I am delighted to have the chance to speak in this debate and, in particular, to congratulate those on the Front Bench on their localism agenda, which is so important to this country and not least to Northamptonshire, the county I am proud to represent. Under the Labour Government, Northamptonshire’s regional spatial strategy forced development on to greenfield sites, with the unwelcome intrusion of large developments on the edges of villages, which members of the local community have been unable to resist. I certainly recognise the need for more housing, but the worst part of that approach has been the inability to keep Northamptonshire’s infrastructure in line with the growing population.
According to the Office for National Statistics, Northamptonshire was the second-fastest-growing county between 2004 and 2009. It was very much an area for growth, but the policing and health care settlements and the local government grant have lagged far behind the demographic growth. When I was out canvassing for the general election in 2010 people told me, for example, that they were eight months pregnant and still did not have a proper midwife because there simply were not enough midwives. Northampton general hospital is often on red alert because its services are so pressed. We really do have a backlog of infrastructure needs, so I thoroughly welcome, first, the desire to achieve more localism and, secondly, the desire for sustainable development, which means bringing alongside the infrastructure that is necessary.
I should like to make a few points about the concerns for my constituency specifically as a result of the mad rush for growth of the past 10 years. Northamptonshire is suffering from a grey area, because the regional spatial strategy has not yet gone and we do not have a coherent local development plan. My constituency has 92 parishes, and the prospect of trying to write 92 neighbourhood development plans within six months is a very tall order. We will need a period during which there can be no prospect of some developer free-for-all. It is no exaggeration to say that almost every green site in South Northamptonshire has some developer option on it. That is of real concern to my constituents.
The last thing we want is any pause in the Government introducing legislation that will give clarity to my constituents. Equally, however, we do not want something else that is happening now, I am afraid, where planners, particularly at appeal, are taking into account the NPPF while it is still under consultation. I very much regret that. In a recent appeal regarding a wind farm development, the inspector took into account these measures, which are still under consultation, in his considerations. We do not have a result yet, but I very much hope that a misinterpretation of the term “sustainable development” does not lead to a wind farm that should have been subject to other considerations.
Specifically on wind farms, I congratulate our Front-Bench team on inserting a material planning consideration regarding how windy an area is. It has always seemed to me complete madness that that did not matter, but it is very important in Northamptonshire because we are not a terribly windy county. You might think that we produce plenty of wind here in the Chamber, Mr Deputy Speaker, between the seven of us, but we are not a very good site for wind farms, so I am very glad to see that measure. Nevertheless, we really need to reinforce local communities’ ability to take the right decisions for their area.
There are three issues on which I urge the Government to focus for the sake of Northamptonshire and, indeed, the whole country. First, I would like them to focus on the definition of sustainable development to ensure that planners have to take into account not only current needs but any backlog of infrastructure requirements that have resulted from disastrous Labour policies. Secondly, we need to ensure that we have clarity between now and when our local development plans are in place and signed off. Thirdly, we need to defend our greenfield sites against development when plenty of brownfield sites remain. I urge the Front-Bench team to bear those issues closely in mind.
Let me finish by making two suggestions—I am not sure whether they have been discussed during the debate. A big problem that I have come across in South Northamptonshire is the time developers have for planning permission, and I wonder whether we could constrain that. First, there are an awful lot of permission sites that developers are sitting on, presumably waiting for the market to turn round. Secondly, there is the issue of developers building a few footings and then leaving a development for ages and ages. If we could constrain those practices, that would help considerably in building the homes that we certainly need.