Town and Village Plans
I beg to move,
That this House has considered town and village plans.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for being here and for his support in the past few days as we prepared for the debate, and I thank colleagues for turning up in numbers to intervene and contribute.
I am here today to highlight a problem that we are experiencing in my constituency of Mid Norfolk and that I am aware colleagues are also experiencing. The problem is essentially that the promise of the Localism Act 2011—supported, I think, by all Government Members and probably by the whole House—is, on the ground in Mid Norfolk, being failed by what I suggest is an either accidental or deliberate, but none the less clear, exploitation of the well-intended five-year land supply rules; those were meant to ensure that councils could not put out a plan and then ignore it.
The rules are being exploited, through a legal loophole, by big out-of-town volume house builders, which are banking permissions that are clearly there in areas where the councils and communities sensibly want to build, in order to take the opportunity to force through developments in areas where one would not sensibly want to build.
Does my hon. Friend share my delight and enthusiasm about the recent decision of the High Court to accept the reduction of the five-year housing land supply to a three-year housing land supply, where there is a neighbourhood plan and where sites are allocated?
I absolutely welcome that and will in due course list some of the very good things that the Government have been doing to try to help. I am here today to flag a problem and offer the Minister some suggestions to try to help find a solution.
At its heart, this is about the difference between rural and urban planning; in government, in Parliament, we tend to legislate as if the two are the same. In my patch, Mid Norfolk, we could build many more houses if we were able to get the essence of the localism promise right—build where we want, build how we want, build for local people as well as those moving into the area, and build in a way that supports the grassroots. I am talking about development being seen to be done by and for communities, not to communities by those far away.
There is real frustration in Mid Norfolk; I would be lying if I said that this was not the No. 1 issue in the recent election. In fact, in that election campaign, I promised to come to Parliament, talk to colleagues and Ministers, and see whether we could find a way to deal with it.
If I may, I will briefly set the scene by setting out my very strong support for the Localism Act and for what the Government have been trying to do in promoting a much more bottom-up model of local planning; by signalling where I think the national planning policy framework has helped but is also hindering in relation to the five-year land supply; and by describing some of what is going on in Mid Norfolk at the moment and some ideas about how we might deal with it.
When the Localism Act was introduced, the then coalition Government were stunned by the level of support for it. The Minister, like me, welcomed it strongly, because in essence it says that development is something that should be owned and valued by local communities. Despite the previous Government’s well intended desire to get houses built, we took the view that it was a flawed approach to sit in London and allocate numbers by region, by county, by district, and that numbers allocated from London were unlikely to motivate the towns, villages and communities that we wanted to embrace development. Instead, we said, “No, the better way is to ensure that every area has to put together a local plan.”
There is no number for Mid Norfolk in some filing cabinet in Whitehall, which I am delighted about. My area and colleagues’ areas have to put together their own local plans, taking into account their own population dynamics and economy, and put out a 20-year plan. To prevent councils from simply doing the plan but not actually building, the five-year land supply was introduced to ensure that houses were actually built, in accordance with the plan.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the value of the local plan is that it also has regard to local infrastructure needs, potentially at village level? The current loopholes that are being exploited see developers coming forward with plans for wholescale, 300 or 400-house developments without that infrastructure, which are against the interests of many of our villages in Suffolk and Norfolk.
My hon. Friend makes the very point that I will be making. This is about infrastructure and public services. A proper plan is not just about houses, but about the community, its needs, the public services, the infrastructure, the drainage and so on. Like many colleagues, I welcomed the Localism Act. I could understand when the former Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced the national planning policy framework, with its presumption in favour of sustainable development, to shift the balance, particularly at a time when the housing market was on its knees, and to encourage the building of the necessary houses and the development that we needed. The five-year land supply makes logical sense. We do not want a nimby’s charter, which allows councils to plan and then ignore their own plan.
However, what is happening in Mid Norfolk is giving the lie to that promise. For those of us who backed and supported localism, it is beginning to undermine public trust, and not just trust in the local planning system and support for development. It is beginning to foster the very nimbyism that was not there before and, even worse, is beginning to foster, complicate and compound a distrust in political promises. That is damaging to the planning system at a time when we really need proper strategic planning and local support.
If you will indulge me for a moment, Mr Hollobone, I would like to paint a picture of where Mid Norfolk sits. I know that that has worried colleagues since I arrived in the House eight years ago—it has worried quite a lot of my constituents. As it was a new constituency, most of my constituents were for several years asking, “Where is Mid Norfolk?” It sits right in the heart of God’s county. People who are used to going to the coast will drive past and around my beautiful patch, and those who drive up the newly dualled A11 to Norwich will leave my patch to port of their journey. People need to be in search of the real, the authentic, the heart, the glinting jewel in the crown to come and find Mid Norfolk; it sits right in the middle, at the heart of our county. It is not a place that someone would need to go to unless they were looking for it.
In Mid Norfolk, we have four magnificent towns: Dereham, Wymondham, Attleborough and Watton. Attleborough and Wymondham are both on the A11, just south of Norwich. Norwich is growing very fast. The Norwich research park is booming. All credit to the Government for their fantastic support through the industrial strategy and the support for small businesses. In many ways, Norwich is becoming a mini Cambridge, which is only 40 miles down the newly dualled A11. Indeed, when the Government have opened up the Ely junction and made half-hourly the rail service, Norwich will become part of a Greater Cambridge cluster. That is why there is such housing demand along that corridor. There are 15,000-odd houses going in at Ely, 5,000 at Brandon, 5,000 at Thetford, 4,000 at Attleborough and 2,000 at Wymondham. It is a corridor of growth.
For that reason, my local council wisely suggested that the bulk of its housing target should be placed on that A11 corridor, where the rail and road links support the cluster of development. Unfortunately, however, the developers, cognisant that they have those permissions and that allocation there, have taken the opportunity of the five-year land supply to begin to do what they would not normally be able to do: dump very substantial, large-scale commuter housing estates on a number of the villages close to Norwich in my constituency, without, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) mentioned, the necessary investment in services and infrastructure.
Dereham, which I like to think of as the gateway to the Norwich research triangle—it has not yet gripped that strategic role for itself, but over the next 10 to 20 years it will become that—is now becoming in the morning a traffic jam, almost as visible from space as the Cambridge traffic jam. The developers are now piling into south Dereham, along the main roads. It is the classic model of putting the big housing on the road, where it is easy, without any infrastructure. A string of villages between Dereham and Norwich—Yaxham, Mattishall and Swanton Morley—have all found themselves the subject of aggressive, large-scale, out-of-town developments.
In each case, the villages have been working on putting together their own village plans, taking the powers that we gave them in the Localism Act; the idea was that local neighbourhood plans would be put together and that the local plan adopted by the council would be an amalgamation of those and work around them. In fact, what has happened is that the local communities have put together plans—I want to talk in a moment about the Swanton Morley plan in particular—and then that process of going through a neighbourhood plan has, as we might have predicted, led to a strong conversation locally about the community’s needs, such as jobs and services. In every case, that has led to more houses being suggested by the local council than were originally thought of.
Therein lies the beautiful truth at the heart of the Localism Act: if we empower communities to think about their own futures, most will end up planning development where they want it, in the style they want it, for their own vision of their own community. People are not naturally nimbys, but they are resistant to growth being dumped on them by a remote bureaucracy, whether it is in Brussels or London.
I am very encouraged by what the hon. Gentleman says. Back home in my constituency, the local Ards and North Down Borough Council has initiated a new idea—the very thing that he refers to—of village regeneration. It is village regenerating with village, with town, with village; it is a domino effect where we all get together. Out of those plans have come some very forward-thinking ideas for economic expansion, house building and how villages can interact with each other. If we do it right with consultation, we get agreement and we are always better off.
Not for the first time the hon. Gentleman makes my point better than I. He is absolutely right that if we get this right, and if we trust people in communities and empower them, which is what the Localism Act was about, we will be surprised by what communities can do. There are wonderful examples of that around the country, including in Northern Ireland. That is why I am optimistic. I know the Minister is keen to bend every sinew to ensure that we are able to unlock this and get the houses that we want built.
I appreciate that colleagues represent different areas with different circumstances, but if the Minister said to me, “Can you find a way in which we could build the houses that we need in East Anglia?” the answer from my part of the world would be, “Absolutely!” Let us build a really serious new town—a proper new town—and design something that we could be really proud of. We might even have a couple. Given the housing demand in the south-east of England, one might even say that every county could probably find somewhere to build a stunning new town. We could even make it a competition and see who comes up with the most beautiful one. We could build a new town with proper energy-efficient houses and modern transport. We could make our new towns the test beds of the modern-living technologies that we are developing in this country.
I will give a location for a new town in my patch. On the Cambridge-Norwich railway, where RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall sit adjacent, Lakenheath is a tiny town, with a lot of poverty and deprivation, on former peat that has gone to grade 3 clay. It is a town aching for investment. It is on that railway and would not be 25 minutes from Cambridge. We could build the most stunning town there, possibly on the former airfield, and ease a lot of the pressure on our villages.
I am not saying that because I do not want development. In my patch we could build, and I am pushing a project to build, a garden village on the old Beeching railway line from Wymondham to Dereham. I am working with local developers to see whether we might come up with a model where we can plough the profit from the development back in, in conjunction with the railway company, to create a new model development company, with housing and rail linked in the way that it was by the Victorians. The Government are pushing that model forward in East West Rail.
I pay tribute to the work of the Secretary of State for Transport, who is clear that he wants that Oxford to Cambridge east-west railway not to be a traditional model of slow, bureaucratic franchising and competing interests, but a development company that lays the track, builds the houses and captures the value of housing gain to recycle into public transport.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and apologise for interrupting his flow. The Scottish Conservatives would like to see between six and eight new towns built in Scotland. Is not the heart of the issue about bringing people with us? As well as following the ambition of the post-war generation in building new towns, we must learn from their mistakes in design and infrastructure. We must make sure that these new towns fit with their environments, so that the communities surrounding the developments can support them and feel that they have been listened to.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We should look at the lessons from those garden towns. Many years ago, I fought the constituency of Stevenage—as colleagues know, it fought back—but Letchworth, the first garden town, is still regarded in that part of the world as a great tribute to proper planning. It is a place of great pride for the people who live in and around it. That is unusual for new developments, so there are real lessons to be learned.
I know the Government are supportive of this model of new town development and of garden village development, but the problem is that it is not happening. Seven years after we passed the Localism Act, when I say “localism” in Mid Norfolk I am greeted with groans and occasionally with jeers—although my constituents are very well-behaved and extremely polite. There was the promise of localism, where we said to people, “You will be empowered. The community will be able to plan. We will support your plans and back you.” But people are seeing their plans ignored.
I want to mention Swanton Morley as a case study. Swanton Morley is the home of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, and formerly of the Light Dragoons. It has an old RAF base. It is one of my small market towns with a 2,000-odd population, and it has put together a magnificent plan. I want to pay tribute to Roger Atterwill, the chair of the parish council, and Faye, his assistant, who have worked assiduously on the plan over the past two or three years. It is a model of local planning. There were village hall meetings, consultations, surveys—real engagement—and they have produced a real vision for the future of the village.
But unfortunately, on examination, the examiner appointed by the district council struck out all of their sensible, local conditions, such as that there should be an allocation of houses for people who come from the Swanton Morley area and around the percentage of affordable housing, all of which were provided for in the spirit of the Localism Act and in legislation. One cannot help but see that they were struck out because the main planning authority, Breckland Council, has both hands tied behind its back. It is up against the wall with a five-year land supply and it has no leg to stand on: it is terrified of being taken to court by big out-of-town developers.
I want to make it clear that I am not having a go at all developers. There are some magnificent developers in this country and in Norfolk. I would cite Tony Abel, for example. Abel Homes is a really good local business, building high-quality local developments. However, when it comes to the likes of Gladman, which has come into our patch, we never meet the people behind the developments.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s point, which he is making so well. In my constituency, the local builders are immaculately behaved, do a very good job and try very hard. But some of the big builders’ behaviour is frankly atrocious. They game the system, cheat the people who they are meant to be working for and bully the district council. Their behaviour is often absolutely reprehensible.
I am grateful to my venerable and right hon. Friend for putting that so robustly. I would not be here if I did not share that view. We all understand that we need houses built, and we all know that we need developers to do it, but there is a contract. When we provide developers with the powers and the balance of probability on the sustainable development framework, and we say that there is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, we mean sustainable development. We do not mean that as an excuse for them to dump a housing estate on our villages and towns and then sugar off. They have an obligation, as local builders and local landowners understand.
For that reason, I recently called a rural housing summit with Hastoe Housing Association—I see the Minister nodding—which is a leading, if not the leading, rural housing specialist. All around the country it has put together schemes with the support of local communities. It is doing more than anyone in rural housing to defeat nimbyism, because the quality of its developments is so high. At this rural housing summit we showcased best practice from all round the country: people putting together affordable housing schemes, shared equity schemes, covenanted land, parish councils. There is a wonderful cornucopia of good rural housing models, but we are not seeing it in Norfolk because our councils have both hands tied behind their backs.
When I say to my councillors, “Why aren’t you using the design codes that we gave you? Why aren’t you using the powers that we have given you in these Acts?” the answer comes back, “We are desperate to get our five-year land supply in order. We are terrified of legal challenge. We are trying to keep our council tax down. We are bearing the brunt of very necessary public spending constraints, and frankly every penny we make goes back into the deficit.” Our councils have their hands tied behind their backs, and are therefore unable to implement the spirit of the Localism Act.
Is my hon. Friend not concerned that the whole thrust, which is understandable from the local councillor’s point of view, is towards economic growth, as otherwise they do not get the funding? So they are all being encouraged to go at a speed that perhaps they would do well not to go at.
My right hon. Friend makes the perfect point. He is absolutely right, and that is happening in my patch as well as in his.
I am conscious that others want to speak. I want to give them a chance to do so and the Minister a chance to respond. To sum up my opening speech, we all know that we need to build houses, but as with so many problems that is a challenge in London. I have been a Minister pulling the ministerial levers, and I know that there is a big problem to be solved in the corridors of Whitehall.
However, in our constituencies, the problem is smaller, more manageable and easier to deal with. In Mid Norfolk, I see the answer to a problem that is very big in the Minister’s in-tray. If we can revisit the spirit of localism, re-empower local communities and re-incentivise councils to retain and harness the benefits of growth and put them into local infrastructure, we will restore faith in the planning system and deliver more growth, not less.
Order. I must call the Front-Bench speakers at 8 minutes past 5. The guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, 10 minutes for the Minister and then a couple of minutes at the end for our Member in charge to sum up. There are six Members seeking to speak, so I am afraid that in order to get you all in, speeches will be limited to two minutes 45 seconds. If there are any interventions, some of you will not make it.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman). I will try to keep to my three minutes or less. I take a particular interest in this issue; I was a parish and town councillor for 28 years. I have taken through village appraisals and village plans, and I almost took through a neighbourhood plan. It is quite an awesome thing to be asked to participate in.
I make no apologies for being a long-standing member of the Campaign to Protect Rural England; I declare that interest. I will largely ask the Minister about points that CPRE has brought to the debate. CPRE wants to critique four issues relating to neighbourhood plans. First, where do they sit in relation to strategic planning, if there is such a thing nowadays? Secondly, there is a lack of resources for taking plans through. Thirdly, there is unnecessary complexity; I personally share that concern. Fourthly, there are issues with conformity and precedents.
The CPRE asks clearly for the Government to at least reconsider the idea of the neighbourhood right to be heard. It is frustrating, when a plan has been developed, for a development to undermine it completely or for the plan to be ignored because the development has gone through without any real ability to influence it. It is important that we consider that.
I have always been a critic of referendums. I know that 89% of referendums have been successful, but I believe in democracy. I was a parish councillor, and as my old friend the late Stephen Wright said to me, that is the first level of democracy. Why should it have referendums foisted upon it? I think that we have all learned the lesson that referendums are not terribly good for our system of democracy, so I am a critic of that idea.
We need to tease out where neighbourhood plans sit and what influence they have. There are some glaring examples of things not working very well. In terms of the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017, we should look again at where the plans are and give them some robustness, so that they mean something when they go into the planning system and so that the people who spent a lot of time getting them through can feel confident that they will be listened to.
First, I say to the Minister that this is not about opposition to housing. In West Sussex as a whole, when I was first elected, the draft south-east plan proposed an amount of housing far below what is now being built under the new system. The objectively assessed need for West Sussex produces 66% more houses than the draft south-east plan, and the new formula will produce nearly double the draft south-east plan. It is placing massive pressure on local infrastructure.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) said so well, neighbourhood plans produce more houses by consent. If we allow neighbourhood plans to be bust, then we undermine the principle of consent, and in the end, fewer houses will be built by consent. That leads us to only one policy—the imposition of housing, which will be massively unpopular.
The Minister must understand that developers are gaming the system. They are ensuring that five-year land supplies are not adequate. Consequently, neighbourhood plans—either in draft form or, worse, when they are made and approved by large referendums—are being broken through. Some of the solution lies in his hands. The Government produced a helpful improvement to the situation last year, but his predecessor refused to entertain call-ins or appeals. When the Minister comes to take any decisions that might be in the balance, he must be mindful of the importance of supporting the neighbourhood planning process.
In the end, the Government face a fundamental choice. They can hold to the Localism Act 2011, a flagship policy that empowered local communities and gave them responsibility, including for decisions about where to locate housing. We are now in a difficult position; public faith in the policy of localism is being gravely undermined by people’s feeling that developers are simply overriding neighbourhood plans or that the Government apply rules that are too tight and do not recognise the power of giving local communities the control that they should have.
I helped invent neighbourhood plans, and I am the Government’s neighbourhood planning champion. It is exciting to see neighbourhood plans, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, produce more housing than they were asked to produce. If we look at it in contractual terms, they have gone beyond the contract set up.
What happens when a village decides to produce a neighbourhood plan? First, it needs to see whether the district council has a five-year land supply. This morning, I happened to be with a number of people considering development in the Thames valley. They produced a map of district councils that do and do not have a five-year housing land supply. It is unfortunate that so many district councils do not. That leaves them open, the moment they put down their name to make a neighbourhood plan, to developers moving in ahead of the plan to take advantage. I have asked in an Adjournment debate that when someone seriously puts their name down to start a neighbourhood plan, no more housing should be built until it has come to fruition, so that it can be taken fully into account.
I agree totally with what colleagues have said about certain firms of developers, such as Gladman, which aggressively game the system, as it has been described. It was partly to overcome that that a Planning Minister two Ministers before this one, Gavin Barwell, decided to reduce the land supply figure from five years, because people did not have a five-year land supply, to three years, for a two-year period from the end of the neighbourhood plan where sites were allocated. That was challenged in the High Court and, as I said in an intervention, the recent decision, in a very detailed judgment, has confirmed it. We are still waiting to see whether it goes to appeal, but the chances are that it will not.
The Government are tightening up the national planning policy framework, and it is about time. All I would say is that the presumption in favour of sustainable development is not itself new; it has been there since the beginning of planning. The only thing that is new is the word “sustainable”.
Neighbourhood planning is a hugely important reform. In my constituency, I have seen the way that it brings people together. We have neighbourhood plans in five parishes: Foxton, Great Glen, Kibworth, Lubenham and North Kilworth. I congratulate all the people who have selflessly given their time to make them happen and who have taken part in those referendums.
To make neighbourhood planning work, we now need a new approach. First, we need much greater legal force for plans shortly before their adoption. It was extremely frustrating for people in Great Glen to do all the work of putting together a neighbourhood plan, only to find that just before it came into force, the developer put a new development on exactly the site that they did not want it to go on.
Secondly, we need far less interference from the planning inspector. I have no problem with planning inspectors casting their eye over neighbourhood plans, but they must not interfere with matters that are, frankly, none of their business.
Thirdly, we need a simpler, clearer and quicker process so that developers cannot get their foot in the door. Often, neighbourhood plans have a lot of things in them that they do not need, but not the one thing that they do need: a simple map of where the community does and does not want development.
In the long term, I would like communities to have much stronger powers. Other hon. Members have already made reference to the virtues of planned and coherent new development over piecemeal bits tacked on to the ends of villages. I agree with that sentiment. I would like neighbourhood plans to be able to call in compulsory purchase powers from their local authority. Too often, villages such as Great Bowden would like to develop a site that a developer is simply sitting on, so developments have to be tacked on to the village in all directions instead, which people hate.
Neighbourhood planning is incredibly important. People can behave responsibly: they come forward with sites and they back more housing in their community. We must not let this important reform die or be gradually picked apart by rapacious developers such as Gladman.
The Minister is a man on the rise—one can only be amazed at his great trajectory—and he will want to make his mark on the Department before he moves on to higher office. In the nicest and most collegiate way, I suggest that he listens carefully to what hon. Members say. I echo every word uttered by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who instigated this timely debate.
I urge one note of caution to my hon. Friend, who wants a new town. Just as he said, I wanted Cranbrook to be an exemplar of towns around the world, but soon the developers moved in. I am afraid that the council is now having to move in to put in the town centre because the developers are behaving in a shameful way; they say that not enough people live there to put it in. It is a classic example of big developers gaming the system.
It is not brain surgery. My hon. Friend made the point that if someone builds good housing, which we all need, in the vernacular to enhance local communities, they will be amazed by the silence that follows—by the congratulations that follow in the pub. People want their communities to be enhanced. They want to support the village school, the post office and other local services. They do not want huge blocks of developments.
The big developers have worked out how to make profit down to the square inch, so they do not care if they are not nodding to the local vernacular or if a house looks the same in the north of England, the middle of England and Wales. They just want to make a profit. I hope that the Minister will be as good as the Government’s word and tell us how we can encourage local house builders, who often produce a far better product than larger house builders.
I draw the Minister’s attention to what other hon. Members have said about neighbourhood plans. Budleigh Salterton and East Budleigh with Bicton have produced wonderful neighbourhood plans, which can be expensive and time-consuming. Lympstone also produced one. The Minister’s predecessor received a letter from me in October about a constituent who said that, despite Lympstone identifying the type and design of housing that the community wished to see, it had singularly failed to achieve them in the two years since the plan was made. That letter also singularly failed to be acknowledged, although I prompted the Minister on 15 January. I ask him to look at that.
The neighbourhood plan is a contract with our constituents. We persuaded them that if they were going to be more local, they would have a say. At the moment, they feel that they have wasted their time and they are being ignored.
Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), I am not in the least bit surprised about the Minister’s trajectory. I know that he will be paying careful attention to what is said today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) on his speech and I agree with every word. Indeed, I agree with all my hon. Friends. I will make four brief points.
First, I endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said. Neighbourhood plans will produce more houses by consent than anyone believes is possible, hence the importance of sticking to the system.
Secondly, the integrity of the system is vital. Local people spend hundreds and hundreds of hours of their own free will making a great effort to produce these plans, and it is vital that they are honoured. I am encouraged by the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) that the national planning policy framework needs to be strengthened. I would welcome that.
Thirdly, I say again—it cannot be said too often—that the behaviour of some major developers is appalling. It traduces our constituents and our constituencies, our elected councillors and our district councils. It is the kind of behaviour up with which the Government should not put.
Finally, if people are prepared to spend all that time and effort on producing something very important to them, those efforts should be respected in all honour. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs and I have difficulties in that regard, but as he said, it is important that those efforts are honoured and that the Government play a straight bat with local communities.
There are five minutes for the Scottish National party spokesperson and five minutes for the official Opposition spokesperson.
It is a pleasure to sum up for the Scottish National party in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) for introducing it. From a Scottish perspective, it has been very interesting for me to see how things work slightly differently in England.
The SNP is looking at reforming the planning system in Scotland to pick up on some of the things that do not work as intended. We have ambitions to build 50,000 affordable homes by 2021. We have brought in the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, which gives local communities a community right to buy so that they can influence what gets built and how land is used in their community. That is important in rural and urban settings.
We have 20 proposals for revamping the planning system in Scotland. Many things that the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk spoke about, such as action by and for communities and putting infrastructure in place, are reflected in those plans. The consultation process on the planning system is called “Places, People and Planning”, and it is all those things—people are at the heart of making places work.
We also have ambitions to align our system of community planning, which has been going for some years, with spatial planning. That reflects what the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) and the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) said about the need for integrity—people’s views should be respected as part of the planning process.
There is a real need in Scotland to remove some of the complexity. In 2007, not long after I became a councillor, Glasgow was looking at city plan 2, which was one huge folder with another huge folder of supplementary items. It was very complex, and it was difficult for people to get their heads around it and understand the land use. Almost as soon as it was produced, things had moved on and changed. The 2008 crash then changed many people’s views about how land should be used in communities.
In the Scottish system, we think that people should have the opportunity to plan their own place and that people should be involved in planning. The community aspect is important, as is improving public trust. In Scotland, we are approaching that through pre-application consultations. Before a planning application is submitted to a local authority, the developer has to go and speak to the local community, sound people out and figure out whether its proposal will be acceptable. That is very important and has been quite successful in changing some aspects of that process. My council colleague Norman MacLeod was at one of those events in a part of the constituency that we share, where the developers were presenting all these two-bedroom flats in Pollokshields. Councillor MacLeod said, “There are large families in the area, who will want larger family homes.” That had not crossed the developers’ minds. Having that negotiation before developments are built is a better way to get them right.
The hon. Member for Mid Norfolk mentioned his ambitions for new towns in his constituency. That is an interesting prospect, but issues arise about how those new towns would be paid for. Would they be paid for by the developer? If the developer decided not to pay, would the local authority end up picking up the tab, as the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) warned? When a new town is planned in Scotland, a new town development corporation has to be set up. These issues have to be thought about carefully before embarking on a new town, and I imagine the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk is thinking about how it can best be done. We also need to get the right mix of private and public input, as well as schools and everything else that a community needs to flourish.
New towns have sometimes failed for lack of proper planning. BBC Scotland has produced an excellent documentary called “The Storm That Saved a City” about the 1968 Glasgow storm. It described the housing situation in the city of Glasgow, including slum clearances. The council planned to demolish absolutely everything and rebuild from the roots. It moved lots of people out to Easterhouse, Drumchapel and other parts of the city, but it did not put in facilities such as shops, pubs and social gathering places. Those communities still feel that they do not have all the facilities they need. We still have not learned the right lessons, because the Commonwealth games village was built in Glasgow without a school, a nursery or a row of shops. We need to learn from new towns. What has made them successful? What has made them thrive?
It would be useful if the Minister said a little about how the Government will legislate on new towns, and what guidance will be provided. When we build a new town, we build it to be a home—not just a set of houses, or somewhere to wake up in the morning and go to bed at night, but a community to live in for the long term.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) for securing this incredibly important debate. There is a lot of cross-party agreement on the issue, and I agree with almost everything that hon. Members have said in the debate. My only disagreement with the hon. Gentleman is that I think the issue affects both rural and urban areas.
If we want positive planning in this country, the best place to start is with local neighbourhoods and communities. The reason is obvious: local people know their area best, and they know best how to develop it. They understand not only issues such as local heritage, but infrastructure needs, which are often overlooked in planning but are necessary to make a development successful. I was really pleased that hon. Members raised that today.
I was also extremely pleased that the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk mentioned new towns. I am very keen to hear what the Minister has to say about new towns, because the Government have been a bit tardy, to say the least, in bringing forward new towns or garden cities. I think we probably all agree that garden cities have worked better than new towns, but it would be good to hear an update from the Minister.
There were some weaknesses in the conception of neighbourhood planning. A neighbourhood plan is not a free-standing document; it has to be developed in line with a local plan and strategic objectives. Neighbourhood plans have often been mis-sold to local neighbourhoods, who think that a plan can do something that it cannot. They run into particular problems when no up-to-date local plan is in place. We have all seen neighbourhood plans being developed, voted on and passed in areas where no local plan is in place or there is an issue with the five-year housing supply. Even if the council rejects a development because it is not in line with the local plan, its rejection is often overturned on appeal, using the national planning policy framework and the general presumption in favour of development. If the Minister wishes to give neighbourhood planning more teeth, he needs to look at that.
The Minister also needs to look at resources and at the whole local community effort necessary to developing a neighbourhood plan. I know that the Government have put some resources aside for developing neighbourhood plans, but in my experience such resources are often not enough, particularly in areas of special complexity. Neighbourhood plans are being developed while massive cuts are reducing the ability of planning departments to support parish councils and neighbourhood planning forums to implement them.
We all want neighbourhood plans to be more effective, but there are some issues with them. I was pleased to see, as a sign of cross-party consensus, that “ConservativeHome” has stated that the Government need to look more closely at neighbourhood planning because there are wrinkles to be ironed out. We all want our communities to be given the tools to plan effectively for their area, but we also want neighbourhood plans to be more effectively integrated into our overall planning system. Perhaps they need to be given greater weight—that seems to be one of the crucial issues that the Government still have to address. I appreciate that the Minister is new to his job, but we have great expectations about what he will deliver.
If the Minister finishes his remarks no later than 5.28 pm, the Member in charge will have time to sum up.
As ever, Mr Hollobone, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) on securing the debate. He spoke forensically about the issue and eloquently about his constituency. He highlighted the importance of neighbourhood planning, which has been giving people real power to shape the development of their communities since its introduction in 2011.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to points raised in the debate and take up the generous offer from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) to listen carefully to concerns. Hon. Members will know that, given the Department’s role in determining certain planning issues, I cannot comment on the detail of individual plans or planning cases. However, I can talk about the practice, the framework and the parameters that create the principles guiding the relationship between neighbourhood plans, local authorities and central Government strategy. I hope also to address the interesting points made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew).
I know that many hon. Members have been directly involved in encouraging and supporting communities in their constituencies to take up neighbourhood planning; I recognise the role that MPs play in the process. I assure all hon. Members that we continue to support the principle of neighbourhood planning and that we are already looking at teething issues and wrinkles to be ironed out. In September, we announced our largest ever support package for neighbourhood planning: a £22.8 million programme that will start in April and provide communities with the help and resources that they need to develop plans up to 2022.
Before I address the important points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk, it is worth reminding ourselves of the wider national context and the big picture on housing. In order to meet demand, we have to deliver 300,000 homes every year by the mid-2020s. We have to provide the homes that Britain needs, but we also have to make them affordable for real people on low and middle incomes. As hon. Members have said, we have to build a lot more of the right homes in the right places. I take that point. There were 217,000 net additions to the housing supply last year. That was the highest level in a decade—an increase of approximately 70% on what was achieved in 2009-10—so there are positive signs, but there is still a long way to go.
We need to be mindful of how we tailor the vehicle, both in the context of local democratic affairs—points were raised today about carrying communities with us—and with respect to the overarching national demand and our mission to build the homes that the next generation needs.
It is absolutely crucial that local authorities play their role by producing up-to-date local plans and identifying a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites. Local plans and a five-year supply of housing sites can provide clarity for communities and for developers who want to do things the right way regarding where new homes should be built. That means that development is planned and is not the result of speculative applications. I have taken on board the points made by my right hon. Friends the Members for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) and for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) about some developers. I emphasise “some” developers; let us not tar all developers with the same brush, because, as I think hon. Members have said, there is good practice, but there is some bad practice as well.
As of today, 26 authorities are still to publish a local plan and 131 local authorities have a local plan that is older than five years. So, the big picture is that overall we are doing quite well, but there are certainly areas and pockets where we need to do better. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has written to 15 authorities, giving them until the end of this month to justify why they do not have a plan in place and why the Government should not intervene. He has put other authorities on notice, explaining that a consistent failure to make sufficient progress in that regard cannot be tolerated indefinitely.
I turn to neighbourhood plans. They are, of course, voluntary. They rely on the enthusiasm and the hard work of local people, and, in the round, local communities. They are a powerful set of tools for communities to say where development—such as homes, shops and offices—should go, what it should look like, and what facilities should be provided. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who, as neighbourhood planning champion, has championed the cause of the right kind of local plans.
Neighbourhood plans undergo consultation, independent examination and the community referendum before coming into force as part of the development plan for their area. I take the point that was made by the hon. Member for Stroud about referendums, even though I was probably on a different side from him in our recent, bigger referendum. In this context, however, referendums are important, because they ensure that neighbourhood plans have genuine support and, as a result, some clout and some force. Their status as part of the development plan is very important, because planning applications must be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.
Since the introduction of neighbourhood planning by the Localism Act 2011, 2,300 communities have begun the process of shaping the future of their area. I think that about 17 of those are within the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk, and I recognise the local initiative that goes into such local plans. I also understand the point that he made about encouraging and not stifling that initiative, which is crucial.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the undermining of a referendum by failing to observe what the referendum has decided is, in its own way, just as damaging at a local level, in relation to a neighbourhood plan, as it would be at a national level if a decision made in a national referendum was not observed by the authority concerned?
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and he is tempting me to muddy the waters of this debate in a typically mischievous way. I will accept that if we argue for the principle of democracy through a referendum and say that the result of the referendum needs to be delivered, and we then put in place a system of local referendums—often, people care even more about the issues in such referendums than they do about those in national referendums, because the issues relate to people’s local environment or their quality of life—it is important to make sure that they are respected.
We endeavour to continue to make the neighbourhood planning process stronger and simpler, to ensure that it is attractive to even more communities. This week, for example, we are implementing powers in the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017. Those reforms make it easier for communities to keep their neighbourhood plans up to date as local circumstances change—they will change from time to time—and ensure that neighbourhood planning groups are made aware of local planning applications.
Other important reforms set out in the Act came into force last July. Those reforms require decision takers to respect neighbourhood plans earlier in the process, following a successful referendum. There will be further reforms this July, requiring local authorities to set out their policies on supporting neighbourhood planning groups.
I take this opportunity to welcome another neighbourhood planning success. The 500th successful neighbourhood planning referendum has just taken place; they are clearly catching on, notwithstanding the point that the hon. Member for Stroud made. That is quite an important milestone, which was reached by communities in Leeds, Suffolk and Lincolnshire. Those three communities are very different from each other, to touch on the point that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods), made. However, they all went to the polls on the same day, and between them they allocated land for employment, homes and local green spaces; those things can come together. Those plans are now the starting point for determining planning decisions.
Our planning policy is clear that where a planning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted. However, we recognised in 2016 that, in some cases, neighbourhood plans were being undermined because the local planning authority could not demonstrate a five-year land supply of deliverable housing sites, which is one of the key issues. That meant that even recently adopted neighbourhood planning policies were not being given enough weight in determining planning applications. I know that that is the crux of the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk, and the point that he wanted to make in this debate.
Communities who had worked hard to put their neighbourhood plan in place were left frustrated as decisions went against the plan, despite their having done everything that was asked of them. As hon. Members have argued, that can only undermine confidence in the referendum process and the localism agenda. Seeking to remedy that, we issued a written ministerial statement in December 2016 to ensure that national planning policy provided additional protection to precisely those communities. The change that was made protects neighbourhood plans that are less than two years old and that allocate sites for housing, as long as the local planning authority has more than three years’ supply of deliverable housing sites.
We will take forward that protection in the updated national planning policy framework, which will be published for consultation before Easter—I think there was a question earlier about its publication. I suspect that that will be the beginning of the dialogue and the debate, not the end of them.
The national planning policy framework will be amended to give local authorities the opportunity to have their housing land supply agreed on an annual basis, and fixed for a one-year period. I hope that that gives some reassurance. Through these new policies, alongside the tough action to get local plans in place, we hope to ensure that we get the right homes in the right places. That is the delicate line that we seek to tread here.
I should just say a few words about neighbourhood plan examinations, because of the significant legal weight afforded to neighbourhood plans. The plans need to be carefully examined in a fair and transparent way. If we had longer today, I would go into the matter in more detail. Effectively, the examinations are the check that, once passed, allows the referendum to proceed, which gives real force to the localism agenda in this sector.
I am conscious of the time that I must give my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk to allow him to wind up this debate. I appreciate that important issues have been raised today, whether they are in rural, urban or suburban constituencies, and I understand how deeply felt are the concerns about them. We will continue to protect neighbourhood plans in national policy, and decision takers—whether that is the local authority, the planning inspector or the Secretary of State himself—must respect that national policy.
Will my hon. Friend give way on that point before he sits down?
I am conscious that I have only eight seconds left and I really ought to give my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk the opportunity to wind up the debate, but I will give way briefly to my right hon. Friend.
Have the Government considered, or are they considering, limiting the amount of time for which builders can hold on to land before building on it?
As a new Minister, lots of helpful suggestions come my way. That is something that we will consider, in the context of both the Letwin review and some of the interesting policy submissions that have already been put to me. I undertake to have a look at that point.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak again and for the chance to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon.
I thank colleagues who have come to Westminster Hall to support this debate and the points that I have been making. We find out who our friends are when we put our heads above the parapet, and I could not wish for a better platoon of support. I should also say—both to you, Mr Hollobone, and to the Minister—that several colleagues who support the points that I have been making could not be here today.
I am grateful to the Minister for his typically assiduous, detailed and honourable answers and reassurances. There was some important and good news in there, in that the Government recognise the importance of the issue and in the steps that are being taken. However, having been a Minister myself, I know that officials often think that the issuing of a written ministerial statement or the granting of a new power might solve a problem. One has to remember that on the ground, our councils are up against real pressures, and new powers and written ministerial statements do not always cut through or solve the problem that exists here and now.
It is really important, not only for this issue of building houses but more broadly, that we recognise how free markets work. The Minister is a great advocate of free markets, as am I, but they operate in the context of the incentives and regulations that we set here in Parliament. If we are going to build the housing that we need and an economy that works for everyone, we really have to get this matter right. I ask the Minister—I am sure the answer is yes, as he has indicated so—whether he will agree to meet me, Councillor Gordon Bambridge, who is my local head of planning, and colleagues to discuss how we can take the matter forward.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).