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Joint Spatial Plan (Thornbury and Yate)

Volume 624: debated on Wednesday 29 March 2017

[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the West of England’s joint spatial plan and green space in Thornbury and Yate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Turner. I requested this debate because of the unprecedented levels of concern in my constituency about the West of England’s joint spatial plan, especially in the communities of Thornbury, Charfield and Coalpit Heath.

I completely support the Government’s plan to deliver 1 million more homes by 2020. I welcome the recent housing White Paper, which is clearly an ambitious plan to fix a broken housing market and build the homes that we need in this country. The four West of England councils—Bath and North East Somerset Council, Bristol City Council, North Somerset Council and South Gloucestershire Council—are working together to produce a West of England joint spatial plan and joint transport study, which is supposed to be setting out a prospectus for sustainable growth, to help the region to meet its housing and transport needs until 2036.

I support a thought-through, locally led, long-term plan for development in the West of England. I thank the leader of my local authority, Councillor Matthew Riddle, for his work so far. I also thank local town and parish councils and community groups such as TRAPPD—Thornbury Residents against Poorly Planned Development—and VALID, or Villagers against Local Intended Development, for their tireless work on behalf of our community.

I want to outline a number of serious concerns about the joint spatial plan. First, it is clear that the currently proposed infrastructure will not be sufficient to alleviate the proposed developments or to link the areas being developed to areas of employment. The second serious concern is about relying on satellite locations in the West of England when the demand is so clearly in Bristol and Bath. The third is about the lack of affordable housing, the fourth is about the difficulties surrounding the deliverability of the plan, the fifth is the proposed development on the green belt, and the sixth is the complete lack of local support.

The joint spatial plan should focus on integrating workplaces in the region with homes and transport, because the economic growth areas will provide jobs for the additional residents who will be living in the new homes. Unfortunately, it is clear that the joint spatial plan focuses on providing more housing, not on integrating that housing with employment and businesses. The developments proposed in rural areas simply lack the employment opportunities that will be necessary for local people. There appears to be an emphasis on developing the economy and jobs in south Bristol but promoting house building north of Bristol. Like other local people, I understand that that may be because of a desire to protect the green belts, but it will have huge consequences for other aspects of the environment. It will eat into the countryside that is not designated as green belt and create the prospect of inadequate and highly polluted transport corridors. That view was reinforced by the joint spatial plan consultation, which concluded that

“the majority of responses…did not agree that the strategy makes adequate provision to address economic and employment needs”.

If building is not concentrated nearer to large employment areas in more sustainable locations closer to Bristol, Bath or Weston-super-Mare, we will see a dramatic increase in congestion, with more and more people commuting into Bristol and Bath from satellite locations such as Buckover. The Institute of Directors South West stated that

“there is a lack of a proper consideration of future employment needs”.

Business West pointed out the

“imbalance between employment and housing provision.”

A representation from the development industry highlighted that

“creating a new settlement in a location away from any sort of urban area may induce further levels of out-commuting.”

The University of Bristol noted an

“obvious lack of connection with the wider housing spatial strategy and JTS”—

the joint transport study—and a

“clear disjoint between the housing and economic development strategies which cannot reasonably endure.”

My second point is about one of the elements of the joint spatial plan that has caused most concern: relying on satellite locations or strategic development locations in the West of England when the demand is so clearly in Bristol and Bath. The proposal to build a garden village at Buckover of up to 3,000 houses, divided straight down the middle by the A38 and less than 600 metres from Thornbury, is a prime example of the flaws in plans to prioritise satellite developments coming together to form a completely unsupportable development. It is clear that there is no serious proposal to deal with the extra traffic that would be directly funnelled onto the A38, a road that already has more than 22,000 daily car movements on to the nearby motorway junction. There is next to no local support for the expansion of Buckover: more than 92% of the more than 10,000 residents whom I surveyed in Thornbury and Alveston were opposed to it. The Government rightly rejected South Gloucestershire Council’s application for support for a garden village at Buckover earlier this year, because it was clear that Buckover did not meet a number of the criteria. I thank the Minister and his Department for that extremely wise decision.

The consultation report readily admits that there is significant concern in the development industry that

“there is no clear evidence as to how the Joint Authorities have adopted the methodology, assessed the range of potential development locations and chosen the Strategic Development Locations”.

Business West said:

“The implications of sustainable development have failed to guide key decisions on spatial location”.

Highways England expressed concerns about

“the location of these developments and their impact on the SRN”—

the strategic road network—

“particularly the M5.”

The University of Bristol stated the need for

“a thorough assessment of the environmental impacts of all the SDLs”.

Satellite developments are one of the core planks of the plan. That extremely brief overview of some of the problems associated with the proposal to build a garden village at Buckover, despite its having been rejected for Government support, is a good example of why the joint spatial plan needs to be fundamentally reconsidered.

There are problems associated with the deliverability and sustainability of the West of England joint spatial plan. There are serious concerns that the JSP is not deliverable, primarily because of the pressure that it would put on the transport infrastructure. The infrastructure that would be needed is simply undeliverable—that is clearly the case in Charfield, Coalpit Heath and Buckover. The JSP would also put too much pressure on other local infrastructure, such as schools, recreational facilities and medical services. Further concerns have been raised that it would not meet the tests of environmental, economic or social sustainability.

I have mentioned the significant concern in the development industry that

“there is no clear evidence as to how the Joint Authorities have…chosen the Strategic Development Locations”.

Wessex Water has now raised serious concerns about deliverability, especially around Thornbury, Charfield and Buckover, particularly in respect of drainage and erosion prevention. Highways England has also raised concerns about the deliverability of the strategic site locations, including the sites at Charfield and Buckover, and has suggested that

“their identification should be revisited to identify sites which would have less adverse impact.”

Business West states:

“The process undertaken by the West of England Authorities in producing this Plan has failed to take into account the overriding principle of achieving sustainable development. The implications of sustainable development have failed to guide key decisions on spatial location”.

Those are damning words on the joint spatial plan.

The community does not believe that the plan is deliverable. Only 3.7% of respondents to the consultation report believed that the strategy could be delivered; over 96% stated that it could not. The most common reasons given included pressure on transport and associated infrastructure and the fact that strategy

“would not meet the tests of environmental, and/or economic and/or social sustainability.”

There are also problems associated with the deliverability of affordable housing. The consultation report noted:

“The National Housing Federation and several others were concerned that the plan does not meet objectively assessed housing need and would fail to meet the tests set out in national planning policy. The Federation stated that they did not agree with the approach that has been taken to set the target at a significantly lower level than the number identified through the objectively assessed needs exercise...The Home Builders Federation…considered that the calculation of affordable housing needs has been under estimated and that the actual affordable housing need is considered to be significantly above 32,500 dwellings”.

There is concern in the development industry that the affordable housing target should be higher. A number of local residents and some local parish and town councils also believe there is a need for more affordable housing. Mendip District Council is concerned that the current approach to affordable housing is

“likely to have an impact upon housing demand in Mendip as the district generally offers lower cost housing than many areas in the West of England.”

The proposals to build in the green belt in Coalpit Heath are also misguided. South Gloucestershire Council’s strategic green belt assessment designated Coalpit Heath’s green belt as serving all five of the policy objectives for inclusion in green belt, and the southern part as serving four out of the five. Why the joint spatial plan considers that there are exceptional circumstances or why the location is of strategic importance are not demonstrated.

On local support, I have surveyed more than 14,000 residents, asking for their views on this plan. More than 92% of them are opposed to the expansion at Buckover, more than 93% are opposed to the development in Charfield and almost 96% are opposed to the development on the green belt in Coalpit Heath. When we compare those figures to the results of the 2016 British social attitudes survey, in which only 45% of people opposed more homes being built in their area, it becomes easier to understand the scale of local concern about the plans in south Gloucestershire.

In summary, the need for housing in our area is predominantly in Bristol and Bath, but the joint spatial plan is prioritising satellite town growth far from where the need for housing actually is. There is too much of a focus on providing housing and not enough on integrating those houses with employment, which will result in more commuting from the north of our area and increased congestion.

That is echoed by voices in business, academia and the development industry. The development industry, the local town and parish councils, the business community and more than 96% of consultation respondents believe that the plan is not deliverable. The National Housing Federation, the Home Builders Federation, parish and town councils, local residents and Mendip District Council have all raised concerns about affordable housing. The business community, Highways England and the local academic community have all raised serious concerns about the strategic development locations, and there is no clear evidence as to why they were chosen. It is also clear that the proposed Buckover garden village, which is still being advocated internally within the local authorities despite being rejected by the Government, would put immense pressure on the surrounding infrastructure. As for public support, there simply is none.

I have written today to the Minister asking him to use the powers under section 21A of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 to issue a holding direction on the West of England joint spatial plan. I would be grateful if he could give me the following assurances today: first, that he will consider putting a holding direction on the West of England joint spatial plan; and secondly that he will agree to meet me to discuss these issues in more detail, and especially to ensure that the Government do not support any future applications for financial support to develop Buckover. Considering the glaring and obvious flaws in this joint spatial plan, and the level of concern about it in the community, I urge the Minister to reassure the residents of Thornbury, Charfield, Coalpit Heath and south Gloucestershire, and intervene over this unsustainable, undeliverable and unsupportable plan.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), both on securing this debate on a subject that is clearly very important to him and, more importantly, to his constituents, and on the eloquence with which he set out his case. I have listened carefully to his concerns about the adequacy of infrastructure, the location of some of the proposed development, the provision of affordable housing and deliverability.

My hon. Friend asked me to consider and discuss with the Secretary of State whether to issue a holding direction on the emerging West of England joint spatial plan. I should say at this stage, as he probably anticipates, that propriety considerations prevent me from commenting on the detail of the plan. My quasi-judicial role in the planning system means that I have to remain impartial. The plan could—certainly if he has his way—at some point come across my desk or that of the Secretary of State. Likewise, I cannot comment on individual planning applications, in case they are ultimately appealed or a request to call them in comes across my desk or that of the Secretary of State.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for the Government’s plans to deliver 1 million homes in total by 2020 and for our recent housing White Paper, which sets out how we aim to fix the broken housing market and to build the homes that we so desperately need. In addition, I welcome his support for a locally led, long-term plan for development in the West of England. However, I recognise that, although he may support that principle, along with other people, he has serious concerns about the nature of that plan in its current form.

In the recent housing White Paper, the Government reiterated our strong encouragement for local planning authorities to get plans in place and to keep them up to date. We have been very clear that local planning authorities are best placed to prepare plans that address the strategic priorities of their area, in consultation with their local communities. Up-to-date plans are really important because they provide clarity both to communities and developers about where homes should be built, where employment uses should go, where community facilities should be located, and where not. That means that development is planned, rather than the result of speculative application by developers.

Planning is a very democratic process and rightly so. Local people should be involved at the heart of decisions on how their areas are developed, particularly in respect to some of the issues that my hon. Friend referred to. The national planning policy framework, which is the master document for Government planning policy, sets out that early and meaningful engagement and collaboration with neighbourhoods, local organisations and businesses is essential. In addition, there is a statutory right for any person to make representations about a plan that the local planning authority proposes to submit for examination. A wide section of the community should be proactively engaged, so that local plans, as far as possible, reflect a collective vision and a set of agreed priorities for the sustainable development of the area, including those contained in any neighbourhood plans that have been made.

As well as the statutory duty to co-operate, we are keen to encourage collaboration between planning authorities, so that strategic priorities, particularly for housing, across local boundaries are properly co-ordinated and clearly reflected in individual local plans. A joined-up plan-making process, whereby local planning authorities work together and key decisions are taken together, will provide communities with certainty, clarity and a plan for delivering the housing and other development and infrastructure that they need.

From the Government’s point of view, I welcome the fact that the four West of England councils—Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol City, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire—have been consulting on the emerging joint spatial plan and joint transport study. More recently, there was a public consultation on that plan and study, which set out a prospectus for sustainable growth to help the area to meet its housing and transport needs for the next 20 years. I understand that that consultation ran from 7 November until 19 December 2016, and that nearly 1,600 responses to the consultation were received.

How many homes are needed in a particular area is a matter for local decision, based on comprehensive evidence, and to simplify that process we will shortly consult on a standard methodology to help local planning authorities to assess housing need. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that we need to ensure that we maximise the contribution of land for new housing from brownfield and surplus public sector land, and that local planning authorities should have a strategy to maximise the use of such land, for example, through minimum densities. As he argued so powerfully, that is vital to ensure that the development we get is sustainable and is as close as possible to where the employment opportunities are. I thought that he made powerful points in that regard.

My hon. Friend was also right to say that councils need to ensure that there is sufficient infrastructure, such as roads, schools and surgeries, available to accommodate the proposals that they bring forward in their plans. That is an integral part of the evidence base behind a plan and I assure him that it is one of the things that will be thoroughly tested at examination.

I understand that the four councils will now take the next few months to consider and evaluate the responses that they have received and, as appropriate—clearly, my hon. Friend believes that it is highly appropriate—to revise their draft proposals. That will include potential schemes to tackle existing issues on roads and other infrastructure to help to meet the increased demands that will come with growth in population and economic activity.

I believe that, after that, the councils aim to publish an updated draft in the summer of 2017, ready for a further round of public consultation in the autumn of 2017. The feedback from that consultation will be considered and incorporated into a final draft joint spatial plan, and then a further consultation will be held before the submission of the plan to the Secretary of State in 2018. Therefore, further opportunities— indeed, I might say extensive further opportunities—for representation on the detail of these plans can be requested during the examination process and during the hearings that will be held by an independent inspector.

Therefore, my hon. Friend should take some comfort that the planning system allows ample further opportunity for his voice, and the voice of the constituents he so ably represents, to be heard on this plan, before it comes anywhere near being adopted by each authority. If it is adopted, the joint strategic plan will become part of the development plan, in accordance with which planning applications must be determined, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. It is intended to guide the four councils in the development of their local plans. I understand that the individual councils will keep control over how development is permitted in their areas, but the demand and approach to meeting that demand will have been decided collectively and with extensive consultation.

My hon. Friend raised the proposal for a garden village known as Buckover in his constituency, at Thornbury. I am pleased to be supporting 14 locally led garden villages from Cornwall to Carlisle with exciting proposals to deliver new communities with up to 48,000 homes. As he made clear, Buckover is not one of the schemes we have accepted on to the programme. Community support was one of the criteria we took into account in assessing the expressions of interest we received, and I recognise that there is a strong sense locally that Buckover is a proposal that does not have that support. I reassure him that that will remain an important criterion in assessing future decisions about further garden towns and villages that we may want to add to the programme.

I welcome the fact that four areas in South Gloucestershire are pursuing neighbourhood plans, and I understand that includes Thornbury, which was designated earlier this month. Neighbourhood plans mean communities can have a real say over the detailed location of development, and its design, phasing, mix and appearance. Communities can also use their plan to help to provide for local employment, to protect important local green spaces and to engage in the area’s wider planning strategy. We strongly encourage communities to consider the benefits of neighbourhood planning, which is why the recent housing White Paper announced further funding for neighbourhood planning groups for 2018 to 2020 and gives communities a greater role in housing design.

The framework expects local authorities to recognise the character and beauty of the countryside and the benefits of the best and most versatile agricultural land. Local plans should include strategic policies for the conservation and enhancement of our natural environment, including landscape, whether that is designated landscapes or the wider countryside. The framework empowers communities to use their local plan or neighbourhood plan to designate smaller areas as local green space. Designation rules out new development there, other than in very special circumstances.

In conclusion, as we move towards greater flexibility in plan making, it is as important as ever that local communities are given the opportunity to participate in the process and to make their views known to their local authority. I hope that my hon. Friend and his constituents will take every opportunity to participate in consultation on the West of England joint strategic plan as it moves forward, and I hope the authorities will listen to the views expressed as they develop their plans. Nevertheless, subject to the propriety considerations that prevent me from commenting on the detail, I am more than happy to meet with my hon. Friend to discuss his and his constituents’ concerns.

I will of course discuss with the Secretary of State my hon. Friend’s specific request that I issue a holding direction. There are issues around timing, because the plan is still at a relatively early stage in the process and the inspector appointed by the Secretary of State to assess whether the plan meets national policy has not had the chance to do that work yet. However, I would be more than delighted to meet my hon. Friend. I commend him for securing the debate and for raising with passion and eloquence the concerns his constituents have expressed over the plan. I look forward to discussing the matter with him further.

Question put and agreed to.