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National Parks (Planning Policy)

Volume 567: debated on Wednesday 11 September 2013

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this matter to the attention of the House. Before I do so, I should mention for the Minister’s benefit that I am aware that national park planning is a devolved matter in Wales, so I will speak fairly generally because I do not want to give him an excuse for not answering my questions.

I also put on record my appreciation and recognition of the important role that national parks play in many of our communities. National parks bring in people, boost tourism and contribute to the life of local communities. This debate is not about the relative merits of national parks but about national park planning, and the distinction is important because, whether or not it is perceived, local businesses and householders across my part of Britain feel frustrated, and I know others share a similar view.

I will divide my comments into four brief sections. First, the impact on businesses and jobs; secondly, accountability and confusion within the planning system; thirdly, the affordable housing subsidy, which of course is not specific or exclusive to national parks; and fourthly, the Environment Act 1995. I will address those sections in that order.

First, on the impact on business, today’s debate is fortuitous in some ways, because the Federation of Small Businesses in Wales has produced and published a document entitled “Planning in National Parks.” An early chapter of that document lists 10 key findings, and it is rather frustrating and depressing for people such as me that each of those findings is negative. I will highlight three of the findings. First, the document says:

“Concerns were raised about the perceived lack of accountability of the National Park Authorities’ planning committees and the insufficient scrutiny on planning officer decisions.”

Secondly, it says:

“Interviewees did not believe that the National Park Authorities understood business and economic issues.”

Thirdly, it says:

“There was a perception among interviewees that planning applications submitted in the rest of Wales”—

outside national parks—

“were met with more helpful and constructive advice and a more positive approach to local economic development.”

I have some sympathy with national park planning officers because, in a sense, they are charged only with the implementation of policy, which is sometimes made some distance away from where they sit, but it is important to stress that national parks are a little bit more than simply custodians of the landscape. We are not talking about Yellowstone national park; we are talking about quite densely populated areas. What makes the national parks is the population and businesses that reside within them. That leads me conveniently to my second point, on accountability and confusion.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Fortunately, Wales is a very beautiful part of the world. Some 30% of our country is contained within national parks. What impact does he think that has on economic development in Wales? Obviously, 30% is far larger than the proportion of national park areas in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I am grateful for that intervention. We can look at it in two ways. First, the inward investment linked to national parks is hugely valuable in of our adjoining constituencies, but—this is my penultimate point—at the moment there is no provision in the planning application system for officers to consider social and economic factors. Ultimately, landscape and ecological factors always take precedence, which is a problem.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. He raises the important issue of accountability. All planning authorities have a difficult job to do. National parks do not benefit from having a democratic process. Does he agree that direct elections to national park authorities would help a great deal and have proved to be exceptionally successful in Scotland?

My hon. Friend second-guesses one of my recommendations. Although elected councillors sit on national park planning authorities, I think members of the public feel that those authorities are still somewhat out of the reach of the normal democratic grasp. That might be an ill-founded belief, but I think that national parks are a law unto themselves and there is no way for people to penetrate the system.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I disagree with him on one point. Northumberland national park is equally as good as, if not better than, Yellowstone or anything else the Americans have to offer, and it is consulting on the £10 million Sill project. Northumberland proposes to create the project with a number of local partners, and it is specifically considering the economic benefits, which surely makes the point that some national parks are considering the wider impact of what they are trying to do.

I am grateful for the third intervention on this point. My hon. Friend is right, but the 1995 Act, which I will quote in a minute, prescribes in law the requirement that where there is conflict between economic and ecological factors, a national park planning authority has to give precedence to the ecological consideration. Whether Northumberland national park is keeping to the letter of the law is a matter for it, but a simple solution would be to adjust the 1995 Act.

We appoint skilful people to serve on national park authorities. Does my hon. Friend agree that we ought to give them the flexibility to strike a balance between benefits to the economy, to biodiversity and to all other interests? What is the point of appointing skilful people to those positions if they are straitjacketed and prevented from taking sensible decisions?

My hon. Friend puts his finger on the point. One of the beauties of this debate is that the solution is simple to deliver. The Minister does not have to have an argument with the Treasury; it can be done. There is an Act of Parliament that needs a simple, one-line amendment to free up the expertise to which my hon. Friend refers and to reassure businesses and individual householders that national parks can consider a wider range of factors than is sometimes the case.

I will press on, because I have two further points to make on accountability and confusion, which the FSB Wales has highlighted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) said, although national parks might argue that they are democratic bodies because of the presence of elected councillors, there is a feeling that the planning system is impenetrable and at one remove from the reach that a local authority planning department may provide. The FSB report reflects the absolute conviction that the planning system is slow, confusing and therefore expensive, and that the system is only there for the well advised or wealthy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I draw his attention to the circumstances in New Forest national park, which crosses counties and several local authority boundaries. Particularly on the periphery of the park, there is exactly the confusion that he identifies. Local businesses and residents are not quite sure whether they should apply to the local authority or to the national park for planning permission. We have to be particularly aware of the vulnerability and, of course, planning pressures just outside the edges of national parks.

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that there is a simple solution to that, too. I suspect the solution might be indigestible for the Minister, because I can see no real justification for two planning authorities operating in the same area. It is perfectly possible for one planning authority to operate a standard system and an enhanced system for an area that happens to fall within a national park. That would save millions of pounds, and it would give the clarity that her constituents currently lack. The system has demonstrably worked in the past.

On the subject of localism, which I suppose is the word for which I am grasping, if my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) were here he would be on his feet by now saying, “Actually, it does seem odd that decisions can be so varied.” Decisions can vary from test drilling for shale gas to housing developments. Instead of such decisions being taken in the community by the community for the community, in many cases they are being taken by inspectors about whom none of us have any knowledge, and who certainly have not been elected by anyone in the vicinity in which they are handing down their judgment. That gives councils, and indeed central Government, a bad name.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way in what is an important debate. Does he agree that the confusion over planning by appeal or by inspector undermines people’s confidence in the system?

It is almost worse than that, because the arrangements favour those who can afford planning consultants and who have the patience, energy and money to unpick a system that, as we will see in a minute, seems almost to have been written by people who never learned English—not in the same place I learned it, at any rate. The planning system should be simple, not complicated or expensive, at the point of use.

There is a perception—I believe it is based on the truth—that the affordable housing subsidy, which is not unique to national parks, raises almost no money. In 12 months in my area, it raised eighty thousand quid, which is not enough to build a garage, let alone to meet an affordable housing target. The subsidy is stalling development and putting developers off undertaking valuable work, which is having an impact on jobs in the building trade in the areas affected. Worst of all, the subsidy is causing the affordable housing project to dry up, so affordable housing targets are being missed by miles in many national parks. This is one of those rare polices that fails every test it is set.

I wrote to the Minister about the affordable housing subsidy, and I hope he will forgive me for reminding him of his reply of 3 July 2013, which I shall quote for my own personal amusement:

“Where there is a disagreement about the viable level of affordable housing contributions, applicants have a right to appeal. If a section 106 agreement has not yet been signed, the applicant may appeal against non-determination of the planning application. If a section 106 agreement has been signed, applicants may apply for a review of the affordable housing element and, if necessary, appeal. This review must be on the grounds of viability only and evidence will be required to support the case.”

I hope the Minister will forgive me, but that is enough to suck the life out of almost any sane person. If that is the obstacle people are set when making a perfectly reasonable challenge to the level of affordable housing contributions, it is no wonder people lose the will to live.

Many of us applaud the Minister’s Herculean efforts to simplify the planning system outwith the national parks. Would it not be appropriate to call for such a simplification in this case, so that all our constituents can utilise the planning system?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, the easiest way to make a start on that is to scrap the affordable housing subsidy altogether, because it is failing to achieve anything it was originally set up to do. It has a perfectly worthy objective, but at the moment it is having the opposite effect from the one it was designed to achieve.

I want to finish on the Environment Act 1995—not, perhaps, an Act that is uppermost in all our minds, but I shall, none the less, quote from it. National parks have two designated purposes: to foster the economic and social well-being of local communities and to conserve and enhance the park’s natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage. So far, so good.

However, where there is a conflict—we touched on this in an earlier intervention—the Act states that greater weight should be attached to the conservation purpose:

“In exercising or performing any functions in relation to, or so as to affect, land in a National Park, any relevant authority shall have regard to the purposes specified in subsection (1) of section five of this Act and, if it appears that there is a conflict between those purposes, shall attach greater weight to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area comprised in the National Park”—

that was possibly written by the person who wrote the letter I referred to earlier. To the rest of us, those words mean that, if there is a conflict—there will, almost inevitably, with every application anybody makes, be an environmental and economic conflict—national park officers are bound by the 1995 Act to err in favour of the conservation element. Even if the conservation downside is tiny, and the economic upside is huge, officers are bound by the letter of the Act to take decisions that could, in some cases, be bad for the economic and social well-being of the communities they are there to serve, although I do not, by the way, blame officers for interpreting this part of the Act in the way they do. However, economic considerations are crucial; they are definitely crucial in my national park and, I suspect, in everybody else’s too. At the moment, however, they are not getting the proper airing they deserve.

That leaves the Minister with three solutions to chew over. First, he could scrap the affordable housing subsidy altogether—I think he will probably just let that go through to the wicketkeeper—or he could at least make a distinction between rural and urban developments. The affordable housing policy tends to favour urban developments and to put rural ones at risk, and he could explore that.

Secondly, the Minister should merge the national park and local authority planning functions, thereby saving a vast amount of public money and applying greater consistency to the planning process, which ratepayers will appreciate. If that is not possible, he should make provision for national park decisions, taken by an unelected body, to be called in and reviewed by the local authority planning body, which is, of course, democratically electable. That should be a free service. If somebody puts in an application that gets a perverse response, there should be a localised system of appeal to support the area’s ratepayers. I can see no obstacle to that suggestion.

Finally, the Minister could amend the 1995 Act to give economic and social criteria the same weight as it currently gives environmental criteria. That recommendation is simple, cheap, deliverable, practical and logical, so it will probably never happen, but, none the less, I put it to the Minister that he could consider and perhaps discuss it, although I realise he cannot make up policy in Westminster Hall.

I hope my comments have been fair to national park planning officers, who have a devil of a task in trying to satisfy their various customers. However, I also hope I have alerted the House to the fact that all is not well in the national park planning system, and there are great frustrations. People are trying to do their best as part of our economic regeneration and recovery, but, sadly, they see national parks as an obstacle to that progress, rather than an asset. I hope the Minister can give us some encouragement in that regard.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing the debate. He has talked to me about this subject on a number of occasions, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie), and I am delighted that we have a chance to explore some of the ideas they and others have proposed.

Neither you nor I, Mr Walker, are fortunate enough to have national parks in our constituencies—we would be blessed if we did. It is important to say that national parks are true jewels in the crown of the English and Welsh landscapes, as all hon. Members will agree. They are some of the most beautiful parts of the country, and it is right that we accord them a different status from other beautiful landscapes and approach development issues slightly differently.

That is why the national planning policy framework, which made substantial changes to many planning policies and reduced the amount of planning policy dramatically, nevertheless includes strong protections for national parks. The framework stresses that valued landscapes should be protected and enhanced and that great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in national parks. It also says that planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas, except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated that the proposals are in the public interest.

It is important to start by saying that everyone who is here for the debate considers national parks something to be tremendously proud of, which we all want to protect. We all understand that what makes national parks work as economic and social communities is often their beauty. The beauty of the national park is the business of the national park and of the communities within it. Even the people who want to develop activity within national parks recognise that the chief source of their livelihood is the parks themselves and the beauty of their landscapes.

It is important, therefore, to protect national parks; but that does not mean, nor does anything in the national planning policy framework imply, that there should not be economic and social development, and growth, in national parks. Some hon. Members may have heard or read that I got into a little hot water at the annual general meeting of my old friends at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, when I talked about the danger of making rural communities into museum pieces, not so much protected as embalmed. That applies to many communities within national parks; they will retain their life and appeal only if they are allowed to change and develop, and if people can get jobs and set up businesses. That is a necessary underpinning to national parks not just as wildernesses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire pointed out—not like Yosemite—but as living, breathing sets of communities. There are 300,000 people living in our national parks, and the combined turnover of all those parks combined is more than £10 billion. They are hives of activity, industry and economic creativity, which we must support.

My hon. Friend has therefore made some observations and suggestions about how better to reconcile the goal of protecting the landscape of national parks with that of supporting sensible, sustainable development within them. His fundamental complaint, perhaps, is that because national park planning authorities are not democratically accountable to local people—because they are not elected— they are somehow less able to achieve the balance that local people want. Often those local people have moved to the park because they love the landscapes, so they are not indifferent to them, but nevertheless they want balance between sensible development and protection of the landscape.

There is some good news. Things may not be as bleak as my hon. Friend suggests. First, as he will be aware, local authorities and parish councils can nominate people to the boards of national parks, so there is a link with the local democratically elected authorities. Secondly, and probably more importantly—I respect the view that nominations are a pretty shoddy form of representation— 41 communities within national parks are currently working on neighbourhood plans, the new possibility that we created in the Localism Act 2011 to enable a community to draw up a plan for its own development. That is a profoundly democratic, grass-roots, accountable initiative, and it is great news that so many communities in national parks have embraced it. Perhaps, however, it reveals the very frustration that my hon. Friend talked about—the fact that people do not currently feel able to express themselves through national park planning policy and the decisions that are made.

I have heard my hon. Friend’s point that localism, which the Government passionately believe in, and which after a long gestation and difficult birth is now taking root in communities throughout the country, may not be as fully expressed in national parks as it might be, and that we should perhaps consider ways to help national parks to reflect that policy more fully.

My hon. Friend also talked about the affordable housing subsidy, which I know relates to his national park. I remind the House that, sadly, although I of course have imperial ambitions, I am not the Planning Minister for Wales. I am but the Planning Minister for England, and would be very nervous—especially when the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) is present in the Chamber—about trespassing on the sovereign powers of the Welsh Planning Minister.

I entirely accept the reproof for the impenetrability of the language in my letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. I myself often find such letters quite hard to understand, and perhaps that is the point—perhaps that is sometimes intended. However, in layman’s language the paragraph that he read out means that if the cost of the subsidy that developers are being asked to provide towards affordable housing makes the development unaffordable—if it is something that will never make them any money—that is a reason to challenge the subsidy. Putting too great a burden on a development in the form of the various contributions that are asked for, with the result that no one will go ahead with it, is shooting oneself in the foot and means there is a need to look at the issue again, and that is a basis on which to challenge such subsidies. That is what viability means; it is a term designed to obfuscate, but it really means that if the requirements mean the development will not happen, those involved should look at the matter again. There is much in law, in the national planning policy framework and in more recent measures to give a basis for challenging any such arrangements that will drive development out.

Perhaps I may, in closing, issue an invitation to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire and to the other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate—and to my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester, who wanted to be here but is chairing the Treasury Select Committee. Could we have a conversation with Members of Parliament and other representatives of all national parks—not just those represented in today’s debate—about three issues? One of those issues would be the balance between growth, economic and social development and the protection of the landscape, and whether current legislation properly captures what we are trying to achieve and what communities in national parks want. Another would be whether the current arrangements for national parks planning policy fully reflect the desire for a more localist planning policy. Also, perhaps we might explore whether, through some of the methods suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire and other hon. Members, decisions could be made more accountable, transparent and responsive to local conditions. That would be a constructive step.

I make no promises about what changes the Government might be inclined to support, and when, if at all, they might be willing to act; but I will approach the matter with an open mind and ask my officials to work up some of the proposals. I should like to have a conversation with all the people who represent national parks, and with the national park authorities, to reach a better understanding of what we might do so that national parks remain the proudest jewels in the crown of the English and Welsh landscape, while also being living communities that grow, develop and thrive.

Sitting suspended.