, but from the previous Government’s determination to control house building from the centre, a policy that has been shown to be an abject failure. Under the Bill, planning for the needs of local communities will be returned to democratically elected councils that know, appreciate and understand the local area and the concerns of its residents.

I would like to bring to the Minister’s attention four issues that are extremely important to my constituents. The first is the St Crispin and Upton development in Northampton, and in particular the building of the final 80 houses in a development of 3,600 houses that has taken 10 years. The second is the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation’s role in planning. Thirdly, I want to raise a concern about the planning vacuum that we are in until the Localism Bill reaches the statute book, and fourthly, I want to raise the subject of wind farms and their inclusion in the Bill.

The St Crispin development is an excellent example of a development that was approved by an unelected body in the face of overwhelming objection from the local community. Despite the objections of more than 130 residents and many Northampton borough and South Northants councillors, the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation has approved the final stage of the redevelopment of the St Crispin hospital site, which will see a further 80 houses being built there. The major concern of residents is utterly genuine, yet it has been completely disregarded by the WNDC. Approval for the 80 houses should have been subject to the building of a new access road. The estate’s existing roads are unsuitable for even the current level of traffic, with the main road through the area gridlocked twice a day at school drop-off and pick-up times. The congestion is a threat to the safety of schoolchildren needing to cross the road.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this excellent debate. I am sure that all of us here have similar issues. In my constituency there is the proposed Tadpole Farm development, and traffic concerns are a major issue. Too often developers ride roughshod over the concerns of residents. I therefore fully support this debate, and very much hope that local communities will be empowered to get appropriate development.

My hon. Friend’s point highlights yet again how local concerns were disregarded by the previous Government.

In the area, access to a residential nursing home and ambulance access to the local hospital are jeopardised by existing traffic problems, even without this yet further development. A relief road that was part of the original package for the estate has not been completed, and there does not appear to be any plan to do so, with continued protests from residents and councillors being ignored. I urge the Minister to consider calling in the application under the Secretary of State’s powers, and to see for himself the shocking disregard for the community on the part of an unelected quango.

I turn now to the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation. It was set up by the previous Government to deliver the housing targets imposed by the regional spatial strategy, because the councils were not trusted to deliver them quickly enough. A minority of WNDC board members were elected councillors, but from across three planning authorities, so little democratic accountability has been the body’s key feature. In the last financial year it spent £17.8 million and received a grant of £15.9 million from the Department for Communities and Local Government. I am sure that residents of South Northants do not feel that they have received value for money. I am delighted, therefore, that the WNDC will be disbanded in due course, but I urge the Minister to consider again whether he can do more to ensure that all planning powers are passed back to councils during 2011.

Although the Localism Bill is progressing though Parliament as quickly as possible, at present it is a set of intentions rather than a law, and this interim period before it finally appears on the statute book has created something of a planning vacuum in South Northamptonshire, which in turn is creating difficulty and worry for councillors and local residents alike. I have received a number of letters and e-mails from concerned members of our local planning committees, and I am very grateful for the prompt attention that the Minister has given them. The planning committee’s members say that until the Bill becomes law, they are afraid to turn down applications for new housing developments on the grounds of the huge costs incurred by the taxpayer if their decisions are overturned on appeal. I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify for my constituents and councillors the precise process and timeline for moving from the old top-down housing targets to the new bottom-up community-driven plans. Between today and the date on which the Bill becomes law, how should planning committees deal with applications when there is mass local objection?

The final point on which I seek guidance is wind farm policy. Currently, this is a huge threat to the happiness of many local communities, in my constituency and across the country.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. I want to pick up on her point about wind farms, and to ask the Minister for some clarity on his Department’s thinking on this issue. I understand that there is some tension between the need for renewable energy in the form of wind power and the placement of wind turbines, in rural communities where there seems to be ample space. I am finding that my constituents, especially those within shouting distance of the planned wind farms, such as the one in the Lenches, are fighting a huge battle against both the planning process and the large companies proposing the plans. I am keen to know what the Minister’s Department will do to remedy the conflict between renewable energy and local community choice.

My hon. Friend’s contribution mirrors my own questions for the Minister.

Wind farms are, of course, an essential part of our strategy to achieve energy security. I entirely accept that, as do many of my colleagues here today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this excellent debate, which is very timely, ahead of the Second Reading of the Localism Bill next week. I also thank the Minister for coming along.

My hon. Friend has already hit on the housing targets. Kirklees council in my patch is looking to impose 28,000 homes on an area that just does not have the infrastructure, so the debate is very timely indeed.

We are now talking about wind farms—we spoke about them earlier today. There really is a vacuum in planning strategy for wind farms. People in my community, in Birds Edge, Holmfirth and Scapegoat Hill, are opposing wind farms that are totally unsuitable, and unscrupulous people who do not fit into the local community are coming in just to make money. I am really looking forward to the inclusion of this matter in the Localism Bill.

The Minister will see that many colleagues are very concerned about the issue, and I am sure that he intends to address it.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, particularly on the comments that she has made about housing, with which I agree. I have a huge problem in my constituency, where Labour’s local development framework is proposing a massive expansion of the town of Brigg.

On wind farms, what we really need is clarity as to what the Localism Bill means for appeals. I have an application for a wind farm development in Flixborough Grange that has now been submitted for the third time, and I want to be able to go back to my constituents and tell them that once we get rid of Labour’s planning system there will not be constant appeals to central Government, and we will have proper local decision makers. We really need clarity as to where the buck will stop on decisions about wind farms.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I continue to stress how much we all agree that renewables form part of the future for our energy security policy. I am well aware of the potential energy shortages in the latter part of this decade, a potential that was brought about by the previous Government’s failure to prepare for the closure of elderly power stations and nuclear plants. A mix of energy resources, including renewables, is essential. However, it is unclear to me how big a part wind power can play in providing for our 21st-century energy needs.

I want to raise a separate planning issue. In Wales, applications have been made for one or two sites that are owned by the local authority. Can attention be paid in the Localism Bill to applications when the authority is not only the applicant, but the judge and jury?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Returning to my question to the Minister, I am unclear about how big a part wind power can play in providing for our 21st-century energy needs. Denmark, which is Europe’s leading contributor to onshore wind farm development, and France have both changed their policies on wind farms, with Denmark stopping all further onshore wind developments. Recent press has highlighted how during cold weather, the efficiency of wind turbines can drop to negligible levels. During the latest cold snap, wind turbines that normally produce up to 5% of Britain's energy achieved only a miserable 0.2% at a time of greatest need.

Three picturesque villages in my constituency—Helmdon, Sulgrave and Greatworth—are dealing with the prospect of a wind farm in the middle of the three villages. The residents are open-minded, and many have said that they would accept the proposal if they could be convinced that it offers the right solution. However, Northamptonshire is one of the least windy counties in the country, and local calculations suggest that the output of the proposed turbines may be as little as 19% of capacity. It is worrying that the generosity of taxpayer-funded renewables obligation certificates means that even with so little energy production, the project is still worth while for the developers.

I have read the Localism Bill in detail, and it seems that the new neighbourhood plans will include within its scope any generating plants of up to 50 MW capacity.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, Will the Minister respond to an ambiguity about the 50 MW output and neighbourhood plans? In Calder Valley, a plan is going through in Crook Hill, which is half in the Calder valley and half in Rochdale. If the two were combined, that would take the output well over the 50 MW limit for neighbourhood plans to have an input. Will the Minister clarify the position in that case, because many constituencies, such as Calder Valley, which have moorland around them, butt up to many other local authorities and local communities?

That is a good question, and it would be helpful to have a response from the Minister. Having read the Localism Bill in some detail, it seems that the new neighbourhood plans will include any generating plants of up to 50 MW capacity within their scope. I understand that that means that a community will be able to decide whether to include a wind farm of up to that size within its neighbourhood plan. I would be grateful for confirmation from my hon. Friend that that understanding is correct. I also understand that applications for generating plants of greater than 50 MW will be subject to determination by the Secretary of State as being nationally important. I would also appreciate confirmation that that is correct.

Finally, what will be the appeal process for wind farms under the new legislation?

The Bill is not clear—not to me anyway. Specifically, I and my constituents would like to know whether wind farms that are turned down locally could in future be approved on appeal just as easily as has been shown to be the case recently. What reassurance can the Minister give me that the views of local communities really will count in future?

In conclusion, I welcome the Localism Bill, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the support that he has given to my constituents, both in visiting us and in responding to questions. Northamptonshire was under siege by the previous Government¸ but I have great hopes of a bright future for my home county, where local communities will have a far greater say on planning developments and the focus will be on providing for local needs, not national diktat.

It is a pleasure, Mrs Brooke, to come back for round 2 under your chairmanship this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing this debate on an important matter. She has attracted a not inconsiderable following for it, which is no surprise to those of us who know her, and she addressed the issue with her characteristic energy. These matters are significant and important, and I shall do my best in the time available to deal with the points that she and other hon. Friends raised.

I shall deal first with the St Crispins development to which my hon. Friend referred. I am sure she understands that generally, and consistent with the policy of the Localism Bill, it is not the Secretary of State’s policy to interfere with the jurisdiction of local planning authorities, unless necessary. There is a long-established practice that Ministers do not comment on the merits or otherwise of individual planning applications, lest it constrain the Secretary of State in his functions should the case come before him at some time, in which case he must act quasi-judicially.

I understand, as my hon. Friend said, that the full application for 80 dwellings known as the St Crispins development was submitted after the change in departure regulations and the issue of circular 02/09. On its own, that scale of development would not normally be referred to the Secretary of State as a departure from the development plan. However, I understand that the west Northamptonshire development corporation took the view that it would be wise to refer to the Secretary of State its decision in principle to approve the application. Apparently that was because the application clearly forms part of a much larger scheme in the Upton Lodge master plan. I am sure my hon. Friend is familiar with that. The position now is that, because of that decision by the WNDC, Ministers will have to decide in due course whether that matter will be recovered and determined by the Secretary of State following a public inquiry conducted, of course, by an independent planning inspector.

Having set out why I cannot comment more, I hope I can talk generally about the criteria for dealing with such applications. The purpose of the Localism Bill is to reinforce that. Parliament has entrusted local planning authorities with responsibility for day-to-day planning control in their local areas, and the Government’s policy on call-in will be very selective. It is right that in almost all cases, the decision on whether an application should proceed is taken by the local planning authority. Its residents and citizens vote for it. In general, planning applications are called in only if they involve planning issues of more than local importance.

I accept that there are complications in my hon. Friend’s part of the world because the west Northamptonshire development corporation is the decision-making authority in this case, but that authority, as with any other planning authority, must have regard to both the approved development plan and any material considerations. The same principle would apply to an inspector or the Secretary of State.

I understand why there may be a tendency for confusion between the role and purpose of the development corporation and another body—the west Northants joint planning unit. The WNDC was set up in 2004, and was given development control powers for certain types of development. A quinquennial review of all three urban development corporations, including the WNDC, concluded in January 2010. Following that review, the previous Administration decided to hand planning powers back to local authorities in a staged way, beginning in April 2011 with raising the threshold of applications dealt with by the WNDC to 200 houses and the return of mineral and waste applications to the county council. Similarly, the threshold for commercial applications will also be set up then.

As the corporation was set up by a formal order, legislation will be required to make the changes. Subject to assurances that the local authorities have adequate capacity to operate their planning systems, we see no reason why the full transfer of powers should not be completed by April 2012, when we will be back to the normal situation of the local authority being the decision-making body. The joint planning unit was set up by statutory instrument, following agreement by the county council, Northampton borough council, Daventry district council, and South Northamptonshire district council to prepare a local development framework for their area, west Northamptonshire. That arrangement could be revoked by a constituent authority that requested the Secretary of State to use powers under section 31 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.

My hon. Friend mentioned the wishes of her district council in South Northamptonshire to leave the joint planning unit, and my officials have sought views from the other local planning authorities involved. Once all their views are known, it will be necessary to assess the effects of dissolving the joint committee, or modifying it so that South Northamptonshire can sit outside the committee but still contribute to the joint planning of growth, particularly on the edge of Northampton. Although we seek to get rid of artificial structures, the Localism Bill will place an obligation on local authorities to collaborate on and co-ordinate spatial planning issues.

That is where are at the moment. The WNDC will be gone and its powers returned by April 2012. Because it was created through a different route, the position of the joint planning unit is slightly different and any change would require the views of the other authorities. We are seeking that, and I will obviously speak again to my hon. Friend once we have a clear view as to how other people will react and what is the best way forward.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) for securing this important debate. I am concerned about enforcement and appeals, and I am thinking about the transition from the existing planning regime to the new regime once the Localism Bill becomes an Act. Will the Minister comment on a situation where an appeal is made about a recent decision, and how that might be treated under the new planning regime?

There is a legitimate role for an appeals process in a planning system. Planning decisions are matters of important public consideration, and in many circumstances affect proprietary rights. Our advice is that it is necessary to have an appeals process, and to ensure that the system is compliant with human rights legislation. We must have a planning system, and our desire is to avoid the system we have at the moment, whereby planning by appeal takes place almost automatically because local authorities are almost forced to refuse applications because they are grounded on the basis of the regional spatial strategies, which do not have regard to local needs. I want to get away from that. The scheme in the Localism Bill—it is too detailed for me to go through at this stage—involves front-loading the process to encourage much greater community involvement in the development of neighbourhood plans; and developments over a certain minimum threshold will require pre-application discussions. The best developers do that anyway, and that will provide a greater opportunity for issues to be thrashed out before the decision-making process, rather than being decided on appeal.

The Bill proposes to abolish the pre-determination rule. That rule is a considerable vice because it prevents local councillors from speaking out on behalf of their constituents for fear that they will be prevented from being involved in a decision. There will have to be an appeals process, but I hope that if we can reduce the volume of cases that go through it, and look at how to simplify it and make it more intelligible, that will deal with many of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire.

I want to be clear about the issue of appeals. The local authorities of East Riding of Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire have hit their 2020 targets for renewable energy generation. I know that those targets have been removed, but we feel strongly that we already have our fair share of wind farms. What will be the situation with appeals? It is likely that our local authorities will want to continue to reject wind farms. We cannot front-load the system because we feel that we have already played our part. What will be the appeals process in such situations?

With respect to my hon. Friend, it is not realistic to spell out that degree of detail at this stage, but it will become apparent. Under both the current system and the new system proposed in the Bill, in which we want to place more weight on the view of the local authority, we are looking at the basis on which an appeal could override the view expressed in the local plan, and to what extent that would be the appropriate course. The local planning authority, be it the statutory planning authority or the neighbourhood plan that would become part of the local plan, has to be cognisant of and consistent with national planning policy. It is the coalition’s policy to support the development of wind farms where appropriate, but I accept that there is a concern to ensure that the community’s views are properly articulated. That is why we will address those points about how to get the balance right, not just in the Bill but in parallel with the important reforms and the creation of a national planning priorities framework. That is an important point and I ask my hon. Friend to be patient. We will consult on the national planning framework, and I suspect that he and his constituents will want to have an input into the best means to deal with that issue.

Are the Government considering allowing appeals against approvals that have already been given? That would be the opposite of an appeal made by the developer, and could be an appeal by local residents who are unhappy with the decision already taken.

A number of alternatives were posited on that matter, but there are complications to any significant reform of the appeals system. Our instinct is, first, to put the Localism Bill into practice, secondly, to get the national planning framework up and running, and then to look at the appropriate means of proceeding thereafter. Of course it would be appropriate for a neighbourhood plan to express a view about things such as wind farm development, subject to the 50 MW threshold that would turn a scheme into a nationally significant infrastructure project.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing the debate. I represent the constituency of Aberconwy. It has one of the largest wind farms currently proposed, Gwynt y Môr, which is a £2.2 billion development. It was opposed by local residents and the local authority, but it was approved by the current leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), when he was Environment Minister. It is a strategic development, and I understand that under the Localism Bill it is likely that such a decision would be made at the centre rather than at local level.

Although the developers promised a significant community compensation package, because the plan was opposed by local residents and the local authority, when approval was given by central Government the compensation package was vastly reduced. Would that issue be addressed in the Localism Bill?

It should be. We want to spell out with rather more precision exactly how local communities can benefit from the approval of wind farm development, where appropriate. There has been a lack of clarity about that until now. We also want to look more generally at how one can capture the benefit of what is called “planning gain” for communities within that context. There will be a hold for neighbourhoods in that regard, and they will be able to benefit in a more systematic and transparent way than they do at the moment. It will be possible for things such as wind farms to be dealt with in a neighbourhood plan. However, any such plan must be consistent with the overarching national policy that we intend to set out in the national planning priorities framework.

I hope that that has dealt with a number of the issues raised, although I have not been able to deal with every point made in the time available. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) raised a point about a multiplicity of applications, and I will have to return to him on that. To some degree, we must delve into the realms of case law when we get to that topic, and I do not want to commit myself to that on the hoof. However, from what I have heard, I suspect that there are likely to be a number of participants in the proceedings of the Localism Bill as it makes its way through the House, and I welcome the interest shown by all my hon. Friends in that important matter.

I end by congratulating—and I think thanking—my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire. She has given me a busy time at the end of a Wednesday afternoon in dealing with the debate, and I will get back to her on any specific points that I have not been able to address.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.