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Rural Communities: Housing and Planning

Volume 718: debated on Wednesday 20 July 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Craig Whittaker.)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting this Adjournment debate on such an important topic—one that is close to my heart and to many of my constituents’ hearts.

I want to get straight to the point: community-led planning needs to be right at the core of the levelling-up agenda. When we empower local communities by involving them in planning, better results are achieved for everyone. That is especially important in rural areas, where a balance must be struck between building more houses and protecting our countryside. I know that my constituents in Milton Keynes North feel the effects when the process goes wrong. It is not hard; it just requires thought, ambition and vision.

Milton Keynes is proud to be a new city—so new, we are still building it! It worked because it was planned: a bold vision from the 1960s, with grid roads, planned infrastructure and green spaces. Urbanism, modernism and functionalism blended with nature and created strong thriving communities. We all love planning when it is done right, but reckless over-expansion in rural areas is a real and pressing danger. My constituents who live in rural communities and market towns such as Olney and Newport Pagnell, do not want, and do not deserve, to be swamped by poorly planned, sprawling housing developments. We need to make planning work better for people and their communities. We need to get back to pure principles, just as the visionaries who built Milton Keynes did.

This is not a case for nimbyism. Of course, rural communities face their own distinct housing challenges, and we must cater for them. The issues include an ageing population and higher house prices due to second home ownership. Although there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach, we must take heed of the issues and adapt planning policy to help, rather than hinder, rural areas.

I am clear that housing must be sustainable, appropriate, affordable and proportionate. It is on those four pillars that I make my case to the Minister. What is a sustainable approach to housing? How can it be achieved? When I talk about sustainability, I mean two equally important things: first, community involvement, because a development without a community at its heart is, by very definition, unsustainable; secondly, protecting the environment. Those two factors, successfully combined, are a sure-fire way of achieving sustainability.

The hon. Gentleman certainly has a reputation for looking after his constituents and I commend him for bringing the issue to the House; well done. Before the debate, I spoke to him about the natural environment. Does he agree that the current planning regime, which involves costly applications for farm buildings, needs to be overhauled to ensure that farmers are not paying to carry out work that is essential to their business and will ultimately be approved as a matter of course, and that more support could be given to the isolated rural communities to which he is referring to enhance the community while at the same time protecting the natural environment?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. Of course more can be done. Too often, rural communities and farmers feel that the planning system is stacked against them and that they have to jump through so many hoops—often, as he mentions, at great expense—to continue doing the job they have done for thousands of years. Farmers are the custodians of our countryside and the people who look after our food production, but the planning system in its current form does not support some of the things they need to be able to do to adapt to the modern world. We need a sustainable approach, which includes nature, as the hon. Gentleman says, and productive farmland.

A sustainable approach to planning is akin to growing a family. Rural villages and towns should expand just as a family expands: slowly, carefully and at a sustainable rate. In fact, we often forget that at the heart of planning are people, their loved ones and of course, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, their livelihoods. However, as of now, the current planning system favours larger-scale developments, which are often unfit and unsustainable in rural villages.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is outlining some problems in Milton Keynes that we are experiencing in Eastleigh. He knows that the Liberal Democrat council in Eastleigh are proposing a new town in Fair Oak of 2,500 homes, which is in their budgets going forward and being built by them. While I do not think that is a problem, we are seeing a lack of democratic accountability when it comes to the composition of the council. He knows that I brought forward a ten-minute rule motion several months ago about independent oversight on these planning issues. Does he agree with me, and can he outline how he sees democratic oversight going forward in the planning system, which needs desperate reform?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I totally agree; in fact, I was happy to co-sponsor his ten-minute rule Bill, so I am very familiar with the situation. I found it frustrating and amusing in equal measure that in a recent by-election in Chesham and Amersham, the Liberal Democrats campaigned against development, and yet in Eastleigh, as we have seen, they are acting as both a mega-developer and the planning authority. This is the point at which democratic oversight has clearly failed, because there is no superior power. The council is both the developer and the planner. So we need to get local leadership into the planning system that fits with the local vision, but ultimately loops round to engagement with local communities so that people can have their say in what they want, and not experience the like of the situation that my hon. Friend has described, where they feel like they are being built around and villages become suburbanised as part of sprawling developments.

I have long believed that town planning should strengthen family bonds. We need sustainable planning policies that keep families together, so children can live near their parents, and grandparents can live near their children—think of the childcare benefits. Ultimately, that is better for society and better for our local economies, and would demonstrate genuine learning from the pandemic.

Sustainable planning is also about understanding the people who live in rural communities, their needs and their livelihoods, and how those differ from those of more built-up urban environments. Sustainable planning keeps communities together, rather than pulling them apart.

Not only do we need to make housing and planning more sustainable, but it needs to be appropriate. In my experience both as a councillor and now as a Member of Parliament, the worst way to do developments is to put up huge sites that swamp villages and suburbanise market towns. Why? Because it is bad for nature and biodiversity, worse for farmland and food production, and worse still for rural communities. Small and medium enterprise builders tend to come off badly as well, getting locked out of the market, which reduces competition. As a Conservative, this contradicts the political values that I stand for. And this simply cannot continue.

The data backs that up. Rural areas are 18% less productive than the national average. But where there is a large gap, there is opportunity. If we can make a concerted effort to close that gap with appropriate growth, it could add £43 billion to the national economy alone.

When we talk about levelling up, we often talk about increasing economic growth in ways that we have not yet imagined. But one area that we know would promote that is the link between good planning and economic growth in rural areas. Planning policy is a multiplier. It influences housing allocation, socioeconomic conditions and the wider environment. If we view planning as just being about houses and physical infrastructure, we ignore those wider impacts and the potential for structural policy change.

If we can truly realise the appropriate planning policies that we need, we can start to build sensitive yet beautiful smaller housing for young people, their families, and older people. That not only supports housing targets with appropriate housing, but could also free up the logjam within the existing housing stock.

However, appropriate housing planning is conditional to affordability. Affordability in rural communities is of critical importance. Data from 2019 shows that only 9% of rural homes were affordable, compared with 19% of homes in urban areas. Lack of affordable homes in rural communities is a huge problem, as young people and young families find it harder to get on the housing ladder. I am very clear that the Government must commit to a single definition for affordable housing. That way, we can start building homes that are genuinely affordable in the areas where they need to be built. Without that, young people and young families will continue to be locked out of the housing market. The lack of affordable housing is as much to do with land supply, material availability and labour supply as it is to do with the type of housing that gets built. Those issues also need to be tackled.

On a positive note, affordable homes can unlock underutilised economic potential in rural areas. I know how crucial that could be for many other Members whose constituencies are also home to rural communities. For every 10 affordable homes built, research shows that the economy can be boosted by £1.4 million, creating 26 jobs and generating a quarter of a million pounds in Government revenue. It does not take a maths degree to know what happens if we can implement this strategy at scale. That is why I keep banging on about this. If we set manageable localised targets and work co-operatively with town planners and developers, we can turn up the gears on economic growth, while providing a future for the younger generations in areas where we previously thought it might be difficult to do so. I am optimistic that we can achieve that.

The fourth and final pillar is a proportionate approach. We all know that Rome was not built in a day—and, of course, neither was Milton Keynes. Now a city, it is 55 years old. It has taken 55 years to get to where we are and we are still building it. Up to this point, it has taken considered, careful planning, because—this is really important—communities do not grow overnight. Communities are nurtured. Taking a proportionate approach means scaling housing developments to the areas they are built for. For rural areas, it is much more efficient to have smaller scale development, where as few as 10 homes or a similar sized development in each village would solve the existing rural housing crisis.

By taking a proportionate approach, the identities of market towns and villages can be protected, while ensuring there are enough homes for everyone, including young families. Gentle, beautiful density can work in villages as much as towns, so long as we build the right kind of houses in the right place, at the right time and at the right rate. We all know that more houses are needed, but a tailored approach must be taken in rural areas. It should not be as hard as we are making it for ourselves.

What is abundantly clear is that our planning system also requires radical reform. While not a technical term in the world of planning, we need to make the planning profession sexy again. We can achieve that by implementing a series of changes and innovations to level up planning in the UK. First, we need to modernise the planning system and existing methods of construction. In practice, that means we need to be more digital, more codified and more transparent. Bringing the planning system into the 21st century should be a priority in any successful levelling up agenda. Let us be honest: a digitised planning system would represent a more desirable industry for young, talented people to begin their careers. The benefits would be twofold: far more efficient planning and a higher influx of talent into the sector.

Backing that up, we need to invest in degree apprenticeships for planning. We need to work with degree apprenticeships providers to build up to date curriculums that reflect a modern approach to planning. If we can get more people into those types of programmes, we can put the brakes on the brain drain in the private sector. We can also make structural changes to attract more talent into the sector. Local authorities need to be supported in providing appropriate resources to planning departments.

Better resource allocation equals more efficient planning departments, which in turn will make planning more desirable. Even smaller changes, such as making the role of a senior planner akin to that of a deputy chief executive, could change that narrative. Levelling up our planning system will be for nothing if we do not stop the brain drain, so I am strongly in favour of an integrated approach. With the modern reforms I have mentioned, I truly believe we can build beautiful houses that are not just identikit cut-and-paste estates. This is about taking pride in planning again and taking pride in the homes that we build.

But I want to offer a word of caution: while we rightly move at speed to achieve these changes, we must rely on local leadership within the levelling-up agenda. We know that there is an important cycle in levelling up: education, skills, jobs, inward investment, business growth and infrastructure growth all lead to local economic growth and more jobs, and we do not even know yet the skills needed for those jobs, so that loops back into education. Some or all of these themes could require some form of Government intervention at some point, depending on the local circumstances. That means local leadership is key, as is remembering that levelling up is about opportunities and that people and their homes and communities are at the heart of this cycle.

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will be vital in catalysing this cycle, but, first, housing development planning must change, and fast. It is the hardest, most expensive, most time-consuming bit to do, but it is the most important. When we do not focus on sustainable, affordable, appropriate and proportionate housing, the results are detrimental to many and the environment.

I have seen this in my own constituency, where the MK East development encapsulates what can go wrong. This development does not respect the character of local villages—a factor I know my constituents care deeply about. Secondly, it takes farmland out of production during a time when the world is facing a food crisis, when instead we need all our farms to be at full pelt. How can this be considered sustainable, appropriate, affordable and proportionate?

When local leadership lacks clear policy direction, it fails, and we end up with poor planning. I argue that local leadership needs to be informed of new policy and, critically, the four pillars that I have put forward today. Of course, there are reasons to be positive and I welcome the recent White Paper on the private rented sector. However, there is always more to do if we are to truly look forward to levelling up housing quality across the country.

Whether as MP for Milton Keynes North or through my role as chair of the all-party group on housing market and housing delivery, I will continue to bang the drum on this issue. We must integrate planning with the needs of rural communities and the villages and towns within which they live, making housing more sustainable, appropriate, affordable and proportionate. Only then will we be able to protect our bustling high streets and thriving local businesses, which provide so much of our great country’s unique and enduring character.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; it is a pleasure to serve at the Dispatch Box with you in the Chair. It is four and a half years since I last had the pleasure of speaking from the Dispatch Box and two weeks ago I did not expect to be standing here tonight, but in my 12 years in this House I have learned to expect the unexpected.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) on securing this important debate and his thoughtful and impressive speech; he is a passionate champion for his constituency and I listened intently to his remarks. While this debate may specifically apply to his constituency in Milton Keynes, it touches on issues that matter to people in every constituency in the country: how we empower communities to be more strongly involved in the planning process; how we deliver the housing needed in our communities; how our planning regime properly reflects the true interests of our constituents; and how we protect rural areas that give our great nation its reputation for outstanding beauty.

I applaud my hon. Friend for his clear commitment to this issue, and I and the Government share his sentiments. We share his determination to strengthen and protect rural communities and reinforce the bonds that tie them together, and we share the view that our planning rules and regulations must help facilitate that ambition, not hinder it. My hon. Friend has become a well-established Member of the House and, as I am sure he will understand, I cannot comment on the specifics of the Milton Keynes local plan, owing to the Secretary of State’s quasi-judicial role in our planning system. It is good to see the Secretary of State sitting here on the Front Bench tonight; that shows his commitment to the subject. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North will appreciate that, again, I cannot talk too closely to individual planning applications. As he will know, however, local authorities are required to undertake a formal period of public consultation prior to any planning applications. Where relevant concerns are raised, those must be taken into account.

My hon. Friend will know that I can speak to our unwavering commitment to Britain’s rural communities and to keeping this country green and beautiful, as well as what we are doing to protect those areas while encouraging development in the places where it is most needed. Importantly, I can speak to our priorities and what we as a Government expect from local plans.

My hon. Friend rightly champions the vital role that communities should play in the planning process and makes the case for why they should be more involved in the process of bringing forward new development. The Government agree. As part of our levelling-up agenda, we believe that communities need to be at the heart of the planning process.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. A core part of our levelling-up White Paper was how we make sure that, alongside globally competitive cities that are dotted around the country, we have thriving rural communities. Our view is that levelling up for rural areas should preserve what gives those areas an identity and what makes them special—the things that draw in millions of tourists to many of our rural areas because they are the most beautiful parts of our country. As a Government, we recognise that the needs of rural areas and the needs of urban areas are often profoundly different.

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which is weaving its way through Parliament, will deliver a planning system that puts further power back into the hands of communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North has spoken about the need for a less adversarial system of planning rules and the need to get communities involved at a much earlier stage in decisions. That makes me think that he must have had some role in drafting the Bill, because that is exactly what we have set out to do.

The Bill will place a duty on local authorities to engage with their communities on proposed plans and reform the process for producing plans, so that it is simpler, faster and easier for communities to engage with. The days of residents ploughing through dozens of PDF files set out in a confusing manner should be over. This will be a clear opportunity for local people to get involved at a key stage in the planning process, with longer minimum periods for engagement than there are now. That will be made easier by plans being shorter, with more accessible documents. At the same time, we will increase the opportunities for involvement to ensure that development is brought forward in a way that works best for local people.

The Bill includes measures to improve our planning system and to bring it into the 21st century by digitising it in a way that helps to radically improve people’s access to the relevant information about plans and planning applications, while removing barriers to engagement by creating a more democratic planning system with planning decisions and local plans being informed by a larger and more diverse range of community views. Our new measures will also give neighbourhoods greater say in how their area looks and feels. In practice, that means that they can help define things such as design codes so that they can shape how their area looks. That kind of transparency will make the process smoother for all parties, while putting more power back where it belongs—in communities’ hands.

I will also cover what we expect from local plans. At the most basic level, local plans are responsible for identifying what development is needed in an area, setting out where it should go and, in doing so, providing certainty for communities, businesses and developers. Any local plan has to pass through a series of checks and balances, including a public consultation and public examination in front of an independent inspector, who is charged with examining plans impartially to make sure that they are legally compliant and sound. Councils can adopt a plan only if it is sound: it should be consistent with national policy, be supported by evidence and, importantly, take the views of local people into account.

I will not comment on the content of the local plan in Milton Keynes that covers my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I know that it was adopted in 2019, so it is less than five years old. An up-to-date plan is crucial, because it reduces speculative development, supports our villages and towns to develop, and can be written in a way that preserves the unique character of their communities. We would expect local planning decisions in Milton Keynes to be made in a way that is consistent with the local plan and that honours the agreement made between the local council and the local community when the plan was formed.

One area in which rural communities have much in common with urban communities is that they all want more affordable housing. As my hon. Friend points out, house prices have continued to defy gravity for years and years, which has had a profound impact on many people who want to become homeowners but have been priced out of the majority of homes in their area. I agree with my hon. Friend that affordable homes are key to ending the housing crisis. Local communities like those of his constituents in Milton Keynes rightly want and expect the Government and local authorities to deliver the kind of homes that help their children and give young people and older people who have always lived in an area the chance to buy their own home.

If we are serious about levelling up and restoring people’s pride in their communities, we have to match our commitment with affordable homes that give local people the opportunity to stay local. We need to rectify the situation, and we have a plan to do so. Our landmark affordable homes programme is one of the central ways in which we are making that happen. Between 2010 and 2021, the scheme has delivered more than 212,000 affordable homes in rural local authority areas. It recognises the needs of rural communities, which is why between April 2015 and March 2021, 10% of all new affordable homes were built in villages with a population under 3,000. The value of those homes goes way beyond mere statistics: each one has the potential to transform the life of hard-working families in an area.

The Government share my hon. Friend’s determination to protect rural communities and strengthen the fabric that holds them together. Once again, I thank him for securing this debate; with so much focus on other events, it is important that in this House we keep discussing and debating the issues that make a real difference to people’s lives. I can only apologise that I could not get into the specifics of some of the constituency matters that he has mentioned. As he knows, we have further to go on the issue and we need to get the balance right between protecting green land and ensuring the homes that the country needs for the future. I look forward to continued dialogue with my hon. Friend, who is a champion for his local area, as the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill goes through the House. I very much welcome his engagement tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.