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Planning System Modernisation

Volume 699: debated on Monday 19 July 2021

We will modernise the planning system, ensuring a simpler, faster and more predictable system that delivers more homes, more infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, and honours our commitment to net zero and the environment. Our reforms will also make the planning system more accessible through digital plan making, ensuring more local people—more than the 1% who currently engage with the planning system—can get involved. We are taking power out of the hands of the big developers and giving it back to local communities and small builders so that, together, we can build back better.

I thank my right hon. Friend and Ministers for their engagement and correspondence over the last year. As he will know, I have asked what mechanisms exist to challenge the housing targets for my constituency. As such, will he confirm my new understanding that the local authority housing needs target is not set in stone and is a starting point for negotiation, and that it is the local authority’s responsibility to challenge the housing target as part of its local plan?

My hon. Friend and I have spoken about that on a number of occasions—as have I with you, Mr Speaker. He will appreciate that I am unable to comment on the specific local plans because of my quasi-judicial role. However, he is right to say that housing targets are only a starting point. All local plans are subject to an independent examination. Following consultation with the local community, anyone who wants to make representations to change a plan must be heard by the inspector. That process will take into account local land constraints such as the green belt, sites of special scientific interest, national parks and so on in coming to a sensible and credible way forward.

My right hon. Friend is right that planning reform is overdue, but in Buckinghamshire there are serious concerns that the voices of local people will not be heard. For example, we know that in Aylesbury many thousands more houses will be built in the coming years, but the town is already merging into nearby villages and infrastructure is at breaking point. What reassurance can he provide that when residents raise legitimate concerns, they will be listened to?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and he is right to say that significant housing delivery is occurring at the moment in Aylesbury. There are two principal things that the Government seek to do to support his constituents. The first is to ensure that more infrastructure accompanies that housing; we will do that principally through our infrastructure levy, which will capture more of the land value uplift and put more money at the service of his excellent local council in Buckinghamshire. Secondly, we will ensure that more local people can be involved in the planning system by digitising it so that, at the touch of a smartphone, people can access and understand a plan and comment on or even object to a planning application. By doing so, we expect that we can boost the number of people who engage in our system and drive a truly localist approach.

There is a great deal of concern in my Heywood and Middleton constituency and across Greater Manchester about the amount of green belt approved for release by the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, as part of his Greater Manchester spatial framework. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me about protection of the green belt as part of his Department’s new planning reforms?

This Government made a manifesto commitment not just to protect the green belt, but to enhance it. At the moment, planning policy is clear that building on the green belt should be contemplated only in the most exceptional circumstances, and we intend to continue that through our modernised planning system. I appreciate the pressure that my hon. Friend and his constituents are under as a result of the proposed Greater Manchester spatial framework, which does not seem to accord with the wishes of local residents. I hope that as we come out of the pandemic, Manchester City Council and others with a good record of house building and regeneration will find opportunities for imaginative building on brownfield sites and around the city centre.

I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend’s earlier answer, but does he agree that in any future planning reforms we must increase protection for our green belt? In Sevenoaks and Swanley, we are 93% green belt, yet we are constantly inundated by speculative planning applications such as that at Broke Hill, which worry the local community. The message should be clear: if it is green belt, it is protected, and if a planning application is put in for the green belt, the answer will be no.

The point that my hon. Friend touches on is that the current planning system is not well regarded and is not producing the kinds of outcomes that we want; that is precisely why we want to reform and modernise it. We want to ensure that protections such as the green belt have the weight that they deserve in the planning system and that we can cut out speculative development unless it is approved by democratically elected local councillors at their sole discretion. The system that we are bringing forward does exactly that. Local authorities will need to have a plan; if they have a plan that is allocated land, there will be no need for issues such as speculative development and the five-year land supply.

The anti-corruption campaign Transparency International says that the Conservative party has become overly dependent on donations from developers. It is particularly concerned that Ministers failed to report the details of what they talked about to developers in over 300 meetings about which they simply disclosed generalisations such as “housing” or “planning”; it fears that that could amount to what it calls aggregate corruption. Will the Secretary of State now publish the full minutes of all those meetings so that the public can see exactly what Ministers agreed to do for their developer paymasters?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, all meetings that Ministers have are correctly identified on the register of interests, but I have to say that he has been on quite a journey. One adviser who worked with him as leader of Lambeth Council has been left bemused: is this the same Champagne Steve he remembers meeting with developers? It is not just him who has invited charges of shameless hypocrisy; the Leader of the Opposition has received thousands of pounds of donations from developers, and the deputy leader of the Labour party caused a splash in the papers the other day for accepting £10,000 from developers for her leadership campaign.

Order. Could the right hon. Gentleman withdraw the word “hypocrisy”? Hon. Members would never be hypocritical.

I will certainly withdraw that, at your request, Mr Speaker. We can only imagine how much the deputy leader of the Labour party will be asking for when it comes to her impending leadership campaign.

It is not surprising that the Secretary of State is refusing to be transparent, because we all know who benefits the most from their developers’ charter. Just weeks ago, this House passed Labour’s motion to guarantee residents’ right to a say over local planning applications in their own neighbourhoods. This week, councillors of all parties—including the right hon. Gentleman’s—in Medway and Richmond passed similar motions. How many more councils will need to do the same before he ditches the developers’ charter and his plan to pay back developers by selling out communities?

I am sure that Conservative councillors the length and breadth of the country were over the moon to receive the hon. Gentleman’s letter. I can see the scene now over the summer recess, when the gate rattles or there is a knock at the door and he rushes to check what the post has brought in, but like a jilted lover or a pen pal who assumes his letters got lost in the mail, he finds nothing there except just another letter from Croydon Council telling him that the bills are going up as a result of the terrible mistakes and mismanagement that his friends and cronies are making over at Croydon. He has taken an avowedly anti-house building approach. This is a far cry from the Labour party of Attlee and Bevan, who said that this was a social service and a moral mission. This Government are going to keep on building houses, but we will build them sensitively. We will build beautiful homes, we will protect the environment and we will help young people and those on lower incomes to enjoy all the security and prosperity that comes with owning a home of their own.

I hope that the Secretary of State has seen the Select Committee’s report into the planning reforms. We were supportive of a number of aspects, including the need to strengthen local plans and how they are drawn up. Could I ask him two things in relation to our recommendations? We need to recognise the serious change in moving to a zonal system and the importance of getting the details right, and I wonder if he might consider the recommendation to move, at the next stage, to a draft Bill, so that we could give it serious pre-legislative scrutiny as to what it would mean in practice. Secondly, will he have another look at the distribution of housing under his latest proposals? Under the proposals, large areas of the north outside the major cities will see their housing numbers fall, which seems to be in contradiction to the Government’s levelling-up agenda.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and the members of the Select Committee for their interesting report, which we have considered carefully as part of the broader work that we have done to listen to the views of colleagues here in Parliament on both sides of the House and in the country before preparing our response to the White Paper in the autumn. I will of course bear in mind his suggestion about pre-legislative scrutiny, which may be a good way forward. On his second point, I must respectfully disagree, because I think levelling up involves ensuring that our big cities of the midlands and the north build more homes. That is the way we will ensure a brownfield-first approach. That is also the way we will ensure inspired regeneration and get aspirational middle-class families back into some of those great cities, and ensure that councils have the revenues they need to invest and to prosper; and of course it is the way to protect the countryside from unnecessary development.