Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to allow objectors to appeal against the granting of planning permission in certain circumstances; to make provision about binding local referendums; and for connected purposes.
My Bill contains two main proposals: introducing an element of fairness into the planning system and expanding the use of local referendums to give our local communities a greater say in their future.
First, my proposals for the planning system will bring in an element of greater fairness, which is something we all espouse and want to achieve. I am sure that at some time or other we have all been involved in major campaigns when our constituents, often in very large numbers, opposed planning applications that they felt would change the character of the village or part of town in which they live and to which they feel very attached.
In my 26 years as a councillor, I can think of many such campaigns. Indeed, I regard one of the successes as one of the most satisfying achievements in my time as a councillor. The Scartho Top housing development in my then ward will eventually reach 2,200 dwellings, but the original plans included building right up to the main road at the entrance to the estate. We fought that part of the application, and the entrance to the estate is now through a pleasantly landscaped area. It was previously known as Scartho park, but was recently renamed to commemorate Matthew Telford, a soldier who lived on the estate and gave his life in the service of his country.
The campaign was long and stretched over many years. Ironically, it came to its conclusion during a period when local people had decided that I needed a rest from my council duties, as was often the fate of those who stood under the Conservative banner in the 1990s. Such campaigns often reveal how strongly residents feel about the area in which they live, and lead to people getting more involved with their local communities, sometimes even standing as councillors. However, many campaigns end in failure and people rightly feel aggrieved. Why? Because they know that had the decision gone against the applicant, they would have been able to appeal.
I do not suggest that every planning application that has attracted objections should automatically have the right of appeal. It is possible to argue that case, but the system would be too overloaded to cope with cases that had just a handful of objections, or in some cases only one. An application to extend a conservatory might irritate the neighbour if approved, but it will not change the whole character of an area. If, however, the development of a new housing estate is approved, that could change a semi-rural edge-of-town parish into an extension of the town. I suggest that a hard-copy petition from, I stress, local residents should be able to trigger an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate. What should the threshold be? I suggest 10%, although that is a matter for debate.
Although I favour a petition, another alternative would be to say that if plans are approved contrary to the local plan, objectors would automatically have the right of appeal. That would perhaps be easier to administer, but it would deliver only limited powers to local residents. There should certainly be an automatic right of appeal where no local plan exists. Such a situation exists in North East Lincolnshire where, after pressure from me, Ministers, the local press and public opinion, the council has brought forward the publication date for its new plan from November to February 2017. That is unacceptable and leaves villages such as those in the Humberston and New Waltham ward open to a stream of applications. Some of those applications might be speculative, but they cause endless discontent among local people.
I choose that ward not because it is unique—the villages of Waltham and Laceby have also been affected—but because Humberston has received far more than its fair share of applications. It is not the quality of proposals that is in question, but the fact that local services and infrastructure are inadequate. There is a point when the whole character of an area can be changed and strategic gaps between town and country are set to disappear, and it is only right for local residents to be given an opportunity to appeal.
Parish councils work hard to reflect local opinion, as do councillors who serve at district or unitary level, but their views can often be squeezed out. I do not seek to stop development; we all appreciate that we need new homes, but we need them in locations that carry the full blessing of local people. Of course there must be a balance; the system must not stifle development or become a tool used to promote nimbyism. My proposals are not designed to prevent building, but merely to allow development in locations that carry a broad measure of public support. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, it is a matter of fairness. Of course the appeal may be lost, but both sides will have had the same opportunities to argue their case.
Our citizens are feeling somewhat alienated from the political process, and when they see that obvious lack of fairness in the system they understandably feel yet more alienated. We must do more to involve local people in shaping their communities—indeed, sometimes local people know better than the planners. Consider some of the properties built in high-risk flood areas. Had more notice been taken of those who serve on internal drainage boards or as flood wardens, or members of the farming community, and had they had a second opportunity to contribute, we might have had better decision making. Members across the House will share my aim to make the planning system fairer and increase public confidence.
The second part of my proposals would make it easier for local residents to initiate a local referendum. Powers exist for councils to stage a referendum under section 116 of the Local Government Act 2003—indeed, in 2006 I initiated one to abolish Immingham town council. It is easy to understand why I got a 2:1 majority in favour of abolition when I tell the House that the parish precept exceeded £100 per property. The costs were minimal and the poll coincided with local elections. The question was simple: should Immingham have a town council? Some 1,755 people said no, and 905 thought that it should. That was a clear majority, but the result was not binding and the top-tier authority kicked it into the long grass, and it eventually disappeared. The verdict of the people was ignored. No wonder the political process is seen as out of touch by many of our constituents.
I would like an opportunity for local people to initiate a binding local referendum on significant local issues, not at random but within defined criteria. A significant issue could be the location of a new football stadium or the development of an out-of-town shopping complex. We all, understandably, speak up for our town centres, but what if local residents regard their town centre as run down with little prospect of attracting the big name stores? Perhaps—just perhaps—they would see the traditional centre as better off if it were in effect moved to the edge of town. I do not advocate that and we all know the possible consequences, but a local poll could take place and result in a campaign and a serious debate.
In North East Lincolnshire there is a proposal to demolish six blocks of multi-storey flats, with the risk that the whole area could be derelict for a considerable time. The character of the area will be completely changed, so surely the local community should have a voice and effective consultation in that decision. Councils, like Governments, spend millions on consultations, many of which pass most people by. When complete, the result is delivered, the public are disillusioned, and nothing happens.
The recent Scottish independence referendum showed that people will engage when they understand the relevance of an issue to them and their families, and that they can influence the actual decision. A referendum is democracy in its purest form. In Scotland Alex Salmond’s vote counted as one vote, just like that of every other voter. When the European Union referendum comes—as it surely will—my vote and that of the Prime Minister will each count as one vote, just like those of our constituents. People feel disconnected with the political process. My proposals will give everyone an opportunity to get involved in real decision making, as is right and fair.
Question put and agreed to.
That Martin Vickers, Andrew Percy, Sir Edward Leigh, Zac Goldsmith, Mr David Nuttall, John Stevenson, Austin Mitchell, Nic Dakin, Nigel Mills and Jacob Rees-Mogg present the Bill.
Martin Vickers accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 March, and to be printed (Bill 152).