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Planning Guidance (Northumberland)

Volume 535: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2011

Thank you, Mr Gale, for chairing this debate. I am glad that the Minister is taking part. He and I have worked together on other issues over quite a long period. I am glad to have the opportunity to discuss the potential impact of the draft planning guidelines in Northumberland. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) would like to have taken part, but he is still taking part in the constituency boundary inquiry in Newcastle, at which I spoke yesterday.

I want to address three main questions in this short debate. First, does the guidance enable planning authorities to combine the protection of the countryside with the encouragement of those forms of development that local people need if they are to have affordable homes and jobs? Secondly, how does the guidance affect the strategic housing land assessment that councils have been required to carry out? Thirdly, how will it be applied to wind farms and wind turbines?

Quite a lot of my constituents have involved themselves through e-mail in the debate about the planning proposals, and some have clearly been concerned by fears that they will unleash a torrent of development in the countryside or strip away the protections that the countryside enjoys. Ministers have made it clear that the guidance does not reduce or dismantle the protection given to national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty or the green belt—my constituency contains the first two of those. Instead, it embodies a principle that has always been part of the planning system: a person has the freedom to make use of his or her land unless there is good reason for the community to deny that right, such as the protection of landscapes, the conservation of historic buildings and areas, or the promotion of sustainability. I sometimes wonder, however, whether man-made landmarks that we know and love—Stonehenge, Blackpool tower, Kielder water, Lindisfarne castle, for example—would have received planning permission from some authorities.

The Government are right to get rid of much of the top-down structure and guidance that has grown up over the years. Regional spatial strategies have ludicrously restricted the number of houses that can be built in Northumberland’s rural villages, and regional strategy has created a presumption in favour of wind farms in many of the most attractive parts of my constituency. The objective of having a much shorter guidance manual is correct, but the Government must develop clearer wording around the concept of a

“presumption in favour of sustainable development.”

If they do not, Ministers and planning authorities will waste a lot of time and money in the law courts over the next few years, and the planning process will be subject to even more delays. People may feel that the dice are being loaded against them—I will return to that point.

When an organisation with such a distinguished record as the National Trust rings the alarm bell, Governments need to take notice. The trust is a major land and property owner in my constituency; it owns most of the village of Cambo, and much of Low Newton-by-the-Sea, as well as historic buildings that are great tourist attractions. The trust’s initial comments and those of the Campaign to Protect Rural England might have given the impression that people who live in and care about the countryside are against all development, but that has never been so. Indeed, the National Trust sometimes applies for planning permission for developments that it considers necessary to make the country houses it owns sustainable. Country people know that the countryside cannot be run as a museum. If they are to provide local services, local people need homes at prices that they can afford. Shops, pubs, churches and local transport need a resident population to sustain them; they cannot survive on weekend-cottage owners alone. Jobs are needed to stop rural depopulation.

During my time as a Member of Parliament—which, admittedly, is getting quite long; 38 years last week—I have seen a huge reduction in the number of houses inhabited full time by people who work locally. House prices, inflated by scarcity and the demand for second homes, are far beyond the reach of local people in rural Northumberland. I therefore welcome the wording in the guidance that, in rural areas, local councils should plan to meet the need for affordable housing and that some market housing should be allowed if it will provide more affordable housing for local people. Although I welcome the debate about protecting the countryside, I do not want it to lead to the Government adopting wording that would make it even more difficult to secure the housing and small business development that are essential to a sustainable countryside. Equally, I would not want anything to add to the feeling shared by some of my constituents that, even under the current system, the balance of power is in favour of large developers.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate; it refers specifically to a part of the world that is not too far from my own. He pointed out that many communities feel that they do not have enough control over developments. Does he agree that that is the case all too often? Many communities in my constituency are opposed to local developments—whether housing developments, wind turbines or any other sort of development—and feel that they have no power or voice under the old system.

Indeed, and I welcome the various ways in which the Government are trying to empower local people—for example, through local neighbourhood planning. Alnwick in my constituency is one pilot area for such a development. I genuinely welcome the Government’s attempt to bring more of the planning decision process to local people. Of course, some things in the planning guidance might work the other way, and I will address some of those issues.

As I have said, some people in my constituency feel that the dice are loaded against them in favour of big developers. In my area, there is the added issue of large, landed estates that are in a relatively powerful position and can consider their actions for the long term. They have many levers in their power, which people feel can sometimes make it difficult effectively to oppose developments that they do not like, or even to secure the appropriate balance of social housing in a development.

The Minister will know that I have experienced difficulty in getting a satisfactory answer to constituents’ concerns about the strategic housing land availability assessment and how it will relate to the presumption in favour of sustainable development—what a jargon-filled world we live in, between the SHLAA and the presumption, but that is what we must examine. If the SHLAA is just a developer’s wish list and does not change the designation of land or the way that planning considerations are applied, it will not be a problem.

Experience of a recent case in Berwick, however, has created the fear that the SHLAA listing, which the planning authority agreed to without first consulting English Heritage, could override important archaeological and landscape considerations in future planning decisions. An extremely sensitive site close to the Royal Border bridge and castle was included in the draft SHLAA, although the heritage and landscape factors were not listed in the assessment. That has left local people feeling that, should the area ever be the subject of a planning application, the dice would already be loaded because relevant factors had been set aside by the site’s original inclusion in the land assessment.

There is also concern that, in many places, local development plans do not exist, have not been finally agreed to, or have not been updated. That could lead to a disregard of relevant planning considerations for sites included in the SHLAA list, or to the presumption in favour of sustainable development overruling conservation, landscape or other considerations. What assurance can the Minister give to localities that do not have an approved up-to-date local plan?

Finally, I will consider wind turbines and wind farms. Large parts of my constituency, which is characterised by beautiful countryside and stunning views, have been designated as suitable for onshore wind generation. Some parts, such as the national park, although not the adjoining areas, have been excluded. The result is an avalanche of applications for the rest of the area, some of which encircle communities such as Wingates, a hilltop village near Rothbury. In the borders region, 250 turbines have been erected and 600 are in the planning process. Northumberland has granted permission for three wind farms, and a further 10 have been approved by inspectors on appeal. The planning authority needs to be confident that it is free to make sensible, careful and robust decisions about which sites to approve and which to reject. Opinions are, of course, divided over individual wind farm sites and about the general policy of wind-farm development.

The right hon. Gentleman refers to the need for local councils to have a genuine framework of accountability through which they can influence applications for wind farms. In Northumberland, the Conservatives have called on the county council a number of times to look at the introduction of a policy that will make it clearer, for both applicants and residents who are concerned about potential developments on their doorsteps, what the framework in that area should be and what is, or is not, permissible. Does he believe that to be a possible way forward, and would he support such a position?

I will go on develop the case in my own way, and the hon. Gentleman will see how I think that we should handle it. His intervention is relevant to my point because, although there are many divided opinions, they do not divide along party political lines. He mentioned the Conservative party, and in Northumberland there are applications to place a turbine on a site belonging to the Conservative leader of Northumberland county council and for a wind farm to be put on land owned by the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael). Enthusiasm for renewable energy and wind farms, and concern about them, stretches across the parties.

In such a highly-charged debate, we must know what the new planning guidance will mean. It could be argued that a wind farm or wind turbine is, by definition, a sustainable development because it produces sustainable energy without carbon or non-renewable resources. If that is combined with the existing designation of some larger areas as suitable for wind farms, does the presumption in favour automatically come into play? We need to clear that up, because if it were so, the planning process would break down. The planning authority would be left powerless to make sensible decisions about the suitability of a site, its cumulative impact in the light of other approvals, landscape issues, wildlife protection or proximity to residential developments. The planning authority would fear losing every appeal against refusal, at considerable cost. Therein lies one of the problems with the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). If the planning authority devises a framework that is more restrictive than the regional framework to which it is already subject and then loses its cases on appeal, we are no further forward.

Let me consider, as I have referred to it, the proximity to residential properties. The planning guidance is a missed opportunity to write in a national presumption against close proximity to residential properties for large or multiple turbines. The Government have not looked favourably on the relevant private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom). They should reconsider the issue to give people some reassurance, not about small turbines designed to provide electricity for a house or farm, but about large installations built very close to residential property.

The Minister must make it clear that what I have described in respect of the presumption in favour of sustainable development will not have the effect that I have suggested—that that is not the Government’s intention. Even within areas designated as suitable for wind farms, there should be no non-rebuttable presumption. Planning authorities will be seen as a waste of space if they do not have the freedom to control the rush to find and develop wind-farm sites in which so many developers are competing. My constituents will rightly be angry if the planning authority is unable to take into account historic views of Holy island, Bamburgh and the Cheviots, or any of the other factors that I have mentioned, including wildlife protection and closeness to residential property.

There are a great many applications in my constituency, and that has introduced a new and rather worrying element, to which I want to direct the Minister’s attention. One developer, which has applications in relation to the Elsdon area and the area north of Belford—two separate applications relating to different parts of my constituency—somehow managed to give residents in Elsdon the impression that, although there would be some funds for community benefit if the scheme went ahead, there would be a lot more if they did not oppose it and there was no need for an appeal or an inquiry. It would not be acceptable for the planning process to be distorted by people being pressured to forego their right to express their point of view. Needless to say, it did not have that effect. When the people affected thought that that was what they were being told, they reacted in a pretty hostile way. It certainly did not bring them round in favour of the proposal. However, that would be a very unwelcome development in planning matters.

Some people do not like community benefit at all. I accept that if a scheme—whatever the development—goes ahead and has potentially detrimental effects on an area, or if it would be more acceptable if other things were done at the same time, developers should be encouraged to provide those benefits to the community. However, their scale should never be conditional on whether the planning process has been allowed to go ahead in the normal way or has been curtailed by people feeling that somehow they would lose out if they pursued their objection.

We want to protect the very special beauty of our countryside from the threat of inappropriate or badly sited developments, whether wind farms or other kinds of development. We need the power to make local decisions. We want to maintain a living countryside that welcomes the homes and jobs that are needed if the countryside is to be sustainable. The result of the debate about planning policy needs to be a system in which local people play a crucial part not only in helping to shape their area, but in keeping it as one of living communities whose beauty and grandeur are protected for future generations.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gale. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing the debate, which I know is important both to his constituents and more generally. I am delighted to be doing business with him again in a Committee Room of sorts. Our roles today are slightly different from our previous incarnations in the Select Committee on Justice.

I shall try to deal with the important points raised by my right hon. Friend. He has made powerful points in the context of his constituency and its surrounding county. In a wider context, there has been a positive and constructive debate on matters of planning policy in relation to the Localism Bill and in other debates in both Houses. I welcome the opportunity to debate those matters further.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend recognises, fairly, that there is a pressing need for reform of national planning policy. The system has grown unworkably complex, with more than 1,000 pages of national planning policy and at least a further 6,000 pages of guidance. The complexity of that system slows down decision making and frustrates the sustainable growth that the country needs, such as new homes for young families struggling to put together a deposit and new jobs to breathe fresh life into local economies. He correctly recognises that that applies in rural areas as much as in towns and cities.

A streamlined framework focusing on key priorities will be more accessible and transparent. In the future, anyone who wants to understand the principles informing how decisions are made will be able to do so. That is important, as polling evidence suggests that many people feel cut off from the planning system because it is too complex. They do not feel able to find their way through it. They feel that they are unable to understand or to influence. If the system is not intelligible to the intelligent and well-informed citizen, it is not delivering on one of its key purposes.

It is important to get this right, because planning is a very important tool. It is how we create communities that work and, as my right hon. Friend said, places that we are proud of, and it is how we lay the foundations for business. Also, and very importantly, it exists not only to protect, but to enhance our green spaces, parks and countryside for our enjoyment today and for generations to come.

Let me make some remarks on the specific issues that my right hon. Friend helpfully raised. I am sure that you, Mr Gale, and other hon. Members will understand that I am constrained in what I can say today, given that we are engaged in considering the large number of responses—some 14,000, as I recall it—that we have received to the consultation. Of course, we need to give all the responses careful attention and avoid any impression of pre-empting the outcome of the consultation.

We have heard concerns expressed about the effect of the proposed presumption in favour of sustainable development on local areas, whether that is my right hon. Friend’s rural Northumberland or urban areas. Some of those concerns—I exempt my right hon. Friend’s observations from this entirely—have been very wide of the mark. Joseph Harper, QC, editor of the “Encyclopedia of Planning Law and Practice”, has said that much of the criticism is ill informed. However, that does not mean that there are not genuine concerns, which I hope that the Government will be able to allay.

We want to ensure that planning is a positive process that reflects the needs of each area and to emphasise the central and critical role of the local plan in decision making. We want local authorities to be responsible for deciding what housing and other development they need and where it should go without the sort of top-down, unpopular targets that were imposed on them under the previous Government’s regional strategies. We want that development to be plan-led. Indeed, the proposed new system does not undermine the concept of the plan and enhances its importance.

What the presumption says, in layman’s terms, is quite simple: locally prepared plans should set out what is needed in each area, development in line with those plans should be approved without delay, and in the absence of an up-to-date plan, the policies in the draft national planning policy framework, including its requirement for development to be sustainable, should guide decisions.

My right hon. Friend raised a concern about irrebuttable presumptions. I assure him that that is not the case. Like any legal presumption, the presumption is rebuttable by evidence, which is a basic legal tenet. In this context, the best evidence to rebut a presumption will be the existence of an up-to-date local plan that deals with the issues raised by the development in question.

I want the Minister to take into account the situation in Northumberland, where the county planning department took over from six district councils, some of which contained significant areas that were not the subject of a developed or agreed local plan. In these times of straitened resources, getting the structure of local plans fully completed and agreed in every place will take some time. We may need some kind of transition period before the principle can operate in quite the way that he has suggested. Will we not have a situation where some factors are not properly examined, because there is no local plan governing the situation?

I take my right hon. Friend’s point. I am sure that he will have noticed that the Minister with responsibility for decentralisation, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), recognised that point in the debate that we had in the House recently. I cannot pre-empt our response to the consultation, but I reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that his point is particularly well heard by the Government. The Minister with responsibility for decentralisation has indicated that we will look to provide suitable transitional arrangements for local authorities in such circumstances, including the local authority of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Against the background of the importance of a local plan, the onus is put on democratically produced local plans to identify and provide for the needs of each area. Plans must be based on evidence and be deliverable, or they will not have the confidence of the community or of investors, who might need to be brought into the area.

On housing, plans must, as is the case now, reflect the local housing based on a strategic housing market assessment and the availability of suitable land, which is set out in strategic housing land availability assessments. SHLAA, as they are often referred to, do not allocate land for development, but inform decisions on land allocations to be taken through a local plan. They form part of the evidence base. Policy restrictions such as landscape designations and the potential impacts of development on the landscape are identified through the assessment. Sites are chosen for development in the local plan and are subject to full consultation with statutory consultees and the public through the local plan process. None of that is undermined in the new system.

That is a key point on which I want to press the Minister. If the assessment has been carried out in a way that fails to address some issues, such as landscape, is there any proper mechanism by which it can be reintroduced when a planning decision has to be taken?

Ultimately, each planning application has to be addressed on its merits and the relevant material considerations and policy. The plan is one of the principal material considerations in a case, but the existence of, for example, designations that are consistent with national policy or other impacts can always be taken into account. There is a classic dictum by Lord Clyde in the House of Lords on such matters, which states that the weight to be placed on any material consideration is a matter for the decision maker. Again, that has not changed. Obviously, the weight that each material consideration carries will vary from case to case, but that is the whole point of the system. I assure my right hon. Friend that such issues are not shut out by the process.

The natural environment is an important part of the process. We pay great attention to the safeguarding of the natural and historic environment. Under local plans, communities can shape development in an area to reflect what is important locally, which includes special landscapes or the character of villages. Again, the best protection, making allowances for the transitional arrangements that I have referred to, is to get a plan in place, which can reflect precisely the points raised by my right hon. Friend.

Although we recognise that we need jobs and homes for young people and opportunities for businesses to expand, that will not be at the expense of our natural and historic environment. The draft framework sets out the Government’s thinking on how the planning system should safeguard the environment while providing for sustainable growth. The national planning policy framework maintains designations for the green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks, sites of special scientific interest and other designations that protect the character of our country’s landscape, stop unsustainable urban sprawl and preserve wildlife. We are going further on that, because we will introduce a new local green space designation through the NPPF. It will enable communities to identify green areas of particular importance to them for special protection. That might be a key green in a village or a market town, as well as in a major city.

If we are going to protect the environment, it is important that we use land effectively. That is why the draft framework clearly states that

“plans should allocate land with the least environmental or amenity value.”

That means using derelict land when considering where to develop. We want developers to reuse derelict land, if that is the most appropriate course of action.

We also want to respect the historic environment. It is a non-renewable resource, and its conservation is integral to sustainable development. I reassure my right hon. Friend that we are committed to ensuring that the framework will maintain the existing protection, as set out in planning policy statement 5 for the historic environment, and we are looking carefully at the specific wording in the NPPF.

My right hon. Friend mentioned wind farms. Residents will have greater choice than ever in that regard through their local and neighbourhood plans—neighbourhood plans are a key part of the system, too. The plans will enable them to decide the look and feel of the places that they live in and love, while making sure that genuine larger-than-local objectives are met, such as protecting the natural environment, supporting sustainable local growth and combating climate change. I appreciate that proposals for wind farms can be controversial, but onshore wind, along with other renewables, has an important contribution to make to our energy mix and to reduce the pressure on consumer bills. However, that is not and should not be any excuse for building wind farms in the wrong place. The draft framework does not give a green light to all development proposals.

Whatever the class of development, decisions will continue to be plan-led. Plans will continue to set out what would be unacceptable, and they will be underpinned by the environmental safeguards in national planning policy. I believe that our new planning policies will ensure that communities and their environment are protected from unacceptable developments.

The consultation is closed, and I have indicated the steps that we are taking to consider it. As well as the written consultation, we held 11 regional workshops, including in the north-east. We have had wide engagement with organisations across the spectrum, including those referred to by my right hon. Friend, and I am glad to say that there has been good progress. We are finding unlikely bedfellows—property developers and environmental groups—sitting down and talking together to find common ground on how we go forward.

I hope that I have given my right hon. Friend and his constituents a renewed assurance on the transitional arrangements and the importance of historic and other environmental protections, and reassured them that the new planning policy framework is an opportunity, not a threat. I look forward to working with him again to see how we can take the framework forward as it is translated into a final document.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.