This Government have radically reformed the planning system into a genuinely locally led process. Most significantly, through neighbourhood planning we have given local people a real role in shaping the areas in which they live and work; for the first time community groups can produce plans that have real statutory weight in the planning system.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Ribble Valley borough council is a small yet beautiful local authority—Tory-controlled, needless to say. Although the core strategy has been passed, giving the local authority greater powers, it still fears that where a planning application is rejected and goes to appeal, the costs associated with that are disproportionate, especially to the smaller, rural authorities. Will the Department look at ways of ensuring that local authorities are not going to be clobbered in this way in future, ensuring that they are able to make the right decisions on behalf of local people?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Developers should be able to look at a local plan and have confidence that they can develop where land is allocated in that plan, but, as he rightly says, outside that they should find it the most difficult thing in the world to do if they have not got agreement with the local authority. It is absolutely right that his local authority has its local plan in place, and I encourage villages in the area and elsewhere to look at neighbourhood planning, to give even further protection to the areas over which people want to have control.
The Minister knows that of course we want local communities to be able to protect their environment when they are concerned about it, but the balance must be right—we need homes for people in this country today. There is a national crisis. We have young people in debt; thanks to the Liberal Democrats, some graduates are £42,000 in debt. Who is going to lend them the money? And where are the houses coming from?
I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that the previous Government’s top-down approach meant that everybody spent so much time arguing about numbers that very few of them got enough houses built, and that led to the position in which we inherited the lowest level of house building this country has seen since about 1923—that is a disgrace. Trusting local people to make the right decisions for their areas is paying dividends. In the last year, 2014, we saw an almost record level of 253,000 homes getting planning permission, proving that this Government are right: trusting local people to make local decisions is the way forward.
Local residents in Broughton Gifford finally had their views represented earlier this month when the High Court struck down a planning consent on which Wiltshire council had inadequately consulted. Does the Minister accept that that is meaningless unless the council is prepared to take enforcement action? At the very least, proportionate action would be to ensure that the development was not operational as long as it remained unlawful.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is vital that enforcement is dealt with properly to give people confidence that the planning system will deliver the right results. I will ensure that the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) who deals with renewable energy, looks at that case and makes contact with the hon. Gentleman directly.
In 2013, the Minister said to this House about the future of high streets that
“it is also quite right for local authorities to use the powers they have to make sure that their high street or town centre is vital and vibrant for the benefit of their communities.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2013; Vol. 571, c. 7.]
Will he explain, therefore, why he has taken all those powers away?
Well, we have not. I encourage local areas not just to take forward business improvement districts, but to take advantage of neighbourhood planning and business-led neighbourhood planning. I have seen that happen in a few parts of the country, including in Milton Keynes, where there has been some excellent work to take forward opportunities to develop the high street in a way that did not happen under the previous Government, as those opportunities just fell away or were ignored.