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Planning Process: Probity

Volume 677: debated on Thursday 11 June 2020

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, if he will make a statement on the need to maintain public confidence in the probity of the planning process and his quasi-judicial role in these matters.

The Government are committed to maintaining public confidence in the probity of the planning process at all levels, including the Secretary of State’s role in deciding called-in planning applications and recovered appeals. Rightly, Parliament has, through the planning Acts, delegated to local planning authorities the powers to determine things at their level. However, Parliament has also created provisions whereby a small proportion of cases are determined by central Government.

The written ministerial statement of June 2008 sets out clear criteria for the use of the powers. For example, some decisions are recovered because of the quantum of housing they involve and thus their potential effect on the Government’s objectives for sustainable communities; others are recovered because of non-determination by the local authority. The involvement of Ministers in the planning system is a very long-established process that is clearly guided by both the published ministerial code and the guidance published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on planning propriety, which focuses on the duty on Ministers to behave fairly and to approach matters before them with an open mind.

The vast majority of planning decisions are determined at a local level by local planning authorities. However, as I have said, the planning system provides for decisions to be sent to Ministers for determination, including on the grounds that they involve developments of major importance. In fact, Ministers were involved in 26 planning decisions out of a total of 447,000 planning cases last year. The small number of cases that are referred to planning Ministers for determination are often among the most controversial in the planning system—for example, the 500 dwellings in the Oxford green belt that were recently allowed, and the 500 dwellings in the York green belt that were refused.

Given the nature of the cases before them, it is not uncommon for Ministers to determine against the planning inspector’s recommendation, as has happened in around 20% of cases in recent years. In conclusion, I stress that each planning decision is taken fairly and on its own merits.

The Secretary of State will not have the public confidence that he needs to overhaul the planning system until we have full transparency over his unlawful decision to force through the Westferry development. He gave consent to the scheme on 14 January, in the teeth of opposition from Tower Hamlets Council and his own planning inspector, who both considered the scheme oversized and lacking in affordable housing. When Tower Hamlets took up a judicial review to challenge the Secretary of State, he took the extraordinary step of admitting that his decision was unlawful because of apparent bias. That meant that he avoided publishing in open court all correspondence revealing the true reasons behind his decision. Will the Minister tell us what that apparent bias was?

The developer, Northern & Shell, is owned by the billionaire Conservative party donor Richard Desmond. Mr Desmond sat next to the Secretary of State at a Conservative party fund-raising dinner just two months previously, and he admits that they discussed the scheme. The ministerial code requires Ministers to act with integrity; did the Secretary of State disclose his conversation with Mr Desmond to the Department before he granted permission? As the circumstances clearly raise a question of bias, why did the Secretary of State not immediately recuse himself from taking the decision?

The Secretary of State gave the scheme consent one day before a community infrastructure levy came into force; did he know that he was helping Mr Desmond to dodge a potential £50 million tax bill? Will the Secretary of State now disclose what contact he or his representatives had with the developers about that tax?

By an astonishing coincidence, just two weeks after the Secretary of State took his decision Mr Desmond made a generous donation of £12,000 to the Conservative party. This sequence of events raises grave concerns about cash for favours. If he wants to restore trust, the Secretary of State must immediately publish all documents and all correspondence relating to this decision. The public need reassurance that the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Conservative party fund-raising dinners.

The hon. Gentleman’s comments remind me of the adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again,” because I think, Mr Speaker, that this is his sixth attempt at an urgent question on this matter. I do not deny—

Order. We do not discuss urgent questions, and I am the judge of what is right and wrong on the numbers, so we will leave that for today. Mr Pincher, I have the greatest respect for your job, and you need to have the same for mine.

Indeed, Mr Speaker. I was simply going to observe that the hon. Gentleman has shown great persistence, although after listening to his questions I do not think there was much in them that was new or different. He asked four fundamental questions, Mr Speaker.

Order. I am sorry. That is questioning the judgment of decisions we take in a meeting on whether there was something different. You were not present at that, Mr Pincher, and I do not believe that you are aware of our discussions—and if you are, you should not be. So I think we can leave that for now.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am very happy to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, and certainly never question your judgment.

The hon. Gentleman asked first about the nature of the decision of the Secretary of State for a redetermination. The Secretary of State, with the support of the Mayor of Tower Hamlets and others in the local planning authority, believed the best course of action was for a swift redetermination of this particular issue. The way to achieve that, technically in law, is to accept the action that was brought by the local authority to the court. That is why the Secretary of State made the decision that he did.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the Secretary of State acted properly and with propriety in making clear to the Department all discussions that he has had with applicants; yes, he did. At all times he has disclosed any conversations that he has had with applicants.

The hon. Gentleman also requests me to describe my right hon. Friend’s relationship with the applicant. My right hon. Friend has no relationship with the applicant, so that question is irrelevant. Both the applicant and the local authority have asked my right hon. Friend to make a site visit. My right hon. Friend, in discussion with officials in our Department, weighed up the pros and cons of such a site visit and decided against.

As for the decision on 14 January, which is outlined publicly and which the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members can see online, that decision is all very clear. There were no discussions about the CIL issue between my right hon. Friend and the applicant. My right hon. Friend has been very clear about his involvement with the applicant. I do not think anything further needs to be added.

The applicant has, I think, paid for tickets to a Conservative party event. That is apparently where the funds came from. Ministers have no knowledge of funds provided to political parties through donations or through payment for tickets. These are spendings made by donors which go to parties of all persuasions. They are declared in the proper and usual way. None of this is known to Ministers, and none of it is discussed by Ministers. It certainly was not discussed on this occasion.

When it comes to planning, nowhere offers greater opportunity for house building, of all tenure types, than here in the capital, yet a total lack of ambition by the Labour-run City Hall leaves a shortfall. What steps can my right hon. Friend outline to get the planning system working in London?

One reason why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has called in the Mayor’s plan is that we believe it to be insufficient; it has a paucity of ambition for the sorts of houses and the number of houses we need in London. By his own admission, the Mayor is missing his own target. The reason why this particular application came before my right hon. Friend was the failure of the local authority to properly determine upon it. He came to the conclusion that it should go ahead because of the number of homes and of affordable homes that were going to be built—the sorts of homes the Mayor of London is not building.

This is like the Dominic Cummings affair and we have a Minister defending the indefensible. When the Secretary of State personally approves a planning application a day before the deadline, which saves the developer £40 million of fees in infrastructure payments, it raises serious questions. When it transpires that the developer then donates to the Tory party, to the public this matter simply stinks. Worse, the Secretary of State’s actions overruled the planning decision of the local council and it was against his own Planning Inspectorate advice. Why did he think he knew better? Why do the Minister and the Secretary of State not think it would be better to have more affordable homes funded? Surely they must agree that a multi-millionaire funding a £1 billion development helps fund future infrastructure for the greater good. Why was the Secretary of State content with his decision until legal action was raised by Tower Hamlets Council? Why do the Government think it is acceptable for the Secretary of State to remain in place after an unlawful decision, which he admits shows apparent bias? This is a party whose former Prime Minister and current Prime Minister once auctioned off a tennis match with themselves for £160,000. Does the Minister understand what these fundraising events look like to the public when other decisions then get made that seem to favour those who attend the events? For a Tory Government, it is one rule for them and one rule for another. Fortunately for us in Scotland, many people in Scotland now see independence as a better option, because nothing the Minister can say gives confidence in this place.

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I said, it is not unusual for Ministers to look at and call in significant applications, and for them to come to a different conclusion from that of the Planning Inspectorate. My right hon. Friend’s reasons for his decision were clearly outlined in his decision letter of 14 January. He makes it clear that one reason for his decision to allow the application was the very significant number of homes that were going to be built as a result of it, including affordable homes. I might say in response to the hon. Gentleman that in the same week, in an application to the same authority, my right hon. Friend came to a very different conclusion when he refused a planning application made by and supported by the local authority to demolish the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the one that created Big Ben and the Liberty bell. The local authority, the well-known tribunes of the people in Tower Hamlets, wanted to demolish it and build a luxury boutique hotel. My right hon. Friend will always come down on an application based on its merits and in the interests of the people. That is what he did on this occasion and that is what he will always do.

Will my right hon. Friend set out his plans to increase the supply of affordable homes to rent and to purchase through the excellent first homes programme that he has brought forward, particularly for key workers, the heroes of the covid crisis? Will he consider directly commissioning the construction of those homes on surplus public sector land?

Let me just say that we are straying from what the urgent question is about, so, unfortunately, we will have to move on.

In the interests of transparency, may I say that the Select Committee has not considered this matter? Last night I did receive a letter from the mayor of Tower Hamlets, but the Committee has not given consideration to that. Does the Minister agree that such matters as this are best dealt with when all the facts are in the public domain, otherwise judgments will be formed along the basis of supposition and conjecture, and, were the Committee to make a request to the Secretary of State, would he be willing to provide us with all relevant documentation so that the Committee could give proper, careful consideration to these matters, based on the facts that are available?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I remind him that the decision of the Secretary of State, as I have already said, is in the public domain. The application is a live one, and documentation will be published in the usual way. We always take seriously, and consider weightily, requests from the Committee, and I am sure that we will happily consider this one. However, my right hon. Friend has published his decision, it is a very clear decision, and all documents will be published in the usual way, as they are through live planning applications.

While the Conservative Mayor in the West Midlands is getting homes built by making the best use of brownfield sites, the Labour Mayor in London keeps missing his housing targets and the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester proposes ripping up the green belt against the wishes of my constituents. Is it only the Conservatives that are able to get it right on housing?

Order. Unfortunately, we need to get the question right. The Urgent Question is certainly not about Manchester, and certainly not about that. [Interruption.] I think it is for me to decide. It might be helpful if Members were to go and read what the Urgent Question is about, and then we can link the two. I call Rachel Hopkins.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I speak as a local councillor. We are regularly reminded to abide by our code of conduct, based on the Nolan principles, including integrity, accountability, openness and honesty, and declare personal or pecuniary interests, be them real or perceived, in decision making. With that in mind, is it a coincidence that Mr Desmond made a substantial donation to the Conservative party just days after the Secretary of State rushed through permission for the Westferry development, against the advice of his own planning inspector, and one day before Mr Desmond would have become liable for a £50 million tax bill?

I do not know when Mr Desmond made donations or, in this case, payments for tickets to a Conservative party event. I believe he has donated to other political parties, including the Labour party. He is clearly a very generous man. I do not know that, and nor does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, because we have no knowledge of those political donations when we are making planning decisions. My right hon. Friend has laid out very clearly his reasons for his decision, which he has made honestly and fairly. He is mindful, as am I, of his responsibilities according to the ministerial code and MHCLG propriety codes. We will always make decisions fairly, based on their merits and in the interests of the people.

One way we can ensure trust in the probity of the planning process is to ensure that it relates to the needs of people on the ground in communities. I was saved by social housing. Were it not for social housing, I would not be here. How can we ensure that the planning process that local authorities follow respects the communities that they represent and, more importantly, that the standards of social housing are improved? I know that this is an issue that the Minister finds very important.

On the question of social housing, and indeed affordable housing, we are committed to increasing the numbers of affordable homes and social rented homes. It is worth while noting that in the last year alone this Government have built more council homes than the last Labour Government did in the entire 13 years of their history. My hon. Friend has an absolute guarantee that we will work, as will Mayor Street, for the interests of local people, building the homes that they want.

My hon. Friend also makes a point about the planning system. I am keen to ensure that the system acts with speed and transparency, and in the interest of local people. He can always be assured that the Conservative Government have that interest at heart.

Did major Tory party donor Mr Desmond ask to sit next to the Secretary of State at the Conservative party dinner, on a table where—by mere coincidence, according to accounts—other developers involved in the scheme were seated? Mr Desmond himself has admitted that they discussed the scheme over dinner, but the Secretary of State says that they did not. Who, out of the two, is misleading the British people?

We must be very careful about the word “misleading”. I am sure that no Member of this House would ever mislead anybody.

My right hon. Friend has been absolutely clear: the applicants raised the issue of Westferry with him at that dinner, my right hon. Friend made it clear that he could not discuss planning matters and would not discuss that planning matter, and the issue was closed. I have no idea what Mr Desmond asked for at that dinner, where he wished to be seated or who made the decision on where he was seated, because Ministers in my Department and others do not know what donations or funds are being spent by donors on political parties. There is a firewall, quite properly, between the two.

I completely agree on the need to maintain public trust in the planning process. I have the honour to represent the historic market town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, and one concern people have is that our historic buildings and heritage are not always protected in the planning process. What steps is the Ministry taking to ensure that buildings of importance, such as the Guildhall in Newcastle-under-Lyme, are protected in the planning system, in the public interest?

Heritage assets are vital to us all, and we want to ensure that they are protected. The Guildhall is clearly of great interest to my hon. Friend and his constituents. One reason why my right hon. Friend made the decision he did with respect to the Whitechapel bell foundry was its huge historic interest to the people of Tower Hamlets and to people in this place. His decision there was the right one, and I think all his decisions have been right.

To recap, we have a planning decision that is unlawful, weaved through guidance on tall buildings, downplayed the heritage impact on the Greenwich world heritage site, increased the intensification of the housing units by 113% at the same time as reducing the proportion of affordable units by 40%, was taken on a timescale that exempted the developer from making contributions and saw a substantial donation to Tory party coffers. Does the Minister not understand how bad this looks? Why is the Secretary of State not coming to the House to explain why he sought to exercise his powers in the manner in which he did? Will he now ensure that all the documents and correspondence germane to this decision are released, so that people can understand for themselves the nature of the apparent bias in this case?

My right hon. Friend’s reasons for his determination are quite clear—as I have said already, they are laid out in his decision letter of 14 January, which is open to public scrutiny and, indeed, legal challenge. My right hon. Friend made a decision in favour of local homes for local people, including more affordable homes. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, when it comes to tall buildings, other Ministers in my right hon. Friend’s position have made decisions in their favour, including John Prescott, who in 2003 accepted a building for 750 asylum seekers that was particularly tall. My right hon. Friend will always act in the interests of local people and will act fairly, proportionately and properly.

I welcome the additional investment in the affordable homes programme secured by my right hon. Friend in the Budget in March—a scheme responsible for the delivery of almost half a million new homes since 2010. What assurances can the Minister give me that developers will continue to be held to their obligations to provide affordable units within residential developments?

We have a very effective affordable homes programme under way. As a result of the work of this Government and previous Conservative Governments, we have built something like 450,000 affordable homes in the last 10 years. We should compare that with the 399,000 built by the previous Labour Government during their nine years in office, at a time when apparently the economy was rosy and they had lots of money to spend. The Chancellor announced at the Budget £12 billion for the next affordable homes programme. We will make sure that the tenure and geographic mix is right for local communities and that it builds affordable homes and the homes that people want and need.

Given that the Prime Minister pushed through the original scheme for the same developer when he was Mayor of London, did No. 10 have any involvement in events or conversations leading to the Secretary of State’s unlawful decision to grant approval?

With respect to the hon. Lady, she is wrong. That was an entirely different application. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was determined to leave a legacy in London of more homes—more of the right homes in the right places—so that people could live the lives they wanted to live. In comparison, the present Mayor of London is missing his own targets and the Government’s targets. It is the reason we have had to call in his plan—to demonstrate that he must do better.

I thank the Minister for his responses on this very important topic. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) for raising his concerns about the green belt, which I share. With public engagement in the planning process at an all-time low, because meetings are now held online or not at all, what advice is the Minister giving to planning authorities to maximise public probity and prevent any decision from being steamrollered through?

As I said in my opening remarks, planning is essentially a local matter. The vast majority of local planning decisions are made locally. Sometimes they are appealed against to the Planning Inspectorate, but only on a small number occasions will those applications come to a Secretary of State. I am very keen to ensure that the planning system is swift, transparent and reflects and adheres to local needs, and I shall make sure that my hon. Friend’s comments and concerns are properly reflected in all our considerations about planning processes.

Campaigners in Warrington North have been battling to save Peel Hall from development for over three decades. With planning law already weighted so heavily in favour of development, what assurances can the Minister give that the developer cannot simply make a substantial donation to the Conservative party to subvert the process and that residents will get the fair hearing they deserve and can have confidence in that process?

The planning law in this country is very clear, as the hon. Lady knows. I suggest that she go and read it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the probity of the planning system has been enhanced by the Secretary of State’s decision to proceed with South Oxfordshire District Council’s local plan and that the holding of an examination in public online is a very good, transparent way of proceeding?

Virtual proceedings are an effective way of ensuring that the light of public interest shines upon planning decisions, and I think the decision made in respect of South Oxfordshire was the right one. As I have said before, we will act always with fairness and probity, but we will also act to make sure that the Government’s objectives to build more homes in the right places—the sorts of homes people want and need—are met.

When I was elected to the council, one of the first things I did was sit on a planning committee. Does the Minister agree that transparency in that quasi-judicial role is really important, especially when constituents still feel there is a lot of secrecy around the planning process? Does he believe that there needs to be that full, transparent process in order not to undermine the planning system for our constituents?

I certainly agree that transparency in planning is important. That is why the decisions that Ministers make, if they are involved in those planning decisions, are properly published and open to full public scrutiny, as they have been in the case that the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) has raised.

Like the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), I sat on my local planning committee and in my training I learned that only the most contentious of applications, or those of national significance, come before the Minister. We have an example on our doorstep, just over the road, where the 50-storey St George’s Tower was granted by John Prescott against the wishes of the local council. Can the Minister clarify why certain applications require a ministerial decision?

There are some applications which, because of the number of homes, will involve a ministerial decision. Other applications, which are timed out because the local authority has not been able to come to a determination and the applicant appeals, also come before a Minister. That happens in a small number of cases. It happened in the Westferry case, but I remind the House, because I think it bears repetition, that the issue came before the Secretary of State because the local authority failed to make a determination. It came before the previous Secretary of State in the early part of last year and went through the normal adjudication process in MHCLG.

In my constituency, the local planning authority has just rejected a planning application aimed at reducing the number of affordable housing units. What confidence can my constituents have that the Government will not overrule that decision? Most importantly, should Ministers who are making planning decisions not be under the same obligation as local councillors working on planning decisions to declare personal and prejudicial interests?

Ministers are obliged to adhere to the ministerial code and the MHCLG proprietary and ethics policy. We will build the homes that we think people need. We are going to spend £12 billion on the affordable homes programme to ensure that the right sort of homes are built in the right places. It is for the local authority, whichever local authority it is, to determine need and to bid for some of that AHP money if it wishes to build socially rented homes. Homes England will also take bids from applicants to build homes according to the land supply of local authorities. Let us see what the hon. Lady’s local authority achieves. I trust that it will build the right sorts of homes for the people of Bath.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am now suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.