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Local Development Planning (Nuneaton)

Volume 570: debated on Friday 22 November 2013

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this matter in the House because it is important to thousands of my constituents. I thank the Minister for being here to respond to the concerns that I will raise.

We all know that new housing development is vital across our country. We are living longer and a higher proportion of people are choosing to live single lives than once was the case. The vast majority of my constituents are not anti-development and are not nimbys, but they have valid concerns about new developments and the impact that they might have on the settled community. They think that they deserve to be part of the decision-making process.

Nuneaton constituency is very urban, with the exception of the more rural wards of Hartshill, Arley and Whitacre. I will focus on the urban area of Nuneaton and the village of Hartshill, and on the potential impact on the communities of those areas of the local plans that are being formulated by the two planning authorities.

I turn first to Hartshill village and the concerns about the local plan of North Warwickshire borough council, which has gone to the Planning Inspectorate for consideration. Before going any further, I want to pay tribute to North Warwickshire borough council for formulating its plan reasonably quickly. That said, the lack of proper consultation by the council and the scale of development are causing great concern to my constituents.

On consultation, the proposal has been advertised in the council’s residents magazine North Talk, in libraries and on the council’s website. The response that I have received from residents suggests that very few of them knew anything about the plans until the Hartshill district residents group leafleted the area and knocked on doors. Furthermore, residents in the adjoining Camp Hill ward, which comes under the planning jurisdiction of Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council, were not afforded any consultation whatever. The consequence has been that the residents of Berrington road in Camp Hill, who overlook the site on which North Warwickshire borough council wants to build more than 400 houses, have been given no voice whatever and no opportunity to persuade the council against its proposals. Whether we agree or disagree with any such proposal, surely those affected deserve to be properly consulted.

I therefore ask the Minister what can be done, by looking at the 2004 guidance on consultation, as referred to in the national planning policy framework, with a view to ensuring that local people receive bespoke communication on such proposals. Furthermore, will he consider setting a clear protocol for adjoining authorities, to ensure that there is proper consultation for people potentially affected?

Before I move on from the Hartshill situation, I should like to make my second point which is about the scale of the proposed development. Hartshill village was built around mineral extraction and quarrying and is literally bounded by former quarry works. Realistically, there is only one possible site, which is currently landlocked. The council expects more than 15% of the whole borough’s new development—more than 400 houses—to be built there. The road infrastructure in Hartshill is already inadequate, and it is virtually impossible to upgrade it on either side of the proposed development. I hope that that will be a fundamental consideration for the planning inspector when the core strategy examination starts on 7 January.

I turn now to the concerns of my constituents in Nuneaton about the local plan proposed by Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council. My constituents were extremely pleased when the Government first announced their intention to abolish, and then finally did abolish, the west midlands regional spatial strategy, which under the last Government had the potential to impose 13,800 houses on the borough.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this incredibly important debate. In Stockton, the Labour-led council is forcing through huge numbers of houses against the wishes of local residents because it does not understand what sustainable development is supposed to be and allows developments that are not sustainable because of their impact on traffic and local infrastructure. Given that the Labour party has indicated—

Order. The debate is about Nuneaton. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand the difficulty—the debate is on the tight subject of local development planning in Nuneaton, not outside Nuneaton.

Absolutely, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I ask my hon. Friend whether the people of Nuneaton are as concerned as my constituents about the Labour party’s announced policy to build 1 million more homes if it wins the next election, and the impact that would have on the communities that he represents?

I thank my hon. Friend. They are extremely concerned to hear that the Labour party wants to build a further 1 million homes across the country in a five-year period, and about the impact that that might have on Nuneaton.

To return to the regional spatial strategy, in July 2010 I wrote to the Labour leader of Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council to highlight the letter that the Secretary of State had sent about the intention to abolish the RSS and allow councils to set their own development targets. I received no answer to my letter, but, more important, the council then decided to delay the process for the production of the local plan. Many of my constituents believe that that was done purely for political reasons.

In autumn 2011, with the threat of a large-scale planning application on open countryside land in Weddington, the council’s cabinet hurriedly rushed through a target of 7,900 new houses without any public consultation whatever. That was despite serious concerns raised by residents’ groups such as SWORD—the Save Weddington: Oppose the Residential Development group—and CV11, and objections raised by local politicians including me about the speed of production of the local plan. Once more, the Labour-controlled council decided to ignore those concerns so that it could avoid consulting until this summer. Many local people believe that, again, that was done purely for political reasons—to avoid a consultation before the 2012 and 2013 local elections.

The delay in the process, combined with the lack of housing land supply, has already led to permission being granted for 300 houses at Weddington and nearly 200 on the Longshoot, on countryside land. As we speak, developers are queuing up for another 400 houses for Weddington, 250 for the Longshoot, on countryside land, and 675 at Attleborough, on the green belt. Residents in Arbury ward are also extremely concerned about the potential for the green belt to be breached before the plan is even settled. I would be grateful if the Minister could say what protection is afforded green-belt land under the national planning policy framework.

I can describe the local plan proposal only as completely flawed, in terms of both the process and evidence. On the process, the consultation has not been adequate in any sense. Only one option was put to the public, despite the fact that many sites in the borough were put forward for possible development. My constituents do not believe that a consultation to consider only one option that was cobbled together in a Labour councillors group meeting constitutes a proper basis for a public consultation. I put it to the Minister that there should be a test and that councils should be required to offer more than one option in that type of consultation process.

The local plan consultations should contain some sort of bespoke communication, because many constituents were not aware of the process until they heard by word of mouth. Not everyone always reads the local press or the council’s “In Touch” magazine, but they were the main form of communication on the proposals. The consultation response was initially derisory. However, after a lot of information was given out by politicians and concerned local residents groups, nearly 5,000 responses were received by the council, mainly from the wards of Arbury, Attleborough, St Nicolas, Weddington and Whitestone.

The Minister should be minded to consider how consultation documents are put together. In this case, wards were listed as not affected by development—the suggestion was that they would be completely unaffected. That could lead to residents failing to respond although they could in fact be materially affected. That was the case in Whitestone ward. It is not subject to proposed housing or commercial development, but buried in the local planning consultation was the idea of a major link road joining Golf drive, which is a minor estate road. The proposal would cause absolute havoc. If local Conservative councillors had not noticed the proposal, many of the 2,500 people who have signed a petition opposing it might not have had a voice.

On evidence, the Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council proposal is based on a previous consultation from 2009: the public were consulted on a series of options by the then Conservative council in response to the Labour Government’s RSS. The public’s preferred option at that time was to pursue developments of small urban extensions to existing wards. That public opinion has been completely ignored. Moreover, the evidence given by the council’s officers on where developments should be pursued has been totally ignored.

Also ignored were the views of highways officers at Warwickshire county council who explained misgivings about the sustainability of the road network, should a similar option to the proposal be pursued. Instead, we have learnt from a borough councillor who defected from the council’s Labour group that the decision on where to site new development was made in a Labour party group meeting. There is a strong hint that the wards most affected by the proposals are areas where Labour has not traditionally had councillors.

My constituents in Arbury, Attleborough, Weddington and St Nicolas wards face being forced to accept thousands of homes whether they like it or not. About 80% of all new development proposed in Nuneaton and Bedworth borough is to be massed on green fields and green belt around those existing and settled residential areas. In most of those areas, the sites in question are some of the only green fields left to the northern boundary of the constituency where it meets the A5 trunk road.

Time does not allow me to go into the detail that I would like, but the effect of planning development in that way could be catastrophic for our infrastructure. The capacity of the road network through Nuneaton town centre is already constrained. If the proposals to create large developments are accepted, massive strains will be placed on the system, which cannot be easily upgraded owing to the way the town has grown in the past 50 years. Several link roads are proposed in the plan, although their delivery is highly questionable—the planning authority did not consult the highways authority before putting the proposals forward for consultation.

Many of my constituents in the Weddington and St Nicolas wards also have great concerns about flooding, which has been a problem in the area for some time. The Environment Agency has little doubt that engineering solutions can be applied. It grades various mitigation solutions by effectiveness, but I find it strange that there is no statutory obligation for local councils to compel developers to use the flood mitigation measures considered most effective by the Environment Agency. Will the Minister look at what can be done to compel councils and developers to use the best mitigation possible to protect new properties—in particular the settled community—to best effect?

There are concerns across all the potentially affected areas about drainage and sewerage and the adequacy of those systems if they are asked to cope with an additional flow from thousands more properties. The same concerns could be raised about our education system and local health care provision, which are already running pretty much at capacity in those areas. To add to those concerns, many of my constituents are horrified by the shadow Chancellor’s plan to bring forward 1 million new homes between 2015 and 2020. I am sure they will be keen to ensure they do not have a Labour Government after the next general election so that they avoid what will probably be RSS 2 coming to their area.

In conclusion, for my constituents in Hartshill I hope that the independent planning inspector will note the concerns raised in this debate. I hope that the council listens to concerns about the local plan process in Nuneaton and Bedworth before committing the plan to the inspector, but if not, I hope the inspector will listen to the weight of evidence against that flawed plan. I also hope that the Minister will look seriously at how that process can be continually improved. There is no doubt that we need new development, but my constituents deserve a better say in how that happens. It is right for local planning policy to be undertaken locally, but surely it should be based on evidence, not driven by party political considerations. Within the process, all that can be done should be done to carry people along, generate informed community responses, and not leave local people disfranchised from the planning system, as they have become in Nuneaton.

It is a pleasure to respond to this debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) has secured on behalf of his constituents, at the end of a lively and interesting day’s debate in the Chamber.

My hon. Friend is right to assert the importance of proper processes being followed by local authorities when drawing up local plans. He will understand that I cannot comment on the particular details of the two plans that affect his constituents, but I hope I can respond to his concerns about the process, and highlight the requirements in the law and the national planning policy framework for how local authorities draw up plans.

A plan must start with evidence of need, and an assessment that is based on objective evidence about the development needs of a community over 15 years, and the next five years in particular. Consultation is the second most important part of the plan—one cannot have a plan without evidence or adequate consultation. When consulting, it is not enough simply to send people a questionnaire, collate the responses and say, “Right. That’s it; we’ve consulted.” Consultation needs to take place at different times through the process. There must be evidence of real efforts to ensure a representative response to the consultation, and of an attempt not only to have ticked a box, but to have understood what different communities, interests and organisations think of the evidence of need and draft plans put in place to meet that need.

My hon. Friend made a strong and persuasive argument about the need to consult people who may not live within the boundaries of the borough drawing up a plan, but who live just across that boundary and will be as affected—possibly more affected—by a proposed development as those who live in the borough drawing up the plan. I would be happy to talk to officials about whether the guidance on consultation makes it clear that it is not sufficient to consult only those who reside in the borough that is drawing up the plan. Under the duty to co-operate in the national planning policy framework, it is clear that boroughs must co-operate across boundaries to understand shared needs and shared concerns. My hon. Friend makes a strong argument for why his constituents should have been consulted, even if it was in relation to a development planned by a neighbouring authority.

My hon. Friend asked about green belt protections. I can reassure him that the protection of the green belt in the law has never been stronger than it is now, in the national planning policy framework. The policy sets out the great importance we accord to the green belt, the fundamental purpose of which is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. The green belt’s boundaries should be revised only in exceptional circumstances through the local plan process, and inappropriate development should be granted permission only in very special circumstances. I can reassure my hon. Friend that the test of “very special circumstances”, which would apply to any proposal for development on the green belt that had not been through a local plan process, is a high test in law. It is rare that the “very special circumstances” test is met, and I am sure it would be rare for it to be met in his constituency or, indeed, any other.

Just to clarify that point, is my hon. Friend saying that until a local plan is set and the local authority has decided to use a piece of green-belt land, green belt cannot be developed until the very high test he mentions is met?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that such a thing could happen only in those very special circumstances and that otherwise, development on the green belt can happen only after a local plan process has been conducted, with all the consultation that we have discussed.

My hon. Friend talked about some appeals against developments that were taking place and some that had been allowed, specifically in relation to the absence of a five-year land supply. I should tell him that those authorities that have an adopted plan—I am glad that nearly 54% of authorities in the country now have one, with, therefore, an approved land supply—tend to find that their decisions stick. That is because the whole point of the national planning policy framework is to say to local authorities: “If you take responsibility, make provision for your needs and have a five-year land supply, your decisions will be respected and not overturned on appeal.” However, if an authority does not do that, it is exposing itself to the possibility—it is no more than a possibility: in two thirds of cases the Planning Inspectorate backs up local authorities’ decisions—of having its decisions overturned. That is what happens in one third of cases, often because the local authority does not have a five-year land supply in its local plan.

That means that it is therefore strongly in the interests of my hon. Friend’s constituents that his local authorities get a move on with plan preparation. He argued that one of the authorities had taken rather longer than was perhaps entirely necessary. It is certainly the case that many authorities have managed to get their plans in place. All I would say is that I would encourage him to continue using every forum, including this one, to put pressure on those local authorities to take responsibility, consult widely, propose plans based on evidence and get them adopted, so that they can start making the decisions and not be exposed to speculative development being allowed on appeal because of the lack of a five-year land supply.

My hon. Friend also talked about local infrastructure of a range of kinds and the capacity of the drainage, sewerage, health and education systems to cope with the level of development proposed. I want to reassure him that the very concept of “sustainable development”, which lies at the heart of the national planning policy framework, means development that can be sustained in every sense of the word, including in terms of infrastructure. Either the capacity in the infrastructure must already exist or there must be commensurate plans within the plan to upgrade and expand it to support any further development.

One of the problems that many of constituents face is that developers are coming along who want to build developments that are quite small, to try to avoid the sustainability questions he mentions. However, more and more of these small developments, of 100 or so houses, are becoming aggregated. What can we do about that?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course, many small developments can add up to a very substantial increase in pressure on infrastructure. That is why a plan is so important. Even if some developments count as, to use the jargon, “windfall developments” that happen outside the plan, the plan nevertheless needs to anticipate the normal level of windfall developments, based on their historical levels and the opportunities for further such developments, and it needs to take them into account in working out whether the local infrastructure, of whatever kind, is able to cope and, if not, how it is going to be upgraded at the right time to be able to do so. That is the whole point of a local plan. That is why we do not have a system of just sitting back and waiting for proposals to come forward; we must anticipate proposals, the likely level of development and then make plans to support that.

Finally, let me assure my hon. Friend—and, perhaps more particularly, through him, his constituents—that there will be a further opportunity for his constituents to make their views known about the draft plans being submitted to the inspector at the examination of the plans by that inspector. It is called “examination in public” for a reason—the public are able to attend and make submissions—and the inspector will want to see that the draft plan has been consulted on widely and that all the objections have been heard, with the evidence to back them up presented to that inspector.

The story is not over; the gate is not closed. There must be further consultation before any plan can be adopted. I know that my hon. Friend, who is tireless in representing his constituents, will be ensuring that—whether it be through him or through local councillors and other bodies—his constituents are heard in those examinations. We are a democracy. Yes, we accept the need for development, but we believe that communities should be able to decide how and where development takes place. It is only through consultation that that can happen.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.