I am delighted to have secured this debate. Although I have been a Member of Parliament for seven years, this is the first Adjournment debate that I have secured, and I am pleased that it is on such an important topic. Depending on the Minister’s response, it is potentially a groundbreaking debate about an aspect of the planning process that will affect all constituency MPs and the local government areas with which we work.
I remember the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 from the previous Parliament. The Bill had cross-party support but began in the 2001 Parliament with my former colleague, Sue Doughty, then the Liberal Democrat MP for Guildford. Sadly, she lost her seat in 2005, but the baton was taken up by Mr Hurd, who is now a Member of the coalition Government. The Bill became law in 2007 and is a bottom-up process in legislation—I know that the Minister, whom I greatly admire for his philosophy of localism, has endorsed it on many occasions.
Under the Act, the Government have a duty to help local councils and communities by responding to their suggestions. It is not only about consultation, but about trying to reach agreement with central Government on how those suggestions could be taken forward. If that practice is adopted, it would represent a whole new strand of governance at local level in our country.
There was considerable enthusiasm across the country for the Bill even before it became an Act. In my first year as a Member of Parliament, I addressed a packed public meeting at the Elmgrove centre in Redland in my constituency. That was the first time that I worked with Local Works, which campaigned for the Bill outside Parliament. Steve Shaw, who heads that organisation, has helped me to prepare for today’s debate. The Act had cross-party support and showed the House of Commons at its best. Its purpose was to enable local councillors and communities to put suggestions to central Government on how to improve governance at local level. Today’s debate concerns an example of a council that has taken advantage of that legislation.
In June last year, a small council in Suffolk, Leiston-cum-Sizewell town council, faced a difficult situation when it was sent a planning application for a large out-of-town retail development. Although Suffolk Coastal district council is the planning authority, parish and town councils such as Leiston-cum-Sizewell have a statutory duty to comment and a right to be consulted on such applications. The application in question presented the council with something of a problem: it was 12 inches thick and consisted of 10 specialist consultant reports that had been prepared by the applicant or their advisers. The council could have made comments based on community feeling, or it could have worked diligently and properly—as I am sure its electors would have expected it to do—and ploughed through that documentation and come to a considered opinion. Essentially, we are all in the same position. I am often asked as an MP to comment on planning applications in my constituency. As it is a city-centre constituency, a huge number of such applications are received every week, let alone throughout the year, so I do feel the pain that that small town council in Suffolk experienced last year.
District councils, or unitary authorities such as the one that I am more used to in Bristol, have large planning departments and professional planning consultants to advise councillors when determining planning applications. Parish and town councils, however, usually have only a town clerk who may even work part-time, so the whole system is stacked against them.
The proposal from Leiston-cum-Sizewell is designed to address such situations. At its meeting, the town council asked for two things, and I hope that the Minister will respond to these requests. First:
“That any applicant or representatives of any applicant who submits such an application that will have a significant effect on an area must, if requested by the Town or Parish Council attend a meeting of (i) that Council to answer questions from elected councillors; and (ii) a Town or Parish Meeting,” of all citizens in the area who are interested in the application. Such a move would have an effect across the country. Large urban areas, such as Bristol West which I represent, are not in parishes but they have active residents associations. Liberal Democrat controlled Bristol city council has set up a network of neighbourhood forums in which local councillors can comment and exercise decision-making powers over expenditure in their communities. Such a proposal could be applied across the country.
The second request is that any applicant who submits a planning application that will have a significant effect on an area should,
“if requested by the Town or Parish Council, or a Town Meeting, pay for the Council or Meeting to get an independent assessment carried out as to how the proposed development will affect the sustainability of the local communities.”
That would have been a live issue this time last year when a well-known supermarket—Tesco—was acquiring planning permission for a new store in the Stokes Croft area of my constituency. There cannot be many Members of Parliament who have witnessed widespread civil disturbance and rioting because of a planning application for a shop, but I am afraid that is what my constituents experienced in April last year. When everyone else was enjoying the royal wedding, I was with the police witnessing mayhem on the streets. It was all because of a planning application that the community felt had not been handled properly, either by the council or—more significantly—by the developer, which people felt had not engaged properly with the community. The proposal to require a developer to pay for independent advice and an assessment on how any significant planning application will affect the local community, will strike a chord with my constituents and many communities across the country.
The proposal was considered by Leiston-cum-Sizewell town council on a cross-party basis. It was proposed by Councillor Ron Bailey, an independent green councillor who I am pleased to see is attending the debate today, together with Conservative Councillor Richard Geater and Socialist Councillor Bill Howard. There must be something in the sea air in Suffolk Coastal because no Liberal Democrats were elected to the council. Nevertheless, I will do my best to move the proposal along in this arena.
If small local councils such as Leiston-cum-Sizewell, or parish councils, or indeed local communities that do not have that level of local governance wish to have independent consultants and advice, it is often financially impossible for them to do so. Therefore, I am particularly attracted by the second proposal that funding for that should be provided by the applicant.
We are discussing large-scale applications, such as those for a superstore, in which applicants—particularly the big supermarkets—will spend millions of pounds on acquiring the land and bringing their proposals to fruition. Therefore, the cost of an independent assessment would be only a miniscule proportion of their capital outlay on a scheme.
Since Leiston-cum-Sizewell town council in Suffolk proposed the motion, it has attracted widespread support—support right across the country from the family of 1,500 town, parish and, indeed, Welsh community councils. As you will know, Mr Caton, since the disestablishment of the Church in Wales, there are no parish councils in Wales; there are community councils instead. The proposal struck a chord throughout the country, and Local Works has given me several examples of parish councils that have faced similar situations.
Waldringfield parish council, which also happens to be in Suffolk, faced an interesting proposal to build 3,000 extra houses in the neighbouring parish. Obviously, that would have a major impact on its own community. Closer to home for me, Tibberton parish council in Gloucestershire was sent an application so large that it was contained in three huge boxes of plans and documents. It had to have them delivered from the district council’s office, because all it had been sent was a CD. Presumably, it was not possible for it to print out all the documentation itself.
Durnford parish council in Wiltshire has lent its support, as have Southwold town council in Suffolk, Woodhouse parish council in Leicestershire and High Legh parish council in Cheshire. In fact, I could list quite a few more councils to show how widespread the support is for the imaginative proposal that originated from Suffolk.
What Leiston-cum-Sizewell council, all the parish councils and the parts of England where we do not have parish councils are looking for from the Minister today is another positive indication that the coalition Government take localism incredibly seriously. They have embarked on an imaginative series of proposals to reinvigorate local government. I know that the Minister is in the process of negotiating a city deal for my home city of Bristol. We may be having elected mayors across the country as well.
This is about the grass-roots level of local government, which matters more than anything else to local people. All of us, but particularly those of us who have worked our way up the system—I was a county councillor, district councillor and unitary councillor before becoming a Member of Parliament—know that planning applications can excite people in a way that we might not anticipate when the documentation first appears through our letter box or in our inbox. Communities care very deeply about local planning applications, whether they are for superstores, football stadiums, extensions to cricket grounds or a whole host of other large applications that I could name in my constituency.
This proposal, under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, puts power back into the hands of local people, into the hands of their local community representatives if they have them and, in the case of the cities where they do not, perhaps directly into the hands of residents associations, too. The Minister is a committed localist. I hope that he can make some favourable comments about the proposals that I have outlined today.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, and to have been present to hear what we now realise was the maiden speech of my hon. Friend Stephen Williams in an Adjournment debate that he had called. It was a very accomplished one, reflecting his own passionate commitment to localism, which the House has come to know about over the years. I congratulate him on securing the debate. I also congratulate Councillor Bailey, who has shown that it is possible for the resolution of a parish council or, as in this case, a town council to be debated in Parliament, too, so that the views of local people can go straight to a national debate and be considered in that way.
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the authors and midwives of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. It is indeed landmark legislation. Like him, I first encountered it when I was a candidate for this place. In fact, the morning after my selection as the Conservative candidate for Tunbridge Wells, which is now my constituency, I was canvassing on the doorstep and one of my constituents-to-be, Philip Clarkson Webb, said, “I have only one question for you. If you are elected, will you be supporting the Sustainable Communities Bill?” I did not know about the Bill at the time. I took the time to research it and was able to assure him that I would support it.
That was a great pleasure that I shared with my hon. Friend: we were both able to support the passage of the Bill that became the Sustainable Communities Act. I also join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Local Works, which was responsible for driving through successive Parliaments that Act of Parliament. It has had an influence beyond even what I think the original promoters and authors had in mind. I think it is fair to say that it was one of the principal sources of inspiration for what is now the Localism Act 2011, in that the central approach of the Sustainable Communities Bill was to give the right of initiative to local communities—first to local councils, but then to neighbourhoods below the level of local councils, in order to give them the right to challenge how things were done on their behalf, either by the layer of local government above them or, indeed, by central Government. That applies across the board. Hon. Members will be familiar with the rights that the Localism Act entrenches: the right to challenge and the right to list assets of community value, with an opportunity to bid for them.
However, nowhere is the influence more marked than in the planning system and the reforms that we have made, through the Localism Act, to the planning system in order to put local communities at the heart of the planning process. I am indebted to my hon. Friend John Howell, my Parliamentary
Private Secretary, who has given, over many years, a great deal of thought and commitment to the issue, which has resulted in the provisions that we have enacted.
I want to say a little about the provisions on planning in the Localism Act as they affect parish and town councils, because they constitute one of the principal ways in which the intention behind the Leiston-cum-Sizewell proposal already has the opportunity to be reflected in law. The first application is through neighbourhood planning. Many town and parish councils throughout the country have participated in the development of neighbourhood plans and parish plans, and put a great deal of effort and enthusiasm into drafting them. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West knows, they have had only advisory status. They have been there, usefully, to inform the decisions of district and borough councils on planning applications, but they have had no statutory force. We considered that that was wrong—that those who live in an area and who know their neighbourhood well and have a passion for it ought to be able to have their say and to shape their neighbourhood in the way that they feel will best reflect the interests of their community in future.
The Localism Act therefore introduces the statutory right to have a neighbourhood plan, which then becomes part of the development plan, against which planning applications are tested. The first test is whether a planning application conforms to the local plan. The neighbourhood plan, once adopted, becomes part of that. This is a revolution in the powers that neighbourhood forums or, in this case, town and parish councils have. I would encourage all town and parish councils throughout the country that have not embarked on the production of a neighbourhood plan to do so.
There has been a huge wave of enthusiasm for this. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Robert Neill and I were able to announce yesterday a fifth wave of what we call front-runners in neighbourhood planning. I am referring to town and parish councils and neighbourhood forums that are getting on with producing neighbourhood plans, even in advance of certain measures coming into force. We now have 223 neighbourhoods across the country that are actively engaged in producing neighbourhood plans, which will say in some detail what kind of development should be permitted, where it should be and what kind of character it should have. When combined with the right to a neighbourhood development order, that gives parishes, town councils and neighbourhoods the opportunity directly to confer planning permission on applications that clearly conform to local people’s wishes.
We have a plan-based system in this country, and all applications are judged against the development plan. It is right that the plan continues to be the basis for determining planning applications. In putting together the plan, however, every community across the country—whether at district, borough or neighbourhood level—will want, and is indeed obliged, to consider, the future prosperity of its area. The beauty of a plan-based system is that local knowledge can inform decisions about how an area can prosper in future and how it can house the people who want to live there. The examination of neighbourhood plans and local plans would test whether something was a reasonable response to the area’s future needs. It is absolutely right that local people are the first to make the decision, and that the content of the plans is not, as was previously the case, substantially directed by regional spatial strategies, which the Localism Act will abolish.
Neighbourhood planning therefore gives parish and town councils an important role. I am delighted to say that the National Association of Local Councils, which represents town and parish councils across the country, is one of a number of organisations that have been funded by my Department to assist parish and town councils that are interested in producing neighbourhood plans. That help is there, and it is already available to local councils.
In response to David Simpson, I mentioned the prospective abolition of regional spatial strategies, which, again, took power away from local people, and the consequence of that imposition was to alienate people from the planning system. One thing we know from this country and from the continent is that the more genuinely, the more substantially and the earlier we can involve the local community in plan making and in planning decisions, the better the outcome is in terms of design and serving the area’s needs, and the less contentious things are. If people feel that something is being done to them, rather than involving them in a participative way, they are likely to bridle at that imposition. Part of the point of taking powers to abolish regional spatial strategies was to involve people at a much earlier stage.
I want to make particular reference to a new power in the Localism Act that is germane to this issue: the requirement to have compulsory pre-application scrutiny for significant developments. The earlier a community is involved in a process, the better that is for everyone. Having a requirement to demonstrate to the community that it has had the chance to be involved and consulted before an application is made for a significant development maximises the chances that the application will go with the grain of what people want and need locally and will not simply be in defiance of it.
We have taken those powers. In terms of discharging the requirement to have pre-application scrutiny, parish and town councils are obviously bodies which it would be sensible for applicants to consult. If there is a requirement for pre-application scrutiny, it would be a strange way for applicants to proceed not to take the views of parish and town councils into account. We are therefore introducing—we will publish the regulations shortly—a big change in local people’s entitlement to be involved and to have their say in planning applications.
Parish and town councils are statutory consultees for all sorts of planning applications, and it would obviously be good practice—this goes completely with the grain of the reforms that we have made and continue to make—for applicants to engage constructively with them. It is always difficult to compel someone to appear in a particular place, but I would strongly encourage applicants to engage with, and respond to, reasonable requests from parish and town councils to meet. I say that not least because we often find in our lives as Members of Parliament that when we meet to talk about something, it is possible to find common ground on issues that seemed contentious. I certainly endorse and encourage the spirit of what my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West proposes on behalf of Leiston-cum-Sizewell in terms of the engagement between parish and town councils and applicants.
I welcome what the Minister has said, and particularly his strong expectation that applicants will engage with parish and town councils, or with local communities where such councils do not exist. If the experience is that applicants do not engage, however, will the Minister consider whether they should be required to do so in future?
We have set out a requirement that there will be compulsory pre-application scrutiny for major applications—my hon. Friend will agree that it is sensible to have a cut-off point so that not every application needs to involve that degree of required consultation, which is not desirable always and everywhere. We will shortly publish details of how we propose to interpret that provision through the regulations, and my hon. Friend will find that our proposals would make it clear to any applicant that the requirement to engage with communities properly, rather than superficially, is absolutely there.
Let me briefly make a point about the funding side of things. It is not the Government’s policy to compel developers or applicants to make contributions outside the usual means of paying for the scrutiny of planning applications, but it is clearly open to the developer—the applicant—and the town and parish council to have a voluntary arrangement that would assist with the kind of community engagement we all agree is desirable, not least on the part of applicants. The Localism Act—again reflecting the spirit of the Sustainable Communities Act—also provides that a meaningful proportion of the revenues from the community infrastructure levy will have to go directly to neighbourhoods, including town and parish councils, where there is one. The financial resources available to town and parish councils are therefore about to change substantially.
I hope I have been able to respond to my hon. Friend in a way that reassures him of our absolute commitment to continue with this important agenda. We are grateful to him for bringing Leiston-cum-Sizewell’s proposal to us, and the council will find that many of its aspirations are given practical effect through the proposals I have mentioned.
Question put and agreed to.
Sitting adjourned .