[Relevant documents: Uncorrected evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, Sustainable development in the National Planning Policy Framework, HC 1480-i; and uncorrected oral evidence to the Communities and Local Government Committee, National Planning Policy Framework, HC 1526-i, with written evidence published by the Committee on the internet and HC 1526-ii.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of the National Planning Policy Framework.
It is a pleasure to be able to discuss our draft national planning policy framework and to hear the contributions of Members from all parties.
I welcome the new shadow Secretary of State to our exchanges for the first time. He is the third shadow Communities Secretary in a year, and we hope he will be around a little longer than his predecessors. He is a regular fixture on Thursdays, and I know he will be much missed in business questions, but we are looking forward to his contributions over the months ahead. May I also recognise the contribution of the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)? As we all know, she is a doughty political fighter and quite a political pugilist, but she has approached planning issues with a desire to find common ground and a pragmatism appropriate to the issue.
Planning transcends the life of any one Government and builds the foundation on which future generations will live their lives. That is why it is so important, and why we should take the opportunity to put in place a planning system that ensures that the countryside is available in the future for our children and their children as it is for us, that they have decent homes to grow up in and that they live in places that are safe and encouraging rather than threatening and miserable. Those are the purposes of the planning system, and it is important that we have a shared perspective on them.
Today’s debate comes from a commitment that I made to this House and the other place when we published the draft national planning policy framework in July. I think it is right to have Parliament debate the proposals, and we have all afternoon for the debate so that the many Members present can put their views and their constituents’ views on the record. The same debate will be held in the House of Lords in the week ahead, and of course the debates follow a 12-week consultation period that closed this week. There have been vigorous contributions from all sides—never has planning policy been so popular an issue for debate. Despite what people might think, I welcome that, because it is of prime importance and should be discussed in the open rather than the preserve of specialists. The idea that planning policy statements should simply appear having been discussed behind closed doors, rather than engaging people, is the wrong one. Scrutiny of them is a good thing.
It is absolutely right that we have an open and transparent debate. Will the Minister therefore explain in his speech the funds given to the Conservative party by property developers, and the secret meetings and breakfast meetings with them? What influence did they have on the drafting of the draft framework?
I am very disappointed that the hon. Gentleman has taken that line. Property developers had no influence whatever on our draft policy framework.
Let me say something about the consultation in which we are engaged. The consultation closed on Monday, as Members will know. It would be neither fair nor legal for me to pre-empt the decisions that we will make in responding to the more than 10,000 responses that we received, as I am sure hon. Members will appreciate. Members might come up with brilliant suggestions and ideas in this afternoon’s debate, either by themselves or on behalf of their constituents, but I will be constrained from saying, “I agree with you; we’ll put it in,” or, “We’re minded to do that,” because that would prejudice our consideration of all the responses. Given that the consultation closed on Monday, Members will not be surprised to hear that I have not yet had time to review all the responses.
Let me say in a supportive way that we could have all the consultation in the world, but at the end of the day Ministers have to be brave, and that goes for every Minister I have known in my 30 years in this House. On the one hand, people want to protect their environment. On the other, 7 million people in this country need to be in decent housing, and there would be £2.5 billion-worth of infrastructure ready to be built—even for energy from waste—if the Government gave the go-ahead.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but it is important to tackle the fundamentals. That is why, following our commitment to review the planning framework, our analysis was that it needed a fundamental review, even though it would have been easy simply to tinker with it and make minor changes. That is why we have made the proposals that we have and why I wanted the fullest possible consideration. We will take all representations into account. I am convinced that we will have a planning system that everyone in this Chamber can be proud of, and that we will take this opportunity to create a planning system that offers future generations better prospects.
Let me make some progress, and then I will of course give way to hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber.
Let me set out the reasons for our reforms in context, which relates to the point that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) raised. The first and overriding objective is to put power in the hands of local people. Over the years, we developed arrangements in this country—most recently through the regional strategies—that sought to resolve issues outside what people thought of as their communities. I understand the reasons for that and I do not think that those efforts were ill-intentioned by any means. However, the consequence has been that many people in this country feel that planning is something that is done to them, rather than something that involves them. I am not alone in saying that: the problem was also recognised in our discussions in Committee on the Localism Bill. The last planning Minister in the previous Government, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said:
“I inherited the regional spatial strategies and quickly found that they had…few friends…what was clear to me…was that our regional spatial strategies and our approach to planning…was too top-down”.—[Official Report, 30 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 272WH.]
This is really about definitions. I asked the Prime Minister a question about that, and he said that the measures were about giving power to local people, but does the Minister think that local people and local authorities are the same thing? These measures will give power to local authorities and planning committees, not to local people.
I am pleased that the hon. Lady has raised that point. We are indeed giving power to local councils, which are the democratically elected representatives of local people. We are also scrapping the regional strategies that impose decisions on them. Crucially, however, the Localism Bill—many Members participated in the debates on it—creates the legal right to a neighbourhood plan in any parish, town or neighbourhood below the local authority level. It is absolutely right that neighbourhoods should have that ability, which is part of our reforms.
My constituents have similar concerns to those of my hon. Friends about the Bill’s impact. The biggest issue in my constituency is protection of the green belt. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the legal opinion obtained by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which says that green-belt policy
“could be undermined by the sustainable development presumption together with the expectation that applications should be approved unless there are adverse impacts to policies in the NPPF as a whole.”
I hope that he will take that opinion on board, or does he have an alternative legal opinion that counters what the CPRE has said?
I will address that point explicitly later in my remarks. I might just say, however, that the hon. Gentleman’s predecessor in Sunderland—
I do apologise; the hon. Gentleman is from Sefton. I will therefore not make the point that I intended to.
Let me continue the point about the importance of putting local people in charge. The British people are a pretty bolshie lot, and when we feel that we are being dictated to from above, the natural response is to seek to frustrate, thwart, resist and impede whatever is being imposed without enjoying the consent of the community. We know from this country and around the world that it is good practice to involve people in plan-making early and to allow them a genuine say in producing plans for their area, because then they will participate with enthusiasm. People are right to resist when bad planning is done to them, but when good planning is done with them, they will prefer to get involved and create positive places. That is why we are scrapping the regional strategies and the right of the Planning Inspectorate to rewrite local plans and why we are introducing compulsory pre-application scrutiny for major developments and neighbourhood plans to ensure a local voice.
Local decisions by local councils are important, but may I draw the Minister’s attention to what has happened in my constituency within 48 hours of the consultation closing? The neighbouring local authority, Tendring, decided to allocate land for about 3,000 houses immediately adjacent to the borough boundary with Colchester, 2 miles away from the nearest community in Tendring. In other words, our neighbouring authority is putting its housing on Colchester’s doorstep. Who will make the decision there?
My hon. Friend will understand that planning Ministers cannot comment on specific situations such as the one that he raises, for reasons that he knows. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) also knows perfectly well why that is not possible. However, over the years there have been examples of precisely such situations, which is why the Localism Bill will impose a legal duty on neighbouring authorities and other public bodies to co-operate, so that both authorities take into account the consequences for the neighbouring area’s infrastructure. That is an important test in the Localism Bill—indeed, it was strengthened by consensus with the Opposition—that will provide the kind of general protections that my hon. Friend seeks.
I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) and then make some progress.
I thank the Minister for everything that he is saying about delivering localism in planning, for which those of us on the Government Benches have campaigned over many years. We are therefore pleased to see it happening. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that the reason we have to make such fundamental changes is that the system we inherited was not fit for purpose? The top-down approach did not work, which is why we did not have the sustainable development that we should have had during the 13 years of the Labour Government.
My hon. Friend is right, and that is now a shared view. As I have said, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne has said that. Indeed, in our conversations about the Localism Bill, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), whom I congratulate on his promotion, also recognised that the regional approach would go and not come back. It has not worked for the reasons that I have mentioned: it sets people against the planning system.
I want to make some progress, because lots of Members want to speak and I do not want to take up too much time. However, I will take some interventions a little later.
The first objective is to make the local plan central to what happens and to transfer power to local communities. That has to be crucial. However, if we are to put local councils and people in neighbourhoods in charge, it is essential that the policy context in which they operate is accessible. They have to be able to understand it. When I first started to review the planning policy statements and planning policy guidance notes over a year ago, I asked for them to be brought into my office. They had to be carried in—in boxes. It is not possible to put local councils and members in charge if they have to wade through more than 1,000 pages of national policy. The policy has accreted over time. It was not the intention of the previous Government or Governments before them to accumulate such a mountain of policy; it has grown up piecemeal over time. That is why—to respond to the hon. Member for Huddersfield, who has now left the Chamber—it was important to take the issue seriously and review the policy from first principles. That is what we have done to make it accessible. The proposals that we have received to boil it down and distil it reflect a consensus in the House and beyond. In the submissions that have come in from the groups outside the House, I have seen many detailed “track changes” comments, and none of the proposals departs significantly from the type and length of document that we are aiming for.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having elevated the debate on planning policy, which is vital for the economic future of the country. May I also tell him, however, that all those who work in the planning system now need certainty? Will he move on as quickly as possible from the consultation to provide a definitive national planning policy framework, to give us that certainty?
I will, and I will have more to say about that shortly.
I want to make some progress, because this is principally an opportunity for colleagues to make speeches and contributions to the consultation.
We need to make planning policy accessible if we are to achieve our aim of putting local communities in charge. That is the purpose of our reforms. It is also important to consider the effects of the policy regime that we have established. I do not pretend that the planning system is the only factor behind the low levels of house building and the difficulties in commercial development that we have at the moment. That would clearly be wrong. There are also difficulties in accessing finance, for example; there is a shared recognition that that is an important factor at this time. It is important to recognise, however, that the planning system makes an important contribution.
I have been looking at the joint submission from Shelter, Crisis, Homeless Link, the National Housing Federation—representing social housing providers—and the Chartered Institute of Housing. It says that
“reducing the quantity of policy will help simplify the planning system, make it more accessible to all users and will remove a significant barrier to much needed development”
—in this case, in social housing. Recent statistics show that in the five years to 2010, real spending on planning, through planning applications, increased by 13%, while the number of applications fell by 32%. By my reckoning, that means that the average cost has risen by something like 66%. That is a factor.
May I just finish this point?
The British Chambers of Commerce has said that the system is
“too complicated, too costly and too uncertain. It creates mistrust…and holds back our recovery.”
With that breadth of analysis, it is important to recognise that the planning system is one of the factors that is leading to the silting up of the system.
Does the Minister not recognise that, if he takes the period of five years from 2005 to 2010, which embraced the last two years of the boom before the crash and the three years of recession, he will inevitably get some pretty distorted outcomes? That is not a fair parallel. Does he also accept that, in 2007, the last year before the recession, the figure of 207,000 net additions to new housing was the highest for 20 years? It is therefore completely nonsensical of him to say that the previous system was not capable of delivering new housing.
It will be obvious to the right hon. Gentleman that I am taking a long-term view. I have said explicitly that the faults that I have diagnosed relate to the long term, but he chooses to cite particular years. Looking at the whole life of the previous Government, from 1998 to 2010, the number of homes built and completed in England was lower than under any previous Government since the war. He is therefore alone in thinking that there is not a problem, and that we do not have a lower level of house building than is appropriate.
Let me outline the consequences of the problem for families. If we persist, over the long term, in building a far lower number of homes than the number of households that are being formed, the inevitable consequence will be poverty. People will have to spend more in rent and have less to spend on their children. It will also be more difficult for people to get on to the housing ladder for the first time. We know that the average age for first-time buyers who do not have assistance from their parents is now getting close to middle age, at nearly 40. We want people to be able to get on; we do not want them to have to make choices.
I received an e-mail from a member of the public, which stated:
“Being part of a couple with a 2-year-old son, living in a flat…we are desperate to buy a family home with a garden, but have little chance.
The social consequences of house prices being so high seem catastrophic to me—both parents being fixated on earning enough to pay for a mortgage, both too”—
the next word might be unparliamentary—
“for much of a social life, every…penny going on the mortgage with nothing left over for holidays that I took for granted as a child. We are currently having to decide whether to abandon our families and friends and go and live…where neither of us has lived before…or to stay in our flat, with our son unable to run around without the people underneath us banging on the ceiling!”
There is a problem for families that we need to address by changing the system and dealing with some of the long-term flaws. That is the purpose of this policy.
I am with the Minister when it comes to abolishing the regional spatial strategies. They were authoritarian and anti-democratic in just apportioning numbers of houses to particular regions. I have concerns about the proposals, however. One of the factors in helping urban regeneration and the renaissance of our cities has been the prioritisation of brownfield land over greenfield land. The Minister is talking about poverty and the creation of new households, but those problems have to be dealt with in our cities. I am worried that his proposals will lead not to green-belt development but to green-land development at the expense of our cities. Will he comment on that?
Of course I will. Let me turn to some of the concerns that have been raised, of which that is one. I shall preface that by saying that it is not our intention to change the purpose of the planning system. There has been some suggestion that the proposals represent a fundamental change in what the system is about, but they do not. They will, quite rightly, balance the environmental, the social and the economic, and there is no change in that regard, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has declared.
Let me turn to some of the concerns that have been expressed, including the definition of brownfield sites that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned. It is true that the draft national planning policy framework does not use the words “brownfield sites”. However, that is not for the reasons that have been imputed to us. The reasons are rather more prosaic. Many Members will have participated in debates during the previous Parliament in which we discussed the fact that it was being presumed that gardens that had ended up being included in the brownfield definition were available to be developed. One of the first things that we did was to take them out of the definition.
I am responding to the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer).
In the draft framework, we decided not to use what had been quite a crude definition. Another example—something that I did not know before—is that a china clay quarry in Cornwall apparently falls outside the definition of a brownfield site. Paragraph 165 of the national planning policy framework therefore contains a requirement on councils to allocate land of the lowest environmental value. That was suggested by the environmental charities. There have been representations to say that some strictly brownfield land that has been developed has, over the years, been put back into use to support nature, especially in our cities. That was the reason behind having a more environmentally based definition.
Without pre-empting the consultation, which would clearly be wrong, let me say that there have been suggestions that, because some people have got used to the word “brownfield”, they might appreciate some reference—some explanation—that links the policy to that. That is a representation that has been made, and given that it is our intention, for all the reasons that the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton suggests, to ensure that we bring back into use first land that has been derelict or previously developed and that makes a lesser contribution than green fields, that will be made absolutely clear when we respond.
The planning framework also requires local authorities to bring forward an additional 20% spare land beyond the sites required to meet their five-year housing supply, so it is entirely possible that one sixth of all the land made available in the plan is not developed, while the rest of it is developed. We could therefore see development on land that is certainly not of the least environmental value.
It is the Government’s clear intention that it should be the case, as it is a requirement to bring forward land of the least environmental value, but let me comment on my hon. Friend’s point about the sixth year, as it were. If we are putting local plans first and genuinely want a local plan that is sovereign and determines what will happen for the future life of a community, it must be deliverable, sound and accurate. What is known empirically across the country is that not every piece of land that is allocated turns out to be capable of development in the way anticipated. Sometimes there can be fewer homes developed on a site than originally thought, with an allocation for six or seven homes ending up with only four or five, for various reasons—perhaps a tree is subject to a tree preservation order, for example. There is always some fallout. The proposal in the consultation suggests that if we are to plan for the number of homes that are really needed—there is no longer any number being handed down from above—we have to anticipate some drop-off, so a buffer is necessary. It is not a requirement to build any more homes than needed; the purpose is simply to make the plan as accurate as it can be.
I want to make some progress, as I want Members to able to contribute to the debate. Let me deal with a couple of important issues that have been raised about the definition of sustainability.
I will give way to the Chairman of the Select Committee.
Let me ask the Minister about the issue of 20%, as it is important to the context of building on land where that building will have the least environmental damage. If there is an extra 20%, will local authorities be able to prioritise which sites should be developed first within the 120% requirement? If not, it will be open to developers to cherry pick which sites they build on and it will be the land associated with the least environmental damage that will be left behind, as they will be the hardest sites to build on, while the greenfield sites will be built on first.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point; it is exactly the intention that councils should be able to prioritise and to bring forward the lowest environmentally valuable sites first. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point.
I want to make some progress, and the hon. Lady intervened earlier.
Let me say something about the definition of sustainability, which I know has attracted some interest. The definition that we have used is the one used by previous Governments. It is the Brundtland commission’s definition, which has stood the test of time. It has been suggested that it is a high-level definition, so there should be a further elaboration of it. Hon. Members will know that planning policy statement 1, for example, contains the Brundtland definition in one paragraph and includes an extra 10 lines referring to the sustainable development strategy. That has been part of the previous document and some organisations and perhaps some Members have suggested that we should make reference to the current version of the sustainable development strategy, the 2005 document.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. It appears that rumours are circulating that Colonel Gaddafi has been captured. If that is true, will you ask a Secretary of State or a Minister to make a statement to the House today?
What I can say is that it is up to the Secretary of State to decide whether to make a statement. The point has been noted and everybody is aware of it. Has the Minister finished?
That was more hope than expectation, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will finish shortly. I did not think anything more interesting would happen today than our discussion of the national planning policy framework, but I was clearly mistaken.
The Government have not revoked the sustainable development strategy of 2005. Members of the Environmental Audit Committee who interviewed me last week asked some questions about it and it is the subject of one of the suggestions that have been made in the consultation. Let me explain why it was not included in the draft as it stands. As I say, it has not been revoked or repealed in any way. It is simply a matter of whether a document produced in 2005 has the timelessness of the Brundtland definition.
It was necessary to update the 1999 strategy in 2005. Six years on, there are some respects in which thinking on sustainability has progressed. For example, there is the idea that the separate pillars of the economy, the environment and the social aspects of sustainability can be traded off, one against the other. Some people argue—and I think there is some merit in doing so—that that is a rather defensive position and that one should be looking for positive improvements to the environment, not simply to trade-off. That is very much the thinking in the Government’s natural environment White Paper, which talked of a net gain for nature. In response to the consultation we could listen to such representations, but let me say simply that our intention was to make sure that we are not stranded in our thinking when we might have a more progressive approach to sustainability.
I am not taking any more interventions, as Mr Deputy Speaker has indicated that he thinks I have spoken for long enough.
It was the Minister himself, not me, who said that he would be brief in order to allow Back Benchers to contribute. The Minister may carry on.
You are correct and punctilious, Mr Deputy Speaker, in holding me to my commitment.
Let me deal with another issue of concern—transitional arrangements.
I am taking no more interventions.
It follows from everything I have said about the purpose of these reforms, which is to advantage local plan-making by putting local communities in charge rather than have planning dealt with by appeal through the planning inspectorate, that in the transitional arrangements we will put in place—again, in response to the consultation; we have had many representations on what they should be—we will be clear that no local council or authority that has developed a plan that expresses the future of its community will be at all disadvantaged. We are not going to take decision making from them. Part of the transitional arrangements will ensure that the community is advantaged rather than disadvantaged from the outset. It would pre-empt the consultation if I were to say which suggested approaches we favour, but I make the commitment to the House that we will safeguard and strengthen the ability of local councils to be in charge of their own destiny rather than the reverse.
As was recognised by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, this debate has provided an opportunity for every Member to participate in the reform of a planning system that, over time, had lost its capability of delivering its purpose of planning for communities in a way that we all want. The reforms are necessary to make sure that we have an environment that our future generations can cherish as we do. It is important to give voices to people in communities and, for all the reasons I mentioned about sustainability, it is important to improve and enhance our environment and to restore habitats where we can do so. We also want to improve the standards of design, which have turned many people against development. We also want, of course, to deliver the jobs and homes that the next generation needs, but not at the expense of these important aspects of the environment that we cherish.
I look forward to hearing the contributions of hon. Members this afternoon and to reading all the responses to the consultation that have been made. At the end of this process, I say to every hon. Member, we will have a planning system that reflects the best endeavours and the best intentions of everyone who wants to contribute positively to this process. It will be something of which we can be proud for future generations.
Like the Minister, I would like to express my appreciation to my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). I thank her and my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) and for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) for their work on the Opposition Front Bench in holding the Government to account. I also welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) to the shadow Department for Communities and Local Government team. Alongside them, and on either side of me today, we have continuity in the form of my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and for Derby North (Chris Williamson).
I welcome today’s debate. I am sorry that the Secretary of State did not open it—although he has done us the courtesy of attending—because given that he is seeking, with the Minister, to make the most fundamental change to our planning system for more than two generations and given that this is the first opportunity for the House to debate the matter since the publication of the national planning policy framework, it would have been good to hear from him. I look forward to the next occasion. Nevertheless, this debate, which we welcome, is extremely timely. The Minister expressed it well: planning at times and to some people can seem rather technical, but in fact it is about how we shape the places in which we live and how we build our communities. That is what Civic Voice has described as “everyday England”.
We know that there is a finite quantity of land. As Mark Twain famously said,
“buy land because they’ve stopped making it”.
There are many competing demands on land. England is a very densely populated country, and the population is growing. The planning system’s job is to help us to meet our future needs for housing, jobs, economic development, transport, growing food, tackling climate change and generating energy in a way that balances all these things—the right sort of development in the right place, which, in the end, is what we all want—while protecting the natural environment, by which I mean the moors and the mountains, the rivers and the lakes, the green fields and the countryside that make up our islands’ unique and beautiful landscapes. They matter because we cherish their beauty and their capacity to lift our spirits and because, as human beings have belatedly learned, they sustain our very existence. We need planning to protect this environment because, in the absence of that balance and if we fail to reconcile
“competing economic, social and environmental priorities”—
in the words of the Conservative planning Green Paper—there would be a free-for-all.
I welcome the idea of simplification and the principle of greater clarity, and I support enabling planning decisions to be taken as near as possible to those whom they will affect. It was, after all, a Labour Government who introduced the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which helped local councils to designate green belt. However, the central problem raised by the draft NPPF and the reason the Government are in difficulty is that Ministers have failed so far to convince people that they have got this balance right. It seems that even Conservative-controlled Tunbridge Wells borough council, which is the Minister’s own local authority, is unhappy about his reforms. It is reported that the council “strongly disagreed” with the Government’s suggestion that the NPPF had the right approach towards sustainable development—I shall return to that point—and argued that it was
“vague and open to interpretation”.
The council also strongly disagreed that green belt would be protected under the NPPF. People are entitled to ask, if the Minister is having difficulty persuading his own Conservative-controlled council to support his plans, how anybody else can be expected to have confidence in them.
We are fortunate in Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent to have a robust local core spatial plan. I do not know whether that applies to Tunbridge Wells, but much of the country does not have such a plan. Is there a case for arguing that the Government should take a considered pause in the implementation of the framework and resource councils sufficiently so that they can put local plans in place?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I shall come to it later because it is fundamental to the likelihood of what the Government say that they want to achieve—few would disagree with the ambition—actually happening, given the nature of the framework and the issues with its implementation.
I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with much of what my right hon. Friend the Minister has said. The right hon. Gentleman is implying that there was a golden age of sustainable planning under the Labour party, but clearly that was not the case. Does he agree that reducing the planning policy document from 1,000 pages to fewer than 100 pages will be good news for encouraging what we all want to see—more sustainable development in this country?
The planning policy that we all inherited had great strengths and evolved over time. My concern is that, as was argued by others during the consultations, in reducing the amount of guidance, we might end up not with greater clarity, but with greater uncertainty. In the end, all words will be argued over by developers, considered by local authorities and ultimately determined by the courts.
The right hon. Gentleman seems to be indicating that he favours the previous Labour Government’s approach of the regional spatial strategy. Is that Labour party policy?
I am interested that the hon. Gentleman reads that into my remarks. I shall say something about that in a moment. The RSS had its strengths but also its weaknesses, and we have to be perfectly honest about that.
I want to return to the point about confusion in the Government’s message. Does my right hon. Friend think that it would help if, when people asked the Government about greenfields, they did not respond by talking about green belt? They are completely different.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful point. Such responses created considerable concern while the NPPF was being considered.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is most unfortunate that my Labour-led borough council in Broxtowe has not only accepted the RSS target figure of 6,000 new houses, which means that 4,000 houses will be built on my green belt in Broxtowe, but is not waiting for the Localism Bill or the framework, which will protect the green belt? Will he speak to the Labour party in Broxtowe, urge it to pause and accept the Localism Bill and abandon the RSS targets that his Government laid down?
It sounds like the hon. Lady is describing localism in action. If the Government say that local councils should be able to take their own decisions—that point was made forcefully by the Minister—Government Members should accept that as a way of proceeding.
I am going to make a little more progress.
The ham-fisted way in which aspects of planning policy have been handled by the Government has been entirely of their own making: parts of the policy were drafted in a rush; they did not listen properly to advice; they have created uncertainty—hence the result of the consultation and the need for clarity—and, most disappointingly of all, they responded initially to criticism with retaliation. That is quite some achievement. In this respect, as in others, the Government cannot help going too far, too fast.
The Government have got themselves into this position partly because of the difficulties with their economic policy, which is central to planning reform. Everyone can now see confidence plummeting, unemployment rising, growth grinding to a halt and nothing like enough private sector jobs being created to replace those being lost in the public sector, even though we were promised last year that that was what would happen. Worst of all, however, in the face of this failure, the Government have no plan to put it right. There are some in government, not so much in DCLG but elsewhere, who have blamed the planning system for a lack of growth, even though, over the past 60 years—to respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma)—it has helped our country to build many new homes, to establish many new businesses and shops and to undertake a great deal of development.
No one is going to say that the planning system is perfect or that it cannot be improved upon—decisions could certainly be made quicker. However, given that the Government’s own impact assessment makes it clear that 85% of planning applications were approved in 2009-10, it is hard to see how it can be described as a system that stands in the way of economic growth. What worries people when they read the NPPF is the possibility that it will usher in a “big bang” development free-for-all, which no one in the House would want.
The Government did not explain exactly what they meant by giving communities a greater say. Most of my constituents who have written to me on the subject fear that they will actually give business a greater say. One of my constituents asked, “Would what the Government are doing have stopped the housing development down the road to which I objected?” Will the Government be giving communities more power to stop development? Most people who contact me want to stop it rather than support it. Are the Government creating a smokescreen by saying that they will give communities a greater say, rather than actually giving them greater power to determine the outcome of applications?
My hon. Friend has raised an important point. There are those who think that neighbourhood planning will give them the opportunity to reduce the number of houses planned for the areas in which they live—this takes us back to the point made by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry)—but I understand from the NPPF that it is a one-way lock. A neighbourhood plan cannot say, “We would like to have fewer houses than proposed by the local plan”; it can only say, “We would like to have more houses”. People who have seen neighbourhood planning as a potential way of doing what the hon. Lady wants to be done will find themselves rather disappointed.
Under the current system—I want to recognise its strengths—councils have granted developers planning permission for 300,000 new homes that have not yet been built. Why have they not been built? It is clearly not the fault of the planning system, which has done its bit. What are the Government doing about the fact that the number of new homes built in England in the first year under the coalition was the lowest for at least 20 years, and about the fact that plans for 200,000 new homes have been abandoned since their election because of the chaos and uncertainty created by their planning proposals? That is but one example of the way in which the Government’s draft framework is leading to confusion.
The Government hope that planning reform will help growth to get going again, and we all want that. However, their actions in rushing reform in a way that has lost people’s confidence and hurrying to try to abolish the regional spatial strategies have led to uncertainty among planners, councils, developers and the courts. As a result, the system may slow down while everyone works out what the new words mean.
I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees that retaining the “brownfield first” policy, under which the proportion of property built on brownfield increased between 1989 and 2010, is the answer to many of the current problems. It would, for instance, solve the problem raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), whether it applied to green belt or greenfield. Does he think that one of the reasons for its absence is the attachment of developers— who, in my constituency, have been buying up land in both green belt and greenfield—to the Conservative party?
The developers must speak for themselves, but I cannot understand why the Government have abandoned what was a very successful “brownfield first” policy. The fact that they have done so has raised public concerns.
Public confidence is very important. We all accept that the planning system needs public support in order to work. Let me say, with all respect, that describing those who have expressed genuine concerns about the draft NPPF, including such well-known revolutionaries and radicals as the National Trust—I suppose that I should declare my membership of that radical and revolutionary organisation, as should other right hon. and hon. Members—as “semi-hysterical”, “left wing” and guilty of “nihilistic selfishness” was a profound mistake on the part of Ministers. Even worse was the accusation that the criticism was
“a carefully choreographed smear campaign”.
What were Ministers thinking of? Is it because they are so out of touch that, instead of listening and responding to what people were saying—as, in fairness, the Minister has today—they chose initially to attack while bulldozing onwards? That is the very opposite of what the public expect in the way of balanced discussion and proper consultation.
Nor, as the Minister knows, are the accusations true. For example, both the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England have supported housing development, in some cases on greenfield land, because they thought that it was the right thing to do. This is not about people who want no development at all; it is about the Government’s recognition that the way in which they approached the matter at the outset was a mistake. We need only look at the size of the petitions that have been received to see the extent of the concern that is felt. It is fair to say that recently, including today, we have observed a more emollient tone, and I for one welcome that; but it is not before time.
It is clear that, having gone about this in the wrong way to start with, the Government will have to make some big changes in the right direction. Paragraph 14 of the NPPF contains the
“presumption in favour of sustainable development”
that was originally announced in the Chancellor's “The Plan for Growth” in March, which also used a phrase—
“the default answer to development is ‘yes’”
—that is repeated in paragraph 19 of the NPPF. That has created a lot of anxiety, because it suggests decision-making that is automatic rather than considered and because, in the words of the National Trust, it constructs “a fundamentally unbalanced system”.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the
“presumption in favour of sustainable development”
will make it considerably harder to refuse environmentally damaging development, even when it harms sites of special scientific interest? Would it not be helpful for the Government to say today that they would rule out planning for any kind of development on SSSIs?
That point has been raised by a number of organisations in response to the consultation, and I shall put a specific point to the Minister about it shortly.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I have given way a number of times already, and I am anxious to make progress.
Given the primacy of the sustainable development presumption in policy, given that so much flows from it, and given that no one in the House wants development at any price, the Government need to get the definition of sustainable development right. The Environmental Audit Committee has already made clear its view on which definition should be used. As the Minister will know, in a report published in March, it called for the inclusion of the five internationally recognised principles of sustainable development that were set out in the 2005 sustainable development strategy, which, as I recall, the then Opposition supported at the time, as I do now.
I listened carefully to the argument presented by the Minister today, and I hope that the Government will bear it in mind when they produce their revised draft, because there is a risk that in the absence of a complete definition, there will be more argument about what the term means. The last Government, with support from the then Opposition, replaced the original Brundtland definition with the 2005 definition, and I was not persuaded by what the Minister said about why that should not endure in time. If we stick with it, it will be well understood and enduring.
I strongly agree with what my right hon. Friend is saying. Does he agree with me that it is necessary not only to have a proper and full definition of sustainable development, but to establish a link between it and the operational principles that govern the handling of planning applications? That point was made very well by the Town and Country Planning Association in its submission. The absence of operational principles allowing implementation of the overall definition is one of the greatest weaknesses of the current NPPF draft.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. I am sure that the revised draft will be a slightly longer document, but the existence of a bit more material sometimes assists decisions in the planning process rather than making them more difficult.
I do not know whether the Minister has seen the CPRE legal opinion, issued by a respected planning QC, but it addresses this very point about the definition of sustainable development. The QC argues that
“there is an ambiguity which permeates the NPPF, and which is likely to lead to uncertainty in its application, with a consequent increase in the number of appeals.”
None of us wants that. This serves as a powerful argument that the Minister should reflect on possible changes, as he has undertaken to do.
The issue of sustainable development comes into play only in the absence of a local plan. Does the right hon. Gentleman therefore agree that Government and Opposition should come together to encourage local authorities to get their local plan in place early?
The NPPF says that in the absence of such a plan there should be a presumption in favour of sustainable development, but regardless of whether there is a local plan, someone must still decide about what constitutes sustainable development.
The second issue I want to address is the choice of land for development. There are many competing pressures, and we want to protect as much green space as possible. That point was made eloquently in this week’s Westminster Hall debate initiated by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry).
Because of our heritage, we have a lot of previously developed brownfield land and, building on the foundations laid by a previous Conservative Government, Lord Prescott created the “brownfield first” policy. It was very successful. Last year, 76% of new dwellings were built on brownfield sites, up from 55% in 1989. We need only look at the centre of cities like Leeds and Manchester to see that it is working, or consider that in the last decade the proportion of new homes built on the green belt fell from 4% to 2%. It is estimated that there are almost 62,000 hectares of brownfield land in England that are ready for building on, which would be enough to build about 1.2 million homes.
The Minister appears to argue that a
“land with the least environmental or amenity value”
approach is the same as this “brownfield first” policy. If that is the case, why change it? If it is not the case, then we can understand why people are worried. Indeed, the Government’s own impact assessment refers to
“removing the target and the priority for brownfield development”.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman before, and I want to make some progress.
I cannot understand why the Government wish to get rid of the “brownfield first” policy. It is simply wrong to let undeveloped land, including greenfield sites, be used while old buildings and previously developed land in our towns and cities are available. I hope the Government will reinstate that policy.
Another reason why the removal of this policy has caused so much concern is the worry that green belt and other green land will be put under greater pressure as a result. The Minister has denied that, but that confidence is not shared by others. Existing planning policy—planning policy statement 4—states that:
“Local planning authorities should ensure that the countryside is protected for the sake of its intrinsic character and beauty”.
There is also a presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt. I hope that both those points will be fully reflected in the revised draft. That would, after all, be consistent with what the Minister said today about the Government’s natural environment White Paper and the value of nature.
I ask the Minister to address the following questions. Has he seen the CPRE’s legal opinion, which argues that the new formulation of words may weaken green belt protection? I accept that the legal argument is quite technical, but it makes the point about uncertainty and it deserves an answer.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I am going to draw my remarks to a close, as many Members wish to contribute to the debate.
Has the Minister seen the legal advice of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that the draft NPPF would weaken protection for sites of special scientific interest? Will he therefore consider including SSSIs in the protection provided by paragraph 16 of the framework?
In respect of development, where would the Government’s alternative to the “brownfield first” policy leave agricultural land where someone seeks to argue that it has low environmental value? We need an answer to that. I also hope the Government will reinstate the “town centre first” policy, as removing office development from the sequential test is the wrong approach.
The framework must support affordable housing. As currently drafted, it implies that affordable housing can be traded off to make a scheme more viable. What is an “acceptable return” for landowners and developers? That is not defined, so who will make that judgment?
Turning to the important question of how this will all be implemented, because of the speed with which the Government want to introduce their new policy, there is a risk that local councils’ own development frameworks will not be ready in time. They might therefore be considered out of date or unclear, and people worry that communities might be left with little protection from developers because of the proposed presumption in favour of sustainable development. That is because paragraph 14 instructs councils to:
“Grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date.”
Only about half of councils have already drawn up local plans. What assessment has the Minister made of how long it will take all councils to get their plans in place, especially given the cuts in the number of council planning staff? In essence, the worry is that in the absence of proper transitional arrangements, a Bill that everyone has been told will put them in charge of decisions about development may leave them powerless in the face of developers because of the sustainable development presumption. I welcome what the Minister has said today, but he will have to do something about the implementation timetable.
Other issues will also have to be addressed. How will “silent”, “indeterminate” and “out of date” be determined? Will that ultimately be up to the courts? How will the duty to co-operate work in practice? One of the weaknesses in the NPPF is that no one knows what that means, apart from there being a duty to talk. This is important, of course, because planning issues to do with transport and other infrastructure extend beyond the boundaries of a single local authority. We also note that one part of England will retain a regional plan: London.
Why does the NPPF say that supplementary planning guidance cannot add to the cost of development? Where does that leave design standards, for instance? The Minister has spoken eloquently about the importance of good design, and I agree with him. Where does that leave policies for conservation areas, too, especially as they could not be said
“to bring forward sustainable development at an accelerated rate,”
which is the circumstance under which such costs are allowed? We need some clarity on this issue.
We do not want to end up with the planning system becoming increasingly combative, rather than consensual, and with applications being decided by the courts—although the courts can already take account of the draft NPPF because it can be seen as a material consideration. We are currently awaiting the Select Committee reports, but will the Minister say whether he intends there to be a further period of consultation after publishing a revised draft? That would be very welcome and would offer reassurance. Does he also intend to enable Parliament to vote on these proposals, as it should? We are changing 60 years of planning policy—we are changing the post-war planning settlement—in a way that many have concerns about, and the Government should not fear a vote in the House.
Ultimately, planning should be about helping us to find the right balance for the places in which we live and the landscapes upon which we walk. We support a streamlined and effective planning system, but it needs to make all of us feel that we can shape those places and care for that landscape. We need to feel it takes account of our need for homes, jobs and businesses to be backed, and for a countryside that we can all cherish.
Ultimately, when we leave to one side all of the words, paragraphs, material considerations and statutory obligations, the aim is to find that balance. I hope Ministers will listen to the debate that is raging on these proposals—we need only look at the number of Members wishing to speak today—because a profound change is worth making only if it makes for a better system and a better land.
Order. May I remind Members that there is an eight-minute time limit on speeches?
It is an honour to be called so early in this important debate, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I wish to start by saying how much I salute the Government’s aims in making planning more accessible for all. Most residents, and even some councillors and MPs, myself included, find the current complexity of the canon of planning law impenetrable. The existing planning system has not worked. It has not managed to deliver the number of new homes we need, nor has it been flexible enough to meet the needs of business. Of course it has also generated an enormous amount of suspicion and hostility. Last month, my local council voted to withdraw its local development framework after the planning inspector, on the basis of the existing legislation, explicitly instructed it to include more greenfield sites in its plan.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government will have failed to achieve greater localism through their reforms if we end up with more decisions being made by planning inspectors in that way?
I absolutely agree. I very much want decisions to be much more locally based. That inspector’s demand would have resulted in a crazy oversupply of land and it caused uproar in the local community, and I am indebted to my local councillors for the withdrawal. It seems that the inspector had been very much persuaded by the counsel of the large-unit developers that the council had failed to provide enough deliverable land in the first years of its plan, despite the fact that it had allocated a good quantity of land on previously developed sites to meet its current targets.
The existing system in this country requires councils to allocate sites for which they have evidence that the building can take place within the first five years and then within the second five years. After that, there is up to a decade or so of supply of more safeguarded land. However, I have watched the processes at first hand and it strikes me that what counts as evidence in planning circles is often simply argument—often that of the large-unit builders.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head in relation to planning inquiries: Swindon has had similar experiences of this, as have I. Does she agree that it is essential that in the new policy framework the concept of deliverability is construed in a way that allows local authorities to argue before planning inspectors that economic realities often mean that although on paper it may not look as though they have a five-year land supply, they in fact do. That is particularly relevant to Swindon.
I very much take that point. It is often much easier to argue that a very attractive, leafy, virgin greenfield or green-belt site can be brought forward in the early stages of the plan and it is always easier to argue that the previously developed or the brownfield sites, possibly in multiple ownership—
I apologise for stopping the hon. Lady in mid flow. Does she accept that the Government’s new homes bonus policy militates in favour of councils providing and supporting greenfield development, because they will get more money back as a result of doing so?
I am not sure that it does. The new homes bonus gives something new to councils to help them to bring forward brownfield sites, because they will have an incentive to do so through a reward—I will come on to discuss that.
The system has expressly driven greenfield and, in my area, green-belt development, almost irrespective of how much less environmentally sensitive land there is in a council area. That contradicts the previous Government’s boast that they had a genuine town centre or brownfield-first policy in the past decade. The system we have had could best be described not as a planning system but as an allocation system, with allocations made on the basis of the sites that best suit the business model of the developers, not the needs and aspirations of local communities. Despite two Treasury-led Barker reviews, it was comprehensively shown that that approach to planning failed to deliver the number of new homes that we desperately need, even during a housing boom. The added irony is that in practice land was often just land-banked for developers, as happened in my constituency, making a mockery of the stated objective of bringing these sites forward in the early part of the process.
The current draft national planning policy framework maintains a requirement on councils to show “deliverability” and “developability”, which means evidence that sites will come forward. I appreciate that the Government are clear about their intention to protect the green belt, and I wholeheartedly welcome that, as do my constituents. However, I strongly believe that their final document needs to make it much clearer to councils that they will now have a duty to work a lot harder to bring forward previously developed land first and will not be able to fall back on green belt land, as happened in the past. As I said, the new homes bonus now gives councils the confidence to invest in working harder to do that by aggressively packaging their brownfield sites and dealing with empty properties. I hope that it will be very clear to councils that they should take this much more proactive, positive approach to planning in the future. They should not just allocate sites and sit back and see what happens.
I want the Government to go even further: I would like them to drop the requirement to plan for so many years ahead. I appreciate that the industry will say that it needs certainty and possibly therefore needs to have certainty of supply for 16 or more years, but I can see that as being of benefit only for those who wish to land bank. Economic and social conditions in an area can change enormously over that time frame and the requirement to make decisions for so many years ahead may cause more consternation, opposition and planning blight needlessly. It paints a picture for communities of huge housing expansion, which may never happen. It is therefore perfectly practical, and in no way detracts from the emphasis on a plan-led process, to have councils working on a rolling five-year basis. They would then be working much more on the basis of evidence, and much less on the basis of supposition and what I consider to be argument. Plans would be based on fewer assumptions, could be much more responsive to local community needs and economic changes, and would certainly generate less suspicion and opposition.
I also appreciate that the Government have said that they will introduce some form of transitional measures to protect councils from speculative applications by builders while we are between the two planning regimes. The transitional arrangements will have to take into account the fact that a lot of local authorities have been working on their previous local plans and have a bank of published evidence that they have put together to meet the demands of those previous plans and the previous housing targets. I fear that that so-called evidence, which, as I have argued, is sometimes just argument, could be used by developers to try to prove a presumption in favour of sustainable development for their sites in future. So the transitional arrangements will need to protect councils from that risk during the period between the two documents. The draft NPPF rightly allows councils to re-evidence their proposed local plans and base housing need on relevant local factors. I hope that it will be made very clear to them that they also should do so.
In conclusion, I congratulate Ministers on wiping away this very damaging legacy from the previous Government’s planning regime and ensuring that, in the spirit of localism, local people have a chance to shape their neighbourhoods on the basis of accurate and true local need. There is a wider legacy left from the former planning regimes and the final document needs to be careful to address that.
I welcome the new draft national planning policy framework’s stated aim of reducing the bureaucratic burden of development by simplifying and reducing national planning policy and guidance, and promoting sustainable growth. However, although I support the aims, I have concerns that some important aspects have been lost or watered down, which could have a negative long-term effect on future planning decisions.
I wish to focus my remarks on the importance of retaining and enhancing traditional street and covered markets, and to express my concern that there is no mention in the new framework of the important role that such markets can play in promoting healthy communities and sustainable town centres. Markets are the original high streets; they are places where people come together to buy and sell goods, meet each other, catch up and enjoy a sense of community in a public place. Stockport has sustained a traditional market, which recently celebrated its 750th anniversary. It is situated in Market place, which is itself of historic interest with the recently refurbished market hall and Staircase house.
As well as being a source of food and goods, markets provide jobs, opportunities for social interaction and an important public space that can be used for concerts and other community events. Many big names, such as Marks & Spencer, started off on market stalls, and markets have always provided an opportunity for business start-ups. The latest innovation from the National Market Traders Federation, endorsed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is a new initiative called First Pitch, which encourages budding entrepreneurs to try their hand at market trading. In Stockport, like elsewhere, there are many empty shops, so once traders involved in First Pitch have established themselves they can perhaps could move their businesses into those shops, thus benefiting town centres as a whole.
Town centres, like markets, are facing challenges from out-of-town shopping centres and internet shopping, which have undoubtedly taken their toll. If town centres cease to be attractive to shoppers, markets in those town centres will suffer, but if markets cease to be attractive, the town centres will suffer. They complement each other.
I was pleased to attend this week’s meeting of the all-party group on town centres, chaired by the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who, I know, has a strong interest in the regeneration of town centres and in markets. It was very interesting to listen to the guest speaker, Mary Portas, who has been asked by the Government to conduct an independent review on the future of the high street. I look forward to her report.
I strongly believe that it is no use blaming out-of-town shopping centres or the internet. We must recognise that shopping habits are changing and people will make choices about where they shop. All town centres will have to think innovatively and consider developing their own unique “special offer”. I look forward to Mary Portas’s thoughts on that.
I know that Stockport is very much focused on just that and I believe that it could, in future, develop a unique special offer based on cultural and historical sites and on continuing to develop its market. It is important that Stockport does that because it faces competition from nine other shopping centres in Greater Manchester. I welcome the support for markets from the previous Government and from this Government and the Minister responsible for markets, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell)—and Hazel Grove is in Stockport.
The current planning policy statement 4 contains an express statement supporting the role of and investment in markets. It states that local planning authorities should proactively plan to promote competitive town centre environments and provide consumer choice by retaining and enhancing existing markets and, where appropriate, re-introducing or creating new ones and ensuring that markets remain attractive and competitive by investing in their improvement. That is not in the new planning policy framework and although I understand the need to reduce the volume of policy and guidance documentation, I would still urge the Minister to put in an express reference to the role of markets in contributing to retail diversity and to healthy and sustainable high streets and town centres—including farmers markets, which bring an important sense of place by providing foods that come specifically from the local area.
Traditional street and covered markets have been at the hub of our town centres for centuries and they are well able to adapt to the challenges of the future. I believe their value should be emphasised in any planning guidance for promoting consumer choice and competitive and vibrant town centres. I look forward to the Minister taking those remarks on board.
May I, too, welcome the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) to his new role? I also congratulate the two previous speakers, the hon. Members for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), who both made very thoughtful—and different—contributions. As I am being nice to everybody, let me also say that I share the ambitions outlined by the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). I really do. I also welcome this debate, because it is an opportunity to show that we can engage in constructive debate and ensure that we get this important change right.
Locally, I was a vociferous opponent of the implications of the south-west regional spatial strategy for housing in my constituency. It could have destroyed green belt and it was entirely top-down and very unpopular. I welcome the thrust of the idea contained in the Localism Bill and neighbourhood planning measures that our approach should be bottom-up, rather than top-down. I liked the Minister’s reference to the idea that planning should not be done to people, but should involve working with them. I want to achieve that, so I hope he sees my contribution as constructive because, although I like the principles, a lot of the detail needs attention.
I support the need to reform our planning system. It has achieved a great deal in the past 50 years, but it can be improved and needs to encourage further public participation at a local level. That is important. We need to reduce delays and to have more flexibility in the system and I believe that we could better deliver sustainable development. It is a great idea to reduce 1,000 pages of guidance into a more concise framework and if we were to aim for fewer than 100 pages, that would probably be good, but the clarity and detail of that reduced document must, of course, be right.
The document as it stands reads as having a presumption in favour of development as distinct from sustainable development. For me, it is crucial that we address that. I agree with previous speakers that getting the definition of “sustainable development” right in the document at the outset is crucial, and if we keep to that consistent definition throughout the document, everything else should fall into place. We should be considering the 2005 definition because it is generally accepted and we do not have the time, now we have started this, to embark on setting out a definition that might—perhaps—be better in some respects. We have set the hare running, we must go with it and, I suggest, the 2005 definition is pretty good. We must also be absolutely clear that sustainable development and sustainable economic growth are not identical concepts and we should be very careful of the language.
I want to see a planning framework that can create economic prosperity, meet the needs of all sectors of society, protect our environment and its resources and provide a pathway to a low-carbon future. Within that, my personal priority for my constituency is to ensure we have the right type of affordable housing. Under the top-down targets we have had in the past, there have been two-bedroom flats galore and not enough family houses. There are all sorts of things we must be careful about. My main objection to the housing targets from the south-west regional spatial strategy was that I could imagine executive homes and second homes galore all over our green belt, and I felt that that was totally wrong.
So, first, let us get the definition right and be absolutely clear. The five principles that have already been outlined should be carried forward. Let me quickly go through some of the detailed points that need to be addressed. I absolutely support the principle that development must be plan-led and our clear definition of sustainable development should set the scene for such local plans. I am personally quite inspired by the idea of neighbourhood plans, but we must take care that everybody has equal access to resources to enable them to be carried out. I want to be sure that the local development plan, when it is completed, has genuine sovereignty. I do not want the Treasury to have a trump card over what has been determined locally.
We have mentioned the transition period, which is crucial, over and over again. I must emphasise how important that is, given that local authorities do not have up-to-date development plans. It is totally unacceptable to say that the default answer is yes, unless the plan is in place. I have made some proposals for possible time periods in my response to the consultation.
I am also weary about the five-year land supply plus 20%. That is top-down and the situations will be different for different authorities. There should be co-operation between authorities because some authorities will have such great constraints that they will be forced into the precious green sites in their urban structure. It is important to have a wider vision so that there is co-operation and we ensure that local authority plans are assessed against each other.
The provision, quality and quantity of affordable housing is very important.
I very much support what the hon. Lady is saying, passionately, about housing. However, does she agree that the main impediment to house building in recent years has been not the planning system but money and that if the Government were really concerned about it they could reverse the 60% cut to the affordable housing budget? That would do more for housing than ripping up England’s planning system.
I think that the Government have been rather successful this year in achieving a commitment to affordable housing with the money that has been made available—170,000 is a figure not to be sniffed at, although, obviously, we all want more.
I do not want to lose the current section 106 provision, which is an important top-up to what the Government might be providing. It is very important that the Planning Inspectorate should not be able to override a local plan that has specified a certain proportion of affordable housing on particular sites.
On the “brownfield first” approach—I think that is in paragraph 165—we need to have the guidance to go with that. A very important point has been made about good-quality agricultural land, but we need a sensible sequential test. That has to be considered in the context of the whole five years, or six years, as has already been mentioned, and of the outstanding 300,000 planning permissions. We really do want to make sure that we use the least-valuable land first. That is very important.
We should also be looking at giving some encouragement to developers to implement their planning permissions, because that gives a further break. There are a lot more points that I wanted to make. I support the heritage lobby, which is all-important, and I note the importance of protecting the diversity of our local high streets. More needs to be said about neighbourhood plans and how we may amend local use classes. That needs to be clear. Transport and spatial plans are also important, as is flood risk management. Most of all, let us be clear that we need our three pillars: economic, social and environmental considerations.
I draw attention to the interests declared on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and highlight two non-pecuniary interests as an honorary fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute and as a director of the Town and Country Planning Association.
I welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) about greater clarity in the definition of sustainable development—a point on which I shall pick up—and I agree with a number of the other points she made.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) on his new appointment and on his absolutely first-rate contribution to the debate, in which he forensically analysed the Government’s failures and highlighted the key issues that will need to be addressed if we are to get some sense out of the mess we are in. Let there be no mistake about it—we are in a mess on planning, and it is a mess of the Government’s making.
The Government’s actions were based initially on an incorrect analysis of the problem. They were very happy to speak glibly about the previous system having failed to deliver, and they have continued to make those claims with no regard for the facts. I am going to put on the record, for the Minister’s benefit, the facts about net additions to the housing stock during the period of the previous Government leading up to the recession. From a low of 130,000 net additions to the stock in 2001, we saw an absolutely steady, year-on-year increase to 143,000 in 2002-03, to 155,000 in 2003-04, to 169,000 in 2004-05, to 186,000 in 2005-06, to 199,000 in 2006-07 and to 207,000 in 2007-08. That was not a system that was bust. Members on the Government Benches who oppose housing development may not have approved of it, but it was delivering more homes at a time when there was a shift in favour of brownfield development, so more of those homes were on brownfield sites and the countryside was being more effectively protected. That was a success, and it is shameful of the Government to fail to acknowledge that and to try to pretend that their radical new proposals are somehow addressing a problem of failure when they are not.
Having made their proposals on the basis of an incorrect analysis, the Government built up false expectations by promising the earth to neighbourhoods about their having the ability to refuse unwelcome planning applications. In the run-up to the general election we heard again and again that the Conservative policy of neighbourhood planning would enable neighbourhoods to refuse developments. Having built up those expectations, the Conservatives precipitately, when they came into government, acted to cancel regional spatial strategies without bothering to take the trouble to find out whether what they were doing was lawful. As a result, that policy was struck down in the High Court. What a shambles! What a way to go about doing things. In the course of doing that, they inevitably created uncertainty, and the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) rightly highlighted what all people interested in development know—that certainty is absolutely crucial if we are to have an effective planning system. I am afraid that the Government’s actions have destroyed any certainty.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No; I have limited time and I have to make some progress.
Having thrown the system into chaos—
Order. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to give way he will give way. The hon. Gentleman should sit down when he will not.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. When the system had been thrown into chaos, contributing to a collapse in planning applications, the Government’s friends in the Treasury realised the damage that was being done, so we saw the very significant U-turn in policy that was announced by the Chancellor at the time of the Budget in which the policy was to change. “Yes,” he said, “Of course neighbourhoods must have a say, but the presumption will be in favour of development; the default position will be, ‘yes’.” That was entirely at odds with Ministers’ previous rhetoric, and, not surprisingly, all those who had been led to believe that the new Government were going to have a system that would make it easier for communities to refuse development felt incensed.
That is the explanation for the mess that the Government have got themselves into. They have simultaneously achieved the lowest level of new planning permissions for housing almost in recorded history while having an absolutely incensed body of campaigners who believe that they are opening the door to concreting over the countryside. It is a pretty extraordinary achievement to have done those two things simultaneously, but that is what they have achieved. There has been a disastrous collapse in planning applications for housing. The figures, just in case the Minister is not aware of them, are that just 25,171 residential planning permissions were granted in England in the second quarter of this year. That figure is 24% lower than that for the first quarter and 23% lower than that for the equivalent quarter in 2010. Indeed, it is one of the lowest figures ever recorded—ever recorded! That is the reality. It is fewer than half the number of homes we need to meet needs: 60,000 a quarter would be required to keep pace with requirements. At the same time, they have incensed all the people who care about the countryside, who think they are opening the door to inappropriate development.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I am very grateful. I suspect that what we have just heard is long on invective and short on fact. These proposals are about more than housing; they are about planning in general. Does the right hon. Gentleman describe a system in which 50% of local authorities had not adopted local plans and in which large areas of the country had not adopted regional spatial strategies as anything other than confusion and mess?
First, I have given a number of facts. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should advise his Front-Bench team to be rather more respectful of the facts. Secondly, when I was the Minister for Housing and Planning in the early years of the Labour Government I inherited a position in which the reforms of the previous Conservative Government had resulted in large numbers of councils not having up-to-date plans in place. The main thrust of my work as Planning Minister was about getting the existing system to work better, rather than about imposing radical changes. I have advised the current Minister and his colleagues that they would do far better to try to work with the existing system than to seek a radical overhaul, which would be likely to create confusion and uncertainty and lead to paralysis in the planning system—which I am afraid is what we have got.
That leads me to the national planning policy framework. The problem with that document is that the Government have confused brevity with clarity. They have assumed that by reducing the volume of existing guidance they are producing a clearer and simpler statement, but that simply is not the case. The reality is that in many areas, some of which we have discussed today, sufficient care has not been taken with the definitions in the NPPF to give certainty and clarity. Sustainable development is one such area, and I endorse the views that have been expressed about the need for greater clarity.
Secondly, there is the “brownfield first” issue, another area where the Government have blundered and will need to change. Thirdly, there is not a single reference to new settlements and urban developments. There is no mention whatever of the principles that should apply to those. It is extraordinary that that should be entirely overlooked.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on an excellent speech. Does he share my concern about the absence of the word “cities” from the national planning policy framework? I find it remarkable that we can have a planning framework for our country that makes no reference to our cities.
My hon. Friend makes, as always, a very telling point. This is the problem: the NPPF has been put together in a hurry, and the Government’s objective has been brevity rather than clarity, and as a result it is wanting in many areas and will have to be rewritten.
The fourth area I want to highlight where the NPPF is defective is in respect of mixed developments to ensure that we have balanced communities with affordable and social housing as well as market housing. The NPPF’s statement is very inadequate, as the Minister knows only too well. There is a loose reference to “larger scale residential developments” benefiting from mix, but no definition of “larger scale”.
The problem, as the Minister knows perfectly well, is that in the absence of clear definitions and documents such as those that existed under the previous regime—the planning policy guidance statements—individual developers, local authorities and communities will form their own judgments, they will be in dispute with each other and there will be a rise in appeals and litigation. It will be the lawyers who determine the outcome rather than the Government, the local authority or the local community. That is the real risk of the position in which the Government are putting themselves and our planning system. In the absence of transitional arrangements, the need for which the Minister now belatedly accepts, people will reach for the lawyers to try to determine what should happen because plans are not fully prepared and in place in time to be referred to.
In summary, we have a planning system that plays an absolutely critical role in mediating between competing interests, which requires carefully considered judgments based on experience built up over decades. Against that background, it was unwise of the Government to proceed in a hubristic way with a year zero approach of trying to rewrite the rules. I am glad they are now beginning to recognise their mistake and to row back. I hope they will now apply rather more intelligence, thoughtfulness and consultation to preparing their revised NPPF, which should be a better document than the current one.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), but I am going to say somewhat different things.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on local government, I have had a very exciting few weeks, with many representations being made to me on this very important issue, as well as my constituents contacting me. I heard much from my Front-Bench colleague today that I thought was very important. I welcome the clarity given on the green belt, on a definition of “sustainability”, on the future of planning policy concerning Travellers and on why green infrastructure is so important, linking neighbourhood to neighbourhood. There was clarity too on the importance of sports and recreation fields and, most importantly—because it is the most important part of South Derbyshire—the national forest, which can be linked to future greenfield, green infrastructure areas. Having clarity, including clear definitions, on those matters in the new NPPF after this first draft will be most helpful.
I hope that my constituents, who have written to me in droves about this, will understand the need for the clarity that we will be able to provide with this new document, compared with the mess of the thousand pages of documentation that we had before. We will have neighbourhood and community-led planning, which will be a utopia. I challenge anyone to find a better constituency than South Derbyshire, where we managed to provide a new village of 2,500 houses with only 20 objections because we had community-led planning.
I know that many Members want to speak and I take the view, “If you can’t say it in a few minutes, you can’t say it at all.” Finally, therefore, I say to Ministers, who will be listening to many people today and to much advice, that what they have said today and the clarity that they have provided is most helpful.
I draw Members’ attention to the interests of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), in which I have an indirect interest.
The Government claim that we need a new national planning policy framework because existing planning rules are holding back house building and growth. That is a false claim, and I want to reinforce the points that have already been made very forcefully in the House and certainly by Members on these Benches.
In the five years to 2007, the last year before the global banking crisis, the credit crunch and the subsequent recession, there was year-on-year growth in house building, with more than 207,000 additional homes delivered in England in 2007 and the delivery of more than 250,000 additional affordable homes over the period of the Labour Government. That is over a third more than this Government hope to deliver over a five-year term. The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) implied that 170,000 new homes is a substantial figure, but that is nonsense when we look at the need for housing.
Only last week, the Minister for Housing and Local Government had the bare-faced cheek to try to claim credit for the 60,000 additional affordable homes completed in England in 2010-11. The fact that those were planned for, paid for and started under the last Labour Government, under the existing planning regime, seems conveniently to have slipped his mind.
The reason house-building levels fell during the recession and remain low—indeed, they fell during this Government’s first 12 months in office—is not the old planning system. Planning is, of course, important to growth, but the Secretary of State’s unlawful meddling with regional spatial strategies last year has, according to some estimates, cost the country hundreds of thousands of new homes already, and in so doing seriously damaged growth. That is the direct outcome of Tory policies on planning and a very clear indication that the Government’s left hand does not know what their right hand is doing.
I remind the hon. Lady that the regional spatial strategy in Northumberland meant that authorities could build no more than about 20 or 30 houses. It was a very severe limit on the numbers that they could build, and its removal has given them freedom to build more houses, not fewer.
I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but regional spatial strategies were set up to ensure that, ideally, houses were built where there was most need. Clearly, across the country overall, that need was starting to be met under the last Labour Government.
Developers are sitting on land. We have heard about the 300,000 existing permissions. What right-minded developer will build homes when nobody is able to buy them? Again, that is not due to the planning system. Instead of dealing with the critical issue of the economy, and the finance and confidence necessary to deliver the investment and pick house building up off the floor, we are having this smokescreen of a debate on planning. However, a debate has sprung up around the country, and it puts planning at the heart of the conflict between growth, the economy and the countryside. That point was very well made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) in his excellent speech. That is a false choice and it has unhelpfully polarised opinion.
It is important that we have clarity in the system—I do not disagree with hon. Members in different parts of the House on that issue—but this false debate is now proving to be a total distraction. The NPPF is a deeply flawed document that needs to be seriously amended, and I hope that the Minister is listening to Members in all parts of the House because the Government are committed to railroading it through.
Under Labour, the green belt was expanded. We pursued a policy of “brownfield first”. Brownfield expanded as a proportion of new build as we focused on developments and regeneration—a word that is sadly missing from both the Localism Bill and this document.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, not at the moment.
We focused on existing communities, and that is missing from the NPPF, and we will see more building on greenfield sites.
The need to protect gardens was not dealt with clearly in the Minister’s statement, although it was the driver behind the change in the “brownfield first” presumption. It is not clear exactly how an assessment will be made of land of the least environmental value, and I think that houses and gardens in some very nice areas will fall into that category. We need clearer definitions, and I am pleased that at least he is willing to rethink the wording of brownfield provisions. I urge him to speak to the Prime Minister and insist that when he answers questions on development in the House he should make it clear that there is no threat to the green belt. The Prime Minister should answer the question that he is asked. If he is asked about the threat to green fields—not green belt—he should deal with that. I have to say that the green fields that are going to be built on are in leafy Tory shires.
The NPPF is silent on affordable housing—a point made by my right hon. Friends the Members for Leeds Central and for Greenwich and Woolwich. When is the assessment of housing need going to be made, as there is just a cursory reference to it in the NPPF, and how will the evidence of that need be collated? Again, that is far from clear.
Finally, there was a glimmer of hope or common sense on transitional arrangements, which are vital. Without a transitional period, there will be fears on the one hand of a development free-for-all while, on the other, developers have concerns about the lack of such arrangements. When the Localism Bill is enacted, regional spatial strategies will disappear, and there will be a gap before the NPPF is introduced, with further losses of planned homes on a scale of the losses that have already taken place as a result of announcements by the Secretary of State. This is an incredibly important subject for people on both sides of the debate, and I am pleased that there appears to have been some backtracking.
In the Committee that considered the Localism Bill, the Opposition were asked to legislate without sight of the NPPF. The House, on Report and on Third Reading, was asked to legislate without sight of the document, and now developers and local communities are going to be asked, some time in the future, to plan without sight of the details that they will need, either to support good-quality local development, designed to meet needs, or to protect local areas of importance. Even today, we have had another statement on the abolition of RSSs that discusses the requirement to undertake a proper environmental assessment, albeit voluntarily. It says that the Government are undertaking another consultation on the matter. How can we legislate and make decisions about things as important as the planning policy framework without seeing the outcome of those consultations?
I welcome the fact that the Government have backtracked on their proposals on yet another ill-researched policy that has been introduced in haste. Along with my colleagues, I await the revised NPPF and the debate on it, because the wording of today’s motion is far from accurate. The House has not, in my view, considered the NPPF, and we should be allowed another debate on the revised paper, and a vote.
The consultation on the draft national planning policy framework is far and away the biggest issue in my constituency, although this weekend it may be run a close second by the forthcoming vote on an EU referendum.
Concerned residents in my beautiful Colne Valley constituency were angered by a poor-quality consultation on Kirklees council’s local development framework. The Labour-led council is still obsessed with the top-down housing targets introduced by the previous Government, and it is trying to impose 28,000 new homes on our area. Then came the fiasco over the planning permission for 294 new homes and a data campus development on Lindley moor, which is north of Huddersfield. Despite the fact that democratically elected councillors originally voted against the housing plans, the planning department and the council leadership kept going until they secured a narrow 8:7 vote in favour of the controversial development on green fields. The development should have been rejected on the grounds of poor infrastructure, with clogged roads, oversubscribed schools and medical services at full stretch.
The hon. Gentleman seems to know a lot about that development. In the planning committee, what did the Highways Agency say about access to the site? Was it in favour, or against?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right— I know a lot about this, and sat through a whole day of the planning committee’s considerations. I spoke against the proposal. The committee came up with highways figures but, as a number of local residents rightly pointed out, those figures were out of date and they did not apply to peak times in the morning and evening. I attended the committee for many hours, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue, as he has helped to make a good point.
Concerned local people have read and heard about the draft NPPF with deep suspicion. While the aim of simplifying 1,000-plus pages to little more than 50 is laudable, residents in the beautiful countryside of the Colne and Holme valleys, as well as Lindley, fear the phrase,
“presumption in favour of sustainable development”.
Local people have interpreted that as a developers charter for more unwanted developments on their rapidly reducing countryside. There is confusion, too, about what sustainable development actually is, and there is a need for a clear definition, as we have heard in our debate.
I want to expand on the point that my hon. Friend made about residents’ fears. A planning appeal is under way in my constituency in which the developers are using the phrasing of the NPPF to try to push through, and argue for, wind turbines. We therefore need clarity on what is meant by sustainable development.
My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner on the issue of wind turbines in his constituency, and I know that he will continue to campaign. That was an excellent point.
I shall return to housing, which is the big issue in my constituency. The draft NPPF aims to give local people a real say via their local plan. As I have said, people in my patch have to suffer a Labour-run Kirklees council hellbent on development, whatever the cost to our countryside and environment. All of this suspicion, fear and rumour has led to numerous community groups getting together to have their say on the flawed local development framework and the NPPF. I have fully engaged with those groups, especially the Kirklees community action network. I have spoken at meetings in Slaithwaite and my home village of Honley, and will be doing so in Meltham in a fortnight.
Like many hon. Members, I have received numerous e-mails and letters and, as I said, I have met local action groups, which have copied me into their submissions to the consultation. They have spent many hours on their consultations, and they have made some excellent points, some of which I shall summarise. I urge Ministers to take note of them. First, we should change the main presumption statement to read: “presumption in favour of sustainable development on brownfield sites or those of lesser environmental impact.” Basically, we should adopt a brownfield-first policy.
Secondly—and Opposition Members will not like this—we should stop councils using the old top-down housing targets. I appreciate that the Government have tried to do so through the courts—they have been frustrated—but we should get this in the NPPF, because the problem, as I said, is that my Labour-run local council is sticking with the regional spatial strategy target of 28,000 homes even though no one has any idea where it got that figure from.
Thirdly, Kirklees council has more than 11,000 empty homes. It is madness to keep building on green fields when we have those empty homes. We should try to get as many of them back into use as possible, and there should be more mention of that in the NPPF.
The hon. Gentleman has put the emphasis on a Labour council, but in my Tory-run council residents groups are at loggerheads with our Tory mayor and cabinet, who insist on building houses next to a country park, when brownfield sites are available. Should we not say that all councils can be stubborn, instead of putting the emphasis on Labour councils?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comment. Obviously I can only talk knowledgeably about my local council. We are working hard in Kirklees to get a Conservative-run council, and then we will be able to compare them.
Fourthly, let us accept that relaxing the rules on development will not necessarily help the economy—a point that has already been made. Houses are not being built because home buyers cannot get mortgages as a result of the huge deposits required, not because of a lack of available land with planning permission. The only reason houses are not being built is that builders cannot sell them. Across the country thousands of newly built and older homes are currently unoccupied, as I have already pointed out, and developers are sitting on hundreds of thousands of unimplemented planning permissions. In Kirklees alone there is land equivalent to 5.1% of the existing housing stock or about 16 years' supply of building land at current levels of house building activity already with planning permission, but it has not been built on yet.
Fifthly, although the framework offers some theoretical protection to green-belt land, for example for sites of special scientific interest and heritage sites, it also gives local authorities and developers the freedom to override those protections if development can be shown to offer significant economic benefit. It offers no protection to other greenfield land. That is wholly inappropriate in semi-urban areas, and we are really worried in my part of the world, particularly with provisional open land, that the net effect might be that the villages will end up sprawling together. These are all points that my local community groups have been talking about.
As I have said, people in my neck of the woods are between a rock and a hard place. On one hand there is the presumption in favour of sustainable development if no local plan is in place, and local people are interpreting that as a developer’s charter. On the other hand, there is a Labour-run local council that is trying to shove through the plans for 28,000 new homes by massive green-belt release. We have either a flawed local plan or that presumption; no wonder people in my area are so worried.
I am genuinely interested in the hon. Gentleman’s answer to this question: are community groups in his constituency coming forward with an alternative plan, through neighbourhood forums and their own neighbourhood plans, for areas where they could accommodate new housing growth?
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. That is why I have given those groups details about the neighbourhood planning front-runners scheme, which can assist them in developing neighbourhood plans and provide funding of up to £20,000 to help that. The groups are very well organised and I have pointed them in the right direction. They have come forward and are working with other local groups, such as civic societies, town trusts and parish councils, to come up with a neighbourhood plan, which is a very positive side of our localism structure.
In summary, we should of course simplify the planning system, but let us prioritise developments on brownfield sites, bring empty homes back into use and protect what is left of our countryside by ensuring that local plans genuinely reflect local wishes.
The Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, is in the middle of an inquiry on the national planning policy framework, so, like the Minister, I do not want to come to conclusions today, as it is important to hear all the evidence before reaching any decisions. I thank the Minister for advising the Committee at an early stage of his intention to bring in a new NPPF and for asking us whether we wanted to be involved in the consultation process by conducting an inquiry. We have indicated that we will reach our conclusions before the Christmas recess as part of the consultation. I also want to welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) to his new post and thank him for raising a number of important points in his contribution, many of which have been raised with the Committee and which we want to address.
I am sure that the objectives that the Government are trying to achieve—building more homes and providing more jobs—are shared across the House. I certainly have a long-standing interest in trying to increase the number of homes being built in this country. It is a prime need and something that all Members should be interested in. The real issue, of course, is where that building and development will take place. That, in essence, is what the planning system is all about.
In looking at the Government’s proposals, there are a number of questions we want to ask first. Is the planning system really responsible for the lack of house building and growth in this country? Is there evidence for that? Those are the questions we should address first. If there are problems with the planning system, is it a problem of the policy and guidance, or one of process? Is the process of getting local plans agreed too lengthy? Those are the sorts of issues that the Committee wants to look at, but the fundamental question is this: is there clear evidence that planning is holding back house building and growth, or are other factors more important?
The Committee has certainly heard much conflicting evidence. We had the National Trust and the Home Builders Federation sitting before us giving evidence together, so it was apparent that there are slightly different views about the wisdom of the Government’s proposals. We all welcome the fact that the Minister is listening, and hopefully he will listen to the Committee’s recommendations when they are made. If he is minded in the end to make some significant changes to his proposals, will he consider a further round of consultation? If we are really to get this right, is it not important that we have the maximum amount of dialogue, because there is a common interest in trying to ensure that the matter is taken forward in the right way.
I welcome what the Minister said about transitional arrangements. We have heard much evidence suggesting that we cannot simply press a button and change from one system to another without an awful lot of problems being created. Indeed, there is legal evidence suggesting that, because no local plan will be in place that has had a chance to take account of a new framework once agreed, on day one all local plans will effectively be out of date and inconsistent with the national guidance. Clearly, therefore, there must be a transition to allow change to take place. The history of changes in planning policy and legislation reveals that any change at all, and even the proposal of change, creates uncertainty and tends to cause delay, increase the number of appeals and involve the lawyers to a greater extent. We ought to look at how we can minimise those impacts and get to the best position.
A number of specific concerns have been raised with the Committee which we will want to look at. First, is all the guidance that is being scrapped really useless? Has any planning authority really said, “This is irrelevant and we have no need for it?” Is there a danger that once it is all removed at national level councils will start to look at the local level and incorporate more and more in their local plans, because if their local plan is silent on something they will worry that they will get development that they do not want? That is a concern that we must reflect on. Will simply stripping out everything and pretending that it does not matter really be of benefit?
What is the precise link between the national guidance, local plans and neighbourhood plans, which are very new and untested? The framework refers a great deal to the importance of local plans, but it does not say that any application that is approved has to be consistent with the local plan. That is stated in national legislation, so there is a relationship, but is it absolutely clear, because national legislation apparently has primacy over the guidance? That relationship has to be worked through. Having listened to Government Members, I think there is clearly an issue to be worked through about the national requirements for more homes, on climate change and regional requirements on waste disposal, and on Traveller sites and how they relate to local aspirations at local planning level where there may be differences. If all the local plans and the plans for housing in them do not add up to the requirements that we need at national level to build sufficient homes, where does that leave us? There are clearly concerns that go beyond one local authority boundary. The duty to co-operate is in place and the Minister has taken steps to strengthen it, but is it sufficient to ensure that we can deliver on those wider issues? There are some carrots, but are there any sticks? Can any penalties be imposed on local authorities that do not co-operate, and what does not co-operating actually amount to? Those are also concerns.
Concerns have been raised with the Committee about sustainable development. Should there be a national definition, which is much clearer and, perhaps, written down in legislation or in the framework? Should it be included? If it is, the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) made will be important. Will the definition be applied consistently at a local level, or will there be differences in an application and in how we apply the definition in a northern industrial town with lots of dereliction, as opposed to in a leafy suburb in the south or, indeed, in a national park? There is not much special reference in the framework to the differences that might be applicable and relevant in different areas, so we want to address those matters in particular, and it is important that we do so.
People have made the point to the Committee that the framework came out of proposals for growth. There are three legs—economic, social and environmental—to the stool of sustainable development, but has the economic leg become a little longer than the other two, and is the stool becoming a little unbalanced? Is too much emphasis being given to economic factors, which in any decision might override environmental and social factors?
I am finding the hon. Gentleman’s speech very informative, as indeed was his pertinent intervention during the opening speech. Does he share my concern that the question of whether an application qualifies for the presumption of sustainable development might end up being decided by the courts and through case law, rather than by local, democratically accountable councillors?
That is absolutely right. No one here wants lawyers involved in making decisions that should properly be made in this Parliament, and that is why we have to get the policy absolutely right and look at the definitions. Indeed, there is a range of definitions in the framework, some of which are untested and we want to be clear about.
In the Select Committee the other day, we took evidence on the issue of “significant and demonstrable”. What does it mean? When we pushed a practitioner who was on the group that made the initial recommendations to Ministers, asking him, “What does significant mean?” he said, “Well, of course, if it wasn’t significant, it wouldn’t matter.” That is an issue, because the adverse consequences of a development might outweigh the benefits, but if they do not outweigh them in a significant and demonstrable way, the application will still have to be accepted. We have to probe some of the definitions.
I welcome the Minister’s comments on brownfield development and on taking another look at it. I understand some of the concerns of Government Members about building in gardens, but we should not allow those concerns to enable the removal of brownfield development. The Minister is looking again at that issue and, in particular, at how it relates to the additional 20% of houses and the contingency that will have to be planned for. That is very welcome, indeed.
We have to look at the “town centre first” issue. Why have offices been removed from it? They are an important part of a sustainable “town centre first” strategy, so will the Minister make it clear that, if an application fails a sequential test, it will be deemed unsustainable? How does the sequential test relate to that issue?
The Minister has not mentioned the needs test, which it was Conservative policy in opposition to reinstate. I opposed the previous Labour Government’s removal of it, so will he look at that issue, too?
The Select Committee has a lot of issues to look at. We will try to do so in an evidence-based way, which is how we try to operate; we will try to identify the real concerns; and, where we think that there are genuine concerns, we will try to go to the Minister with some clear proposals on how the document might be amended with benefit.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee, because he is one of the more knowledgeable Opposition Members on these matters, and he made some very pertinent points.
We may trade figures, as the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) started to do, but his Government inherited a golden legacy, and although the planning system can bring forward permissions, it cannot ensure that houses are built. His Government inherited a golden legacy, but they managed to ruin it, and we are now are in a very difficult situation in which we need to build more houses. The planning system has a part, but only a part, to play in that; the market has a big part to play, too.
I welcome the actions of my right hon. Friend the Minister in getting rid of regional spatial strategies, which the previous Government introduced. I have opposed them very strongly, simply because they have not worked. They have not produced the number of local plans required, and they have alienated many local people from the planning system, so my right hon. Friend has done the right thing in bringing forward this new national planning framework. I wish him every possible success.
I declare an interest, which is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I have property that could benefit from these planning changes, and I, like the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich declared, have a non-pecuniary interest, too, because I am a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and used to practise in the planning field.
One issue that is not in the NPPF is the costs in the planning appeal process. In my experience, small local authorities often have to weigh up the correct planning decision while bearing in mind the cost of appeal. My local authority has a development budget of about £2 million, and, if it has to take on board four appeals in any one year at £50,000 each, that is 10% of its entire development budget.
I have a proposal to deal with that. The default setting should be that the developer, who after all gets the benefit, will be expected to pay the local authority’s reasonable costs on an appeal. The issue of costs could then be varied by either the planning inspector or the Secretary of State in a particular place where the local planning authority has acted blatantly and without good reason against its own local plan or has ignored relevant national guidance.
Turning now to the issues that are governed by the draft NPPF, my first concern is about the guidance relating to the increased supply of housing. I am particularly concerned about the requirement in paragraph 109 for local authorities to provide an additional 20% of the existing five-year land bank. The five-year land bank is a rolling programme. Every time one permission is built on, it has to be replaced with a new permission. In my area, that is bringing about a substantial amount of new building land. If we impose this extra land on top of the existing five-year land bank, it will become unsustainable, it will sterilise more land through planning permission than is necessary, and it will give rise to the wrong assumptions on infrastructure planning. I hope that the Government will think very carefully about introducing this additional 20%; otherwise, many people in our areas will become very disillusioned with the planning system.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way once.
In response to my earlier question, the Minister said that he did not want to require local authorities to build for more than the five-year housing supply. That being the case, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that the housing that is derived from windfall developments should be taken into consideration against the need that the local authority needs to meet?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He must have my notes, so I shall continue.
The Government should reconsider what counts towards housing numbers in a local authority area. First, they should allow for windfall sites; after all, these are real gains, and they should be encouraged.
We are a team now.
Well, we are in coalition together.
Secondly, exceptions and additional neighbourhood sites should be included. Thirdly, new agricultural and forestry dwellings should be included. Fourthly, sheltered or high-dependency housing accompanying a nursing home application should be included. That is particularly relevant to my constituency, where we have three large such applications on areas that perhaps would not usually be given permission, but they would gain greater currency in the local community if people felt that they were contributing towards the five-year plan.
Paragraph 109 requires local authorities to
“identify and bring back into use empty housing and buildings”.
This has been a problem for many decades. There are about 740,000 empty houses in England. When I had a housing brief in opposition, I surveyed most of our major institutions that had a presence on the high street to discover why so many of the flats about their shops were empty. Most said that they did not find occupants for those flats because it was too administratively burdensome. The NPPF needs to have stronger guidance to bring back into use these empty properties, which are a shocking waste of our built environment.
The vitality and viability of town centres is dealt with in paragraph 78. Town centres, particularly in smaller rural market towns such as those that I represent, are undergoing significant change. The increased trend towards shopping online is causing many retail businesses to reduce their presence on the high street or to leave it altogether. Many town centres are therefore coming under pressure as demand for retail space drops. Nothing is worse for a town than the sight of a large number of derelict shops. The NPPF needs to be straightforward so that local authorities can consider ways of strengthening the vitality and viability of town centres and are able to resist applications where they are threatened, first, by out-of-town centre schemes, and then, by edge-of-town centre schemes.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I said that I would give way only once, if my hon. Friend does not mind.
Special consideration needs to be given to small market towns, because they are particularly vulnerable to such large developments.
Design is a very important issue for those in special vernacular design areas such as the Cotswolds. On the whole, post-war planning has been successful in keeping the distinctive Cotswold stone wall and roof construction. However, guidance such as that in paragraphs 21 and 118 seems to run totally counter to what has been achieved in the Cotswolds over so many decades. The way around this would be to allow particular vernacular styles to predominate only in those areas where it can be proved that it has done so in the past, as must be clearly demonstrated in the adopted local plans.
Finally, as the Member of Parliament for a constituency of which more than 80% is comprised of areas of outstanding natural beauty, I warmly welcome Ministers having said that national parks, green belts and areas of outstanding natural beauty will be protected. However, I think that the guidance in paragraph 167 needs to be strengthened in that respect. I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Minister that it follow the wording of policy ENV3 of the south-west regional spatial strategy on protected landscapes:
“Particular care will be taken to ensure that no development is permitted outside the National Park or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty which would damage their natural beauty, character and special qualities or otherwise prejudice the achievement of National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty purposes.”
These are some of the most special landscapes in the country. As has been said, we live in a densely populated country, particularly when the hilly areas of England, Wales and Scotland are taken out of the equation. It is therefore particularly important that we get the planning system right and, in particular, the NPPF.
I urge my right hon. Friend to resist too much more additional consultation. Planning practitioners now need to get on with the system, which I am sure will be improved and will be more friendly to local people. I warmly welcome the idea of local decision making and neighbourhood plans. I can tell my right hon. Friend that many of my parish and town councils are lining up to draw up neighbourhood plans, because they have become so fed up with a regional planning system that is based many hundreds of miles away. They want to feel that they have ownership of the planning system and that they will benefit from applications in their area.
I only have a couple of seconds left, but I just want to say that pre-planning application is really important. I have gone through it successfully with a big house builder in my constituency and we have got an application that is much more acceptable to the local communities. I urge Members to encourage that. Good luck to my right hon. Friend.
This is an interesting and important debate, not least because it comes in the context of the Government’s intention to be the “greenest Government ever”. We must ask how their planning policies sit within that ambition. This debate comes as the climate change talks and Rio+20 are about to take place. We want the Government to go to those international negotiations with real leadership, backed up by the action that is being taken at home. That action must relate to planning policy.
It is important that this matter is considered as a cross-cutting issue. Whatever the Department for Communities and Local Government puts before Parliament has to be consistent with the policies of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, so that the national policy statements about major infrastructure investments sit side by side with the localism agenda and planning policies. One problem with this consultation is that it is still being brought forward with a silo mentality. The Minister urgently needs to cross-reference it so that everything that comes about as a result of the new planning policies is consistent with the business plans of other Departments that relate to sustainable development. Otherwise, sustainable development will not underpin everything that is done.
Having made those general comments, I wish to congratulate many of the Members who have spoken, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who chairs the Communities and Local Government Committee. It is important that the Minister and Parliament take account of the scrutiny that takes place in Parliament, which is why this parliamentary debate is so important. If Parliament is to be fit for purpose, fit for the 21st century and fit to create the policies that we will need in generations to come, it is right that the Minister should give an undertaking when he responds that he will give us more time to take account of what is said by the Select Committees of the House of Commons. I am sure that the Liaison Committee will want to consider that as well.
Every Member of this House represents their constituency first and foremost. I will therefore say a brief word about an issue that relates to my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North. It is the issue of brownfield sites, which many Members including my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) have mentioned.
I was interested that the Minister gave away the fact that the priority that there used to be to develop on brownfield sites has somehow been lost as a result of the need to prevent development in gardens. There are large industrial or former industrial parts of the country with huge amounts of brownfield site. In Stoke-on-Trent we have 175 hectares of brownfield land available for development. If we do not get the planning policy framework right, developers and property companies will cherry-pick green belt and greenfield sites.
But where are the inducements to build houses in Stoke-on-Trent, where there is planning permission for them? It is not the planning permission system that is failing; it is the policies of the Treasury and other Departments. They are not ensuring that we can build the homes that are so desperately needed on brownfield sites.
I wish to mention the role of the Environmental Audit Committee. I am very pleased that we are collaborating with the Communities and Local Government Committee to examine the whole issue of planning. Our Select Committee has been charged with considering the definition of “sustainable development”. That is a key issue, and Ministers from DCLG and DEFRA were before the Committee in a united stance just last week. The present Minister gave what I thought was an undertaking to go away and look at the evidence—I stress that we are examining evidence-based representations. He now needs to consider how the detailed recommendations that we will make on a definition of “sustainable development” can be integrated into the national planning policy framework before it is too late. That is critical.
The hon. Lady is recognised for her expertise on this subject. Does she agree that the reason the definition of “sustainable development” published in the draft framework has three legs is that all three of them count? It would not be satisfactory for developments to benefit from the presumption in favour of sustainable development if they were contributing to just one of those three legs and the overall net effect on sustainability was negative.
This is a really complex issue, and the former Labour Government had problems with it when the legislation on regional development agencies was first introduced. There was a strong view that there should be a legal definition of the term in that legislation.
The witnesses before our Committee last week said that the Government seemed to be going backwards. We had the Brundtland definition of sustainable development, then we subsequently had the 2005 definition that was included in planning permissions. Now, with the changes that the Government are introducing in the framework, there will be no clear definition. That means that the three pillars of sustainable development—economic factors, social justice and the environment—will not be linked to any proper framework within which they can be properly assessed so that reasoned and informed decisions are made. The Government need to think carefully about a proper definition to be included in the framework and about providing clarity about what is meant by sustainable development. That needs to be matched in the Localism Bill, and sustainable development must be defined by all Government Departments and in all Government legislation.
Some other details need to be considered as the framework goes forward, one of which is how to include the long-term needs of the mineral extraction industry. At the moment, permissions are given for a 25-year period, which can provide some degree of certainty. That has to be balanced against how we define sustainable development.
Those issues cannot be properly resolved unless we have a clear, valid definition that is consistent over time. That is what we need, so when the Minister replies, he needs to set out the procedures that can be brought to bear to ensure that that is included as the national planning policy framework is taken forward.
I declare my relevant interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Let me begin by warmly welcoming the objectives that my right hon. and hon. Friends have set out in this policy framework. This has been a good debate, in which we have seen an emerging consensus behind those objectives, even though some questions of detail have arisen. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) for supporting the objectives of the Government’s planning policy framework. In fairness, questions of detail are bound to arise when, as is the case now, a Government try to simplify a policy that was previously very complex indeed. However, I strongly support the objective of simplifying planning policy as it stands.
I know that hon. Members have talked about developers, lawyers and so forth, but my experience as a constituency Member of Parliament is that the unequal playing field between developers and members of the public—as well as local authorities, with the cost that they face—has been created by the sheer complexity of the current planning system. To be fair, I am not blaming the previous Government for that; we are talking about something that has grown up over the years, under Governments of all descriptions. It is my experience that the developers turn up at planning inquiries with armies of consultants, lawyers and lobbyists, giving the impression that the system belongs to them, that there is no place for members of the public or communities to have their say and that local authorities, particularly smaller ones, are at a disadvantage, as they are always mindful of costs, something that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) rightly mentioned.
Would the hon. Gentleman therefore be in favour of a right of appeal not for the applicants, but for those whom we might consider the defendants—that is, the people objecting to an application?
That is an interesting proposition that could perhaps be considered on another day and in the fullness of time.
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased that the objective of localism has been fulfilled through the national planning policy framework, and in particular through the opportunity to establish neighbourhood plans to take into account the views of local communities. At the same time—I grasp the nettle on this issue—I welcome the planning policy framework’s approach towards promoting development and growth, which is a perfectly proper consideration for such a framework. The planning system should not be, as it sometimes has been, an obstacle to appropriate and justified developments in the right place. It is a question of getting development in the right place and striking the right balance among the social, environmental and economic factors that have to be taken into account. I welcome the willingness that Ministers have shown so far, including today—they will no doubt continue to show it in future too—to listen and seek to strike the right balance among those different considerations. I understand that that is a work in progress, and I urge Ministers to continue with it.
I have heard a lot about sustainable development. Although I do not have a problem with the definition in the policy framework, I would ask Ministers to look again at the presumption in favour of sustainable development. We can all see what Ministers are trying to achieve, but more work needs to be done on how that operates throughout the planning policy framework, because the word “presumption” creates the impression that there is something that has to be rebutted. I think we know what Ministers are trying to achieve, but more work needs to be done.
I have two further points to make. The green belt is a particularly strong interest for me, as much of my constituency is covered by it. However, I am rather at a loss to understand some of the legal opinion that has been quoted about protection for the green belt, because as I read the planning policy framework, the protection for the green belt is at least as strong as in the existing documents, if not arguably stronger. I am not sure whether those who say that there is no protection against inappropriate development have got as far as paragraph 142, which states:
“Inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.”
What could be plainer than that? I welcome that plain speaking. I think that that provision is probably stronger than what were said to be the safeguards allegedly taken out by the Government, because it represents a prohibition,
“except in very special circumstances.”
I would ask the Government to go further than the enhanced protection that they have given to the green belt. Over the years, I have seen developers come to my constituency with ingenious arguments about what might amount to special circumstances to justify development in the green belt. Time and again, those applications have been made, and if every one had been granted, there would now be no green belt left in my constituency. I therefore ask for still further protection for the green belt.
I will give way to my hon. Friend, because I think that that will gain me an extra minute.
When we refer to “special circumstances”, are we referring to a situation in which locals really want something? Is that the way my hon. Friend would read it?
What the developers have done in the past is give their interpretation of what local people should want, but that is not what local people actually want. They can be very ingenious.
An important point about the green belt that has not yet been mentioned is that this document protects the existing green belt. The Government have abandoned the doctrine of the previous Government which stated that the loss of existing green belt could be compensated for by the designation of green belt somewhere else in the country. For example, under those rules, the green belt in Hertfordshire could be built on if that was compensated for by the designation of fresh green belt in, say, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Northamptonshire, Norfolk or somewhere else in the country. That doctrine would have resulted in the rolling development of the whole country, so I welcome the new protection.
A matter of great interest to my constituents is that of green spaces. I welcome the inclusion of that important concept in the document. Green spaces can include spaces in urban areas near to the green belt. I should like to make a plea to the Minister on behalf of my constituents. I know that the Government cannot designate green spaces everywhere, but will they be as flexible and generous as possible in that regard, because those spaces are a tremendous boon to my constituents and those of other hon. Members? I am speaking particularly on behalf of the Woodcock Hill environmental community project in my constituency, which has worked hard to establish a village green on a treasured green space that I hope will remain for many years to come, long into the future after we have all gone.
I support what the Government are trying to do, but I would also urge them to listen to the valid points that have been raised. This is work in progress and there is more to be done, but the Government are approaching the matter in the right way and getting very close to their target of fulfilling their original objectives. We should give them the support and help that they deserve as they seek to achieve their important objectives, balance them together and build a better future for our country.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison). I associate myself strongly with his comments about the protection of specific areas of green belt, as well as those about green spaces. As ever, Her Majesty’s Opposition are here to help the Government get out of a hole, and it is a hole of their own making. The production of the draft national planning policy framework has been a disastrous process, and I very much hope that we will begin to see some sense from Ministers as they respond to the consultation. In fact, I think that we are beginning to see that now. It is a great pleasure to hear that they have dropped the rather abusive and unconstructive tone that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) mentioned. Talk of smear campaigns by left-wingers and “nihilistic selfishness” on the part of organisations such as the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Campaign to Protect Rural England does little to elevate the debate or enable us to think creatively about planning in this country.
The point of today’s debate is this: the national planning policy framework as drafted threatens to undermine the very successful urban renaissance of recent years. I know that we now have a “Cities Minister” from Tunbridge Wells—that great conurbation—but even the Tory party’s recent conference in Manchester should have allowed it to see the great success of Labour’s “brownfield first” densification strategy of recent years. All of that could be undone by the current document because, as we have seen, it allows a series of get-out clauses for expansive free-for-all development, which will inevitably mean greenfield, if not green-belt, development. As the Home Builders Federation puts it, the NPPF allows a new presumption
“that requires local planning authorities to explain why development should not go ahead rather than placing this onus on the applicant of convincing the authority as to why it should be approved.”
The HBF regards this as
“a radical change of approach”.
In one sense, this should not come as a surprise, as a little history will show, Mr Deputy Speaker, if you will allow me. When we look back through the 20th century, we discover that the Conservative party in office is very rarely a friend of the countryside. In the inter-war years, we saw the remarkable expansion of ribbon development, laissez-faire sprawl and unregulated suburbanisation. England was uglified as the Tories, as usual, gave the whip hand to developers, who quickly sought to merge town and country.
Thankfully, the forces of progress intervened when, in 1926, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England was established. Then the great Herbert Morrison introduced the green belt around London and we thankfully had a Labour Government who introduced the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, the national land fund, the national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and the rolling out of the green belt—the securing of our post-war planning settlement, which separated rural from urban, town from country, which is now under threat by this new policy.
What I have described has made England what it is. Whereas the Conservative party cannot bear the idea of planning and would rather have the anywhere/nowhere sprawl of modern America—or, increasingly, of Italy and Spain—we Labour Members believe in preservation, zoning, development and planning. This is not nimbyism, but a sophisticated approach to how we should deal with planning issues. This is particularly the case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) suggested, when we come to complicated matters of climate change and recycling.
Of course, when the Tories came back in the 1980s, they sought to undermine all that all over again. Once again we had the deregulation of planning, out-of-town shopping complexes and sprawl—the result of laissez-faire deregulation. In 1997, the tide turned again—thanks in part to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford)—as we sought to undo the damage. Not only did my right hon. Friend sanction another national park—opposed by the Conservatives—and conserve the green belt, but the percentage of new dwellings built on brownfield land rose from 56% in 1997 to 78% in 2010. The results are there to see in our cities. In 1990, there were barely a few hundred people living in the centre of Manchester; today, there are more than 20,000. In Liverpool, the inner-urban population increased as well.
The hon. Gentleman extols the virtues of the “town centre first” policy. I know that he is a well-known historian, but history tells me that that policy was adopted by the previous Conservative Government, not the Labour Government.
We were so happy when the former Secretary of State, the former Member for Suffolk Coastal, John Gummer, saw the light. I agreed not only with his “town centre first” plans, but with his plans for the regeneration of major stately home building, although that does not make me popular on the Labour Benches. Now, however, the “brownfield first” plan is gone; planning permission is to be granted where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date. That means developers can build where and when they like. What makes the English landscape so special—that rural/urban divide and the post-war planning settlement—threatens to be undermined. It is threatened because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central said, there is no economic growth. The Government’s growth strategy has collapsed, and they think that ripping up the planning process will solve the problem.
I spent 10 years as a city councillor under the previous Government’s planning system, and I am afraid that I do not recognise the nirvana that the hon. Gentleman is painting. Instead, we had central Government diktat telling us what to do and where to do it, deciding that communities that wanted to grow could not grow and making us put housing where local people did not want it. That was the reality under the previous Government’s planning policy.
I know that Government Members do not believe in fact-based discussion, but the reality is that under the previous Government’s planning policy, we saw an increase in house building, increasing densification and growing numbers in Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Bristol—I do not know about the great urban centre of Tunbridge Wells, but perhaps there was an increase there as well. Weak planning does not deliver strong economic growth.
The hon. Gentleman is seeking to draw partisanship into the debate. Has he listened to the words of the former Labour housing Minister, Lord Rooker, in the House of Lords last week when he was introducing a debate? He said clearly:
“I am actually with the Government on this issue…The draft planning policy nowhere near seeks to destroy our countryside, areas of outstanding natural beauty, the green belt or our vast open countryside. Those are the facts”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 October 2011; Vol. 730, c. 1836.]
Why is the hon. Gentleman trying to create contention where there is none?
I believe in contention. I think it is a good thing. Politics results from it. I think that the noble Lord Rooker is not unfamiliar with contention either.
Deregulating planning does not deliver the kind of economic growth that the Government think it does. We have only to look at Spain, Ireland or the American states of Arizona or Nevada to realise that a strategy of ex-urban sprawl does not deliver such growth. As the Minister should know, business park vacancies currently stand at 17% and 1.6 million square feet of commercial space is free for letting. In a recent letter to the Financial Times, the planning adviser Paul Hackett revealed that when he was asked to investigate Treasury claims that the planning system was a barrier to growth, he
“failed to find any convincing evidence, other than planning controls holding back speculative development by developers and out of town supermarkets and hoteliers”,
that the previous system had undermined sustainable economic growth.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) said, both her and I are privileged to represent a city facing challenges of growth, structural economic change and structural unemployment. We do not think that ending the “brownfield first” and the “town centre first” strategies will provide the kind of development, housing and businesses that we want in Stoke-on-Trent, not least because, as the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) suggested, we have 750,000 homes sitting empty and existing planning permission for 330,000 unbuilt houses. The problem for development in many situations, particularly for housing, is as much about the financial and mortgage systems as it is about the planning system.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said, we want a proper definition of sustainable development, a return of the “brownfield first” policy—we welcome the Minister’s elongated U-turn on that—the dropping of the default “yes” when a plan is out of date or silent, a recognition of the intrinsic value of the unprotected countryside, not just green belt, that covers so much of England, and a return to the “town centre first” policy and, with it, the sequential policy. All those decisions would benefit our constituents, who want not only urban regeneration in Stoke-on-Trent but the protection of the Staffordshire moorlands and the towns and villages surrounding it.
As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, next year marks the centenary of the death of Octavia Hill, the founder of the National Trust—perhaps she was a left-wing nihilist, although I doubt it. Instead, she believed in good housing, vibrant cities and a natural environment
“for the enjoyment, refreshment, and rest of those who have no country house, but who need, from time to time, this outlook over the fair land which is their inheritance as Englishmen”.
I hope that we now have a Government who believe the same.
As others have observed, this is a good debate which raises issues that go to the heart of our communities. I pay tribute to the way in which the Minister has battled through the last few months. He has taken quite a battering from some rather hysterical media reporting, most of which has been full of misinformation.
I spent 26 years as a local councillor. During that time, like many other Members, I fought battles both for and against certain developments. I also spent six years as a cabinet member whose responsibilities included everything from roads to rubbish to licensing tattooists, and also included planning policy. A very successful coalition controlled the council—a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, I should add.
I realised during that time that the planning system was a hindrance to the development that is so desperately needed in many parts of my constituency, but protection is also needed: there has to be a balance. My constituency includes parts of the Humber estuary, a site of special scientific interest, and is on the edge of the Lincolnshire wolds, an area of outstanding natural beauty. Of course I welcome the protection that will remain in place for those areas, but my constituency also includes town centres, and they need to be protected as well. Barton-upon-Humber, for instance, is a beautiful market town with many Georgian buildings, but like all market towns it suffers from empty shops on the high streets.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that the best people to decide which areas in a given part of the country need protection and which need development, whether they are town centres or parts of the surrounding countryside, are local people? Is it not because local people have been cut out of the planning process that so few houses have been built where they need to be built, while houses have been built in areas which local people would like to be protected?
I entirely agree, but none of the measures for which I am arguing would take power away from local people. I spent most of my quarter of a century as a councillor bemoaning the fact that central Government were telling us to do this, that and the other, and not allowing us to note what local people were saying. I believe that the system that is evolving will feature widespread consultation from the bottom up, and—I hope—the making of final decisions by elected and accountable local authorities rather than distant planning inspectors. The more we are able to ensure that decisions are made locally, the more communities will be shaped in a manner of which local people approve.
On the importance of maintaining the vitality of town centres, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), shopping habits have changed and continue to change. It is a fact, regrettable in many ways, that we shall need fewer shop units in the coming years. Let me give an example from my constituency. The entrance to Cleethorpes, that beautiful seaside resort on the east coast, is to some extent blighted by a drive through an area containing parade after parade of shops, many of which are empty. Many others serve local needs, but the fact remains that we need fewer of them, and we certainly need policies that will allow those areas to regenerate themselves. I was pleased to note that the NPPF mentioned the need to remove “barriers to investment”. That is one of the key developments that I hope will result from the implementation of the Government’s plans.
Reference has been made to the need to speed up the system. Local plans and development frameworks take an age to proceed from A to Z. Reference has also been made to consultation. Yes, we need consultation, because we need that bottom-up feedback from local people, but we must recognise that plans need to be determined quickly. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who represents a neighbouring constituency, I have spent much time over the past year trying to overcome the barriers to a major development in our area, caused partly by the fact that the overall process does not recognise the commercial pressures on potential investors to meet needs in the face of competing areas and, in some instances, competing countries. Speed is also essential for those who oppose developments. A week or so ago we debated High Speed 2 and the possibility that areas could be blighted for many years while waiting for decisions to be taken. Both sides need urgency, therefore.
The transition period is a concern, and I hope the Minister will spell out how areas without local plans in place will be dealt with. Many Members have also asked about the definition of sustainable. It is one of those warm and cuddly words that we are all supposed to hug to ourselves, because none of us wants our local papers to report that we support unsustainable development or want an unsustainable economy. We do need a proper definition of sustainable, however, and I ask the Minister to supply one.
We should pay tribute to those councillors who are leading on sustainability and community-led plans. As my hon. Friend knows, in our area, North Lincolnshire council—the only council to pass from Labour control to Tory control in May—has already established proper mechanisms to get communities up and running and to get community plans written up so we have them in place for when this transition happens. We should pay tribute to our hard-working councillors.
My hon. Friend, who is rapidly becoming the intervener-in-chief on the Government Benches, makes a welcome contribution to the debate, and I heartily support what he says, of course.
Despite the few caveats I have mentioned, I wholeheartedly support what the Government are doing, and the sooner they get on with it, the better.
I represent Luton South and live in south-east England, where there is a great and pressing need for affordable housing. I am sad about the demise of the regional spatial strategies, but I appreciate that other Members do not share my opinion, and I recognise that they will not be reintroduced any time soon. They did, however, put in place a requirement for local authorities to work together to solve their housing needs.
Regional spatial strategies did not encourage local authorities to work together; they imposed things from on high. The south-west RSS took six years, cost £10 million to develop, was never implemented and attracted 35,000 objections.
That highlights the point I have just made: Members have different opinions. I regularly knock on doors in my constituency and find people living in the most terrible circumstances, with private landlords taking advantage of them. I am torn about whether to report that to a housing department, as I know that there is such limited housing stock. It is therefore worth looking at different areas in different ways.
There is a quiet crisis in housing across the south-east in particular, but also in other areas. I am certainly not opposed to simplifying the planning system; one of our jobs as Members of Parliament is to simplify things. However, to slim down a 1,000-page brain surgery manual, as it were, to just 60 pages is not the best way to proceed. The best way to proceed is to say that we want to have more housing and more localism, and that we want people to have choices in decisions affecting their own constituencies and communities. We want to do that sensibly, however, which is why this debate has been very good so far.
Many of today’s speeches have been wish lists of various items about which people are concerned, and mine will be no different. I have specific concerns about a number of areas and I hope that the Minister will respond to them consensually at the end of the debate.
My first concern relates to sustainable development, about which we have heard from Members on both sides of the House. I have counted four or perhaps five possible definitions of “sustainable development” published either by this Government or previous ones. I have shadowed the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team and seen sustainability go from being the sole remit of one Department to being mainstreamed. The Department for Communities and Local Government has been one of the major winners from that. As I have shadowed the DEFRA team, I know that DCLG has probably scored more points against DEFRA than Labour Members have, and that applies on various things, including bin taxes. There is uncertainty about “sustainable development” and its definition, and it is important that the body of this policy framework defines incredibly clearly what that is. Brundtland’s work obviously provides a good starting point, but the tighter the definition the easier it will become for planning applications to go through and for us not to end up with things in court for six or seven years when the definition could be clearly set out from the start. If we want more affordable housing, we need to be clear and exact in our definitions—that is a great place to start.
The Attlee Government enacted sites of special scientific interest in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, and we have been clear about wanting to maintain those protections. The chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Mike Clarke, has stated:
“One thing the final plans must state clearly is protection from development for some of the nation’s finest wildlife sites—those areas designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. We have received legal advice this week which suggests that the proposals as they stand will weaken protection for these areas.”
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that SSSIs and areas of outstanding natural beauty result from environmental legislation, not the planning process?
I am not entirely clear on the hon. Lady’s point.
We are discussing the NPPF, which I understand will not do anything about the existing SSSIs and AONBs.
I am happy to clear that up for the hon. Lady, as I do not believe that is the case. The NPPF does not abolish any of those things, but the RSPB, which has taken independent legal advice, has suggested that it might “weaken protection” for those areas. For that reason, it is incredibly important that we get this right, as Members on both sides of the House would want to make sure that the best protections are in place.
In a former life—if it is indeed possible to have a former life after only 18 months in this House—I shadowed on forestry for the Opposition. I have concerns about the effect of this framework on forests. We know that DEFRA has made a forced U-turn on the issue and we are all awaiting the findings of the interim report by Bishop James Jones on forestry in the next few months. I am concerned that the presumed “yes”, which does not apply to ancient woodland—that is a good move and we are very positive about it—applies to other woodland. We have particular concerns about the effect on areas such as the Forest of Dean. Normally, we grow trees, chop them down and then allow them to grow back, but the areas left fallow may be subjected to the conditional “yes”—the presumed “yes”—to sustainable development. It is very important that we examine that in more detail.
One other area of particular interest to my constituents and to those of many hon. Members is protecting village and town greens. I live in a constituency that has one of the highest population densities in the country. We know that it is important that we do not just have urban sprawl and that green areas and green spaces need to be protected in our towns. I welcome the protections for green areas and green spaces, but to ask local communities to get together to raise the money to protect those spaces—the consultation suggested it could cost £1,000 just to get the process started—might not be the best possible way to proceed.
Let me turn to a few other areas of the legislation. I was pleased to hear the Minister’s warm words on brownfield. I hope he will define it more clearly as time goes on and give us the opportunity to respond on his reworded NPPF on brownfield sites. We understand that brownfield is important; last year 76% of homes built across the country were on brownfield sites. The policy was working well, so we need to be careful if we tinker with it.
In summary, I want development. I want to see more affordable homes and I want to see people living with what they deserve in a country that, despite the current austerity, remains one of the richest in the world—that is, a decent home, a decent job and green and pleasant space to enjoy wherever they live, whether it is the countryside or the town. There is a difference, however, between brevity and clarity in the planning framework, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) pointed out. In the rush to brevity, we must not overlook the need for clarity, which is the best way of ensuring that planning decisions are taken in a timely fashion and in the right way.
In my area, the local core strategy is split between two different areas—Central Bedfordshire and Luton—that, regrettably, could not agree on the local plan. Central Bedfordshire has adopted its plan, but Luton remains unprotected against predatory and subjective applications. I hope that the transitional arrangements will ensure that local authorities are given time to put core strategies and local plans in place to protect their areas. Otherwise, my fear is that we will not deliver on the promise on which we were elected to this House—to ensure that people have decent homes, decent jobs and a pleasant environment to enjoy.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker), as always. The subject of planning and development, and more recently the national planning policy framework, matters a great deal to my constituents in Winchester and Chandler’s Ford—and that is an understatement. If I was in any doubt about that fact, the past few months, as the ministerial team knows, have clarified matters somewhat.
At the end of September, we had the long-awaited decision of the Secretary of State in response to the planning inspector’s recommendation for 2,000 homes on the now infamous Barton Farm site, owned by CALA Homes. In the words of the Secretary of State in his decision document,
“a decision to grant planning permission is likely to undermine the process of Blueprint which is clearly an important policy objective for Winchester and, as the Inspector notes, the community has contributed considerable time and effort to this process”.
That is called localism and I have no doubt whatsoever that had that decision been taken by a Secretary of State in the previous Government, it would have been rubber-stamped and once again key decisions affecting my constituents would have been taken over their heads.
It would have been quite wrong for the planning inspector, or even the Secretary of State, to make the decision and it has now returned to where it should always have been—in the hands of democratically elected local councillors. As I have made clear many times, localism does not mean saying no any more than it means an automatic yes. It simply means a local decision, taken by local people, with a clear and transparent evidence base, in the local interest and—this is the key point—by local politicians who are accountable at the ballot box. That might be an uncomfortable position for some councillors and I am sure it was far easier when Ministers took the flak, but the new way must be right. It is what I and many colleagues campaigned on for many years before entering this House and I want to be clear in saying today that I still believe in localism—and Father Christmas.
Since publication of the NPPF in August, there has been clarification of the strength of feeling on the issue in my constituency. I agree with the coalition Government’s commitment to decentralising power and making the planning process more accessible. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who I have known for many years and who brings an enormous amount of personal credibility to this subject. I know that he wants to get this right for all our sakes.
I think that my constituents want their councillors and community groups to use the planning system for properly planned growth in their neighbourhoods and, equally, to protect what they hold dear about them. Somewhere, the process of localism has stumbled in recent months and it has not yet secured the confidence of the many highly informed organisations and individuals in my constituency, such as the Alresford society, the city of Winchester trust and the Winchester city residents association, to name just a few groups. Among the very thoughtful and sensible individuals who regularly bring their many years of experience to their local Member of Parliament, two names that spring to mind are Keith Storey and Bob Howland—and I thank them for that.
The NPPF presents an opportunity, when the Government respond to their consultation, to replace what I see as qualified localism with a purer form of localism. Paragraph 48 of the NPPF sets out the requirement to meet
“unmet requirements from neighbouring authorities where it is practical to do so”.
I have to say that deep unease about this has been conveyed to me locally. Winchester city council has undertaken a great deal of cross-boundary work, through the development of joint studies, where there are common issues to be explored, and it is an active partner in the partnership for urban south Hampshire, known as PUSH. It is rightly concerned, and has expressed its concerns to me, that local authorities are not likely to be able or willing to provide for the development requirements of a neighbouring local authority and that it is an unreasonable requirement for local unmet needs to be picked up by neighbouring authorities.
Paragraph 109 contains the requirement to provide an additional 20% of specific deliverable sites within a five-year housing supply to allow for choice and competition. There has been much talk about that this afternoon. The NPPF should make it clear that the identification of sites for housing and the maintenance of a rolling supply is a monitoring issue rather than a development target. The 20% addition is unnecessary and should go.
There has been much focus on the now iconic phrase
“presumption in favour of sustainable development”.
I find this slightly odd because there is and always has been a presumption that an application will receive planning permission unless it is contrary to national or local planning policies. If it is refused, clear “material” reasons for the refusal must be given. That is where we have been for many years. However, to require “sustainable” development assumes that this is a black-and-white issue and that a development is either sustainable or not. The criteria used to assess sustainable development in the NPPF, and in the Localism Bill, cover economic, social and environmental issues. If the NPPF is to promote the concept of sustainable development—and I know that that is the wish—it should set out a clear definition with a list of desirable factors that need to be satisfied. As the city of Winchester trust says in its response to the consultation, and as it has said to me, the word “sustainable” is used so many times in the draft document that it comes across more as a brand than as a matter of substance. Town and country planning is, in the trust’s view, a discipline that is based on weighing up all the material issues, and then making a judgment. The trust goes on to say that there should be a presumption in favour of development that complies with adopted national and local planning policy—and I have to say that its Member of Parliament agrees.
Paragraph 165 of the NPPF states that local plans should allocate, first,
“land with the least environmental or amenity value”.
I think that Ministers feel that this is the way in which the NPPF says “brownfield first”, but we do not have the luxury of subtlety. If that is what we mean, we should say so and be clear in the document.
My reading of the NPPF shows an inconsistency between the desire for what it calls “succinct Local Plans” and the presumption in favour of sustainable development. It states that planning permission should be granted where the plan is “absent, silent” or “indeterminate” on a point. Surely, that will steer plan makers towards producing plans that deal with every eventuality to ensure that plans are not silent on, or fail to deal with, a possible development proposal. That suggests that local plans will need to be very detailed and comprehensive rather than succinct.
That leads me to another question: what are the transitional arrangements and will the Minister say whether an emerging plan will have sufficient weight as emerging policy to ensure that my constituents are not wide open? Finally, will he confirm beyond doubt that when a local plan is agreed and in place it has primacy? If it does not, we will have not the pure localism that I mentioned, or even qualified localism, but localism that does not mean very much at all.
In conclusion, planning is, as the NPPF rightly says, about a balance of economic, social and environmental issues. Almost every correspondence I have had on the subject has made the point that the repeated emphasis on economic growth in the document creates a slightly unbalanced document and ignores or understates the other two considerations. It should be left to individual local authorities to determine how much weight and emphasis should be given to economic considerations when framing their plans and taking decisions. So, I make a simple plea that we should trust local people— I think the Minister is absolutely right and he knows that I have campaigned alongside him on this for many years—believe in localism in its truest form and let people get on with the job.
I speak today as someone who has spent four years of my life dealing with the planning system in London. Before becoming an MP, I was a councillor in Lewisham and had responsibility for regeneration. I worked with planners, with developers and with the community, and I can say that in some ways it was the best job of my life and in others the worst.
I know how controversial planning applications can be, and I know how fiercely people will defend their own interests. There is nothing wrong with that, but someone, somewhere has to take a decision about the wider interests of the community, and indeed the wider interests of the country. Sometimes that will fall to councillors, but sometimes the responsibility will stop at the door of the Government. I have a real concern that on the evidence of the past 18 months this Government are not up to the task. They want to wash their hands of the task of setting out a vision of where in the country new homes will be built and where new jobs will be created. They talk about sustainable development but fail to provide an adequate definition. They hide behind a smokescreen of empowering communities through neighbourhood plans, but then use the planning system as a political football to justify the lack of economic growth.
In my view, the planning system is a vital tool in helping to create places where people want to live.
Will not the hon. Lady concede that during the last decade and a bit of the previous Government, despite the massive top-down, centrally planned housing targets, house building fell to its lowest level since the 1920s? How does she reconcile those two things?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has not been here for the whole debate. We have heard convincing evidence from a number of hon. Members about how house building and, most importantly, the building of affordable houses increased over the last decade.
I was setting out why I believe the planning system is so important. It is one of the only ways in which we can determine where to locate the things that we all need but perhaps do not like, such as places to deal with our rubbish and noisy hospitals with lots of traffic. It is also one of the only ways in which we can start to change how we live in the future. It is a simple fact that we need fewer cars on our roads. That will happen only if the jobs of tomorrow are located in places where public transport is good and if new homes are built in places where people can walk to the shops. That is what sustainable development is about. It is not just about shiny bits of eco kit on buildings; it is about how we live our lives. It is about investment in our town centres, making the most of brownfield land in our cities and protecting those parts of the countryside that we all hold dear.
The Government tell us that the planning system is a brake on economic growth and that planners are the enemies of enterprise. That is rubbish. In 2010-11, 86% of planning applications were approved, and 90% of commercial applications were approved. In London, planning permission exists for 170,000 homes on which work has yet to start. It is not the planning system that is stopping those homes being built; it is the availability of developer and mortgage finance.
The hon. Lady speaks of 86% of planning applications having been approved, but does she have information on how many times those applicants have been round the block? In my experience, what tends to happen is that people apply once, get refused and have to apply again, having changed something. That is what we mean by a brake that is slowing the process.
I do not have the figures that the hon. Lady requests, but I was about to go on to say that we need to look at more than planning policy; we need to look at the planning process. That may address one of the issues that she touches on.
I accept that it can take a long time to get planning applications approved, but we have to make sure that there are enough resources in council planning departments to deal with applications speedily and sort out, at the outset, some of the problems to which the hon. Lady refers. We all know that council and, indeed, planning department budgets are coming under huge pressure as a result of the Government’s austerity programme.
We also have to look at perceptions of the planning system and do more to encourage developers and planners to work more collaboratively. I say this as a politician: one of the biggest frustrations for developers is the politics in all this, such as the planning application that gets stuck in a council a year before an election and is not decided. A whole range of issues impact on problems with the planning system. The Government are wrong to look at planning policy on its own, and it is wrong to assume that a slimline version of the NPPF is the answer to the country’s economic woes.
It is wrong to assume, too, that just because the NPPF is much shorter than previous planning guidance it is any clearer—a point that has been made in our debate. There is a real danger that the NPPF is a blank cheque for planning lawyers. As Simon Jenkins pointed out when he gave evidence to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government this week, the document is littered with adverbs. On the basis of the NPPF, developers can argue for “acceptable” returns. Acceptable to whom? Something that is acceptable to me is probably very different from something that is acceptable to the chairman of a big house-builder. The document refers to the fact that councils can refuse applications where the adverse affects “significantly” and “demonstrably” outweigh the benefits. If ever there was a word for lawyers to fight over, surely “significantly” is it. The document is sloppy and ambiguous, and it could have a raft of unintended consequences.
My other main concern about the NPPF relates to whether it does enough to address some of the big challenges that we face as country. Let us take the example of affordable housing. The framework does away with previous targets for the amount of affordable housing that should be provided by developers when they are building schemes where the majority of homes are for sale on the open market. It is left to councils to decide whether they have such targets. It is the same for the threshold for when any affordable housing requirement must kick in: local councils can decide. That is not to mention the issue of what constitutes “affordable housing”, or how housing requirements are properly assessed.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I have given way several times, and I am conscious that many Members wish to speak.
The housing needs of my constituents in Lewisham are not going to be met in Lewisham alone. If every house built in Lewisham over the next 10 years was an affordable home—and I mean genuinely affordable—we would still not solve our housing crisis. There has to a Government plan to deal with this. There is not, and on the basis of the NPPF, I fear that the problem will just get worse.
I question the usefulness of a document that contains stronger stipulations about the habitats of birds than it does on, say, housing for the elderly. There is a one-word reference to the way in which councils should take into account the housing needs of older people, compared with a very clear statement about sites protected under the birds and habitats directives. I am not against the inclusion of clear guidance on bird habitats, but I am against the absence of clear guidance on planning for the enormous demographic challenges that our country faces.
Before I conclude, I should like to touch on the apparent contradiction between the NPPF and the Government’s supposed commitment to giving local people more say over what happens in their neighbourhood. During our deliberations on the Localism Bill, I said that neighbourhood plans would serve to stoke up communities’ expectations about their ability to say “no” to development in their area—a nimby’s charter. However, according to the Government, the default answer to development should be yes. How can the two be compatible?
I put it to the Government that they have over-hyped localism. Neighbourhood plans have been sold on a false prospectus. They will not deliver power to communities to define the sort of development that they want to see in their area, as neighbourhood plans have generally to conform with the council’s strategic plan, which in turn must be consistent with the NPPF requirements on meeting housing need. The only way neighbourhood plans will work is if communities ask for lots and lots of new homes to be built. They may well do so in Tunbridge Wells, but that is not my experience in Lewisham.
In conclusion, the Government appear to have a laudable “consensus” view of planning. They believe that local people, working with local authorities, will ultimately deliver plans that meet the needs of the nation as a whole. I am not so sure that they will. Planning is ultimately a mechanism to resolve fierce competition over a finite resource. Judgments must be made in a balanced way, and consideration must be given to the environment and society, as much as to the economy. Planning policy and guidance has a role to play in setting out how those decisions are taken. Yes, planning policy could and should be streamlined, but let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As a local civic amenities society in my constituency, the Culverley Green residents association, stated in an e-mail to me this week:
“Revision is a reasonable option but a bonfire is not.”
Order. To accommodate more Members, the time limit on speeches is being reduced to five minutes. That is a ceiling, so Members should not feel that it is necessary to fill the five minutes, as others wish to speak.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate, which holds great significance for my constituents. I want to explain why I support the Government’s general approach in the draft NPPF and point to areas where I think it could be honed and improved. If the Government take on those suggestions, it might allay some of my constituents’ current concerns. To do that, we need to assess where we are coming from, with regard to the current planning system, and to consider where the proposals will lead our communities and how our communities will engage in the planning process in future.
The current system—the previous Government’s approach—was quite simple: there were top-down targets, with the Government deciding numbers, and local people could decide where to impose the Government’s will. It was a classic “Government knows best” approach. I applaud the current Government on their approach of freeing up local communities to set their own course and allowing them to set a local vision. It gives local people a real say in planning that vision and more control over their own destiny, which I think is incumbent on a Government led by the Conservative party.
It will be a day of liberation when the Localism Bill receives Royal Assent and the ghastly regional spatial strategies, which many of my constituents have feared for years, disappear. However, I fear that before we get planning liberation several of the local communities I represent might be caught with unwanted developments as a result of a lack of coherence in the planning strategy of the Labour-controlled Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council, where contradictory assessments of housing need have already lead to one unwanted development being imposed by the Planning Inspectorate.
We must also recognise that although locally based planning is vital, for consistency of approach we also need a strong national framework. I am encouraged by the draft NPPF that the Government have put before us and by their intention to balance the important concept of local planning with the fact that we are all living longer, more of us want to live apart than together and that we all need those homes for our children for the future, which is a major concern in many constituencies.
The draft NPPF cuts the current guidance down to size and puts it into a format that can be understood not only by planners in town halls, but by the communities we all serve. It is clear that if people put their local plans in place and get all their ducks in a row, based on clear evidence, their communities will be protected from speculative developers and the will of the Planning Inspectorate. It is clear that the local plan will hold primacy. However, I have some suggestions for the Government.
First, the NPPF contains a carrot-and-stick approach; the presumption in favour of sustainable development being the stick, and the fact that the presumption will not be effective if an evidenced-based plan is in place being the carrot. The Government must honour that principle, because some planning authorities are more advanced in putting together their local plans than others. We cannot have an indefinite and open-ended situation in which local authorities decide not to put local plans in place, but I think that we should give them the opportunity to put their local plans in place as quickly as possible by allowing a transitional period in which they can do that. I welcome the comments that the Minister made on that this afternoon.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am sorry; unfortunately, because of the time I have left, I cannot give way.
Local plans must be based on up-to-date local evidence; they must not be predicated just on figures hanging around from the RSS if they are not appropriate to the local community. I hope that the inspectors who check those plans and the evidence base in them will look at truly local evidence, and do so with a fresh set of eyes, not through regional spatial strategy-tinted spectacles. I fear that, if the Government do not make sure of that, it will come back to haunt many of our communities.
There have been many good contributions today, and many points have been made, but in the short time that we have been squeezed into I want to focus on some issues in Hyndburn.
First, the north is not the south, and one cap does not fit all. The pressure in the national planning policy framework to build, and the under-supply of housing in the south which is driving that, will simply cause problems in Hyndburn.
Secondly, the framework document exists in a vacuum, ignoring other Government policies on sustainable communities, health outcomes and the effects of brownfield sites in areas such as mine, which are of predominantly low value and experience low demand. The consequences of concentrating development on those sites will be detrimental.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the complexity he mentions is a primary reason why, when the framework comes back to the House, we need a full, affirmative vote on it ?
Yes, I do, and that was a very good intervention.
Given that this is a housing supply-side problem, I have every sympathy with the Government’s presumption in favour of sustainable development, and they are attempting to achieve what the previous Government also tried.
Parts of the national planning policy framework are to be welcomed, particularly the removal of brownfield targets for housing; the protection of community facilities in inner-urban areas; green space designation, which the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) mentioned and which should be used as a tool to green our towns and cities; and the issue of Traveller sites, which I do not wish to go into but do support.
My hon. Friend mentions several things that could be included in the document, but many hon. Members have said that empty housing should be included more forcefully. Does my hon. Friend agree?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend has obviously seen an advance copy of my speech.
The planning document is crude, and I want to highlight some of its failings, which I hope the Minister will consider. I accept that in some areas of the south there is an insufficient availability of housing land, but I do not want to say any more about the southern dilemma. I want to reflect on why the framework will not work in Hyndburn and some of the old industrial towns of the north.
In the document, there are two particular spatial planning failures. The first is on empty homes, and it was raised by the hon. Members for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) and for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), and by my hon. Friends the Members for North Tyneside and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt). The issue clearly has cross-party support, but there is nothing substantial about it in the NPPF. There should be, and we should do more about it. In my constituency there are 2,500 empty homes, and those properties must be part of any housing consideration. The national planning policy must include a presumption—of first preference, I would argue—that they are brought back into use. Brownfield and greenfield sites should be somewhat secondary.
The national planning policy framework also takes a blanket view on sustainable development. Unmanaged sustainable development will not abate the over-supply of housing in my constituency but exacerbate the problem.
Secondly, there is the issue of old factory sites in my constituency and the gaping hole in the definition of sustainability, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) mentioned. “Sustainability” is quite a loose word in the document, and I am concerned about that, because it does not recognise some of the important aspects of sustainable communities which go beyond housing. Put simply, inner-urban brownfield development can be a disaster for poor and deprived communities, and there is a case in some areas for a policy of no more urban infill. We need a framework that alleviates the problems of an ageing stock where there is de-population, a static population or sufficient housing.
Hyndburn is a constituency where 89% of people live in an urban area, and in many neighbourhoods there is a lack of open space and recreational areas. As hon. Members are probably aware, it has row after row of terraced housing sitting by derelict former mills and factories, now classed as brownfield sites, for which housing planning permission is frequently sought. It comes as no surprise that Hyndburn has one of the lowest rates of physical activity for adults in England. It has consistently been in the lowest 25% of all localities as regards adults having 30 minutes of physical activity three times a week. Consequently, it has poor and/or chronic health statistics. The impact of this national planning policy framework on health and lifestyle inequalities cannot be underestimated.
The previous “brownfield first” presumption on which much of this debate focuses favours the rich and privileged on the urban fringes and works against the urban poor. It is not fair to maintain an expectation that the poor who neighbour many old brownfield sites should shoulder the burden of housing development. It is no wonder that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening when the national planning policy framework sits in a policy vacuum where it has no relation to, and works against, the objectives of other Government Departments.
Health inequalities are widening. The Prime Minister’s happiness index would do well to reflect the national planning policy framework as regards some of these sites. If the Government are serious about putting forth an agenda of improving the health of our people, they must resist the further crowding of densely populated urban areas by brownfield developmental pressure. A free-for-all urban infill based on gross housing need simply will not work in my constituency.
To put that in perspective, 60% of the terraced houses in my constituency sit cheek by jowl with old unwanted industrial sites. For the past 20 years, I have lived in one of the most deprived wards where, as one would expect, there are all the social problems that the Government wish to address. We must resist a “brownfield first” presumption of development of such former industrial sites. One of those in my neighbourhood stands out as a particularly good example, as it is turned over to housing. It is surrounded by old Victorian property that sells for £40,000 per house. Many properties have been boarded up or are empty; most of the remainder are in the hands of landlords who do not really care much for the area. I am sure that hon. Members understand the issues. The pressure to release the brownfield site resulted in a successful housing application to build what can only be described as the slums of tomorrow. No one is willing to develop a former industrial site in a poor area with five-bedroom luxury homes and open space, and the national planning policy framework will not prevent that from continuing. I hope that the Minister will address my concerns.
We have learned this afternoon of the momentous news from Libya of the death of Colonel Gaddafi. On Sunday, the European Heads of Government meet to consider the eurozone crisis, and we have our own debate on this issue on Monday. Parliament often considers these great matters of state and international affairs, but often our work as Members of Parliament is more drawn to the issues that we have covered in today’s debate. Planning issues that shape people’s lives and communities are the bread and butter of our work as Members of Parliament and the work of this House. It is a timely debate, and it has been interesting and illuminating to hear from colleagues from all around the country of their own experiences of planning. I will also draw briefly on my own experiences.
There has been much reference to the position of the National Trust as against that of the Government. The National Trust’s manifesto for planning states:
“Effective planning should promote good development, which contributes to prosperity and growth.”
I think that every one of us would agree with that. It is totally consistent with the policies set out by the Government and with having planning based on good local plans that include a sound assessment of local economic need and of the needs of local individuals.
Some of the remarks by Labour Members have presented us with a false dilemma and a false challenge that is not borne out by people’s experience. It is suggested that development would take place in urban centres only if it were required and incentivised by the Government, and that development out of urban areas is unnecessary and promoted only because it may be cheap and expedient. Those of us who represent urban and rural communities are aware that such development can be a very important trigger for bringing in investment and helping to stimulate the local economy. That applies just as much to small rural villages and seaside towns, such as Folkestone in my constituency, as to major urban centres.
Over a number of years, Labour and Conservative Governments have pursued a strategy of urban and civic renewal and many of our major cities have benefited from that consensus. However, we should also consider the need for development in rural communities, such as the villages in the middle of Romney Marsh in my constituency. I had a meeting with representatives of Newchurch parish council, which is right in the middle of Romney Marsh. They expressed their frustration that they had been blocked in trying to get planning permission for a small amount of rural development in the village which might have made the community more sustainable. People with rural constituencies will be familiar with such planning concerns.
It has been suggested in this debate that the regional spatial strategies ensured that a certain amount of housing development took place, and that without them it simply would not have happened. However, many Members will be aware that the local authorities in their constituencies have been keen to pursue a strategy for growth. Shepway district council, which covers 90% of my constituency, has set growth plans for housing that exceed the levels set in the regional spatial strategies. It understands that sensible and sustainable development can play an important role in stimulating the local economy. When that is welcomed by the community, it should be welcomed by all. I think that people realise that.
The new homes bonus is helpful because it gives local authorities a means of compensating a local community and addressing the concerns that it may have about the dilution of the quality of local services because of additional development. That is money that councils can control. For a district authority, a development of even several thousand housing units over a number of years could bring a substantial reward to the local community in investment.
Development can also support the delivery of local services, particularly the roll-out of broadband services, which are often a complaint in more remote parts of the country. The investment from the developer that comes into the community can help the roll-out and expansion of broadband services and other services. There is a lot that we can commend.
I will touch on one aspect of planning policy and of major infrastructure planning policy in particular that has affected my constituency: the planning of new nuclear planning stations. The previous Government were remiss in not allowing local economic decisions to be considered in the site-specific report. In my constituency, a new power station at Dungeness would have been of considerable benefit to the local economy. It has been held back because of planning restraints to do with nature conservation on the site around the power station. It would be welcome if the Government revisited those regulations. They are largely based on European law. In this case, they are not welcomed by the community and have put a barrier on development at the site. We should look again to see if there is the flexibility to revisit the way in which such regulations are imposed. Communities change, and the nature of regulations may no longer suit the needs of the local economy and community. We should always keep a vigilant eye on that.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. When I was first elected as an MP, one of the older hands advised me to steer clear of planning applications and leave them to councillors because we have no power over them. I have singularly failed to follow that instruction, but then I have had two open-cast mines, a gasification plant and consultations on various supermarkets to deal with in my constituency. It has not been an issue that I could have kept out of.
Seven years as a district councillor taught me that the planning system is far too complex and that neither local people nor developers really get what they want. We tend to get a nationally enforced plan with a nationally enforced target. The council then sets a local plan and turns down applications on valid planning grounds, but then the inspectors approve them anyway. That is the worst of all worlds. What we want is clarity so that everyone can understand what should be approved and what should not. If something is turned down validly, the decision ought to stick.
I want to discuss two issues: the green belt and mineral planning. The last thing that any of us wants is to lose any green belt, which is so valuable to our communities. One thing that is certain is that once it is gone, it is unlikely to ever come back. There is one encouraging remark in the draft framework in paragraph 137:
“Once established, Green Belt boundaries should only be altered in exceptional circumstances.”
I wholeheartedly agree with that. Green belt should be changed only where it absolutely has to be. I urge my local council to bear that in mind as it looks at options for future housing development.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we also have to protect green wedges and agricultural blocks to avoid urban communities coming together? That is the case in Hinckley, in my Leicestershire constituency.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and reiterate that point. One of the key advantages for the green belt set out in the framework is that communities will be prevented from being merged and our distinct historic communities will be maintained. When there have been threats to the green belt in my constituency in recent years, either real or rumoured, the local people have come together strongly to fight the loss. I have seen that in the village of Shipley with the Hardy Barn development, with the threats to the old American Adventure site and with the Lodge House open-cast mine in Smalley, which was sadly approved last week. There are matters still to be decided in Heage and in the villages around the Cinderhill development, where the council removed some green-belt land to try to encourage the cleaning up of an old, contaminated site.
More recently, in Ripley, the council has consulted on whether to sell land for another supermarket. I strongly welcome the framework’s stating that if councils are willing to consider out-of-town development such as supermarkets, they need to bear in mind the damage that would be done to existing shops in the town centre not just for a short period but for 10 years, when the supermarket grows and gets more popular. That is especially important because these days supermarkets sell not just food but newspapers, books and clothes and have a pharmacy, a mobile phone shop and an optician. Almost nothing in a town centre can compete if there is a supermarket like that.
The key thing for the Government now is to get the emphasis right and ensure that the green belt is strongly protected by the framework. That should come right at the start of the plan. We should say, “Okay, we have a presumption in favour of sustainable development, but we also have a strong presumption against development in the green belt.” We do not want councils to reduce the size of the green belt when they set their local plans.
I wish to mention mineral extraction. It is worth reiterating that what we put in the framework is what developers will quote when they submit their planning applications, and they will want decisions to be enforced based on it. If councils try to go beyond what is in it, there will be a real risk of successful appeal. I strongly believe that we have the balance wrong on mineral extraction. The section on minerals states first, in paragraph 103, that “significant weight” must be given to
“the benefits of the mineral extraction”,
but then paragraph 106 states that there is a presumption against the extraction of coal. I would have thought that that presumption against it should come right at the start, so that we all know we are starting from that point, especially in the case of green-belt sites. Then we could consider circumstances in which that presumption could be overturned and approval granted, so conditions could be set to ensure that excessive damage was not done to people living near the sites in question.
That is where it gets complicated for a council assessing applications. There is no guidance in the draft framework on what noise levels are acceptable at such sites. There is a comment that when a site is started, a noise level that is not generally acceptable may occur, because it is unavoidable given the blasting needed to set the site up. However, there is no comment on how long that noise can go on or how excessive it may be. If I were the applicant, I might think that six months was a short time for a four-year site, but if I were living next door to it I might think that 30 minutes was far too long for excessive noise. It will be very hard for a council to interpret that provision if there is no national guidance. Although I wholeheartedly support the need to slim down the guidance, we need some clarity about what is and is not acceptable in that situation.
I refer Ministers to the private Member’s Bill on open-cast mining separation zones, and to the amendments that I tabled to the Localism Bill to try to ensure separation. People need to be sure how close to their house a mine can be. A mine that was approved in my constituency is just over 200 metres from someone’s back door, which is far too close, especially given that open-cast mining was taken out of the neighbourhood planning process in the Localism Bill. Local communities have no protection against that.
I conclude by saying that I wholeheartedly support the simplification of the system but that some refinements to the details are still needed.
The Minister is quite familiar with my constituency, given that he has been kind enough to speak to members of my association a number of times, so it will come as no surprise to him when I say that I have received more than 130 letters on the NPPF, or that more than four organisations in my constituency have contributed to the consultation. As he is aware, it is in a part of the country where people are focused on shaping the places in which they live and building their communities. They are doing that in many parts of the country, as the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said earlier.
In the brief time available to me I want to focus on just two points. However, I would like first to thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for agreeing to meet the organisations in my constituency that are concerned about the NPPF. They include Tandridge district council, CPRE Tandridge, CPRE Surrey, the Oxted and Limpsfield residents group, Reigate and Banstead council, Nutfield residents association and Woldingham parish council, which are just a few of those that we could fit into one meeting. I thank my right hon. Friend for being open to meeting them.
Although I understand the need to simplify the planning system, the need for house building, the need for localism and the need to stimulate growth, my main consideration is the core strategy and how it will work. We have had a core strategy in Tandridge district council since 2008, and many hours have been spent developing it. The main concern now is that the transitional provisions would still leave a period of uncertainty, so why do we not let the core strategies, in which so much time has been invested, be tested out there, rather than completely overruling them?