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Neighbourhood Planning (Referendums) (Amendment) Regulations 2016

Volume 774: debated on Tuesday 6 September 2016

Motion to Approve

Moved by

My Lords, the regulations set a latest-by referendum date in the final stages of the neighbourhood planning process. I beg to move that they be approved and come into force on 1 October.

Neighbourhood planning gives communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and to shape the development and growth of their local area. For the first time, community groups can produce plans that have real statutory weight in the planning system. So far more than 1,900 communities across England, representing nearly 10 million people, have started the process of neighbourhood planning. More than 200 plans have passed a public referendum and are now in force. These plans are now the starting point for planning decisions.

We are fully committed to strengthening neighbourhood planning. The introduction of the neighbourhood planning Bill shortly will further empower local communities to get the homes and infrastructure that local communities need delivered as quickly and effectively as possible. But we need to ensure that the neighbourhood planning process is as simple and expeditious as possible so that communities see the benefits of their plan without unnecessary delays. Neighbourhood planning can take, on average, two to three years. Slow decision-making by local planning authorities can be particularly frustrating for communities and can discourage them from taking up neighbourhood planning. That is why we introduced a number of measures in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 that could speed up neighbourhood planning by an average of 17 weeks.

Complementing the new powers in the Housing and Planning Act is a power in Schedule 4B to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 for the Secretary of State to make regulations prescribing a date by which the referendum must be held or before which it cannot be held. Holding a referendum is a key step required to bring a neighbourhood plan or order into force once it has been through public consultation stages and an independent examination. Where the neighbourhood area has been designated as a business area, there is an additional referendum for the businesses in the area. On average, referendums have been held within eight weeks of a local planning authority’s decision to submit a neighbourhood plan or order. However, while some authorities have called a referendum within six weeks, others have set a referendum date more than 17 weeks after their decision to do so, and some have been far later even than that. This is why we consider that it would be beneficial for new regulations to set out a clear expectation regarding the time period for holding a referendum.

In February, we consulted on proposals for these regulations as part of a wider package of measures. A summary of the responses to the consultation has been prepared and is available on the department’s website, along with the Government’s response. The proposal received considerable support, and a small number of technical amendments were made as a result of the consultation to ensure that the regulations could be implemented effectively. The details of the regulations have been agreed with the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators.

The regulations, if approved, will be an important safeguard to ensure that a minority of local authorities do not cause delays to the neighbourhood planning process. The regulations would require local planning authorities to hold a referendum on a neighbourhood plan within 56 working days of their decision that a referendum should be held, or 84 working days in certain more complex cases. The cases where the 84-working-day limit would apply are where there is also a business referendum; where the neighbourhood planning area falls within more than one local planning authority area; or where the local planning authority is not the principal authority responsible for arranging the referendum, as with mayoral development corporations or national park authorities.

There are three exceptions to the 56 or 84-working-day time limit. First, they are where a neighbourhood planning referendum can take place on the same day as, or be taken together with, another poll due to be held within three months of the end of the 56 or 84-working-day period described above; where there are unresolved legal challenges to the decision to hold a referendum; or where a local planning authority and the neighbourhood group agree that the referendum need not be held by that date. Those exceptions provide necessary flexibility to allow for local circumstances to be taken into account.

Neighbourhood planning has been hugely successful in making planning more accessible to local people. It empowers significant numbers of communities to take an active role in determining the future of their areas, and it is a principle that we can all agree on. This Government are committed to speeding up and simplifying the process so that even more communities benefit. It is important that we set time limits for key local planning authority decisions in the neighbourhood planning process to speed up and simplify the system in a sensible and pragmatic way, and I believe that that is what the regulations will do. I therefore commend the draft regulations to the House.

My Lords, the proposals that the Government embody in these regulations are of course accepted. I declare my relevant local authority interests, which are referred to in the register.

There are a number of questions I would like to put to the Minister. He told us that 190 communities have started the process, that being the figure contained in the background documents which are available in the Printed Paper Office, and that 200 communities have proceeded to implement—or at least to agree—a plan under this procedure. However, that is 200 out of 1,900 in three years. Can the Minister say how many of those communities abandoned their projects or had them rejected in that time? What is the average time for concluding the process? The Minister referred to a reduction of some 17 weeks which will flow from this provision: 17 weeks compared to what as the average time so far? Moreover, the documents reveal that 89% of those who voted—presumably of these 200—voted in favour of the plan as drawn. The question is: 89% of what? What was the actual turnout relative to the potential turnout in these votes? There might well have been 89% voting in favour, but that could have been 89 people out of 100 who took the trouble to vote in a community of some thousands. It is simply not clear. I would be grateful if the noble Lord enlightened us. I do not suppose that he has the information immediately to hand, so I would be grateful if he wrote to me and placed the answers in the Library subsequently.

One of the problems for local authorities is that the planning service is under huge strain. Often, local authorities are reducing the number of planning officers because of the financial constraints on them. The Government, in paragraph 39 of their response to the consultation, indicated that they would enter into,

“updated arrangements for funding local planning authorities”.

Perhaps the noble Lord can enlighten us as to what progress has been made in that respect. As I understand from the documents, the Government do not accept that this process was a new burden, although any local authority would surely have thought it was, in the sense that it is a new responsibility which has been created, however welcome it may be. What funding is to be made available and what estimate has the department made of its impact on the number of officers who would be enabled to carry out this work, which would be in addition to the current work of planning departments, which are already considerably overstrained?

If we are looking at timescales, what are the Government doing about the hundreds of thousands of planning permissions granted for development upon which no action has been taken? We have here a measure which prescribes a very limited timescale, understandably in many ways, because in the most part we are not talking about large projects. However, what is sauce for the local government goose does not appear to be on the menu for the developer gander because long-standing planning permissions are simply lying on the table. At a time when everybody acknowledges the need for hundreds of thousands of new houses to be built, it seems extraordinary that the Government are prepared to impose a pretty rigid—I concede it is not entirely rigid—timescale for the processing of these plans, but no timescale at all on the implementation of planning permissions granted, in many cases, some years ago. Will the Government look again at the question of imposing a timescale for planning permission for significant developments to be implemented, rather than simply leaving it to the developer—who is presumably hanging on to the land in the hope that ultimately prices will rise and greater profits will accrue—when there are many, many people looking for new homes to buy or rent? The principle here, which is a fair one, is to make progress on community plans, but can we also see some progress on the carrying out of development in accordance with permissions already granted?

My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, although it was very difficult to gauge from his remarks to your Lordships’ House whether or not he supports neighbourhood planning. I make it very clear that I am a huge supporter of neighbourhood planning and neighbourhood plans, which arose from the Localism Act 2011. I was delighted that the Minister made very clear his support for them. I entirely support his and the Government’s desire to speed up and simplify the process so that still more communities can benefit from the opportunities that neighbourhood planning will bring to them.

I share of course the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, that the Government are often very keen to impose tight time limits on other bodies whereas they themselves do not necessarily have to live up to similarly tight timescales. But in the area of neighbourhood planning and enthusiasm for it, while I entirely support these measures, I ask the Minister to look carefully at the departmental website and the way in which it increasingly does not show the same initial enthusiasm for neighbourhood planning that perhaps once existed. For example, the departmental website has had a series of notes on neighbourhood planning. It currently goes up to addition 17—at least, that is what is available on the department’s website. In 2015, additions 14, 15, 16 and 17 were spread over roughly three-monthly periods. Yet, as far as I am aware, there has been no further note on neighbourhood planning from the department. Will the Minister identify whether they exist and, if so, whether they can be given more publicity because they contain—at least up until December—some very interesting and helpful information for local communities that want to go down the neighbourhood planning route.

While on the issue of the departmental website, will the Minister agree to take on a small exercise when he eventually gets home tonight? Will he see whether he can find on the departmental website the results of the consultation to which he referred? No fewer than five people have worked with me on trying to find it. It was only with the help of the very efficient staff in the Library that we were eventually able to find it. But I note that the details provided on the website are somewhat different from the information provided in the Explanatory Memorandum. For example, the website says that there were 362 responses to the consultation but the Explanatory Memorandum says that there were only 321.

The point is that the report, which can eventually be found if noble Lords take the time to get to it, does not provide any helpful information whatever. Clearly, any noble Lord who wishes to participate in this debate would want to know what the objections were from those councils that were not happy with the proposal. The report merely says that the vast majority were in favour and that a few came up with some suggestions for changes. I hope that the Minister will agree to publish a fuller document on the responses to question 5.6 of the consultation.

Having been somewhat niggly, for which I apologise to the Minister, I will say that I entirely share his enthusiasm for neighbourhood planning. In my brief time as a Minister in the department, I had an opportunity, along with Mr Nick Boles, to see many community groups working on them and know the real benefit that they can bring to communities.

I hope that my noble friend will clarify a few points for me as I found the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, extremely interesting. What role has the main local authority planning officer in this procedure? Can he at any time override or question—possibly for good reasons—conclusions that have been reached? Have any estimates been made of the cost of carrying out these new procedures, and who will pay for them? Finally, will ordinary planning proposals that the local authority planning people are looking at be delayed because they will have to pay close attention to this procedure?

My Lords, first, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, and congratulate him on his new appointment and responsibilities. I know that he has been in the job for some time but this is the first time I can formally congratulate him and wish him well in his new position. We will not agree on everything but I assure noble Lords that I will engage constructively with him on all matters in his brief that come before your Lordships’ House. Where we believe that the Government have got it right I will happily say so, and when we offer alternatives from this Dispatch Box it will be because we believe that there are better solutions to the problems being considered. I also declare that I am an elected councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association, and in general refer the House to my declaration of interests.

I am a supporter of neighbourhood planning and allowing maximum community involvement in decisions that affect local communities. As I have told the House before, in the ward I represent on Lewisham Council, Crofton Park, we are developing a neighbourhood plan. We hope to be able to submit it to the council early next year and then proceed quickly to a referendum. It is right that a referendum is held as soon as possible and in most cases 56 days, as the order allows for, gives enough time to undertake and prepare for the vote but also means that it is still a fresh and live issue locally and is not allowed to drift. There are a few alterations to that when situations are a bit more complicated, as the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, outlined, and allowing a group and the council to agree sensible variations to enable the poll to coincide with a local event or an election that is taking place in three months in the same area is sensible and has my full support.

I agree with the points made by my noble friend Lord Beecham in his contribution to this debate, in particular on the funding proposals that will be made available. I hope that the Minister will respond to those.

That brings me to the assertion, which we heard many times from noble Lords opposite during the passage of the Housing and Planning Act, that somehow all these councils are dragging their feet and holding up all these planning applications and all this development. That assertion was made many times and I remember putting a few Questions down, which showed, as my noble friend highlighted, that literally hundreds of thousands of applications have been passed by local authorities but nothing has happened. I know of one in my own ward: an application went in to put some new shops and houses on a big site, but all that has happened is that a sign has gone up which says, “Full planning permission given”. Nothing else has happened —it just sits there. So local planning authorities are not the problem; there are thousands of sites that we need to deal with and get on with. I hope that the Minister will be able to bring some solutions to the House in the future.

I could go on but I am supportive of what is in the proposals here and I am happy for them to be approved.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have participated in this debate. I shall try to pick up the various points—there are some interesting ones—in the order in which they were made, so I will first address those made by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. He raised questions about how many plans have been abandoned. Communities are beginning the process on a daily basis. Some 450 draft plans have been published and we are supporting communities through this process. I will give the noble Lord some indication of the financial assistance in a minute. He also asked about turnout of voters and kindly said that I probably did not have the precise figures for all areas at my fingertips, which was an accurate summary of the position. However, so far, the average turnout of voters across referendum areas has been 32%, which I think he will acknowledge is in line with local authority elections generally. Obviously there is some variation; I will get a letter to him giving a more detailed breakdown and I will put it in the Library as well, so that noble Lords have access to the information.

The noble Lord quite validly asked about the funding available, I think for neighbourhood planning in general and perhaps for the referendum process in particular. We are funding neighbourhood planning with a £22.5 million support programme from 2015 to 2018. On referendums, money is available for every planning authority—£5,000 for each of the first five neighbourhood areas they designate and £5,000 for each of the first five neighbourhood forums; that is, where there are businesses that they designate. In addition, they will receive £20,000 when they set a date for a referendum following a successful examination of a neighbourhood plan. So money is available for this process because there is a cost associated with it.

The noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong but I think he is supportive of neighbourhood planning. He is indicating that he is so, gladly, we can get that on the record. He made a more general—somewhat off-piste—point about the regulations for planning applications. I hope he will accept that that is perhaps the subject of a debate for another day. I recognise that it is an issue to look at and perhaps we can do so in a QSD or during debate on the forthcoming Bill. I acknowledge that there is an issue there but I do not think it should detract from this very specific matter, which I believe he supports. Certainly the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, indicated support for it from the Front Bench.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, for the general support he offered. I know he has a good history on this issue in the Commons. We will be looking at the website in the light of his comments on the general position and the specifics, and we will obviously update it in the light of the new regulations—as I hope they will be at the end of this debate. However, I thank him for his general support for the concept of neighbourhood planning and for these regulations.

My noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes made a point about a possible legal challenge on the costs. There are costs associated with referendums. I suppose it is rather like the cost of democracy in holding elections in general, where there will always be a cost. The planning officer cannot override neighbourhood plans or, under these regulations, hold them up unless there is a valid legal challenge, which will have to go through the courts. I readily acknowledge that hold-ups occur across local authorities under different political control—there is no partisan point here. I could name the authorities in question and am almost tempted to do so. However, the longest hold-up is 400 days, which is too long. Frankly, that is why we are bringing these regulations forward. We want to ensure that neighbourhood planning is given the boost that it needs.

Finally, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his typical graciousness and generosity from the Front Bench. I also thank him very much for the constructive approach that he always brings to bear in looking at government proposals, and I look forward to our exchanges across the Dispatch Box. I am sure his contributions will be well thought-out and helpful, as they always are. I come back to the general point from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, on planning, which he supported. Yes, let us have a look at that, although it is perhaps something to be dealt with on another day because it is a bit off-piste in relation to these regulations.

Motion agreed.