Skip to main content

Community Facilities (Flitch Green)

Volume 526: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

My first preference was to entitle this debate “The Battle of Flitch Green”, but I was advised against doing so lest a Defence Minister be sent to the Dispatch Box. Nevertheless, a long drawn-out battle has taken place over this community.

Once upon a time, there was a sugar beet factory on the site of what is now the parish of Flitch Green. That, after it ceased operation, remained a monument on the landscape for quite some time, but in the wake of the Stansted airport inquiry in the 1980s, when sites were being considered for what was termed airport-related housing, the site there became one of those eventually selected and was then given the title Oakwood Park.

There were 485 houses in the original allocation, although that had been increased to 655 by 2001, and not many bricks had been placed on bricks before a further 160 were added, bringing the total to 815 houses. The original application was granted on appeal in 1998. The provision of social and community facilities was regulated by a section 106 obligation imposed by the planning directorate. There were specified a multipurpose community hall, a village car park, sports pitches, a local equipped area for play and a neighbourhood area for play. These were meant to be provided by the time the 501st house was completed. None was.

Not part of the obligation, but glowingly described in published literature, no doubt designed to arouse interest in the village, were locations for shops, a surgery and a pub, as well as a landscaped area. The brochures stated:

“Shops including a small supermarket will be provided to serve the local convenience needs of the new residents”,

and

“A pub/restaurant with dedicated parking is proposed for a site overlooking the village green”.

The brochures went on to say:

“The village green will be of traditional form surrounded by avenues of large trees . . . and will be of a size to accommodate a cricket pitch and junior soccer pitch and could incorporate a small pavilion.”

Picture the scene; it might even have come from one of my books! However, there is no need to imagine, because there were colour illustrations in the brochures showing an idyllic village in a rural setting—but before my hon. Friend the Minister is tempted by my words to ring a local estate agent and ask about vacancies, he should beware. If he were to go there, he would not find any of the facilities that I have just described.

The good news—the only good news—was that the development company, Enodis, has built a community hall and laid out a young children’s playground. The bad news, however, is that the hall was only very recently adopted because, in the words of the planning authority, Uttlesford district council,

“its appalling construction required a great deal of remedial work to make it acceptable.”

That is the limit of what has been done at Flitch Green. Not even the roads are of adoptable standard.

The technique employed by the development company to delay the provision of facilities which, if not legally bound, it was honour-bound to provide, was to put in a fresh planning application for additional houses. In those circumstances, it seems that the court would not grant the planning authority an enforcement because it would theoretically be possible that some change might be made in the layout of the plans for the village.

The application would be refused by the district council, it would go to appeal, it would be turned down on appeal, it would go to judicial review, it would be turned down again, and then the process could recommence. Another planning application could go in. That is how the time has been spent—going to court, going to inquiry, and not providing facilities that people were entitled to expect. Enodis could fairly be called a sort of corporate artful dodger.

I make allowance for the fact that the contractor, Colonnade, which was to have built the village centre, went into liquidation, which has caused a separate hold-up. The district council has also given approval for another 98 homes, which brings the total to well over 900.

There are currently three planning applications before the council. First, there is an application for a village centre adjacent to the one that has fallen foul of the collapse of Colonnade. Secondly, there is an application for a sports field. It is not the original sports field, but a much better one that has apparently been given approval by Sport England. Unfortunately, it is not in the parish of Flitch Green, but in the neighbouring parish of Felsted. Thirdly, an application has been made for a further 107 houses. Even if Uttlesford district council were minded to approve the applications, Enodis, on past form, would probably build only the houses, as it would be under no obligation to implement the planning permissions given for the village centre and the sports field.

There we have it. Some of my constituents have been living in Flitch Green for 10 years, but there is still no sign of the shops, no sign of the pub or restaurant and no sign of the village green. In 2008 a leaflet was circulated by Enodis stating, “We want your views.” Of the then 650 households, only 18% responded—I suspect that most were completely feed up with Enodis by that time. To the question, “Do you want the playing field and large area of play the other side of the Stebbing brook?”, meaning in Felsted, as shown on Enodis’s latest planning application, 121 people said no and 34 said yes. Enodis took the number of abstentions to mean approval, and of course the people of Felsted were not asked. However, when views are expressed by the elected parish councils of Flitch Green and Felsted and the elected district council of Uttlesford, Enodis simply does not listen.

Enodis’s latest line is to say that there are deficiencies in Uttlesford district council’s five-year housing supply chain and that that should be a factor in determining the application for the final phase of Flitch Green. That would mean another 107 houses on the site that was designated as the sports field in the original master plan. The parish of Flitch Green would like the sports field to be in that original position. It does not approve of the line of Stebbing brook being crossed and the playing fields put on the other side. The parish of Felsted certainly does not approve of that, because it fears that in-filling would follow between the sports field and the present boundary of buildings in the parish.

What worries me is that, were the Government prepared to go along with the argument being put forward by Enodis, Uttlesford district council would be denied the ability to make its own plans for housing provision for the future. That would certainly flout the opinion of the two parish councils. In those circumstances, one would be tempted to ask, “What price localism then?” I say to the Minister, after this appalling history of manipulation, that Enodis’s disgraceful and contemptuous attitude shows that this is a battle it should not be allowed to win.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing this debate and on the powerful way in which he has put forward his constituents’ concerns. I am sure that everyone who has listened to the debate will understand why those concerns have been raised.

The debate raises important issues about the provision of community facilities, the planning process, the operation of section 106 agreements and the means by which planning gain—as it is often referred to—is captured for the benefit of the community. Those are important issues of policy that the Government are determined to address, because often it is the failure to give communities a tangible benefit from development and growth that makes them wary of growth and creates opposition. The Government, on the other hand, are keen to encourage sensible and sustainable development in the right place and with the support of local residents.

My right hon. Friend naturally and rightly concentrated on the battle of Flitch Green. Earlier, when we were unsure when we would reach this Adjournment debate, I would have been grateful for his having secured the debate on the battle of Flitch Green, so that one of my hon. Friends from the Ministry of Defence would have had to reply. As it is, however, I am glad to be able to respond while it is still today. He has set out in detail the history of the matter and difficulties faced by residents in securing the facilities that they were anticipating as part of a broader development. He pointed out that extant planning applications are under consideration, so he will understand why, owing to the responsibility of my Department and the Secretary of State in the planning process, I cannot comment in detail on the facts of the matter.

I hope, however, that I can assure my right hon. Friend that the Government are seized of the policy issues of concern that he raised. It seems that what has happened falls within permitted conduct under the law as it stands. That highlights the fact, however, that there are some deficiencies in the legal framework. Planning obligation is a well established concept and a valuable one. Planning obligations are legal agreements between developers and local authorities, and deliver what is necessary to make a development acceptable in order to obtain planning consent. It is necessary for planning obligations to meet clear policy and statutory tests to be acceptable considerations in the grant of planning permission.

Fortunately, the data that our Department have show that generally planning obligations deliver many millions of pounds worth of community facilities, affordable housing, open spaces, education facilities and other benefits each year. In by far the majority of cases, those obligations are delivered successfully. I am sorry to hear the history of my right hon. Friend’s case, where that does not seem to have happened, but generally they are a useful tool. Of course, there are always exceptions—and they are to be regretted—but I cannot say more about that.

It is worth setting out the current policy and legal position. Where developers have breached their legal obligations in this regard, the planning authority has powers to take legal action to enforce them, and that is done through the courts. The local authority also has the right to carry out the obligation itself and then recover any expenses incurred from the developer in question. As with any enforcement decision, there are resource implications, and the local authority has to weigh up the best course of action in each case. I am sure that Uttlesford council, as a responsible local authority, has done that.

We are seeking to revisit the approach through which we capture this planning gain. As my right hon. Friend rightly said, it seems that the situation in his case relates to section 106 agreements, which, although well established, have grown in their extent. It is the Government’s intention to seek an alternative route to capture the majority of planning gain.

We will give incentives and benefits to communities through the new homes bonus, which will enable councils to benefit financially from granting permissions. However, alongside the new homes bonus, we also intend to retain and reform the community infrastructure levy, which we envisage as the principal vehicle through which planning gain will be secured for the benefit of a community in future. That will enable a local authority to levy a charge in relation to development. We are determined to ensure—this is in the Localism Bill, which is currently before this House—that a meaningful proportion of the levy will be returned to the benefit of the community in the area of the development concerned.

Compared with the use of section 106-type planning obligations, the community infrastructure levy—or CIL—provides a fairer, and more transparent and predictable mechanism for raising contributions to the sort of facilities that we have been talking about. That will enable section 106 planning obligations to be scaled back and focus more on the site-specific issues that are necessary to enable the development to be granted planning permission, such as providing screening to protect existing houses, access roads to the site and so on. The CIL will remove much of the uncertainty around section 106 contributions. CIL rates will reflect development viability and—importantly in this context—there will be a mandatory up-front charge.

The developer will pay the CIL, so some of the difficulties with enforcing the obligations that my right hon. Friend mentioned will not arise. Our proposal will be much more straightforward for both the charging authority and the developer, because the responsible developer will know the cost of their planning obligation—a cost that can be paid up front—and the local authority will know how much it will receive, will receive it and can then disburse it to the benefit of the community. That will have significant benefits, avoiding both the need to go through the convoluted procedures for enforcing a section 106 agreement and the possibility of applications being made to vary it, which can take a long time and be the subject of lengthy disputes—I am not entirely sure whether that occurred in this case, but it seems that it may have done.

The situation in my right hon. Friend’s constituency has to be dealt with under the law as it stands, so I regret that that legislation, which is currently before the House, may be of only limited comfort. However, I hope that it is of some comfort for the future that lessons can be drawn from how section 106 agreements work. I would not want anyone to think that section 106 agreements do not work properly in the majority of cases. However, we believe that a revised CIL will be a fairer and better means of dealing with the problem and will, I hope, give residents greater certainty that if they move into a development, the sort of developments for which they hope will, in fact, take place.

Finally, my right hon. Friend’s point about the views of the parish council and the neighbourhood is also important, and is a further part of the Government’s reforms—in the Localism Bill and our allied planning reforms—which will involve creating neighbourhood planning. Once those reforms are in place, parish councils in areas such as Flitch Green will be in a position to develop their own neighbourhood plans, which will be able to specify exactly those sorts of issues, such as where playing fields or community facilities might be. Subject to the support of the community in a referendum, that plan will be incorporated into the district council’s local development framework and its development plan. In the future, therefore, communities such as Flitch Green and Felsted will have the real and genuine ability to control where development goes.

I am afraid that that is a promise of better things for the future, rather than something through which I can offer immediate comfort to my right hon. Friend, but I know that he has done his constituents a great service by raising this issue in his trenchant and characteristically eloquent way. I hope that he will at least be able to say to them that the Government are taking steps for the future to make sure that planning obligations are delivered in an appropriate, effective and transparent way that is to the general benefit of communities. I am grateful to him for raising those issues with me, and I am sure that the House will appreciate it.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.