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communities and local government committee

Volume 589: debated on Thursday 18 December 2014

Select Committee statement

Mr Clive Betts will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement, and call Mr Betts to respond to these in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief, not statements. We do not need any background information. Members on the Front Bench may take part in the questioning. I call the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, Mr Clive Betts.

I am delighted to present the Committee’s report and I thank in particular our Committee specialist, Kevin Maddison, and specialist adviser, Kelvin MacDonald, whose hard work and expertise have made a major contribution to the report. As has been customary with reports from the Committee, this report was agreed unanimously.

Three years ago this week we published our report on the draft national planning policy framework which, at the request of the Government, we had closely scrutinised. We were encouraged that the Government paid close attention to our findings at that time and accepted 30 of our 35 recommendations. By listening to and acting upon the concerns that we raised, the Government were able to make big improvements so that when the final version of the NPPF was published in March 2012, it was well received for the simplification that it brought to the planning system. The NPPF, in the words of the then Minister, now the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), reduced

“over a thousand pages of often impenetrable jargon into around 50 pages of clearly written guidance”.

The NPPF was a bold, radical and much needed change. Given that it was such a big change, it was inevitable that there would be unforeseen problems and that a couple of years down the line some changes would be needed to it. No Government could have carried out such a wide-ranging reform and expected it to work perfectly from the off. This was the motivation for our inquiry, which led to our report. Our aim was to take a comprehensive look at the NPPF as it was operating in practice, to identify any sticking points or unintended consequences and to make recommendations on how they should be addressed. Our approach was thorough: 300 submissions were made to the Committee, we called 45 witnesses, we had discussions with 60 representatives from parish and town councils and community groups, and we made visits to the Planning Inspectorate and to councils in Gloucestershire. We based our recommendations on the evidence we found.

We found overall that there is still strong support for the principles of the NPPF and the simplification that it has brought. We do not need to tear it up and start again. There are, however, a number of emerging concerns that people have raised with us about inappropriate development in their communities. Much of this arises as a result of speculative planning applications by developers. Although the NPPF is clear about the importance of sustainable development, for many people, sadly, the absence of a local plan has created an easy route to unsustainable development. In our report, we set out a number of steps that should be taken to address these concerns.

The key to preventing undesirable development is for councils to get their local plans in place. Local plans were first introduced in 2004, but two fifths of authorities have still not adopted one. This is not a problem with the NPPF, but the NPPF envisages and is based on a plan-led system. The NPPF has a presumption in favour of sustainable development, but that golden thread running through the framework is linked to the development of local plans. One cannot have a plan-led system without plans. Councils that fail to adopt a plan surrender their ability to influence the future development of their local area and leave their communities exposed to speculative development. We therefore call for a statutory requirement for every council to put a local plan in place within three years.

Some councils may not have shown the political will or made available the necessary resources to develop local plans, but we received evidence of a number of other issues that have delayed their production. The planning inspector’s approach can be a barrier to councils getting plans in place. The process of producing a plan has been likened to a game of snakes and ladders: councils can spend years drawing up a plan only for the inspector, on examination, to find it unsound and send the council right back to square one. This is frustrating and wasteful, especially if the plan comes unstuck on just one particular issue.

We call for the Government to allow plans to be partially adopted when the bulk of the work has been done. When an inspector is happy with the bulk of a plan, he should consider finding it sound, subject to an early review. Such an approach was taken in Dacorum, to widespread acclaim. We could not understand why the Planning Inspectorate did not see that as a model for others to follow. Inspectors should also give more support to councils throughout the plan production process. The assessment of housing need has emerged as a particular bone of contention. There is a clear need for an agreed methodology against which inspectors can test strategic housing market assessments.

Another sticking point for local plans is a duty to co-operate. The Government should consult on appropriate incentives and penalties to encourage councils to co-operate better. Councils such as Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury, which we visited, should be rewarded for choosing to group together. Where combined authorities exist, a duty should be placed on them to produce a joint core strategy for the area they cover.

Problems identifying a five-year supply of housing land have left many areas without an adopted local plan. Up and down the country, in places as diverse as Leeds and Forest of Dean, problems have been caused by developers claiming that sites are unviable in order to obtain planning permission on more lucrative sites, against the wishes of the council and its communities and also delaying the local plan process. To address this, the NPPF should be amended to make it clear that all sites with planning permission should be counted towards a five-year supply. Moreover, developers are taking a pessimistic view about the future viability of sites. They refuse to accept that brownfield sites that are unviable now may well be viable in five years’ time, and therefore look to add more greenfield sites to the five-year supply. We call for a much more transparent approach to the assessment of viability. Developers should be required to open their books and account must be taken of future projections of viability.

We must make better use of previously used land. The NPPF is clear that brownfield land should be developed first, but a lack of resources means that this often does not happen in practice. The Government have launched some eye-catching initiatives, but they do not address the costs of making the land fit for building. In order to deliver their own policy, we call on the Government to establish a brownfield remediation fund.

Next, we must update the NPPF to ensure that it gives greater protection to town centres. Planning policy must face up to the fact that changing shopping habits, particularly with online shopping, mean that town centre uses are also changing. The Welsh Government are producing a new 21st-century town centre planning policy, and we must do the same in England. Councils must look to reduce the size of their retail areas, which are often too large for modern needs. To do this effectively, we need to manage and plan the change. Our evidence was strongly opposed to the new permitted development rights that allow shops and banks to become homes without the need for planning permission. It is too random, and risks hollowing out the commercial heart of our town centres in an unplanned way. Councils have to be able to plan strategically for the future of their communities through their local plans. These permitted development rights must be revoked.

Finally, the Government must ensure that the NPPF delivers the sustainable development that it promised. Steps must be taken to ensure that equal weight is given to environmental and social factors as well as the economic ones. Development must be accompanied by the infrastructure necessary to support it.

Those are some of the steps that the Government should take. They should also carefully monitor the impact of the NPPF. Regrettably, it stopped collecting important data about what is being built, and so we no longer know how many homes are being built on brownfield land or what percentage of retail development is built on out-of-town sites. Ministers should not be making policy decisions in the dark. The Government need to establish a set of data to monitor the impact of the NPPF against a small number of key aims.

In summary, the NPPF has, overall, been a success. It has consolidated planning policy and made it more accessible to professionals and the public alike. The Government should be proud of their achievement, but they should not be defensive about the changes we say are needed. With a major reform, there will always be issues that have to be addressed. Three years ago, the Government and the then Minister embraced our report on the draft NPPF and acted on our recommendations. I very much hope that the current Minister will be equally positive in his response to this report. We must build on the success of the NPPF to give communities the protections they seek, to deliver development that is truly sustainable, and to ensure that the NPPF becomes a document in which everyone can have confidence.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his Committee’s work, not only in this excellent report but previously. The report contains a number of issues that I would like to raise, primarily local plans.

Of course, a plan-led system needs plans. I was disturbed to hear the hon. Gentleman say that only two fifths of local authorities have a plan in place. Two of the local authorities that I represent do not have a plan. That is causing them severe problems with speculative developers. It also means that parish and town councils are reluctant to embark on neighbourhood plans, which are really important. An example of these problems is in a bit of evidence that his Committee was given from Kingswood parish council in my constituency. It had plenty of sites available, but a speculative developer has emerged on the worst possible site, and it looks as though the district council will be unable to resist granting that permission.

The Government should cut the three-year requirement to have a plan in place to a year and a half. They should adopt a carrot-and-stick approach, forcing councils to introduce the plans but also providing resources to help to them to do it. Small local authorities in my constituency are very short of forward planning resources. The Government should also make it easier to adopt plans. A lot of developments cause problems when infrastructure is not in place, as in the case of the 2,500-house development proposed in Chesterton in my constituency.

The hon. Gentleman is right that local plans are at the heart of this. We set out a number of ways in which the process could be improved and simplified. At the Planning Inspectorate, we were shown boxes of documents just for one local plan in one area. It has all got a bit too complicated. He is right about neighbourhood plans. They are a success where they have been put in place, but there is an issue about the relationship between neighbourhood plans and local plans, particularly when the neighbourhood plan comes first and then has to be related to the local plan. His point about infrastructure is well made, and it is mentioned in our recommendations.

I had mistakenly thought that this Government were intending to localise planning decisions. Does the hon. Gentleman think it is possible to make an objective assessment, as the Government purport to do, with consultants or otherwise, on housing need in a particular area? Would it not be more sensible to allow local authorities to make these decisions as appropriate, perhaps with financial incentives through the new homes bonus or business rates?

Assessment of housing need is problematic, and the evidence we received was that often local authorities would work for a long time on it, only for the Planning Inspectorate to arrive at the end of the process, decide that its methodology and conclusions were different and then send the local authorities back to the drawing board. We think that the Planning Inspectorate could work more closely with authorities during the process, but we also feel—I think local authorities generally agree with this—that if the Planning Inspectorate, right at the beginning of the process, laid down in guidance a consistent methodology, most councils would welcome that. Indeed, when Lord Matthew Taylor undertook his report on planning guidance, he suggested that that was an area on which further guidance would be welcome.

May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his Committee on an excellent report and on the balanced way in which they have gone about it, paying tribute where it needs to be paid and making constructive criticisms where they are deserved? On Tuesday I presented to the House the Local Planning and Housing Bill, which I hope the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to look at, if he has not already done so. It has been printed and deals with matters such as local plans, neighbourhood plans, housing supply, local development orders, affordable housing, land banking, duration of planning permission, development on greenfield, green belt and brownfield sites, and the definition of sustainable housing development. I hope the hon. Gentleman will find some of the Bill’s ideas helpful and I would be grateful if we could talk about it on a future occasion.

I would certainly be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman when I have had a chance to read his Bill, which is on my Christmas reading list and seems to address exactly the sorts of issues the Committee considered. I emphasise that this is a Committee report. The whole of the Committee worked extremely hard and went on the visits, and we agreed the recommendations unanimously.

Will the hon. Gentleman comment on one unintended consequence and offer advice on it? One local authority in my part of Essex has decided to plonk several thousand houses on the extremities of its district, miles away from its major centres of population but right on the doorstep of urban Colchester. Is there not a flaw in the NPPF if that sort of situation is being allowed to happen?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that I cannot comment on or have knowledge of every particular planning development throughout the country. Clearly, there are issues of contention where housing need in one area has to be met by putting housing in another area. The duty to co-operate, which should resolve that, has not been working in all circumstances. We went to Gloucestershire and found three councils working very well together, but even they said that they did not always have terribly good relationships with the councils next door that were not part of their process. A look needs to be taken at the whole issue of co-operation and how it can be improved.

May I join in the congratulations to the hon. Gentleman and his Committee on this very good and useful report? I have a lot of sympathy for many of its recommendations. On partial adoption of plans and the statutory duty, has the Committee considered what might be done specifically to simplify the plan development process? Councils have sometimes had eight-plus years to develop local plans. If we are going to impose a duty, should we not also consider how we can reduce the amount of information that goes into the plans; how they can be made more strategic rather than needlessly complicated; and how in particular we can deal with the delays that are sometimes caused to planning authorities by statutory consultees? If there are going to be penalties for planning authorities, should there not also be penalties for statutory consultees when they delay the process?

The hon. Gentleman’s last point is a very good one. We did not take particular evidence on it, but it does aggravate councils up and down the country. We made a recommendation that a look should be taken at how the process could be simplified. We did not go into the specifics, but boxes of documents at the Planning Inspectorate for one local plan for a relatively small district showed how complicated the process has become. At a time of spending and resource constraints, many councils are struggling to finish that complicated process. We think that the Government, the Planning Inspectorate and local government should sit down together and revise and simplify the process.

As a strong supporter of localism and neighbourhood planning in particular, may I echo the warm welcome for the hon. Gentleman’s Committee’s report, which correctly identifies a number of the issues confronting local communities? May I also join in his plea to the Minister to pay attention to the recommendations, to respond to them constructively and as soon as possible, and in particular to deal with the problem of the loophole that is allowing speculative development applications, with developers circling villages like hawks, waiting to pounce on greenfield sites that are not in identified local or neighbourhood plans, and as a result undermining faith in the localism we promised?

That sentiment was expressed very strongly to us when we met the 60 representatives of community groups and parish groups. We consistently heard the message that people did not feel in control of what was happening in their own areas. If there was no local plan in place, they felt completely unprotected against individual applications for developments that they felt would be unsustainable. The right hon. Gentleman gave evidence to the Committee on precisely those points and we took that very much into account in our recommendations.

May I thank the Chair of the Committee for his accurate representation of our report and pay tribute to him for the way in which he brought people together—Members and witnesses—throughout our inquiry? I am sure he will have seen the recent report by the Home Builders Federation which shows that planning permissions for new homes are running at 200,000 a year for the first time in many years. That is evidence of a simpler and more easily understood system, but we heard concerns from individuals and groups about the operation of the NPPF. The evidence showed that the greatest challenges occurred in those areas where there was no local plan—this is a plan-led system—but that people have little to fear when the local authority has a plan in place. Therefore, the Committee was entirely right to call for a statutory requirement for local authorities to get their plan in place promptly.

We also identified one or two areas where the NPPF could be strengthened, one of which relates to housing land supply, whereby those authorities that have identified large sites that are not deliverable within the five years are vulnerable to speculative applications. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Committee was entirely right in calling for that matter to be addressed?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is also a member of the Committee, for his contribution to the report, particularly the way in which he focused on the problems with the five-year supply of housing and the definitions of viability. Indeed, sites where planning permission has actually been given are not necessarily automatically factored into the five-year supply, and our report calls for that to be addressed. The hon. Gentleman did not mention this, but he has also been a great champion of what more we can do to protect the high street and town and city centres.

The hon. Gentleman praised the joint core strategy process in Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury, but will he acknowledge that there are huge problems with local consent even there? For instance, Leckhampton parish council produced a well-thought-out and substantial application for local green space status under the NPPF, but it was told that it could not use it before the JCS process because it would pre-empt the plan-making process; that it could not use it during the JCS process because it was more appropriate at local plan level; and that it could not use it in the local plan afterwards if the land had already been allocated to a development in the JCS. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those kinds of Kafka-esque techniques for defeating the wishes of local residents are not in the spirit of the NPPF or of localism?

The hon. Gentleman’s comments show that even when authorities make genuine attempts to co-operate, it does not always result in sweetness and light. We also identified a problem with the relationship between neighbourhood plans and local plans. That needs to be clarified because there is a lot of concern—particularly when a neighbourhood plan comes before a local plan—that there can be misunderstandings about the relative status of the two.

May I congratulate the Committee on an excellent report? Suspension of the local plan for Cheshire East council, covering my constituency, is causing untold concern in areas such as Congleton, Sandbach and Alsager, despite a huge of volume of work by Cheshire East council. I therefore thank the Committee for highlighting many points, including the need for clarification of what sustainable development actually means, the need to facilitate partial adoption, and the inclusion of housing consents in planning numbers, which would go a long way to help my council in finalising its plan.

In the meantime, while the Minister considers those points, will the Chair of the Committee join me in asking Ministers to speed up the process for the formulation of neighbourhood plans? No fewer than 14 such plans are now in train in the Cheshire East area, but these are small communities. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be a clear, quick process, free of bureaucracy and with the appropriate resources and support, so that the plans can finalised in early course?

There is widespread support for the concept of neighbourhood plans, but there is some concern that poorer communities may not be able to adopt the process as easily as more affluent ones. That goes back to the issue of the relative status of neighbourhood and local plans if, for example, 14 neighbourhood plans are being developed but there is no local plan.

We think that the definition of sustainable development in the NPPF is a good one—it draws on Brundtland and on the five principles—and we do not want to change it. The problem is that the definition goes on to say that sustainable development is defined by everything in the NPPF, and we thought that that rather circular argument was unnecessary.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend and his Select Committee on producing this excellent report. It raises several issues about the national planning policy framework and how it operates in practice, and the Government will need to address those issues. I am particularly pleased that it echoes much of the Lyons report, commissioned by Labour, which deals with critical issues such as how to get local authorities to produce local plans and the need for more land to be made available to support housing and infrastructure development.

I particularly want to stress that I agree with my hon. Friend’s findings on town centres. Did his Committee receive evidence from local authorities that are finding that allowing a change of use from office to residential, under permitted development rights and without planning permission, is hurting local businesses and leading to a shortage of much needed office space in some areas?

The specific regulations on permitted development rights were not about offices, but about shops and banks. However, we did receive some evidence on that. Concerns have been identified, particularly in London, about the loss of business and office space to residential use.

I want to make two points about town centres. First, local authorities—I am a great localist—did not get the message that retailing was changing fundamentally with online shopping, and did not change their local plans quickly enough to respond to that, which is a big issue. Secondly, the Committee strongly made the point that the response to such rapid changes has to be properly planned for by making changes to local plans. If, on a pepper-potted basis, we allow a change of use from shops and banks to residential, we might well end up with less ability to reconfigure town centres or to change areas wholesale from retail to other uses. That was one of our big concerns. There should be a plan-led approach to changes in retailing, not pepper-potting by permitted development.

I want to add to what all Members have quite rightly said in congratulating the Select Committee and its Chairman on putting together a solid and sound report. They have my and the Government’s thanks for the efforts that they have clearly put into taking evidence and working on the report.

I particularly note the importance given to neighbourhood plans, which has been mentioned. I agree that they are hugely important, which is why we are speeding up the process and putting another £22 million into them. It is good that, as has been outlined, the general view is that the NPPF is working. It has now delivered 240,000 new planning permissions in the past year.

I assure the Committee that the Government and the Planning Inspectorate will look at the report’s 29 recommendations as part of our desire to improve the planning system—we can speed it up, while ensuring that we further enforce localism and local decision making, which is the key to positive development in future—but does the hon. Gentleman agree that local plans are hugely important, and that local authorities should be getting on with delivering local plans as well as neighbourhood plans to make sure that they have real local power over planning? Like me, he will be interested to see how local government reacts to and takes on board the eight recommendations specifically directed at local government. I again thank him for the report.

Last time the Government agreed to 30 of our recommendations. It will be difficult to match that this time as we have given them only 29 recommendations, but I am sure that they will be grateful to receive one less.

It is absolutely right that the Government should take away the report and consider it. We are saying that the NPPF has been a success in general, but we hope that the Government will recognise that there are some problems, particularly about issues—the development of local plans, the five-year supply of housing land and the relationship between neighbourhood and local plans—that need to be addressed to improve the system that they set up. I hope that the Government will respond positively, and we look forward to discussing their response to our recommendations when it is made.

bill presented

Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

The Deputy Prime Minister, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Nicky Morgan, Mr Oliver Letwin, Greg Clark, Mr Sam Gyimah, Jo Swinson and Tom Brake, presented a Bill to make time-limited provision for vacancies among the Lords Spiritual to be filled by bishops who are women.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Monday 5 January 2015, and to be printed (Bill 143) with explanatory notes (Bill 143-EN).

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This morning, the Leader of the House said that the list of Government special advisers would be published today. It has been placed on the website, but no copy has been made available to Members at the Vote Office. Do you have any suggestions about how I could encourage the Deputy Leader of the House to ensure that Members of the House are given the courtesy of being able to pick up a copy at the Vote Office?

I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman’s point of order merely because, unlike me and some other Members of the House, he is computer literate. I am surprised that he prefers to have such a matter printed on expensive and tree-wasting paper, rather than in electronic form. However, if any Member asks the Vote Office for a paper copy of a matter published on the Government website, the Vote Office ought to be able to provide one. I am quite sure that the Deputy Leader of the House has heard what the hon. Gentleman and I have said, and I would be very surprised if the Vote Office does not, in the very near future, take the hint and produce some paper copies of the matter that the hon. Gentleman so rightly draws to the attention of the House.