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Planning Policy (Housing Targets)

Volume 588: debated on Wednesday 19 November 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again this morning, Mr Bone. I hope that the sitting, which has been a little Hampshire-centric so far, does not make you think that all southern MPs are focused only on planning and flooding, although those issues are critical to our local communities and, arguably, the biggest challenges to face our towns and villages.

The Minister will not be surprised that I requested this debate specifically about housing land supply and local authorities’ difficulties in seeking to uphold robust and well-considered planning policies in the face of repeated and determined speculative applications by developers, who are consistently using the requirement for a five-year housing land supply to their own advantage, rather than to the advantage of local residents and would-be home owners.

We all know that figures can be massaged and distorted. In Test Valley, the abolition of spatial strategies was widely welcomed, but the reality of local planning and localism has not been as we all might have hoped. It makes no difference whether sites are on the edge of Romsey or in the strategic and local gaps between smaller settlements and the major city of Southampton. To the layman, developers appear to be using the national planning policy framework to their own advantage and riding roughshod over local opinion and the local decisions made by democratically elected councillors.

What my hon. Friend has said echoes what is happening in my constituency. Only last week, I went to a meeting about the neighbourhood plan for Chapel-en-le-Frith—a fantastic piece of work that is seemingly not being considered. The issue is all to do with the land supply. Residents are getting incensed, thinking, “Are we in a situation of planning by appeal?” Does my hon. Friend think that a valid point?

I agree with my hon. Friend. That is exactly the experience that we are facing in Test Valley.

The onus of the NPPF is very much on delivery—I do not need to remind the Minister to refer specifically to paragraphs 47 and 48. Local councils in general and, as the Minister knows from his own correspondence, Test Valley council in particular, are calling for greater clarity and for a focus on planning issues, where the authority has the ability to have a role.

Does my hon. Friend agree that no matter where we are in the country, we are seeing more and more of our green belt disappear? It is vital that we should first consider every brownfield site possible before any green belt is even looked at.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the green belt. Unfortunately, in Hampshire we have next to none.

Recent information from the National Trust indicated that if the five-year land supply can be disputed by developers, more than 70% of locally made decisions are overturned at appeal. The Minister will not comment on individual cases, and I do not ask him to, but in order to highlight how the requirement for a five-year housing land supply has been abused, I shall use the example of Parkers Farm on the edge of Rownhams, which is the subject of a speculative planning application that right now is at the appeal stage.

Test Valley’s revised local plan has recently been submitted and is expected to be determined some time reasonably early next year. Throughout the borough, local communities are looking at neighbourhood plans, some more actively than others, and there is real enthusiasm locally to ensure that residents’ views are heard and taken into account.

If there is one thing that my constituents get, it is local planning, and as someone who served for 12 years on the southern area planning committee of Test Valley borough council, it is something I get. I have long held the belief that nothing is more vexed in the world of politics than local planning. Where guidance is clear and statistics cannot be manipulated and distorted, however, there is at least clarity. People can reasonably understand policies and not be confronted with ever-shifting sands.

With Parkers Farm, which is only one site that I have identified—the Minister might be aware that there are several others across southern Test Valley—the case of the appellant rests on there not being an adequate five-year land supply. The Minister may recall the correspondence from the leader of the local council on the matter, following a motion in Test Valley borough council, but the five-year supply depends entirely on how it is calculated and on the rate of delivery of granted permissions. In the majority of cases, that rate of delivery is entirely in the hands of the developers.

I totally support my hon. Friend on that point. In effect, we appear to have an extraordinary flaw and an unintended consequence of the planning system. Developers like the comfort of a long-term plan and lots of land in it, but they are not as keen to deliver that land as quickly as we might like for many reasons, among which is not wishing to bring the local land price down, as well as ensuring that they can get more land into their land-banking systems.

My hon. Friend is of course right. The issue is entirely about the laws of supply and demand. Those who control the supply have the upper hand in this case.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that the brownfield sites are sitting there waiting to be developed while green land is being developed?

My hon. Friend is right to a certain extent, but in Test Valley we have both scenarios: neither brownfield sites nor greenfield sites with permission are being developed.

I have raised the issue more than once in the Chamber and with more than one planning Minister. In Test Valley, we have repeatedly witnessed the scenario in which each developer seeks permission by demonstrating, usually on appeal, that sites with extant planning permission are for some reason or other undeliverable. We have even had the bizarre situation in which landowners have argued that their own sites, previously granted permission, are now not coming forward at the expected rate, so a further permission is required for an additional site. That is all in order for the borough to maintain its five-year supply.

The revised local plan, therefore, proposes a higher annual housing delivery figure than that contained in the now revoked south-east plan. Test Valley is doing its bit to aid housing supply. The construction rate is at a 15-year high, and since 2012 the borough has had the highest completion rate in Hampshire, including in the cities of Portsmouth and Southampton.

The council has a long-standing working relationship with many developers and seeks to bring forward appropriate sites. It has worked hard and made incredibly difficult decisions, but is repeatedly frustrated. It is doing its best to grant appropriate permissions and to encourage developers to bring forward housing, but the ability of certain landowners and developers to fail to meet their promised delivery rates once they have obtained planning permission is causing huge difficulties. That manipulates the land supply forecast and calculations to the developers’ advantage and, as a result, yet more greenfield sites fall under the continuous pressure from speculative planning applications.

My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. The problem is clearly one that we recognise in many parts of the country. What counts as deliverable in planning circles is very much what the developers tell us is deliverable. They will assure us that they can get their vehicles straight on to that nice green-belt site, or in the course of a couple of days, but that the brownfield sites are not deliverable. Once the site is given to them in the plan, it becomes quite another matter, and sites might sit there vacant, but causing planning blight for residents.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to identify that cause of planning blight. Residents see a greenfield site with planning permission, but with nothing happening, which causes huge frustration. Decisions not to bring forward sites that are not under the local authority’s control—for commercial reasons, for example—should not have the effect of penalising the land supply figure.

At this point, I remind the Minister that Hampshire has no green belt, save for a small corner in the far south-west designed to prevent the spread of the Bournemouth conurbation, which I must remark lies in a totally different county. Hampshire does not benefit from green belt and, as a result, the coalescence of settlements and the loss of the distinctive gaps between them is a serious problem.

The Minister’s response to me, of Monday’s date, helpfully points out paragraph 82 of the NPPF and identifies exactly why my local authority cannot designate new green belt. The NPPF states that the general extent of the green belt is already established—we do not have any and we are unlikely to get any—and that new green belt should be established only in exceptional circumstances. Let me tell him that unfortunately the circumstances in Test Valley are not exceptional, and it would be incredibly difficult for us to designate a new area of green belt, because we are not planning a large new settlement or major urban extension. Even if we could designate a green belt, the current criteria do not allow us to. I urge him to revisit those criteria.

I return to the point in hand. Over the past four years, all the speculative developments in southern Test Valley have been justified on the grounds of a lack of a deliverable five-year supply and the supposed ability of yet another site to make up the shortfall. Yet, as the deputy leader of the council said earlier this year, if we were to tot up all the permissions granted across southern Test Valley, there would be over seven years’ worth of supply. Developers are building deliberately slowly, for either strategic or commercial reasons.

The housing land supply figures are too easily influenced by developers simply either changing their forecasts on permitted sites or not bringing sites forward at all, or else not as quickly as was forecast. The case of the Romsey brewery is well documented. That development has been brought forward at a painfully slow rate since the final brew was started on my 11th birthday.

Yes—a very long time ago, as my hon. Friend says. For 30 years, the landowner and developer have dragged their feet, and have set a pattern that others seem very happy to follow. Of course, we all understand that there may be solid planning reasons for sites not coming forward as quickly as was hoped—both I and the Minister understand that—but those reasons should not include the whims of developers. Test Valley borough council is seeking an amendment to national guidance that would enable local planning authorities to factor in forecasted delivery rates in the housing land supply calculated when permission was originally granted. The review of delivery rates should be permitted only if there are sound planning reasons to do so.

I note the Minister’s response—dated yesterday—to the leader of the council, which focused on the steps local authorities can take to bring forward development. Yes, of course he is right that time scales for the start of development can be shortened, but that does not help where development has started but then progresses very slowly indeed. The fund for self-builders is, of course, welcome, but it simply will not deliver the scale of development needed to address the disputed land supply figures.

I turn now to some specific Test Valley examples. I have mentioned Parkers Farm in Rownhams, a greenfield site, which has not been included in the revised local plan but is now the subject of an appeal for 320 houses and a 60 bed extra-care facility. That site would have been considered as part of the borough local plan process but clearly was not deemed as sustainable as other potential sites. It is adjacent to another site that it is thought will imminently be subject to a planning application.

Were the two applications to be granted, they would effectively close the gap between the village of Rownhams and the Southampton city boundary. For generations Test Valley councillors have sought to maintain gaps between settlements and enable villages to retain their own identity and sense of community, but that looks to be under very real threat.

On the edge of Romsey, a site at Halterworth—again, a greenfield site and part of an important local gap between Romsey and the village of North Baddesley—is subject to a proposal by Foreman Homes for in excess of 100 dwellings and a leisure centre. Again, that site would have been considered by the borough local plan process and, again, for good planning reasons it has been excluded.

The Hampshire love-in continues. Those examples are very pertinent. There is a site in my constituency being developed called Pitt Vale, next to Pitt Manor. It is between Winchester and Hursley, and is right on the border of my hon. Friend’s constituency—she is my parliamentary neighbour. That site was considered as part of the local plan and was dismissed. It is now part of what I consider to be a speculative planning application but that I have no doubt will one day end up with the Planning Inspectorate. My constituents are angry because they have done their bit, worked with localism and created a local plan, but now they find themselves in that situation. Does she not agree that that is undermining one of the best things this Government have done—namely, the Localism Act 2011?

My hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour makes a valid point. That is exactly the sentiment of my constituents as well.

I wrote to the Minister about Wrens Corner in Romsey Extra—he has responded recently. That is yet another example of a speculative proposal on the edge of the borough local plan and certainly not included within it. All the schemes I have mentioned rely on a supposed lack of a deliverable five-year housing land supply, despite the fact that, as I said earlier, on the cold figures Test Valley borough council has granted seven years’ worth of permissions in the south of the borough.

I will conclude, as I know the Minister will want to respond. Test Valley borough councillors have sought to be constructive and engage with him and his officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government. They have provided examples and evidence of how the five-year land supply, as it is currently determined, is being manipulated by developers. The system enables developers to bank permissions, start development, although painfully slowly, and then move on to a new site, claiming that previous developments are now not deliverable—or at least not at the same rate they had once claimed. It is rather like a cake from which a slice is cut and one bite taken out, before the consumer moves on to cut another slice: the whole cake is ruined, but nobody’s appetite is satisfied.

That is not good planning. It is not plan led, but led by speculation and greed, helping only the developers, and certainly not those seeking to buy their own homes in this desirable part of the country. I urge the Minister, who I know is in receipt of advice from his officials and my councillors, to look at the five-year supply problem and find innovative and effective ways of encouraging—or, if necessary, compelling—those who have permissions to bring their sites forward, as well as ways to deter that sort of manipulation of the system, so that ultimately communities can be constructed, rather than blighted for decades by slow or non-existent building.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this timely debate. I know that she is committed to making sure that housing in her constituency is developed in the right locations, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the role of the Government’s national planning policy in achieving that, as well as the issues other hon. Friends have raised today. I know that Members across the House, as well as my hon. Friends here today, have made similar points about making sure development happens; we know we need to build more houses, but we all want to see them in the appropriate places, and designed and built in an appropriate way.

My hon. Friend has outlined the importance of getting local plans in place, and I will respond on that point in more detail in a moment. Most of the areas where there are issues do not have a local plan in place. Once a plan is in place, it gives the level of protection that people want. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) said, nothing will ever stop a developer trying something, but with a local plan in place residents have protection and therefore the expectation—rightly—that the planning process and any appeal will back up the approved and adopted local plan.

Several of my hon. Friends have mentioned the green belt and brownfield land. I know that the green belt is not directly relevant to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, which does not have much green belt, but it is worth noting that the green belt has remained constant in England over the past few years. If we disregard land reclassified as national parks, the green belt is larger now than in 1997. We are focusing on developing brownfield land as a priority. That is why we launched a new fund specifically aimed at brownfield development during the summer.

I am pleased to hear that Test Valley council is giving strong leadership and recognises the importance of providing the housing necessary to suit the needs of local people. That the rate of construction in the local authority area is at its highest for 15 years is testament to that and to the work done there by councillors and by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend noted that as a Minister in DCLG I have a quasi-judicial role in the planning system and therefore cannot comment on specific proposals, or on the emerging local plan in Test Valley, which, as she said, is currently at examination stage. However, she has raised some important issues relating to the Government’s approach and reforms and I will touch on those.

The Government are committed to increasing housing supply and helping more people achieve the aspiration of having a home of their own. I am pleased to hear of my hon. Friend’s support for our changes to get rid of the top-down regional strategies that, as many of us know, built up nothing but resentment, while in the meantime, of course, nothing was getting built. I welcome the enthusiasm of local communities in her area for exploring neighbourhood plans. When we came into power, we wanted local communities to play a much stronger role in shaping the areas in which they live and supporting new development proposals that would deliver the houses we need. That is why we introduced the neighbourhood planning system in the Localism Act, which my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester mentioned. That important and popular legislation means that local people in communities get a real say in planning in their area. For the first time, communities can come together to produce plans that have real statutory weight in the planning system.

I agree with what the Minister says about neighbourhood plans, but it seems that the plan written in Chapel-en-le-Frith is being completely ignored by the planning authority—the borough council—which has led to great dissatisfaction in the village. People got together to put the plan together, but they now feel it is being ignored, so they are wondering what the point is.

Without going into the specifics of my hon. Friend’s case, if a neighbourhood plan has been drawn up—particularly if it has gone through a referendum and been approved—it is right that the local authority should give it weight. Neighbourhood plans have statutory weight. If residents in my hon. Friend’s area look at casework from just the last month or two, they will see that the Government and planning inspectors have backed neighbourhood plans and turned down planning applications that go against them. If a local authority is not taking account of neighbourhood plans, residents should be very firm with it about what it is doing. Authorities are ultimately elected by their communities and they should be listening to them.

Neighbourhood plans can include policies on where development should go, what it should look like, what should be protected and what facilities should be provided. I therefore encourage all constituents, whether in rural or urban parts of any of our constituencies, who want to support house building while protecting the historic, environmental and aesthetic value of our communities, to get involved with neighbourhood planning.

I very much welcome neighbourhood plans, and some great plans are being worked on in my constituency, but will the Minister acknowledge that in some instances there is frustration at how long the process can take? Even when good, experienced people are drafting the plan, it can take many years to come to fruition.

People in a few areas have raised that point with me over the summer. For neighbourhood plans to work, we want them to be robust but as straightforward as possible, rather than a bureaucratic nightmare. I am determined to do something to see whether we can speed up that process, and if my hon. Friend can bear with us over the next few more weeks, we will be taking decisions about this very issue.

I am aware that there are concerns—my hon. Friend has outlined some—about the way the framework is used in areas such as hers. In all our reforms, including the introduction of the NPPF, the Government have put plans and communities at the heart of the planning system, which is very much designed to move from the historical system of development and control to a plan-led system and, ultimately, with neighbourhood plans, to a proactive plan system. An up-to-date local plan, prepared through public consultation, sets the framework in which all decisions should be taken, whether locally by the planning authority or at appeal.

The framework is clear that the purpose of planning is to deliver sustainable development, but not development at any cost or in any place. Localism means choosing how best to meet development needs, not whether to meet them at all. We do not ask local authorities to plan to set housing targets or to build more homes than they need, but by putting in place a locally led system, we ask them to take tough decisions about where development should and should not go.

What we have is urban areas where building is suitable but does not come forward, while in pleasant places outside those areas it does come forward. How do we get cases, some of which have been there for years, treated so that they come forward in a reasonable way and are not ignored?

It is for local authorities, not for any of us in Westminster, to take through their local plans. The policy itself says that local planning authorities should

“use their evidence base to ensure that their Local Plan meets the full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the housing market area, as far as is consistent with the policies set out in this Framework”.

That is important. Sometimes, councillors forget that it is for the local authority to use its evidence to see what its housing needs will be. Then, at the second stage, having assessed what those housing needs are, it should produce a strategic housing land availability assessment to establish realistic assumptions about what it can deliver, and what is appropriate and where in its area. There are, in effect, two separate stages. The authority could and should also take into account environmental constraints, as is clearly outlined in the NPPF. Once the local authority has done that, it ends up with its housing requirement figure, against which the supply of housing sites should be calculated.

Local authorities should identify and update annually a supply of specific deliverable sites. Once a local plan is in place, has been approved and is therefore robust, that gives local communities the protection so many people want. I therefore encourage all areas to move on and get their local plans adopted and taken through the system. That approach is preferable to the endless discussions and debates that are often replicated in determining individual applications and appeals. Should Test Valley borough council’s plan be found sound and be adopted next year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North anticipates, the council will be in a much stronger position to defend its decisions on general planning applications in line with that plan.

Where local authorities cannot demonstrate a five-year supply, relevant housing policies will not be considered up to date, and the presumption in favour of sustainable development applies. That means granting planning permission unless the adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, or unless specific policies in the framework indicate that development should be restricted. Even in the absence of an up-to-date plan, our policy seeks to strike a balance between enabling the sustainable development we need and conserving and enhancing our natural and historic environment. Clearly, the weight attached to every decision will depend on the decision taker and the facts of a given case, but planning decisions over the last few months show that development that goes against environmental constraints will be overturned, even where there is not necessarily a local plan, if that is the appropriate decision.

I note the National Trust’s claims about developers’ rate of success where there is no five-year housing land supply in place. I should point out that, overall, the views of local authorities are upheld in the majority of cases. About two thirds of appeals are refused, and the figure has been around that level for a number of years.

My hon. Friend mentioned her concerns about slower delivery rates by local developers on sites with planning permission, which can put extra pressure on local authorities to release more sites. Test Valley borough council has been concerned about such activities, which is why my officials met the council and other authorities while preparing the planning guidelines. Many factors influence when a development is started, not least the availability of finance, market conditions and legal constraints. In the main, however, I would hope that a developer that commits to building out at a particular rate will do so, and we are right to expect that the local planning authority will keep the delivery of new development under review as part of its wider working on monitoring housing delivery.

At various stages of the planning process, local authorities may be able to take steps to tackle concerns about that. For example, our guidance is clear that they can consider the likely deliverability of sites as part of the plan-making process. When assessing the availability of a site, consideration should be given to the delivery record of the developers or landowners putting forward the site and to whether the site’s planning background shows a history of unimplemented planning permissions. We also made the point in our guidance that local authorities that review their five-year supply every year are likely to make the assessment very robust and to be protected from having out-of-date housing policies when defending an appeal further down the line. We have also made it clear that older people’s housing, student housing and vacant housing can, in the right circumstances, be counted towards meeting the housing requirement. Furthermore, where a local authority has concerns about the deliverability of a site and about the negative impact of delay, it can, where appropriate, impose shorter time scales for the start of development. It can also serve completion notices to require that development commenced is completed within a set period, and it can, ultimately, revoke planning permission in some circumstances.

I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s request for a change to national planning policy on the designation of the green belt. As she knows, the Government attach the highest importance to protecting our green belt, and we underlined that further in guidance this summer. However, designating and changing green-belt boundaries must be a local decision. We are clear that green-belt boundaries should be established in local plans. I appreciate the challenge for an area such as Hampshire, and I am sure my hon. Friend will continue to make representations to us, but we want to avoid urban sprawl. Despite my hon. Friend’s concerns about protecting our beautiful villages and the countryside in her constituency, designating land as green belt is not necessarily the way forward in this instance, although I am happy for her to make further representations herself or through her local authority in the future.

Sitting suspended.