Tuesday 31 January 2017
Neighbourhood Planning Bill
Committee (1st Day)
Relevant document: 15th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee.
My Lords, good afternoon. If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.
1: Before Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty to uphold neighbourhood development plans
(1) The Secretary of State has a duty to uphold neighbourhood development plans, and in fulfilment of that duty must not seek to override neighbourhood development plans except in exceptional circumstances of national importance.(2) The Secretary of State has a duty to ensure that local planning authorities have sufficient resources to enable them to own, implement and defend neighbourhood development plans.(3) If it is deemed necessary to override a neighbourhood development plan and require the provision of additional housing, the Secretary of State must—(a) have regard to the policies of the neighbourhood development plan, in particular, policies on employment opportunities; and(b) inform the local community of the number of houses and types of housing required.(4) If a neighbourhood development plan has been overridden in accordance with subsection (3), it is the responsibility of the local planning authority, in consultation with the local community, to decide where it is most appropriate to provide the additional housing, and their decision must be accepted by the Secretary of State unless there are exceptional reasons of national importance not to do so.”
My Lords, I start by declaring an interest: I have a legal case concerning a planning application pending at the moment. I have taken advice from the Clerk of the Parliaments and been told that the sub judice rule does not apply in my case.
We had a very interesting and wide-ranging debate at Second Reading. I thank my noble friend the Minister for his introduction to the Bill on that occasion, and for his courtesy and his very thorough winding-up, in which he undertook to inform noble Lords of the process he wanted to work through. He said he wanted to be inclusive. He has certainly been so until now, and I am sure he will be in future.
The Bill reflects the very foundations of society. It is not just about building houses, although they are very much needed; it is about building homes, strengthening communities and ensuring that we create better lives for future generations. As my honourable friend Gavin Barwell, Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, has said:
“Done well, with genuine local consent, garden villages and towns can help tackle the housing crisis. They can be preferable to what is currently happening in too many parts of the country—poor quality developments plonked on the countryside, in the teeth of local opposition and in defiance of good planning principles”.
He is absolutely right. Developments plonked in the countryside without a community infrastructure have no soul and are uncared for, unloved and unalterable. Through my amendments I seek to mark a real change: good planning with tight boundaries that is less top-down and gives more respect and power to local people.
It is the duty and the right of the Secretary of State and Ministers to establish a policy and set the types and numbers of houses to be built in each planning area. Thereafter it is for the local planners to decide how best to deliver these policies in conjunction with people who know their neighbourhood intimately. No Government can understand the nuances of every local authority. Local people must be allowed to build communities and that takes time and skill. My amendments, therefore, are based on trust—trusting people, respecting people and enabling those people who know their beat best.
We are beginning to trust people in the health service with personal budgets and we know they work. We are trusting parents and schools to define their own standards. We must do the same for planning. Just houses without integrated communities are at risk of becoming drug alleys, and of contributing to family breakdown, crime and despondency, which have huge costs for people and those who try to deal with the devastation left behind.
My proposed new Clause 1(1) places a duty on the Secretary of State to uphold neighbourhood development plans, which can be overridden only in exceptional circumstances of national importance. The purpose of my amendment is to delineate between the responsibilities of central government and those of the local planning authorities. The Secretary of State is responsible for strategy and local authorities for implementing the strategy. There is huge danger when these two roles are confused and the Secretary of State and the department start to meddle in the detail of something of which they know little. I am not criticising them; they are not equipped to understand the nuances, history, thinking and understanding of local communities. Surely that is what localism and neighbourhood planning are all about.
In proposed new subsection (1), I conclude that the Secretary of State should be able to intervene in matters of national importance; that is, to prevent neighbourhood plans being used to frustrate national schemes. These include, very topically, HS2, airport expansion, major highways or rail schemes, military necessities and so on.
Proposed new subsection (2) would place on the Secretary of State a duty to ensure that local planning authorities have sufficient resources to enable them to own, implement and defend neighbourhood plans. Drawing up a neighbourhood plan is costly. It is costly to the makers of the plan—who are frequently volunteers—as they can spend an inordinate amount of time drawing it up. Those in work lose financially. It is also financially costly to the local planning authority, since the Bill introduces a new procedure for making modifications. This will require additional guidance from officers and a new examination, which will place an additional burden on local authorities. Every time a parish or town council seeks to make changes, the planning authority will be expected to review the plan, provide guidance and take it through another examination. So far, costs have not been assessed in terms of the modification which some neighbourhood plans will require. Perhaps this is something we shall address through regulation or the promised White Paper, which we are told we will receive before the next stage of the Bill.
On top of this, costs for planning appeals can range from £10,000 to £50,000. The neighbourhood plan is owned by the local authority and, on occasions, it will have to defend the plan with its associated costs, including fighting planning appeals. Developers make no secret of poaching the best staff from local planning authorities and paying them more. Planning authorities struggle and are wrong-footed, unable to cope with the demands of developers. This is detrimental to good planning. Good-quality planners must be better paid.
I turn to proposed new subsection (3). As I explained, there can be situations where—regrettably, but with good reason—the Secretary of State finds it necessary to override a neighbourhood plan. Even so, he or she must have regard to the policies in the plan. If it is necessary to vary the neighbourhood plan, it may be to provide more houses than originally anticipated. This should not be a free for all among developers. The planning authority should instruct the neighbourhood plan makers to make the required provision and ensure that this is done legally and correctly in the interests of the community. This may mean considerable modification to the neighbourhood plan. In our case, there are a number of policies in the plan but, particularly, the requirement of a break between parishes, no more five-bedroom houses, no street lighting and the incorporation of opportunities for employment. I could go through these, but I shall not because of the time I have already taken.
I want to mention one policy because it goes across a lot of neighbourhood planning. Employment is one of the policies in our plan on which we are very keen. We need employment. In the Second World War, our lanes were turned into roads. We have had no improvements since the first tarmac was laid. We excel in congestion and pollution. Trains are so full that you cannot get a seat—and that is when they do run. The policy was refused because we do not have a square on the map saying “industrial estate”. We want employment threaded throughout the community, such as in Poundbury in Dorset. Dorset Cereals and other employment gives Poundbury a sense of purpose and pride. We need diversity and we want the Secretary of State for Communities to be exactly that, not the Secretary of State for dormitories.
Proposed new subsection (4) recognises that when the Secretary of State overrides the neighbourhood plan it is the responsibility of the local authority, working with the local community, to decide where the most appropriate sites will be for additional development. The people who formulated the neighbourhood plan have scrutinised every aspect of their community, through consultation and data collection. It is respectful and prudent for those people, in consultation with the local planning authority that advises them, to decide where best to build additional houses, and when they should be built within the time set up to 2030, unless specifically directed towards another date.
It must be recognised that if a neighbourhood plan is overridden, 10 other changes to it may be necessary, commensurate with the degree of change. Simply accepting a planning application that happens to be submitted, which may or may not have any synergy with the neighbourhood plan, is not generally compatible with good planning. That is what the Minister, Gavin Barwell, has conceded. The Government and Whitehall cannot appreciate intimate details of a community’s life. When Governments or inspectors think they know best, there is huge annoyance and resentment. Again, people will do a better job when their decisions will be more respected.
I hope my noble friend will consider these points, that he and his officers will see some merit in them, and that we can come to some agreement on how they might be incorporated in the passage of the Bill. I very much look forward to his reply. I beg to move.
I declare an interest as a member of a neighbourhood forum in an unparished area at an early stage of development. I will speak very much in support of what the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, said today and at Second Reading in her very eloquent presentation of the difficulties her area faced.
The balance has tilted from the need to defend local plans and local communities’ building plans from the activities or, sometimes, inactivities of local planning authorities; they also need to be protected from what happens as a result of the interference of inspectors and the Secretary of State. In that sense, Amendment 1 from the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, is at the hard end—rather surprisingly, she is the hard cop—and my Amendment 5 is a rather more modest proposal. Again, perhaps unexpectedly, I am the soft cop.
I am strongly in favour of the presentation she made and the amendment she has moved. I, too, would be very interested to hear what the Minister has to say by way of explanation for the interventions that have taken place so far and which run the risk of undermining, at a national level, the credibility and popularity of neighbourhood plans that we can see at present.
My Lords, I support the amendment. The account that we heard from the noble Baroness at Second Reading was pretty shocking. It seemed to be a failure of process but also of principle. The case she told us about then, and again today, seemed to contradict the basic assumptions on which neighbourhood planning is based. After the degree of detail that we went into when it was first proposed in this House and the expectations that were raised, it also raised issues about the nature of localism and its credibility—not only at a local level; I think it actually contradicts the core principles of the National Planning Policy Framework.
When you look at those core principles—of course, a neighbourhood plan, like a local plan, has to subscribe to the NPPF—the NPPF says that the Government are committed to a plan-led system,
“empowering local people to shape their surroundings, with succinct local and neighbourhood plans setting out a positive vision for the future of the area”.
“not simply be about scrutiny, but instead be a creative exercise in finding ways to enhance and improve the places in which people live their lives”,
and it should,
“proactively drive and support sustainable economic development”,
to deliver business and employment. All that should indeed be contained in the neighbourhood plan, rather than having a plan that is driven simply by housing requirements, however important they are. We know they are important—in that part of rural Sussex they are really important. But it is very important indeed that the principles are upheld, that the coherence and richness of the plan are upheld, and that local people are involved. From everything the noble Baroness said at Second Reading, it appeared that much of that had not happened but had in fact been ignored.
One of my questions to the Minister is: to what extent do we think that the sort of example that the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, gave is happening in other parts of the country? What evidence does the department have that these sorts of things are happening in other places? Some time ago I asked a Question in the House about the number of appeals that had been made on housing decisions. There is a common phrase in circulation: “We’re having our planning by appeal rather than by local plan”. I would be very interested if the department could look at the figures for the number of appeals that have been made and let the Committee know so that we have some sense of whether that is a phenomenon.
When you look at the amendment, a lot of it is absolutely what we already expect to happen. Of course, there is a massive issue about resourcing. I do not think the problem that was identified in the noble Baroness’s example was an issue of resourcing but resources drive the capacity of the local authority to stand up for the local plan where there is a local or neighbourhood issue. The loss of experienced planners and conservation officers—the people who defend the principles, whether environmental or regarding sustainability—is significant when it comes to making the case against the inspector.
No amendment is perfect and I am sure the noble Baroness will understand if I raise a couple of issues. I am concerned, and have been concerned for a long time, that the definition of sustainability in the NPPF is not particularly strong. Therefore, it makes it relatively easy for forms of development to be pushed ahead outside the notions of sustainability. The role of the inspector and the planning authority is to get the balance right and to ensure that everybody makes the right judgment. Of course, that involves making the right judgment about the balance of housing, infrastructure and everything else. But I am slightly worried about the phrase,
“except in exceptional circumstances of national importance”,
because you can always make that case, especially in terms of housing. Is there a way of strengthening the local capacity to hold to its neighbourhood plan irrespective of such claims? I just put that into the debate.
The other point I want to make is about informing the local community. It should not need to be said because it is so fundamental to the whole democratic foundation of a neighbourhood plan, but I understand that in the case which we cannot discuss there was a considerable lack of information at the relevant stages and a positive exclusion, as it were. In that respect, if we are going to be consistent and logical, and if we believe in neighbourhood plans and want to make them work, the final subsection of the proposed new clause, which states that any agreed additional housing has to be decided by the local community, seems in all logic to be the beginning and the end of the conversation that a community would have about its neighbourhood plan and where it wanted new housing put—as well as about what sort of housing for what sort of community it had in mind.
My Lords, I should remind the Committee at the outset that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I want briefly to express my support for the objectives set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, in her amendment, which provides a foundation for and gives a clear sense of direction to the Bill. The crucial word of course is “duty” in that the amendment seeks to place in the Bill a duty on the Secretary of State to undertake certain actions, one of which is to uphold neighbourhood development plans and not simply to think that such a plan can actually be overwritten because a planning inspector or the local planning authority suddenly feels that the neighbourhood plan is out of date or may no longer apply. This is important because if the duty does not exist, it means that local people cannot have confidence in the fact that the neighbourhood plan they have produced will actually stand the test of time. The second duty on the Secretary of State would be to ensure that local planning authorities had sufficient resources to enable them to own, implement and defend—a very important word—neighbourhood development plans.
This amendment is important and I hope that discussions may be held prior to the Report stage at which the Minister might give us some indication of what the Government are prepared to do to give greater force than is provided by the Bill to the development of neighbourhood plans which can stand the test of time. One problem we have had to date is that local planning authorities have not been as supportive as perhaps they ought to be, and as I said at Second Reading, there has been a problem about the creation of a five-year land supply. A neighbourhood plan, where it has been adopted in advance of the local plan being agreed, then finds itself under pressure which may, in the view of the Secretary of State, lead to it having to be revised.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, has said many wise things, one of which was to express her concern about poor-quality development in defiance of good planning principles. This Bill is about building communities, not just building houses. The noble Baroness reminded us of how the roles are confused between the Secretary of State, and through the Secretary of State the Planning Inspectorate, the local planning authority and the neighbourhood plan. This needs to be sorted out and I hope very much that the Minister will be agreeable to trying to find a way to do so that gives even greater weight to the statutory importance of neighbourhood plans.
My Lords, I should declare my interests again as we begin a new stage of the Bill. I am the deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council and a member of a development control committee. I am also a member of the neighbourhood planning steering group for the parish of Trawden Forest, which may provide an interesting view of the planning situation from different sides, not the least of which is discussing a new piece of legislation about it today.
Neighbourhood planning is new, which I suppose is why the Government are feeling their way along with everybody else and why we seem to get an annual Bill to fettle the legislation a little. Although some 1,800 projects have been started, and some finished, around the country, it is still very much a minority pursuit throughout England—that is something I want to return to on another amendment.
It seems more and more important for local planning authorities and neighbourhood planning bodies, whether forums or parishes, to work closely together and have good working relationships. It is becoming clear that in some places where difficulties are occurring in getting neighbourhood planning off the ground or carrying it out it is because those relationships do not exist. From the planning authority point of view—the district, the borough, the unitary authority or whatever it is—there is not an openness and a willingness to change the way they work and to accommodate the whole idea of neighbourhood planning, which can make things a great deal more complicated.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, this issue is complicated. I think I was referring to the fact that for local authority planning departments the system is much more complicated if they have a series of neighbourhood plans taking place after their local plan has been dealt with, at the same time as it is being dealt with, or whatever. I think we have 18 parishes in Pendle—we are completely “parished”—three of which have their neighbourhood plans under way and at least two more which are making a serious start on them. This process requires a different kind of relationship between a local planning department, local planning committees and people on the ground in neighbourhoods. The amendment would be extremely useful in getting things going. It refers to the, “provision of additional housing”. I am not clear whether this is additional to that set out in a local plan or is the additional housing required by a local plan. Either way, changing housing needs are at the core of a lot of the problems and difficulties that have arisen, and of this relationship. In our area the district council is just starting the second half of the local plan, which concerns site allocations.
Those of us working on neighbourhood plans are fortunate enough to work with the local authority and, we hope, align the two documents. The local authority has set out the number of houses it expects to be given planning permission in each parish over the period of the local plan. That is extremely helpful because it means we know how many houses we have to plan for as a minimum. The difficulty comes not with the housing allocations in the plan but with the five-year supply. Whereas the plans themselves appear to give certainty, the five-year supply suddenly does not give certainty as it is a moving dynamic that goes on from year to year and can suddenly result in more houses being needed than people are planning for, as we have seen following some appeals.
The five-year supply is worked out in technical, complicated ways. It is very difficult for people to understand how it is worked out, how it is implemented and how it changes. If they have been working on the neighbourhood plan, or indeed an ordinary local plan, it is difficult for them to understand why things suddenly change. The Government need to pull back from the whole concept of five-year supply. It is not necessary, complicates the whole process and renders how the system works opaque for most people—certainly most people who may be interested in planning applications or putting neighbourhood plans together. If it is in a plan, and if it is set out that those houses are needed over a certain period, that gives certainty and clarity—so long as that is stuck to. Perhaps the planning could be revised, maybe after five or 10 years, or whatever. Nevertheless, it gives clarity. This is an important issue. The five-year supply is not appropriate for producing good neighbourhood planning.
The only other thing I want to pick up is the suggestion in proposed new subsection (2) to enable local planning authorities to own neighbourhood development plans. Again, it is very important that once a neighbourhood plan has been adopted the local planning authority thinks it owns it, and not just the neighbourhood that put it together. That again comes back to the relationship between the two and the need to change the culture and attitudes of planners. These neighbourhood plans are not just a nuisance, an awkward complication to be tagged on to the local plan; they are a fundamental part of the overall development plan. Talking to people round the country, that change in culture has not yet occurred in quite a few local planning authorities.
My Lords, as this is my first contribution today, I should refer noble Lords to my declared interests. I am an elected councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham. I am also involved in developing a neighbourhood plan in my ward, Crofton Park. I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
Amendment 1, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, would insert a new clause right at the start of the Bill which seeks to place a duty on the Secretary of State to uphold neighbourhood development plans. We all in this Grand Committee support neighbourhood planning. The amendment, which I am very happy to support, seeks to enhance the status of neighbourhood plans and prevent their being overridden except in exceptional circumstances. As the noble Baroness said, it is about building homes and strengthening communities. I also very much agree with the comments of Housing Minister Gavin Barwell, which the noble Baroness quoted. As the noble Baroness said, central government are there to deal with strategy and not to get involved in detail on a local level, but with the proviso that they are able to ensure schemes of national importance are not frustrated. That is a very important point.
The amendment goes further to place a specific duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that local planning authorities have sufficient resources to own, implement and defend neighbourhood development plans. Ensuring that local authorities have sufficient resources to deliver the additional functions required of them is something we will return to again and again in relation to this and other Bills before your Lordships’ House. There is a problem where local authorities are prevented from recovering their full costs in respect of some local authority functions. Further burdens are placed on them with either no additional funding or sums of money provided that are not sufficient to cover those costs. The Government often announce, in the course of their business, £10 million, £20 million, £30 million or £40 million for this or that. Those are large sums of money, but when we divide them among the local councils involved they appear to be much smaller sums for each locality. We have seen this with the Homelessness Reduction Bill. It was allocated £61 million over two years, which will not be adequate for the additional responsibility placed on local authorities, but that is for another day—very soon.
Amendment 1 seeks to provide a pathway whereby the Secretary of State can override a plan but must, as far as possible, have regard to it, and must consult and inform. If there is a need to vary the plan, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, said, this should not be a free for all for developers. The amendment would be helpful as it enhances the status of a plan but also provides for changes to be made if deemed necessary by, say, the Secretary of State for those schemes of national importance.
The final part of the amendment sets out that additional requirements for housing will be provided for. Again, I agree with the noble Baroness that where a local plan must be overridden, it should be the duty of the local authority, not central government, to decide where the new housing is delivered. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, will give us a very detailed response. It may well be that I and other noble Lords will have questions for him on the back of that.
My Lords, first I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for that build-up about the detail in the response. I am sitting here horrified because it is not incredibly detailed.
I have known my noble friend Lady Cumberlege since I came into the House. I thank her for how she has handled this and for her willingness to have positive engagement. This is the way forward. My noble friend has understandably tabled many amendments on this issue. I can reassure her that we are very keen to look at it, particularly in terms of dialogue with officials and those in the know before the neighbourhood plan is put together, because some of the problems that may arise relate to this.
Secondly, notwithstanding what my noble friend has said in relation to the incident about which she has spoken, my legal advice is to the contrary. I cannot speak about the specific case. I hope she will understand that I must be guided by this advice. All of us here support neighbourhood planning but, inevitably, in any new system there will be growing pains. To a degree, this has been the case in some of the circumstances arising in this area.
Amendment 1 raises a matter that noble Lords and those in the other place have spoken about at Second Reading and again today. I must stress that the law is very clear that decisions on planning applications must be made in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Of course, the neighbourhood plan is part of that development plan. Furthermore, measures in this Bill will bring forward the stage at which a neighbourhood plan has full legal effect. This is important to note.
The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, raised the number of appeals. Out of 16,500 appeals, the number recovered by the Secretary of State was extremely small—just 75 in this context. I can reassure noble Lords that, where the Secretary of State has a more direct role in a small number of decisions—for example, through the appeals system and the call-in process—he or she uses these powers very sparingly—usually, where planning issues of more than local importance are involved. The Secretary of State’s policies for both types of intervention are available on my department’s website. During the course of this Committee, I will pick up on some of the points covered and write to noble Lords. For example, I will ensure that details of this part are on the website for noble Lords to look at.
The current policies for intervention strike the right balance between the national interest and local autonomy. On who can plan for housing in an area and how, the Government are clear. It is for local planning authorities, with their communities, to identify and plan for how to meet the housing needs of their area. Communities can choose to use a neighbourhood plan to address housing needs in their area. Where they do so, their local planning authority should share relevant evidence on housing need gathered to support its own plan making. If, over time, circumstances change and more housing is needed, again, communities may decide to update their neighbourhood plan or part of it. Just as in the initial drawing up of the neighbourhood plan, in the case of modification money is available from the fund set up for the purpose.
Our planning guidance is clear that, if a local planning authority also intends to allocate sites in the neighbourhood area, it should avoid duplicating planning processes that will apply to the neighbourhood area. The authority should work constructively with a neighbourhood planning group to enable a neighbourhood plan to make timely progress.
As well as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, other noble Lords have contributed and stressed the importance of neighbourhood plans. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Greaves and Lord Stunell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for his very constructive suggestion about engagement with officials and others to try to move this forward.
I understand why the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, inevitably picked on the fees issue. This will be more than touched on in the White Paper, which we expect very shortly. I can confirm that we shall see the White Paper before Report and there will be an all-Peers briefing on it.
The Government’s rigorous new burdens doctrine, which I failed to address earlier in response to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, ensures that local planning authorities will receive the relevant resources to meet their statutory obligations towards neighbourhood planning. Inevitably there will be differences of opinion between local authorities and central government about how much that funding should be, but also, inevitably and rightly, there will be a dialogue about it. As I say, however, the broader issue of funding will be addressed in the White Paper.
As to Amendment 1, perhaps I may once again reassure my noble friend Lady Cumberlege that we are approaching this in the spirit of wanting to ensure that neighbourhood forums, parish councils and local people are fully engaged in the process. We want to see that happen, but whether it is done in the Bill or, as is more likely, in planning guidance, is something we can talk about. In the meantime, I respectfully ask my noble friend to withdraw her amendment.
Can the Minister say a little more about why the Government will not accept this proposed new clause? It is a very good amendment and, while the noble Lord has talked about setting something out in guidance, he has not said why he is against it. It would be useful if we could understand a little more of the Government’s thinking and why they will not just accept the amendment.
With respect I think I have explained that the present process provides the right balance of what is needed in planning procedures. However, I accept that occasionally a neighbourhood plan may have been developed that does not achieve what its framers wanted for it. Given that, it is important that there is a power at the centre, to be used only sparingly, in relation to appeals and the call-in process. As I have indicated, the number is 75 out of 16,500, so it is not as if this is a major issue. It is therefore important that someone in the position of the Secretary of State will consider these matters, usually where the planning issues involved are of more than local importance. In practice, the vast majority of cases would be covered by that and we believe that the present process for this is correct, although overall we appreciate that there needs to be some discussion about the compiling of the neighbourhood plan, the provision of proper advice and so on.
With respect, I am not entirely surprised. The noble Lord wants this amendment and the Government do not. I hope we can disagree agreeably but this is not an amendment we can accept. As I have indicated, while it pays proper regard to neighbourhood planning, which is at the centre of the system, in the circumstances that I have set out across a range of amendments that have been tabled on this topic, we will look at how we can ensure that proper advice is given in the compiling of a neighbourhood plan, which I think will answer most of the points being raised.
I do not like to disagree with the noble Lord because I have great respect for him and the work he does. However, I am trying to understand what the problem is here, although we may well come back to it later. That is the aim of these questions because in many ways we are all in agreement.
With respect to the noble Lord, I am not sure we are. The noble Lord has been around the planning block a few times and he will know that occasionally planning decisions have national significance. Not least for that reason, we need to retain the power of the Secretary of State to recover appeals in limited circumstances.
Perhaps I may raise a slightly different point. The noble Lord has given a sympathetic response to the question of resources, but looking at subsection (3) of the proposed new clause set out in Amendment 1, there is an issue which I do not think he has addressed in his reply. It relates to the case where,
“it is deemed necessary to override a neighbourhood plan”.
The amendment then calls for specific action. It says that,
“the Secretary of State must … have regard to the policies of the neighbourhood development plan”,
“policies on employment opportunities … and … inform the local community of the number of houses and types of housing required”.
That is not an onerous request. It may be that the noble Baroness would be satisfied with an assurance that that would be the Government’s policy rather than necessarily writing it into legislation, but, with respect, the Minister should deal with those points. He may consider that a letter would do. One way or another, it is rather a different point from some of those that have already been aired. The Government could be clear about it at a pretty early stage.
This point is very similar to the one my noble friend just made. It is very welcome that the Minister is prepared to talk along the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. It is worth a conversation. The amendment strikes a balance between elevating the principle of local neighbourhood planning and reinforcing it; it does not take away the powers of the Secretary of State to intervene except in exceptional circumstances. I raised that point. There are other ways of reinforcing the importance and integrity of neighbourhood planning. Since the consultation on the National Planning Policy Framework is still in play, will it be possible to reinforce the importance of the plan and the nature of exceptional circumstances in the National Planning Policy Framework while it is being reconsidered?
My Lords, in response to the points made to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, it is right that the National Planning Policy Framework is still in play. I certainly do not rule out looking at issues such as this. I am addressing the amendment and saying that we certainly cannot accept it as it stands. I think I have made that point clear. I am very happy to look at the centrality of the neighbourhood development plan to see what we can do to consolidate it. It is indeed central to the process, but I will not concede the importance of a role for the Secretary of State in exceptional circumstances. I am very happy to take away the points made and look at them in the context of the general issue raised by the amendment.
I am very happy that the Secretary of State retains an overarching position. That is absolutely right and I have no problem with it at all. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, included that in the first part of her amendment. It is absolutely clear. It says:
“The Secretary of State has a duty to uphold neighbourhood development plans … except in exceptional circumstances of national importance”.
I am surprised and find it odd that the noble Lord does not think that gives the department and the Secretary of State what they need. It is very clear.
My Lords, we have to be careful that we do not lose sight of the importance of the need for fresh housing. It is very easy for noble Lords to accept the general point about the need for more housing and then, when an issue comes up, say, “Not here; not there”. We would suddenly whittle it away and there would be nothing left. It is important that the Secretary of State retains a power relating to housing development because of the need to create more housing. I suspect we may disagree on the centrality of that, but I will have a look at this in the context of ensuring that the neighbourhood plan has particular significance.
My Lords, this is the important, high-level stuff. I raise what might be called the low-level stuff about the nature of the relationship between the local planning authority and its staff, its members and the neighbourhood planners. Does the Minister agree with my assessment that in some places it works very well and in others there is quite a lot of tension, difficulties and resistance on the part of the local planning authority? Would he comment on what might be done, without being too heavy-handed, to get local planning authorities to change their attitude where necessary?
While I am on my feet, the amendment refers to resources. As I understand it, the resources that the Government make available to a neighbourhood planning group, and whether it is a parish or forum, as the Minister referred to, is the same whatever the size of the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood may be quite a small village or a town such as Colne, which I know, which is embarking on neighbourhood planning. It has about 18,000 people and is quite a big town. People in small places are saying that the available grant does not pay for the process, so funds have to be found locally by a parish council or in other ways. Clearly, if my information is correct, the grant available in bigger places will not begin to cover this process, given that everything that the Government set out must be done for a neighbourhood plan costs money, as consultants may have to be brought in and so on. Will the Government look at that to make neighbourhood planning more financially viable than it is at present?
Some of these points go well beyond this amendment. Nevertheless, I accept that they are important. The noble Lord gave examples of how this process works at the coalface. I suspect that he is much closer to the coalface than I am in that regard. We need to be a little careful about setting up a system that stresses the importance of localism and these things being done locally, and then have central government stepping in and saying, “Do it this way”. As I say, there are growing pains. We may indicate in guidance how better relationships can be achieved. That is what I seek to do through the dialogue I am offering.
On the neighbourhood groups that may benefit from money for the neighbourhood plan and for modifications, I think there is money available if a case is made for an extra sum. If I am wrong on that, I will write to noble Lords. However, if a case can be made, I think there is access to additional funding. As I have indicated, the White Paper will say more about funding and the financial side more generally.
My Lords, I thank Members of the Committee for their support for the amendment, which was gratefully received. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, who led the response to the amendment, that we are so lucky in this forum to have people with real knowledge of planning, local government and other matters. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, took forward the then Localism Bill, and therefore knows it in detail, which is very good.
I am sorry. I beg the Committee’s pardon; it was the noble Lord, Lord Stunell. The noble Lord referred to me as a hard cop. I think that is the first time anyone has done that. He should talk to my three sons as they may agree but I think my husband would not.
I again thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. I was very interested in what she said about sustainability and its definition. One of the issues I will come to a bit later is that of weasel words. It is very easy to put weasel words in legislation which sound nice but which people do not know the meaning of. On reading the National Planning Policy Framework, I was interested to see that the Minister involved with it at the time, Greg Clark, described sustainable development as being about,
“change for the better, and not only in our built environment”.
That is nice. He also stated:
“Sustainable means ensuring that better lives for ourselves don’t mean worse lives for future generations”.
That is lovely. I agree with all that. Greg Clark added:
“So sustainable development is about positive growth—making economic, environmental and social progress for this and future generations”.
We are beginning to get there but that is not really a definition. We use it in all forms of the services that the Government offer, such as the health service, education and so on. Therefore, it is a good idea to define it. My next amendment provides more detail on that.
As I say, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for her support. I agree with her that there is no ambivalence about the word “duty”; we know exactly what it means. Where we have a duty and there is no ambivalence, this enhances confidence among the people governed and, in this case, among those who have drawn up a neighbourhood plan.
It is interesting when we talk about local planning authorities that of course they differ hugely across the country. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is trying to instil that, probe that and find that. He also talked about the five-year supply of housing. I want to ask my noble friend the Minister a question on this. I remember the Written Statement produced on 12 December by his department referring to a “three-year supply” for housing. Where are we now on that? Was that policy? Is it something that should stick or are we back to the five years? That is important in drawing up neighbourhood plans.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, spoke of finance. I am sure we will have a lot of talk about that. I think he must have been a barrister at one time as he put great pressure on our Minister. I thank him for saying that he felt the Minister should accept the amendment. When you come to these events, you have dreams and hope that the Minister might accept everything, but in your heart of hearts you know, especially here where we cannot vote, that we must negotiate. So I am not surprised by the resistance to this.
I thank my noble friend for the way he responded. It was very interesting when he talked about how sparingly the Secretary of State calls in planning applications when they have gone to appeal and so on. When that is done, it can have a devastating effect as the decision can undermine the whole neighbourhood plan and leave it void. We have seen instances of that. I know it is not just the Secretary of State; it is the department and all the rest of it—and other Ministers. It is just that before these people in authority who govern us make these decisions, they really ought to do a bit more homework on the impact of the decision they are making. It can be absolutely devastating when a neighbourhood plan is rendered void.
I will haunt the Department for Communities and Local Government, which will be so fed up with Baroness Cumberlege: “Oh, she’s not here again!”. Fortunately, we all have busy diaries so it might not be so terrible. I will read Hansard and hold feet to the fire to be absolutely certain that the assurances given are kept. I am sure my noble friend has huge integrity and will live up to them. I thank noble Lords for their support and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Clause 1: Duty to have regard to post-examination neighbourhood development plan
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 13, after “(2)(aza)” and insert “(but subject to subsections (3BB) and (3BC))”
My Lords, in speaking to this group, I will focus on important government Amendments 6 and 131, as well as discussing government Amendments 2, 3 and 4. There are some other amendments in the group which I will obviously respond to after those who tabled them make their contributions.
Amendments 6 and 131 put beyond doubt that neighbourhood planning groups which are well on their way to completing a neighbourhood plan will be aware of future planning applications in their area. These amendments also reaffirm the Government’s commitment to ensure that neighbourhood plans are given proper consideration when planning applications are decided.
The amendments stem from concerns expressed on this issue by noble Lords and by Members of the other place. Amendment 6 inserts new sub-paragraphs into paragraph 8 of Schedule 1 to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to require local planning authorities to notify neighbourhood planning groups automatically of any future planning applications or alterations to those applications in the relevant neighbourhood area after the neighbourhood plan has successfully passed independent examination. Amendment 131 will bring this measure into effect by amending the Bill’s commencement clause, Clause 41.
Government Amendments 2, 3 and 4 are minor and technical amendments to Clause 1, which requires decision-makers to have regard to post-examination neighbourhood plans. The amendments clarify the definition of a “post-examination” neighbourhood plan to ensure that it applies to those plans which progress through the new modification procedure set out in Clause 3 and that it continues to apply during the period between a decision being taken that a referendum is to be held on a plan and the plan becoming part of the development plan. I beg to move.
My Lords, I also have amendments in this group. The first states:
“The Secretary of State must, by regulations made within one month of the coming into force of Part 1, define ‘modification’ for the purposes of this Act.”
The Whips’ Office decided to amalgamate this amendment with those of my noble friend the Minister because it is about definitions, as are some of his.
Legislation is very taxing—I suspect that we might feel a little older at the end of this Bill—but it is taxing because of the terminology. As a latecomer, I am only just learning planning speak and that is because of some of the weasel words—I referred to them earlier—that creep into it. It was Voltaire who urged, “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms”. I therefore ask my noble friend to define “modification”. Please can we have some examples? For instance, five houses in a hamlet on the wrong site could be devastating; five houses in a large town could easily be fitted in. So where is the line drawn on modification? What does that word mean?
My second amendment in this group, Amendment 8A, also concerns modification and depends a little on my noble friend’s answer to my Amendment 8. In Amendment 8A, I plead that every modification made need not be treated as significant or substantial, requiring a full-scale rewrite followed by a referendum—I hope that that will not be the case. Paragraph (b) states that any modification must allow scrutiny by the residents of the neighbourhood plan. Paragraph (c) states that only if the parish and town councillors deem it necessary and want confirmation again that what they are planning is acceptable to the local community should they have the opportunity to hold another referendum. I am therefore seeking to give authority back to parish and town councillors and ensure that they still have a locus when either the local authority or the examiner makes decisions which might negate the plan.
My Lords, my Amendment 64 is in this group. I think that is because part of it fits with the Government’s amendments, although mine in its entirety is somewhat broader about creating the conditions to encourage more local communities to prepare neighbourhood plans and to shape and build sustainable communities. I think everyone in the Committee can support that, whether we believe in the political ideology of taking decisions at the lowest possible level or, as the Minister rightly reminded us a few moment ago, because of the Secretary of State’s stated desire to build more homes, because we all know that neighbourhood plans deliver more homes.
Of course, this issue was raised in the Housing and Planning Bill, and the Bill before us is the Government’s response to it. I very much welcome Clause 1 and the government amendments that the Minister has just introduced, which are in part a response to the debate on this matter in the other place. But I contend that they still do not go far enough in giving neighbourhood councils and parish councils that are drawing up neighbourhood development plans the reassurance that the time and effort they are putting in are worth while.
Clause 1 says that local authorities “must have regard” to neighbourhood development plans, but there are no sanctions. Furthermore, this applies only to post-examined plans, whereas case law says that draft plans should be taken into account. As I say, I welcome the government amendments made in response to the matter being raised in the House of Commons, which make it a requirement of local authorities to consult with neighbourhood planning bodies, but they are not clear about ensuring meaningful consultation; for example, by specifying how long it should take or, critically, what duty the local authority has to take any comments into account.
My amendment would make clear what the consultation with neighbourhood plans on a planning application would actually mean, as well as the duty placed on a local authority to take those views into account. If a local authority then ignores those views, the decision can be called in. That is a very limited right. It is a right not for individuals, but only for parish councils and neighbourhood forums whose neighbourhood plans have progressed to at least the point of formal submission to the local authority for examination.
To date 268 neighbourhood plans have been made, out of a potential 9,000. If we are going to secure more neighbourhood plans, the Bill has to strengthen the weight of communities’ views, expressed in neighbourhood plans, such that they should not be ignored by local planning authorities or the Planning Inspectorate. In the Housing and Planning Bill, the Minister kept saying that there had not been any examples of this. I am delighted to inform this Minister that after a bit of skimming on my part of some past applications, I found at least one in the space of one afternoon. In August 2014 South Oxfordshire District Council approved the planning application for the development of two new industrial units in Cotmore Wells Farm in Thame, despite the proposed development encompassing 50% more land for employment than had been allocated in the neighbourhood plan. But frankly, whether or not there have been cases is not the point. The point is that neighbourhood plans can be overridden if there is no sanction.
As my noble friend Lord Greaves and others have pointed out, we are asking volunteers to give their time and energy, over years, to pull these plans together. I welcome the commitment in the Bill to improve the level of resources at their disposal but some volunteers are working 20 or 30 hours a week, with extremely limited resources, particularly if they are not a parish council and do not have parish council resources and a parish council secretary to push the matter forward. Why should they do it if there is no redress when a planning application contrary to a neighbourhood plan is approved by a local authority—driving, as I have often said in this Room, a coach and horses through everything that has been agreed?
I ask the Minister: why do the Government feel that they should give a duty to local authorities to have regard to neighbourhood plans, as they have stated quite explicitly in Clause 1, if there is absolutely no sanction if they do not? Do they really feel that that provides sufficient encouragement for more neighbourhood plans to be brought into being, which we all know we need and which will ensure that the houses we want to be built are built?
My Lords, I shall speak briefly in support of my noble friend’s Amendment 64. As this is the first time I have spoken in Committee, I should declare my interests. Probably most relevant is that I am the president of the National Association of Local Councils, representing parish and town councils across the country. I have a number of interests around development, including my own consultancy. I am also a visiting professor of planning at Plymouth University and a visiting lecturer at Cambridge in the school of planning. So I have a range of interests in this area—some commercial, some unpaid. Perhaps even more significant is that I chair a neighbourhood plan process for Roche local council. That neighbourhood plan has now been examined successfully and we await a date for a referendum—yet another frustrating wait to get it addressed. That introduction is probably longer than anything I need to say.
I support the amendment, or at least its principles, because there is an issue where neighbourhoods have taken through a neighbourhood plan process and the local authority then approves something contrary to the wishes of that community. It does not happen with every application—it is only where the parish council itself opposes it. It then asks the Secretary of State to review it in a formal way. Of course, the Secretary of State has the power to intervene in any event, but it formalises a process. This is important for confidence.
I did not support Amendment 1. It did not recognise that there may be many reasons why a district authority might choose to support an application that is outside a neighbourhood plan. There may be wider strategic issues. The two processes of local plan-making and the evolution of the local planning authority’s policies may not align with the neighbourhood plan process. The neighbourhood plan may be out of date for that particular application. It may not have anticipated a particular issue leading to a planning application. Most significantly, a neighbourhood plan is done in the context of that parish’s needs, not in a wider strategic context, so neighbourhood plans do not always need to override these wider issues. This is not the point nor the understanding of neighbourhood planning where communities properly engage in the process. However, they have the right to expect that it is taken seriously. Sometimes there is a sense that the local planning authority does not take the neighbourhood plan seriously in the way that it should—when it suits it to do so, at least.
This formalisation of the process—the sense that there is someone that they can go to and have it looked at again—is a broad principle, although perhaps not quite the right mechanism, that the Government should be willing to accept. It would give some confidence to communities and answer those who feel that they are simply ignored and that there is nothing they can do. Whether or not this is true, a sense of injustice can arise. Lord knows, I have done the process and it is an awful lot of effort to get a neighbourhood plan in place. There is a need for some sense that there is a proper system for review if a neighbourhood plan is not followed.
My Lords, I will comment briefly on Amendment 64 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. We all understand and sympathise with her point about the time and effort put in by volunteers. In cases of which I am aware, it is very often a very small number of volunteers who really drive it. They find it difficult to pull in people from the wider community. They have to work very hard to get any real response. This is my problem with the wording of the noble Baroness’s amendment. She talks about plans within an area,
“covered by a made or emerging neighbourhood development plan”.
“Emerging” is the crucial word. She then defines an emerging neighbourhood development plan as one,
“that has been examined, is being examined, or is due to be examined, having met the public consultation requirements necessary to proceed to this stage”.
In other words, it is very embryonic. We do not know what the final view may be.
To give an example, I know of a neighbourhood plan in the north-west of England where two or three people in the parish have got together some but not a lot of information about housing and development plans in their area—as much as they can find without much help. They then decided to hold a public meeting. They leafleted their entire parish and brought people together. Inevitably, although people said that they were interested and declared their concern, usually about the housing aspect, the people who turned up to the meeting were few in number, despite a large amount of effort. The people I am talking to became worried and said that they must broaden the consultation to community groups, which would take some time to get around to all the people they felt they should see. They thought they should make another effort at consultation, which might be attended by more people. They reckon that all this will take a year before they have a clear idea of what residents in their area want.
What is the amendment talking about? What stage of the planning and gathering of information is the noble Baroness talking about? It sounded to me as if it was early in the stage. What worries me about that is we do not necessarily know whether the initial ideas will be the same as the final ideas that come out of that prolonged process. Will she explain that to me?
If I answer that question, perhaps the noble Lord might say, if I were to change my amendment to “post-examined”, whether he would be prepared to accept it. There is a debate about what is the appropriate time to give due weight to the emerging plans. The Government have moved back. We obviously have a different Minister now, but during the consideration of the Housing and Planning Bill the Government were not talking about post-examined plans. They realised that we need to add protection from an earlier point in the process.
It may be helpful to explain the point in time that the noble Baroness has proposed. At the point when you are awaiting examination, the process has already gone through all the community consultation stages. A final draft neighbourhood plan has been written. It has gone through the approval process with the local planning authority, which has to check that it conforms to the local plan and the National Planning Policy Framework. Any necessary amendment would have been made at that stage and it would also have gone through all the statutory consultees to then be submitted for examination. It then awaits examination prior to an examiner being appointed. At that point, all the processes have been completed. The only issue, and the only thing the examiner tests, is whether it complies with the national planning policy and the local plan.
The noble Lord knows far more about these planning details than I do—I concede that. Speaking as a lay man, the amendment’s language does not seem to convey what he said. It conveys something much earlier in the process than what the noble Baroness said. I am to some extent relieved but, none the less, if the language can be interpreted in different ways—I am neither a lawyer nor a planning expert—it would, frankly, worry me. I am therefore concerned about this amendment, although I understand the sensible motivation by which it is put forward.
My Lords, I spoke strongly in favour of neighbourhood plans at Second Reading. It is great that there are so many champions of neighbourhood planning in all parts of the Committee. The plans embody the spirit of localism by allowing local communities to have control over their new developments and where they take place. While I therefore totally commend the spirit of the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, I do not support its substance for the simple reason that I do not think it is necessary.
The Government have already acted to address substantively the concerns that the amendment seeks to address. I would argue that the measures in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, together with previous reforms introduced in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, deliver much of what the amendment seeks to achieve. Clause 1 places a clear requirement on planning decision-makers to have regard to neighbourhood plans that are post-examination. That is clearly the right place and time to look at these as that is when plans will be sufficiently advanced. While decision-makers can take pre-examination neighbourhood plans into account, insisting that they should have similar regard to plans that might not yet take account of all material factors such as planning for necessary local growth and so on does not seem an entirely sensible way forward.
Again, the National Planning Policy Framework already clearly says:
“Where a planning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan … planning permission should not normally be granted”.
The Written Statement in December further made clear that,
“where communities plan for housing in their area in a neighbourhood plan, those plans should not be deemed to be out-of-date unless there is a significant lack of land supply”.
That is under three years. This gives a degree of protection not previously available. I also welcome all the government amendments that require local planning authorities to notify automatically neighbourhood planning groups of future planning applications in their area. At present, they have a right only to request information but are not necessarily told. This amendment would greatly improve what is there.
Briefly, I will also address the proposal in the amendment to consult the Secretary of State if the local authority intends to grant planning permission that goes against an agreed neighbourhood plan. I would also argue that this is unnecessary. I understand the concern of the noble Baroness about the calling in but any neighbourhood planning group can currently request the Secretary of State to consider calling in a planning application to determine the outcome.
My understanding is that they cannot do that unless it is a major application. Of course, in rural areas the majority of applications are not major ones because they are for fewer than 10 houses. That puts rural areas at a significant disadvantage because they cannot undertake that.
I concede ignorance but my understanding is that a number of planning applications have been called in. Perhaps that can be clarified. Basically, there has been significant movement on this and taken together all the current measures give sufficient protection to neighbourhood plans. The amendment proposed is simply not required.
I have a question for the Minister about Amendment 6, which he spoke to some time ago, while I also support my noble friend with her more ambitious amendment. Amendment 6 would amend paragraph 8 of Schedule 1 to the Town and Country Planning Act, and is about notifying parish councils and so on of planning applications. The inclusion of neighbourhood forums here is extremely welcome, giving them the right to have this. However, parish and town councils already have this right. Reading the amendment, I cannot quite understand what would be different in practice for parish councils from the rights they already have to be told about planning applications when they come in and to have their views on them taken into account—in other words, to be consulted. What is the difference? Why is all this extra wording needed for parish councils over and above what is there already?
My Lords, I found this a very helpful debate and conclude that if not now at some point soon the Minister will have to define words. The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, drew our attention to an important issue around the definition of the word “modification”. When I read the Bill for the first time, I assumed that it would be really very minor in practice. However, it may not be and I am not sure that we can wait until a month after the coming into force of Part 1 for that word to be defined. It is material to what is in the Bill.
Clause 3(2) states:
“After subsection (4) insert … A local planning authority may at any time by order modify a neighbourhood development order they have made if they consider that the modification does not materially affect any planning permission granted by the order”.
The word “materially” starts to become very important. What is the difference between affecting and materially affecting a planning permission? We need to get this sorted out so that we understand it, otherwise we will end up with a modification which I thought was minor actually having the potential to be much more substantial, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, pointed out. In addition, I should like to be clearer about what a material effect would be on a planning permission granted by the order. I want to understand that before we reach the Report stage. However, the debate as a whole has been extremely useful.
My Lords, I declared my interest earlier as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, as I suspect are half of the Members present in this Committee, and as a member of Newcastle City Council, where 20 years ago I was for a couple of years the chairman of the planning committee. But I have to say that I defer absolutely to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, whose expertise is much more current than mine and, I would guess, more profound as well.
I want to raise just a couple of points. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to the provisions set out in Amendment 6 amending Schedule 1 to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 by inserting new sub-paragraph (1B). I have a slightly different point to make. The provision states:
“The local planning authority must notify the neighbourhood forum of”,
a variety of matters. What I do not know is the extent to which a neighbourhood forum is under an obligation to notify residents about these matters. In an ordinary planning application, the usual practice is for the planning authority to notify the residents in an area within a reasonable range of a projected application of its existence. The assumption here seems to be that the neighbourhood forum itself constitutes the community for these purposes. While it may have a representative role, that does not imply that every resident will get to know of matters which would have been raised by the local authority with the neighbourhood forum. Perhaps, if not today then later, the noble Lord could indicate whether I am right in my assumption that the provisions of this new clause are meant simply to notify the neighbourhood forum and whether there is any further obligation on the neighbourhood forum or anyone else to notify residents and other people with an interest.
I turn briefly to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, about the remedy if things do not go well. Given that there is a statutory responsibility here if it is not carried out, I would have thought that the remedy is that of judicial review. That is not an inexpensive process, I am afraid, but I suspect that if there has been an omission in complying with the requirements of the legislation, it is the remedy available to those who have a grievance. Again, possibly after taking advice from those behind him, I hope that the noble Lord will clarify the position.
My Lords, as we have heard, government Amendments 2, 3 and 4 are additions to Clause 1. The Minister said that they were in response to points raised in the other place and elsewhere. They may be technical but they are certainly not minor. They are actually bigger than the clause they seek to amend.
Government Amendment 6 deals with the procedures for notifying parish councils and neighbourhood planning forums of a planning application or permission in principle if there is a neighbourhood development plan that falls within part or all of an authority’s area. That is very important. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, raised an important point regarding the rights of parish councils. He is absolutely right that they have these rights anyway. It will be interesting to see what difference the amendment makes, or whether it is just tidying up to bring in the neighbourhood forums. My noble friend Lord Beecham just raised the whole issue of neighbourhood forums and the obligations they may or may not have to notify local residents. I look forward to the Minister’s response to those points.
Amendment 8, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, seeks—I think, importantly—to require a clear definition of modification as it will apply to the Act. We all know, certainly in respect of planning, that being very clear about what you are doing is very important. There is a whole clause—Clause 3—which refers to the modification of a neighbourhood development order or plan. It is very important that we get this absolutely right. The Minister may tell us that the amendment is totally unnecessary. I hope that if he does do that, he will set out clearly for the record what is in the mind of the Government when they are talking about modification, or maybe that is something that will come in guidance. I look forward to the Minister’s response. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, raised a similar point. As I said, this needs sorting.
Amendment 8A, again in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, seeks to give greater authority back to local and parish councils, which is very welcome. I support Amendment 64, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. As we have heard, it sets out the responsibilities of the planning authority in relation to the things it must do.
I should be clear: I certainly want to build more houses. I am looking forward to the White Paper and hope that we will get some more council houses as well. But what we must do, when building more houses, is ensure that they are of good quality, they are well designed, they deliver sustainability, they are carbon-neutral, and they are homes for modern living, rather than badly designed homes on the cheap, which, as we know, we have suffered before up and down the country. We must never go back to that. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I might have one or two questions for him when he responds.
My Lords, first, I will deal—in no particular order—with some of the points that were raised in relation to the government amendments. In relation to a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about Amendment 6, previously it has been open to neighbourhood forums and neighbourhood groups to ask for notification of planning applications. Amendment 6 makes it automatic. That is the difference: it will happen automatically; there is no need to ask. The concern has been that previously some things may have slipped through the net so that is the reason for that.
Yes, but not for neighbourhood forums, I think. It does not make any difference to parish councils but for neighbourhood forums it becomes automatic.
In relation to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, about modification and the impact of that, as set out in Clause 3(2), it is not a particularly strange sort of provision to say,
“does not materially affect any planning permission granted by the order”.
The important point is that this will mean that anything other than something minor will materially affect planning permission. I am happy to put that on the record if that is helpful but that is the important point there. Obviously that would be justiciable. If it is immaterial, it would not fall within that subsection.
On the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, the requirement for a neighbourhood planning forum to notify residents is covered under existing secondary legislation and development orders. I will get him chapter and verse of the particular provision and circulate it to noble Lords who participated in the debate. It is covered under existing legislation.
I turn to the three non-government amendments in the group, Amendments 8, 8A and 64. I shall deal first with Amendments 8 and 8A in the name of my noble friend Lady Cumberlege. I thank her for her helpful comments. On Amendment 8, the Government believe that a more proportionate way to modify neighbourhood plans is needed to incentivise communities to keep their plans up to date—this deals with some of the points I have just touched on, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. Clause 3 will achieve this by introducing two new modification procedures. The first allows a local planning authority, with the consent of the neighbourhood planning group, to make minor modifications to a neighbourhood plan or neighbourhood development order at any time, in the same way that errors can currently be corrected. These might, for example, amend the wording of supporting text to clarify the application of an existing policy, which previously would have entailed a referendum.
The second streamlined procedure could not apply where the proposed modifications to a neighbourhood plan were so significant or substantial as to change the nature of the plan the community has voted on. I understand the desire to provide clarity and reduce opportunities for ambiguity and litigation. However, the amendment could unintentionally have the opposite effect. Whether a modification is considered under the new procedure will depend on the context of the overall plan. A modification that is significant or substantial in the context of one neighbourhood plan may not be in another.
I offer an example to assist noble Lords. The addition of sites to accommodate 50 new homes may not change the nature of a plan addressing the needs of an extensive urban area, but for a small rural village this same modification of a plan could have a much more significant and substantial effect on the plan and the local community. I welcome further discussion on any of these points and I am happy to meet with the noble Baroness and any noble Lord who would like more information on these matters, but I respectfully ask the noble Baroness not to press her amendment.
Amendment 8A, proposed by my noble friend Lady Cumberlege, concerns the more detailed procedure for modifying a neighbourhood plan that is already in force. Currently, any modifications to a neighbourhood plan or a neighbourhood development order beyond the correction of an error must go through the same process of producing a new plan, irrespective of the significance and scale of the modifications proposed. I reassure noble Lords that the procedure to which the amendment relates applies only where the proposed modification of a plan is minor. Any proposed modification cannot materially affect any policies in the neighbourhood plan or the planning permission granted by a neighbourhood development order. A local planning authority will need to have the consent of the relevant neighbourhood planning group to make such a modification. The local planning authority would also be required by Regulation 16 of the Neighbourhood Planning (General) Regulations 2012 to publicise any such modification on its website and in any other way it believes would make the local public aware of the proposal.
This is an important change as it will allow groups to, for example, amend the wording of supporting text to clarify the application of an existing policy, without the requirement to go through the same process used to produce a new plan. I hope this reassurance will convince my noble friend not to press the amendment.
On Amendment 64, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for her partial welcome of what we are doing with our new proposals. I thank her for raising the importance of community voices being heard in decisions about planning in their area. I also respect the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor. He is not in his place at present but I know he understands these issues thoroughly.
Clauses 1 and 2, which have been welcomed by the noble Baroness, together with provisions in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, the recent Written Ministerial Statement of 12 December 2016 on neighbourhood planning and the government amendments that were tabled last week address the concerns she has raised, thus, I believe, making her amendment unnecessary. First, perhaps I may confirm that it is a three-year housing supply that is needed, which was a point raised by my noble friend Lady Cumberlege.
This amendment may inadvertently send a message that those elected locally to take decisions cannot be trusted to do so without the matter being referred to central government. That is the wrong message. However, I recognise the expertise and the intention of the noble Baroness and others who have spoken in support of her proposal. I am very happy to meet the noble Baroness between our Committee deliberations and Report, and indeed any noble Lord who would like more information on these matters. However, I ask her in the meantime not to press the amendment.
In respect of the amendments moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, does the Minister expect the department to issue any further guidance at some point on modifications and how minor they may be? I am conscious that government departments might say, “This is a minor modification”. I recently put down a Parliamentary Question to ask a number of government departments about reviews that are announced in Parliament from the Dispatch Box, and I have been told by a number of them that there is no definition of a review. I know that it is a bit odd, but if there is definitely going to be a review, when a Minister stands before us saying whether a modification is minor or not, what status does that have? Would he consider producing further guidance to help residents, neighbourhood planners and parish councillors to understand all of this?
My Lords, as I have indicated, the intention here is to ensure that we have flexibility because neighbourhood plans may vary in their circumstances, size and so on. There is a massive body of law that defines the word “minor” and judges will be able to put it in context. I have given an example of why we believe that we are answering the need for flexibility in the legislation and I think that the Government have got it right in this regard. However, if the noble Lord has any particular points that he wishes to raise subsequently in writing, I will be happy to look at them.
My Lords, I welcome very much government Amendment 3 because we are having to use the Freedom of Information Act to get some of this information, but now it is a requirement and I really do welcome that.
While we are looking at modifications, be they minor or substantial, my noble friend cited the case of 50 houses in a rural area. If planning permission is granted for 50 houses that are outside the planning area and that would increase the number of houses being promoted in the neighbourhood plan, currently standing at 100, so now another 50 are added, which is a substantial increase, would that mean that the neighbourhood planners would have to go back to square one and start again because that would be a major modification, not just a minor one?
My Lords, I have to be very careful when responding to that question because as I have clearly indicated, there is an issue that is sub judice and therefore I cannot comment on that particular case for obvious reasons. I have said in broad terms that 50 houses may occasionally be minor and occasionally major, depending on the circumstances of the case, but obviously there is also an issue around the interpretation of the relevant neighbourhood plan, which has to be seen in that context. I think that I have given a fair example and although I do not sit as a judge, I try to give particularly bold examples of what would be a minor provision in an urban area but may not be so in a smaller village situation.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that. What happens if there is a change through, say, the examiner or some other process? For example, where a community has agreed to 100 houses and they have booked the sites and everything else, yet the examiner comes in and says, “No, it’s a minimum of 100 houses”, is that a major modification?
With respect, I have already given an indication as a lay man in this context as to how this would play out. I have a legal background, but I am not an expert in planning law. I do not think I can be asked, “Is this minor or major”, about a succession of situations. I would be giving what is essentially a lay view in planning law terms. All I have sought to do in setting this out—I hope helpfully—is to say that sometimes something would fairly obviously be major in the context of one neighbourhood plan, but very minor in another. Contrast, for example, a situation of high-density population in an urban area with a small rural village a long way from the nearest town. I hope this indicates the intention here.
The noble Lord has been very helpful. The noble Baroness’s question has highlighted that some situations can be very difficult. What somebody thinks is minor somebody else can think is major. Equally, there could be a situation where development could be in an urban area and it could be only 50 houses, but people could think that was an issue as well. I do not think the noble Lord can go much further, but this exchange has highlighted how difficult this can actually be.
My Lords, I do not agree entirely. I accept the point that it is not always easy at the margins, though I think it is far easier in extreme cases. We do not have all the facts of a particular community that is being referred to in front of us. So, in the abstract, it is much more difficult than it would be with some concrete examples from a particular community.
Amendment 2 agreed.
Amendments 3 and 4
3: Clause 1, page 1, line 22, at end insert —
“(c) an examiner has recommended under paragraph 13(2)(a) of Schedule A2 to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (examination of modified plan) that a local planning authority should make the draft plan, or (d) an examiner has recommended under paragraph 13(2)(b) of that Schedule that a local planning authority should make the draft plan with modifications.(3BA) In the application of subsection (2)(aza) in relation to a post- examination draft neighbourhood development plan within subsection (3B)(d), the local planning authority must take the plan into account as it would be if modified in accordance with the recommendations.”
4: Clause 1, page 1, line 22, at end insert—
“(3BB) A draft neighbourhood development plan within subsection (3B)(a) or (b) ceases to be a post-examination draft neighbourhood development plan for the purposes of subsection (2)(aza) if—(a) section 38A(4)(a)(duty to make plan) or (6)(cases in which duty does not apply) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 applies in relation to the plan,(b) section 38A(5)(power to make plan) of that Act applies in relation to the plan and the plan is made by the local planning authority,(c) section 38A(5) of that Act applies in relation to the plan and the local planning authority decide not to make the plan,(d) a single referendum is held on the plan and half or fewer of those voting in the referendum vote in favour of the plan, or(e) two referendums are held on the plan and half or fewer of those voting in each of the referendums vote in favour of the plan.(3BC) A draft neighbourhood development plan within subsection (3B)(c) or (d) ceases to be a post-examination draft neighbourhood development plan for the purposes of subsection (2)(aza) if—(a) the local planning authority make the draft plan (with or without modifications), or(b) the local planning authority decide not to make the draft plan.”
Amendments 3 and 4 agreed.
5: Clause 1, page 2, line 3, at end insert—
“( ) In section 79 of that Act (determination of appeals), after subsection (1) insert—“(1ZA) In determining an appeal on a planning decision under section 76E (applications under section 62A: determination by Secretary of State), 77 (reference of applications to Secretary of State) or 78 (right to appeal against planning decisions and failure to take such decisions), the Secretary of State must, in reaching his determination, give particular weight to any proposals contained in a neighbourhood development plan or a post-examination plan which includes all or any part of the application site.””
My Lords, I start by apologising to the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, for suggesting that she was a hard cop. The apology is made slightly less sincere because she finished her remarks by saying she intended to hold the feet of the Minister to the fire. If that is the sign of a soft cop, I would not want to meet a hard cop.
My point was more that the new clause proposed by the noble Baroness was draconian in its requirements on the Secretary of State. Mine is much more of a light touch. This may be because I am indeed soft, having been a Minister in the department myself. As I said to the House at Second Reading, Bob Neill and I were the two Ministers in the House of Commons who steered the Localism Bill on to the statute book and through Committee there. I remember seeing the first version, which was named very imaginatively by the civil service draftsman as the local government (no 2) Bill. We now know it much more accurately as the Localism Act.
In respect of planning, the then Bill was born out of a realisation, which did not require a great deal of research to establish, that practically nobody in the general public and very few councillors ever participate in the drawing up of what used to be a unitary development plan or a local planning authority’s local plan. The level of engagement is very low. Consequently, when proposals come forward for development, it goes into a three-stage process: stage one, the developer proposes; stage two, the community opposes; and stage three, the planner imposes. This confrontational model is very destructive of public trust in the whole process. It builds in delay; it makes the whole process far from frictionless and very difficult indeed. The whole starting point of the neighbourhood planning proposition in the Act is to turn that round and put the community in charge of what goes on so that you have positive, community-based planning and not negative, developer-imposed outcomes.
At the time that the legislation was drawn up, the major concerns—echoed in some of the things said today—were that local planning authorities and local councillors would be hostile to the loss of some of their power and influence in the system, and that they would seek to frustrate or prevaricate when neighbourhood plans were developed. A lot of the provisions of the Localism Act relate to that. Several mentions have been made of external examiners. There was a strong lobby from local government planners that they should be the people who examined neighbourhood plans. Ministers were sceptical about that, believing it would be a powerful lever which malign influences in a district council planning authority could use to completely negate what a neighbourhood plan should be.
Of course, there were fierce criticisms of the whole proposal, principally—I heard this a lot—that it would be simply a nimby’s charter which would frustrate all development. I am absolutely delighted that the statistics show that in fact the neighbourhood plan areas designate more housing in more appropriate places than the local plans in the relevant areas set out. The Housing and Planning Act strengthened and protected the neighbourhood planning process, building on the experience learned from the first few. This Bill does more, which is welcome, to make sure that at the local democratic level neighbourhood plans get a fair wind and are supported. I approve of all that. It is the way to go.
As I said at Second Reading, that in turn reveals something else happening. I am indebted to my colleagues at the Local Government Association—I do not have to declare an interest as a vice-president—who were kind enough to send me a link to the Sussex Express of 30 November last year, the headline of which is: “Councillors resign in protest against overturned planning decision”.
This is a reference to a decision of the Secretary of State where, according to the report, he approved a case in relation to 50 five-bedroom houses over the heads of the neighbourhood plan and Lewes District Council, which is the local planning authority. It is hard to judge from the newspaper report whether there were exceptional circumstances, but one thing we can say is that that decision in itself makes no strategic impact at all on the delivery of 1 million homes by 2020, which is the Government’s strategic objective for housing growth. However, we can say that it will have a deep strategic impact on neighbourhood plans.
In seven years we have gone from a position where Ministers in the department were doing all they could to defend neighbourhood plans from the predations of what were seen to be hungry local authorities reluctant to give up any power or influence to a situation where the Secretary of State is stepping in. We now find local planning authorities, in this case Lewes District Council, trying to prevent the Secretary of State from sabotaging neighbourhood plans. The problem here is that it is not just an individual plan that is affected. I do not particularly expect the Minister to be briefed on that case or even willing to talk about it. However, there is the risk—beyond the risk, the certainty—that cases such as this will undermine the whole concept of neighbourhood plans.
What is the point of working for two and a half years on a plan, getting it examined and signed off, if what then happens is that inspectors treat it as being of no account and the Secretary of State dismisses it out of hand? So I ask the Minister to come back to us or perhaps write to us and list the number of cases where the Secretary of State has issued a decision which overruled a neighbourhood plan. How many are there? If there is one, that is too many. If there are 10, it is a disaster. If there are 70, we might as well tear the whole thing up because the word will go round and nobody will trust the process and we shall go back to the confrontational model of proposes, opposes, imposes, which is exactly what the whole thing is designed to avoid.
What would Amendment 5 do? This is where I am the soft cop. Compared with the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, it is very mild in its imposition on the Secretary of State. It says that when something comes in front of the Secretary of State, he or she shall have particular regard to neighbourhood plans which cover any part of the site being considered. That ought to be a wake-up call for the Secretary of State but it should and will be a wake-up call for the people I described at Second Reading as the rogue inspectors. The fact is that there is a planning establishment which just does not believe or trust in local communities taking decisions—these can properly be taken only by people who have university degrees in planning and 25 years’ practical experience of delivering it in local authorities. That arrogant approach is putting at risk a way of handling planning which will answer a problem that has been with us since 1947: the complete lack of trust that the normal person in the street and the average community has in the way that the planning process is supposed to work.
I very much hope that, given that I have come here wearing my velvet glove and that I have put on the table an amendment which is very modest and minor in its imposition on the Secretary of State, the Minister will take it as a very clear signal that unless he addresses this problem explicitly in the legislation that we are dealing with, the whole project will unravel and the whole strategic direction of the previous Government—and, as I understand it, of this Government—to turn planning into something that works with and is done by communities will be thrown away in a professionalisation of decision-making, which we have surely grown out of. I beg to move.
My Lords, as has been referred to, my Amendment 20 is in this group. If we are serious about local people planning their local communities and making neighbourhood plans, we have to make it really plain in the Bill that we uphold the Localism Act. Where planning inspectors or the Secretary of State overrule a neighbourhood plan, we witness utter desolation among decent and honest people, who are often the leaders in their local community. In my area, six out of 10 parish councillors resigned as a result. I am concerned, as is the Local Government Association—I declare an interest in that I am not a vice-president of it and never have been, although I have great respect for the association—that the Bill would give the Secretary of State more powers to intervene in the local plan-making and plan-revision process.
We should have a much more conciliatory way forward. I am seeking a sector-led approach that would resolve the blockages. Such an approach would be much more beneficial in the longer term than the imposition of a plan. Having the Secretary of State or inspectors making decisions does the reverse. If we believe in localism, we should support the people making such neighbourhood plans. I fear that very often we do not and I do not think that the Bill is strong enough in ensuring it.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and a councillor in the borough of Kirklees. I added my name to the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, because I thought that the iron fist might be more effective in this regard than my noble friend’s velvet glove. Those of us suffering as a result of appeals to the Planning Inspectorate and the Secretary of State have become as angry as the noble Baroness has with the situation that her village has faced.
The amendment highlights that the power of local people to determine the impact of planning on their area is constantly undermined, despite the Government’s commitment to localism and neighbourhood planning. Many of the parameters surrounding new development are set by government: planning legislation and the National Planning Policy Framework. All that is already in hand, and it is within that context that the local planning authority makes and determines through consultation decisions about its local plan.
It is interesting to remember how a local plan begins. It begins not with local people making decisions through their neighbourhood plan but with a call for sites, which means developers indicating which sites they would like to use and local landowners wanting to see the value of their land enhanced by putting it forward for development. I have no problem with either of those things; the problem I have is that they are the starting point. The whole purpose of the Bill seems to be to reverse that process and have neighbourhood plans as the foundation of a local plan. It puts local people in charge rather than developers and landowners.
When local councils come to determine the local plan, it includes not only land allocation but planning policies. In that is the formal consultation, which takes place several times, and then it is finally agreed. You would think that then, if the Government were sincere in their approach to localism, that would be the end of it: a huge document is produced which includes hundreds of detailed policies about what can be developed and where, and detailed maps of where land is allocated for business use, for housing, for flood prevention or whatever—and that would be it. After many years of consultation and consideration, one would think there would finally be an agreement, but no, that is not the end of it. Local people do not have a final say. There is then the examination by a planning inspector to test the development; for instance, on grounds of soundness. At that stage the developers have another go. Their site has been rejected so they bring it forward again. They obviously have a great advantage at that stage as they have expensive barristers at their side whereas local people just make their voices heard. Having gone through the earlier process, residents have a right to expect that their case should not be challenged any more.
Then we come to the question of appeals. Two points have already come up in our discussions today. The Minister said that a three-year housing supply is now the basis on which appeals can be made in regard to a lack of housing in a local plan. I seek clarification on whether that occurs only in relation to a neighbourhood plan or would cover the whole area of a local plan. That is very important, certainly in my district, where a number of appeals are going forward to enable developers to build on urban green space—the equivalent of greenbelt within an urban area—on the basis only of an alleged lack of a five-year supply, and despite the fact that a local plan has been agreed by the council and is awaiting examination. I hope that the Minister will clarify that critical issue because, as others have said, developers see a loophole enabling them to put forward plans on land that has in this case been set aside as urban green space for 40 years, and will continue to be so set aside in the next local plan, following its examination. However, a developer can put forward a planning application for that land and it is going to appeal—we await the result of that—on the basis only of this five-year supply issue. That is obviously due to the length of time that a local plan takes to go through the examination process.
As has been described, residents then feel thoroughly disenchanted with the whole process. Local residents who have been consulted through a local district plan, a neighbourhood forum or a neighbourhood plan have a right to expect that, having gone through all that and having made the compromises which inevitably and rightly take place so that development can occur, they should have their wishes upheld and not be undermined by what I regard as spurious claims by developers to override fundamental policies that have been agreed and contained in a local plan. That is why I support wholeheartedly the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, and I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify the situation as regards a three-year or five-year land supply.
My Lords, I hope your Lordships will forgive me but I have not spoken in this Room before. It is my first time and if what I say is right, it is right, but if it is wrong, it is wrong. I declare my interests as the chairman of the Local Government Association until June—I hope—and as leader of South Holland District Council. In terms of what we are dealing with today, I am one of the four people who drafted the National Planning Policy Framework, so I know a little bit about what is in it and I certainly know what the intention was. It was to deliver sustainable development in places in the country where it is needed in a way that the people living in the local area could accept, to ensure that we get the homes we badly need in the most timely fashion.
I have to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, that neighbourhood plans were not seen by all of us as the route for making that happen. I personally objected to putting neighbourhood plans in, but that was not because I did not want development, it was because I wanted to see more development and I thought that neighbourhood plans would be a route to slowing it down. But the Government pursued them, so it is incredibly bizarre that if a neighbourhood plan or a local plan has been drawn up in compliance with the NPPF, the Planning Inspectorate is allowed—and some would say sometimes encouraged—to overturn it. The inspectorate should not be able to do that.
There are people outside this Room who think that the Planning Inspectorate has gone feral. It is not working to direction from the Government because it has individual planning inspectors working to their own direction for their own aims. It is important that the Government should insist on the supremacy of the public’s ownership of the planning system. If someone has gone through the pain of making a neighbourhood plan, even though I disagree with such plans in principle, if that is what the Government are intent on using as a way of encouraging development at the local level, once those plans have been tested in public by an inspector and are found to be sound and in compliance with the local plan, if one is in place, or at the very least in compliance with the NPPF, the Planning Inspectorate should never be allowed to overturn one of those decisions except on pain of some form of proper cross-examination by the Government.
We all know that even though the Secretary of State has signed off a planning appeal, it is very rare for the Secretary of State to be personally blamed for that appeal, because generally it does not get anywhere near them. If a neighbourhood plan or a local plan is in place and the inspectorate feels that for good strategic reasons it has to overturn it, there should be some insistence that the Secretary of State should actually take personal ownership of it so that people can be sure that there is political oversight of the bureaucrats working in the planning department. On that basis, I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Cumberlege.
My Lords, the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, is one that I am obviously happy to support. As we have heard, the purpose of the amendment is to place in the Bill a requirement, when the Secretary of State has determined an appeal against a decision, that due weight has to be given by the Secretary of State to any proposals set out in the neighbourhood development plan or a post-examination plan. The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, said that his amendment is much softer and he hopes to get a more positive response from the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, when he comes to reply. The noble Lord also highlighted the issue where people have worked hard to put together a neighbourhood plan only to have it overridden by the Secretary of State, which is very much the point just made by the noble Lord, Lord Porter, as well.
Amendment 20 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, seeks to give further strength to local development plans. If an application for planning permission is made to the local authority but is refused on the grounds that it is not in accordance with the local development plan, the assumption is that the Secretary of State will uphold that decision. It seems perverse that the Secretary of State would seek to overturn a decision which, as we have heard, is in line with the NPPF, so it is important that that point is made clear by the Minister. I hope that he will also respond to the points made by the noble Baroness in respect of localism.
I will leave my remarks at that but I may have one or two questions for the Minister when he comes to respond to the debate.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have participated in the debate on the amendments in this group. Before I respond to the specific amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and my noble friend Lady Cumberlege, I shall make some introductory remarks that I hope will set out the context.
It is right that unsuccessful applicants can seek to have their planning application reviewed through an impartial planning appeal process. This is a strong belief of the Government, as it has been of successive Governments. I want to get that on the record. This recognises the control the planning system places on the use of land. This should be an option even when the proposed development is not in accordance with the development plan. A planning appeal should be lodged only if issues cannot be resolved with the local planning authority and if an applicant considers, in the light of the facts, that planning permission should have been granted.
Turning to Amendment 5, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, I thank them for the opportunity to discuss this matter. In this case, when considering an appeal that relates to a neighbourhood plan, the Secretary of State must know the importance of that neighbourhood plan. The law is very clear that decisions on planning applications must be made in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Reference has already been made to the number of call-ins that have been made by the Secretary of State for the last year for which figures are available—75 out of 16,500. This idea of a super-bureaucratic system running riot with call-ins is overstated and wildly hyperbolic.
I thank the noble Lord for that intervention. I do not have those facts in front of me but I shall endeavour to see if we can provide that information in the letter that I have promised to noble Lords. If the information is there, I will gladly supply it.
We should also be clear that the rules on call-ins were made in 2008, ran throughout the last Government and into this Government. The suggestion that this is somehow something new is wrong. I am also happy to circulate the parliamentary Statement that contained those rules to Peers who have participated. I accept that the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Cumberlege and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, acknowledges that there are issues of national significance. We can all think of examples of compliance with climate change policies, world heritage sites, green belt and so on. So I would have to take issue with the idea that a call-in is never appropriate, which I think one or two noble Lords got close to saying. When we look at planning, there is always room for and, indeed, an importance to a national dimension. This is what we are seeking to preserve.
I was asked once again about the neighbourhood planning Written Statement. I will also circulate this so that noble Lords have it in relation to the three-year supply of deliverable housing sites. This Written Statement, in the name of my honourable friend the Minister of State for Housing and Planning in another place, Gavin Barwell, indicates:
“The Government confirms that, where a planning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted”,
“the local planning authority can demonstrate a three-year supply of deliverable housing sites”.
I am putting this in a shorthand form, but I will ensure that it, or the link, is circulated to those who have participated in the debate.
I thank the Minister for that clarification. However, what I was seeking to understand was whether the three-year supply referred only to where a neighbourhood plan was in place or whether it would be for the whole of a local plan. If that is not the case, we have a serious discrimination between those areas—often rural areas, at the moment—with a neighbourhood plan and those without. For one, a three-year supply would be sufficient; for another, a five-year supply is required.
I confirm that it applies only to neighbourhood plans. It is just one other reason that it is very good to have a neighbourhood plan in place. I do not see anything inconsistent in that. If we are strong believers in neighbourhood plans, that is quite appropriate.
I will cover the point in the letter but I am sure that it is the case, as I indicated, in the Written Ministerial Statement—it was on 12 December 2016—that this is in relation only to neighbourhood plans.
If I might proceed, the Government are equally clear that we must allow those taking decisions, including the Secretary of State, to do their job and exercise their judgment when considering the planning merits of the case before them and the evidence for and against an appeal. By the way, the Secretary of State does not necessarily have to uphold the decision of the inspector in this regard. That does not necessarily follow. This provides the necessary flexibility that is at the heart of our planning system, which the amendment, if accepted, would remove. For these reasons, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw Amendment 5.
Turning to Amendment 20, tabled by my noble friend Lady Cumberlege and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, we place great importance on local development plans. They provide the local community’s vision of how it sees its area developing. It is right that they should be given the weight they deserve within the planning appeals process. As I have said, where a development plan’s policies are material to an appeal, a decision must be taken in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. This does not mean that a planning appeal that is not in accordance with the local development plan will always be dismissed. It means that the appeal should not normally be allowed and that planning permission should not normally be granted. However, we cannot, and should not, fetter appeal decision-makers by requiring them to dismiss appeals that are contrary to the development plan. Instead, we must allow planning inspectors to do their job and exercise their independent judgment.
Significantly, planning appeals can be made in a number of circumstances, not just when a planning application is refused. They can also be submitted when a planning application is not decided within the statutory timescale or if conditions the applicant deems unreasonable are imposed on a grant of planning permission. If accepted, the amendment could affect these appeal rights. An applicant who was refused permission would not have their appeal heard in certain circumstances because the amendment would require it to be dismissed. This is not acceptable. In conclusion, I ask my noble friend to not move her amendment.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for her support. I particularly valued the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Porter, if I may say so, because he was very clear in explaining that he does not necessarily believe that neighbourhood plans are the way to promote development and growth, and he started off at least as a deep sceptic. Nevertheless, he has championed the need to make sure that neighbourhood plans, once made, are treated as serious documents which carry very considerable weight in subsequent decision-making. That is exactly the view that I put and it is exactly the way that I have expressed it in my amendment, which is not to fetter the discretion of the Secretary of State but simply to insist that he gives particular weight to a neighbourhood plan in reaching a decision. I think that links up with one of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Porter. He said that some planning inspectors have gone “feral”.
I will let the record stay as it is on that. At Second Reading, I referred to the fact that there are some rogue inspectors. Perhaps I can make clear that I am not accusing them of a breach of their duties under the seven principles of public service, but there is a continuation of the implementation of a policy which, at the latest, was discontinued by the Localism Act in 2010. That is resulting in insufficient weight being given to a statutory process—the establishment of neighbourhood plans—that should and could have the same weight as adopted local plans and any views that an inspector might seek to impose on the situation.
I referred to this at Second Reading and will do so again, but until 2010 the direction of travel was in one way, towards a professionalised planning service that did not give sufficient weight or an effective voice to local communities. In 2010, through the Localism Act, that was turned round completely in its intent by having plans established and developed by local communities and then allowing developers to implement them. Despite the scepticism at the time—the noble Lord, Lord Porter, might even concede this—neighbourhood plans delivered growth and more housing sites. I see the Minister nodding. This is not a question of the nimbys triumphing or an example of a wild political theory with malign consequences. It is working, delivering the results that everybody wants to see and it is in danger of being sabotaged by what I think is a continuation by some people—perhaps some senior civil servants in the department and certainly some inspectors—of a policy that was changed in 2010. They have not caught up with it. In that sense, it is quite right that they should be exposed. To use the phrase of the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, perhaps some feet need to go on the fire where that is concerned.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his support. I think the Minister can provide us with a little more information about those 75 cases. How many of them related to overthrowing neighbourhood plans? Of the 75, how many were upheld? In how many cases were the inspector’s recommendations endorsed and in how many were they overturned? Let us get some idea of what we are talking about here. Of course, I was not alleging that the Secretary of State is overturning hundreds of thousands of cases of either neighbourhood or local plans. I made the case that we have a very new animal in the neighbourhood plan, which takes a gestation period and a good deal of effort to be delivered. If at the end of that process it is simply to be—I must choose my words carefully—disposed of, people will not invest their time in doing them. The whole strategic idea lying behind neighbourhood planning will fall into disuse and discredit.
I believe my amendment addressed that, giving a strong prod to the system to ensure that there was an effective and powerful impetus to giving validity to neighbourhood plans at the expense of developments that were clearly out of order. I am sorry that the Minister does not agree with that. I noted his emollient words in relation to Amendment 1 and I hope they apply to Amendment 5 too. I look forward to constructive discussion to see what we can resolve. If it makes him feel any better, I will not personally hold his feet to the fire. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
Clause 1, as amended, agreed.
6: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Notification of applications to neighbourhood planning bodies
(1) Schedule 1 to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (local planning authorities: distribution of functions) is amended as follows.(2) Paragraph 8 (duty to notify parish council of planning application etc) is amended in accordance with subsections (3) to (5).(3) After sub-paragraph (3) insert—“(3A) Sub-paragraph (3B) applies to a local planning authority who have the function of determining applications for planning permission or permission in principle if—(a) there is a relevant neighbourhood development plan for a neighbourhood area all or part of which falls within the authority’s area, and(b) a parish council are authorised to act in relation to the neighbourhood area as a result of section 61F.(3B) The local planning authority must notify the parish council of—(a) any relevant planning application, and(b) any alteration to that application accepted by the authority.(3C) Sub-paragraph (3B) does not apply if the parish council have notified the local planning authority in writing that they do not wish to be notified of any such application.(3D) If the parish council have notified the local planning authority in writing that they only wish to be notified under sub-paragraph (3B) of applications of a particular description, that sub-paragraph only requires the authority to notify the council of applications of that description. (3E) For the purposes of sub-paragraphs (3A) to (3D)—“neighbourhood area” means an area designated as such under section 61G;“relevant neighbourhood development plan” means—(a) a post-examination draft neighbourhood development plan as defined by section 70(3B) to (3C), or(b) a neighbourhood development plan which forms part of a development plan by virtue of section 38(3) or (3A) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (plans which have been made or approved in a referendum);“relevant planning application” means an application which relates to land in the neighbourhood area and is an application for—(a) planning permission or permission in principle, or(b) approval of a matter reserved under an outline planning permission within the meaning of section 92.”(4) In the opening words of sub-paragraph (4) for “the duty” substitute “a duty under this paragraph”.(5) In the opening words of sub-paragraph (5) for “their duty” substitute “a duty under this paragraph”.(6) Paragraph 8A (duty to notify neighbourhood forums) is amended in accordance with subsections (7) to (9).(7) After sub-paragraph (1) insert—“(1A) Sub-paragraph (1B) applies to a local planning authority who have the function of determining applications for planning permission or permission in principle if—(a) there is a relevant neighbourhood development plan for a neighbourhood area all or part of which falls within the authority’s area, and(b) a neighbourhood forum are authorised to act in relation to the neighbourhood area as a result of section 61F.(1B) The local planning authority must notify the neighbourhood forum of—(a) any relevant planning application, and(b) any alteration to that application accepted by the authority.(1C) Sub-paragraph (1B) does not apply if the neighbourhood forum has notified the local planning authority in writing that it does not wish to be notified of any such application.(1D) If the neighbourhood forum has notified the local planning authority in writing that it only wishes to be notified under sub- paragraph (1B) of applications of a particular description, that sub-paragraph only requires the authority to notify the forum of applications of that description.”(8) In sub-paragraph (2)—(a) before the definition of “neighbourhood forum” insert—““neighbourhood area” means an area designated as such under section 61G;”, and(b) after the definition of “neighbourhood forum” insert—““relevant neighbourhood development plan” means—(a) a post-examination draft neighbourhood development plan as defined by section 70(3B) to (3C), or(b) a neighbourhood development plan which forms part of a development plan by virtue of section 38(3) or (3A) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (development plans which have been approved in a referendum or made).” (9) In sub-paragraph (3) for “(3) to (6)” substitute “(3) and (4) to (6)”.(10) Section 62C of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (notification of parish councils of applications made to Secretary of State) is amended in accordance with subsections (11) and (12).(11) In subsection (2) after “paragraph 8(1)” insert “or (3B)”.(12) In subsection (3) after “Schedule 1” insert “or notifications received by the authority under paragraph 8(3C) or (3D) of that Schedule.”
Amendment 6 agreed.
6A: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty on Examiner in making recommendations
(1) Schedule 4B to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (process for making of neighbourhood development orders) is amended as follows.(2) After paragraph 9(2)(a) insert—“(ab) in any case where the examiner is minded to recommend deletion of a policy relating to a specific site or sites in the neighbourhood area and indicating a presumption in favour of housing or economic development, or”.(3) After paragraph 10(3) insert—“(3A) Before recommending modifications in the form of deletion of draft policies in a draft neighbourhood plan, to take account of national policies and advice contained in guidance issued by the Secretary of State or for other reasons, the examiner should endeavour to find alternative wording that would achieve the goal of the qualifying body, if necessary by convening a hearing for that purpose.””
My Lords, I turn to Schedule 1, which has been amended to include new Schedule A2. I have tabled a number of amendments on this. I shall discuss my Amendments 9, 10 and 11 before I discuss my Amendments 6A and 6B in this group.
I am very worried about sub-paragraphs (1) and (2) of paragraph 12 on page 38 of the Bill. They ensure that the examiner can sit in his office, away from the world he is examining, and immerse himself in documents and papers which give him little sense of place, neighbourhood and geography and, above all, the people who live and work there. These people cherish and care about their community, look after it and make it a dynamic place. They run myriad organisations. They understand what works in their area and what does not. As has been said, this is not a charter for nimbyism; on the contrary, it has stimulated housing and other development.
My amendments seek to give makers of neighbourhood plans a voice and a right to be heard and to enable them to explain face-to-face what makes the plan worthy of their community, and what they seek to achieve in strengthening it. Christopher Lockhart-Mummery QC of Landmark Chambers says that,
“any significant Neighbourhood Plan really requires a hearing”.
In my view, the Government’s steer in discouraging hearings is too strong. So much is dependent on what the examiner is minded to recommend through written representations. We need to be sure that the policies are not fundamentally altered without the plan-making body having the right to explain its objectives at a hearing, and the examiner suggesting better words to them to achieve their goals. After years of work producing a plan—in some cases this lasts up to five years; in my area, it was two and a half years—and then getting it agreed at referendum, the parish or town councils are at the mercy of the examiner. They can only watch while further representations and views of the local planning authority are gathered together and put to the examiner. It is not an inclusive process, and I think it should be.
My Amendment 6A is more specific. It concerns the situation where the examiner deletes a policy relating to a specific site or sites in favour of a commercial or economic development. As a nation, we need more sites for housing. Where a community has researched and identified its needs and proposed a significant development in terms supported by the landowner and the developer, is it right for the examiner to simply delete the proposed policy on the grounds that some of the wording of the policy is not clear? Should he not make every effort to help the community get its words right?
Amendment 6A would put a greater responsibility on an examiner who finds that a plan policy falls short of meeting the basic conditions. Instead of recommending the deletion of such policies and therefore denying us the housing sites we need, the examiner would be required to hold a hearing when he proposes to delete, add or significantly amend any draft policy that makes provision for a specific development, which would include housing development on a site identified in the plan. It would be a specific requirement.
Amendment 6B is also concerned with the examiner. Plan makers are at the mercy of others and can only watch while further representations and views of the local planning authority are gathered together and put to the appointed examiner. There is no recourse if the parish or town council is not satisfied with the work of the examiner. Examples might be because the examiner has recommended modifications that they do not believe are soundly based on evidence, or because the examiner has recommended deleting policies that could readily be remedied by a less dramatic modification. The amendment is designed to provide the makers of a plan with the right to a say in the action to be taken after the examination. It would achieve this by requiring the examiner to deliver a draft report for consideration by the local planning authority and the plan makers. Before finalising the report, the examiner should take into account and consider any points made by those bodies.
There have been suggestions—I suspect my noble friend might also make them—that this would further complicate the process or cause more delays in the planning system. I understand that some examiners already proceed in this way, but do so informally. The amendment is a modest way of ensuring a continuing engagement with the plan makers in the final stages of creating their own plan. Ideally, examiners should not recommend fundamental changes or deletions without first engaging the town or parish council in a hearing to understand the goals, and then fine-tuning the recommended changes.
This is a probing amendment and a way of attracting the attention of my noble friend in order to open a dialogue and discussion about how we can ensure that the confidence and faith of local plan makers is enhanced and does not deteriorate. I look forward to my noble friend thinking about the way we can ensure that that happens and I look forward to his response. I beg to move.
May I ask the noble Baroness, in reference to Amendment 6B, about the time limit that she has included in the amendment? We know that local authority planning departments are under great pressure, and in those circumstances, 28 days seems a little tight for the local planning authority to consider,
“new evidence, new facts or a different view”.
Is she prepared to be flexible about the period for the response because it seems too short?
My Lords, I accept the suggestion but my concern is that these things can drag on and on, and unless one has a cut-off time, I fear that while the issues continue to be talked about and worked on, nothing actually happens. I am quite anxious to have a deadline and times within which people have to deliver their responses.
My Lords, I express my support for the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, but I want to speak in particular to Amendments 9, 10 and 11. They are important because once again they are about the definition of words. We discussed earlier the meaning of “modification” and “material”, and now we have to define “significant”, “substantial” and “exceptional”. The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, has drawn our attention to the fact that these words can be interpreted in different ways.
First, paragraph 12(1) of new Schedule A2 refers to the “general rule”. If a rule is a general rule, it means that sometimes it is not. I think a rule needs to be rule. The elimination of the word “general”, which leads to doubt, seems the right thing to do. I hope the Minister will take the point that that word should be removed. Looking very closely at the Bill, paragraph 10(1) of the new schedule says that it is for the examiner to,
“determine whether the modifications contained in the draft plan are so significant or substantial as to change the nature of the neighbourhood development plan which the draft plan would replace”.
There we have the introduction of the words “significant” and “substantial”. However, it is then left with the examiner to proceed by the written representation route. So a substantial or a significant change is to be dealt with by the written route and, in paragraph 12(2), only the examiner can,
“cause a hearing to be held for the purpose of receiving oral representations … in any case where the examiner”—
but not anybody else—
“considers that there are exceptional reasons for doing so”.
So there are substantial and significant changes but unless the examiner thinks they are exceptional, there cannot be a formal hearing.
We need to get this right. I foresee a lot of trouble arising if those who have taken part in developing a neighbourhood plan are suddenly told that a substantial or significant change to it can be dealt with only by the written procedure, whereas they may have things that they wish to say and to be heard. If the process is to be sound, we should be encouraging more oral hearings where people can listen to the evidence and contribute to the discussion. I hope the Minister will take on board that these definitions really matter. Something that is significant or substantial should have an oral hearing; something less important than significant or substantial could have written representations. But simply to say that it must be exceptional in the eyes of the examiner does not seem right.
My Lords, I support Amendments 6A and 6B. For the purposes of this Committee, I declare an interest as a farmer and landowner. Both amendments are about ensuring that the procedure governing an examiner’s report on a neighbourhood plan allows the neighbourhood to meet him halfway, as it were, or allows him to make helpful compromise amendments rather than full-scale deletions, which I gather is all too often the case.
As has been said frequently today, planning is a very complicated subject for the average lay man—that very definitely includes me. The noble Lord, Lord Horam, said that he was not a planning expert. If he is not a planning expert, I am a babe in arms. I have heard planning described as a minefield covered in a mist. In spite of this, villages, communities and neighbourhoods work really hard to master this misty minefield and over a long period of time—two years, five years, whatever it might be—they try to get to grips with the complications of the planning system, not to mention the complications of the diverse needs of their community and the divergent local views on how it should be developed, in line, of course, with the local plan and the NPPF. That point has been made several times and I thoroughly endorse it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, and I have been in communication with a friend of mine, one Richard Wakeford from Winchcombe Town Council in north Gloucestershire. He is a trained planner and used to work for the department. He worked with me in the Countryside Agency as well. He said that he helped his community and town council to develop a neighbourhood plan. It involved developing lots of houses but those houses were then knocked off the plan. His letter to me says:
“In Winchcombe, for example, the Town Council proposed a significant development site to meet the needs of older people. Close to the centre of town, a development of small housing units and an associated care home—in line with an emerging Joint Core Strategy—would have helped to attract residents to downsize, freeing up homes for families”.
He went on to explain that the plan was co-ordinated with the local planning authority, the developer and the town. It was almost a done deal. His letter continues:
“And yet, the Examiner recommended the policy for deletion—not as a matter of principle but because some of the words used were not defined clearly enough … there were suggestions … that the development could not be viable given the number of conditions set out in the draft plan. The community’s constructive engagement with the proposed developer”—
and the local planning authority—
“was simply written off with the stroke of a red pen”.
He goes on to say that the examiner simply deleted large elements of the plan. The town council essentially had no further say because reinstating the proposed development site would require another 12 months’ work. They had assumed that the examiner would make amendments if necessary and that if he needed further information to understand their wording he would have arranged a hearing. They were pretty disillusioned, which is not very surprising.
It seems very wrong that after often two or three years—or more—of work it should all be undermined at the stroke of a pen without any discussion or comeback. That may take a few days longer but then we in this House indulge in issues such as ping-pong and on the whole the result we get is better for that. Some sort of ping-ping ought to be allowed between the examiner and the relevant neighbourhood planning body, which is very often the town or parish council. The examiner should not have the right to summarily undermine the whole neighbourhood plan without giving the neighbourhood a chance to amend or alter the plan in line with his views to make it acceptable to him. If only there were a bit of discussion, I am sure they could make the plan fit. However, there does not seem to be any need for discussion and that is what these two amendments try to put right.
My Lords, I very much support the amendments in this group tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege. Clearly, they are probing amendments and I look forward to the response from the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, to the points raised.
It is important that we ensure that communities are consulted and that they have confidence that if they are to make a local plan it should have some validity, particularly once they are into the process. These amendments seek to ensure that. Amendments 9, 10 and 11 look at the modification procedure and give the opportunity to move it from a written to an oral procedure. That is important. It may well be that it should be much more either/or, but at the moment it is much more towards the written procedure apart from exceptional circumstances. I am interested to hear what we get back from the noble Lord in respect of that.
We have also begun to mention a number of words in the debates on the Bill, such as “modification”. Words are important, particularly to planning. Planning is complicated. I am not a lawyer. I am a councillor and I am on a planning committee, but I rely heavily on the advice we get from our planning officers on looking at applications. Rules are also important, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, mentioned “the general rule”. What worries me is the flexible rule, which might be so flexible that it is not a rule at all. We need to be very careful about what we are doing here.
I would also like the noble Lord to tell us a little about the examiner. The examiner will look at an application and will want to determine and pass it properly, so we must hope that he is working to soundly based rules as well. It would be useful to learn about the rules they operate under. It seems odd that an examiner can simply throw out a proposal that has been agreed, especially having heard about how important these processes are from the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor. So it will be interesting to hear about exactly what takes place and what the examiners are told. I am conscious that these are probing amendments and I look forward to the noble Lord’s response, at which point I may have one or two more questions for him.
My Lords, perhaps I may say as I crawl across the minefields in the mist having been battered by iron fists and with my feet held to the fire, that I will try to deal with some of the issues that have been raised quite fairly by noble Lords relating to this group of amendments. It may help if I first try to put this in the context of what the Government have done to promote and improve neighbourhood planning—just so that we do not lose sight of what is important.
The measures introduced by the Housing and Planning Act have sped up and simplified a number of processes, with, for example, new time limits being imposed on planning authorities and more transparency in committee reports. We have provided £22.5 million-worth of support for neighbourhood planning groups and have provided more than 1,800 grants to the value of over £10 million. Also, some £13 million has been paid out to local planning authorities to help them meet their responsibilities. I have referred to the Written Ministerial Statement of December 2016, which was provided to address the issue raised by communities about the transition problems around the operation of the five-year land supply requirements. This Bill will put it beyond doubt that decision-makers must have regard to neighbourhood plans that have passed examination—it is important to nail that. It also makes clear the advice and assistance that local planning authorities are able to provide to neighbourhood groups and it will bring neighbourhood plans into legal force as part of the development plan at an earlier stage, all of which is important.
Before I turn specifically to the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady Cumberlege, perhaps I may address a couple of points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, in the context of Schedule 1 relating to the procedure for examination as set out in new paragraph 12(1). The words “the general rule” replicate the language used in the Localism Act 2011 under the coalition Government. I appreciate that that is not the whole of the answer, but the phrase has been put in for good reason in that there is a substantial amount of case law that defines what “the general rule” is. I will endeavour once again in the compendium letter that I will send round to give examples of how it would operate.
I would also say to the noble Lord that new paragraph 12(2) makes it clear that it is not just the examiner who can initiate an oral hearing, or at least that it may be but he would be required to do so under new paragraph 12(2)(b),
“in other such cases as may be prescribed”.
It is not as if he has a totally unfettered discretion. Indeed, we may want to examine this heading when we discuss the specifics because it does provide for cases to be prescribed.
The prescribing would certainly be done by the Secretary of State, but obviously the Bill has not yet passed into law so no cases would be prescribed at the moment. Again, perhaps I may give an indication of the sort of circumstances where we anticipate it may be used.
I turn now to the amendments and again I thank my noble friend Lady Cumberlege for raising this important matter, and the noble Lords, Lord Cameron, Lord Shipley, Lord Kennedy, and briefly the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, who is not in his place at present, for their contributions. It may help noble Lords if I first explain the current examination process for a neighbourhood plan. The person appointed to examine a neighbourhood plan must be independent of those who prepared the plan and of the local planning authority, and have no interest in any land that may be affected by the plan. They must have appropriate qualifications and experience. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, raised the issue of rules in relation to this. Perhaps I can provide a link in the letter, but they clearly must have appropriate town and country planning qualifications and experience. There will certainly be rules under which they will have to operate. Noble Lords may perhaps want to do a more detailed examination of these.
The examiner’s role is to consider whether the plan proposal meets a set of basic conditions and other legal tests. Neighbourhood planning groups must submit various other documents to the local planning authority with their neighbourhood plan proposal. These include a statement setting out how the plan proposal meets the relevant tests. This statement provides the opportunity for those who prepared the plan to demonstrate that their neighbourhood plan proposal meets those tests. Those wishing to make their views known to the independent examiner, or to submit evidence to be considered, can submit written representations to the local planning authority during the statutory publicity period for the draft neighbourhood plan. The local planning authority must send to the independent examiner the draft plan proposal, any other document submitted by the neighbourhood planning group relating to the plan proposal, and a copy of any representations made.
My noble friend Lady Cumberlege’s Amendment 6A concerns the modifications that an examiner may recommend to a neighbourhood plan. It is already the case that the examiner of a neighbourhood plan must make a report on the draft plan. This must recommend either that the plan is submitted to a referendum or that modifications are made to the draft plan so that it meets the basic conditions and other legal tests for the plan as modified to be submitted to a referendum. It is only where an examiner is unable to make such modifications that they would have to recommend that the plan proposal is refused. With this clarification, I would ask my noble friend to withdraw that amendment.
I apologise to my noble friend that I have not taken her amendments in the same order as she proposed them. Amendment 6B would give an opportunity to provide further details on the procedure for examining neighbourhood plans. It is currently the case that, where a new neighbourhood plan has been examined, a local planning authority must reach its own view on whether the plan meets the basic conditions and legal tests required. The authority must do so having considered the recommendations of the examiner. It is then for the authority to decide whether a neighbourhood plan proposal, with or without modifications, should be put to a referendum.
Our planning guidance is clear that we expect local planning authorities to constructively engage with the community throughout the neighbourhood planning process, including when considering the recommendations of the independent examiner of a neighbourhood plan. Again, these are important matters raised by my noble friend Lady Cumberlege on which I will carefully reflect ahead of Report.
My noble friend’s Amendments 9, 10 and 11 concern the method of examination. The Government maintain that the process of examining neighbourhood plans by written representation in general provides a proportionate, appropriate and robust scrutiny. It is certainly an appropriate approach for plan modifications that make use of the new streamlined modification procedure in the Bill. By definition, such proposals will not substantially change the nature of the plan. Nevertheless, for new plans or for modifications to plans where the examiner considers it necessary to ensure adequate examination of an issue, or to give a person a fair chance to put a case, they must hold a hearing. In these cases, neighbourhood planning groups are entitled to make oral representations. I want to reassure noble Lords that the legislation is very clear. Communities already have the opportunity to have a say in writing throughout the examination process and, where appropriate, at an oral hearing.
Ahead of Report—and I shall endeavour to do this for all noble Lords—I think it appropriate that I set out the procedure whereby there is interaction between the examination and the neighbourhood plan. In setting out that procedure in discussion with my noble friend Lady Cumberlege and others, we can see where there are gaps where we may need to plug the legislation, if I can put it in the vernacular in that way. I accept that something must be going wrong with some plans. I am happy to look at that to see how we might address it. The general position is satisfactory, but I accept that something can obviously be done to make it more watertight. I thank my noble friend for saying that these were probing amendments, but with the reassurance that I have sought to give I ask her not to press them.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have taken part in this mini-debate. Some really interesting issues have been raised. Although my noble friend the Minister has tried hard to explain that the system is working well, I understand that he realises that a few holes need to be filled.
It is not right that the examiner should decide when there should be an oral hearing. I was a magistrate for many years. I know that when you have people before you—the defendant, the prosecution, et cetera—you can really get to grips with what they are talking about; you can understand the people there before you. I do not think that that comes through in just documents or written representations. It should be an opportunity for those who have spent years—in some cases, five years—drawing up a neighbourhood plan to explain to the examiner, “This is why we’ve included this. This is why we’ve done that”. In our case, the examiner ruled out all sorts of things because he did not understand the locality, the people, the history or what we were trying to achieve. I can understand that the examiner has to work with a certain language—the planning language—but we who are volunteers and lay people are not versed in that language. I am sure noble Lords have realised that in my amendments I am using lay person’s language and not the proper language used in planning circles. Because sometimes the words are not right, the inspector has ruled out the policy that people really wanted, which really made that community tick and made it what it is.
I feel strongly that there should be an oral hearing. It is not up to the examiner but to the makers of the plan to decide whether or not they want an oral hearing—if it is something very modest, they may not want it. I am trying to shift the power away from bureaucracy to the people and the communities that we govern. The more we can do that, the more we instil trust in our population. I could go on a lot about trust, but I shall not.
I look forward to working with my noble friend and his officials to strengthen some of the provisions to make them work and to ensure that we are not reducing democracy by way of these laws. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 6A withdrawn.
Amendment 6B not moved.
Clause 2: Status of approved neighbourhood development plan
7: Clause 2, page 2, line 16, at end insert—
“( ) A neighbourhood development plan may include a phasing condition on development which is agreed with the local planning authority.”
My Lords, I understand that the Grand Committee is a place where noble Lords cannot move a Motion that a noble Lord be no longer heard. Your Lordships have my sympathy and I apologise that I am again on my feet. This amendment is really important and is about a neighbourhood development plan including a phasing condition on development.
I have tabled this amendment because we have already seen communities being overturned, which can cause real social problems. Phasing is important to assimilate people coming into a community. However, on a practical level, the Bill is part of a vehicle to enable the Government to announce the building of a record number of houses. It will coincide with the inevitable changes that Brexit will bring, many of which we still know nothing about. They are incalculable. Some may be good, others may not be so good. We may see jobs leave the City, for instance. I was interested to read in the Times of 25 January a headline on financial clearing houses which stated that loss of clearing would cost the City 85,000 jobs. Of course, that may or may not be the case. However, if a loss of those jobs on anything like that scale occurs, it will make a huge difference to developments that are in train or have already been built.
We must also consider what will happen if we have fewer immigrant builders. What will be the effect of that on the housing market, which has traditionally had its ups and downs? We do not want new buyers to be plunged into negative equity or find they have new homes that they cannot sell. That would serve nobody well. Developers are business people and I am sure that they will not be seduced into building homes that they cannot sell. They would prefer a longer-term strategy, and I support them in that. At this very uncertain time, it is judicious not to try to break records for the sake of political expediency. I strongly believe that building cosy nests on a rotten bough can end in tears. The phasing of developments makes sense. I hope that my noble friend will agree that it should be incorporated in the Bill on Report. I beg to move.
My Lords, I, too, support the noble Baroness. I assure her that she need not apologise for anything as she has raised some very interesting issues in the course of the Grand Committee, and has done so with great passion and commitment.
I raise a related, but perhaps slightly tangential, issue concerning the impact of having a lot of development all at once. Currently, developers argue that Section 106 or community infrastructure levy contributions should relate only and very specifically to the development they are undertaking. That may sound a reasonable argument but it is highly problematic as it completely fails to take into account the cumulative effect of a number of developments taking place around a village, or, indeed, taking place over time. It is very difficult to argue with legal certainty that the need for a new school, for example, is related simply to one development as opposed to the cumulative impact of a number of developments. Therefore, that issue needs to be looked at as it goes to the point about the acceptability of development to local communities. They also need to feel that the funding mechanism will be there. Furthermore, developers often argue that the money should be used only for very narrow purposes and not for the benefit of the wider community. The Government need to look at the acceptability of development in this regard.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Cumberlege for moving this amendment. Before I look at the substance of it, on housing need generally I think it will be borne out by statistics that even if all migration were to stop now—it will not because the Prime Minister made clear that we will still very much need the brightest and best for specific areas of activity in the country—there is still a truly massive backlog of housing that needs to be supplied. There is no gainsaying that. There is a massive catch-up operation to be done, and all political parties over the years contributed to this problem by not building enough. There is little doubt of that. I part company with my noble friend on that specific point.
On Amendment 7, moved by my noble friend, local communities within a designated neighbourhood area are responsible for deciding which policies they want to include in their neighbourhood plan. They can, if they choose, include policies on housing delivery and housing sites if they consider them appropriate for their area. They will develop their housing policies by considering the types of development needed for their area and will identify suitable locations for housing development. If the policies and proposals are to be implemented as the community intend, a neighbourhood plan must be deliverable.
Where a neighbourhood plan is used to allocate sites for housing development, the local community must assess whether those sites are deliverable and developable. Paragraph 47 of the National Planning Policy Framework provides details of what needs to be considered. As part of this consideration, those preparing the plan must take realistic decisions about the timescales for delivering those houses and the issues that might affect this, such as the area’s infrastructure needs. This might require them to consider phasing the delivery of development to ensure that they have a realistic plan for delivering their housing policy within required timescales. It is certainly open to neighbourhood groups to do that now and for that to be part of the neighbourhood plan. Where communities consider this necessary, they should of course have clear evidence as to why there should be a restriction on when a specific site or sites will come forward for development.
These are important matters but should essentially be left to the judgment of local communities. Maybe we need to make clearer that that is a possibility but then it is a matter for the relevant neighbourhood, advised by their local planning authority. These people are best placed to make such decisions, which are more appropriately addressed by policy documents and guidance than legislation. As I previously indicated, the Government set out their policy on these matters in the National Planning Policy Framework and in planning guidance, to which both local planning authorities and those preparing neighbourhood plans must have proper regard.
I hope I have reassured my noble friend on this point. Just before I leave this particular amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, raised an issue regarding funding from community infrastructure. We shall come to this in the next group but, just briefly, I think 25% goes to the relevant parish council or neighbourhood group. It is up to them how to spend that; it does not have to be related to the infrastructure for which the levy was paid. As I say, we will come to that on Amendment 26 and can look at it in more detail then. In the meantime, I ask my noble friend to withdraw her amendment.
I very much thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for supporting this amendment. We go back to the situation of the examiner. My noble friend the Minister said that already you can have phasing but we wanted it and it was completely crossed out by the examiner. I do not know what advice is given to examiners but something like this really needs strengthening. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said, this is about more than housing or bricks and mortar; it is about the people who live there. It is about trying to get diversity in our population because we know that that strengthens it. It is about schools. It is about health centres. It is about all the infrastructure that we need. Phasing can help that.
Years ago I was involved in this area and we built 171 houses. It was a huge development but we also ensured that the infrastructure was there to support it. If we do not have some phasing, we will end up in a real mess. I take the point about negative equity. Once you get negative equity, you get a very disenchanted population. Phasing is important. I look forward to working with the Minister. I hope I will not have to bring this back on Report and that we can come to some accommodation. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 7 withdrawn.
Clause 2 agreed.
Clause 3: Modification of neighbourhood development order or plan
Amendments 8 to 8A not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
Schedule 1: New Schedule A2 to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004
Amendments 9 to 11 not moved.
Schedule 1 agreed.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5: Assistance in connection with neighbourhood planning
12: Clause 5, page 5, line 9, at end insert—
“with reasonable payments made by local authorities for the purposes set out in paragraphs (a) and (b) to be recovered from the Secretary of State.”
My Lords, Amendment 12, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Kennedy, relates to Clause 5, which is headed, “Assistance in connection with neighbourhood planning”. We have heard a good deal about the need to support local communities in developing their local plans and seeing them implemented. The amendment seeks to ensure that they have the wherewithal to do that.
Clause 5 is the Government’s initiative to ensure that support is given. It prescribes that as part of the process:
“A statement of community involvement must set out the local planning authority’s policies for giving advice or assistance”,
for the making or modification—a word that has been much used this afternoon—of neighbourhood development orders and neighbourhood development plans. Of course, this is a matter which requires considerable experience and skill. The assumption, therefore, is that the local authority will provide the resources for the local community to obtain advice and support in going through the process.
I suppose in one sense this could be regarded as a new burden and therefore should or could fall into the general position that is purported to apply to the imposition of new burdens; namely, that if it is a requirement of legislation, the Government will ensure that local authorities’ costs in meeting that obligation are met. But in my experience it is as well to be explicit about this and that is the purpose of the proposed new clause, which would require the full recovery of costs in connection with the development of a neighbourhood plan. The local authority would support the community in its commissioning of works but the cost ultimately would be met by the Government.
Given the tenuous position within local authority planning departments, of which we have heard much in the Chamber and today, it is imperative that the matter be adequately resourced. As we have heard so many times, planning departments are under huge pressure. As the noble Baroness pointed out, they have lost staff to private concerns. It is difficult to recruit and retain staff. In some ways happily, the volume of work is growing, which we want to see. The Government have now come round to conceding, particularly on the housing front but also in other areas, that considerably more investment and building need to take place. In the context of that shortage of staff, it is particularly important given the competing pressures on departments that communities should be assisted in securing whatever help they need in the process. I hope therefore that the Minister will concede that this is right way forward if we are going to have properly developed neighbourhood plans with local communities fully engaged and equipped to make a contribution to the ultimate decisions, which without that professional support would not take place. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is my swansong; this is the last time that your Lordships have to endure me. I have an amendment coupled with this one, but I say to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, that I so agree with him. It is really important that we do not try—to use an expression appropriate for a planning Bill—to make bricks without straw, because it does not work; we need resourcing.
My amendment is a little different, being about the community infrastructure levy, which it would increase. It is a probing amendment, but if it is intended to continue the direction of travel towards localism and the greater empowerment of parish and town councils, we have not only to find some financial incentives for communities to accept development—although many of them do at the moment—but to encourage planning permissions for the building of houses. That was a significant feature of the coalition Government’s housing and planning reforms and a source of funding to principal councils.
One such initiative was the community infrastructure levy, which came into force in April 2010. It allows principal councils to raise funds from developers undertaking new building projects in their area and to fund a wide range of infrastructure needed as a result of the development. The community infrastructure levy-charging authorities are required to transfer to the parish or town councils 15% of the levy receipts arising from development that takes place in their area, rising to 25% for areas with an adopted neighbourhood plan.
Unfortunately, research suggests that local councils have been passed only 1% of the community levy receipts—just £92,000 despite principal councils collecting more than £9 million between April 2013 and June 2014. That is largely because it is not mandatory for principal councils to have a community infrastructure levy scheme in place and it has the effect of communities accepting development but not benefiting from the share of the levy to invest in local infrastructure needs and priorities.
It is vital that communities which are pro-growth benefit financially from policy incentives such as the community levy so as to invest in locally identified infrastructure needs and other community priorities. The first part of my amendment would address this issue by requiring local planning authorities to introduce the community infrastructure levy within 12 months of the day on which this Act is passed. I am sure my noble friend the Minister has more recent and up-to-date information about how this policy is being delivered, so I look forward to his response.
Paragraph (b) of my amendment is simply intended to increase the incentive for communities to embark on the development of a neighbourhood plan. At present, areas with an adopted neighbourhood plan are entitled to 25% of the levy. However, it does not happen everywhere. I should like to see neighbourhood planning grow, and for more communities to get involved and take a positive approach to future development in their area. To accelerate the uptake, I think a further range of measures is needed to build on efforts to date and, in particular, to ensure that communities benefit financially from development. Increasing the amount of the community infrastructure levy would provide an enhanced incentive. It would also have the added benefit of relieving some of the pressure on the parish precept as the principal means of income to invest in local projects, assets and infrastructure. I am sure my noble friend has other ideas as to how some of this could be achieved. This is a probing amendment and something that I think is worthy of discussion.
My Lords, I understand the reasons behind this amendment and I sympathise very much with them. However, to force all local authorities to impose a community infrastructure levy—a CIL—is actually not practical. I speak as a member of one authority that does not impose a CIL, and there are quite a lot. There are parts of the country where the viability of development is marginal. Whether it is infrastructure, commercial or housing development, the difficulty is making it stack up financially. In my part of the world, there would be more development allowed, promoted—and welcomed to some extent—if it were financially viable. If it is not financially or only marginally viable, imposing a CIL would simply result in less development. It cannot be imposed everywhere, nor should we look at areas that can impose CILs with green eyes—as we look at a lot of the country with green eyes on financial matters. We have to survive in the environment that we are in. From that point of view, I cannot support the first part of this amendment although, where CILs are imposed, the second part might well be reasonable.
In the debate on the last amendment, I raised the question of the community infrastructure levy and Section 106 because that amendment was more about what the planning authorities can get. This amendment is about what the neighbourhood planning areas will get. I quite understand that the Minister will want to wrap up his responses, so there is the question that I raised on the earlier amendment about the impact of having to be directly attributable on the ability to access this money. I am also told there is a problem in that many developers insist on having specifically costed projects before they will sign an agreement for Section 106 or CIL. That is a problem if this is the first of a number of sequential developments. A local area may very well not have a detailed specific cost, but they are, in effect, building up a pot. In my local area we did that for a new relief road, though it took five years and something like four phases of development to reach it. Specifically, to the point of neighbourhood planning areas, I have also been told that some planning authorities are insisting that the neighbourhood planning areas have to have a general power of competence in order to be able to spend CIL money.
The points I have raised have all been raised with me by the National Association of Local Councils. Perhaps, rather than go into too much detail in his reply, it would be helpful if the Minister could undertake to meet that body again to go through those concerns and make sure that everybody is on the same page. It could then disseminate the information using its networks.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate on these amendments. I turn first to Amendment 12 tabled in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Beecham. I understand the desire to ensure that adequate funding is available for local planning authorities.
I hope that I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, that the Government’s rigorous new burdens doctrine ensures that local planning authorities receive the relevant resources to meet their statutory obligations under the neighbourhood planning process. Since 2012, more than £13 million has been paid out by the department to enable local planning authorities to meet their neighbourhood planning responsibilities. Some 104 different local planning authorities have submitted claims for the current financial year, and under the current arrangements where applicable, these authorities could have claimed £5,000 for each of the first five neighbourhood areas and the first five neighbourhood forums that they designate. For those authorities where a referendum date was set, they could also claim a further £20,000 to cover the costs of an examination for each referendum.
Evidence compiled by my department in August 2015 found that the current funding arrangements adequately cover the neighbourhood planning costs for the majority of local planning authorities. I appreciate that that is almost 18 months ago but I would be happy to share this evidence with noble Lords and I will ensure that it is sent on to those who have participated in the debate. We continue to review the level of funding available to local planning authorities and I can confirm that funding will continue to be available for the next financial year. Further details will be announced shortly, ahead of the next financial year.
I now turn to Amendment 26 tabled by my noble friend Lady Cumberlege. I share her desire to support neighbourhood planning, and that is why we currently allocate a proportion of community infrastructure levy receipts to those areas with an adopted neighbourhood plan, as she correctly acknowledged. It is a local choice, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, pointed out, for areas to introduce the levy based on economic viability and infrastructure need, and of course that will vary from area to area. Take-up has increased by 144% since April 2015. The current number of authorities which have adopted the community infrastructure levy is 132, and a further 86 have taken substantive steps towards it, which totals 64% of local authorities. However, I emphasise that this is a local choice. There are clear benefits in many cases and it may be that we need to look at publicising those more widely, but of course it is not for everyone.
It is also important that local areas have a choice over how the money raised by the levy is spent. The 25% neighbourhood share already allocated for communities with neighbourhood plans provides a real opportunity for those areas to have a say over how the levy is spent in their area. Communities can also influence how the levy is used across their local authority through participating in the development of the local plan and the charging schedules which set out the local authority’s infrastructure priorities.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for her contribution more widely in relation to the community infrastructure levy and I am happy to agree to the meeting she has suggested in order to understand and consider some of the detailed concerns. That would be beneficial to me as well.
I turn now to the issue of how best to continue to incentivise communities, and I understand the wishes of my noble friend Lady Cumberlege in this area. The Prime Minister has made clear that this is a particular priority for the Government. An independent review of the community infrastructure levy has recently reported to my department. The review group considered a wide range of issues including the take-up of the levy and the use of the neighbourhood share. We are currently reviewing its recommendations and once again I will provide further information on exactly where we stand on that.
With the reassurance that the Government are already considering the recommendations and the need perhaps to publicise the benefits of the community infrastructure levy more widely by giving evidence of how communities can benefit from the development of their area, and continuing to review the level of funding available to local planning authorities—the White Paper will have something to say on that as well—I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his constructive response. I was rather taken with his notion that the Government have a rigorous policy towards meeting new burdens. I would have thought “rigor mortis” might be a more appropriate description of their performance in that area but he is clearly well intentioned and we hope to see some evidence of that as the legislation goes forward.
Significantly, the figures he quoted on the community infrastructure levy were quite alarming in many ways. From what he said, authorities are not necessarily taking full advantage of what is currently available. Has the Minister considered talking to the Local Government Association about that? This matter should be taken forward in that way. I will certainly ensure that the points he made today are heard. I hope that process can be tackled. It is for the noble Baroness to comment more specifically on that subject since she raised it but there seems to be an issue here. One way or another, the system does not seem to be working adequately, yet apparently the goodwill is there on the government side to ensure it does. Perhaps after the event we could look at ways to promote the use of what should be a helpful instrument for both local authorities and the communities they represent.
We have had this discussion on previous Bills. In my authority, for example, it is not through lack of willingness or knowledge of CIL that we do not impose it. It is simply that if we impose it, it will make particular brownfield sites even less viable. On brownfield sites, we have to subsidise housing development to get it going and apply a kind of negative CIL, paid for by the council. That is the only way to do it. There is a mismatch here between different parts of the country.
I am not suggesting that all local authorities are able or would wish to impose the levy, for the very reasons that the noble Lord has just given. The question is whether there are authorities that could do so without the kind of impact the noble Lord described on his authority but have not yet taken advantage of it. It is pointless to speculate on the nature of those authorities but I suspect that some district councils, for example, might not have the officer resource to deal with what ought to be something that would benefit them. That matter should be looked at by the Government and the LGA together. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.
Clause 5 agreed.
13: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—
“Approval of draft neighbourhood development plans by referendum
(1) Paragraph 14 of Schedule 4B to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (referendum) is amended as follows.(2) After sub-paragraph (2) insert—“(2A) The outcome of such a referendum shall only be valid if the turnout is equal to or greater than 40%.””
My Lords, this amendment is in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Kennedy. It deals with referendums. We now have some experience of referendums in this country—perhaps rather regrettably. Of course, the position in the local scene is that it is an issue which would test the degree of support for local initiatives of the kind that the Bill envisages. I do not know but perhaps the noble Lord is in a position to say what kind of turnout has been engendered in the referendums that have been held. I understand that they are not required to be held and there are other means of consultation. However, it seems important to secure and recognise a substantial degree of public support, as reflected through a reasonably pitched turnout.
Forty per cent does not seem excessive, but it would show a degree of engagement and interest on the part of the local community which ought to be recognised. I suggest that it would give an incentive to local communities and their authorities to debate issues very fully. I should have said that the amendment has the support of the Local Government Association, as did the previous one. In the circumstances, I hope the Minister will acknowledge that this measure would be an incentive to authorities and local groups to engage fully with their communities to ensure a turnout that adequately reflects public engagement with an important process. I beg to move.
My Lords, I do not support this amendment as it implies that a huge amount of work in developing a neighbourhood plan could be lost if 39.9% of the electorate turned out to vote on it. We have in this country a history of assuming that those who do not vote are abstaining. It seems to me that the current system works perfectly well. If some people—perhaps a majority of the electorate—decide not to vote, that is their right. It would be very wrong if all the work of a lot of people over a substantial period of time could be lost because an arbitrary figure of 40% was imposed. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, has not justified that figure. I would remind him that a large number of local councillors would not have been elected to local government if a 40% turnout figure had been imposed. Indeed, I remind him that he himself in 2014 was elected in the Benwell and Scotswood ward of Newcastle upon Tyne with a turnout figure of 32.1%. However, I do not think that anybody in your Lordships’ Chamber would wish to say that that result was not valid. I hope that the noble Lord will think very carefully about proposing a requirement that there should be a 40% turnout of the electorate on a referendum relating to a neighbourhood plan.
My Lords, I share the views that have just been expressed but do so reluctantly as I have had a lot of support from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and others. At the last local elections the turnout was 30.9%. I wonder why the 40% figure has been proposed. I do not know enough about these referendums. Do you have a postal vote in a referendum? Do you have a means of voting in a referendum without actually being there? If that is the case, how about the old, the lame, the housebound, those in hospital, those on holiday or those away from home on business? They might be just as interested in what is going on in their local community but not able to take part in a referendum. I do not know whether there is a postal vote or some other means of taking part. If there is, that is a very good thing. However, I still think that the figure of 40% needs to be justified. Why 40%? Why not 20%, 30% or 50%? I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, knows the answer and that he will tell me.
My Lords, I was quite surprised to see this amendment, which takes me back to the Commons Committee stage on the Localism Bill when a long succession of amendments were proposed by Labour Members that could be summed up as wrecking amendments designed to disable the process, but they were swept aside. I had thought, from what I have heard from Labour Members in this House and Labour spokespeople in the House of Commons, that it had now become part of the accepted culture of the Labour Party that the neighbourhood planning process is a beneficial one for local communities and should be supported.
That made me look at the numbers which are being talked about. It is 40%. If we divide it by 10, we have 4%, and that would still be more than 10 times as many local residents involved in a local plan than are involved in a district local plan or what used to be a unitary development plan. In fact I could probably add another nought to that because the percentage of local residents in an area who have actively participated in the standard pre-existing planning process is minute. They become engaged only after the plan has been signed off and when a developer puts in a proposal. That is precisely what is wrong with the current situation and is what the neighbourhood planning system is designed to overcome. So there should be no threshold, or perhaps it should be more than the number who contributed from the planning area to the preceding local plan. It would be so small a number that we would not need to consider it.
My Lords, I intervene only briefly because I made reference to turnouts in my speech at Second Reading. It may well be that the figure of 40% is too high, but our concern is that a plan can be approved on a very small turnout, which itself could cause problems. That is why we have put this amendment forward for debate, but it is certainly not an attempt to wreck anything. As I have explained before, I am a councillor in Lewisham where we are actually producing our own neighbourhood plan. We are about a year into it because it is a very complicated process, but it has definitely involved many members of the local community and I am supportive of that, as is my noble friend Lord Beecham.
Perhaps there should be a discussion about what would be a legitimate figure. Would a turnout of 1%, 2% or 5% be legitimate? At what point would a plan genuinely have community backing when it is put to a referendum? That is the point of the discussion today, rather than any attempt to wreck the provision. I think that we have had a useful discussion that has covered a range of issues.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Beecham and Lord Kennedy, for raising this matter. I am not sure whether they believe in the 40% figure, 4% or 2% because that is not entirely clear. Perhaps I may say that I do not think that their hearts are quite in it. The most alarming thing about the debate is that on this basis, Newcastle would have been deprived of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and Lewisham possibly deprived of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, to the detriment of our national life. I would have thought that the presence of the noble Lord’s name on the ballot paper would have ensured a really high turnout. More seriously, this is not something that we can pursue.
My Lords, I think we now know why the figure of 40% appears in the amendment.
In all seriousness, clearly we would all want to see higher turnouts, but regrettably much of our national life turns on low turnouts. In May 2016 the overall turnout in English local elections was 33.8%—the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, bucked the trend. The average turnout for neighbourhood planning referendums is 32%. The principles of neighbourhood plan and neighbourhood development order referendums are consistent with all referendums and elections in our country. People are given the right to vote but are not obliged to do so. With this in mind, we cannot support the 40% threshold. The Electoral Commission’s data show that the overall turnout in English local elections since 2007 has exceeded 40% in only three years.
As the Minister for Housing and Planning, Gavin Barwell, highlighted in the other place when a similar amendment was tabled in Committee, of the approximately 240 neighbourhood planning referendums that had been held at that point, around 170 had had a turnout of less than 40%. The amendment would drive a coach and horses through the legislation and could jeopardise the whole neighbourhood planning process and the hard work of so many people and communities to produce neighbourhood plans, which the Government support. With this clarification, I hope the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, it is interesting to be identified by the Liberal Democrats as having a low polling achievement, when at the general election, was it 8% or 9% that the party of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, managed to achieve? However, to my mind the issue was not so much about a particular figure as about trying to ensure that there is significant involvement of local people in making a decision.
I did not know the statistics that the Minister referred to and I am grateful to him for answering my question about that. Those figures suggest that there is in many places a reasonably high demand—30% or so, whatever it might be, is a good response to something such as this. But the object ought to be to encourage as much as possible a turnout on these decisions. I am not wedded to the 40% figure. Perhaps a different approach might be to provide financial and other support to promote referendums, without necessarily imposing a limit, but to work with local authorities— again, perhaps with the LGA—to develop a scheme to maximise the involvement of local people in a system which is supposed to engage them in evolving policy which will affect their communities. Perhaps it could be looked at afresh from that perspective without identifying a particular figure, which I accept is very much an arbitrary one. But we are all concerned to see public engagement increasing as much as possible. There may be ways to do that.
In the circumstances, of course I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, and I hope that the turnout in the next elections in Newcastle will be somewhat higher.
Amendment 13 withdrawn.
Committee adjourned at 7.38 pm.