Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Amber Rudd.)
It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts, for a debate on a subject in which I know you have a particularly keen interest. I must say that there is no tumbleweed today; looking around me, I can see that my Conservative colleagues have a clear interest in this subject as well. I will try to give the short version of my speech. I had planned lengthy remarks, but if I was to say everything I have in mind I would consume my colleagues’ time.
I begin by outlining two key problems. First, land for development is extremely scarce in Wycombe, and there is real public anger at the prospect of building on all of High Wycombe’s reserve sites, which would further burden the inadequate infrastructure, especially our roads. Secondly, there is an obvious, acute need for more homes, especially those that people, particularly young people and families, can afford. In some cases there is a real sense of despair; I am thinking particularly of one working father I talked to with a family of four who will not only struggle to buy a home locally but might find himself facing the prospect of a Bank of England cap on the mortgage he would need.
There is a real problem of despair among those who do not own homes, and there is also a clear need for public consent. We need to find a way forward because the current approach is failing for three key reasons. First, collaborative democracy is inherently unlikely ever to meet policy makers’ aspirations. Secondly, a duty to co-operate is not the right way to co-ordinate decision making and works against localism. Thirdly, the crux of the matter is that the current system leaves individuals and families facing the imposition of costs without adequate recompense. I am going to say something about each of those points.
I rather regret that I cannot put a map in Hansard, but I will try to describe the problem in High Wycombe. It is surrounded by an area of outstanding natural beauty, apart from where the M40 emerges to the south-east, where it is green belt. That creates enormous pressure on development land—indeed, the district, which is larger than my constituency, is 71% AONB. There are four reserved sites in Wycombe: Abbey Barn north, Abbey Barn south, the Gomm valley and Terriers Farm, all of which are highly prized by local residents and would be served by roads that are already heavily used. We are short of school places and our hospital is already falling short of public expectations, having lost services; it is no surprise that the public have concerns.
Among all that, I have been very impressed by the commitment of Wycombe district councillors to represent their electorate and mine, as well as by the cool-headed professionalism of the planning officers. They are operating a system that they have been given, with all its complexities, uncertainties and, crucially, areas of discretion. They are determined to be constructive and certainly not to abdicate control to the Planning Inspectorate and developers, which is how they perceive things. They have explained clearly that, under their current proposals, most of the Gomm valley and Abbey Barn north in particular would remain undeveloped. Nevertheless, people remain concerned.
Turning to the results of a quality assurance survey about the local plan, I observe that of the 3,800 survey packs sent out, only 550 people replied. That tells me that non-participation remains a crucial problem. Nevertheless, about a third of people had seen the council’s leaflet on the local plan and read some of it, and 71% felt that new homes were needed locally. Aside from talking to local families, I have experience of talking to residents’ groups and finding out just how irate they are about the notion of their lives bearing specific costs without adequate compensation—and, it turns out, without adequate opportunity to participate.
The Government’s approach is an implementation of the collaborative approach to planning described in the Conservative party’s Green Paper, “Open Source Planning”, which was available online to download before the election—I did so and read it. Another thing I would observe about non-participation is that, given that the Green Paper very much explains what the Government have been doing, it is surprising that there has been so much controversy about the presumption of sustainable development—it was clearly articulated that a Conservative-led Government would implement that. It says something about non-participation in democracy that even the most interested campaign groups nationally appear not to have read the Green Paper.
I challenge the notion of open source consent. Without going off on too much of a tangent, as a software engineer who has participated in open source software projects, I observe that open source software is entirely voluntary—if someone does not wish to use it, they can do something else—and the incentives to participate are strong. In contrast, the land use planning system involves coercion and imposed costs, and there is no exit from it. The whole open source metaphor has been flawed.
The Green Paper said:
“Our conception of local planning is rooted in civic engagement and collaborative democracy as the means of reconciling economic development with quality of life. Planning issues drive members of the public to become engaged in local political campaigning and decision-making. Communities should be given the greatest possible opportunity to have their say and the greatest possible degree of local control. If we get this right, the planning system can play a major role in decentralising power and strengthening society—bringing communities together, as they formulate a shared vision of sustainable development. And, if we enable communities to find their own ways of overcoming the tensions between development and conservation, local people can become proponents rather than opponents of appropriate economic growth.”
We can see how that approach fed into our manifesto, the “Invitation to Join the Government of Britain”, and then into the national planning policy framework, but I want to argue that it has failed. I am very sorrowful that it has, but I would like to explain why by describing some local experience.
The residents of Daws Hill have strong incentives to participate in local neighbourhood planning. The Daws Hill site is bracketed by RAF Daws Hill to the east and Wycombe sports centre to the west. The sports centre is going through a major redevelopment, and more housing will be built on RAF Daws Hill because it is a brownfield site. The residents formed a neighbourhood forum and set out in good faith to participate in the system that the Government had set out. However, the council ruled that neither of the two developments of interest to residents could be considered by the neighbourhood forum. There was a judicial review and an appeal, and the council was found to have acted properly within the law.
The chairman of the neighbourhood forum said:
“Having encouraged participation in local development through the formation of a neighbourhood forum, as set out in the Localism Act, the forum now finds that the local planning authority has the discretion to restrict its area, it appears, for whatever reason it chooses.
“In our opinion, this makes a nonsense of the legislation, which is supposed to be there to encourage participation.
“It's not surprising we feel aggrieved at the outcome of the legal process. We are struggling to see any advantage in participating in local affairs.”
I am dismayed that that happened, because I stood on a platform of radical decentralisation of power, which I very much expected we would deliver. People have wasted their time, money and energy—the outcome has been everything that open source planning was not supposed to be.
Elsewhere in High Wycombe, people are not participating to any great extent. Across the district there were about 1,700 responses to the local consultation; I have about 75,000 electors. In the rather unfortunate jargon of public policy theory, people are “rationally ignorant”— it is just not worth the effort of participating in these matters because they are complex and tedious. The process of information gathering, discussion and decision often produces unacceptable results that people are forced to accept. That is the problem with public choice factors. In reality, the public either have too few incentives to get involved or have found that in practice the system excludes them from the involvement that they want: the power to avoid having costs imposed on them.
Another active local group, Penn and Tylers Green residents society, which is most concerned about the Gomm valley, provided this eviscerating judgment on the national planning policy framework:
“The NPPF seems to us to be a disingenuous mixture of high-sounding intent and contradictory assertion. It identifies planning as aiming to achieve ‘sustainable development’, a term which, because it defies succinct interpretation, has come to mean popularly, ‘the importance of building houses’.”
Notwithstanding the Government’s honourable intent, we now have council, not community, power. Land use planning remains a complex and specialist subject, so Wycombe’s local plan was produced by planning officers, not residents bravely taking control of their own lives. Planning regulations remain so complex that specialist expertise is required even to work out whether a proposal is permitted development, about which I will talk more in a few moments.
It also turns out that the process of electing councillors every four years does not persuade people to accept the costs imposed on them by the plans and decisions of officials. The process followed is certainly lawful but it cannot be said to be democratic, given that the electors do not have the opportunity to discard the plan if they do not like it. I suggest that we see, by harsh experience and by reading the Green Paper, that the NPPF and collaborative democracy in planning have turned out to be an opportunity to comply enthusiastically with the goals set by authority, which is, I am afraid, the freedom to obey.
Regarding the duty to co-operate, if collaborative planning has not worked at the local level, what of collaboration among planning authorities? Whenever decision making is decentralised, a problem of co-ordination arises. The duty to co-operate was bound to bring different plans into conflict, and such conflicts were bound to be difficult to resolve.
I understand from planning officers that the burden of co-operation is now simultaneously slowing down delivery, as authorities communicate with the constellation of organisations indicated in the NPPF, and making planning less accountable to local people. How is public consent for a local plan to be obtained when it is bound to be the product of an opaque process of collaboration between many individuals working for many official bodies?
I understand that moves are now afoot to ask local enterprise partnerships to co-ordinate local planning authorities. When the chief executive of our LEP told me that a particular problem was that there were now so many economic plans that people could not reconcile them, I asked him, light-heartedly, “Are you saying that what we need is a strongman, with the power, authority and vision to resolve the plans and impose the solution on everyone?” He said yes, but of course I was parodying Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom”; it seems that, once again, life imitates literature, if not art.
I will certainly not be quoting Hayek back to my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on securing this debate. Does he share my concern, however, that there is a lack of joined-up thinking among neighbouring councils? For example, Northumberland and Newcastle councils act differently in relation to the green belt on their border. Does he agree that that sort of problem needs the overarching view that he is so enthusiastically endorsing?
I do. One of the problems is that the valuation of things such as the green belt is subjective—different people will have different opinions about different pieces of land. Some green belts are not especially high in quality. Around Wycombe, as I have said, most of it is AONB, but it is probably true that some of what is just green belt is not especially high in quality. Where it is poor in quality, people will value it differently. When elected representatives are involved at a local level, it is not surprising that they are unable to agree a valuation of land.
That is the point I want to make. When it comes to co-ordinating plans among decentralised decision makers, only the price system can promise to reconcile those differences, through voluntary and mutual adjustment. It is precisely because only the price system can co-ordinate human action that economic planning by authority always falls short of people’s ambitions for it.
I turn to what I propose the Government should do. In the short term at least, we must inevitably continue to attempt to make planning by authority in land use function without doing too much harm. I therefore ask the Government to take three short-term actions.
First, the Government should take the time to deliver a genuine simplification of the existing rules, so that complexity does not undermine public trust in the system. For example, I understand that permitted development can now be farcical in practice. I looked at the website, and to me it seems that some of it can be simple. In practice, however, people find it so difficult to decide whether something is permitted development, and are so afraid of the consequences of being fined if they get it wrong, that, in practice, they often end up applying to the planners for a certificate confirming that permission for the development is not required. That is absurd. A solution has been put to me. It essentially involves abolishing permitted development and making things simple: if there were no response within an eight-week period, the development would be allowed to go ahead.
Secondly, the Government should ensure that the duty to co-operate is not allowed to produce a creeping reinstatement of unaccountable, unelected regional government through the LEPs. I endorse everything that the Conservative party has said about regional government; I do not want to see it reinstated through LEPs.
The Government should narrow the range of bodies among whom co-operation is required and state clearly that local planning authorities must resolve differences among themselves without adjudication by authorities of broader scope—notwithstanding the wise comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman). If necessary, the test on the duty to co-operate should be relaxed to avoid reinstating the failed concept of regional government.
Finally, I ask the Minister to confirm the view he set out in his letter of 3 March 2014 to Sir Michael Pitt, chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate, regarding inspectors’ reports on local plans. The Minister says, in the letter:
“The special role of Green Belt is also recognised in the framing of the presumption in favour of sustainable development, which sets out that authorities should meet objectively assessed needs unless specific policies in the Framework indicate development should be restricted. Crucially, Green Belt is identified as one such policy.”
What I understand from that is that authorities are not required to consume green-belt or other protected land to meet those objectively assessed needs. That is critical for a place such as High Wycombe; although the housing need is clear, it is also clear that the place is surrounded by AONB. I am looking for the Minister to confirm that that is his view.
I turn to reserve sites and one of the difficulties of the NPPF. The reserve sites are all in close proximity to the communities they serve, special to the adjacent communities and local in character. Under the NPPF, they could be designated as local green space and managed as for the green belt. Will the Minister confirm that that could be done, in which case local councillors and planners would have the discretion to decide whether to do so, to protect those areas? After scrutinising the documents and considering the sites, which I know well enough, I am absolutely sure that that is the case. It would mean that we have local power, at least at council level, over those sites.
In the longer term, the crux of the matter is that the development of land imposes costs on other people. The fundamental reason why local plans are failing to attract public consent is that compensation for such so-called “externalities”, as the literature puts it, is provided to councils as the embodiment of community, not to the people affected. People simply have inadequate reason to consent and every reason to object. What is necessary to achieve public consent in land use decisions is what economists call “internalising the externalities”—that is, making developers cover the costs that they impose on others when they wish to proceed.
In the long term, it cannot be right to leave young people and working families facing a housing market with too few homes whose prices are too high. It is perfectly plain that more homes must be built, and built at reasonable prices with widespread public consent. There is extensive literature on how to deliver such a system through common-law property rights and market mechanisms. For example, “Liberating the Land” by the Institute of Economic Affairs provides a good survey. Its ideas include: covenant protections and deed restrictions, combined with affordable land use tribunals; tradable development rights; strengthening the law on nuisance; and various restraints from economic forces. National protection in law could be retained for AONBs, green belts and places of historic value.
I do not doubt that such a system would have its own difficulties, but it would offer a promise of a way forward, in which people had genuine power to say no and every incentive to say yes. We must abandon command-and-control economic planning in land use, and instead find ways to meet the laudable goals of the present system in a way that is realistic about public participation, incentives and the efficiency and effectiveness of bureaucratic processes. We certainly must not continue to preach market capitalism, only to practise socialism in land use before blaming inevitable failure on the market.
There is a clear way forward. In the short term, planning inspectors should accept local plans that meet the aims of the NPPF by protecting designated land, even if that means not building the full quantities of homes identified as being objectively needed. This is necessary to establish public confidence in the democratic legitimacy of the system. In the longer term, policy should give real power to the public, which means the power to say no, combined with proper incentives to say yes, including due compensation, without the public having to acquiesce to costs imposed by other people, including the long-term costs of losing beautiful, highly valued land.
Democracy is government by consent. Only when the public do not face costs without compensation will our system of land use control meet that aspiration.
I have just done a quick tot-up of those who wish to speak. We have about 50 minutes before the Front-Bench spokesmen come in. So, just as a guide, that means about six minutes each for the eight Members who are standing. Can we take account of that, please? I will not impose a time limit at this stage, but I have given clear guidance to ensure that everyone can get in and have their say.
As always, Mr Betts, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this debate and I will try to keep my comments as brief as possible.
Local planning is, without a shadow of doubt, the single most controversial issue facing Romsey and Southampton North. Planning is incredibly difficult for local councils, the elected Member, council officers and, most importantly, local residents. The constituency is split between urban and rural areas, but that makes no difference in planning terms; wherever you are in my constituency, planning is simply difficult and controversial. It is very hard to balance the competing issues of housing need with an entirely justifiable desire to protect green fields, countryside locations and—just as importantly—the character of urban areas.
I will use Bassett, on the edge of Southampton, as an example of where urban planning pressures are every bit as complicated as those of greenfield sites. The drive by developers to squeeze additional properties into back gardens and to demolish family housing and replace it with blocks of flats, as well as the continued spread of houses of multiple occupation, turn Bassett into a classic example of where garden-grabbing has continued apace. However, it is not all bad news. I commend the work of local councillors, particularly Les Harris, who has worked tirelessly with local residents on the Bassett neighbourhood plan. Bassett has been designated as a neighbourhood area in its own right, and in the autumn there will be a referendum on the plan. It is a perfect example of a community coming together to identify problems, and potentially using the planning system to its advantage. Obviously, I hope that the referendum will be supported and that the people of Bassett will have a defining say in the future of their own area.
Elsewhere in Romsey and Southampton North, the situation is less happy. The revised local plan comes before Test Valley borough council in the next few weeks, and there is a difficult balance to be struck between protecting green fields and meeting the demand for new homes. What is very sad is when one part of a wider community is set against another, and a determination to protect one greenfield site is at the expense of others. I do not pretend that there are easy answers—there are not—but I am quite convinced that planning officers and councillors continue to work extremely hard to identify the least worst options. The reality is that all the options would impact green fields or woodland, and all would have an impact on roads, schools and services. Whether it is in Whitenap, on the edge of Romsey; in Great Covert, between North Baddesley and Valley Park; or in Parkers Farm in Rownhams, there are some very difficult choices to be made.
Of course, I would prefer to see greenfield sites remain undeveloped. They not only add to local amenity but provide valuable agricultural land, and importantly they can act as sponges to soak up rain when it falls in massive quantities, as happened in Romsey at the start of the year. I have long argued in favour of a brownfield-first policy; more green belt for Hampshire, which has virtually none; and powers to enable those who have sat on brownfield land with extant planning permission for a generation to be obliged to bring it forward for development.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe has made some important points about collaborative planning and why it is so hard to bring forward a plan that everybody is content with. Undoubtedly, the experience of southern Test Valley shows why it is critical to have a robust adopted plan, because until one is in place developers will continue to make speculative applications for land in local strategic gaps and in the countryside.
Public consultation is crucial but, as my hon. Friend said, too few people take part and it tends to be only those directly affected by a specific development who participate. In Romsey, there has been a fantastic effort to involve more of the community, and Romsey Future is an exciting project that aims to ensure the town’s future as a thriving market town. Many other bodies, including the Romsey Forum and the Romsey and District Society, have been proactive.
It is a huge frustration for local residents that localism has not delivered what they hoped it would. My hon. Friend concluded with an interesting point on “internalising the externalities”. I am not sure what it would take for residents of Romsey to view development adjacent to them as a good thing. However, we have to find a way to square that circle, because until we do we will continue to see community set against community and not the local co-operation that we all want.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on setting out the case. The Minister will have noticed that there are a dozen or more Conservative MPs here, and it will be interesting to see how many of them speak in support of his policies, because in the last debate that we had here on this subject not one Conservative MP did.
The simple fact is that, as the hon. Member for Wycombe has pointed out, the Government are not delivering what the Conservative party said in opposition, and I will cite—
Whatever it is, the general public are not exactly dancing in the streets. The public consent for local plans is the issue we are debating, and the Minister is personally culpable for what he approved in north Colchester not that long ago. He approved it despite the fact that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government personally visited the area to see it for himself. I got a Transport Minister to come down and see the existing congestion in the North Station road area, and despite that this Minister rubber-stamped a plan, knowing full well that the land had never previously been zoned for housing. How the plan came through the system is one of those great mysteries of life, but it did. Myland community council, the only parish council area in my constituency, was opposed to it.
Councillors across the borough ganged up and shoved the housing allocation on one area, so it could be argued that the public consent came from the democratically elected local borough council, but there was not public consent in the area affected. It is an area that has had massive new development, and it now faces the prospect of having an additional 3,000-plus houses on a roundabout that is already a quart in a pint pot. I have to tell the Minister that the situation is not resolved by adding another pint or two.
Indeed, only this Monday the Colchester Daily Gazette reported that around £2 million of public money will go towards a project to encourage commuters to car-share, use public transport, or cycle or walk to work instead of driving through the North Station road roundabout. Even before a brick is laid, public money is having to be spent and it will not sort out the mess that is already there, let alone the problems caused by having the additional housing on two sites, one the site of a former psychiatric hospital—allegedly, it is a brownfield site, but some brownfield—and the other on virgin open countryside. All that will come into this area.
There is another problem. Because the section 106 agreement did not produce sufficient funds for a primary school in that area, the local authority is now going to expand a proposed school that is yet to be built, over and above what was originally intended. Far from it being a community school, it will become a destination school.
Those are two direct results, Minister, of a decision made by you, for which you are culpable as the Minister responsible.
I now move on to a second development, which is causing great worry. A local authority wants to build all its housing allocation, or a large part of it, on the border of another local authority area. I will end my remarks by asking the Minister and his officials to investigate urgently what Tendring district council is playing at in wanting to build a large proportion of its housing allocation immediately on the eastern border of urban Colchester, which will create an urban sprawl going eastwards. I urge the Minister and his officials to look at that urgently, because Tendring district council is putting its housing allocation where the local people in Colchester do not want it. The people in Colchester will have no say in Tendring district council’s housing allocation.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this important debate on public consent for local plans. As ever, his take on it was challenging, original and stimulating.
I think that we all accept—we know—that we need more housing in this country, and we need it urgently. The Office for National Statistics projection is that 232,000 net additional homes are needed per year to satisfy demand, although now it is a bit more than that because the target has been missed for a number of years, so a backlog has built up.
Contrary to what a lot of people believe, demand is not all driven by immigration. Without any net migration, the net additional demand would be 149,000 per annum. There are various reasons for that—smaller households; no one has a lodger; students going away to university; divorce, and so on—but, of course, the biggest single factor is that people are living longer, which is positive. We need to get that message out more often.
I should like housing demand to be more re-balanced across the country. The recent regional growth figures are encouraging: over the medium term what has happened in Leeds, Manchester and elsewhere has been strong and, in the fullness of time, High Speed 2, and perhaps even HS3, will contribute to that further. However, these things cannot be decreed and they do not happen immediately. We cannot escape the fact that the south-east will continue to over-index on housing demand for quite some time.
It is for those reasons that, in my constituency of East Hampshire, the average first-time buyer is almost as old as I am; the average home costs over £320,000, and the median house price is 10 times median earnings. We know that to maintain the vibrancy of our towns and villages we need to have a mix of age groups and we need new people coming in.
We certainly need to promote the primacy of brownfield land, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) said. It is also true—we need to get this message out more often, too—that both nationally and in East Hampshire there is not nearly enough brownfield land to satisfy demand. I received an answer to a written question from the Minister yesterday, which, with my rough maths, suggests that brownfield sites could satisfy 4% or 5% of demand for housing over a 15-year period.
My hon. Friend is making a good point on brownfield sites. I welcome the Government’s announcement this week on the local enterprise partnership funding, which will unlock a key brownfield site in York, on the edge of my constituency.
Is not the key point that we have to ensure that brownfield sites come forward more quickly? Actually, that is what green belt does. We always talk about green belt as protecting the character and setting of communities, which it does, but it is also important for driving urban regeneration. We must not forget that.
My hon. Friend puts the point about prioritising brownfield land well, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North. I cannot really talk about green belt, because we do not have any in East Hampshire, so, unfortunately, green belt protection does not really help us.
In general, people accept the need for more housing and for places for their children and grandchildren to live, but I rarely meet anybody who wants large-scale residential development to happen next to them. Often, people who use the term “nimbys” do so because it has not yet happened in their back yard. It is just part of human nature that people do not want large-scale developments to be built next to them.
In that context, I support local plans and neighbourhood plans. We can never make everybody happy, but the local plan plus neighbourhood plan process gets about as close as possible. However, plans alone are not enough; do-ability also has to be demonstrated, which is why the five-year land supply is logical. Once a process is set there must be insistence that it is followed; otherwise there is a risk of legal challenge from developers saying that there is restraint of their trade.
There is a big issue around public consent for local plans while they are still in process. In East Hampshire, our local plan is not finished and the five-year land supply is not in place, but applications have been proceeding apace and East Hampshire district council has been approving apace. Neighbourhood plans are in progress in a number of places, including in Petersfield, which is getting quite close to having a referendum, and in Alton, Four Marks and Medstead. I pay tribute to the volunteers who are doing an outstanding job on those neighbourhood plans, although I will not name individuals, because there are many of them.
They have attracted a huge amount of interest in Petersfield and Alton. I have attended public sessions where masses of people have come along and taken part. That has been an interesting and exciting confidence-building process.
A particular issue in my constituency has divided people. Part of my constituency is in the South Downs national park and part is outside. People in a town or village that is deemed sustainable, to use the terminology, and is just outside the national park may consider themselves to be at risk of development. That happens in Alton and Liphook and is a particular problem in Four Marks and Medstead. To hit the local plan target for a settlement in Four Marks and part of the parish of Medstead, 175 homes need to be built by 2028. The council has already permitted 151; there are applications pending for a further 322 and applications for a further 181 are waiting to be submitted. Of course, not all those applications may be approved, but multiples of the requirement for that settlement could be in place in, say, the first third of the plan period, rather than over the full 15 years. In that context, there is a danger of confidence in the plan process being eroded.
My big ask to the Minister is for more recognition of in-progress plans. There should be guidance on plans that are well progressed. Where per settlement plans—in our case it is called the interim housing statement—measure up to the overall local plan requirements, where local authorities are approving housing comfortably ahead of the pace required to meet the 15-year target and where numbers are already fast being approached in individual settlements, it should be possible for those settlements to defer applications for a reasonable period, to complete plans and carry public consent with them.
There are two further aspects. First, in respect of clarity on infrastructure, I realise that statutory requirements are involved and sometimes the process takes time, but authorities ought to be allowed to take time to pace applications. Secondly, with regard to incentive moneys, it should be made clear that at least some of that should be ultra-local, to maintain public support.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am also pleased to see my hon. Friend the Planning Minister. It was a great pleasure, during my time at the Department for Communities and Local Government, to work alongside him, so I understand some of the issues that he faces.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this debate on a subject that is of great concern to many of our constituents, as can be seen from the turnout in the Chamber. My hon. Friend raised many points that are relevant to Fylde, but I wish to focus specifically on local plan matters relating to my constituency.
The Localism Act 2011, of which I am a great supporter, was warmly received by communities in Fylde. Upon its introduction there was a clear intention to move away from the previous Government’s imposed top-down approach to planning that was driven by the regional spatial strategy. When Fylde borough council set about developing its own local plan, it accepted from the outset that this would result in a considerable number of new homes being built across the borough. However, during the process the council found itself frustrated on a number of key points.
First, when arriving at the total number of houses necessary for the 15-year plan period, the council found itself required to meet the previous housing numbers shortfall, despite having a new housing moratorium placed on them by the previous Government. As a result of this previous shortfall, many believe that the number of houses now required to meet Fylde borough council’s needs is greatly inflated and distorted. In a ministerial statement in March, my hon. Friend the Minster said that councils that had been under a housing moratorium could take this into account if struggling to meet their five-year housing supply. For the record, Fylde borough council is currently sitting at 4.5 years, with a number of plans in the process that could quickly take us to the five-year threshold. However, when Fylde borough council raised this with officials, it was informed that it would be unable to use the previous moratorium as part of its calculations. I have sent a letter to my hon. Friend, asking for urgent clarification on this issue. I would hate to think that the Planning Inspectorate is failing to follow his wise ministerial guidance.
Secondly, the Fylde local plan has been out to consultation, and the council is working to adjust it to take on board the often valid suggestions put forward by local communities. In the village of Warton, the local community has been exemplary in how it has embraced the local planning process. In the draft local plan, it was proposed that Warton would receive up to 1,400 new homes, which would have in effect doubled the size of the village, and that rightly caused great concern at a local level. However, the way in which the village responded truly embraced the core principles of the Localism Act 2011 in a way that I hope the Minister would appreciate. A number of public meetings were held and every home was leafleted to seek their opinions, culminating in a local referendum. While at times passions ran high, the primary focus was to find the correct long-term housing solution for the community.
As a result of the people of Warton’s hard work, it is my understanding that Fylde borough council is looking to reduce the number of new houses in Warton to somewhere in the region of 600. To reassure the Minister, the council has identified other areas in the borough that it believes are more suitable for taking up the balance of the houses proposed for Warton. I believe that that approach reflects the core principles of the Localism Act 2011. To my disgust, I have learned that developers want to ignore all that work and are proposing to put in planning applications to take the number of houses in Warton to more than 1,400. It appears that developers are using the lack of a five-year housing supply as a loophole to ram through applications against the intentions of the council and the wishes of the local people.
I am listening to what my hon. Friend is saying with great interest. We have similar situations in High Peak. Does he agree that the situation is causing a belief to fester among our constituents and residents that all these housing targets are being more centralised, as opposed to decentralised to the local authorities, as we are trying to do?
Sadly, I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The aims of the Localism Act are not being delivered on the ground, and that is one of the areas of great frustration.
Developers know that if the council’s planning committee refuses applications for 800 homes in Warton, they can go straight to the Planning Inspectorate to appeal. We have seen that on a number of occasions across the borough. I have been informed that each appeal costs the council tax payers of Fylde something in the region of £50,000 plus costs and is done in the almost sure-fire knowledge that the Planning Inspectorate will bow to the developers’ demands. That ignores the views of democratically elected Members, local planners and, above all, the local community, which has worked tirelessly to come up with sensible alternatives. I hope the Minister will agree that that makes an absolute mockery of the principles of the Localism Act. If that approach is allowed to continue, we will end up with not a local plan, but a mishmash of planning decisions that have been railroaded through by developers and speculative land agents. I am not prepared to sit around and let that happen in Fylde.
The example I have given relates to Warton, but the same could be said of developers in Wrea Green, Staining, Wesham, Kirkham and now, as I have learned in the past week, Lytham St Annes. The problem is that each scheme is examined on its own merits by the Planning Inspectorate, rather than as a joined-up plan. As a result, there is a real danger of infrastructure failing to keep pace with development. The approach is unsustainable and could lead to a vast array of problems in our communities.
Developers need to understand that the Government have reformed planning policy to ensure that the UK’s housing and development needs are met in the future. It appears that some developers are starting to abuse the aims of the legislation. The planning Minister needs to understand that the Planning Inspectorate must work better with local councils. If the Planning Inspectorate fails to recognise the changes borne out of the Localism Act 2011 and continues to dance to the tune of developers, it should not be surprised if there is a groundswell of Members demanding that it be reformed. The subject is important for my constituency and I wish the Minister well in his endeavours, but it is important that he takes on board the concerns.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) for introducing the debate and making many sensible points. The previous speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), touched on what I want to say right at the end of his speech, when he talked about the Planning Inspectorate perhaps not reflecting the Government’s intention. On 24 October last year, I held a debate in this Chamber that was well attended by a number of Members, each of whom made their own different points. My point then was that planning policy needed to be clarified. On the one hand, the Government were saying that we have to have loads more houses, but on the other, they were saying that we need to protect the green belt and such areas. The Minister, to his great credit, listened carefully to that debate and some while after that called a number of us together to present the clarification of the policy, particularly on unmet need and the impact that that could have on the green belt. He said that the green belt should take precedence. He also clarified the duty to co-operate when he said that it was not necessarily a duty to agree, if that meant that the green belt would be compromised. He made very many other clarifications, which were extremely useful.
My concern is on the extent to which the guidance is being followed by the Planning Inspectorate and the local councils that are putting together plans and joint core strategies in my area. To give an example of the problems in Tewkesbury, we have a great deal of green-belt land, many areas of outstanding natural beauty and an awful lot of flood-risk areas. Tewkesbury’s assessed housing need for the next 20 years is 10,900 houses, yet it is proposed that it will take 18,900. A lot of those houses will be built on the green belt, which I believe to be contrary to Government policy. I have taken that up with the local councils, and they fear that the inspectorate, which will look at the plan and say whether it is sound, will not follow the Minister’s guidance. That is what they genuinely feel. At this stage, it is difficult to say who is right, but the councils, although they do not want to build on the green belt or in flood-risk areas, feel that they might have to do that.
There are various recent inspectors’ reports—there was one just last week in Somerset—where the inspector appeared to disregard consideration for the green belt. I say “appeared”, because it was a rather confusing report, and much confusion surrounds the decision. In my area, there seems to have been a compromise on an area of outstanding natural beauty in an appeal that was allowed on a development of 50 houses in the village of Alderton. That does not sound like a lot, but it is a significant increase on the number of houses it has. Although it is an area of outstanding natural beauty, the inspector seemed to say that where there is unmet housing need, the AONB might have to be compromised. I believe that to be contrary to the Government’s policy. They have clearly said that unmet need should not outweigh any significant harm that might be caused to the green belt or other such areas.
I strongly support my hon. neighbour’s view that local councillors in all three councils have in effect been bludgeoned into voting for a very unpopular joint core strategy for Gloucestershire, because of the fear of the inspectorate, but it is not just about AONB and green belt. The only request for local green space status in the entire JCS area is at Leckhampton, in my constituency. It is supported by me, the Leckhampton Green Land Action Group and in great detail by Leckhampton and Warden Hill parish council. That request has not been so much refused as completely ignored by the joint core strategy team, thereby defying every consultation on the subject in the local area for the past 10 years, in which development has been universally opposed. I want the Minister to look specifically at that case, but I strongly support the points that my hon. neighbour is making.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point.
When the Government came to power they got rid of the regional spatial strategy system of planning, and that was welcomed. That was a good move. We introduced the Localism Act 2011, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) correctly said, people feel let down. They feel that the 2011 Act and the principle of localism have not delivered and do not look like they will deliver what people want.
I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says. One thing that I have lobbied hard for is the introduction of a new community right of appeal, which would give local people a real opportunity to have a say and would rebalance planning and deliver localism in the same way we have delivered an improvement in the planning process. Does he agree that that is a good idea?
Yes, I certainly would agree. We need to give more power to people, and that was suggested by the title of the debate, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe introduced. Local people feel that they are being ridden over by developers and that there is further confusion in the planning system. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we need to simplify, to ensure consistency and to clarify, certainly in my area, what the duty to co-operate actually means. More work needs to be done. He rightly referred to the letter from the Minister to Sir Michael Pitt, which said that green-belt land can be removed in the local plan process only in consultation with local people, and I must say that local people do not want that to happen. If it does happen, it is not because local people want it to happen. They believe in localism and welcomed the Localism Act 2011, but they are not convinced that it is delivering for them. It is better not to have a policy than to have one that goes on to disappointment.
My constituents are not opposed to development. I work every day to bring jobs to my constituency, as I am sure that all hon. Members do, and with those jobs must come housing. In 2007, my constituency was under water due to flooding. People lost their water supplies for three weeks and many people had to live in caravans for over a year. We had such devastation, which was threatened again earlier this year—the Prime Minister came to see the situation—and we do not want houses built in the wrong areas. That is what my constituents would want me to say today.
The Members present are almost exclusively Conservative. We have one Labour Front-Bench spokesperson and a couple each from the DUP and the Liberal Democrats. I probably should not say this publicly, but if we do not clarify the policy and sort it out, the Conservative party will lose votes. I want the Minister to take that on board. That is not the reason to sort the policy—there are many others—but it sounds like a pretty good one.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) for securing this important debate. I will try to be brief, because I know that many other hon. Members are keen to speak.
I want to discuss my constituency and some of the impacts that the policy is having. The most recent consultation period of our local plan has concluded. The plan has been developed over several years and caused a great deal of concern and anxiety among local residents, who feel that it has not made sufficient provision for associated infrastructure. There is significant apprehension about environmental impacts; air pollution is already a significant problem in Warwick, which celebrates its 1,100th anniversary this year. There is also great concern that the number of houses planned is excessive.
Office for National Statistics figures released at the end of May have significantly altered the estimated population figure on which the plan is based. Population growth is now estimated to be less than previously thought. An increase of 15,000 rather than 21,000 has been predicted, a reduction of more than 25%. If the new population figure is taken into account, the number of houses required for the plan should also reduce dramatically.
I understand that, as a general rule, public policy cannot continually be revised and updated as new statistics come to light, but it is important to take them into consideration if they have such a clear impact on existing proposals. There is evidence that the current population assumptions, prior to the publication of the ONS figures, are based on a period of unusually high migration. Does the Minister agree that Warwick district council must take the new information into account in the development of the plan? That is the only way in which we can restore confidence in the process. The figures, which have been brought to the council’s attention, will, I hope, be taken into account when they revise the current version of the local plan. If they are not, given this information and local residents’ sincere concerns, it will be a breach of what we are discussing here today: public consent for local plans.
I appreciate that planning is difficult, especially when new information comes to light, but can we not agree that we need to give residents the opportunity to participate meaningfully in the planning process? Only genuine engagement with residents can produce a plan that local people feel they have ownership of and ensure that the plan does not ignore their opinions.
Local residents’ views should be integral to the planning system. With so much of the community clearly opposing the plan as it stands, I hope that all those involved will seriously consider the significance of the objections. The decisions of Warwick district council and other similar local authorities will have long-term effects. I hope to see a consensual, sustainable solution that will be beneficial for our local community and the needs of all our futures.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this important debate. I must say that I am a little more positive than him about the Government’s planning policy; the issue is more that we have failed to grasp the changes in the policy and to use them in the town halls of this country.
The Government have come a long way towards injecting democracy, kicking and screaming, into the top-down, target-driven planning regime of the previous Government. The Localism Act 2011 and the national planning policy framework combined formed a strong first attack on the problem. They enshrined the importance of community buy-in as a central tenet of strategic and long-term planning, gave back powers to local councils and local communities and ended the top-down targets regime.
That said, it seems that the changes may have taken a little while to sink in at town halls, with many councils initially looking to opt for figures and equations taken from the inflated top-down targets of the regional spatial strategies rather than grasping the nettle and coming up with new approaches to determine housing need. As disappointing as that is, it is at least understandable. Outside council chambers, planning is a multi-million pound industry and developers are able—and more than willing—to outspend taxpayer-funded local councils in legal consultations, planning inquests and court cases, including at Glebelands and Jotmans Farm in my constituency.
With that in mind, it is entirely probable that local council planning departments are unwilling to be innovative and to break the established mould until another council had been successful, for fear of an expensive legal challenge by developers. I also fear that officials, councillors and perhaps even the Planning Inspectorate became quite comfortable with the old defence that, “The Government are forcing this on us; there is nothing we can do.”
Absolutely. I hear that said regularly. The costs of court cases are waved at councillors who are responsible for public funding. It is a permanent threat. On balance and given that backdrop, however, the Government’s planning reforms have fared pretty well, particularly since the superb guidance update and the accompanying letter that the Minister wrote to the chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate earlier this year.
Small districts and boroughs such as Castle Point have traditionally suffered the most in development plans, as their comparatively dense populations create big needs that put immense pressure on infrastructure and the precious little undeveloped green space on urban peripheries—no matter if there are larger districts with a higher ratio of undeveloped green space in urban communities within commuting distance.
If the big unit developers have their way with the green belt in Castle Point, it will be an unmitigated disaster, and not only for the environment—it will just not work. Developers too rarely deliver what they promise. They land bank, speculate on markets and cause distress and uncertainty to local residents, who see large swathes of undeveloped land swallowed up in a development plan only to see it sit there for years until the market is right. That is precisely what happened at the development between The Chase and Kiln road in my constituency, which was included in the last development plan in the 1990s and where construction began in earnest only two years ago.
The updates and clarifications on the NPPF issued by the Minister in February give more weapons to local councils to defend local plans from aggressive developer interest and allow them to be shaped more by engagement with local residents and therefore to achieve popular consent. We need to grasp what the updates offer local communities. They make it clear that the green belt does not have to be sacrificed in local plans and give more scope for local councils to bring forward the smaller and sometimes grotty brownfield sites that blight local neighbourhoods for redevelopment instead. That policy direction is well complemented by the Chancellor’s recent announcement, during his speech at Mansion House, that several hundred million pounds will be put in funds to help local councils bring forward brownfield sites.
I have stood in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber on a number of occasions to discuss how small brownfield sites not only are more likely to be realised for development faster, but put less strain on infrastructure. They are more likely to benefit the local economy by using local builders, solicitors and estate agents and by being marketed to local people. I am pleased by the updates brought in by the Minister earlier this year, making it easier for councils to have local plans based on such sites.
I thank the Minister for the strength of the policy updates, but I have a further, specific reason for thanking him. He supported me in my request for a representative from the Planning Inspectorate to visit Castle Point and explain to councillors and officers in blunt terms that they did not have to include undeveloped and locally treasured green belt in their new local plan if they could make, support and explain a case for why they thought it more important to preserve such spaces than to meet their purely statistical housing projections.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on this fantastic debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) is absolutely right that the policy of public consent for local plans, when it works, can work well. Unfortunately, in Labour-run Kirklees council, we do not have a local plan; there is not even an emerging local plan. What advice can the Minister give my constituents, who are now seeing a free-for-all? Furthermore, a Lib Dem councillor voted for the Lindley Moor development in the north of Huddersfield, which was completely against residents’ wishes. That was a casting vote, so my constituents are feeling frustrated.
Castle Point council is due to consider the public consultation responses to its emerging local plan and to take account of the policy updates. Although it is purely up to the elected councillors of Castle Point to make decisions on the local plan, I anticipate that much more brownfield than previously anticipated will be proposed for development, which can only be a good thing.
The Government have faced a mammoth task to inject real democracy and a commitment to community engagement into the system. They have shown commitment to the challenge and made significant progress, which should be applauded. Few residents would disagree that we need to build more houses, but only through democratic engagement and buy-in will that happen—and, I believe, happen more quickly—in such a way as to cause the least detriment to existing householders.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing the debate and on his interesting and thoughtful speech.
The question that we are discussing is not whether we need more houses; clearly we do. The continuing undersupply of houses not only disadvantages young people, who need somewhere to live, and makes houses relatively unaffordable, but is a risk to the economy, as the Governor of the Bank of England has made clear. For all those reasons, we need to preface everything we say with the recognition that more houses are needed.
The question instead is how those houses are to be provided and whether a top-down planning system will be enough to provide them—and in a way that takes the public with it. Perhaps a system based more on incentives would deliver the houses. My argument, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, is that we need to move to a system based more on incentives, turning our back fully on the top-down approach. We attempted to do that, in part, in the Localism Act 2011, and the principle that power should be given to local people and communities is surely the right one. My plea today is that we keep faith with that localism, because it can deliver the additional necessary housing.
I want to give one example: that of a small village in my constituency. On the edge of the South Downs national park and in beautiful countryside, it now faces the potential prospect of fracking and airport expansion, on top of the continuing pressure on housing. The parish as a whole has only 458 people, with 226 in the core village itself. For years, the village has seen speculative development applications as a threat and has resisted them.
Recently, however, the village sat down as part of its neighbourhood planning process and decided for itself—overwhelmingly, in a referendum—to provide for 50 new houses. That decision was taken by a village with a total population of 226, because villagers decided that they wanted more affordable houses. The number of new homes was not imposed, given to them or required—they chose it. Local people overwhelmingly endorsed the move.
That powerful process of neighbourhood planning can turn the incentives around, so that instead of local people confronting what they do not want the whole time and resisting development, they instead ask themselves what they do want and what is necessary for their children. The process has been shown to have worked. Kirdford was the second village in West Sussex to have passed a neighbourhood plan; Arundel was the first, but those two were among the earliest neighbourhood plans in the country to have gone through by referendum. That is a testament to that policy, to its power and to the Localism Act, the principles of which I support.
Localism, however, can be undermined. It is undermined when the Planning Inspectorate charges in, exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) so eloquently described, adhering to an outdated set of rules or acting under orders—probably a mix of the two—and decides to impose still higher numbers of houses, or houses in a place that local people have not chosen in their proposed neighbourhood plans. Furthermore, in doing so, the inspectorate completely undermines any local support for the development proposed.
People then ask, “Where is this localism that we were promised?” We were all giving up our time—volunteers in the case of neighbourhood plans drawn up by parish councils—and spending a huge amount of it consulting with local people about where housing should go, winning around public support, but then seeing the whole process undermined, or even blown up, by idiotic decisions from the Planning Inspectorate, rewarding greedy, speculative development applications.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many developers simply want to push as many houses on to sites as they can, for their own financial ends and irrespective of what that will mean to the community? Developers do so because they believe that they can get away with it.
I have tried to bite my tongue for a long time in the debate, but I feel the need to point out to my right hon. Friend that I was driving my own car, without a driver or a private secretary. I was on my way to Chichester. Furthermore, on the A3 on the way back I had a tyre blow-out; I had to change the tyre myself.
The lesson to the Minister is clearly either to take public transport or to be driven around in an enormous ministerial car. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him for coming to my constituency, then to Chichester, to meet local people and to hear for himself about the problem.
My suggestions are, first, to strengthen the process of neighbourhood planning—to make it easier, not harder, for local communities, to give them more support and to make the process less bureaucratic. Secondly, we should tackle the overweening power of the Planning Inspectorate. The inspectorate is out of control and it is defying localism. People do not want orders from a quango in Bristol. If we are serious about localism, we must deal with that.
The Conservative manifesto stated:
“To give communities greater control over planning, we will abolish the power of planning inspectors to rewrite local plans.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde said that if the Planning Inspectorate was not given new marching orders, hon. Members might decide for themselves that those marching orders should be given. I propose amendments to the Infrastructure Bill to send a clear signal to the Planning Inspectorate that what it is doing is undermining localism and support for local housing, and that that must stop.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing yet another important debate on planning.
The gist of the arguments that have been put forward today is that if we are to get the homes we need, we must have more involvement from the community in making local plans, as housing needs to be delivered in a way that secures consent. I totally agree with that.
I remind hon. Members of just how many homes we need. On current projections we know that we need to build upwards of 200,000 houses per year, but we are achieving a rate that is much lower, with just 112,000 homes completed in the year to March 2014. This year we know that there have been only 117,000 starts in the private sector and 22,000 in the social sector. That is simply not enough to keep up with demand. We have 1.8 million households on council waiting lists. This year the number of housing starts in the affordable rented sector fell to only 16,000, as contrasted with 54,000 in the last year of the Labour Government.
I hope all hon. Members would recognise that there is a significant housing shortage that needs to be addressed. Nevertheless, we all accept that we need more consent in the system. We have heard that from the Minister as well, who has said that he wants
“locally arrived at, co-operative solutions to difficult problems, rather than having top-down Government imposition of solutions… We all deserve to have our voices heard and we all deserve to be part of that solution.”—[Official Report, 13 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 243WH.]
The problem for him is that that is not really happening in practice.
I want to take up a number of comments made by Government Members today. The hon. Member for Wycombe was very clear on the need to have public consent and a collaborative democracy. That means more community control over what happens and a more effective system of neighbourhood planning. I was a bit confused about whether he was suggesting that we get rid of local plan making all together. I do not think that would be a sensible way forward, but clearly something needs to be done to make the current system reflect local needs better.
The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) has had a positive experience of neighbourhood planning, but noted her concern that land banking makes it difficult to secure consent and that local people do not feel that localism is delivering for them. The hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) reminded us of the importance of finding appropriate sites and funding associated infrastructure. That is important in securing consent. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) talked about the need to rebalance growth across the country. I could not agree more, given that my north-east constituency desperately needs economic growth.
The hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) said that we need to take on suggestions from local people about which sites are appropriate. I agree that that is necessary if we are going to get the long-term solutions to our housing need that we all want to see. He mentioned difficulties with the Planning Inspectorate, and was backed up on that point by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who said that a number of decisions by the Planning Inspectorate have been inappropriate. I will leave it to the Minister to respond to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury about whether he will do anything to make the Planning Inspectorate change its mind. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) said we need ongoing reviews of local plans, which is an interesting suggestion.
The hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) was unusually positive about the current system—she must have given the Minister a moment of light relief in our debate. The right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) asked the key question: how will houses be delivered in a way that takes the public along with the development that is needed? He also stated the importance of putting neighbourhood planning at the heart of the system.
All those points have been backed up by the way in which some constituency issues are finding their way into the media. There have been a number of headlines recently—I am sure that the Minister is aware of them—saying things such as “Planning decisions cast doubt over government’s localism agenda”, “Government ignores local residents’ concerns” and “Ministers ignore concerns over out-of-town retail plans”. My favourite is “Government takes ‘nuclear option’ with new planning laws”—essentially, a criticism of the way that the current system is operating.
Something is going wrong if the Minister is espousing localist credentials but local communities feel that they are being let down and their opinions ignored. There are a couple of reasons for that and a couple of things he could do. We are relying on a plan-led system when so few plans have actually been adopted, and few of those adhere to the NPPF. That puts a huge problem at the heart of the system and means that many inappropriate sites are being put forward for development because local plans are not in place. Also, where neighbourhood plans exist they need to be strengthened, so that more attention is paid to them and local people feel they have a much greater say over which sites are appropriate. That is what we are trying to get at today.
Lastly, we agree that consent needs to be put at the heart of the planning system, which is why we have set up a commission under Sir Michael Lyons to see how that can be delivered. I hope the Minister pays attention to what that commission says when it reports in September.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am used to facing your inquisition and find my current position a more comfortable one to be in. Although it is more comfortable with respect to you, it is slightly less comfortable with respect to my cherished colleagues, who are familiar faces in debates such as these. They represent their constituents eloquently, passionately and with total conviction.
The difficulty is that in a sense it is of no comfort or consolation to those constituents that although they are suffering from intense problems, others are beginning to be able to make the system work. It is of no consolation to the residents of Fylde to know that in many other parts of the country, because residents there have managed to get a local plan in place, local decisions are being made and adhered to, not overturned by planning inspectors. Nor is it of any consolation to the people of Daws Hill to hear that in other parts of the country there are now 1,000 communities working on neighbourhood plans, nor that there have been 20 referendums on neighbourhood plans, all of which—20 out of 20—have shown the overwhelming support of local people for plans that, as in the community of Kirdford in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), are for quite significant housing growth. It is of no consolation to people to hear that things may be working elsewhere.
The responsibility for the Government is to create a system that applies to everyone and every area, in which every community and every council knows what its responsibilities are.
The crucial thing about Daws Hill is that the two developments that bracket it were excluded from the neighbourhood forum. I have every confidence that if those two areas had been included the residents of Daws Hill would have been full and keen participants in the process.
I fully understand the frustrations of the residents of Daws Hill about that decision. It is unfortunately the case that the council is the duly elected planning authority. It is democratically accountable and therefore it is with the council that the ultimate decision lies on which areas are to be designated.
I believe that every single contribution to the debate started with an acknowledgement of the desperate need for housing. The debate was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker)—I congratulate him on doing so—and so perhaps he will forgive me if I point out that in Wycombe, which is certainly not untypical in the south of the country, the affordability ratio stands at 9.6 compared with 6.45 nationally. That means, very simply, what the father of four told him: the average price of a house in the lower quartile—the lower quarter of available houses—is 9.6 times the average income in the lower quartile of earnings, so someone who is not particularly well paid would have to spend nearly 10 times their salary to buy a house.
Now, as we know, the Governor of the Bank of England has, entirely responsibly, clarified that mortgages of more than four times income should be rare. We also know that mortgage lenders require a deposit, and the Government have put in place the Help to Buy scheme to make it possible for people to get mortgages on 5% deposits. However, there is simply no way that that gentleman, or many like him, will ever be able to afford to pull together nine or 10 times the average income without huge support from somewhere else. This Government are not willing to stand by while housing and home ownership become the preserve of the rich and those with wealthy parents, and we have to act.
The Minister is making some good points about the need for housing, but he is making none about the need for local people to have a say about where that housing is. Does he not agree that a community right of appeal, not a third-party right of appeal, might well put the Government on the side of responsible communities?
If my hon. Friend is a little patient, she will allow me to say how the planning system absolutely gives people the ability to decide where developments should go.
I would like to start by explaining where the concept of objectively assessed need comes from. In every constituency, there are people who would like to buy a house or a flat. They might move several times, because they currently rent, and rental leases are often relatively short. They might not even get on the electoral roll or, indeed, be living in the area where they would ultimately like to buy. Who represents them in this democracy? Who represents them in local residents’ meetings deciding how many houses the community is willing to accept? We need to represent them; that is why a national Government are elected. That is why Governments have a responsibility to tell local councils, “Yes, you should decide where you are going to meet your development needs, but, no, you don’t decide whether you meet them.” We do not allow local councils to say, “We do not want to provide enough school places”—we require them to provide enough places. We do not say to the local national health service, “You decide whether you want to provide enough doctors and hospital beds”—we say, “You have to work out how and where you are going to meet your needs.” It is simply the same with housing. We represent those who do not have a vote in these public meetings and have not voted for the local councillors, perhaps because they do not live in the area yet or are not even of voting age. I take that responsibility very seriously, and I make no apology for that.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for mentioning affordability in Wycombe, and I am acutely aware of it, not least because it affects me too. However, it is precisely because I agree with the imperatives he has set out that I think we should move to an incentives-based system that produces consent.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, because it was much the most challenging and stimulating of his very challenging and stimulating speech. I hope he will be pleased that there is a pilot of development benefits, which the Chancellor announced in the Budget, and we are working on exactly how it will work. The idea that it is not just the local council that should receive income and revenue streams from development is controversial in our planning system. The council has traditionally always received such income, whether through section 106 agreements or, as happens now, through the community infrastructure levy and the new homes bonus. What has not happened before is that the benefits go directly to householders. That happens in the Netherlands and other parts of continental Europe, and it seems to secure a level of consent that, as hon. Members have eloquently explained, we still do not manage to secure, even with local and neighbourhood plans. That is why the Government are undertaking this pilot, and I would very much welcome my hon. Friend’s thoughts about how it should operate, because we are devising it at the moment.
On that subject, we have decided to allocate to neighbourhoods that put in place a neighbourhood plan—I remind my hon. Friend that 1,000 communities are working on them—25%, uncapped, of all revenues from the community infrastructure levy. That will go to the community—to the parish council—to spend on community assets, community facilities and improvements to community amenities, as the community determines. That will not be decided by the council or a Minister—it will be decided by the community. That is a proper reward for the intense and usually entirely unpaid work people in places such as Kirdford and Bassett put into their neighbourhood plans.
In my urban constituency, I represent people on the housing waiting list, as well as some of the poorest areas in south-west England. The truth is that, if all the housing planned for the Cheltenham area went ahead, and it was all social housing for rent, people would be able to have three houses each. Massively more housing is being planned for our area than required by natural population growth. The developers have no interest in making it all social housing for rent—that is what Cheltenham borough council is doing in the urban areas, on brownfield sites. However, the developers have said quite explicitly to their investors in the City that they want traditional market housing; they want expensive commuter homes on greenfield sites that are cheap to build. In many areas such as ours, demand is insatiable. House prices are high because we have good jobs and good schools. Our towns have often grown enormously over decades, but that does not bring down house prices.
I am sure we would have been happy to hear a full speech from the hon. Gentleman, because he has a lot to say in representing his constituents. It is, of course, very much open to him to make such points at the examination in public of the local plan, which I know he has some difficulties with.
I want to conclude by, in a sense, warning hon. Members and, indeed, those they represent to be careful what they wish for as they approach the next election; indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) referred to the simple matter of planning becoming an election issue. I say that because the alternative proposed by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and the Labour party is dramatically less localist than what we, albeit with problems—one step forward, half a step back—are trying to achieve.
The hon. Lady referred to the review the Labour party has commissioned from Sir Michael Lyons. Let me refer to an article from today’s Guardian—I am sure she will agree that The Guardian is a bible of wisdom—which quotes his speech to the Local Government Association conference in Bournemouth yesterday. The article says:
“Speaking to the LGA in Bournemouth, he said a Labour government would not be abandoning the current national planning policy framework that requires councils to make land available, and if anything it would be turning the screw on councils. He said: ‘We are breaking eggs to make omelettes. The backlog is so serious here that we have to do everything we can.’
His remarks suggest the National Planning Inspectorate will, if anything, have a bigger role in ensuring houses get built.”
The British people have a choice. It is not a choice of whether to meet our housing need and to offer the next generation what I suspect every Member of Parliament in this room enjoys—the ownership of their own home. The choice is whether we try to work with local councils and local communities, giving neighbourhoods incentives to work out what new houses they will build, or whether we allow Ministers in a Labour Government to impose decisions on them. I know which choice I will be making next May.