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Planning: Local Communities

Volume 641: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the role of local communities in the planning system.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, on a very different topic from the serious one that has just been discussed, but one that is no less serious for the local communities involved. This issue generates almost more correspondence than Brexit, but the Minister will be pleased to hear that Brexit is not on the agenda for the next half hour. I am sure that he has heard these points before, but as the new national planning policy framework is being considered at the moment, I feel it is important to remind the Government of them.

In the short time available, I want to touch on three points, and I know that other hon. Members may want to intervene on me or the Minister. I particularly want to talk about how the five-year land supply is being stymied by developers. I also want to talk about how residents learn about appeals, and how poorly worded planning conditions can let communities down.

As I mentioned during ministerial questions on 12 March, Charnwood Borough Council—of which, for the sake of full disclosure, my husband is the leader—has approved planning permissions for 10 years’ worth of housing. However, the difficulty is getting the developers to start building, and the consequences of that building not happening. In response to my question, the Minister for Housing stated that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) is reviewing build-out rates. I have now read my right hon. Friend’s preliminary update, and it cannot be right that developers are able to sit on lucrative land and restrict housing supply for their own financial gain, at a cost to councils that have fulfilled their obligation to provide five years’ worth of housing land and are granting permissions accordingly. That also affects local communities, which often accept more house building with no associated infrastructure improvements.

In February, I received an email from one of my constituents living in the village of Burton on the Wolds, who highlighted this problem:

“I wanted to write to you about the planning application for 58 houses which has been made recently for my village. A nearly identical application from the same developer was turned down unanimously by Charnwood’s planning committee in 2015 and the case against it has only become stronger since...My reason for writing to you about this is that I want to register my disappointment at the role governmental policy appears to have had in this renewed application. The applicant’s documentation makes it clear that they have put forward this scheme again because Charnwood’s housing supply has dipped below the 5 years’ worth they are required to demonstrate. The reason: slow development on land with planning permission has forced CBC to reduce their forecast for house completions.”

My constituent concluded:

“Any system that rewards developers for not doing the very thing we need them to do—build houses swiftly—clearly ought to be scrutinised.”

Does my right hon. Friend agree that sometimes large local authorities do not help themselves by allocating very large sites, and would she commend Cornwall Council, which is looking at reducing the size of developments to support smaller supply chains?

I thank my hon. Friend very much for that intervention; that sounds like an eminently sensible solution. Part of the reason for the tone of this debate is that it should be down to local communities—such as Cornwall Council, no doubt at the instigation and with the support of local Members of Parliament—to do the right thing for their area. My hon. Friend makes a good point: it may well be that smaller sites are more deliverable. The only caveat is that often, smaller builders find it harder to get the finance to get started, and Ministers are aware of that.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way on this important point. I was a member of the local plans expert group on behalf of the Government. The group looked at this issue; we advised that the five-year land supply be an annual event, and that once it went into the monitoring report of the local council, it not be challenged; I think that is coming through. We have also introduced a three-year land supply for organisations that have a neighbourhood plan. For the first two years, they only have to follow a three-year land supply.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He raises two interesting points. I did not know about the three-year land supply, and I am not entirely sure how many others do. A number of villages, including Burton on the Wolds, are in the process of preparing neighbourhood plans, and others have done so.

I want to respond to my hon. Friend’s other point first. He made a point about an annual event for measuring the five-year land supply. I am not sure I agree with him, because I know of examples where, for reasons of scheduling, the plans committee has missed the deadline. We have one example in Charnwood, where several hundred housing units have just been approved—very sensibly with the support of the local community—but the committee missed that annual event, so it looks as though the council does not have a five-year land supply.

I want to make two quick points. First, I try to tell people as often as possible about the three-year land supply. As the Government’s neighbourhood planning champion, I am happy to speak to her parish councils about it. Secondly, we argued that once things were in the annual monitoring report, no legal challenge should be possible. It is the legal challenge that costs councils a fortune.

I certainly agree, even as a former solicitor, that lawyers can be extremely expensive—we all know that—particularly when it comes to involving barristers and others. I am sure that my parish councils would be interested in speaking to my hon. Friend further. It would be helpful if something could be done to take into account the fact that sometimes planning committees are delayed. The council might have done the right thing in getting the five-year land supply, but those delays might mean it feels unable to turn down certain applications because developers are taking advantage. It is about having a bit of flexibility in the system to take account of local demand, local need and local community views.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this debate. Does she agree that one of the most frustrating things is when a neighbourhood plan has been put forward and excludes a site, and that site is then brought forward anyway? Local communities feel totally disempowered. It is not the way to do planning.

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. In defence of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), I do not think that is how the system is meant to work. The hon. Gentleman talked about local communities being disempowered, and that word is absolutely at the heart of this debate.

Local people understand the desire for more housing—it is often their children and grandchildren who want to move into it—but they need to know that their views are being taken into account, and I will talk about local infrastructure in a moment. Obviously I am looking forward to reading the final conclusions of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset about the slow build-out rate. That will be an important document, as the Minister will appreciate.

My second point is on notification of appeals. Last year, I spoke at an inquiry concerning the proposed development of land east of Seagrave Road in Sileby, another village in my constituency. When the council again rejected the application, the developers and landowners took the case to the High Court. However, neither I nor the local councillors who spoke at the inquiry were notified of that. Another example concerns the Storer and Ashby area residents group, which had a similar experience. In November last year, it sent me an email about another local planning application, detailing its concerns that none of the objectors were notified by the Planning Inspectorate or Charnwood Borough Council that a decision had been made, or of what it was. The residents group was not provided with a copy of the decision, or information about where it could access the relevant information online.

So many planning objections could be prevented if all councils consulted properly, and if the Government respected these plans. Basically, if planning decisions were made with residents and not done to them, that would solve a lot of the problems, would it not?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. Again, it is about trying to get the balance right. Many people, having moved into an area, do not want it to change, and it is always difficult to respect that and to account for local housing. She is absolutely right that planning should be done with local people and not done to them. That would save an awful lot of angst. I am sure we all have constituents who have become planning experts, not because they wanted to, but because they felt that they had to. That probably includes Members of Parliament.

I will return to the Storer and Ashby area residents group. It wrote to me:

“The only way for objectors or any member of the public to be aware that a decision had been made was to be vigilant in interrogating the Charnwood Borough Council website page for the planning application. Even then, the website page did not provide a link to the relevant decision document, and still does not. Such abrogation of duty in maintaining communication with parties who have taken time and resources to engage with the lawful process brings the Planning Inspectorate into disrepute and the Minister in charge of Planning”—

he is responding to this debate—

“must be held accountable for this.”

The Minister will be aware that I wrote to his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), about the Seagrave Road case, and to him about the case mentioned by the Storer and Ashby area residents group. So far the response has failed to clarify whose responsibility it is to inform all those who have contributed their views to a planning appeal inquiry about any subsequent events. Is it right that the responsibility has passed from Bristol to the local planning authority? If so, who can provide councils with clear guidance on their responsibilities in such instances?

My final point is about poorly worded planning conditions. Planning conditions are many and varied, but some conditions clearly serve an important purpose in protecting existing residents by ensuring that the local infrastructure is improved to support the increase in housing. In Barrow upon Soar, another village in my constituency, a poorly worded planning condition has led to a development being allowed to connect to the village’s foul sewers before the whole system could be upgraded to prevent more burst pipes. Residents warned repeatedly about that danger at all stages of the planning process. They felt very much not listened to, and their ability to rely on the sewers will remain at risk until Severn Trent is able to upgrade the local infrastructure.

I thank the chief planner for his assistance in reviewing that case. I am sure that the eventual conclusion—that the wording of conditions should be considered very carefully—is right, but it is cold comfort to the residents of Barrow upon Soar. I understand that the Planning Inspectorate has provided all inspectors with guidance on the use of conditions, and I would welcome an update from the Minister on whether the inspectorate feels that more needs to, or could, be done.

Some conditions require the payment of money by the developer to cover the costs of improving or extending local infrastructure. I am very grateful for the meeting I attended recently at the Banks surgery in Sileby, at which staff clearly set out just how little money has got to them in recent years, in spite of 1,600 units being built in the village over the past 25 years. New residents need general practitioners just like the rest of us. As a local MP, I am sure that the Minister knows that communities, as we have heard, are much more likely to accept the need for new development if the availability of GP appointments and school places are not strained by the new housing. What work is he undertaking to ensure that those common problems are resolved?

Like colleagues from across the House, I receive regular emails from frustrated constituents who are concerned that their views on planning applications and developments in their communities have been ignored. I have also heard from my local council that, even though it is fulfilling its obligation to provide permissions for sufficient housing, developers are not providing the houses that they have committed to building.

I would like to hear from the Minister what incentives local communities have to produce local neighbourhood plans, to share their views on proposed developments, and to participate in appeals if their area is not sufficiently protected from overdevelopment. Their infrastructure, and the services on which they depend, are being overburdened, despite planning conditions being imposed, and they are not being given the right information to challenge planning applications. I would also like to know whether the revised national planning policy framework will take those issues into account.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on securing this important debate. I am delighted to respond to the points that she has raised, although I have to gently say that I thank her for the unintended promotion—I am but the Local Government Minister, not the Minister for Housing and Planning. However, I know the Minister for Housing, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), will be keenly listening, and will hear from me regarding the points that she has raised.

My right hon. Friend for Loughborough raised the key role of communities in the planning system, and the need for local people to believe that being involved is worth while. Community participation is vital to their accepting the development required to meet our housing needs. My right hon. Friend referred to a number of specific planning cases but, as she kindly acknowledged, I am not in a position to comment on the detail or merits of those ongoing planning applications and appeals. However, I will talk more generally about the importance that the Government place on communities when it comes to plan making and planning decisions, and I will address the three areas of concern that she highlighted.

Local plans are prepared in consultation with communities and play a key role in delivering development and the necessary infrastructure in the right places. They provide clarity to communities and developers about where homes should and should not be built, so that development is planned rather than the result of speculative applications. It is crucial that local authorities have up-to-date local plans, produced in consultation with local people. As my right hon. Friend mentioned, her constituents are concerned that some development is placing pressure on existing infrastructure and services in their communities.

Up-to-date plans are an important means of identifying where infrastructure needs to be strengthened, and I am pleased to tell my right hon. Friend that the Government are introducing reforms specifically in that area. Those reforms will mean that developers know exactly what contributions are expected of them and that local communities are clear about the infrastructure that they will get in their area alongside new homes. Two separate consultations—one on developer contribution specifically and a broader one on the NPPF—have just concluded, and both included questions on that topic. The Government will introduce proposals in those areas later in the year, but the point that my right hon. Friend made is spot on: local communities need to know that infrastructure will be there alongside the housing that they are accepting in their area.

More broadly, as my right hon. Friend will know, the Government agree that supporting infrastructure is important. That is why we recently announced a £5 billion housing infrastructure fund, specifically to fund the types of infrastructure she referred to in areas where it can make the difference between a housing development happening or not. I hope that provides some reassurance.

My right hon. Friend pointed out that some authorities, including her own, are deemed not to have a five-year land supply due to land banking and slow rates of delivery. That lack of supply means that plan policies are not considered to be up to date, and applications are assessed against the presumption in favour of sustainable development. Importantly, the presumption in favour of sustainable development does not mean development at all costs. Any adverse impacts of a development will still need to be taken into account. Our housing White Paper acknowledged that the current policy on five-year land supply, although it has been effective in delivering homes, has had some negative consequences, such as those experienced in my right hon. Friend’s constituency.

In response, the Government have proposed some reforms to how land supply is calculated. The draft national planning policy framework offers local authorities the opportunity to have their five-year housing land supply agreed on an annual basis and then fixed for a one-year period, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned. The Government believe that that will help to address the situation that my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough raised. That ability to fix for one year will reduce the number and complexity of appeals, and provide greater certainty to ordinary residents and to the local authority in their decisions. I hope that she will look at how that works when it is introduced, and then come back to us with her views on how it is working in her local area.

Obviously, in exchange for that new ability, local authorities need to be realistic about meeting their planning needs, and we are addressing that through the NPPF revisions. It seems that my right hon. Friend’s local authority is being forward-looking regarding its housing needs. It is sensible for all local authorities to have a broad range of sites, especially small ones, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) rightly mentioned. That is included in the NPPF, and provides a buffer on the five-year land supply so that areas are not vulnerable to individual sites being built out slowly. That way, they can ensure that individual developers and speculators do not hold an advantage.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough was right to highlight the very large gap between the number of permissions that have been granted by local authorities across the country and the number of new homes that have been built. The housing White Paper said that a third of all new homes granted planning permission between 2010 and 2015 had not been built out. That was quite a striking statistic, and there was clearly a concern, which my right hon. Friend highlighted, that it is in the interests of speculators and developers to snap up land for housing and then sit back and wait for prices to rise. Clearly, that would not be appropriate. That is why, as she acknowledged, the Government appointed my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) to examine that issue. We will see his initial conclusions shortly, and I know that she, like the Government, will be very interested to hear what he has to say.

The Minister is making a very helpful speech, which I shall study with great care. Our right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset states in his interim report that, once detailed planning permission is granted for large sites, the fundamental driver of build-out rates appears to be the absorption rate. That is the rate at which newly constructed homes can be sold—or, importantly, at which the housebuilder believes they can be sold—successfully into the local market without materially disturbing the market price. I hope that will be at the forefront of the final report and the Government’s response. Housing is needed, and although we are on the side of enterprise, as I am sure the Minister will agree, we must also be on the side of people trying to get homes. It is not just about developers’ profits.

My right hon. Friend understands the power of enterprise and makes her point well. I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset is aware of her point. It would be wrong for me to prejudge the final conclusion of his report, but she highlights a point of interest and I am sure that it will be taken into consideration in his deliberations.

I am delighted that we were joined in the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, who is the Prime Minister’s champion for neighbourhood planning. I attest to his personal ability to galvanise and support local communities as they go through the local neighbourhood planning process, not only in my constituency but up and down the country.

On local democracy, I see the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), in the Chamber. We were vice-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group for local democracy and firm believers that town and parish councils should be given the ability to allocate within their developments some registered social landlords’ properties, taking them away from the local authority and putting them into the hands of the real decision makers. Will the Minister look at that at a later date?

I applaud the work in support of local democracy not only of my fantastic PPS, but of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall. Indeed, it was a pleasure to attend the conference for star councils held by the National Association of Local Councils, which highlights the important work of parish councils. I am happy to look into the matter he raises, but he will forgive me for not giving a specific answer right now.

Through neighbourhood planning, communities may have an even greater say in how their areas are planned and real power to shape the future development of their areas. Neighbourhood planning provides communities with a powerful set of tools to say where developments such as homes, shops and offices should go, what they should look like and what facilities should be provided. I am delighted that more than 2,400 communities have begun to shape the future of their areas. Some 13 million people across England now live in a neighbourhood planning area, and four of those areas, including Barrow upon Soar, are in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough. I am grateful for her previous contributions in the House, which have demonstrated her support for community-led planning.

My right hon. Friend asked about support. The Government continue to support groups not just through the valiant efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, but financially, too—£23 million has been made available for various support programmes, from this year through to 2022. Support is also given through regulation: when a planning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted.

We recognised, however, that some neighbourhood plans were being undermined because the local planning authority could not demonstrate the five-year land supply. To remedy that, in December 2016 the Government issued a written ministerial statement to ensure that national planning policies provide additional protection to such communities. The specific change was to protect 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 of deliverable housing sites. That was the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley made. I understand that the local authority of my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough has a supply for more than three years, so that protection should be particularly helpful in her case.

In councils such as mine, which have not particularly pushed neighbourhood plans, when a parish council does not want to take up the opportunity of such a plan, will the Government look at the potential for other interested resident groups in the area to do something similar to a neighbourhood plan even when the parish council is unwilling or unable to propose one?

I suggest that my hon. Friend should, in short order, invite my hon. Friend the Member for Henley to visit his area. I honestly believe that when we bring together people from the parish council and the local area to listen to my hon. Friend, they will be galvanised into action. The powers contained in neighbourhood planning are significant, and a local community would be hard-pressed not to want to seize those powers and to shape its own destiny once it has received my hon. Friend’s wisdom.

I speak from a Scottish angle, and I am interested in this debate as the former chairman of Moray Council’s planning committee. Does the Minister agree that there is a real risk that when communities get involved in decision-making processes and a planning committee such as Moray Council’s agrees with them, but then the decision is then overturned by the national Government in Scotland, as we see more and more often, those communities are left disenfranchised? The great work they can do locally is lost, because they do not feel that their say is being heard.

I agree with my hon. Friend. This Government very much support local communities shaping their own destinies. That is why we have supported neighbourhood planning so strongly and strengthened the provisions under which local communities shape their own futures. I know that he will welcome that, and I hope that it provides an example for the Government in Scotland to follow.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough also talked about people being consulted on planning applications. She expressed some concern about people who objected to applications not being notified. I appreciate how distressing that must be for communities, especially for people who have taken time to engage in the process, as she rightly highlighted. The planning appeals regulations, however, already require the local planning authority to notify everyone who made representations during the planning application process that an appeal has been lodged. That notification should include information on where to send any representations on the appeal and by when. Also, when appeals are decided by a hearing or inquiry, the Planning Inspectorate notifies the appeal parties of the decision and publishes all appeal decisions on its website. The inspectorate will also send copies to any interested party who has requested one. I hope that that is of some help to my right hon. Friend. I appreciate that the process is not fully inclusive, but she will understand the need to trade off the burden in large situations where multiple people have engaged in the process against the ability to request notification.

I thank the Minister for that response. Of course there is a trade-off, but modern technology—in spite of the general data protection regulation, which we are all struggling with at the moment—means that notification of large numbers of parties is possible. I encourage him to look at that in the spirit of doing things with local communities, rather than doing things to them.

My right hon. Friend makes her point well. I shall certainly ensure that the Minister for Housing is aware of that.

Finally, in the brief time available, I turn to the question of Government guidance on the drafting and discharge of conditions, and whether that guidance is sufficiently robust. Normally, the drafting and discharge of conditions is a matter between the individual local planning authority and the developer. Planning inspectors are required to follow national guidance, and their internal training manuals are continually updated. The Department is not aware that the quality of guidance has been raised as a problem elsewhere, but if my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough or her local planning authority think that the guidance in any specific area is lacking, we would be delighted to consider any suggestions that she has for how it might be improved. We look forward to receiving those in due course.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate and to all hon. Members who have contributed to it. All of us as constituency MPs receive the correspondence to which she alluded. We know how important the place in which we live is, and how it develops and evolves in housing and all other aspects is incredibly important. That is what people tend to talk to us about when we knock on their doors—not about Brexit—so it is absolutely right for this topic to receive our attention and focus. I am delighted to say that the Government strongly support the principle of local communities shaping their future, using the powers that they have been given through the neighbourhood planning process and local plans. I hope that the reforms that we are making will go some way to addressing some of the concerns that my right hon. Friend has expressed today, but I look forward to continuing the dialogue with her in the months to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.