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Housebuilding: King’s Hill, Coventry

Volume 607: debated on Tuesday 15 March 2016

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered proposals for house-building on King’s Hill, Coventry.

Obviously you and I have known each other for a long time, Mr Pritchard, and this is probably the first time that I have taken part in an Adjournment debate that you are chairing. I know you will chair it in a very fair manner, as you always do. If I can start, Mr Pritchard—[Interruption.]

Order. Members are not to use mobile phones in Westminster Hall and certainly not when other Members are trying to speak in a debate on behalf of their constituents. It is completely unacceptable.

The King’s Hill area of Coventry is obviously causing quite a stir in Coventry at the moment, to say the least. In fact, at the moment the city council is debating a motion in relation to King’s Hill. The Conservative opposition put that motion down and what they are effectively saying is that King’s Hill should not be sold until the proper infrastructure is put in place. Many people will interpret that differently, although it is not for me to interpret what the Conservative motion means.

Having said that, let me take the opportunity to thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate. Over the years, I have tried to secure debates on this matter, so I thank him for granting this debate. I also welcome the Minister to the debate, because he is the Minister responsible and that demonstrates that at least the Government are showing some respect to this debate and about what happens in King’s Hill. I hope he will agree with some of the points I raise today.

The King’s Hill area is located just outside the city boundaries of Coventry, between Finham and Kenilworth, to the south of Coventry. It is designated as a green-belt area—I hope the Minister will pay special attention to that point. The proposals are for thousands of homes on this land; it is my objection to these proposals that I will outline today. For many years, I have spoken in defence of the area and, in particular, about its beauty and history. I have probably been campaigning for it to retain its present status for a good five or six years, so I have not come late to this issue; I have been involved with it for a very long time.

Over the years, Coventry City Council has come to know my views about King’s Hill. Only recently, I had some correspondence with the council about its plans for the area. My view is that the council should think again about selling the land to Warwick District Council. Essentially, that is where I differ from what the Conservative motion in the council seems to be suggesting. King’s Hill needs to remain free from development. These sentiments are not just my own; they have been echoed by local residents and by anybody who takes an interest in the history and environment of Coventry. I am disappointed that these plans have been allowed to progress; I am equally disappointed that I now must take my opposition to them to the Commons and to the Minister who is responding to this debate.

I will now detail my concerns about these plans. First, King’s Hill is green-belt land, and that is not a designation applied to land without reason. The land around King’s Hill is of environmental importance, as I have said, but it is also important historically. In addition, it helps to define the city boundaries of Coventry. Most importantly, it is a welcome patch of countryside on the edge of a city that over the years has lost a lot of its green space.

My next concern is about the proximity of the proposed development to Coventry itself. It is a large development of 4,000 homes. I am not opposed to the growth of Coventry, but the current situation makes no sense and is a reflection of poorly thought-out plans, which would increase the pressure on Coventry council tax payers. These plans would deprive them of green space. Coventry residents would lose out on every level with these plans and the council could find itself further overstretched. It is already suffering as a result of huge budget cuts by central Government; I have yet to see anything to suggest that that will not be the case. I believe that the alternative brownfield sites in Coventry and Warwickshire would help to resolve the housing problems.

I will now briefly detail some other aspects of the plan. A small percentage of the land at King’s Hill is owned by Coventry City Council and that would be sold to Warwick District Council if the development plans are approved. It amounts to 190 acres of the 665-acre site, or roughly 28% of the land, but only around half of those 190 acres could be developed because of Wainbody Wood and plots that are subject to agreed long leases. That makes Coventry City Council’s holding roughly 15% of the site.

The decision to sell the land is ultimately the responsibility of the council, and I have already urged it to reconsider its decision and not sell that land. I will not hide my preference that the land should not be used for development, especially when the council tax from it will be sent to Warwickshire and while it is green-belt land.

However, that is only part of the story. Over two thirds of the land located at the King’s Hill site is owned not by Coventry City Council, but by Warwick District Council, which will give or refuse the planning permission for development. Even if Coventry Council land was not sold, over two thirds of the site would still be developed if Warwick District Council gave its approval, causing the same problems that I have already described.

These plans must be viewed as a whole; to divide them up into who-owns-what misses the point. The point is to object to the plans in principle to save King's Hill, and that is why I have called on Warwick District Council to scrap these development proposals. If Warwick District Council refused planning permission, then the rug would be pulled out from beneath the entire plan.

I want to prevent all large-scale development on the King’s Hill site and not just on part of it. There is a national shortage of housing and more homes need to be built in Coventry and Warwickshire, but poorly thought-out proposals are not the answer. There are alternative sites that should be used instead of King’s Hill. They are better placed to deal with the impact of such large developments and they already have the necessary infrastructure in place to deal with thousands of new homes. Using those sites would be more beneficial to Coventry and Warwickshire—they are sites where council tax would be used to provide services to the residents who pay it—and these sites are not designated as green-belt land.

I have to question whether the green-belt safeguards are fit for purpose, and I also question whether Warwick District Council has fully considered the wider impact of these proposals, which aim to hit Government quotas on housing.

In conclusion, this planning decision belongs to Warwick District Council, but it will impact directly on the people of Coventry. I urge Warwick District Council to take on board the views of local residents and other stakeholders; to explore the impact of these proposals on the local area; and to speak with Coventry City Council about the issue of council tax, which I believe would be used to subsidise the development. The best option for Warwick District Council is to reconsider these proposals and to refuse planning permission for this development—an action that would stop it completely.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing the debate. I appreciate that he has concerns about the proposals for development in the King’s Hill area, and that the issue is of considerable importance to him and the local communities he represents.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the proposals, in particular about their impact on surrounding areas. There is a fundamental disagreement between us, however. He may not have registered the fact that the Government have reformed the planning system over the past year. He noted that local authorities are looking to match housing numbers, under housing requirements, to Government quotas, but we have got rid of those quotas. The previous Labour Government had centrally run quotas through the regional spatial strategies, but there are no Government quotas or targets for housing now. The process is worked out entirely locally. The hon. Gentleman might, therefore, want to speak to his local authority to get a full understanding of that.

I note that Warwick District Council is proposing modifications to its local plan. It is right that the process is locally led. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, as a Minister with a quasi-judicial role in the planning system, I cannot comment on the detail of specific proposals or on specific local plans, but I can give more general feedback on some of the issues he has raised. Our policy rightly asks 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 the National Planning Policy framework.”

So the numbers are worked out by the local authority based on local need—they are locally derived.

The local plans play a key role in building the houses we need. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is a need to build more houses—we have not done enough house building for the past 40 years—and we have ensured that local plans will have some ease in the future by asking an independent group of experts to look at how we can streamline and improve the process of producing them. I look forward to seeing their recommendations soon. I have also made clear, publicly, our determination to intervene where local plans have not been produced by early 2017, and that will help to speed up the production of the plans. The Housing and Planning Bill also makes it clear that we are sharpening the Secretary of State’s powers to intervene in local plans, and the hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that we have recently issued a consultation document to consider the criteria we will use in that intervention process.

The national planning policy framework—the NPPF—makes it clear that the purpose of planning is to deliver sustainable development, but that is not development at any cost or development anywhere. National policy sets out that planning must take account of the different roles and characters of different areas, recognise the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside, and take into account all the benefits that an area has. In respect of the historic environment, for example, local planning authorities should set out in their local plans a positive strategy for its conservation and enjoyment. Similarly, in preparing plans to meet development needs, the aim should be to minimise adverse effects on the local and natural environment.

Local plans do far more than set housing numbers; they establish areas that it is necessary to protect and set out how development will be supported by appropriate infrastructure. The NPPF emphasises that development must be sustainable and that local authorities have a responsibility to make plans to provide the necessary infrastructure to meet the needs generated by new development. Our planning guidance also underscores the importance of ensuring that infrastructure is provided to support new development and notes how infrastructure constraints should be considered when assessing the suitability of sites for development. Local authorities can use section 106 agreements and community infrastructure levies to guarantee that, and we are carrying out some reviews to ensure that we keep the process as streamlined and efficient as possible.

A community infrastructure levy is much more transparent than a section 106 agreement. Once a local area has adopted such a levy, any developer looking to build there knows what the cost will be. It has that information up front; the cost is pre-set by the local authority. When the developer builds, it pays the money to the local authority, and the latter spends it on infrastructure as it sees fit. The difference with a section 106 agreement is that it is negotiated on a site-by-site basis, and there is no transparency or up-front knowledge. There is a negotiation that can often take a very, very long time, and we will speed that up with the Housing and Planning Bill. Also, whatever is agreed in a section 106 agreement is normally site-specific, whereas the community infrastructure levy is money that the council itself can use how and where it sees fit.

There is also a duty to co-operate, which requires local planning authorities to make every effort to secure co-operation on strategic cross-boundary matters before they submit their local plans for examination. We expect local planning authorities to explore all available options for delivering their planning within their planning area. It is only when that is not possible that they should approach other authorities with whom it would be sensible to work through a cross-boundary strategic planning process. Ultimately, working with neighbouring councils and working together across parties and across boundaries can enable development needs that cannot wholly be met within one area to be covered. That can be an important way forward and it can beneficial for the authorities, if they work together cohesively. The requirements of the duty provide a clear approach to enable local authorities to discuss strategic planning issues with their neighbouring authorities, to achieve positive outcomes.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the green belt. We are clear—and the NPPF makes it clear—that the green belt is a legitimate constraint on development. In the Chamber, my hon. Friends have often talked about how the green belt is important to our country, and I think that you, Mr Pritchard, may have also commented on it.

Order. I am grateful for the Minister’s compliment but, for the record, while I am in the Chair I am completely neutral on all things, including the green belt.

Well noted, Mr Pritchard. I take your comments on board, as obviously the record will.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have heard this, and if he looks back at the record, he will see that we have regularly made the point that the green belt is a legitimate constraint. It is an important part of the country’s infrastructure and the Government attach the highest importance to its protection. In fact, over the past few years we have increased it. The NPPF makes it clear that green belt boundaries should be established in local plans and can be altered only in exceptional circumstances, using the local plan’s process of consultation and independent examination. The Government do not specify what constitutes exceptional circumstances, as it is for each local authority to determine that and how much weight to attach to those circumstances.

When I visit local areas, I hear widespread support for the fact that we need to build more houses—the hon. Gentleman touched on that in his remarks—but areas often swiftly follow that with concerns about where the houses will be built. It is a credit to local authorities that they are grabbing the baton and doing the right thing to ensure the homes they need for their communities. I congratulate those that are taking clear leadership, making what can sometimes be tough decisions to deliver the housing that their local areas need.

We have given local councils the responsibility of planning to meet their own needs locally and working with local residents and neighbouring communities and authorities to meet the needs across the housing market areas. How communities have informed the strategy in a local plan will be an important consideration in the examination of that plan.

With Warwick District Council currently consulting on its proposed modifications to the submitted plan, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will continue to make strong representations to the council on the proposals and that he will express his views, as he has done today.

May I reassure the Minister that I am certainly taking the matter up with Warwick District Council? I have written to it, raising my objections. It has not yet responded, but I am sure it will at some point.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has done that. That is the right place to pick up the discussion and debate; it is right to make the case locally. Ultimately, we have devolved powers to local authorities, and we trust them and local people to make the right decisions for their areas and to provide the housing for their areas in the future. I have absolute faith that they will continue to do a good job in delivering that. After all, a record number of homes—more than 253,000—have been given planning permission over the last 12-month recording period. That is a really good step forward. Also, approval of development from local people has roughly doubled since 2010 because of our trusting local people to work out what is right for them in building the homes that we need in the places we need them and with the tenures we need, in a locally driven way, and that is certainly the way to continue.

Question put and agreed to.

We could proceed early to the next debate, which will give it additional time, but out of courtesy we need to wait for the shadow Minister. As soon as the shadow Minister turns up, we will proceed straight away to the debate.

Sitting suspended.