Skip to main content

Mayfields New Town

Volume 571: debated on Tuesday 3 December 2013

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. With your permission and the agreement of the Minister, I propose allocating a few minutes of my time to my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). I called for the debate to raise an issue of the greatest concern to our constituents—namely, the proposal by Mayfield Market Towns Ltd to build up to 10,000 houses on open countryside between Henfield and Sayers Common in West Sussex. That new town would stretch across the border of Horsham and Mid Sussex district councils and our constituencies and is thus of profound concern to us both. The proposal is totally and wholly inappropriate and is causing the greatest possible local concern and anxiety.

I want to say at the outset that my right hon. Friend and I acknowledge of course the need for new houses. We accept that they are required to meet the demands of a growing population and to meet the worthy aspirations of our young people to live in their own houses. It is our strong view that schemes such as the Mayfields project are not helping to achieve that aim, but are seriously hindering it, and in the process, gravely undermining support for the Government’s flagship commitment to localism.

Why is Mayfields such a thoroughly bad scheme? Its proponents call the putative new settlement a “market town”. That is arrant nonsense, since there would be minimal local employment. It would, as the excellent Sussex branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England observed, be a commuter town, since almost all its residents would in fact travel to other areas for work. The glossy brochure produced by Mayfield Market Towns absurdly suggests that its new residents would, “work where they live”, or walk, cycle or take the bus to their employment, “leaving the car at home”. Even the most zealous supporter of the scheme—there are not many—would be hard pressed to describe it as sustainable. Apart from the destruction of beautiful countryside and good, valuable, productive agricultural land, the development is not on a railway line, nor is it close to a major road, and there are already serious flood issues in the area. With 25,000 people living in the new town, there would clearly be huge pressure on already inadequate local infrastructure.

Those are just some of the reasons why Mid Sussex and Horsham district councils previously rejected the idea of a new town in the area in a report in 2010. That report concluded:

“Drawing on the lessons from earlier development of new towns, it is clear that a development of 10,000 homes will not create a self-sufficient community.”

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has said that he will not impose new towns on unwilling councils. I agree with him; that is entirely the right approach. It is strongly supported by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs and me, and it is wholly consistent with the Localism Act 2011 and the national planning policy framework. It is my firm hope and expectation therefore that the Minister will agree that no proposal that has been rejected by the local council and is opposed by the overwhelming majority of local residents should be permitted to overturn local plans under any circumstances.

I want to make it clear beyond any doubt that our district councils are planning responsibly for new housing. Mid Sussex district council—the authority that covers my constituency and two wards in that of my right hon. Friend—has produced an excellent and formidably argued draft plan. That plan explicitly rejects large-scale developments, such as Mayfields. It sets a clearly thought-out and substantiated housing target of 10,600 homes between 2011 and 2031. It states that, outside the strategic sites identified—the Mayfields site is not among them—

“the homes to be provided elsewhere in the District will come forward through Neighbourhood Plans.”

Furthermore, it calls for development which,

“reflects the distinctive towns and villages, retains their separate identity and character and prevents coalescence.”

And so say all of us, with a resounding cheer.

Mid Sussex is anything but a nimby council trying to avoid housing growth. Indeed, the Mid Sussex plan aims to deliver more housing than the objectively assessed need, making it unique in West Sussex. The objectively assessed need is for 411 homes per annum, and the plan aims to deliver 530 homes. During the first five years of the plan, 3,000 new homes will be built in Burgess Hill alone. They are ready-to-go projects. The consortium of developers is waiting only for the sites to be allocated before submitting a planning application.

I warmly commend the tremendous efforts of Mid Sussex to get these fiendishly difficult matters right. Its plan is wisely proactive about planning for growth, with a 3% year-on-year increase in economic activity envisaged throughout the plan period. It includes significant new employment space, including a new science park, which is part of the Brighton city deal bid. Let us remember that is all in an area between the South Downs national park and the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty, which gravely limits the council’s room for manoeuvre. All that good and laudable work is in danger of being wrecked by the grotesque and wholly unwanted Mayfields proposal.

The developer has attempted to threaten the district council into compliance with the scheme. When that failed, it has continued to place obstacles in the way of the plan’s passage. That is all thoroughly unhelpful and disruptive, because the longer the plan is delayed, the longer Mid Sussex will remain susceptible to speculative development and planning by appeal, serving the interests of developers only and not our local communities. The proposed new town is undermining localism, certainly delaying necessary new housing and causing the greatest possible anxiety and concern among local people. An admirable and energetic group—Locals Against Mayfield Building Sprawl—is rallying support locally and putting the case against the deeply unsuitable plan in formidable and accurate detail.

I want to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that neither I nor my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs will accept the new town, and we will be deeply and abidingly unhappy if the Government’s planning reforms, which we loyally supported and which were meant to promote the principle of sustainable development and localism, allow such an appalling development to happen. We cannot allow the localism that we promised, which local people supported, to be overturned at the behest of developers. There will be lasting damage, not just to the countryside, but to the Government. Our constituents expect us to honour our party’s words and commitments; we intend to see that we do.

It is a pleasure, Mr Hood, to join the debate secured by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames). As he explained, we have a mutual interest in the proposed new town, which crosses our two constituencies. I endorse every word that he said and share his deep concern about the proposal. I shall amplify a number of the points that he made.

First, there is considerable local concern about the proposal. I have attended packed meetings in village halls in my constituency. People have been unable to get into meetings, because there is so much concern about the proposed new town. I have never known anything like it. That concern is having a practical effect on people’s economic well-being, because a planning blight is already being cast over the local area. Numerous constituents have written to me to express their concern about, for instance, their ability to sell their houses at the normal market rate due to the belief that a new town is threatened.

Secondly, I underline what my right hon. Friend said about the importance of sustainability, which is, after all, written into the Government’s new planning policy. The principle was sustainable development, not development at any price. The new planning policy framework clearly set out three dimensions to that sustainability: environmental, social and economic.

It is therefore highly significant that a report commissioned earlier by Horsham, Crawley and Mid Sussex councils, as my right hon. Friend said, ruled out a new town in the area precisely on the grounds that it would not be sustainable, for all the reasons set out. It seems to me that the report is significant for an additional reason: it shows that the local authorities considered a development in the area. They are not ruling out the notion of new housing out of hand, but they consider that it is not appropriate or sustainable. Whose view will carry the day when we promise localism in such matters? I will return to that issue.

The third issue is the behaviour of the developer in promoting the scheme. Mayfield Market Towns has not just set out a proposal for a new town; it has gone much further. For instance, it has distributed 8,000 leaflets in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), north of Horsham, telling people that they need not have development in that area because they can have a new town outside their area instead. The developers are setting out to undermine the normal local planning process and interfere with the sensitive consultations that local authorities are holding with our electorate. That is entirely reprehensible behaviour; it is deeply unhelpful to the development of new plans; and it should be roundly condemned.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex and I expressed concern previously, in a letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 24 June, about the position of one of the directors of Mayfield Market Towns, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor. Lord Taylor—though I emphasise that he has properly declared the interest—is one of the Government’s advisers on planning and has been drawing up the very guidance on the national policy planning framework on which local authorities are being asked to rely, as they consider their local plans. How can one of the directors of a developer that is actively seeking to subvert localism and produce a new town in a local area also advise the Government on how localism will work? That is clearly a conflict of interest. It is deeply resented by local people, and it is damaging to the perception of the Government’s independence in such matters. We do not believe that it can stand.

Fourthly, I turn to the core principle of localism that underlies the Government’s planning reforms and on the basis of which many of us supported those reforms. It is interesting to note, for instance, that in the Telegraph, which today reported the prize that Lord Wolfson is offering for the most interesting idea for new towns, his new adviser recently confirmed that Lord Wolfson

“is committed to the idea that if the locals don’t want it, it should not happen. So it is not top down.”

As my right hon. Friend said, that is the Government’s stated position through the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who has made it clear that proposals for new towns must have local consent. Mayfields does not have local consent either from the community or from the district councils concerned, which have explicitly ruled it out.

The Prime Minister said last January:

“I care deeply about our countryside and environment. Our vision is one where we give communities much more say, much more control. The fear people have in villages is the great big housing estate being plonked down from above. Our reforms will make it easier for communities to say, ‘We are not going to have a big plonking housing estate landing next to the village, but we would like 10, 20, 30 extra houses and we would like them built in this way, to be built for local people’.”

I strongly support what the Prime Minister said more than a year ago about how local people feel when a plonking development, to use his words, is proposed in their area, and I supported the promise that they should not have to have it and would be given greater control. The local communities in both my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex are planning responsibly for new housing at both the district and the neighbourhood level, but the new town and the way that localism is being subverted are undermining their responsible plans, causing people to lose faith in the very localism that we promised.

I remind the Minister that the 2010 Conservative manifesto said:

“We will put neighbourhoods in charge of planning the way their communities develop… To give communities greater control over planning, we will abolish the power of planning inspectors to rewrite local plans”.

Yesterday, the planning inspector delayed Mid Sussex council’s plan—that will damage the local environment and delay much-needed new housing in the area under the plan—because the council apparently failed in its duty to co-operate, according to an over-elaborate interpretation of that duty not stated in the original national policy planning framework. That will only hinder the process of localism that we promised.

I reinforce the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex. This is not just a question of two local Members of Parliament being concerned about a proposed development; we have been at pains to point out that we support local plans that envisage a great deal of additional housing. This is much more. For us, it is a test of faith in the Government’s flagship policy of localism, which we loyally supported. The Minister knows that Conservative Members feel increasing concern about how the policy is being interpreted, whether through the behaviour of the Planning Inspectorate and the instructions that it appears to have been given or through the drive to raise housing numbers against the spirit of the local control that we promised.

This developer cannot be allowed to abuse the reforms of localism that were passed by the House and promised in our manifesto and the coalition agreement and in which local people put their trust when we made those pledges. We cannot stand before them and defend a policy unless that policy is true to what we said: that local people will have control, that responsible local authorities should be free to take their own decisions and that we would not allow a top-down planning process that has done so much damage to support for development in the past.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) has secured this debate on the important issue of housing development. The backdrop to this debate is the proposed Mayfields new town development, which I know is of great importance to him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert).

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex will be aware that policy responsibility for planning lies with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who unfortunately could not be with us today. I am absolutely delighted to respond on the Government’s behalf on this issue. I wish to make it clear that my ministerial role means that I am not able to comment on the specific issues about the Mayfields new town proposal. However, I recognise that my right hon. Friends the Members for Mid Sussex, and for Arundel and South Downs are very much local champions, giving a local voice to those people who are very concerned about the proposal. I am absolutely sure that they will insist that the correct process is undertaken regarding the receipt of any application, and that they will ensure that a local plan is developed and is appropriate. I am also absolutely sure that they will be robust in any challenge they make to Government if they feel that Government action is inappropriate.

However, I want to reassure my right hon. Friends that power lies with local government, through local plans, and that it is up to local communities to shape the response to their housing needs—the two points that they have both made. To provide that reassurance, I want to start by reiterating some of the key aspects of national planning policy. A core principle in the national planning policy framework is that planning should

“proactively drive and support sustainable economic development to deliver the homes, business and industrial units, infrastructure and thriving local places that the country needs.”

The framework also sets out that local planning authorities should prepare a strategic housing market assessment of their full housing needs, working with neighbouring authorities where housing market areas cross administrative boundaries. The SHMA should identify the scale and mix of housing, and the range of tenures, that the local population is likely to need over the plan period. Authorities should use their local plan process to set out how they will meet that need, and they should identify a five-year supply of specific deliverable sites to provide for that need, with a buffer to ensure choice and competition. Where they have not done so, a presumption in favour of sustainable development will apply, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex said. The NPPF is clear that authorities should plan to meet their needs.

Despite the concerns raised today, as both my right hon. Friends have said and as I have heard myself, there is widespread support across the country for more housing to meet the needs of local communities. However, my right hon. Friends will recognise, as I do, that when a development is potentially to be located on a greenfield site or in the green belt there is often an outcry from communities. That is understandable, and I do not want to see any more green fields being used than is necessary. Indeed, the NPPF maintains strong protections for the green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty and other environmental designations. It also allows councils to introduce a new local green space designation to provide additional planning protection for green areas that are demonstrably special to a local community and that hold a particular local significance. Also, the framework continues to encourage the reuse of brownfield sites.

Most importantly, however, the changes that we have made to the planning system put local plans at the heart of the system. Unlike the previous Government’s approach of having top-down regional strategies, which imposed housing numbers and forced green-belt reviews on communities, local authorities should now be assessing their own need and working with their communities to decide how and where to put the homes to meet that need.

Not every community can meet its needs. That is why local authorities should work together constructively, actively and on an ongoing basis to maximise the effectiveness of their local plans, in line with the duty to co-operate that was introduced by the Localism Act 2011. Good plans are now being made across the country. When this Government came to power, only 33% of local authorities had published a plan; now, more than 76% of them have published one.

I am following very carefully what my hon. Friend the Minister is saying. However, does he agree that it is extremely important that plans entered into and work done in good faith by district councils are not altered in any way as a result of the Government moving the goalposts during the process?

I recognise that concern, but I do not see any change in those goalposts; they are not moving. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford, who is not here today, is absolutely committed to supporting local communities in the development of their local plan to shape their community.

Neighbourhood plans are at the centre of this new system. Whereas regional strategies and central targets built nothing but resentment, setting people against development that was imposed on them, communities have firmly grasped the opportunity to engage with neighbourhood plans. I know that that is true in Mid Sussex, which is a hotbed of neighbourhood plan activity; local people there are taking control of shaping their community.

I will touch on large-scale housing development. The Government have recognised that there is a need for new homes, and sometimes that need can be met through planning for larger-scale developments, such as new settlements or extensions to existing villages or towns, following the principles of the garden cities. The previous Government also liked the idea of large-scale development, but there is a contrast between their approach and ours. Their top-down eco-towns programme was an expensive failure, plagued, I have to say, by community opposition to bureaucrats in Whitehall who drew lines on maps. That top-down approach is very different from our approach.

Our focus is on supporting the development of long-term new communities that local authorities and local communities want, helping to ensure that key infrastructure and community facilities are built alongside new homes, and not later, as an afterthought. We are doing that by supporting local authorities and development partners to bring forward a pipeline of ambitious new communities through brokerage, capacity and capital investment. So far, we have invested some £80 million for 69,000 new homes, including those in a scheme in Cranbrook in Devon, where our investment is supporting the development of a new sustainable community of 6,000 new homes. We hope that a further 14 sites across the country will eventually deliver some 38,000 homes. Importantly, local communities are driving this process, which is not about the Government adopting a top-down approach, but about local communities making choices about where these large-scale developments should be.

To conclude, the planning system is changing for the better. It asks communities to meet their need for housing—I recognise that both my right hon. Friends have expressed their commitment to new housing and have spoken of their areas’ need for it—while maintaining strong protections for the environment. It asks communities to do so through local and neighbourhood plans, which allow them to decide where development should take place. Where authorities have failed to plan, the presumption in favour of sustainable development will apply. While we continue to support the principle of large-scale developments as a way of meeting the overwhelming housing need that we face, Government funding and expert advice is clearly predicated on local community support. As I have said, I am sure that the enthusiasm, engagement and leadership of my right hon. Friends will help to shape community opinion in the areas that they represent. I thank them for their questions.

Sitting suspended.