Housing, Planning and Infrastructure: Essex
I am grateful to the Speaker for granting this debate. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his role, and the opportunity to hear about my constituency.
My constituency covers three lower tiers of local planning authorities while Essex County Council has responsibility for waste and minerals, which partly explains why the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government holds such a high volume of correspondence from me on behalf of my constituents. If the Minister visits Witham, which he is very welcome to do, he will see at first hand the boundless economic potential of this part of Essex and of the entire county. He will also note the appetite among our local communities to take a positive, proactive approach to housing, planning and infrastructure. Many parishes are working on neighbourhood development plans and want to deliver on the localism agenda advocated by our Government. They want to exercise the powers at their disposal to allocate preferred sites for housing and business uses, and for protection.
We want to deliver ambitious plans to support economic growth and bring more local homes to our communities. We want and need new infrastructure to support growth, including the widening of the A12, the upgrading of the A120, and investment in the Great Eastern main line. I welcome today’s announcement of more than £7 million for the Heybridge flood alleviation and regeneration scheme, in the district of Maldon just outside my constituency, and I hope for more investment rounds to support planning and development.
We recognise that development brings with it employment opportunities, investment in infrastructure and new public services, including schools and GP services, but that should not mean housing at any cost and in any location. I want to draw the Minister’s attention to some issues and causes of concern in which localism is being undermined and opportunities to deliver locally led planning are being missed. I appreciate and respect the fact that the Minister cannot give detailed responses on specific planning cases that are live and under consideration, but I hope that he and his Department will reflect on them.
First, the Minister will be aware of the Secretary of State’s decision to call in planning applications for up to 260 new dwellings on two sites in Hatfield Peverel, at Stonepath Meadow and Gleneagles Way. A hearing took place in December, and I pay tribute to the residents in Hatfield Peverel and members of our parish council who came together to oppose those unwelcome developments. Their dedication to their local community has been outstanding. Both developments are outside the settlement boundary in the current and emerging local plans and the emerging neighbourhood plan, because they would be detrimental to the countryside. They would also place unacceptable pressures on an already full general practice, with no guarantees of any financial contributions to enhance the service.
Our local schools are also full, but no contributions are being sought because of the community infrastructure levy pooling restrictions. The applicants seem to think it acceptable for primary school pupils—children—to be forced to walk more than two miles along the busy A12 to a school in Witham. As for secondary school pupils, First Bus is axing the 72 bus route, which connects Hatfield Peverel with Maltings Academy and New Rickstones Academy in Witham, so there will be no direct bus service for pupils in the village to use.
We are not opposed to housing in Hatfield Peverel—quite the reverse. That wonderful village is already set to accommodate new housing in an emerging local plan focused elsewhere in the village in the comprehensive redevelopment area covering land between the A12 and the Great Eastern main line. Some 250 new dwellings are already—and rightly—going through the planning process. However, the village is taking its fair share of new housing and cannot take any more.
There are many other reasons why the two applications are totally unsuitable for development. I trust that the Secretary of State will consider those points, and the strong objections that have been made, when the inspector hands him the report of his findings.
Although the Minister cannot comment on the specifics of the two applications, I would welcome his clarification of some wider issues that have arisen. First, councils such as Braintree, and parish councils such as Hatfield Peverel, which are in the process of putting together local and neighbourhood plans that embrace the principles of localism, are being undermined by planning applications many of which pre-empt and undermine those democratic processes. Other villages, such as Kelvedon and Feering, have been similarly bombarded with applications. Those communities need to be protected, and they need the Government to allow them time to put their plans in place.
Secondly, the issue of the five-year land supply of deliverable sites has arisen. Speculative, predatory developers are seeking to exploit the council’s claim that it does not have a five-year land supply. The main reason for Braintree’s identified supply shortfall is the failure of the last Labour Government’s regional spatial strategies, whose housing targets were lower than those in the most recent objectively assessed housing need research. I hope that the Minister can assure communities in the district that they will not be punished because of the last Labour Government’s failures, and that decision makers can exercise discretion over the housing supply figures. Councils need flexibility on this issue, and that includes the ability to use the Liverpool method when it best suits them, in respect of, for instance, sites in draft allocations. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some assurances about that as well.
My third point is on the effectiveness of pre-application consultation. In Hatfield Peverel, one applicant issued a so-called consultation that contained false information about education and health provision—which the applicant had not bothered to check—and sought to frighten residents. It also submitted a planning application within a few weeks of securing rights from landowners to promote the site and less than two working days after holding a pre-application discussion with council officers; that is not nearly enough time to take account of local comments. Then, when the council and local community were taking time to resolve issues that had been raised as a result of the applicant’s failures—such as the impact on schools, the NHS and landscapes—the applicant had the audacity to threaten to take the application to the Planning Inspectorate for non-determination.
For other sites in the district, such referrals to the Planning Inspectorate to deliberately bypass local decision making have been made. This abuse of the planning system must stop, and I hope the Ministry will consider how to address these problems. There are some good examples of positive developer engagement with local communities and we need to make sure that more of that happens. Those who fiddle consultations and circumvent pre-application engagement should be sanctioned for doing so.
Another major development issue affecting my constituency is the proposed garden settlement for the Colchester Borough Council/Braintree District Council border. That proposal has the potential to deliver thousands of new homes and bring in urgently needed infrastructure upgrades and public services. The Government have recognised this and provided over £1.3 million to Colchester Borough Council to work on this project.
However, a number of questions and concerns have been raised about the proposals. Primarily, these relate to infrastructure and public services. Residents want to be assured that if this project gets the green light, significant new infrastructure and public services will be put in place and phased in to meet future demand. It is pointless to put in the infrastructure and services once the developments are being occupied; they must be put in in advance, and to a clear timetable. That means that the Ministry, the Department for Transport, the Treasury, local councils and the private sector will need to come together to ensure that the funding is in place to upgrade the A120, widen the A12 and increase capacity on the Great Eastern main line with a passing loop, as well as providing for new GP surgeries and schools.
Questions have also been raised about the delivery vehicle, local engagement, availability of employment opportunities and how the councils have spent the moneys provided to them by the Government. The garden settlement proposals are in the process of being examined as part of the local plan process, but I urge the Minster and Secretary of State to look carefully at these matters. Some residents are opposed to this project; others are in favour. However, it is essential that if this major project goes ahead, it is done correctly and done in the right way.
One of the other reasons why there are concerns about garden settlements is the appalling record of Colchester Borough Council. On planning matters, this Lib Dem and Labour-run council is rotten to the core. The Minister has the background on this and will know that last year, the Secretary of State granted planning permission for a new leisure and retail development known as Tollgate Village in Stanway. The development was supported by an overwhelming majority of local people and transforms a derelict site into a development creating hundreds of new local jobs and tens of millions of pounds of inward investment.
However, Colchester Borough Council tried everything possible to block it. It claimed it would be a loss of employment land, even though there was no interest in using the site in that way. It tried to pit Tollgate Village against Colchester town centre, and it even tried to smear me by making up a false claim that my representations in writing were somehow improper, and leaked that to the local media. It behaved disgracefully and yet not a single senior officer or senior political figure has taken responsibility. They blocked the creation of jobs, prevented investment and wasted public money.
Close to that site, the council acted in a similar way on the Stane Park scheme, another private investment project which it blocked but which was granted consent on appeal. Also in Stanway, on the Lakelands housing development, the council completely neglected and ignored residents in causing the loss of a green space at Churchfields Avenue and Partridge Way, in an area of land known as parcel SR6.
That area of land should have been landscaped; it was not, as the council failed to enforce a planning condition. It was then designated for protection as open space in the council’s local plan. However, behind closed doors and without any consultation, the council allowed a new masterplan to be approved that designated the site for intensive housing. Residents were made aware of this only when the reserved matters application was made in 2015. Despite complaints and concerns about the process, the council approved the construction of 27 new dwellings and the loss of that space in autumn 2016. The matter has been with the local government ombudsman for over a year due to the complexities of the issues involved. This shows once again how Colchester Borough Council is problematic and not fit for purpose. It allowed an area that should have been green open space to be lost without any consultation, and kept residents in the dark for years.
I shall move on to another planning area outside Colchester borough. Thousands of my constituents and residents across Essex and beyond are deeply concerned about the prospect of the Rivenhall incinerator receiving further planning consents and becoming operational. The incinerator was originally granted planning permission by the last Labour Government in March 2010, just weeks before the general election. Since then, however, the applicants have made a number of changes to the site. It has been described as an integrated waste management facility, but the recycling capacity has been reduced and the waste incineration capacity increased by 65% from 360,000 to 595,000 tonnes.
Another planning application is being considered by Essex County Council to increase the stack height to help the site meet Environment Agency requirements. However, given the concerns with the incinerator, the impact on the environment and the new proposals on waste put forward by the Government, the incinerator is not only unwelcome but out of date. It has no energy recovery mechanisms, which makes it all the more damaging to the environment. My constituents would like the latest planning application to be refused, and called in by the Secretary of State to ensure its refusal if necessary. I trust that the Minister will convey that message to the Secretary of State and look at all the submissions that will be coming his way.
My constituent, John Patrick, has had a long chain of correspondence and representations with my hon. Friend’s Department. He is well known to the Department. He runs a rural nursery business growing plants. When he moved in, there was live-in accommodation on site. A long and protracted planning dispute involving numerous applications, appeals and enforcement notices has taken place with the local planning authority. He feels that planning policies justify his being able to operate his business and live on site. I ask the Minister to review the case and, importantly, to learn the lessons from it and respond to the most recent representations that have been made.
The last case I want to highlight involves a development outside my constituency, but the medium-sized developer is based in the Witham constituency. Wickford Developments is involved in the development of a site in the Uttlesford District Council area. What appears to be a restrictive planning policy requiring a development to include a lift could prevent the company from providing much-needed social housing. I would welcome the Ministry looking into the case and assisting the company to resolve this issue, if that cannot be done directly with the council.
As the Minister can see, my constituency has a wide range of planning and development issues, and there are many more that time has prevented me from raising. I want to leave him with this message from my constituency: we need the new Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that local communities can embrace localism in order to deliver sustainable developments and the housing that we need, to prevent unwelcome development and abuses in the planning system, to ensure that intervention takes place in the cases listed, and to guarantee that as new developments take place, local communities can benefit from them with the provision of new infrastructure and key public services.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing this debate on housing, planning and infrastructure in Essex. It is great to see her being supported in the Chamber tonight by her county colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and for Colchester (Will Quince) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). She is a strong campaigner for her constituency. The sheer volume of cases and correspondence from her held by the Ministry is a testament to the diligent way in which she pursues these issues. I thank her for the opportunity to debate these extremely important topics.
In her speech, my right hon. Friend referred to a number of planning cases. As she kindly acknowledged, I am not in a position to comment in detail on the merits of the planning applications or appeals that are ongoing. The cases that she referred to that affect sites in the village of Hatfield Peverel are being considered by a planning inspector, who will provide the Secretary of State with a report to consider in due course. All material matters associated with the proposals will be considered as part of the process, and my right hon. Friend can be assured that her comments will no doubt be noted.
In respect of the applications relating to the waste management facility on the former Rivenhall airfield, my right hon. Friend has provided some of the background. The current planning applications that have been submitted are a matter for Essex County Council, as the relevant planning authority, to consider. However, the Ministry is aware of the requests for the applications to be called in, and they will be considered in the appropriate way.
Turning to John Patrick and my right hon. Friend’s points about his case, I can assure her that we will carefully consider and reply to Mr Patrick’s correspondence. As an aside, representing as I do a highly rural constituency, I fully recognise the importance of rural enterprise in driving prosperity. I was interested to hear about the case involving Uttlesford District Council. Once again, I am of course not in a position to comment on a current planning application but, on her general points about the provision of affordable housing, we are keen to see approaches taken to deliver more affordable housing. As set out in the housing White Paper, the Government are keen to promote more opportunities for small and medium-sized developers to deliver that housing.
My right hon. Friend made reference to her concerns about Colchester Borough Council. The case of the Lakeland site is currently with the local government ombudsman, and we will take note of the outcome of its inquiries, but we cannot intervene directly in that process. In relation to the Tollgate Village project, an inspector conducting the appeal inquiry produced a report that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State carefully considered before accepting the recommendation to grant planning permission. We are aware of the council’s position and of the concerns of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham about the council’s approach to the application. More broadly, as for every single local authority, ultimate accountability comes through the ballot box, and I know from first-hand experience that my right hon. Friend is a top-rate campaigner.
My right hon. Friend also touched on North Essex Garden Communities, which is one of 24 new locally-led garden cities, towns and villages that the Government are currently supporting. Together, they have the potential to deliver 220,000 new homes across England. In general terms, the Government believe that garden communities offer the potential to secure considerable new housing, employment opportunities, modern physical infrastructure and new public services. That is why the Government provide some funding to support local authorities, such as those in Essex, to develop these proposals.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) gave me permission to intervene, and I congratulate her on securing this debate. We are all here because we are concerned about the effects of these garden communities. They must produce quality communities. I know the Department is concerned that it is about not just housing numbers but the creation of quality communities with the necessary infrastructure. The A120 and the A12 are vital pieces of infrastructure that must be upgraded in advance of the creation of the new homes. Will my hon. Friend include that in his consideration of these matters?
My hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham are absolutely right to raise their constituents’ concerns that the additional housing must be supported by the right infrastructure and public services, at the right time. The Government and I wholeheartedly agree with that, which is why in the autumn Budget the Government more than doubled the housing infrastructure fund, dedicating an additional £2.7 billion to bring the total fund to £5 billion.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who is also my constituency neighbour, for being an Essex champion and initiating this debate. The loss to the Government is certainly a win for Essex. Given what my hon. Friend the Minister has said, does he agree that new housing and infrastructure in Essex should be accompanied by support for substantial regeneration in towns that have real problems, such as Harlow, where the town centre is decaying because everything was built almost at the same time? Many good things are happening, but we need desperate help with the regeneration of our town centre, for example.
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Economic regeneration and, indeed, the boundless economic optimism that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham talked about are something the Government are keen to see and should actively support through these proposals and through the infrastructure investment in places, like Harlow, where it can make a difference.
The housing infrastructure fund is designed to provide exactly the kinds of projects that both my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex talked about—key infrastructure that unlocks housing growth. Just today, the Government announced 133 successful HIF projects, which will help to unlock a potential 200,000 new homes. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham mentioned, that includes £7.3 million for a flood relief scheme next to her constituency in Maldon and £5.5 million of funding to unlock more than 500 homes in Colchester by accelerating the delivery of 22 acres for housing development—I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester will welcome that investment.
A forward fund element of the HIF will also be available to the uppermost tier of local authorities in England for a small number of strategic and high-impact infrastructure projects for bids of up to £250 million. Expressions of interest for that funding are being assessed, and I am delighted to tell the House and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham that the county of Essex has applied to the fund, including for infrastructure specifically to support the North Essex garden communities. The best proposals from across the country will be shortlisted to go through to co-development in the coming weeks. Local authorities will then submit final business cases, with successful bids being announced as early as this autumn.
More generally, my right hon. Friend is right to highlight that garden settlement community proposals are still subject to examination as part of the local plan process. The hearings with respect to the examination of the local plans were concluded last month, as she will know, but I can reassure her that any formal responses made by her constituents either to the Planning Inspectorate or to the council as part of the draft plan consultation will be considered by the inspector in his determination. Further, I understand that the Planning Inspectorate has sought reassurance that all matters raised by consultees on the draft plan have been provided and will hold further hearings if procedurally necessary.
My right hon. Friend spoke in detail about local plans. New homes need to be provided through up-to-date local plans, which are produced in consultation with local people. I welcome the progress that Braintree, Tendring and Colchester Councils have made on their local plan preparations. Up-to-date plans that are produced in consultation with local communities are a vital element of the planning system. They are the starting point for planning decisions by local planning authorities and planning inspectors.
As my right hon. Friend mentioned, local authorities are required to identify a five-year land supply of deliverable housing sites. Identifying a five-year supply of housing sites provides clarity to local communities and developers on where homes should be built so that development is planned, rather than a result of speculative application. Where there is insufficient available land on which housing can realistically be delivered, however, there are measures in place that help to identify suitable sites.
As my right hon. Friend acknowledged, Government guidance states that local authorities should aim to deal with undersupply within five years, where possible. However, decision makers have the flexibility to consider each case on its merits, and it is for local authorities to present their particular case to the relevant decision makers.
Our housing White Paper acknowledges that the current policy on five-year land supply has been effective in delivering homes, but has had some negative effects, including an increased number of appeals. Through our White Paper, the Government proposed reforms to how land supply is calculated to give more certainty. The proposal offers local authorities the opportunity to have their five-year housing land supply agreed on an annual basis and fixed for a one-year period. It is intended that this ability to fix will reduce the number and complexity of appeals by providing greater certainty to all parties.
The White Paper also indicated that clearer, more transparent guidance will set out how the five-year land supply should be calculated. The responses to this consultation are currently being considered, and I can tell my right hon. Friend that revised national planning guidance will be published for comment alongside the consultation on the national planning policy framework, before Easter this year.
My right hon. Friend next referred to the production of neighbourhood plans and the role that they play in empowering local communities. I note with delight that neighbourhood planning is being embraced in her constituency, with at least 10 neighbourhood planning groups being active and, as she said, doing their best to support the Government’s localism agenda. The Government want to support such groups, and we have made £23 million available from 2018 to 2022 through a neighbourhood planning support programme. She highlighted her concerns about whether neighbourhood plans in development get the status they deserve in the planning process, especially if communities are, to use her words, “bombarded” with applications. The NPPF is clear that weight may be given to emerging neighbourhood plans. We have also laid out guidance to set out where circumstances may justify the refusal of planning permission on grounds that an application would be premature in relation to an emerging neighbourhood plan.
On the points that my right hon. Friend made about pre-application consultation, the Government believe effective consultation is an important part of the planning process. We have clear and detailed expectations, both statutory and in guidance, regarding the consultation of parties affected by planning applications. It is for the local planning authority to ensure that this consultation takes place properly and in accordance with these guidelines. If there are points of concern, they should be raised with the authority as soon as possible.
In conclusion, we have covered an extensive range of topics in this short debate this evening. It seems to me that the Business Secretary and Chancellor should take note: my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham is single-handedly doing her bit to drive up Britain’s productivity. In seriousness, this is a testament to the energy and passion with which she cares about her constituents, and wants their concerned aired and listened to by Government. I commend her for achieving exactly that this evening.
Question put and agreed to.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Kelly Tolhurst.)
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Nigel Adams.)