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This debate concerns a serious situation in my constituency with regard to the future provision of housing. It exemplifies a conflict between existing structure plans and the yet-to-be-determined regional spatial strategy. It also exemplifies a dilemma because in the north and west of my constituency, which is part of the North Dorset district, the policies seem to be different from those in the eastern part of my constituency, in the East Dorset district.
In the east, the debate on the proposed regional spatial strategy seems to centre on eating up more of the green belt, whereas it appears that the existing policy framework in the north, and the development of what is today a series of vibrant market towns, is being frustrated by the Government office for the south-west and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
Planning, and the calling in of planning applications by the Secretary of State, is obviously a serious matter. It is not my purpose to discuss the merits of these particular applications. That has been performed according to the due democratic process, and if there is a public inquiry, they will be examined there. I want to examine what is behind the decisions to call in the applications, and more particularly the effect that that is having in my constituency and the implications for the future of housing provision there.
The Government office for the south-west has called in two planning applications that were submitted to North Dorset district council for the Secretary of State's own determination, which would follow a public local inquiry. The main reason given is that the proposal may conflict with national policies on important matters. The planning applications that I refer to are in the town of Shaftesbury, which was recently described by one property magazine as one of the 10 most desirable places to live in England. I do not know whether that was because the local Member of Parliament lives in the town, but I suspect that other factors were involved.
In that call-in, the inspector will consider the extent to which the proposed developments accord with RPG10, the regional planning guidance for the south-west; the extent to which they are consistent with the adopted Dorset, Poole and Bournemouth joint structure plan and the adopted North Dorset-wide local plan; and the extent to which the applications may prejudice the emerging regional spatial strategy and the consequences for the appropriate scale and distribution of housing development in North Dorset, including in Shaftesbury.
The two applications are for outline planning permission to develop land for residential and mixed-use purposes. A total of 190 units of affordable housing would be offered in these schemes. They will also offer many community and transport facilities, a cycle-way, pedestrian infrastructure and the expansion of education facilities. The schemes are consistent with the existing local plan and the structure plan and have already been tested by public inquiry.
North Dorset faces serious problems with the decline in its traditional farming economy. Younger people are leaving the area and there is a growing and large affordability gap for the indigenous population who want to live locally. House prices are rising fast and all the market towns in North Dorset require regeneration.
The call-in raises important questions and serious matters of principle. The case has been called in ahead of the regional spatial strategy—in other words, in advance of any approved regional policy. The regional economic strategy, which has been approved, states that affordable housing is one of the key elements in building the local economy. The provisions made by the Housing Corporation and the district's own housing needs survey show that the applications are consistent with the predictions of need—in fact, they fall far short of the needs identified for affordable housing.
The policy of the regional spatial strategy and Government policy in RPG10 are clear that the main focus of development should be on the principal urban areas, with some growth in other designated centres for growth. Development outside those areas should be smaller scale to meet local needs. Unfortunately, market towns in North Dorset have not been designated as areas for growth; it is self-evident, however, that the market towns need a certain amount of growth to remain sustainable. In the rural White Paper, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs acknowledges that towns in rural, coastal and coalfield regions have serious economic difficulties with the loss of younger people, low wages and heavy dependency on primary industries such as agriculture, which causes social and economic difficulties where there is a large change in those industries. The White Paper sees market towns as a focus for growth in areas that need regeneration.
North Dorset district council has successfully set up community planning partnerships to assist the regeneration of the market towns. The partnerships have ensured a high degree of local involvement with and support for the development schemes. The White Paper states:
"We want people to be able to live in the communities where they grew up. In the South West there is a severe shortage of affordable housing for local people. We are doubling the Housing Corporation rural programme to provide 3,000 homes a year nationally in small rural settlements and we will provide more affordable homes as part of mixed developments in market towns and villages."
The district council estimates that about 600 affordable homes are needed each year to meet the needs of the area and wants to focus development in its market towns. That is in line with the spirit of Government policy, but the current mismatch of the regional spatial strategy, the rural White Paper and the regional economic strategy leave Dorset people the losers.
The letter that the Government office for the south-west sent to my district council on
"To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he will make a statement about his policy on calling in planning applications under section 77 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990."
The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central replied on behalf of the Secretary of State, saying:
"My right hon. Friend's general approach, like that of previous Secretaries of State, is not to interfere with the jurisdiction of local planning authorities unless it is necessary to do so. Parliament has entrusted them with responsibility for day-to-day planning control in their areas. It is right that, in general, they should be free to carry out their duties responsibly, with the minimum of interference.
There will be occasions, however, when my right hon. Friend may consider it necessary to call in the planning application to determine himself, instead of leaving the decision to the local planning authority.
His policy is to be very selective about calling in planning applications. He will, in general, only take this step if planning issues of more than local importance are involved. Such cases may include, for example, those which, in his opinion:
may conflict with national policies on important matters"—[Hansard, 16 June 1999; Vol. 138, c. 333.]
At the moment, there is not a national policy in that area. Some cases may, according to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central, have significant effects beyond their immediate locality, but there is no clear indication that that is so. Some cases may give rise to substantial regional or national controversy, but I believe that the only national controversy is the one that I am raising in the House tonight. According to the right hon. Gentleman, some cases may raise significant architectural urban design issues—that is clearly not the case in North Dorset—or may involve the interests of national security or of foreign Governments.
The application has been called in. I quote again from the letter:
"On the information so far available to the First Secretary of State the following are matters which he particularly wishes to be informed about . . . :
(i) the extent to which the proposed developments are in accordance with regional planning guidance for the south west (RPG 10), including guidance on rural areas . . .
(ii) the extent to which the proposed developments are consistent with policy advice in the adopted (2000) Dorset, Poole and Bournemouth Joint Structure Plan and the adopted North Dorset District-Wide Local Plan . . .
(iii) the extent to which the applications may prejudice the emerging Regional Spatial Strategy . . . and the consequences for the appropriate scale and distribution of housing development in North Dorset including Shaftesbury".
The key factor is the possibility that the application may prejudice the emerging regional spatial strategy. It is only emerging—it has not yet been agreed. Does that mean that we have to stop? In my constituency, these towns need development. We are not talking about areas that have been ignored. The South West of England Regional Development Agency published a document entitled "Raising the Game" in which it looked at key economic performance indicators for those areas, including the market towns in my constituency. The percentage of the working-age population with NVQ level 4 qualifications and above is the highest in the south-west region at 30.5 per cent. The percentage of people with NVQ level 3 qualifications and above is 54.7 per cent.—more than half the population—compared with the national average of 45 per cent.
The average employment rate in my constituency is one of the highest in the area at 82.5 per cent., compared with the national average of less than 75.5 per cent. It is a vibrant economic area, but it desperately needs affordable housing. The provision of such housing is the highest priority in the Dorset community strategy, which has been endorsed by the Dorset strategic partnership that brings together all the local authorities in the country. The sustainability of the market towns is dependent on a certain amount of development through which districts can lever in affordable housing and economic development. The Government are calling for a concerted effort from local authorities to boost the development of housing to meet the urgent need for more dwellings, so it is ironic that the Secretary of State, via the Government office, has called in those planning applications in North Dorset that, together, would provide about 670 dwellings, of which 180 would be affordable homes.
The sites in question provide the bulk of a major allocation for the town of Shaftesbury, as proposed in the North Dorset local plan, which was adopted in 2003. The strategy behind that plan and the reason for the allocation were scrutinised in the local plan inquiry in 1999. In reaching his conclusions, the local plan inspector noted that he had considered the objections made in the light of PPG3 on housing, which was published in March 2000 while he was writing his report on the objections to the local plan. The plan conformed with the adopted structure plan and regional planning guidance to 2011. Although the Government office raised concerns about the allocation at the modification stage, it did not pursue them or prevent adoption of the plan.
In accordance with Government guidance, the prospective developers of the Shaftesbury site undertook a major consultation using resources provided by the Prince's Foundation to hold a three stage "Enquiry by Design" event, which involved the local community and a wide range of stakeholders.
Planning applications were submitted alongside a detailed environmental impact assessment, and the applications were again subject to major public consultation and detailed scrutiny. The applications were supported by the town council, the local community partnership and, most importantly, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, as the site is surrounded by the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire area of outstanding natural beauty and is clearly visible from a significant National Trust property at Melbury Beacon.
Together, the applications will contribute not only the 180 new affordable dwellings, but a new bus service to the development, new community facilities in the form of a community hall, open space and more allotments, and major financial contributions to a number of other facilities in the town that were required under the council's planning obligations. Without the contributions that the development will make, many of these facilities may founder, as the development comprises more than half of all the development proposed in the town up to 2011.
I must ask the Minister to rescind the call-in on the Shaftesbury applications. I urge him to understand the grave concerns about the seemingly heavy-handed approach of the Government office for the south-west and the Deputy Prime Minister towards development in rural areas. As least until there is more certainty regarding the regional spatial strategy, I ask the Minister to adopt a more lenient approach to development in districts such as North Dorset.