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National Planning Policy Framework

Volume 543: debated on Tuesday 24 April 2012

[Relevant Documents: Oral and written evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, on Sustainable Development in the National Planning Policy Framework, HC 1480; the Eighth Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, on The National Planning Policy Framework, HC 1526, and the Government response, Cm 8322.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the National Planning Policy Framework.

It is a pleasure to open this debate, as we promised to have at the earliest opportunity a debate on the national planning policy framework. I did not expect it to be in two parts, but never mind. Good things come to those who wait.

I begin with a word of thanks to colleagues in all parts of the House who contributed to the consultation on the national planning policy framework, including the Chairs of the two Select Committees who gave distinguished reports and who are present here tonight and will, I hope, be able to speak later in the debate. I thank those who contributed in previous debates that we have had in the House. We have had one debate here and two in the other place, all of which were important contributors to the scrutiny of the framework.

I want to thank every Member who wrote on behalf of their constituents. My own constituency, Tunbridge Wells, is famous for its letter writers. I thought we were unparalleled in the volume of correspondence that we could generate, but I have discovered during the past few months that there are many such constituencies, including Cheltenham, Hitchin and Harpenden, and West Worcestershire. So Tunbridge Wells must respond to a challenge that I had not anticipated. All the points that have been made by Members during debates, by the Select Committees and in letters have been carefully taken into account. I hope that as we conduct the debate we will reflect and Members will be able to identify the particular contributions that they made and they will see them preserved for posterity in the framework.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the postbag was bulging with representations from the constituents of Devizes. He will be glad to hear that when I took members of the Trust for Devizes through the current proposals, they warmly welcomed the changes and thanked him for listening.

I am delighted to hear that from my hon. Friend. She is right in saying that the contribution of the constituents of Devizes to the NPPF has been signal and will be there for posterity.

It has been right to conduct this consultation using an approach that seeks to build consensus. After all, the consequences of planning extend beyond any particular Government or Parliament. It is right to have sought to reflect all the different contributions.

What importance is to be attached to the protection of the natural environment, particularly where it abuts existing urban communities, and what about the protection and the greening of the urban environment where it already exists in our towns?

Both points are of the utmost importance and were reflected by my hon. Friend in his contribution to the consultation. I will have more to say about that as I make progress.

It was, I think, Sir Winston Churchill who said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” That might be applied to planning policy, so it is right that we have taken the approach that we did. Our reforms have three objectives—first, to transfer power to communities, to give them more power and authority in the planning system than they have been used to having for many years; secondly, to ensure that we support the building of the homes that the next generation will need and the jobs that all our constituents need now and in the future; and thirdly to ensure that the next generation inherits an environment, natural and historic, that is at least the equal of the environment that we inherited. In my view, it should be better than the environment that we inherited. I believe in progress.

Will the Minister recognise that as a result of two years of almost unprecedented chaos and confusion about where planning policy is going, we now see the lowest level of housing starts that has been recorded in recent history? Does he accept that what he has done is to create a climate where the entire house building industry is deeply worried about the prospects of new homes, and the custodians of the countryside are equally worried about whether the countryside is safe? That is the record that he has achieved over the past two years and he should apologise for the mess that he has caused.

The right hon. Gentleman, of whom I am fond, is confusing his own record with that of the Government. It was his Government who, in over a decade in power, built on average the lowest number of houses in peacetime in the past 100 years. Since the low point for house building during the recession, housing starts are up by 25%. I commend to him what his right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) has said:

“I inherited the regional spatial strategies”.

I think that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) had something to do with those.

Another person who is keen not to be associated with the strategies—I understand that. The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne said that he

“quickly found that they had…few friends”—

The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich is another ex-friend. The right hon. Gentleman continued:

“our regional spatial strategies and our approach to planning…was too top-down”.—[Official Report, 30 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 272WH.]

That is a matter of consensus across the House.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that he probably inherited a planning system that meant that constituents such as mine felt completely divorced from any achievement in the planning system? In fact, they had no say whatsoever in the chaotic system of house building that meant that constituencies such as mine were inundated with planning applications that they had no say over.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

I am delighted to welcome a new convert to localism. I chided the shadow Secretary of State when we published the framework and said, perhaps unfairly, that he was an old centralist. It must have had quite an effect, because he has now published an article, in The Daily Telegraph of all places, in which he gives a paean of praise to localism. He writes:

“I want to see a radical devolution of power to local communities. We should do this both because it is right and because there is so much skill and potential in every community to make more of its own decisions.”

I could not have put it better myself and am delighted that he has been converted to the cause.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that if we are to have efficient planning policy there needs to be consistency in planning decisions right across the United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There were more than 1,000 pages of planning policy across 44 different documents of various vintages, so contradictions between them were inevitable, and that was one of the reasons for the inconsistency. Part of the point of consolidating them into a single document is to make it easier to have consistency.

Residents of Bromley are reassured by the reiteration of protections for the green belt, but can my right hon. Friend guarantee that metropolitan open land and urban open spaces will continue to enjoy the protections that they currently enjoy under the new NPPF?

This debate on the NPPF is timely, because the Public Administration Committee today highlighted the dire absence of a strategic approach to complex challenges from the Government. Can the Minister begin to reassure us that he really understands the need for strategic leadership by telling us what resources, guidance and assistance he will provide to ensure that local authorities have the capacity to deliver carbon reductions in line with the Climate Change Act 2008, as foreseen by the NPPF?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that, as we transfer power to local authorities, it is right to support them in producing local plans, including those on environmental matters, and setting ambitious standards that they expect for local buildings and contributions to the built environment, and we will support them in that. If she talks with her colleagues in the Local Government Association, she will see that they recognise that the engagement we have had has been very productive.

Let me make progress and mention some of the features of the new NPPF, which reflect the contributions that Members from both sides of the House have made. The NPPF makes it crystal clear, as most people recognise, that the local plan is the keystone of the planning system. It continues to protect our green belt and other areas, such as sites of special scientific interest and national parks, which are of great importance to us. It recognises the intrinsic value of the countryside as something we hold very dear. It establishes the importance of bringing brownfield sites back into use. It recognises and reinforces the importance of town centres. It embraces the five pillars of the UK’s sustainable development strategy, something that I know the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) pressed on us during the consultation, but it goes further, because that was not stretching enough, and it requires net gains for nature. It has the most exacting design standards ever seen in the English planning system, it allows councils to protects gardens, it provides robust protection for playing fields, it gives 12 months’ transitional arrangements and it ensures that no council is disadvantaged if it has done the right thing and prepared local plans.

Members have been quick to congratulate the Minister, as I do, on listening to the feedback that he received about the draft NPPF, but is he as confident that, as a result of those changes, local authorities will make changes to their local plans, or do we risk them carrying on in the same direction that they were heading in before?

We have seen great enthusiasm on the part of councils, which have campaigned for as many years as many Members to have the ability and the authority to produce plans themselves. Despite the fact that they have been required since 2004 to adopt local plans, only about half have been able to do so, and we want to see that speeded up, because the essence of localism is that local decisions are taken locally in accordance with a plan that reflects all the views of local people.

I am completely with my right hon. Friend on the consistent application of the plans, on the local plans themselves and on local people being involved, but what then of the final piece of the jigsaw, the reform of the Planning Inspectorate, which in many rulings completely contradicts all local input?

Part of the problem with the Planning Inspectorate is that, in the regime to date, it has been required to interpret voluminous national planning regulations—many times in a state of inconsistency—and to apply regional spatial strategies. The conflict between those things, caused by successive Governments and, in particular, by the previous Government’s imposition of regional strategies, often leads in the planning system to a real tension and often antagonism, which is a disaster for the future prosperity of our country.

By putting power into the hands of local people so they see that decisions are going to be taken locally and respected locally, part of the purpose of our reforms is to move away from the situation in which decisions taken locally are overturned by the Planning Inspectorate. I have made that very clear to the inspectorate. I went to speak to the inspectorate the morning after we published the NPPF, and I made it very clear that the framework is a localist document which it is to respect.

I shall give way to the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee and then make some progress.

The document that the Government have now produced is clearly an awful lot better than the draft, and the Minister has complimented the Committee on the report that we produced, but in the end the real test is whether the new guidance is better than the old guidance—presumably whether, as a result of the changes, we get more houses built, more green energy projects approved and more development in general. But, if the sum total of all local decisions to which the Minister has referred does not account for the amount of growth that the Government want to see delivered in the economy as a whole, what will be the Government’s answer to that?

We do expect to see more homes delivered, and one feature of the previous system was that, despite having national and regional targets, it bore no relation to what was being built on the ground. Our contention, which has been established through the consultation, is that if we work with the grain of people, if people have the types of homes that they want to see in their environment, and if we raise design standards so that people feel that they are a positive contribution to the built environment, we are likely to avoid the contention that has thwarted the delivery of homes. Such delivery is crucial to all our constituents: we cannot go on with a situation in which we fail to provide homes and employment spaces for them.

The outcome of the consultation has proved satisfactory to many commentators. Almost everyone who commented did so favourably, and they might give the hon. Gentleman some confidence in the idea that the people who gave evidence to his inquiry feel positive about the results.

It is fair to say that the outcome is going to be good for the economy. The CBI said that it

“gets the balance right between supporting jobs and growth, and serving the interests of the environment and society.”

The Institute of Directors said:

“It is great to see hundreds of…unnecessary rules being cut out of the planning system... Britain needs to get building again and these reforms allow that to happen”.

That addresses the hon. Gentleman’s point directly.

The NPPF is good for anyone who needs a home. The National Housing Federation, which, as Members know, represents social housing providers, said:

“The NPPF will give England the simpler, speedier and more positive planning system it needs.”

The Home Builders Federation said:

“The new system strikes a sensible balance between economic growth, social need and environmental considerations.”

It also stated that it is

“a sound basis for a more pro-growth planning system”.

The NPPF is good for the countryside and rural prosperity. The Country Land and Business Association said:

“The section on supporting a prosperous rural economy is excellent, laying the foundations for the growth of all types of business in rural areas.”

The framework is good for town centres. The British Retail Consortium said:

“The NPPF should do a lot to boost the country’s high streets and encourage vibrant town centres.”

It goes on:

“These practical measures…should help bring a boost to local economies.”

On the future of the countryside, the Minister will be aware that the exceptions approach to housing in rural areas is helpful in delivering affordable housing to rural communities, particularly in deeply rural areas. Will the Minister reassure me and the House that after the transition period, when I am sure many rural authorities will not have put their local plans back in place, the exceptions policy will be deliverable across the countryside, because that is essential?

It certainly will be. What I did not say was that the National Housing Federation specifically commended the inclusion of the exceptions policy in the draft NPPF.

The framework is good for sport. The Rugby Football Union, the Football Association, the England and Wales Cricket Board, the Lawn Tennis Association and the Rugby Football League said:

“We all welcome the safeguards for sport contained within the NPPF. Thank you for your support and commitment to the sports sector—we are extremely grateful”.

The NPPF is good for excellence in design. The Royal Institute of British Architects said:

“We are delighted that the Government has accepted many of the key recommendations put forward by the RIBA.”

It stated that the framework

“will send a clear message to developers, planning officers and committees that poor quality development will no longer be accepted.”

The Design Council said that it

“wanted to say how much we welcome the fresh approach to design and to raising the bar on design standards to new heights”.

The framework is good for wildlife. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said:

“We had 3 red lines for a successful NPPF and these have all been met. The NPPF properly reflects the ambitions of the”—

natural environment White Paper—

“to halt the decline in biodiversity and to secure net gains”.

The NPPF is good for the arts. The Theatres Trust said:

“we celebrate a national planning policy that not only recognises culture, it also creates specific policies that both plan positively for cultural facilities and guard against their loss.”

It is good for our historic assets. English Heritage said:

“Thank you for your confident engagement with EH. Between us we should have secured our fabulous historic environment. We are well pleased with the result”.

The NPPF is good for local democracy. The Local Government Association said that

“local people will have a real say”

and that the framework will

“make it easier for town halls to tailor the planning system towards supporting growth that meets the area’s needs.”

The National Association of Local Councils, which represents parish and town councils, said that the proposals

“will empower communities and local councils to energise their neighbourhoods”.

The NPPF is good for everyone. The National Trust said:

“Thank you for listening to our concerns and those of our members. It is a remarkable achievement to have united almost all of the disparate voices involved”.

I think that the “almost” might have referred to some Opposition Members, but I have not given up on them.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is coming to this point, but as the chair of the all-party parliamentary save the pub group, I commend him and the ministerial team on including pubs in the national planning policy framework for the first time. Will he ensure that the message goes out strongly that this is not the end of the matter? Local authorities will have the responsibility of ensuring that local services such as pubs, post offices and local shops are protected. Council planning departments can no longer ignore that consideration, because it is becoming their responsibility.

My hon. Friend has made a distinguished contribution to the debate. Modesty alone forbade me from including the praise that was sent by the representatives of the pub companies.

I congratulate the Minister on all his congratulations, which are well deserved. When it comes to local democracy, the framework compares very favourably with the regional spatial strategies, which wasted tens of millions of pounds and generated tens of thousands of objections. Does he accept that there is a slight risk that when local plans come to be examined in public, we will again see the influence of the Planning Inspectorate and elements of the local plans may be overturned? Does he agree that when it comes to local plans, the default answer from the Planning Inspectorate ought to be yes?

I met the Planning Inspectorate and almost all the planning inspectors who were in conference in Bristol the day after the NPPF was launched. I made it crystal clear that it provided for a localist approach and provided a framework for local decisions, and that I expected decisions to be taken in that vein. I will also expect to see a sample of the decisions that are being taken, including after the examination of plans, to ensure that that is happening. On the basis of my direct discussions with the Planning Inspectorate, I am very confident that that is understood.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for allowing me to interrupt his long line of congratulations. We half expected a telegram from the Queen and a note from his mum at some point. They are on their way. The serious point is that the Government have promised a lot on the subject of localism, but two years in, many local communities feel that even the reforms that the Minister has put forward have not delivered localism. What will he do to encourage communities to be confident that the Government will not turn their back on them?

I confess that I was not able to include a telegram from the Queen, but I understand that the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community is extremely positive about the NPPF.

We find great enthusiasm across the country. In fact, I believe the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) is one of the champions of a neighbourhood plan in the city. Right across the country, people are taking up their new rights with great interest and enthusiasm.

I thank my right hon. Friend for being so generous in allowing interventions. Has he found from talking to parish councils, as I have, that one thing that appeals to them about the NPPF is the simplification of the system, which means that they and their local residents can actually understand the framework without needing a highly paid solicitor or lawyer to give them advice as they did before?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. To have a localist approach and allow people to engage with the planning system locally, the NPPF needs to be intelligible to them. People have concluded that it is not only shorter but written in a style that is accessible to people in communities. That is what planning is about—people coming together in communities to express a vision for their future. We have to let them in.

Is my right hon. Friend encouraged, as I am, that although it was feared that neighbourhoods would not accept development, the very first neighbourhood plan to come forward—in Dawlish, I understand—included proposals for a new housing development? Does he find that as encouraging as other Government Members do?

I do indeed, and that is not untypical. In the town of Thame, in the constituency of my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), a neighbourhood plan is being promoted that involves the provision of housing for local people. We are seeing that across the country.

I congratulate the Minister on an excellent consultation, which showed all Departments how it should be done. Localism really matters to our constituents, and nowhere more so than in Totnes. Their only regret is that it has come late, and they would like to be able to set back the clock and have local consultation on a number of projects, such as the Riverside development, that are causing great local concern.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What Totnes does today, the rest of the country will do tomorrow. We are taking the spirit of Totnes around the country and people are responding with enthusiasm.

Not especially, but I hope they will have time on their hands in future to engage in some retraining.

I am grateful for all the time and effort that many Members put into the consultation. We took it seriously, and I am glad to say that the framework has been strengthened as a result. I am determined that having had that role in the development of the framework, Parliament should continue to supervise its implementation. It will have a further opportunity to do that when the debate is continued in the days ahead. Beyond that, as well as the work of Select Committees and Question Time, I hope we will have the opportunity in the years ahead to have regular debates on planning policy in the Chamber.

The fact that over the past few months planning policy has come into the public eye and been widely debated is a good thing. I want to continue in that vein not only so that people get involved in planning locally, but so that the subject engages the whole House, as it is entitled to do.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

On a point of order, Mr Speaker, of which I have given you notice. Very recently, in the course of an Adjournment debate, both an hon. Labour Member and myself were refused by a Minister the opportunity to make a brief intervention while he had the floor. He explained in all sincerity afterwards that he thought one had to ask permission in advance of an Adjournment debate—both of the hon. Member whose Adjournment debate it is and of the Minister concerned—whether one could make such an intervention. For the sake of the clarity, would you make an pronouncement on that? If, as I suspect, interventions do not require that sort of prior permission, would you undertake to let Ministers know for the future?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his advance notice of his intention to raise it. The answer is that permission to intervene in an Adjournment debate is not required from the Minister, the Member whose debate it is or the Chair. Permission is required if a Member is seeking to make a speech in the debate. I am constantly struck by how little understood that important distinction is between interventions, which do not require permission, and speeches, which do. I hope the position is now clear to the hon. Gentleman and the House, and I am very happy to inform Ministers more widely, either directly, or through the good offices of the right hon. Gentleman who serves as the Patronage Secretary, and who conveniently is loitering, with or without intent, at the Bar of the House. I hope that is helpful.