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Future of the Planning System in England

Volume 697: debated on Thursday 17 June 2021

Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

Select Committee Statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. Clive Betts will speak for up to 10 minutes. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call Mr Betts to respond to these in turn. I call the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Clive Betts.

Thank you Mr Deputy Speaker. I would also like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to make this statement on the Committee’s report on the planning system in England. I thank all members of the Committee for agreeing the report unanimously, and our Committee specialist Edward Hicks for producing a technically challenging and detailed document, with the excellent support of our specialist advisers, Kelvin MacDonald and Christine Whitehead.

The report was launched partly in response to the Government’s publication of proposed reforms of the planning system back in August. We also build on previous reports by the Select Committee on local plans, land value capture and social housing. It is a comprehensive document and it was drawn up with widespread public interest in it; there were 154 pieces of written evidence; 14 witnesses came to give evidence; we had 6,000 responses to a public survey; and 38 members of the public came to join in our deliberations. We are grateful to all those who participated.

I have got time today, Mr Deputy Speaker, to deal with only some of the key recommendations of our report, which are as follows. A plan-led system, which is generally supported in this country, is rightly seen as the heart of the planning process, and local plans are seen very much at that heart. The Committee recognised that the Government want to place increased emphasis on local plans, and are supportive of the proposals to digitise them, to make the process of formulating local plans simpler and to see them updated more regularly.

Many of these ideas, together with making local plans a statutory requirement, were proposals that the Committee made itself in 2016, so we are pleased to see that the Government have now recognised their importance. In the report, however, we express significant concern about the proposals to reshape local plans by zoning every single site into a growth, renewal or protected area. We simply do not believe that the process can be done in 30 months, bearing in mind that many local authorities currently do not have a local plan in place, or many have plans that are significantly out of date. There is a shortage of both financial and staff resources in planning departments, and it is crucial that the Government produce a comprehensive resources and skills strategy, which they have promised.

The Committee members were all concerned about how the zoning system would operate in practice. The proposals lacked detail, which made them very difficult to assess.

We asked for greater clarity about what detail will be needed in local plans to give necessary certainty to developers and other stakeholders for the future. We were unpersuaded that the Government’s zoning system approach, as proposed, would produce a quicker, cheaper and more democratic planning system, and we recommend that the Government reconsider the proposals they put forward.

A real concern that was expressed very strongly to the Committee was that the Government’s proposal in the White Paper would lead to a lack of ability of councillors and their local communities to influence decisions on individual planning applications. At present, most public involvement is at the point when a planning application is made. The Government are right to want to see more local involvement at the local plan stage, as local plans should set the scene for future development. However, to change the system so that local plans are the only point at which communities can get involved, and then to tell communities that they have no say afterwards, risks undermining support for the planning system and undermining the democratic process at local council level.

Our report emphasised the importance of ensuring that members of the public can continue to comment meaningfully on individual planning applications. We call for further research into public involvement in the planning system, so that we can have nationwide figures showing what is actually going on at present and how it can be improved. The Committee is concerned at this stage that the Government’s plans are in very general terms and ultimately planning policy and planning law will need to be written in great detail. The content of the detail will determine whether the Government’s proposals are workable in practice. That is why the Committee believes that producing a planning Bill in draft form, and making it subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Select Committee would help ensure that whatever proposals come forward are workable and that planning lawyers and consultants will not be the greatest beneficiaries from any changes. We were warned of the real possibility of a flurry of judicial reviews.

One of the forceful points made to the Committee was that the Government’s planning proposals were essentially housebuilding proposals. The White Paper contained no mention of commercial property, for example, as the British Property Federation pointed out, and virtually no mention of employment, leisure or climate change. All these issues are absolutely central to a holistic, integrated and complete planning system that shapes the places where people live and work.

With emphasis on housing, however, in the Government’s White Paper, our report also looked at the housing formula and housing delivery. We call for clarity on how the Government intend to achieve their housing target of 300,000 new homes a year, which the Committee strongly supports and has been achieved in only a handful of years in the 1960s.

We ask for further information about changes to the housing formula, including how the Government’s proposed urban uplift in 20 major towns and cities, which came during the course of our inquiry, will work in practice, why those areas were chosen, and the rationale for the scale of the uplift. We must also ensure that changes to the housing formula do not reduce the level of house building in other parts of the north and midlands, as that would not contribute towards the levelling-up agenda.

Our report argues that the Government should be very cautious about sweeping away section 106 agreements. Those are legally enforceable contracts between developers and local authorities that ensure the delivery of new infrastructure such as schools and roads for new developments and the provision of affordable housing. If the Government want to proceed, they should bring in levies at local rates that reflect local land values. The Government should also guarantee that there will be no reduction in affordable rented housing due to the reform of the levy and the introduction of the First Homes programme.

Our inquiry considered the pace at which developments with planning permission were being completed. We concluded that it is too slow. Local councils complain regularly that the problem is not the lack of planning permissions but slow build-out rates, over which they have no control. We recommend that if, 18 months after the discharge of planning conditions on a site, the local authority is not satisfied with the extent to which work has progressed, it should be able to revoke the planning permission. We also recommend that if, after work starts, progress is not moving ahead satisfactorily, local authorities should be able to take into account a whole variety of factors to levy council tax on each uncompleted unit. We hope that the Government will take that proposal seriously.

Our report also makes recommendations on the countryside, the environment, the use of brownfield land, the green belt, and many other issues. It is a very comprehensive document. We are currently undertaking a separate inquiry into permitted development rights.

As a Committee, we look forward to the Government’s response to our report. We also stand ready, as I have said, to undertake prelegislative scrutiny of the planning Bill to ensure that changes to the planning system, which will always, by necessity, be complex, are given the full and detailed scrutiny they need. That is vital to ensuring that our planning system builds on its past accomplishments, of which there are many, addresses its present challenges, and is fit for the future.

The whole House—those who are here virtually and those who are here physically—will want to thank the members of the Committee and its Chairman for the work they have put into this report and the work they do on other parts of planning and housing.

I am glad that the Chairman said that the Committee is going to do a review of permitted development rights. The notorious statutory instrument 2020/632 is causing chaos all round England.

I want to add to what the Chairman said—he said that he could not cover every point—to reinforce the absence of the words “local councillor” in the planning statement. It seems to me that the Government need to realise that Members of Parliament matter and so do local councillors, especially in the planning process.

I am glad that the Chairman of the Committee raised the point about non-housing development, whether that is commercial development or making provision, where there is large-scale development, for churches, sports areas, children’s facilities and the like, so that a whole community is held in mind.

I would like to end by inviting the Chairman of the Committee to come with the Minister to my two planning authorities, Arun District Council and Worthing Borough Council, to look down from the chalk garden at Highdown, which is well renovated now, look at the vineyard and then look at the north and south Goring gap, and give assurances to my constituents that that green area around the town of Worthing, the largest in West Sussex, will not be built on as a result of anything in these proposals. If it were metropolitan, it would be green belt and protected. It is not. It still should be protected.

We should not have to build on every strategic gap between one town and a village, or between the hamlet of Kingston and the villages of East Preston, Ferring and Goring. Please come.

I thank the Father of the House for his question and his invitation. I am happy to take up the invitation; let us hope that two of us accept it and come along. He is absolutely right: there are many issues not contained in the initial proposals. We hope that the Government will address them in their response to the consultation and the eventual Bill. Again, it is a major omission that local councillors are not mentioned. Local councillors are absolutely key to the local planning system. We must recognise the amount of work they do and ensure that they are not bypassed by any proposals ultimately adopted.

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement and for his tireless work on producing this report. Does he agree that the Government’s approach to permitted development undermines their own policy objectives in the planning White Paper, with a particular emphasis on local and neighbourhood plans?

My hon. Friend is a very valued member of the Select Committee. He has contributed to this report, and he is absolutely right. The Housing Minister came to the Select Committee yesterday to talk about permitted development rights, and a point we made in our questions to him was that the overall reform of the planning system, and giving greater certainty to what developments will or will not happen in a local plan, must not be undermined by permitted development running contrary to the proposals in the local plan. Local authorities must have the right to shape the place for which they are responsible, and that is something we will be looking at further in the report we produce on permitted development.

It will come as no surprise to the Chairman of the Select Committee that I agree with every word of his statement and of the report that we have published. Does he agree, however, that one of the prime concerns is that if the Government come forward with zoning of particular areas within a local authority area, and if a growth area is to be used with planning permission not going through the normal process, it will be essential that those areas are subject to a full public consultation by the local planning authority, setting out clearly the boundaries for height, density and other aspects of development on the site before any developer is allowed to get on site and do as they choose?

I thank the hon. Gentleman again for his role. He is a long-standing member of the Select Committee and was around in 2016 when we produced our previous report on the changes that we want to see to local plans.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that this level of detail is so uncertain at present, and if we are going to produce a zoning system, particularly in growth areas with major development proposals effectively being given the go-ahead without much more scrutiny at the local planning stage, there will have to be an awful lot of detail and consultation put into that local planning stage. This comes back to the question of whether that can realistically be done for every single site in a local plan within 30 months. The Committee simply does not believe so.

I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the report and I thank the Committee Clerks for all their hard work on this excellent report.

We heard in the Committee how local people want to continue to be able to comment on specific local planning applications, so the proposal to remove the legal requirement to publish planning notices in local newspapers and on lamp posts and the like, with that becoming only a discretionary element, would create a postcode lottery as to where that service would continue. That would undermine local democracy and create barriers for those who do not have digital access, such as the elderly or those on low incomes. It would also damage local and regional newspapers, which are an important source of local information for people. Does the Chair agree that the existing statutory notice requirement must be retained for all local authorities, to safeguard transparency, equality and democracy in our communities?

I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution to the report, and she is absolutely right: we made this point in our recommendations. We welcome the Government’s proposals to digitise the system, which could bring in a better system with more community public access to it, but we should not then take steps that would exclude those who are not comfortable in the digital environment. Therefore we want to see the retention of statutory notices in physical form, in newspapers or on lamp posts, alongside digital arrangements.

I congratulate the Chairman and his Committee on producing a very comprehensive and constructive report on this all-encompassing subject. In the report, he says:

“We think the Government’s abandonment of its proposed formula for determining housing need is the correct decision.”

For many areas, such as the Cotswolds, the formula would have produced a staggering 144% increase in housing numbers, but it would not have addressed the affordability ratio. Can he suggest what his Committee’s recommendations to the Government would be on a revised approach, and, importantly, whether affordability and housing mix—the need for smaller properties or flats for first-time buyers and elderly people who are downsizing—should be considered?

The housing needs formula is a desperately difficult one. and the Government have a difficult job. It is right that we should try to have a housing needs formula, because it can reduce the amount of time taken up with planning inquiries in the local plan. They nearly always devolve down to long arguments about housing numbers, which is not really helpful. If local areas have particular problems they should highlight them, because a one-size-fits-all needs assessment does not necessarily meet the requirements of every individual authority.

On the particulars on the sort of housing, local councils ought to be given an opportunity to be more granular in their approach. Indeed, we made a specific recommendation in a previous report that every local plan should not just have an assessment of housing numbers but, particularly in relation to elderly people’s housing, how many of those units should be built and where they should be built to ensure provision for elderly people going forward.

I thank the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee for its very thorough report on the future of the planning system in England. In particular, I welcome the Committee’s recommendation that all individuals must still be able to comment and have an influence on all individual planning proposals. I see from paragraph 226 of the report that a major feature of responses as part of the public engagement work was the importance attached to nature and wildlife. Does my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee agree that the Government must be absolutely explicit about how the provisions in the proposed planning Bill and the Environment Bill will work together to ensure that the key issue of safeguarding our natural environment and ensuring biodiversity gain is actually achieved?

I thank my hon. Friend, a past member of the Committee, for those comments. There are omissions in the Government’s proposals so far. House building is connected to other issues, and how the planning system deals not just with house building but with a variety of environmental concerns needs fleshing out. One thing we commented on in relation to the environment was that the Canal and River Trust and Natural England are currently statutory consultees on individual planning applications, but they are not statutory consultees on local plans. If in future all the details on particular sites are going to be in the local plan, how will the statutory consultees relate to that? Most of them say that they could not possibly to do all that in 30 months, so there are some real challenges that need bringing together in the eventual proposals when they come forward.

I add my thanks to the hon. Gentleman and his Committee for the report. Does he agree that most of our constituents are not necessarily opposed to planning reform or to more housing, but that they want to feel that their area is not getting a disproportionate share of that housing and that what goes up needs to be good quality, good for the environment, genuinely affordable and supported by the right infrastructure?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is those sorts of issues that are often resolved at the planning application stage. Whether they can all be dealt with in a local plan, however well intentioned, is the real challenge. Often, it is the particular designs of a scheme—how they relate to the environment and how traffic issues are dealt with—that really cause most concern and problems for people. We must ensure that the public voice on those issues is not lost in any reforms.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for an excellent report. I congratulate him on a valuable report and on such an extensive consultation. Among the responses garnered have been those that have raised the failure to tackle excessive second home ownership in areas like mine. Is he aware that over the period of the pandemic a very bad situation has got much, much, much worse? The proliferation of excessive second home ownership in areas such as the Lakes and the rest of Cumbria robs those communities of a permanent population and can kill those communities altogether.

During the pandemic there has been a 32% increase in the number of homes in the holiday let market, and something like 80% of all new purchases in the Lakes have been to the second home market. Does he agree that the planning Bill is a place where the Government could very quickly tackle this problem by making holiday lets and second homes a different category of planning use, so that communities like mine in Cumbria can protect themselves from being cleansed of local people?

I hear the problem. It was not one that the Committee specifically considered in our report, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this is something that the Government could take into account in their legislative proposals.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I, too, congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee and his colleagues on an excellent report. I particularly welcome the emphasis that has been put today on the need for continuing involvement for elected representatives of local communities and the communities themselves, because, done properly, planning is not just about building, but about shaping communities and the infrastructure and other services that form part of them. Will he also help us on what might be done to increase the supply of qualified planners? Many local authorities struggle with their staffing levels. What more can we do to get good people into the system and keep them there?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman: it is absolutely essential that we recognise the shortage of financial resources and the shortage of staff resources, particularly skilled expertise. In past years there has been an exodus of some of the younger, brighter people out of the planning system, often into private consultancies. The Government have promised that they are doing a strategic review of planning resources, including staffing expertise. The Minister said to us yesterday that that was something he was looking to give further information on, I think when the Government respond to the consultation on their proposals. We very much want to see that, because unless we get that right, there is not a chance of bringing any reforms into play and getting the system to work as it should.

I add my congratulations to the Chair of the Committee, his members and his team on a comprehensive report into quite a detailed and lengthy White Paper. The Government set great store by their levelling-up agenda and have also committed themselves to net zero. The planning system is central to delivering these and many other key objectives, so does my hon. Friend believe that the White Paper has enough detail on either of those two issues?

I do not think either is really mentioned in the White Paper, which is something we drew attention to. The lack of any mention of climate change comes back to the lack of any linkage with some of the Government’s environmental proposals. On levelling up, I refer to the fact that the Government changed the housing needs formula midway through our inquiry and moved some requirements to build homes from southern, more rural areas to major cities, many of them in the north and midlands. Many cities will struggle to deal with that without building on their green belts—that is the feedback we are getting, including about problems in London. However, the requirement to build homes for areas outside the major cities in the north will be reduced, which does not quite square up with an ambition to get more development, infrastructure and jobs in the north outside the major cities, and removing that requirement will also mean a lack of support from Homes England to get the building under way. That is a major concern, which we have drawn attention to and needs addressing.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his statement and for responding to Members’ questions today. We will now suspend for three minutes for covid protection measures.

Sitting suspended.