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Direct Planning (Pilot) Bill [HL]

Volume 767: debated on Friday 20 November 2015

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I am deeply grateful to those noble Lords who will be speaking in today’s debate and to my noble friend the Minister, who will reply to it. I am also grateful to many other noble Lords from the Government, the Opposition and the Cross Benches who have expressed support for or interest in the Direct Planning (Pilot) Bill but cannot be here today.

I stress the range of interest that this Bill has attracted in order to emphasise its strictly non-partisan character. It builds strongly on the well-established principles of neighbourhood planning, and on the Localism Act 2011 passed by the coalition Government. That Act’s neighbourhood planning components were largely supported, I think it would be fair to say, by the Labour Party. Indeed, last year, the Labour Party called for an extension of neighbourhood planning. This Bill represents such an extension and would pilot a practical way in which communities could channel support more effectively to the types of new housing that they want.

The Bill has also attracted interest and support from a wide range of civic society organisations which have day-to-day experience of community planning. These include Civic Voice, the Historic Towns Forum, the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community and Create Streets, to which I am particularly indebted since it helped craft the Bill.

I think that it is neither controversial nor surprising to say that the need to build more housing in a socially acceptable fashion is one of the gravest political challenges facing parts of modern Britain today. When the neighbourhood planning process was started some years ago, many optimists supported it, but many pessimists decried it as nothing more than a new way for communities to prevent new housing. I am happy to say that the optimists have been proved right. A whole new national movement has been called into existence, with more than 1,600 English communities taking the initiative and starting to produce neighbourhood plans.

Communities are, on the whole, for more housing, not less. As the Minister for Housing and Planning reported only the other day, the 100 areas which have now voted on their neighbourhood plans have on average voted for 10% more housing. This Bill seeks to harness the energy of this emerging movement to help build more new housing of the types that local communities prefer and will support. Most people do not like, in urban areas, the type—typically, flats—with its lay-out, its arrangement with few “normal” streets, or its style of too many new homes. In a survey conducted for the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2009, two-thirds of British adults said that they would not even consider buying a newly-built home. Other surveys have indicated that more than twice as many people prefer older homes to new ones. Research by Create Streets shows that most British citizens crave a “sense of place” that so much contemporary housing just fails to provide.

The highly supply-constrained nature of British housing means that most value attached to land comes from getting it zoned for housing or by securing planning permission. The approval of planners and the compliance with a not small bible of codes and regulations tend to trump what people want in the built environment. So what actually gets built, what most easily wins planning permission, often does not match what people like. In a recent poll by Create Streets on what types of housing people would wish to be built near them, 87% said that they preferred homes that were clearly conventional in design. Of the 13% who preferred less historically-referenced buildings, 43% worked as planners, architects or in the creative arts.

The process of consultation as currently required and practised too often descends into a PR sham exercise which creates public mistrust and opposition to new housing. For example, Derrick Chung, chair of the West Hendon Residents’ Association, last year told a session of the London Assembly housing committee:

“The decision-making process for the regeneration of West Hendon was a consultation that was an ultimatum: you either take it or there is a bus going that way. We were not allowed to take part in the decision-making process”.

A 2014 research exercise by the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community consultation reached the same conclusion. It found:

“In several recent examples in London we have encountered a justifiable scepticism about the validity and intent of “consultation” exercises. Too often the real choices being given to communities are superficial (‘where would you like the trees?’) and the subsequent presentation of evidence is carefully chosen to underplay the overwhelming level of discontent or opposition”.

Interviewees were asked how much they valued consultation and how it could best be done. A very strong preference emerged for consultation from the start, as opposed to the end, of the development process; this scored 87 out of a possible 100.

The good news is that people are far more prepared to support new housing when they are genuinely, not belatedly or superficially, consulted. There are different ways of achieving this, leading to better, more popular, more highly valued development, with no loss of speed in carrying it out. They involve sitting down properly with local residents at the start of the process, not just asking carefully selected questions at the end of it. This is the so-called charrette process incorporated in the Bill to secure wide local participation. Charrette, an attractive French word meaning a cart or chariot, has now been harnessed to describe a most important process of local consultation.

There are numerous examples of this approach leading both to better and more widely supported development. Dave Smith, the former director of the East London Community Land Trust, which helps secure popular support for more housing in east London, has said:

“I have been genuinely and seriously impressed with the charrette process, which helped create London’s first community land trust at St Clement’s Hospital in Bow. The charette enabled us to cast aside the pessimism and low expectations that accompany most tawdry consultations, and the masterplan now truly reflects our community’s stated aims and has helped us pioneer and co-create a new vision for this part of the East End.”

They are more effective if they use design codes—a set of agreed rules for what things will look like—in order to create more certainty than the current system permits. Design codes define the range of possible scales, shapes, materials, lay-outs, urban forms and styles of development in a certain area. This means that a community view can continue to exert influence beyond an initial development, permitting a strong, clear definition of how a city will function and appear.

A 2006 assessment by the Government compared 15 different design codes with four non-coded approaches. Conducted by Professor Matthew Cremona of University College London, it found:

“Significantly, where codes are being implemented on site, schemes have been delivering enhanced sales values and increased land values. When set off against the up-front investment, this to a large degree, determines the value added by coding, at least in crude economic terms”.

As the pioneering work of the community group Look! St Albans shows, it is entirely possible for neighbourhood forums and groups to work up design codes. Activity of this kind will be further supported and extended by a most valuable tool kit which the Prince’s Foundation is currently testing.

So that is the context in which this modest, but I hope significant, Bill is being brought before the House today. Its aims are to improve the character of local consultation in order to empower what citizens want; to extend and enhance the progress that has been made by neighbourhood planning; to encourage more building and more popular support for building; to reduce the cost of planning by engendering more popular consent; to increase the speed of building; and to make it easier for people and communities to influence what gets built.

The first main element of the Bill, which is set out in Clause 1, involves strategic planning. The Secretary of State would be placed under an obligation to authorise pilot schemes to enable local residents acting through neighbourhood forums or community organisations within designated areas to participate more directly in developing planning policies. Residents would be able to develop form-based design codes which would provide a set of rules to define how buildings and streets will appear and function in their neighbourhoods. They would also encourage revitalisation of popular and walkable neighbourhoods.

Clause 1(4) would establish a pilot fund of £2 million from existing DCLG funds to support neighbourhood forums in developing form-based design codes for future developments in their neighbourhoods. Under Clause 1(5) residents would be able to bid for grants from the fund under a rolling application system up to a total of £100,000.

The second main element of the Bill, embodied in Clause 2, involves development control to bring about the participation of a much wider cross-section of society for strategic development projects via the charrette process. A charrette is defined in Clause 2(5) as,

“a collaborative series of meetings conducted over a period of less than four weeks between those who have an interest in development in a designated area including but not limited to developers, architects, residents, local businesses and community groups and unincorporated associations, for the purpose of developing and agreeing to a master plan for a particular development”.

The third main element of the Bill, which also finds expression in Clause 2, concerns estate regeneration. Provision is made for fully supported charrette approaches to estate regeneration in contrast to the current standard protracted and inadequate consultation exercises. There is an enormous opportunity to regenerate unpopular, unviable post-war estates by creating traditional streets of houses and medium-rise flats at higher densities. Clause 2(1)(b) and (4) require councils or registered social landlords embarking on an estate regeneration to fund and support the creation of neighbourhood forums of residents and neighbours working together via a charrette through inquiries by design. Form-based design codes, as defined in Clause 3, that resulted from the process would have the same status, although set out in more detail, as neighbourhood plans. They would require support in a local referendum in the same way as neighbourhood plans.

The fourth main component of the Bill, provided for in Clause 4, involves budgeting to permit and encourage local planning departments to aid neighbourhood forums. At present, the £8,000 available to neighbourhood forums is rarely sufficient to manage and run the consultation process unless material pro bono professional time is given. This has resulted in most neighbourhood plans coming from middle-class communities. There is a widespread perception that some local planning teams are antagonistic to community planning. New funding arrangements could turn that relationship around so that local planners start to be dependent on communities, not threatened by them.

Clause 4(4) earmarks 5% of every council’s planning budget to support local neighbourhood forums. In order to unlock this fund, local council planning departments would have to provide support to neighbourhood forums or community development teams and submit evidence to show that they were doing so. Local authorities would be allowed to spend all the money allocated to them for local planning purposes only when they have received evidence of practical and effective support for neighbourhood forums and community groups. The Secretary of State would be required by regulations to make rules to determine what types of evidence are acceptable. In the absence of such evidence, 5% of the money allocated for local planning purposes would be distributed as a rolling grant to support the work of neighbourhood forums or community groups.

It is right that a Bill like this should be modest in scope. It has been conceived as a cost-neutral pilot and has a sunset clause, Clause 6, which would take effect after five years. Those who are experts in this area of policy will recognise that elements of the approach set out in this Bill might sit well alongside the “permission in principle” clauses of the Government’s new Housing and Planning Bill.

In conclusion, if the research evidence on which this Bill is based and if the ideas that inspire it were by one means or another incorporated in planning policy, I venture to suggest that we would not just build more homes in this country, we would do so with more popular support. Is that not an aim for which we should strive? I beg to move.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and to be able to take part in this debate. I profess no real expertise in this and I am extremely grateful for the briefing from Create Streets, in what was an inspirational document. My declarable interests are in the past—my involvement with the National Association of Local Councils and its Sussex County Association, as a former trustee of Action in rural Sussex, and with the Sussex Rural Community Council—but also currently as a vice-president of the LGA and through my professional work, particularly in so far as I advise owners and others of potential development sites at community scale. I am also a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment, chaired by Oliver Colvile MP. I had the privilege to serve under the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, on the ad hoc Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment. I gained some particular insights from those, but I do not speak as a representative for either.

The construct of placemaking has been a long-growing feature. The term may be modern, but it was clear to me from my years working in the West End in the early 1980s that a sense of identity and belonging were themes in estate agency jargon, as they were in the reality of association with place and community. That it encompassed the social, physical, economic and administrative facets was evident even then.

I am a strong advocate of community and neighbourhood engagement and empowerment. I have a preference if not a prejudice in favour of the parish council model as a lead organisation, as it is based on a statutory foundation for its existence, with a clear structure, independence, and democratic and financial accountability as the first tier of local government. But in metropolitan areas, parish councils are almost entirely non-existent, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, well knows. I am also an advocate of further planning devolution to community level—something often resisted by principal authorities.

The question about what is special about a locality is often subsumed, as the noble Lord said, in a stock-take of assets—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats—frequently of a spatial rather than a societal nature. Placemaking operates on a number of different levels. It particularly requires a small number of visionary, committed and knowledgeable individuals who will galvanise and lead that process of placemaking in the context of neighbourhood plans and the other tools available. I agree with the noble Lord that neighbourhood plans are in a sense mired in the circumstances in which they come to be created. Revitalising and galvanising that process and driving it forward as the business-planning process on behalf of the community is what the Bill is all about. I welcome design statements, which are often rather flat and sometimes negative in their sentiments, being lifted out to a better state and the whole thing being better funded

The physical dimensions—spatial layout, design, attraction and so on—are no less important to placemaking, but they sit alongside the property economics, durability, security, local history and collective memories of events, and that sense of pride and a feeling of ownership of processes that bring it about and foster and maintain it. Viability is always a key point in this and I know that there are differences of opinion on what viability might mean when it gets to the bottom line—a matter that has been much under scrutiny. In parallel with that, what actually counts as quality in terms of the built environment? So often, we have seen so-called landmark developments that have not stood the test of time. If we are to deliver not just any old housing, business space or civic space but rather places to live, work, enjoy and be proud of in 40, 60 or 100 years’ time, we need a different model from what is effectively a very short-term, expedient system. I cannot think of many communities that would not love to have an across-the-board upgrade to the attractiveness of their area and their property values, and the sense of belonging and societal cohesion that goes with that.

The proposals in the Bill go well beyond current practice and would vest in communities a far wider group of toolsets than has customarily been used or been available to them. I am particularly interested in business as a significant stakeholder in this. I believe that the Bill, or something like it, will incentivise action and bring critical assessment and analysis of a process to a wider range of people than would customarily be privy to the rather opaque—I was going to say murky—planning system that we currently have, with all its policy and other constraints. The fact that the principles, such as charrette, have been tried and tested in other environments and found to work means that, as a pilot—bearing in mind that that is what it sets out to put in place—this is a Bill whose moment has come. It is time to put it into wider action.

The Bill will require wider commitment in situations where the incidence of taxation or the way in which things are handled by other administrative organs of the state can cut across what would otherwise be a necessary and desirable fast-tracking of the operation. It has to be designed in such a way that there is buy-in to the principle by all sectors of government, not least ones such as HMRC. I am particularly pleased to see that the Department for Communities and Local Government appears to be on board with that. The Bill is well worth supporting. I look forward to further discussion in Committee.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on securing a Second Reading for his Private Member’s Bill. I should also say at the start of my remarks that I am an elected councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and I serve on the planning committee of that authority. The Bill has the support of these Benches. We wish it well and a speedy passage through your Lordships’ House.

The Bill essentially seeks greater support for the involvement of local people in the planning process through use of charrettes, form-based area codes and neighbourhood planning. It seeks to get people involved in the planning process in a positive way to find the best solutions for their local community. A charrette is a technique used in planning for consultation with stakeholders. It can be intensive and mean multiday meetings involving planners, developers, businesses and local residents. It is about seeking agreement on the way forward in a more collaborative way.

The Bill states that charrettes must be included in estate regeneration programmes. I very much welcome that. I grew up on the Aylesbury Estate in south London and I can confidently say that if we had had a consultation and community involvement programme like a charrette, as outlined in the Bill, then all the streets of houses would not have been knocked down to build the estate in the 1960s. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, talked about landmark developments that do not stand the test of time. The Aylesbury Estate won awards. People came to visit it from around the world in the 1960s. Of course, we know what happened there in the end.

As a family we were very happy on the estate and the design of the property inside was actually very good. The problem was the environment outside the estate. You had no interaction with your neighbours as you would have if you lived in a street. I remember as a child they talked about having walkways in the sky, where you could walk from Peckham because all the council estates would be linked up. You would not have had to cross a road until you got to Elephant and Castle. Thankfully that never came to fruition and these estates are either being knocked down or have undergone transformational work to make them more acceptable to live in. That means that we basically bring streets back into these areas.

In the 1980s, I recall talking to two former councillors in Southwark who said how proud they had been to announce the building of all these new homes, but then how quickly it had all gone wrong. Of course, that story was repeated all over the United Kingdom in the 1960s and 1970s. What is being built in place of these estates is newer homes with a much more traditional street design or small blocks of flats with proper security measures and a door entry on to the main road. I am confident that that will produce better and happier communities and will be much better than what was there before.

Form-based area codes are a means of regulating land developments, producing predictable results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form as the organising principle with a lesser focus on land use, and can produce more consistent and predictable patterns of development in the public realm. There are good examples of that as well.

As I said earlier, I am a local councillor in Lewisham and represent the ward of Crofton Park. We have begun the process of setting up a neighbourhood forum in that ward. That takes a lot of work and can be challenging, but I am very much of the opinion that it will produce better outcomes for local people as they are more fully involved in the planning process rather than being spectators. For many years we have had an awful development site covered with pink hoarding which we have never been able to sort out. Indeed, we have spent years trying to sort it out. It has been the centre of battles between local residents and various developers. If we had had a charrette, we could have dealt with that problem much more quickly than we finally managed to do earlier this year.

I am pleased that the Government Chief Whip is present. I am sure that this Bill will receive a Second Reading but there will then be 11 Private Members’ Bills waiting for Committee stage. They will all be Committees of the whole House. But then those Bills will struggle to get any further. Will the Government Chief Whip consider putting some of these Bills into Grand Committee? It can be done. I have asked the Clerk of the Parliaments whether that can be done and it would move the Bills on much further. I hope that the Government Chief Whip will consider that.

It is the custom that, after Second Reading, Bills have a Committee stage of the whole House. But, of course, if no amendments are made, it is perfectly possible for those Bills to proceed.

That is absolutely right; that is the custom. However, we certainly could move these Bills into Grand Committee. I have had a long conversation with the Clerk of the Parliaments but I will leave it there. However, I keep making the point that there are some very good Private Members’ Bills that could be moved along much quicker if we wanted to do so.

In conclusion, I again congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on his excellent Bill and hope that he will get a positive response from the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford.

My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Lexden for setting out the purpose of the Bill, and for his interest in promoting community engagement in the planning process and in supporting high-quality design in the built environment. I also thank my noble friend for providing the Government with an opportunity to set out their position on a very important issue.

First, I express the Government’s recognition of the good intentions behind the Bill and note the work that Create Streets undertakes to promote high-quality design in new development. We strongly support empowering communities in shaping new developments in their area in a way that reflects local need, and in improving the design of new homes. Of course, this Bill comes at a time when local support for housebuilding has doubled in the last few years from 28% in 2010 to 56% now, while opposition has commensurately halved.

There are millions of hard-working people for whom the aspiration to own their own home is becoming further out of reach. This is a result of the decades-long failure to build enough houses. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that a fully functioning and efficient housing market is vital for meeting the aspirations of working people and raising the productivity of our country. That is why we are committed to encouraging home ownership, building homes that people can afford to buy and supporting all areas of the housing market. And how we do this is equally important. We need to deliver more new homes of good quality with well thought out design, and which are built quickly and efficiently.

I have absolutely no doubt that good design has a fundamental role in the success of boosting housing supply, which is critical to improving affordability. Community-led processes can change perceptions and involvement in planning and development more widely. I therefore wholeheartedly support the Bill’s aim of improving the quality of new development and encouraging closer engagement with the local community on the design of housing schemes. Like my noble friend, we want to see new homes and places that communities can be proud of and, as other noble Lords have said, that stand the test of time.

The Government have put in place a robust framework that supports high quality design. The National Planning Policy Framework is very clear. Good design is a key aspect of sustainable development, is indivisible from good planning and should contribute positively to making places better for people. Our planning guidance has a strong focus on design, and supports the use of a range of planning processes and design tools to help achieve good design. We also ask local planning authorities to have local design review arrangements in place in order to provide assessment and support to ensure high standards of design.

We are encouraging high-quality design through our ambitious housing programmes, whether it be the starter homes initiative, new housing zones or our work on larger sites such as Ebbsfleet. The Minister of State for Housing and Planning has also created a design advisory panel, involving leading figures from the design and architecture sector, to set the bar on housing design across the country. I am very pleased to say that Create Streets has a place on the panel and is able to play an active part in driving up design quality. However, as my noble friend points out, local communities can be very reluctant to accept new development in their area. One of the reasons for this is poor design—soulless development that will destroy the character of their area. This is something that must be changed. It is therefore important that local authorities and developers work with communities to ensure that they get the quality of new housing development that they want.

The Government have continued to devolve power to local people. Through the Localism Act 2011, we introduced neighbourhood planning. This put control over development back into the hands of local people, enabling them to play a much stronger role in shaping the areas in which they live and work. As my noble friend also noted in his speech, more than 1,600 communities across England are now engaged in the planning of their areas through neighbourhood planning. That represents more than 8 million people in 68% of local authorities. We also marked the 100th neighbourhood planning referendum in October.

As part of a neighbourhood plan or order, there is also extensive and ongoing community engagement led by the communities themselves. Indeed, many communities are already being highly imaginative in how they engage in shaping the development of their areas. For example, in the inner-city area of Heathfield Park in Wolverhampton, those preparing the neighbourhood plan needed a way to engage those living on the local estates. Working with local specialist manufacturers, they produced a 3D model of the area and its buildings, alongside models of proposed new developments. The models of existing buildings allowed people to understand the impact of development and the power that they had to shape it, and inspired high levels of engagement with the neighbourhood plan.

Through our £22.5 million support programme for neighbourhood planning over the next three years, funding is available to neighbourhood groups that wish to participate in shaping the development of their areas. More than £2.8 million in grants has been awarded to such groups since March. Neighbourhood forums, many of which are in deprived urban areas, want their neighbourhood plans to include policies on designs or to produce masterplans. They can also apply for funding to receive technical support. This also applies to parish and town councils that are classed as priority groups. These forums, any other neighbourhood group or even a local planning authority are able to prepare a design code if they so wish. Indeed, as my noble friend is undoubtedly aware, national planning policy and our planning guidance encourage design codes where they can help to deliver high-quality outcomes. Furthermore, local communities have a say in how community infrastructure levy funds raised in their area are spent. For example, communities that draw up a neighbourhood plan will benefit from 25% of the levy that arises from the development that takes places in their area.

The Bill would require a specific form of engagement through conducting a charrette, or inquiry by design process, wherever a significant number of new homes is proposed. Charrettes are certainly a useful tool for engaging communities in development proposals that affect them and they are widely used in Scotland. But they are only one tool in the toolbox that is available, and it should be for local areas to decide which tool is most appropriate for them. Up and down the country we are seeing a range of innovative approaches, including charrettes, being used to engage communities on different proposals. For example, in Uppingham in Rutland, communities have been trialling Community VoiceBox, which is a new approach for guiding the design of housing development in local areas. In Bordesley Green in Birmingham, Accord group has been using the Planning for Real tool with the local community to identify the community’s priorities for the local area, building on local knowledge, skills and networks.

We also recognise that the best estate regeneration projects actively involve local residents, so that the new homes and the area are redeveloped to meet local needs, provide well-designed and high-quality new homes and reflect a sense of community identity. In the New Union Wharf development in Tower Hamlets, the developer, East Thames Group, ran a mini-competition for ideas for the future of the estate, facilitated resident training, visited other projects and opened up meetings where residents identified what they wished to change and the priorities for the new development. A residents’ future group was set up, subsequently holding monthly open meetings, which engaged with the developers. In the Grahame Park estate development in Barnet, there has been extensive community engagement and consultation over several key stages. This has taken the form of community events and workshops, newsletters, an interactive design website, drop-in sessions, a full master plan and a full ballot about the final proposals. The aim has always been to ensure full community participation and buy-in.

Those examples alone demonstrate that a range of tools is already available, and we firmly believe that the specific process of engagement should not be prescribed centrally. We do not believe that the Government should legislate to require local authorities and developers to undertake specific processes.

We recognise the good intentions behind the Bill, but feel the community groups already have the powers to achieve its aims. Design codes are already a legitimate tool that local planning authorities and neighbourhoods can use to shape design in their area. Communities can already and should continue to be able to engage with development proposals in the manner that they see is most appropriate. It is not for government to prescribe the method by which communities should engage with proposals in their area. Given that, I must express my reservations with regard to the Bill. However, I conclude by adding that if my noble friend would find it helpful, my departmental colleagues and I would be very happy to meet him to discuss the potential for further practical non-legislative measures to improve community engagement in the design of new development schemes.

My Lords, I have been greatly heartened and encouraged by the support—indeed, enthusiasm—with which the Bill has been greeted. I am profoundly grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, who expressed with enthusiasm the Labour Party’s support for the Bill. I am of course grateful to my noble friend for setting out the Government’s thinking so fully and clearly. I would very much like to take up her generous offer and look forward to doing so.

This short but important Bill bears upon one of the great issues of our time. In 1950, Churchill said:

“Upon good housing depends the health and happiness of every family”,

in the land. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House.

House adjourned at 3.14 pm.