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Housing Need: Shropshire, and Telford and Wrekin

Volume 657: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2019

[Albert Owen in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered housing needs in Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin.

I thank Mr Speaker for allowing me this important debate. I also thank the Minister for attending—the Minister of State, no less, rather than the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, which outlines the importance of this housing issue in Shropshire and the borough of Telford and Wrekin.

For context, the debate highlights the development plans of two local planning authorities: Shropshire Council, and Telford and Wrekin Council. I will start with Telford and Wrekin, a council that states in the foreword to its local plan for 2011 to 2031 that

“it seeks to preserve the borough’s heritage and protect the many green spaces that our residents value”—

fine words, and words that I agree with and that many of the residents and my constituents would agree with. In reality, however, it seems that nothing could be further from the truth, sadly.

That council has proven that it does not regard the borough’s ecological heritage, that it has total disregard for the environment and that it is complicit in what I call environmental vandalism, on a scale unprecedented in the borough’s relatively short history. I am sorry to say that, but it happens to be the case. Let me be clear with the Minister present that my constituents are not saying that they object to all housing—they are not nimbys—which would be an unreasonable position and not one that I would support. They are saying that the number of new homes proposed—indeed, already built, but that is past now—needs to be proportionate and sustainable, and such homes need to be built in the right places and not the wrong ones.

A current example is the area of Shawbirch. It is not appropriate to build a major industrial unit on farmland, and farmland approximate to an ancient iron-age settlement, one of the earliest recorded in the borough. It is not appropriate to put such a facility only metres away from quiet residential homes. There are question marks about the lack of consultation, of which I hope the Minister will take note.

I have been told that only 15 homes were consulted ahead of that major development application. That is fundamentally wrong and not genuine public consultation. In my view, that is trying to pull a fast one on the local residents of Shawbirch. That has been repeated time and again by the borough council. It is completely unacceptable and I hope that the Minister, too, will make that clear.

Such a facility will have a huge and detrimental environmental impact, as well as a cumulative effect on the local road infrastructure, which is already very busy at peak times. Moreover, the timing of the marketing of the proposal was driven by the borough council, which I will touch on later, even though the land belongs to Homes England.

Through this debate, I will call on the Telford and Wrekin Council to support the Conservative group, who are committed to removing that particular piece of land from the development plan altogether, which would be good news for local residents. I pay tribute to Councillor Anthony Lowe, who has worked very hard to ensure that the voice of local residents in Shawbirch is heard. It is good news that we have people such as him and Gemma Everson, a local resident, working hard on behalf of local people.

I hope the Minister agrees that the council needs to bring forward and prioritise brownfield sites for development in the borough. There are many such sites, and so there is no excuse for building on farmland. However, the Shawbirch example is not a one-off; the same applies in Apley and the beautiful market town of Newport in Shropshire. As an aside, that is where the Leader of the Opposition attended school—a fee-paying school, but let us not go there. He is there regularly, and we welcome him.

The green-belt land around Newport, Apley and Shawbirch, and in other wards, has been under huge pressure, but an abundance of brownfield options are available as an alternative. I pay tribute to Councillors Tim Nelson and Eric Carter in Newport, who are also trying to ensure that the voices of local residents are heard.

As I said, housing and affordable housing are needed, but the council must avoid turning a semi-rural borough—a relatively new town, of course, but getting rid of the few open green spaces that remain—into one giant housing estate. We need to protect green spaces and the green belt. Also, fairer distribution of the new homes bonus is needed—something on which the Minister might want to comment. Communities that have to accept new housing should have the material and financial benefit from having that new housing put in but, unfortunately, that is often not the case.

Section 106 agreements, too, need far greater transparency, scrutiny and independent oversight of how funds are spent in local communities. This is one for the Government, a Conservative Government: there is much room for improvement in how such agreements are managed by local authorities and distributed to local communities.

Another ongoing problem is that of land banking. I hope the Government will soon come forward with new initiatives to stop new home builders sitting on the planning consents without developing the sites in a timely manner. The Minister, who has a local government background, will agree that land banking causes uncertainty for local authorities and skews the local development plan process and the overall gross housing figures.

I hope the Minister will tell the Chamber today that Homes England, which owns a significant amount of land in the borough of Telford and Wrekin, will not be dictated to by the borough council and, unlike the council, will ensure, first, the prioritisation of brownfield sites and, secondly, full, orderly and genuine public consultation. There has to be public confidence in the housing system and in the strategy that councils put before their publics, and that is done through genuine consultation, which I fear is not always the case with Telford and Wrekin Council.

It is also not appropriate for Homes England to allow the borough council or other councils—this has to be on a case-by-case basis—to market Homes England sites. It is for Homes England to market those sites, as is the timing of marketing them, rather than particular local planning authorities that may or may not have a conflict of interest. Sometimes tin-eared councils do not listen to the public and are not genuine about feedback from local communities.

The Government’s national planning policy framework of July 2018 prioritised developing brownfield land. I hope the Minister might think about what sanctions there are for those councils that ignore national planning policies. If they are ignoring them, there appears to be very little sanction. I hope that might change. Before I move on, I would like to pay tribute to Shawbirch Action Group for shining a torchlight on Telford and Wrekin Council’s unpreparedness to engage genuinely with communities.

Let me move on to Shropshire Council and the Shropshire local planning authority. The council wants to concrete over huge amounts of green belt in east Shropshire, yet it has the 12th worst housing density rate in the country. We need more densely populated residential development in the right places. It is not good that it is approximately 18 units per hectare—that is very low and it needs to increase.

The Minister may not know that the council wants to build up to 3,000 houses on prime green-belt land near the historic village of Tong, which is one of the most beautiful in the diocese of Lichfield and, I would argue—surely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne)—has the most beautiful church in Shropshire. That is part of its so-called strategic sites initiative, effectively equating to a brand-new settlement. As the Minister will know better than me, strategic sites is a parallel system alongside the local development plan. That speculative, aspirational but nevertheless concerning document is a genuine attempt to bring that amount of housing to an inappropriate location.

It is significant that the plans have no local support at Shifnal Town Council or Tong parish council. The Minister has said in this place that developments of that size, whether they be called garden villages or new settlements, must have public support, meaning through their locally elected representatives and at town and parish council level, whether they are statutory consultees or not.

In addition to the gross imposition on the pristine green belt and farmland, Shropshire Council, adding insult to injury, wants to put 50 hectares of employment land on the green belt and farmland, even though plenty of other brownfield sites are available. Apparently, the housing and employment land allocation in the strategic sites initiative is needed because, unbelievably, the west midlands does not have enough employment land of its own—so much so that it has to come over the border into Shropshire in an attempt to gobble up all our green belt. That is not satisfactory at all—frankly, it is unbelievable and rather fanciful.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. As he has identified, our constituencies are adjacent. On development on the green belt in the Shropshire Council area, there are proposals under the Shropshire Council plan for significant development on green belt immediately to the east of Bridgnorth, which is on the western extremity of the green belt coming out from the Birmingham metropolitan area.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in order to sanction development on green belt, the local authority needs to be clear about the exceptional circumstances in which, under the planning guidance, green-belt development is allowed? Will he join me in pressing the Minister to provide some clue about how a council can demonstrate exceptional circumstances? What are the criteria by which that is judged? Without that, presumably, any such development would not proceed.

I am always grateful to my right hon. Friend for his interventions—he has huge experience, having been a Member of Parliament representing Ludlow and that beautiful other part of Shropshire for 14 years. Bridgnorth, for which he is the Member of Parliament, has taken quite a lot of housing in recent years. Again, I think Bridgnorth residents have been very good: they have not been nimbys; they have just said that the housing needs to be sustainable and proportionate. The exceptional circumstances for the green belt are very narrow—they have to be exceptional. I think that test is right, but whether Shropshire Council has met it is a matter for others, such as my right hon. Friend and the Minister. In my constituency, my view is that the council has not met that test to date. Whether in Bridgnorth, Shifnal, Albrighton, Tong, Shawbirch or Apley, we should avoid at all times building on farmland and greenfield sites.

The Minister of State heard me mention the west midlands and the so-called lack of employment land, which I do not accept—it is inaccurate—but even if that were the case, there are plenty of vacancies for both heavy and light industrial employment uses in Telford itself, on the industrial parks of Stafford Park, Halesfield or even down the road in Wolverhampton. I do not accept that Tong, Shifnal or Albrighton should become the dumping ground for west midlands housing and employment, with employment being the gateway for the housing and the revenue stream.

There are questions to be asked about the relationship between the west midlands combined authority and Shropshire Council. It is in the public interest and my constituents have a right to know the financial and commercial relationship between those two authorities, and the commercial and financial relationship between the borough of Telford and Wrekin and Shropshire Council. I hope it does not take freedom of information requests to elicit that material from those authorities. The public have a right to know why employment land, with residential housing on the back of it, is coming to green belt when it is pretty clear to anybody that there is plenty of employment land in the west midlands. That raises serious issues.

I would like to touch on Shifnal, if I may, which is a beautiful market town. For years, Shropshire Council has agreed to an integrated transport scheme, but it has never come forward. We have to see benefits in local communities. Shifnal has taken a lot of housing in recent years but has seen none of the benefits of the new homes bonus. It has seen no major infrastructure benefits. We still have issues with drainage that have not been dealt with by Shropshire Council, yet it expects the town to take more.

The Minister will know that if the housing is unsustainable, there will be issues with sustainability socially, with physical infrastructure, schools, GP services, roads, drainage as I have touched on, and flooding and displacement of water tables. Shropshire needs to bring forward its plans for the power station in Buildwas and its plans for a major site in the barracks at Tern Hill, and encourage the Ministry of Defence to bring that site forward more quickly than currently planned. We need to ensure that RAF Cosford, outside the wire, develops as much MOD land as possible brownfield land in order to safeguard the green belt.

Finally, I refer to the Government’s national planning policy framework document 2018, on the purpose of the green belt. It serves five purposes:

“to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas; to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another; to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment; to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns and to assist in urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.”

As the proposals currently stand, around 2,500 homes are planned for Shifnal, 3,000 planned for Tong and over 600 planned for Albrighton. If these plans go ahead, the current distance of 3.7 km between Shifnal and Tong will be reduced to about 1.2 km to 1.4 km, which goes against the very spirit and letter of what the green belt is supposed to be about.

In conclusion, my constituents are not saying no to housing. They are saying yes to housing, but to sustainable —not unsustainable—housing. I will allow the Minister to respond.

It is a great pleasure to appear before you for the first time, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing the debate. Having felt the breeze on my face and heard the skylarks atop the Wrekin, and sung in Ludlow church as a boy chorister, I can appreciate why my hon. Friend and his county colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), are quite so assiduous in seeking to curate that beautiful part of the country as carefully as possible.

As Members will know, the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in the planning system, so I am sure they understand that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the detail of individual decisions or plans. However, I can talk more broadly about the issues raised by my hon. Friend. Like him, the Government fully recognise the need to plan for and build more homes. We are committed to enabling the housing market to deliver at least 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. We need to make sure that homes are supplied that meet the diverse needs of our communities, such as homes for first-time buyers, homes suitable and accessible for older people, high-quality rental properties and well-designed social housing.

Each and every part of the country has its role to play in ensuring that these homes are delivered. The vital first step in the process is to bring forward local plans that give communities certainty about where development will take place. The planning system should be genuinely plan-led, with up-to-date plans providing a framework for addressing environmental, social and economic priorities for every area, as my hon. Friend mentioned. Local plans should be prepared in consultation with communities. I hear exactly what my hon. Friend says about consultation and I urge all local authorities to ensure the public are fully involved in the planning process at every level. Local authorities play a key role in delivering the development and infrastructure that is needed in the right places, and community participation is a vital part of that.

The best plans are those that have been developed through effective engagement with communities throughout the process. Having an up-to-date plan in place is essential to planning for housing, providing clarity to communities and developers about where homes and supporting development should be built—and where it should not—so that development is planned for, rather than the result of speculative planning applications. The two local authority areas over which my hon. Friend’s constituency spans should have regard to that. I am aware that Telford and Wrekin Council adopted its local plan last year, for which it should be congratulated. I understand that Shropshire Council is undertaking a partial review of its site allocations and management of development plan at present—I emphasise how important that is for the communities those councils serve.

Through the revised national planning policy framework, we have made significant reforms to make it easier and quicker to get a plan in place. We have introduced flexibility in how plan-making happens, with a new, more flexible plan-making framework and an expectation that plans are kept up to date and reviewed at least once every five years. We have also introduced a standardised approach to assessing housing need locally. When it was published last year, the revised NPPF introduced a standard method for assessing local housing need. After extensive consultation, it was introduced to speed up and reduce the cost of the plan-making process and to make the process more transparent and accessible. It was introduced to help ensure that we meet our commitment to deliver more homes, which have been better designed, faster.

In practice, all councils should make a realistic assessment of the number of homes their communities need, and they should use the standard method as the starting point, not the end point, in the process. The starting point is used to identify the minimum number of homes needed every year. What the standard method does not do, however, is provide a maximum number of homes needed, nor does it provide a target that must be planned for. It would be wrong to think that this is just a numbers game; we need to make sure that communities are fully on board through local plans. We need to make sure that constraints, such as green belt, are considered and that we find the right places for homes, within those constraints. We also need to ensure that the right infrastructure is in place and that we underpin all development with good design principles.

Development should not be progressed at any cost and local circumstances should be taken into account. Local authorities are best placed to do that and should plan how to meet the housing needs of their communities, considering land availability and relevant constraints, including green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty, and whether need is more appropriately met in neighbouring areas.

Does the Minister agree that the relationship first between the West Midlands combined authority and Shropshire Council, and secondly between Shropshire Council and Telford and Wrekin Council, whether it be commercial and/or financial, should be transparent? It is in the public interest that documentation relating to those relationships should be published.

I agree with my hon. Friend. As he will know, under the plan-making process, all local authorities have a duty to co-operate with their neighbours in seeking to allocate housing need most appropriately in their region or area. Where those plans are put in place and there is co-operation about the allocation of housing, of course it should be completely transparent for local communities to see how their democratically elected representatives are disposing of the required housing need in their area.

I want to talk about environmental protection. The NPPF carries forward into planning the basic principle of the 25-year environment plan that we must leave our environment in a better condition than when we inherited it, and plan and design developments accordingly. The area which both my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow represent is particularly sensitive in environmental terms, and should be protected as much as possible.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the green belt is a key feature of our natural heritage and fundamentally aims to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. It is a national policy, but applied locally with green-belt land defined and protected by local planning authorities. By providing strong protection for the openness of green-belt land the NPPF prevents inappropriate development. He is right that local authorities have a duty to look at brownfield land first before they consider green-belt sites.

Does the Minister share my surprise that my constituents were informed in the last few weeks by Shropshire Council that the west midlands appears to have run out of employment land?

I cannot comment on specific dispositions towards plans, but it sounds surprising to me that the west midlands, which is such a large area, might be short of employment land. Nevertheless, dispersed employment, even in my hon. Friend’s constituency, should be welcomed. As he says, it is for local authorities to decide exactly which area is right to use for their employment and housing land. He is right that there should be a close relationship between Homes England and local authorities. That relationship should be transparent, with plans and decisions on display, subject to commercial confidentiality, giving local communities confidence that what is being done in their name and in their area has both involved them in its production and can be justified.

On transparency, I want to say a word about section 106 agreements, which my hon. Friend raised. To improve the section 106 process, we have recently mandated local authorities to publish viability assessments of particular developments. Local people can now see what the section 106 gain for their area will be, and can compare it against their neighbours, because we see different patterns of performance on section 106 agreements. All of that, allied with other changes we have made in the planning process, such as producing neighbourhood plans and pushing neighbourhood plans forward, is designed to make local people, including my hon. Friend’s constituents, feel that they are more the masters of the planning system and less its victims.

If we are going to raise acceptability for vital housing so that young people are able to live in beautiful areas of the country such as the one my hon. Friend represents, we need to ensure local people are in charge of where housing goes, what it looks like, how it is disposed and what kind of housing it is. Local people need to be an integral part of the process of producing new homes, having accepted that a significant number of homes need to be built for the next generation, as a moral obligation to be passed from one generation to the next. I will work closely with my hon. Friend and his county colleagues to make that happen sensitively in his constituency, as I will across the rest of the country.

Question put and agreed to.