[Ms Nusrat Ghani in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of neighbourhood plans in national planning policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your leadership today, Ms Ghani. I thank the staff in Westminster Hall and colleagues who have come to speak in this important debate.
The public often do not think about planning as imperative to their lives, but it is something that happens to them all the time, whether they are conscious of it or not. People are usually only conscious of planning when it is pressed on top of them, and that is an important principle for us to think about. At the heart of this 90-minute debate is neighbourhood plans, which give local people the chance to take control of how they see development in their area. I think it would be useful to set out where neighbourhood plans came from, the problems with them and, most importantly, their future.
If we look at the history of neighbourhood plans, we see that the Localism Act 2011 allowed them to be brought forward. That Act allowed parishes and neighbourhood forums to develop neighbourhood development plans and neighbourhood orders. Neighbourhood plans were about the use and development of land, and they would contain a vision, aims, planning policies and proposals to improve the area, provide new facilities or allocate key sites for specific development, with a possible focus on social, economic and environmental issues. Neighbourhood development orders were for parish or town councils, or neighbourhood forums, to grant planning permission for certain kinds of development within a specific area. This was all held together with the legal framework— section 116 of the 2011 Act—that brought into effect schedule 9 to that Act and inserted into the Town and County Planning Act 1990 schedules 10 and 11.
The main object of neighbourhood plans was to guide and shape development in a particular area around national policies, while conforming to local strategic policies. Changes in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and in the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 sought to simplify and speed up neighbourhood planning processes, and allowed for greater intervention by the Secretary of State in the process of making neighbourhood plans. Further still, in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, local planning authorities were required to make both neighbourhood development plans and neighbourhood development orders
“as soon as reasonably practicable after the referendum is held”.
There was a further update in the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017, allowing neighbourhood plans to be modified and dealt with in situations where a plan is needed but covering slightly different geographical areas from the previous one. Finally, changes to the national planning policy framework in 2018 mean that neighbourhood plan policies for the supply of housing should not be considered out of date if the plan is less than two years old.
That is a little bit of background about neighbourhood plans and where they are at, but it is worth giving an overview of the process of getting a neighbourhood plan up to date. Draft plans and orders must pass an independent check and then be put to a local referendum. If there is a majority vote in favour, the local planning authority must adapt that plan, subject to legal compatibility.
The LPA has a statutory role to support neighbourhood planning, such as by undertaking independent examination of the neighbourhood plan, and it runs neighbourhood planning referendums. The Government state that neighbourhood planning should not be a way to block necessary developments. Neighbourhood plans should support the strategic needs set out in the local plan, and they cannot promote less development than is set out in said local plan.
Neighbourhood plans can allocate sites additional to those set out in the local plan and propose sites different from those in the local plan, in discussion with the LPA. The plan can identify areas for protection, such as open spaces valued by the community or green spaces that meet local green space criteria.
That is where we have come from and, broadly speaking, it is a great approach to take forward. I think most in the House would agree that the principles enshrined in this legislation are moving in the right direction, but what is the reality we are living with at the moment? It is fair to say that neighbourhood plans are not for everyone, nor should they be. Communities should want to come forward to design and shape the planning of their community —in essence, the shape and feel of what they have.
In my area of Bosworth, many groups have come forward by choice to make a difference and take responsibility for their local planning area. A second reason for doing so is necessity, because the system is failing. There are no protections, because we do not have an up-to-date local plan. Let me explain what we are living with at the moment. I have two tiers of council: a county council and a borough council. The borough council is responsible for the local plan, but the county council intersects with the infrastructure and the signing off of that plan, and this is all done through the framework of national planning.
Planning is a very difficult issue for an MP. The most common issue in my inbox is inappropriate development in my area. At the same time, people ask me to step in and make changes to individual planning applications. We all know that an MP cannot do that. Without an up-to-date local plan, it is open season in my area. It is a desirable place to live, set perfectly in the heart of the UK. Quite literally, we have the middle of England in my constituency. We have beautiful rural countryside and we are close to the city of Leicester, so the area has a lot to offer. The problem is that with a piecemeal approach to planning, we have huge problems to solve with infrastructure and providing the amenities and services we need.
Across the House, we all agree that nationally we need more houses, but that message seems to have been lost locally, with the Liberal Democrats saying that the issue is the Government’s agenda of putting in 300,000 houses. However, in the “Access to Affordable Housing” section of their 2019 manifesto, the Liberal Democrats state that they will:
“Build at least 100,000 homes for social rent each year and ensure that total housebuilding increases to 300,000 each year.”
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the Liberal Democrats and the fuss they make about all this. Is it not disappointing that no Liberal Democrat Member has chosen to come to this extremely important debate on the subject?
I am hugely grateful to the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) for pointing that out. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) was referring to the Liberal Democrats, who I quoted in my speech. It is fantastic to see a Labour counterpart here to take part in this debate. This issue is important to all our communities, no matter which party we represent, and I am eternally grateful to her for being here to hear what we have to say.
I raised the point I was making because of the essence of our housing system. We need the right houses in the right place, with the right infrastructure and the right protections for our heritage and environment. We need houses that families can aspire to. In my area, more importantly, we need houses that the elderly generation can downsize to. We are struggling with both of those, not just in my area, but across the country. If we do not get this right, we risk losing our vibrant, rural aspects to suburban sprawl, with no thought given to where it should be. Piecemeal development does not help anyone—from schools to infrastructure and amenities, such as doctors surgeries—when we know that the country is under pressure.
How do we take this forward? Neighbourhood plans are a good way to help. This is where national policy intersects with localism, and rightly so. In my constituency, I have vanguard neighbourhood plans, such as in Market Bosworth, which has led the way for years in developing its plans. Various other areas, such as Markfield, Stoke Golding and Burbage, are all at different stages of working their way through their neighbourhood plans.
I am eternally grateful to the councils and individual constituents who have taken the time to go through what is, at times, a laborious, technical and painstaking process to try to get a result. What infuriates them more than anything else is that this has been ridden roughshod over because we do not have an up-to-date local plan. We must find a way to try to strength neighbourhood plans. In answer to the question:
“Can a Neighbourhood Plan come forward before an up-to-date Local Plan is in place?”
the House of Commons Library states:
“Where a neighbourhood plan is brought forward before an up-to-date Local Plan is in place the qualifying body and the local planning authority should discuss and aim to agree the relationship between policies in…the emerging neighbourhood plan…the emerging Local Plan…the adopted development plan…with appropriate regard to national policy and guidance”.
There is a framework there, but I question what that looks like in reality.
If only there were a legislative vehicle coming forward that could make a change. Well, it just so happens, as the eagle-eyed among us will have seen, that a Bill is being introduced tomorrow that will try to pull together and streamline 70 years of a fragmented planning system. I am pleased to see that this is taking place. There is lots to like in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill: simplification, design codes, choices opening up for developers and stopping land banking. Many of these matters go far wider than today’s debate, but there are five guiding principles. Hon. Members who have heard me speak on planning may argue about the acronym with the Secretary of State, but I will not be going there today.
The aim of the Bill is to support local communities to have control over what is built, where it is built and what it looks like, and to create an incentive for developments to meet set standards, with the aim of developing high-quality design and beautiful places and to protect our heritage. The Bill will enable the right infrastructure to come forward where it is needed, enable local democracy and engagement, foster better environmental outcomes and allow neighbourhoods to shape their surroundings, because that is where the impact of planning is most immediately felt. The last point is really important, and it is why I have called the debate.
In among those details, the Bill says that local plans will be given more weight when making decisions on applications, and the same weight will be given to other parts of development plans, including neighbourhood plans prepared by local communities. There will be opportunities for communities and interested parties to influence and comment on the emerging plans, which will be supported by digitalisation to ensure plans and data are accessible and understood easily. It will ensure that neighbourhood plans are given weight in planning decisions and in the development of neighbourhood priorities, with a statement to be taken into account when preparing the local plan.
Additional parts of the Bill state that neighbourhood plans will focus on development and use of land that contributes to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change. That is done through a neighbourhood priority statement, which will set out the prevailing view of the community in a neighbourhood area on local matters including development, housing, the natural environment, the economy, public space, infrastructure, facilities and services in the area.
This is the prime evolution of where we are going with localism and neighbourhood plans, and I am pleased to see it. I would be more pleased if the Minister addressed some of the areas I have mentioned and talked about what the system will look like. We need to ensure that when it is working well, it runs at its full potential. Even more so, we need to know what it means for a community such as mine when the system starts to fall apart.
In closing, we have seen where the evolution of neighbourhood plans has come from. I have touched a little on the problems that we face when things do not go quite to plan—pardon the pun. Of course, we have opportunity for the future. I think we can all agree, yet again, that we need the right houses in the right place, with the right infrastructure, and the right protections for our heritage and environment. I would be grateful for the Minister’s response.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. My congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) on securing the debate, and on explaining what is often an abstruse, complicated and difficult area, in the clearest and most sensible terms. The way he framed his speech was extremely useful, and it will be well read up and down the country by local authorities and others who are considering neighbourhood planning.
I agree with my hon. Friend that planning should be about how many houses and where. I would add “and when”, because the timing of development is extremely important. I am a strong supporter of neighbourhood planning, and I had the great luck to be here in 2011 when the Localism Act was one of the first to be passed by the coalition Government.
We brought in neighbourhood planning, because we felt that decisions about planning should be given to the lowest possible level. We thought that local people should be allowed to decide what houses they want, where and when, as well as what the rest of the neighbourhood should look like. I am glad that Malmesbury in my constituency was one of the first places to spend an enormous amount of time and effort on bringing forward a neighbourhood plan. It is a very good document that works extremely well, and many other places around the country have based their neighbourhood plans on the Malmesbury example.
Neighbourhood planning is a great idea that I strongly favour, but I have three little reservations, which the Minister might be able to answer in his wind-up. Alternatively, he might be able to include some of these notions in the amendments that are no doubt coming forward to the Levelling up and Regeneration Bill, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth said, starts its progress through Parliament tomorrow.
My first reservation is that in neighbourhood planning, there is a presumption in favour of expansion. It is not possible for any neighbourhood to say, “We like it precisely as it is today. We want no more houses. We do not want any change. We would like it to stay as it is.” No matter how beautiful, how perfect or how remote the neighbourhood may be, the neighbourhood plan, by definition, presumes that there will be growth.
The neighbourhood plan people go around and have the following conversation with people in their houses. “How many children have you got? Would you like them to remain in the village?” “Oh, yes, I would.” “Are there any houses?” “No, there are not, because in this village every house costs £1 million, and there are no houses for them at all.” “Oh, jolly good. Three children; that’s three more houses for this village.” The neighbourhood plan writes into itself a presumption in favour of growth. In some places, that makes sense. If there is a way to bring in low-cost housing for local people, that is much to be desired.
None the less, the principle of looking simply at the number of children under 10 in the village and working out from that how many houses will be needed in 20 years’ time is totally flawed. Like it or not, our children tend to go off to the nearest big town or city and will not remain in a remote little rural village. The houses built on that presumption tend to be three, four or five-bedroom houses for executives who come in from elsewhere. It is no longer about low-cost housing for local people. It becomes an unreasonable development of that area. That is my first reservation: neighbourhood planning presumes growth in the number of houses, and I think that is wrong.
My second reservation is perhaps easier to deal with, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth touched on it briefly. Under revisions that were made to legislation in 2018 or 2019, the Government brought in the stipulation that the neighbourhood plan is valid for only two years. That might have seemed a good idea at the time, but it takes about two years to develop a neighbourhood plan. By the time it comes to the consideration of a big planning application of the kind that we see across Wiltshire at the moment, the neighbourhood plan is out of date. There is no point in having it if two years later we say, “It is no longer an important document.” All of the thousands of person hours put into creating a neighbourhood plan in the first place are, by that means, wasted. We should look again at the stipulation of a two-year limit on the validity of a neighbourhood plan. We could perhaps reverse it and say that the neighbourhood plan will be valid unless local people ask for it to be changed, and that it remains valid not for all time but perhaps with a 20 or 30-year limit, so that by and large the neighbourhood plan becomes the rule.
My third reservation about neighbourhood planning is slightly more complicated, but I will take the example of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth and try to make this as straightforward as I possibly can. It is a consistent problem in Wiltshire. The five-year housing land supply figures that are used in considering whether an application should be allowed are based on the completion of estates in the area. In other words, if the planning inspector is worried about it and Wiltshire Council is correctly concerned so it turns down an application for a big development, the inspector will then look at the five-year housing land supply figure, which I will come back to in a second, and almost inevitably find in favour of the developer. There is a big presumption in favour of the developer under those conditions. That of course means that Wiltshire Council lands up paying the barristers’ fees, which can often be substantial.
Unsurprisingly, officers have been correctly saying, “We must be very careful as councillors. We must not allow you to turn something down if we believe you will then lose at appeal.” That is where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth says, the local and the national intertwine in the person of the planning inspector, who considers the rules under the national planning policy framework, and by and large they tend to favour the developer.
I mentioned in passing the notion of the five-year housing land supply figure. This is a complex area of the law, but the law states that the local authority is required under the local plan to make available enough housing land that is readily developable for five years. If that figure is based, as I understand it is, on completions—estates that are completed—we are by definition writing into the law a presumption that the developer will not complete it. We see that all the time in Wiltshire. Developers go out of their way not to complete the development, not to provide the primary school that was part of the section 106 agreement, and not to complete the number of houses. By that means they can say that the development has got 500 houses, that it is not complete, and therefore it does not form part of the five-year housing land supply. That means Wiltshire Council has consistently got 4.6 years and 4.8 years rather than five years, and that means the inspector will then always say, “The developer has it. The developer will get it because Wiltshire has not completed the five-year housing land supply figure.”
The situation is unfair because we have written into the system a presumption in favour of developers not doing what they ought to be doing and completing the estate. A simple change would correct that: instead of the figure being based on completions in an area, it could be based on planning permission granted on land. If every time a developer who had a completable application granted said, “I am going to build 500 houses on that piece of land there and I can demonstrate it can be done”, that should count against the five-year housing land supply, which would then mean that Wiltshire, for example, would have something like a six-year housing land supply and therefore local people could decide where and when they wanted the housing.
At the moment, the neighbourhood plan is a worthless piece of paper. All that happens is that local people say, “We want housing there and there”, but an inspector says, “I am very sorry. With the five-year housing land supply, your neighbourhood plan is a waste of time. It is a worthless piece of paper and I am going to overrule you. And not only that; I am going to give you £100,000-worth of barristers’ fees against the council tax payer”, and of course the council does not want to do that.
Now is the time to change, probably under the new Bill. The Minister might like to consider very carefully this question of the five-year housing land supply, detailed as it may seem. I may be proved wrong—I am no expert in these matters—but there is a straightforward and simple way of correcting things. Instead of the five-year housing land supply being based on completions, it could be based on developable planning permissions granted.
I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth for calling this excellent debate. It is a terribly important time. We have to supply houses for our people. The Conservative Government’s plan to provide 300,000 houses—if I remember rightly—is extremely good, and we have to find a way of doing that. We have a great problem with homelessness and the lack of housing. The question, though, is where those houses should be and when they should be built.
At the moment, the planning system does not take account of local interests and beliefs and neighbourhood planning. It takes account of nationally set targets, which tend to trump the wishes of local people. I very much hope that during the passage of the Bill, which will start tomorrow, the Government will consider some of these detailed points and change the Bill in such a way as to ensure that the interests of local people are looked after when we decide how many houses will be built and when and where.
Thank you, Ms Ghani. It is a pleasure to be called and to follow the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray). His contribution was full of personal experience and knowledge. His input to this debate, for Hansard and for the Minister, in particular, is one that cannot be ignored. I say that in all honesty because there is a depth of knowledge in his speech and we should all take note.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) on securing the debate. Although the subject is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, I try on all occasions to come to Westminster Hall to support those who have secured debates and to add a Northern Ireland perspective. I have had a particular interest in planning for umpteen years. I served on Ards Borough Council for some 26 years. I started in 1985—a long time ago. Planning was one of the major issues, so I have a real, deep interest in planning matters. That is why, when I saw that the hon. Member for Bosworth had been granted this debate, I wanted to come along and make a contribution.
From the outset of this debate, it is clear that our differing planning systems mean differing strategies. However, underpinning our planning systems is the fact that we move with the times and build in our expectations. I have worked on planning over the years, both as a councillor in a previous life and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, where we were responsible for some planning matters, although planning is devolved in its entirety to the councils. I think the hon. Member for Bosworth referred to the two stages of planning—local and county level—but in Northern Ireland, the councils control all of that: the local part and the strategic part, ensuring that the development is done in the right way.
I chair the healthy homes and buildings all-party parliamentary group. In my capacity as chair, I understand the need for people to have better homes. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire is correct: the Government have the responsibility to provide homes. This Government have made a commitment to build homes, which is something I support. I support that back home, as well. Very often, we are given a choice betwixt a rock and a hard place, because developments and houses are needed. I will give some figures in relation to that later on. The APPG focuses on the need to build modern, efficient homes, with amenities included, where access to schools and GP surgeries is in place and the road structure is there. That is all part of it.
Back home—I suspect it is not any different over here—when it comes to developments, there will be a big input from the developer. When it comes to building roads, the developer will not be seeking help from the road services—back home, the input and responsibility for the roads is on the developer. If it has to set aside provisions for amenities, such as playgrounds, the responsibility will be on the developer. The council will agree the plans and the structure, but it will not agree when it comes to spending money. The developer will be responsible. That is why the input from the developer is so critical, and why it has to be in partnership and co-ordination with local councils as well.
I am very blessed—I say this often, and I mean it—to represent what I believe is the most beautiful part of the United Kingdom. With rolling green fields, crashing waves, tranquil scenic beauties and wonderful historic sights, that is Strangford. Anyone who wants to come and visit is very welcome to do so. Anyone who wants to come and visit is very welcome to do so. I am sure other Members will say that their constituencies are equally beautiful, but I love mine.
However, with that beauty comes a lot of responsibility, and our planners often err on the side of caution when it comes to approvals. While I agree with that in areas of outstanding natural beauty, as is the case where I live in the middle of Strangford, when we have sites on the periphery of towns it makes sense to design and create all-purpose neighbourhoods. That is the whole point of this debate and that is why I agree with the thrust of what the hon. Member for Bosworth was putting forward.
New developments, by their very nature, put pressure on facilities, so it is important that hat is sewn into that structure and strategy early on. I recently spoke in this place about difficulties GP practices were having in expanding to provide a holistic approach. This morning, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) referred to access to GPs, saying that in his constituency GPs had 500 or 600 patients more than the national average. He was clearly illustrating, from his point of view, that there was a need to have a certain level of GP access.
Having clinicians, nutritionists, mental health teams and physiotherapists in one place is what GP surgeries need to be. It is such a straightforward issue, because with full coverage comes less pressure on hospitals and better provision, yet none of this is a material planning consideration. The hon. Member for Bosworth says it should be, and I agree wholeheartedly.
Neighbourhood planning is the answer, and that is why this debate is important. I am not surprised that Government research from 2015, using a small sample of neighbourhood plans, suggested that areas with a plan in place saw a 10% increase in housing allocations over that provided by the local plan. That is an indication of where we are. The always helpful Library briefing highlighted that research
“by planning consultancy firm Turley from 2014 found that more than half of the draft plans published for consultation had ‘protectionist’ agendas and that many were openly anti-development.”
I would not adopt that attitude; I think it is important that people have an opportunity to buy an affordable house, perhaps where they were brought up. The possibility of someone’s children buying a house in a village where the hon. Member for North Wiltshire said houses were in the higher bracket of close to £1 million would mean they would never get one. This is about affordable housing and how to achieve it.
It seems that the Northern Ireland problem is, in fact, a UK-wide problem as well. What the hon. Gentleman and others have referred to is not unique to the UK mainland; we also struggle with it in Northern Ireland. I long for the days when sensible planning comes into play and when developers do not have to spend tens of thousands on the application process, which could be spent on ensuring play parks within developments and units for GPs or pharmacies and other such essential and desirable community facilities.
Through my time as a councillor and an alderman, I am aware that the council did not have early control over all development issues and planning applications. That was done by the road service and a different planning department in Downpatrick. Then, whenever the reorganisation of the council took place, after my time, planning in its entirety fell on the shoulders of local planners. In my past life, I was able to have a monthly meeting with local planners and have a frank discussion on the applications, which I found incredibly helpful and which developed my knowledge of the process. The planning officer would have said to me on a regular basis that a planning application could not go through or another would not work, so it was then about finding a solution.
Life is all about solutions, and this is about trying to find a medium between what is achievable and what people will settle for. I accepted the planning officers’ conclusions because I thought that, ultimately, the responsibility lay with them. If they changed this or that, we could work with that, or if we thought we could do something differently, we used to be able to discuss and find a way forward. I long for those days again. They will not happen, because I am no longer in the council and therefore my input into those processes is from a different level as an MP. I would love to work alongside a department that would seek a way forward and not automatically refuse.
The waiting list for priority, affordable housing in my council area—just in my main town—stands at 3,000. There is a big onus on us, back home, to perhaps look at how we can provide social and affordable housing. We must get that sustainable, affordable housing in place, and working with developers and local communities is the only way to achieve that.
That is why this debate is important, and why the input from the hon. Member for North Wiltshire is so important. It adds knowledge to this debate, which I think helps to formulate a strategy. It is fortunate that the Bill is coming to the Chamber tomorrow—this is a preview of tomorrow. I am pleased that the Government, I think, have grasped this one. I hope that the strategy is one that works. I will watch it from afar because I hope that we can replicate it, in a way, and do something similar for Northern Ireland.
Thank you, Ms Ghani. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and it is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). As others have done, I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans). He is well known in this place for being rather good at self-promotion, not least through TikTok. He has campaigned on several important issues, not least on body imagery, but he has once again brought to the forefront an important topic, which, while dry and often perceived as quite dull, he has managed to make interesting. To reference his own speech, he has given a speech at the right time, in the right place on the right topic, and I do not think that any of us will be disagreeing with the contents of his speech.
I beg your pardon, Ms Ghani. However, of course, this is a matter that we are now allowed to discuss, both today and ahead of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill tomorrow. This is an important point, because we, as Members of Parliament, are sent to this place on the back of our constituents and we engage with them on a regular basis through our surgeries. I suspect that I speak on behalf of all Members in this room when I say that planning, neighbourhood plans and development are things that continually drop into our mailbags or inboxes. It is of the utmost importance that, while in many scenarios, we are not able to engage quite as much as we would like, we now have the perfect opportunity to give them the voice to be able to stand up for what they care about.
As has already been mentioned, the Localism Act 2011 gave communities the power—the voice—to speak up for what they want in their local area. You may call me old fashioned, Ms Ghani—or perhaps not—but I am one of those old-fashioned Members of Parliament who happens to believe that decisions are made better in local areas by empowered local communities, and in the idea that Westminster and Whitehall do not know better on the needs of my towns and villages than my parish councils, my neighbourhood plan conveners, and my local council in some instances. It is that concept that I want to speak about in this debate.
The Localism Act created the hunger, the drive and the determination for every single member of the community to be able to speak up for what they wanted in their area, to ensure that they could have the right buildings in the right places, designed in the right way, and that the infrastructure would be in place and their community needs would be met. We have that opportunity tomorrow, in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, I hope. I think it is worth pointing out that the Bill does enforce and enhance certain aspects of the neighbourhood plans.
I have gone through the Bill and I am looking forward to debating it with the Minister and the Secretary of State tomorrow. However, in clause 88, we have a strong opportunity to look at how we can write into law, from the Localism Act, the way in which we can strengthen those neighbourhood plans. That will allow us to allocate land for development and to detail infrastructure, affordable housing and design requirements. Those are three of the many other options that are to be included in the Bill tomorrow, and they are to be welcomed, because we need to set the standard we expect for neighbourhood plans, to make sure there is commonality but also a unique perspective from every neighbourhood plan, so that people are able to present what they want in their area.
But—there is always a “but” in these instances—the problem is that there needs to be support to help neighbourhood plans to come together and be written. All too often, a neighbourhood plan is put together and the small mistakes made by volunteers, who are working incredibly hard, are exploited by the developers—something I shall come to in a second. If there is to be support, it has to be centrally provided and not come from local authorities. We must put the responsibility on central Government to help provide that support, rather than adding to the workload of local authorities. Indeed, a perfect example of how we are encouraging and enhancing local communities’ power and the strength of their voice is through street votes. As I mentioned to the Secretary of State before the debate, it is no good having a placeholder amendment in the Bill for street votes. We need more detail to make sure that we can reassure colleagues, as well as constituents, about this matter.
The challenges are many, but I will stick to just a couple. The first is around neighbourhood plans versus the Planning Inspectorate. These plans are hard to create. We have all spent time reading neighbourhood plans, and we have all gone through them with our communities and villages. We have seen our communities hold referendums on these matters, and we know how hard they work. Recently in my constituency, Dartmouth and Strete have both had referendums, and they have produced genuinely high-quality neighbourhood plans. Volunteers worked tirelessly to produce those plans in the first instance, but it does not strike me as particularly effective to encourage people to produce neighbourhood plans if those are just thrown out after the first challenge from a developer or local authority, or if the Planning Inspectorate ignores what is in those plans.
We have to think hard about how we provide support for neighbourhood plans in the future, so that people cannot be bullied and downtrodden by developers with expensive barristers, or by planning inspectorates that end up listening to the person who is paid £500 an hour rather than the local volunteers, who are doing it out of charity for their community. I have gone in front of the Planning Inspectorate on no fewer than three occasions to try to stand up for local communities. Sadly, I am not a barrister being paid £500 an hour—[Interruption.] It could happen, I suspect. However, I did the best I could to stand up for my communities and what they wanted to see. We need to make sure that neighbourhood plans are ringfenced and secure, and that where support is necessary, we can provide legal advice against planning inspectorates in certain circumstances. It is a modern-day David and Goliath story—one that I think the Minister understands and that the Secretary of State certainly understands, and one that we can address in the Bill tomorrow.
How we support neighbourhood plans has to change, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire said that we must find the balance and retain that important local voice. I have already cited the fact that we have had good referendums on two neighbourhood plans in my constituency, but there are two further examples, in the form of Collaton St Mary and Inglewood, where communities put together fantastic local plans. They understood what the affordable housing level would be, where the infrastructure would go and how the houses would be built—only for those plans to be completely overridden and their views ignored. Eventually it got to the Planning Inspectorate, and the decisions went against them. I hope the Minister will give me an answer, because I do not know what to say to them when they come to see me and say, “We put all this effort and hard work into a neighbourhood plan, in the expectation that we would be listened to, that this was us stamping our mark on our village and community and that we would get what we want. We are not nimbys. For that matter, we are not BANANAs”—which means build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody—“We are people who want to build houses so that people can live in our area, work in our area and have primary residences.” They are now deeply upset and have lost faith in the system.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about ensuring that residents are empowered and listened to with regard to local plans. In my constituency, areas such as Eastern Green, Holbrooks and Allesley are feeling very frustrated by the fact that every time they bring up suggestions about the local plan, developers are listened to rather than them. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that we prioritise the views and needs of local people over those of developers?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. That is exactly the point: localism is about local communities having a local voice and deciding what they want in their area. I do not think any of us in this place would disagree that we want local communities to retain that strength of voice—that strength of community—that allows them to make decisions for themselves. That is what I believe conservatism should be about, and the hon. Lady is always welcome to join the Government side of the House if she subscribes to it in such a manner. As I was saying, we have to make sure that development plans are shaped locally, and that when neighbourhood plans come into contention with developers, those plans are able to be robust and rigorous.
I will make two more quick points before I sit down. Clause 83 of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill—I am probably making some of the arguments that I will make again tomorrow—deals with the question of development plans versus the national development plan. We are asking local communities to come up with development plans, but telling them that when they come into contention, the national development plan will override theirs.
I am deeply unhappy that the national development plan has not even been published. Tomorrow, we have the Second Reading of that important Bill—a Bill that will be watched by all our constituents—and we are faced with the fact that documentation has not been published. I have been reassured that a lot of this documentation will come forward when the Bill is in Committee, but I urge the Government to act with a little more urgency and to expedite the publication of this document, because my constituents view this as an enormous power grab. They are saying, “We will produce our local development plans, but if the Government do not like them or if a contention is raised at any point during the development of those plans, they can be overridden by a central body.” If I am wrong, the Minister will steer me in the right direction, but I ask for details on that specific point to be provided as soon as possible. The Secretary of State must not have the ability to override local plans, because that will kill people’s faith in the system. We need to have the opportunity to amend this in Committee, and not simply have a Cttee of Government-appointed members. I am happy to volunteer myself, although I am not entirely sure that the Government will be taking me up on that offer.
When introducing the planning Bill, the Secretary of State used the acronym BIDEN, meaning we would build beautifully, we would build with infrastructure in mind, we would hold developers to account, we would take the environment into account and we would have neighbourhood plans. Having travelled across my constituency, engaging with local groups, parish councils and those who have produced neighbourhood plans, I can assure Members that those people like that acronym. They want to see it written into the Bill; they want to be reassured that the Secretary of State’s words are not just words but text in the Bill that we will debate tomorrow, and that that Bill will reform a planning system that has been found wanting for the past 32 years. We have the opportunity to achieve that reform now, and the Secretary of State has the opportunity to prove that he is good not just at rhetoric, but at passing pieces of legislation.
The hon. Member for Strangford may well have misled the House in saying that his constituency is the most beautiful. I am sure we would all disagree and would make the same argument for our own constituencies.
I retract that, of course. I have been to Strangford, and it is a very beautiful constituency; I am not sure it is the most beautiful, but Members would not expect me to say anything else. However, the hon. Gentleman was absolutely right that we need sensible planning.
If I may, I will conclude with a few points. First, when we debate the Bill tomorrow, we must ensure that its policy is “brownfield sites first”. There are 21,000 hectares of brownfield land across the United Kingdom, which could accommodate 1.3 million houses. Some 2,100 acres of that land are owned by publicly owned organisations, and we could accommodate 125,000 houses on it. That is perhaps something for us to think about. Secondly, we must ensure that infrastructure is there first, so that we are building with a local community—doctors, schools, roads, sewerage networks—in place before development even starts. Thirdly, developers must be held to account. Finally, and above all, we must make sure that we listen to our local communities.
As always, Ms Ghani, it is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair. As others have said, this is not only an important debate but a timely one, given the recent introduction of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and its Second Reading tomorrow. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) on securing the debate, and I commend him on his considered opening remarks. I also thank the hon. Members for North Wiltshire (James Gray), for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for their contributions.
In opening the debate, the hon. Member for Bosworth made a strong case for the importance of neighbourhood plans to his constituents in Leicestershire, the need for greater clarity around neighbourhood plans and the need for such plans to be accorded more weight in national planning policy. Opposition Members are very much in agreement with the thrust of his argument, although I take issue slightly with his wider remarks about unregulated development and development without the necessary infrastructure, which he spoke of as if they were materialising from the void, as if by magic, rather than as a consequence of successive Conservative Governments being determined to liberalise the planning system in a way that is causing extremely damaging development across large parts of the country. That issue aside, we have heard from all the speakers today about the benefits of neighbourhood planning.
Introduced in 2011 under the Localism Act as a formal part of the development framework, neighbourhood planning gives communities a greater say in where future development takes place, how it is designed and what infrastructure is provided with it. To the extent that it enables communities to better shape development in any given area, neighbourhood planning can—as we have heard, this is by no means always the case—increase public engagement, reduce the number of objections to planning applications and boost housing supply over and above local authority targets.
A detailed University of Reading report from May 2020 concluded that the contribution of neighbourhood plans to housing supply—as a result, essentially, of spatial planning by allocation—could be significant, that such plans have helped in many cases to improve design policy and refine local priorities, and that they have had an influential role in planning decisions in many parts of the country. There is also evidence that they have provided a means for particular communities to mitigate the impact of acute housing pressures in their localities. To take just one example—an issue that we have debated more than once in recent months—neighbourhood plans have proven to be a means of assisting coastal and rural communities to better control excessive rates of second-home ownership and the marked growth of holiday lets, although the Government still need to do much more to properly bear down on the problems arising from those trends.
In praising the concept of neighbourhood planning, I do not intend to imply that it is problem free. Opposition Members have genuine concerns about the take-up of neighbourhood plans, in the sense that all the evidence suggests that the vast majority of the 1,061 neighbourhood plans made to date emanate from more affluent parts of the country, where people have the time and resources to prepare and implement them, rather than from less affluent areas and more complex urban environments. We also have concerns about the fact that their policy content, in terms of addressing critical issues such as climate change, has been highly variable. Those concerns aside, we continue to support the principle of neighbourhood planning.
The more fundamental issue with neighbourhood plans—somewhat ironically, given the title of today’s debate on the Order Paper—is that, as things stand, it is not entirely clear what role they play in national planning policy.
I do recognise that and I will come to the Bill specifically later in my remarks. It does provide some useful clarity about neighbourhood plans, although there are far more serious defects when it comes to them, but I will come to that shortly.
As I was saying, I do not think it is clear, as things stand, what role neighbourhood plans play in national planning policy. They are explicitly addressed in the national planning policy framework, but only in terms of process and—as people will see if they read the relevant sections—in such a convoluted manner that I would not be surprised if even professional planners struggle with what the guidance means in practice. On one hand, the stated rationale of neighbourhood plans is that they give communities the power to develop a shared vision for their area, and because they are legally part of development plans, they do provide for a statutory say in what goes where. On the other hand, they must conform to local plan housing allocations and have regard to national planning policy and they can be overturned when they are in conflict with either. The resulting tension, the root of which is ultimately the question of who decides—communities or Ministers—remains largely unresolved.
What I would argue is lacking but is sorely needed is greater clarity about the precise remit of neighbourhood plans. More fundamentally, we need a better sense of the function of neighbourhood planning within the wider planning system. Ultimately, we will have to move toward a planning system based on a clear and easily understood settlement—one that ensures that communities that wish to proactively shape development in their area cannot stymie the meeting of local housing need, while also preventing central Government from unduly stipulating how that need is met on the ground in any given area. That balance is critical, and it is balance that is required, but we believe that that balance has still not properly been struck. That is largely because the default reaction of successive Conservative Governments when confronting the tension that exists between local planning and national planning has been to seek to disempower communities and further horde control at the centre.
Several hon. Members spoke about the great play that earlier Conservative-led Governments made of neighbourhood planning, and it is absolutely true that the coalition Government made great play of it and of localism more generally in their early years. However, since that Administration, successive Conservative Administrations have spent much of the past 10 years ineptly tinkering with the planning system in ways that have systematically undermined the scope for effective local and neighbourhood planning. Far from seeking to remedy that error or to take forward a localism agenda—as the hon. Member for Bosworth, who introduced the debate, argued—the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill doubles down on it.
The hon. Gentleman did not explicitly mention this, although the hon. Member for Totnes did, but the new national development managing policies that the Bill provides for will take precedence over both local and neighbourhood plans where there is a conflict between them “to any extent”—the Bill is very clear about that. In addition, the requirements to consult on any new NDMP are entirely at the discretion of the Secretary of State and, unlike with national policy statements, there is no parliamentary approval process.
I just ask Members to consider for a moment what that would mean in practice if the Bill goes through unamended. Those powers would allow a Minister of whatever political allegiance to develop an NDMP encompassing literally any policy designated by them as relating to development or use of land in England, to determine not to consult on that policy and then to use it to overrule any local development plan in conflict with it at the stroke of a pen. Is it any wonder that organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England are warning that if this power is enacted it will stifle local innovation on issues such as affordable housing, energy efficiency and nature conservation, undercut local democratic engagement in and scrutiny of the planning process, and lead to significant delays where conflict between local plans and national policies is contested?
The hon. Member for Totnes was absolutely right when he spoke about the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill as an opportunity. We have an opportunity to reform planning policy in England in a way that empowers local communities. Instead, my fear is that the Bill as drafted is likely only to further erode the legitimacy of the planning system in the public’s eyes by downgrading the status and the scope of local planning. The Government must amend the Bill to ensure that communities are still able to participate effectively in every aspect of development plan formulation, and to make it crystal clear—I think this is the point that the hon. Gentleman was making earlier—that NDMPs can only be used to overrule local and neighbourhood plans in relation to nationally significant issues.
When the Minister responds, I hope we hear from him that he appreciates the concerns that have been expressed about the ways in which the Bill undermines localism in the planning system, and that he is willing to think again about those clauses in the Bill that would undermine local and neighbourhood plans specifically. More widely, I look forward to hearing his thoughts about how the Government might provide greater clarity about the future remit and function of neighbourhood plans and in particular—this point was well made earlier—about what can be done to encourage their uptake by communities, particularly those facing the greatest social, economic or environmental challenges?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Ghani.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) on securing this very important debate, and I also congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part and given their own experiences, from their own constituencies, about the importance of neighbourhood planning. My hon. Friend has been and remains a tireless champion of both neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood planning in his contributions to debates and in much of his extensive correspondence with me as a Minister. He has been consistent in advocating for a more democratic and locally led planning system. Perhaps unlike other Westminster Hall debates, this might be one of those rare occasions on which the Minister responding on behalf of the Government agrees almost entirely with all hon. Members’ contributions. I certainly hope that my comments today will reassure him and other hon. Members that the Government are committed to putting communities at the very heart of our planning system, with neighbourhood plans playing a crucial role in that area.
Before I say more about how we are working to make that vision a reality, I should say to hon. Members that I am, of course, unable to comment on specific cases due to my quasi-judicial role in the planning system. However, I can talk in general terms about many of the issues that have been raised in today’s debate. At the outset, let me say that the Government believe that neighbourhood planning offers a powerful set of tools for local people to shape development in their area—development that meets their community’s needs, from protecting green spaces and local heritage right down to the design and characteristics of new homes.
As hon. Members will know, these plans continue to have real statutory weight in planning decisions. Once made, they form part of the development plan for the local area alongside the local plan, and they become the starting point for decisions on individual planning applications. In fact, the national planning policy framework makes it clear that where a planning application conflicts with an up-to-date neighbourhood plan, permission should not usually be granted. It is important to stress that the framework affords certain neighbourhood plans additional protections if the local planning authority cannot demonstrate a five-year land supply of deliverable housing sites—something that I know my hon. Friend has identified as a serious cause of concern for residents in his own constituency. These additional protections kick in where plans are under two years old, meet their identified housing requirement and other conditions are met.
Local planning authorities play an important role in this process too. They must provide advice and assistance to neighbourhood planning groups when producing their plans and take decisions at key stages. Planning legislation and policy also makes it clear that emerging neighbourhood plans can be afforded weight in decision making, particularly when they are at an advanced stage of preparation. I am delighted to say that many communities have taken up the opportunity to prepare a neighbourhood plan since the policy was first introduced. Over 2,800 groups have started the process since 2012, and over 1,300 plans are now in place across the country. As I understand it, there are no fewer than six in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Bosworth.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my admiration for the communities that have taken the time to prepare these neighbourhood plans, bringing local people together to shape development in a way that meets their needs. There are some brilliant examples of this work all over the country. The Bridport area plan in Dorset, for example, covers four parish councils and is located entirely in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty. The councils are working in partnership there to make sure that high-quality design goes into every affordable home that is built, so that they are indistinguishable from the available houses on the open market.
I apologise for interrupting the Minister. He is giving an excellent speech, including very robust answers to some of the issues we raised. The policy document that was introduced alongside the Bill talks about scrapping the five-year land supply for local authorities that have up-to-date local plans. Can the Minister confirm, either tomorrow or in future in Committee, that that will actually be within the legislation —in black and white in statute?
My hon. Friend is right. One of the big issues I have seen in my own constituency, and during my time in this role, arises when councils do not have a local plan in place—and even if they do in some instances. If they do not have the five-year land supply, there is speculative development that happens all over the place, and it pits communities against any sort of housing development. We are making it very clear in the Bill—and supporting documents will be published alongside it—that where an area has an up-to-date local plan, there is no need for it to prove that it has a five-year land supply to stop that speculative development happening.
I very much welcome that stipulation in the Bill. However, will the Minister consider one of the problems that I suspect may arise, namely that if we give notice to developers that that clause is coming into effect in a year’s time, or that the local plan might well take a few more months or a year to complete, in the meantime there might be a deluge of speculative developments that we cannot stop, until such time as the law has become an Act?
My hon. Friend made that point in a conversation we had the other day. It is a valid point and one that I am taking back to the Department to double-check that we have all that in place, because it is important.
I mentioned the neighbourhood plan in Dorset, but closer to home in London, in Newham, is the Greater Carpenters neighbourhood plan. That post-war estate is seeking to develop and reoccupy existing empty homes. The policy emphasises affordability, prioritising low-cost family-sized homes and homes for older and disabled people. It is a textbook example of community-backed sustainable development. We want more areas to follow that lead, so we have put in place £40 million of funding up until 2023 to ensure that residents have the tools and resources that they need to get their plans in place.
In many ways, therefore, neighbourhood planning has been a great success story, but the Government and I want to encourage more communities to become involved and have a real say in what is built locally and where. That is why the Bill that has been mentioned on many occasions today includes the important role that neighbourhood plans will continue to play in the planning system. It makes it clear that communities will be able to continue allocating sites for housing, protecting green spaces and local assets, and setting design requirements for new developments through their plans. Crucially, the Bill will strengthen the role of neighbourhood plans in decision making. Planning application decisions will only be able to depart from plans if there are strong reasons to do so.
Neighbourhood planning is widespread, but—I take the point made by the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook)—take-up is uneven across the country. In some areas, usually in towns and cities, there is little neighbourhood planning activity. We recognise that some communities have faced challenges in getting a neighbourhood plan in place, and we want to ensure that all areas can become involved.
Through the Bill, we will introduce neighbourhood priority statements—a new additional tool to provide a simpler, faster and more accessible way for communities to participate in neighbourhood planning and to shape development in their local areas. The statements can be prepared by neighbourhood planning groups and can be used to set out the community’s priorities and preferences for their local area, on everything from the new facilities that they need to the buildings and green spaces that they want to be protected. In fact, we anticipate that in some areas the statements might also act as a springboard for preparing a full neighbourhood plan, a design code or other community initiatives outside the planning system. Councils will be required to consider statements when they prepare their own local plans, meaning that neighbourhood priorities cannot be brushed aside easily; statements have to be treated as formal input. Taken together, we are confident that the reforms will further cement—forgive the pun—the role of neighbourhood planning in the system. Perhaps more importantly, that will provide communities with more opportunity to influence development right on their doorstep.
I will turn to a couple of the points made by Members. I want to make it clear that I am a huge fan of neighbourhood planning. I am fortunate enough to have a parish council and a town council—in Rawdon and Horsforth, respectively—as well as a group of volunteers in Aireborough, developing neighbourhood planning. I have seen at first hand the enormous amount of time that they put into developing the plans.
In the first few weeks of doing this role, I was keen to do a roundtable with neighbourhood planning groups around the country. It was useful to listen to their experiences. We have taken on board a lot of what they said and we are looking at how we can make further improvements. Among a number of the points made today, however, was the argument that where such planning is locally driven, we often see more houses built. I was particularly struck by a council official, I think from Herefordshire, saying that because the council had invested in and supported neighbourhood planning, it had ended up seeing more houses built than it could possibly have achieved as a council. I would like to see that happen elsewhere.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth was right when he said that too often planning is something that people feel happens to them, and we have to change that. That is why, in the Bill, we want to make local plan making easier so that more people can engage and can do so digitally and not to have go through hundreds of PDFs and complicated documents. He is right that it is about building the right houses in the right places. That will get public support for house building and stop the problems that we have seen. He is right to have mentioned the BIDEN principles, which really do stand for many of the things that we want to see, and he was completely right to raise the issue of older people’s housing too. We will soon establish a taskforce to look into that so that we provide our older generation with a choice of housing—not just one type of housing—so that we can help them downsize if they want to. They will not be forced to.
Does the Minister agree that there is one other area that needs to be looked at, particularly in the area of older people’s housing—namely, better use of the stock that we have? There are at this moment 800,000 empty houses in the United Kingdom. We must find a way of making better use of them. Many of those empty houses are old people’s houses that they have inherited or perhaps moved out of. It seems they do not know what to do with them. Can we find a way of writing into the Bill some means by which we can make better use of the existing stock?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not just about building new homes, but making sure there is efficient use of the stock that we have, and there are measures in the Bill to try to encourage the use of empty homes.
The two-year validity of a plan was raised at the roundtable. Again, it is something that we are looking at. I have mentioned the issue of the five-year land supply. The issue of local housing need figures is also something that we are trying to resolve as quickly as possible.
I love the fact that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) comes to each of these debates to give a Northern Ireland perspective, which is particularly helpful on this matter. I remember a few people scratching their heads in a debate when I was talking about HS2. I thought, “If I can’t even get it to Leeds, how are we going to get it to Northern Ireland?”, but there we go. He was right to talk about areas of outstanding natural beauty and protections for them. Neighbourhood planning could be more imaginative about the sites that could be developed. I have seen that in my own community where people are really very clever. He was also right to talk about the provision of infrastructure. That is why the “I” in BIDEN is so important. The levy that we are introducing will capture more of the land value so that there is more money for the local community.
One thing that I have certainly picked up is that we need better engagement between local planning development and the provision of health services so that they all come at the same time. People are frustrated when they see the houses and years later, if ever, the infrastructure that is needed to support them comes down the line. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) was right to say that local people know best. The design standards that we are putting in the Bill will be a key feature for many local communities, and new developments will complement the local area.
On development management policy, I know that people are concerned, but it is not meant to override a local plan, which has supremacy because it is the local plan. However, there is an enormous amount of duplication in the development of local plans—for example, protections for the green belt, heritage sites and so on. Many local authorities are not confident that there is enough weight in the current system, so the policy is to try to stop that duplication and make sure we have protections in place. Again, I have listened to colleagues’ concerns and we are actively looking at many of the points that have been made.
I accept the Minister’s response, but the explanatory notes and the text of the Bill talk about what happens in the event of a conflict between a local plan and a national plan. What does he envisage the conflict will be in a scenario where it may override a domestic plan?
It would not be possible to set land uses through national development policy. No housing will ever be built on sensitive sites if the local authority opposes it because of any of the NDM policies. I hope I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance, but I have heard his points and will come back to him.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth for securing today’s important debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to reiterate the Government’s commitment to putting local communities in the driving seat of a simpler, smoother and more inclusive planning system. I should add that many of the measures we have set out in the Bill, such as neighbourhood priority statements, will be honed and refined as we put the legislation on the statute book. I speak not just for myself, but for all my ministerial colleagues, when I say that we are committed to working closely with hon. Members in all parts of the House to make sure we get these reforms right and delivered on the ground, and that they deliver the improvements we all want to see and help us to fulfil our pledge to level up communities right across the country.
I thank the staff for their attendance today, and the Chair for her wise intervention. This has been an interesting debate about planning, and I am hugely grateful to all the speakers. If my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) is not a knight after his speech, he definitely should be; it was a huge bible of information, but I would particularly like to pick up on the issue of the five-year housing land supply, which the Minister addressed. His point was that the key thing is building out: once approval is given, it should be built out to make sure it is taken forward.
It was fantastic to hear about the experience of the hon. Member for Strangford, in Northern Ireland (Jim Shannon). I am not going to shame him by saying that I was born in 1983; I think he said 1985, so 26 years’ worth of experience means that I have a lot to learn. In his speech, he hit on the nub of what we are talking about today, which is better homes. That is a really important point to take away and deal with, and I will return to it in my closing remarks, because it brings together the issues of access, all the problems that we have, and the potential solutions for building better lives for people.
I do not think anyone has called my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) a BANANA before, but maybe today will set a precedent. Given his hunger, his voice, and his tireless energy in bringing forward this debate, his constituents are very lucky to have him as their representative, and he emphasised something that is really important: support for those who want to be enabled to deal with planning. I am grateful to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), for his comments, but he is right that take-up is not as high as it should be. Dealing with planning is complicated, difficult and daunting, so we should encourage and support people going through that process. I am pleased to hear the Minister say that that is exactly what he intends to do.
I very much welcome the Minister’s closing comments. When he said, “I agree with everything”, I was hoping that he would conclude at that point, but alas, we had a few more minutes to go. However, I am grateful that the Government are listening, and are keen on taking this issue forward proactively; after all, we are not talking about houses, but about homes. Homes are where we live, and we live in neighbourhoods. If we keep that in mind, we will not go far wrong.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the role of neighbourhood plans in national planning policy.