[Relevant Documents: Oral and written evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, on Sustainable Development in the National Planning Policy Framework, HC 1480; the Eighth Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, on The National Planning Policy Framework, HC 1526, and the Government response, Cm 8322 .]
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of the National Planning Policy Framework.
As I was saying on Tuesday evening, Madam Deputy Speaker—[ Laughter. ] Much as I enjoyed the debate that we began on Tuesday, I think that it would try the patience of the House if I repeated my speech, so I will take that as being on the record.
May I take the opportunity to say two things in opening this part of the debate? First, I convey to the shadow Secretary of State the congratulations of the whole House. He is not with us today because he is attending the wedding of his son. I am sure that we are all united in sending him our congratulations.
Secondly, I will mention some less happy news, since this is a debate that concerns local government. The sad news was conveyed to us this morning that the leader of Tonbridge and Malling council, Councillor Mark Worrall OBE, died in an untimely way this morning. He was an inspirational, effective and brilliant leader of local government. The whole of local government in Britain will miss his wise counsel. I am sure that all Members of the House will join me in paying condolences to his family. Sadly for us in Kent, that news follows the recent death of county councillor Kevin Lynes. Kent has lost two titans of local government.
To return to the matter of planning policy, I am happy to conclude my remarks and to allow Roberta Blackman-Woods, at long last, to share her views with us.
It is unfortunate that the debate on the national planning policy framework was squeezed by parliamentary business on Tuesday and is being squeezed again today. A number of Members who wished to be in the Chamber to contribute to this debate have not been able to make it because of the short notice. Although I am grateful that the Government found time to hold this debate in the House, two hours is not sufficient to do justice to this major change in planning policy. That should be noted.
On Tuesday night, the Minister sought to sell the NPPF in his usual erudite way. However, surely even he does not believe that everything is rosy in the NPPF garden. A number of challenges remain for the planning system, despite the many amendments to the draft framework. It is hardly surprising that changes were made, given the huge outcry following its publication from a range of individuals and organisations, such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Town and Country Planning Association and the National Trust. Like us, those organisations are all concerned with the quality of our built environment and the need to protect our countryside. They fought an outstanding campaign to have important changes made to the draft, and we acknowledge that the Minister listened to the concerns and that the final document was an improvement on the ill-thought-through first version.
Despite the changes, however, the question today is whether the NPPF, as a blueprint for planning policy, is truly fit for purpose. The answer is definitely not. I will outline for the Minister some weaknesses that remain in the document. Given the immense criticism of his first attempt, the significant redrafting that followed and the remaining weaknesses, it is clear that the process of reform, taken as a whole, was shambolic even by the Government’s standards of incompetence.
First, the Minister has made much of strengthening the definition of sustainable development, and indeed the more comprehensive definition that we and many others argued for has now been incorporated in the NPPF along with five principles of sustainable development. However, it is not clear how local authorities will apply that definition in practice when they determine planning applications. Paragraphs 8 and 10 of the NPPF are rather woolly, even by the Minister’s standards.
Secondly, much has also been made of the strengthening in the final version of the requirement for development to happen on brownfield land first. Since its publication, however, many have described the assurances on the subject as “paper-thin”. The NPPF only expects authorities to “encourage” development on brownfield land first. That is significantly weaker than the Labour policy of development being prioritised on brownfield sites. Nor is it clear what will happen if authorities do not encourage the development of brownfield land first, or whether they will have to apply any sequential tests or produce any evidence in that regard.
Thirdly, the existence of transitional arrangements is welcome, but two major issues remain. The first is that most commentators do not consider one year long enough for local authorities to get their plans up to speed. The second is that the announcement on guidance has created more of the unwelcome confusion that has characterised the whole review of planning policy. The Minister announced that all guidance in planning policy guidance notes and planning policy statements was being abolished, then he said it was not, and now he says it is being reviewed. Which is it? I would appreciate an answer from him. Further clarity on the status of the guidance would be most welcome.
Now for the key question that the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government posed in its excellent report on the NPPF. I am very pleased that my hon. Friend Mr Betts, the Chair of the Committee, is in the Chamber. That question was whether the brevity of the NPPF had created greater clarity. The Minister must accept that the answer of planners is a resounding no. A recent survey of town planners revealed that 86% believed the NPPF would lead to more appeals because of the lack of certainty in the planning system and the vagueness of much of its language. No wonder that many are calling it a planning lawyer’s dream.
Perhaps the hon. Lady will come on to this, but the planning system is in place not just for planners but for the people and residents. I am sorry that I was late for the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I was trying to read some planning policy guidance and having difficulty with some of the language in it. Having simple language in a 52-page document will allow residents of all our constituencies to understand the planning system in much more detail than under the old, complicated system, so that they can make their case.
The hon. Lady is right that the guidance must be interpreted by local communities as well as planners. We are saying that brevity should have led to clear language, but it has often led to obscure language, which will make it equally difficult for local communities and planners to argue a clear case.
Will the hon. Lady give examples of that obscure language? One thing that struck me and the parish councils to which I have spoken is the simple, clear and normal English language used in the document. They applaud that because it is in stark contrast to some of the Dickensian language used in most planning and other legislation in the past.
Many commentators have written about how vague a lot of the language in the NPPF is and we have rehearsed it many times in previous discussions. My point is that far from increasing the power of communities, which has been much championed by the Minister, the NPPF could lead to even more decisions being made by the Planning Inspectorate, which is removed from local communities.
On local communities, the principle of encouraging more neighbourhood planning is one that all hon. Members share. The Minister was right on Tuesday to point out that I am very much in support of neighbourhood planning—I am encouraging local groups in Durham to get involved—but he should acknowledge that neighbourhood planning is not new, because parish councils have been undertaking it for a number of years. Indeed, I have been involved in drawing up local plans in Durham with local groups for many years.
I am heartened by the hon. Lady’s and the Labour party’s enthusiasm for neighbourhood planning and for encouraging councils and communities to take it on. Will she therefore send a message to Labour-controlled Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council and ask her Labour councillors to engage with the local community in Nuneaton and allow it to take up neighbourhood planning?
The hon. Gentleman has made that plea very well himself.
Neighbourhood planning is something that all hon. Members support, but if the Minister wills the end, he must also will the means. Neighbourhood planning is labour intensive, and, if undertaken correctly, will place considerable demands on local authorities, as Mr Jones pointed out. If neighbourhood planning is to work beyond affluent neighbourhoods, it will need to be properly supported. What plans does the Minister have to resource local authorities and other organisations such as Locality and Planning Aid in the long term to make neighbourhood planning a reality in all communities, including disadvantaged ones?
Are we going to be consistent? All hon. Members want genuine, positive neighbourhood engagement in planning, but the trouble is that historically, too often, such engagement has been dressed up nimbyism. The worst case of dressed up nimbyism that I know of concerns Conservative councillors on Kirklees council in Huddersfield, who switch and swap all over the place only for political advantage, not for the good of the community or good planning.
I hope the local community in my hon. Friend’s constituency has heard that point on Conservative councillors.
I am making a plea to the Minister to ensure that neighbourhood planning can be a reality in all areas and for all communities.
Lastly, I come to the duty to co-operate. As the Minister will be well aware, there is growing concern that England does not have a national spatial plan, and that planning beyond the local authority level will be very difficult. Yet strategic issues, such as housing, transport, waste and energy, often need to be taken beyond that level. The Minister will claim that the duty to co-operate addresses this issue, but it is totally unclear what will happen if the co-operation fails or never takes place.
When taken together, all of the above shows that despite the changes made to the NPPF there are still a number of concerns—and the above list is by no means exhaustive. I could continue with examples, such as how, despite the Minister’s reinstatement of Labour’s successful “town centre first” policy, the lack of guidance continues, or the changes to the assessment of housing need, for which the definition has been improved but the method of implementation is again absent.
We will continue to monitor what is happening in practice. If the NPPF is stalling the growth in jobs and housing that we so desperately need, and failing to protect the environment that we all love, we will say so. Cutting pages from our planning guidance is no substitute for a proper economic policy focused on growth, and that is what we need the NPPF to deliver.
Planning is, quite rightly, a very sensitive issue. It is about conserving and improving our existing habitat. It is about preparation for the challenges and demands of an increasing population. It requires measured and well balanced consideration, both of what currently exists and of what is required for the future. But it is also about preservation and the delicate matter of safeguards. I believe that the national planning policy framework delivers on all of those important considerations
There is no doubt that the planning system needed simplifying and making more accessible, so we have moved away from a cumbersome, bureaucratic mountain of guidance, some 1,300 pages in total, to a leaner, more flexible and clearer document of some 50 pages. But it was essential that in doing so, the long-term sustainability of our planning system was not sacrificed, and that is why I am delighted that, from root to branch, the central thread running throughout the NPPF is the doctrine of sustainable development, enshrining at the heart of our planning system the principle that growth must never be achieved at the expense of future generations.
Unlike the shadow Minister, I commend the manner in which the Government’s consultation on the draft framework was conducted. The most telling tale is that those organisations that did express concerns about the draft framework, including the National Trust, English Heritage, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the long list of organisations name-checked by the Minister on Tuesday evening, have all welcomed the changes that have been incorporated into the final framework. Dame Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust said:
“All these changes improve the document and give it a better tone and balance”.
One of the most contentious issues of the planning system in my own constituency, and I am sure in the constituencies of a great many right hon. and hon. Members, is that of green belt protection. As the NPPF explicitly states, the Government attach great importance to green belts, the essential characteristics of which are their openness and their permanence. I represent a small city enclosed by green belt, and this commitment by the Government is extremely welcome news for many of my constituents. While green belts have their own character, they also play an essential role in preserving the special character of towns and cities across the country, including my own city of Chester. Green belts also represent a necessary check on unrestricted urban sprawl.
Will my hon. Friend join me in urging councils that are currently consulting on potentially adding sites that are in the green belt to their local plan to stop doing so now that they have seen the final guidance? They should think, “We are not going to change the green belt because we don’t need to. Let’s look at brownfield sites first.”
I have huge sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point of view. Green belts are there to prevent not only urban sprawl but the merging of neighbouring towns. They provide much-needed safeguards to protect the countryside from encroachment and indirectly assist in urban regeneration by encouraging the use of brownfield sites. The NPPF makes it clear that
“inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.”
I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said. On getting the balance right, which is part of his theme, of course developers have the right to appeal when they believe that a decision has been wrongly taken. Does he agree that it would be welcome if the Government were to consider whether, in certain circumstances, there might be an opportunity for a third-party right of appeal against developments causing concern within local communities?
Of course they currently have a right of appeal, but it is via judicial review, which can be difficult and very expensive. Nevertheless, that right is there. I personally think we have the right balance now, but it is something we need to consider.
In addition to green belts, the fundamental importance that the framework places on all green spaces is extremely reassuring. I particularly welcome paragraphs 73 and 74, which enshrine in the planning system the intrinsic value of open spaces and playing fields. The document reads:
“Access to high quality open spaces and opportunities for sport and recreation can make an important contribution to the health and well-being of communities.”
The commitment in the framework that all open spaces lost to development must be replaced by “equivalent or better provision” will be received warmly by everyone in this country, young and old, who recognises the importance of these spaces for our local communities.
Furthermore, the introduction in paragraphs 76 to 78 of the new local green space designations adds even greater weight to the importance of the local neighbourhood plans introduced under the Localism Act 2011. The NPPF is unequivocal in its defence of green spaces and will ensure they are there to be enjoyed for generations to come.
Representing a city steeped in history, I am obviously concerned to ensure that the importance of heritage is recognised in the planning system. Heritage should be seen not as a barrier to growth but as an intrinsic part of it.
I will stick to the NPPF debate, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
In Chester, we do not insist on the preservation of our Roman city walls, our Roman amphitheatre, our mediaeval roads or our Georgian townhouses simply because they are old. We insist on their protection because they are what make Chester Chester. Planning is much more than a tool to cater for short-term demand. It must always consider the long-term consequences. Our heritage and historic environment are unique and irreplaceable, so I welcome the statement in the NPPF that
“Local planning authorities should set out in their Local Plan a positive strategy for the conservation and enjoyment of the historic environment”.
Also, when determining planning applications, developers and local authorities will have responsibilities to ensure that the development does not adversely impact on heritage assets or their setting. That protection will be particularly welcome in Chester, where almost every development will have an impact on our unique historic environment. The Minister and his colleagues have worked closely with English Heritage throughout the formation of the framework, and I am delighted with the importance that it places on conservation and the enjoyment of our nation’s heritage.
I welcome the importance the framework places on the need to provide quality homes. Building homes is vital to the sustainability of our country, but of equal, if not greater, importance is the type of home we build. As the Minister wrote in the forward to the NPPF,
“confidence in development itself has been eroded by the too frequent experience of mediocrity”.
All too often, both in the private and the social housing sectors, the temptation has been to cram as many homes as possible into as small a space as possible. Blocks of flats have come to symbolise housing development in Chester and, I am sure, in many other parts of the country, but that is not what people want or need. What is required and wanted are good quality family homes, yet these are the types of properties in least supply.
The statement in the NPPF that local authorities should objectively assess the need for market and affordable housing in the housing market is hugely significant. However, that is one area of the framework that could be difficult for the Minister and his Department to monitor. I encourage him to keep his sights keenly focused on the housing developments that local authorities are providing, to ensure that the housing needs of any particular area are being assessed and subsequently acted on.
As I have said, planning is a sensitive issue. The national planning policy framework lays the foundations for sustainability, growth, protection and preservation, but most importantly, it provides clarity. The NPPF is an excellent document. The consultation on which the final document was based was carried out to a standard to which all consultations should aspire. The Minister is to be congratulated, and the framework should be welcomed by all.
First, I want to note the very unsatisfactory nature of the debate on this important issue. Our debate has taken place in two bits at the end of two days, and the Government’s business managers could have found more time for it over the past few weeks. I know that the Minister was also keen to have the debate.
On behalf of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, I would like to express our thanks to the Minister for the process that he went through, for informing the Select Committee at an early stage of his intention to produce a draft national planning policy framework, for inviting the Committee to look at the proposals and for listening carefully to our views and accepting in full or in part 30 of our 35 recommendations. I suppose we could look at this in two ways: either the Select Committee’s report was excellent, or the draft document was somewhat flawed. Perhaps it was a bit of both. I do not want to be churlish, however. There have been distinct improvements, which we welcome, particularly in relation to the definition of sustainable development.
I also want to thank the Chair of the Environmental Audit Select Committee, my hon. Friend Joan Walley, for the work that her Committee did, and for ensuring that the presumption in favour of sustainable development was set into the framework of the local plan, because the local plan must be at the heart of any plan-led system. There are some concerns about how far the issue of brownfield priority was taken, but the test will be in the practical application of the framework. Another welcome measure is the incorporation of offices and other development, as well as retail, into the sequential test to protect district, town and city centres. Those and other changes in the final document are very welcome.
I do not have time to go through all the points in the document, as our time is constrained and other Members want to speak, but I shall draw out one or two areas in which things could go wrong, or that are in need of clarification or perhaps further review at some stage. That is not to say that there are not other good things in the document, but I want to draw out the issues that need further testing or scrutiny.
The test of this document is not whether it is better than the first draft but whether it is better than the existing guidance that has been in operation up to now. The test is also whether it delivers better planning for communities and individuals, and for developers as well, because they are important in creating homes and jobs. What test do the Government want to apply to judge the success of the system? Is it a requirement to meet the Housing Minister’s target to build more housing in this country than we were building before the recession? Is it a requirement to ensure that we develop enough renewable energy projects to hit our climate change targets? I assume that those are the Government’s objectives. However, during our discussions on this matter, in the debate on the initial draft and in the comments on the Minister’s statement, an awful lot of Members on the Government Benches seemed to be saying, “We want a planning system that stops development in our areas.” I just worry that there might be some conflict—
Well, we have seen a lot of letters to newspapers saying, “Please stop all these wind turbines being put up”—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I got an immediate response to that one. How, in the end, does a planning system relate all the individual local decisions and wishes of local communities to the Government’s national targets to deal with climate change and house the people of this country?
As a former Member of the European Parliament I can remember the directive that we passed, but it does not tell a country how to achieve its renewable energy targets by specifying which sectors it should promote; it simply sets a target, and there is an implication to hit it. Allowing local people to choose which types of renewable energy they would like to see in their local community would bring on more renewable energy projects, not fewer.
In the end, I am a committed localist. I believe in consultation and taking account of the wishes of local communities. All localists—not just Ministers—face a challenge: if the sum total of local decisions does not add up to the national requirements on issues such as climate change or the number of homes, what should the Government do about it?
The hon. Gentleman poses a very difficult question. He knows that it is almost intractable, and I know that Ministers have been wrestling with it—when his party was in government, as well as now. In Cornwall, for example, the housing stock has more than doubled in the last 40 years, yet the housing problems of local people have become significantly worse. It is not that the locals in that area are nimbys, as growth has been faster there than almost anywhere else in the country; the problem has been that it has been the wrong type of housing, which has not met housing need. We thus need the power of local people to determine the kind of housing that is necessary, not simply to meet a number target.
I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s point. He has a long history of arguing for more of the right sort of housing for his community; I would not accuse him of nimbyism at all. There is, however, an issue for the Government to think about.
It is helpful that the Minister has kept in place the technical guidance about the assessment of housing need, so that there is a consistency up and down the country. It would also be helpful if he could write to hon. Members, and place his response in the Library, to explain exactly what technical guidance has been left in place to date, what his plans are to review it, in conjunction with various professional bodies and the Local Government Association, and what the time scale for the process will be. It was an important decision, as I say, to leave the technical guidance in place, and it would be helpful to know more about what is going on with respect to it.
Although the Government have not gone quite as far as the Select Committee wanted, I welcome the fact that local authorities will have to come forward yearly to show in their monitoring reports what they are doing about the important duty to co-operate. There will be challenges for authorities that cannot meet their housing need because of land constraints, as they will need neighbouring authorities to take house building on to meet housing needs. Without proper co-operation between those authorities and in the absence of the top-down targets from the regional spatial strategies, whose removal I know Government Members welcome, some areas are going to have real problems meeting housing needs in a constructive and co-ordinated way.
Ministers and Government Members need to accept that, however much they welcome the changes they have brought in, any change in the planning system will almost certainly lead to uncertainty and cause an initial slowdown in decision making. That is almost inevitable, so we should not be surprised if things do not go smoothly at first. Almost certainly, too, there will be unintended consequences from what they are putting forward. There will be misreading of the wording; inspectors will come to decisions on appeal that do not conform with the Minister’s aspirations; judicial reviews will reach different conclusions from those Ministers, local MPs or local councils might want. At some point, the Minister will have to put in place a review system and perhaps bring in some changes, simply to take account in practice of those sorts of issues. This is a technical issue, but it could be crucial to how the system works. In the end, how it works in practice rather than what it says on a piece of paper is what will count.
I welcome the idea of having transitional arrangements, and it is good that the Minister agreed them with the Local Government Association. That is very positive. Let us look at some of these transitional arrangements. For example:
“For 12 months from the day of publication, decision-takers may continue to give full weight to relevant policies adopted since 2004 even if there is a limited degree of conflict with this Framework.”
What does a “limited degree of conflict” mean? There is an awful lot of room for an awful lot of lawyers to argue about that and make quite a bit of money. In the next paragraph, it states that
“after this 12-month period, due weight should be given to relevant policies and existing plans according to their degree of consistency with this framework”.
What does “degree of consistency” with the framework mean? Ministers may think they know what it means, but lawyers may have a different view and two lawyers may have two different views, and that can lead to an awful lot of expense, delay and, perhaps, the wrong decisions.
I will, but for the last time, because I know that other Members want to contribute.
I stand corrected on that point.
The fact that some of the wording is open to interpretation may cause real problems. It may mean that, ultimately, that the wishes of local communities are not adhered to.
Most of the complaints made in evidence to the Select Committee about the planning system were not about guidance and policy, but about process relating to individual applications. I do, however, have a lot of sympathy with the Government in regard to the slow pace at which local plans have been put in place. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 resulted from the fact that local authorities were not adopting unitary development plans quickly enough. We now know that local plans are not in place in about half the authorities concerned.
How can we change that for the future? The Minister has gone some way towards accepting our proposal. We have talked about the “light touch review”. If local plans are to be at the heart of the process, it is ridiculous that we should be dealing with plans many of which are 20 years old. That is not acceptable. We must find a way of bringing those plans up to date more rapidly. I do not know whether the system of local development frameworks, strategies and site allocation plans is too complicated to provide the necessary flexibility, but the Select Committee may wish to return to the issue, and the Government may wish to work along with us in exploring the technical issues further.
Everyone is in favour of neighbourhood plans, but I am worried about the resource implications. Such plans will not feature in poorer areas with fewer resources. It also worries me slightly that people see them as a way of stopping development. Apparently they must be consistent and
“conform to the strategic priorities within the Local Plan.”
What exactly does that mean? I think that it provides more room for legal argument.
In the end, what is important is not what the NPPF actually says, but how that is interpreted and what happens on the ground. At some point the Government will have to explain, in their terms, what a successful planning system will achieve, and how they will monitor it in order to display that success in the future.
Order. This is a very short debate, and I want to accommodate as many speakers as I possibly can. I know that it is not ideal, but I am going to introduce a four-minute limit, with the usual penalty time of one minute for each of the first two interventions. The winding-up speeches will begin at 5.40 pm.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to a debate on the future of planning policy, which is a topic of great interest in my constituency. I am sure that I am not alone in having received many representations on the draft NPPF, but, coinciding as it did with the publication of the borough council's core strategy, it has been of particular interest in Romsey and Southampton North, and especially to residents of the market town of Romsey and the surrounding villages.
In many respects, Romsey and Southampton North could be described as a microcosm of the whole country, exhibiting both the benefits and the problems associated with rural, urban and suburban dwelling. Nothing demonstrates those competing dynamics better than planning policy. I assure the Minister that the revised NPPF has allayed many of the concerns of Romsey residents, and it is a vast improvement on the consultation draft. However, it leaves some questions unanswered. I hope—in the spirit of constructive debate—-to present the perspective of a diverse and mixed constituency.
The shift in the Government’s approach to planning since 2010 is welcome. It is now a case of Government doing something for local communities rather than to them. The revision clearly shows that the Government have listened. Of course, the balancing act between the competing desires to protect the countryside and, at the same time, to make possible appropriate and sustainable development is the devil's own job, and I have considerable sympathy for the Minister and his team. Twelve years as a borough councillor taught me that a simplistic position on planning is always ill advised, and that polarised debates do little to help. On one hand, we must protect our natural environment; on the other, we must make possible development that will provide housing and jobs.
In the context of the March revision, I welcome the retention of the clauses that seek to protect the green belt and other designated landscapes. However, we have a small problem in what is arguably one of the most beautiful counties in the land, Hampshire. There is very little green belt there, and the green belt that does exist is designed to protect the New Forest from the spread of the conurbation of Bournemouth, which is of course in an entirely different county. Many of my constituents believe that Hampshire has a great deal of green belt, but it simply does not; in fact, it has almost none. We would like an increase in our green belt.
I therefore have some major concerns about land designation. How can we make it easier to establish green belt, to prevent the coalescence of settlements and to make sure our cities, towns and villages retain their individual characters? I am an unashamed fan of the green belt, so I am disappointed that paragraph 82 of the framework states that the “general extent” of the green belt is already established. The conditions under which new green belt can be designated are exceptionally restrictive, and therefore the ability of local communities to protect their boundaries and identity in that way is undermined. I am keen to hear why the Government’s default position seems to be against the creation of more green belt. I can assure the Minister that on the edges of Southampton, and in particular from the village of Nursling, there is a clear call for additional green belt.
I want to say a few words about “ordinary countryside”. I assure the Minister that, especially in Test valley, there is no such thing as “ordinary countryside”; it is all quite extraordinary. I am pleased that the intrinsic value of the countryside is being recognised in the revision, but I urge the Minister to make sure that there is a clear description of how it is to be valued so that those residents who live in beautiful parts of the Test valley can be sure that the area will be protected for its diversity and landscape.
Finally, I assure the Opposition that in Southampton there has been massive enthusiasm for the production of neighbourhood plans, and the people there think that it is not only the chocolate-box villages of the Test valley that will benefit.
Insufficient time is available to us to debate this subject. The Government business managers have failed to provide enough time to discuss the NPPF. I regret that our deliberations on the detailed work that has been done in at least two Select Committees is being so rushed, and that raises further issues about how today’s statement will be followed up.
On sustainable development, the Environmental Audit Committee looked into the question of what will be the parliamentary process in following up on the new revised 50-page draft of the NPPF. Will the Minister tell us what sort of scrutiny he envisages? I, for one, was very disappointed that we did not receive early warning of what was in the statement when it first came before the House. It would be very helpful if the Government would say how future proposals will be scrutinised by Members in both the Chamber and Select Committees.
One of the key problems in the NPPF is that the Chancellor talks about sustainable economic development, but that is different from sustainable development in terms of planning. The view tends to be that if there is a business or future investment in three or four years, then that is sustainable development. However, we are looking at how we can embed environmental issues and issues of social justice into the future of the entire green economy. That is an important point in respect of the NPPF.
It is equally important that the Government should, in their cross-cutting agenda at Cabinet level, look not only at what the Treasury is doing, but at how the Green Book initiative is influencing national infrastructure investment and how that then relates to planning at the local level. Such matters have not been properly addressed.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr Betts for giving the Environmental Audit Committee the opportunity to look at these issues in detail. We were restricting ourselves to looking at the sustainable aspects of this topic. Our report—published in October 2011, and included in the Communities and Local Government Committee report—looked at what we mean by sustainable development and how that definition could be tightened in the NPPF. We felt that if we could do that, it would help to address all the other concerns from around the country—from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the National Trust and other organisations—about how we link things to sustainable development.
We made various recommendations, which the Government have taken on board to some extent, although the proof of that will be in whether they really have done that and how that pans out in planning decisions around the country. One issue we are concerned about is resources. We asked the Government to set out what resources they felt local planning authorities needed if they were to be truly able to come up with a local plan that got people collaborating, across business, civil society, local councils and everything else, to look at the long-term future of what was needed. However, I do not have the time now to talk in detail about all the issues that were raised.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. Like many hon. Members, I am sure, I spent a good number of years as a councillor, and planning occupied most of my time. Much of that was because of the top-down approach, which local residents felt was always going against them and their communities. I sat on a planning committee and sometimes we felt powerless, so it was no wonder that our residents felt that way.
When I think of how my constituency has changed over the years, it is really quite staggering. The expanding population and the desirability of the location make it an attractive proposition, coupled with the fact that we have a lot of former factories and mill sites that have closed, and which now present us with a host of new brownfield sites. The old companies in Guiseley, Menston, Farsley and Pudsey have all gone and the sites have been turned into residential developments, which has put huge strain on local infrastructure. I remember as a councillor warning that we would run out of school places and being reassured by the education department that it was fine and that there were plenty, but lo and behold, three years later the department came and said, “Councillor, we’ve got a problem—we haven’t got any school places left.” Similarly, GP practices were struggling, but the greatest contention was caused by traffic. The number of new developments in the area resulted in congestion on our roads and the trains serving the constituency being absolutely packed at peak times.
All those factors contributed to local people’s resentment towards the planning system. Too many employment sites were lost to residential developments. In addition, the dreadful regional spatial strategy housing targets put real pressure on our communities. People felt powerless. They had no say in the future of their area, and they were baffled by the complex guidance put before them.
I welcome the NPPF, although when I first saw it I thought it would put me on a collision course with the Minister. However, my right hon. Friend has been true to his word: he has listened to the concerns that many of us have and he has changed the NPPF. That must be welcomed. However, there are a few questions I want to ask.
I have a large residents group in my constituency, Wharfedale and Airedale Review Development, which works tirelessly on development. WARD is keen to take part in creating the neighbourhood plan, because we do not have parish councils in all our towns. I would like to know where we are going to find the money to fund those plans, because although there is interest in them, there is concern about where the money will come from.
There are other improvements to the NPPF—for example, housing targets can now be set by local councils, which is an important development. Even so, we have massive challenges ahead of us. We need to build more houses for local families who want to stay in the areas that their families live in, so we face a difficult balancing act., because if we are not careful, the result could be further urban sprawl. The environment around my constituency is incredibly important; it creates a nice green barrier between Leeds and Bradford, and I would hate to see it lost. However, it is not yet clear to me how the NPPF will help those communities to prepare for the infrastructure that is needed for all these houses, or how we are going to protect green-belt land when we do not have any brownfield sites left. How do we marry those things up? I have yet to see an answer to that.
This week, we heard the extraordinary statistic that only 56 affordable homes had been built in the entirety of London in the past six months. As a result, Newham council has been trying to entice housing associations across the country, including in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend Joan Walley, to take families on housing benefit off its lists and into different parts of the UK. All that points to the major housing and planning crisis that the UK faces.
I am looking forward to hearing my hon. Friend’s speech on planning policy, but may I say that the problem that Newham council has faced is not only the lack of affordable homes, but the housing benefit changes that have been forced on it by this Government?
I am very grateful for the intervention, which highlights exactly what we warned of: such changes need to be managed properly. In that context, what we hoped for from the Government was a considered and rational strategy for planning reforms to safeguard our great towns, cities and countryside, while ensuring economic growth. Instead, what we received was a botched draft planning policy framework, complete with ugly denunciations of such great English institutions as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and of anyone else who dared to question the Government’s damaging proposals. We expected more from the Minister. Instead, as Fiona Reynolds, the director general of the National Trust, put it, the Government’s statements were “arrogant”. She said:
“The language exposed some of the Government’s failure to connect with how people feel.”
We now have the finished document, and I am happy to support some of the major U-turns the Government have adopted, such as the explicit recognition of the value of the countryside as a whole; the strengthened protection for the green belt; and the more balanced, if still ambiguous, definition of “sustainable development”. Those are all to the good, but there are some worrying omissions.
Part of the great urban regeneration story of the past 10 years, under Labour Governments, has been a specific programme of encouraging brownfield development. Last year, some 76% of new dwellings were built on brownfield sites, which is an increase on the 55% in 1989. The figure for Stoke-on-Trent was 90% and the one for Liverpool was 91%. It is therefore worrying that the final draft of the NPPF talks only of “encouraging” the effective use of brownfield land, rather than, as Labour did, “prioritising” it. That does not amount to a robust “brownfield first” policy and is a weakening of the guidance in previous regulation. Hon. Members who are concerned about their towns and city centres would do well to reflect on that: an encouragement is not an obligation. As a result, and with no explicit brownfield development targets, there will be serious scope for legal battle involving developers, who will appeal to sections of the NPPF that emphasise economic viability and deliverability over sustainable brownfield development. That is all the more frustrating given that there are almost 62,000 hectares of brownfield or previously developed land in England ready for building on.
I am glad that the Government have taken on board the Labour party’s criticisms of the draft framework in relation to the sequential test on all large retail development. I make a general point about policy development by this Government when I say that we are here to help: if they listen to us at an earlier stage, they can get rid of some of these complexities. I met my local planning officers at Stoke-on-Trent city council last week, and they were adamant that we would not see the kind of urban regeneration we want in Hanley without a proper system of sequential testing.
Given what the hon. Gentleman has said, will he join me in urging Labour councillors in Broxtowe not to accept a housing target that would result in 4,000 houses being built on green-belt land?
I am very grateful for the intervention, as I am an adamant defender of the green belt; almost like an Israeli settler. I believe that we should not take any parts of it.
To complete the point I was making before the intervention, in view of the number of high street shops that are unoccupied, we want to see a much greater focus on the regeneration of our high streets.
All of this debate points to a broader truth: the Government are underwritten by an ideological aversion to state regulation. Because of the monstrous failure of their economic policy, sadly revealed this week with a double-dip recession made in Downing street and £150 billion of extra borrowing, they have been thrashing round for excuses for economic decline. The Treasury stumbled on the idea that planning was stopping growth, but we know that good planning is no impediment to growth. Poor planning and a lack of planning as in Ireland and Spain have not resulted in the kind of economic growth that we would like. The Government would be better advised to devise a decent strategy for sustainable economic growth, rather than blame the planning system.
Secondly, the hostility towards proper regulation has turned a planning document into a lawyers’ charter. For all the clever wheeze of cutting down more than 1,000 pages of guidance, the end result might be far more paperwork than the Minister imagines, thanks to law suits, legal cases and casework. Indeed, we know that a survey of town planners revealed that lawyers are expecting much more work from the framework than they have had previously.
Finally, I welcome the explicit recognition given by the planning policy framework that the historic environment makes a positive contribution to society, the economy, our culture and our environment, but where does the Budget’s plans to slap VAT on approved alterations to listed buildings fit with that? May we please have some joined-up government? If we believe in the historic environment, may we not have this ridiculous addition to the Budget?
I rise to speak in support of the Government’s national planning policy framework. I want to put on record my constituents’ gratitude to the Government for listening to some real concerns about the need to protect greenfield sites and for the presumption to be in favour of brownfield development.
Before I make my substantive points—I know that we have only a brief time available—let me address some of the points made by Tristram Hunt. He made a good speech, but it appears to me that Labour is trying to rewrite history now that it is in opposition. He made some good points, as did Roberta Blackman-Woods, about the previous Government’s laudable and commendable intention to prioritise brownfield development over greenfield development, which is absolutely right. There is a difference, however, between rhetoric and reality, which this Government have recognised in the planning policy framework. In north Ipswich, thanks to the previous Government’s centrally driven housing targets, 15,000 new homes were to be built against the wishes of my constituents by Labour-run Ipswich borough council. The plan is still to develop them, and the decision was made because of the previous Government’s planning policies and decisions. That is not protecting greenfield sites; it is ensuring that they are developed. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central quite rightly said that he wanted that to be avoided, and I want the same. We must ensure that when we can develop brownfield sites, as we can in the centre of Ipswich, they are developed effectively and in a way that provides family homes and affordable homes so that young people can get on to the housing ladder.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman would accept that the percentage of development that occurred on brownfield sites was massively improved during the period of Labour Government.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. My key point is that of course it is important to develop brownfield sites, and the previous Government did that, but unfortunately, as some of my colleagues have highlighted, flats were built on those brownfield sites rather than affordable family homes. My constituents in north Ipswich and many of my colleagues’ constituents want affordable family homes so that people who live locally can stay living locally and so that we can help young families on to the housing ladder. That is key. The previous Government’s intentions were laudable, but the practicalities did not work.
I want to make three points in support of the framework. First, it is a good document because it simplifies the planning system. It is clearly better to have 50 pages of guidance than to have about 1,000 pages. It is better and easier for my constituents to understand how the planning system works, it is easier for developers to understand it, and it is much easier for local authorities, when they are discussing planning issues with residents, to communicate those issues when there are 50 pages of national policy guidance.
Secondly, there is a clear presumption and protection that as Conservatives we prioritise, and have always prioritised, brownfield development over greenfield development. In many parts of the country, including central Suffolk, we have valuable farming land that would suffer directly as a result of greenfield development. We in Suffolk value farming and agriculture and the amenity that the green fields around Ipswich, for example, provide for local communities. People can take their families out at the weekend and enjoy the countryside. If we continue with Ipswich borough council’s policy of pushing for greenfield development on those sites, we will lose valuable agricultural land as well as valuable community land that is enjoyed by local people from Ipswich.
Finally, I come to sustainable development. The document contains a much clearer definition of sustainable development, which is a good thing. We need development where there are infrastructure and jobs, and to make sure that we bring affordable housing on stream. The best way to do that is to tie development to key infrastructure projects, as we shall see in the green enterprise zone in East Anglia at Great Yarmouth and Waveney. We accept that in that area there will be houses, which go hand in hand with jobs, key road and rail infrastructure and the broadband infrastructure that the Government are giving us, as well as money for schools and local hospitals. That is good sustainable development. My constituents support the Government in what they are trying to do, not least the protection against the development by Ipswich borough council of the northern fringe of Ipswich.
The ultimate test of the NPPF will be the outcomes it delivers, not the remarks made by people who were so relieved that the latest draft was less bad than its predecessor that they provided those quotes that the Minister enjoyed giving us the other evening.
My hon. Friend Tristram Hunt made the point that we are debating this framework in the week in which the economy has gone back into recession, which in large part reflects the poor state of the construction industry, within which the housing sector is particularly badly affected. I shall come on to that. Two days ago, the Minister of State sought to deny the disastrous state of house building in Britain, which has been seriously aggravated by the uncertainty and confusion that have existed since the Government began to tinker with the planning system in summer 2010.
The Minister claimed that there has been a 25% recovery in housing since the recession. Let us look at those figures. He is right in that there has been a recovery from the depths of the recession. What he needs to bear in mind is the fact that that recovery took place throughout 2009 and in the first six months of 2010.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I was going to say that I hoped that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Andrew Stunell, for whom I have considerable respect, does not go down the same path as his colleague, the Minister for Housing and Local Government, who shows a certain levity with regard to his respect for the truthfulness of statistics.
As I was saying, there was a recovery, and the second quarter of 2010—which, as the Under-Secretary knows rather well, is the period in which there was a change of Government: in the first part of that quarter we were under a Labour Government, in the second part, we were under a Conservative Government, although I do not think that even he would claim that the Conservative Government were responsible for the figures in that quarter—was the high point. The recovery reached a peak of 30,880 units in that quarter. Since then, the housing market has been static or falling. The best output of new starts in any quarter was 26,980 in the third quarter of 2010, going down to just 20,900 starts in the last quarter of 2011—the last quarter for which figures are available.
That, I am afraid, is the record. Since the Government’s changes to planning policy and their disastrous cuts in investment in social housing, we have seen a collapse in confidence and poor output figures for housing. Planning consents—the lead indicators—are equally bad. Figures compiled by Glenigan for the Home Builders Federation show that in calendar year 2011 only 115,000 new homes received planning permission, which is the lowest level since the survey began in 2007. The figures for the end of 2011 are particularly bad—the Home Builders Federation itself highlights the extent to which the number of homes that received consent in the fourth quarter of 2011, 27,000, was down on the third quarter and down on the previous year’s equivalent quarter. The figures are seriously bad.
The Federation of Master Builders reminds us that the figures for new social house building in the first three months of this year are
“the most negative balance since the survey began”, and work loads in the private new build housing sector are also declining, with 55% of firms indicating work loads smaller than in the fourth quarter of 2011. It is a bleak, bleak picture. The Minister should reflect on that and recognise that the current framework provides no incentive for new house building.
We are seeing in many cases uncertainty in the planning system. My hon. Friend Mr Betts rightly highlighted the degree to which uncertainty and potential litigation will be a damper on development in the coming months. We also know that a number of councils are quite openly seizing the opportunity to cut back housing consents. Against that background, I have to say to the Minister that his Government will be on record as producing the lowest number of new homes of any Parliament since the 1940s—far, far lower than the figures during the previous Parliament, 2005 to 2010, which included the depths of the recession, when 750,000 new homes were started. The present Government are on course for, at best, 600,000 homes, and the total may well be fewer than that. I urge the Minister to reflect on the consequences of his planning policy.
I am conscious of time so I will keep my remarks as short as I can. I draw the attention of the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Interests.
Planning policy is an important subject. People care deeply about their local environment, the houses they live in and the houses around them, and the way that their villages and towns are developing. We have heard from Government Members, particularly my hon. Friend Stephen Mosley, that there is a need for more family homes. We need more houses. My constituency inbox and caseload tell me that, but as others have said, we need houses in the right place and houses that deal with people’s lives as they live them, not as Government and local authorities want them to live.
I thank the Minister. He deserves recognition for listening so carefully to all points made to him between the draft NPPF being published and the final version. A number of constituents have thanked me for the way in which the Government have listened on this important subject.
As I speak, the plans committee at Charnwood borough council has been meeting for the past 27 minutes. I was asked to be there but I felt it was more important that I was in the House today to speak in the debate. The council is considering two important planning applications, among a number of others, which will affect the village of Quorn and the town of Shepshed in my constituency.
I say to the planners in Charnwood and elsewhere that this is not business as usual. The NPPF came into force immediately after the Minister’s statement to the House on
I want to make four points in the time available to me. First, I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify—he may wish to write to me—the status of the regional spatial strategies. I understand that they are due to be abolished. They can be abolished under the Localism Act 2012, which is now law. The reason I raise the subject is that some officers still mention the RSS and in particular the housing targets when they give advice to plans committees. I know that my constituents are keen to know about that.
As I said in my question to the Minister in the House on
The importance of neighbourhood planning should not be underestimated. My parish council and town council are getting on with neighbourhood planning, which I think is fantastic. We have already heard about the over-interpretation of some words. Paragraph 74—I do not have time to read it out—relates to the loss of open space and is particularly relevant to an application in my constituency concerning allotments. The wording is very straightforward; I do not think that we need to over-interpret it. It says what it says, and that is that open spaces are not to be lost.
Thirdly—I will have to write to the Minister on this point—it has been pointed out to me that the NPPF does not say as much about geology as it does about such matters as biodiversity. We have some very interesting rocks near Loughborough, in Charnwood—so interesting that Sir David Attenborough started one of his programmes there recently—so I think that we might want to hear a little more about geology.
Finally, I welcome the fact that the underlying guidance is to be reviewed. I have mentioned before that the highways guidance and the manual for streets is often very important in deciding planning applications.
I, too, congratulate the Government on their revisions to the NPPF; they have genuinely listened to the real concerns that I and a good number of my hon. Friends put to the Minister. In particular, I thank him personally for the gracious way he listened to our concerns and for giving them a lot of time. I am pleased that he has taken them on board. I think that the document now strikes a good balance between the need to speed up the house building process and the need to protect our green spaces, which is what we all want to see.
Together with the other elements of the Localism Act 2011, the measures are very welcome in my area of Milton Keynes. We want to grow. There is no nimbyism in Milton Keynes, but we want to be in charge of our own destiny. Instead of having the top-down targets that were imposed on us before, which led to the wrong type of development, as other hon. Members have said, we can now shape our future and our destiny and build the new city we want to see.
I would like to challenge one of the comments Roberta Blackman-Woods made on the abolition of regional and national targets, which was that that somehow meant that local areas cannot co-operate with each other to develop infrastructure plans. I draw the House’s attention to an example in my constituency: the building of the east-west rail link. That involves co-operation between many local authorities on not only the railway line itself, but housing and economic growth projects. We are all working together exceptionally hard on that, so I reject her assertion.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not take any interventions, in order to leave time for other hon. Friends who wish to speak.
My one specific point, picking up on the good point my hon. Friend Nicky Morgan made, is on the time scale for abolishing the regional spatial strategies. For reasons I will not go into, we all welcome that, but there is an issue in Milton Keynes about the timing of abolition. Our core strategy will be examined in July, and there is concern that, if the RSS is still in place during that examination, it might undermine the progress we are seeing on the localism agenda. I simply urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to do all he can to get the RSS finally abolished as quickly as we can. Apart from that small, specific point, I repeat my congratulations for what the Government have achieved. They have listened and had a genuine consultation, and I heartily support the new document.
I am going to whizz through my speech and, I hope, leave plenty of time for my hon. Friend Mark Pawsey to make his comments.
I welcome the NPPF and many of its changes, because I was not happy with the original draft document, as the Minister well knows. The Minister knows also that in Daventry we are part of a joint planning unit, with South Northamptonshire council and Northampton borough council, and, although we might struggle to have a local plan in place in 12 months, we have an emerging joint core strategy across the area. If it were to be adopted as a local plan post consultation, I wonder whether it could be treated as a local plan, because it would afford those areas the protection that they would like.
I associate myself with the comments on the abolition of the regional spatial strategies and would very much like to be copied into the note—or if there is an answer today, even better—about the timing.
The Minister knows my concerns about the Planning Inspectorate, and I understand that he has written to a constituent of mine, saying that there is a chance of its duties, or the inspectorate itself, being reviewed soon, so I should like to hear something about that.
I would like a quick moment on renewable energy, my favourite subject. In previous answers to me, the Minister said that criteria can be set for renewable energy locally, but will he confirm that that could include the efficiency of such projects?
I have one point about wind farms, because, owing to the confusion in previous advice, noise has become an issue in planning. The night-time limit on mining is 42 dB, but using the same metric, we are going to allow wind farms to be noisier, at 45 dB, so could the Secretary of State confirm that the list of revoked planning policies in the NPPF includes by implication the annexes and companion guides to all previously revoked policies?
I express my gratitude to my hon. Friends for their courtesy. I speak as a member of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, which undertook an inquiry into the draft NPPF that came out in July last year.
It is important to understand the reasons for change, as people were not involved in the planning system. Many Members were councillors previously, and, of all the issues in which district councils were involved, the one that people understood least was planning. The system was very technical, with thousands of pages of guidance; house building was at very low levels, with 230,000 houses needed a year, and fewer than 100,000 delivered over an extensive period; the planning costs on businesses were significantly higher in Britain than throughout Europe; and the time taken to gain consent for planning was much longer here than elsewhere.
Roberta Blackman-Woods was rather uncharitable in her remarks about the draft NPPF, because it was precisely that, a draft and for discussion, but in 2011 it led to an alarmist response. People talked about it destroying the countryside, concreting over the green belt and being a developers’ charter. There was even criticism of its very brevity—something that was a real benefit of the proposals to condense planning issues.
The Government have listened, and it is pleasing for the Committee that 30 of its 35 proposals have been adopted. I was delighted that the Minister was able a couple of days ago to catalogue the many bodies whose attitudes have changed, not least those sporting bodies and, in particular, the Sport and Recreation Alliance.
I shall deal with two or three key provisions, the first being enshrining the community role. I am delighted that my constituency has one of the neighbourhood planning frontrunners, in Coton Park. It was believed that the measure would be a charter for nimbys, but that is not at all the case, because people’s attitude towards development depends on how the question is posed. If they are asked, “Do you want to see a field built on?” their answer will be very different from the answer to the question, “Do you think that we need to provide housing in this community and somewhere for young people to get a start on the housing ladder?” I am very pleased that the first neighbourhood plan to be brought forward, in Dawlish, supports the development of housing. It shows that the fears of many people have been allayed.
The NPPF enshrines also the importance of the local plan. In a Select Committee hearing, I asked the Minister, “What took precedence? The presumption in favour of sustainable development or the local plan?” and his response was categorical: decisions must be made in accordance with the local plan. The local plan is supreme, and I am delighted that my local authority has had its local plan in place for a number years. I fail to understand why so many authorities have been tardy in putting their local plans in place. When development proposals come forward under the new regime, the first criterion will be how they stack up against the local plan. Authorities must make plan making a greater priority, rather than trying to manage the development of their area by development control.
Not only does the NPPF maintain existing provisions, but in many respects it enhances them. We now have additional protection for gardens, which recognises that gardens are green. That will do away with a lot of the garden grabbing. I am pleased that the proposals—
On Tuesday, the Chamber resounded to paeans of praise to the Minister from the Minister. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that a decent man with an open mind has listened to the powerful case that was made by Labour, the countryside, heritage representatives, the business community and the Select Committees.
There have been moves on brownfield development, albeit that they do not go far enough. Under Labour, brownfield development went from making up 50% of development to more than 70%. It is a mistake for the word “prioritising” not to be used. There has been progress on the intrinsic value of our green and pleasant countryside, on garden grabbing, on the sequential test and in the strengthening of the duty to co-operate.
In our debates on the Localism Act 2010, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge
Wells (Greg Clark) listened and acknowledged that we needed “larger than local” decisions. He could not use the phrases “regional” or “sub-regional” because he would have been sat upon by the Secretary of State. Nevertheless, moves there were.
This is no way to conduct a campaign—[ Laughter. ] Ours was a very good campaign. This is no way to conduct a debate on matters as important as this. Concerns remain about how the NPPF will work at the worst possible time, and significant weaknesses remain within it.
Stephen Mosley was right to celebrate the purpose of planning. I thought that he was going to go on to celebrate one of Labour’s greatest achievements, when in 1947 it introduced the post-war planning system that sought to reconcile the need for growth with a say for local people and protection for the natural environment.
The planning system was not the problem that the Prime Minister pretended it was. It was preposterous of him to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that the problem with housing was the planning system. It was nothing of the kind. Planning applications were overwhelmingly granted speedily and there was development land with planning permission sufficient to build 300,000 homes. The fact that homes are not being built is nothing to do with the planning system; the principal problem is the failed economic and housing policies of this Government.
This has been a master class in how not to conduct a debate, with polarisation and the demonising of critics. Even the usually sane Macmillanite Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Robert Neill engaged in absurd hyperbole, criticising the National Trust as being akin to “Trots”.
I have acknowledged that progress has been made. I will now turn to the problems. There is no vision for England—no spatial plan that brings together housing, economic development and infrastructure to ensure that if there is growth, all parts of England will grow.
There are no longer any strategic planning mechanisms capable of dealing with the problems that exist. I will give one example. Stevenage badly needs to build thousands of homes, but it cannot meet the demand in Stevenage. It will have to build outwith Stevenage in Hertfordshire. The chances of Hertfordshire co-operating with Stevenage to ensure that its housing need is met are remote in the extreme.
My right hon. Friend Mr Raynsford was right to say that we have witnessed a remarkable collapse in the building of affordable housing—a 99% collapse in the figures for the past six months. We now see in the NPPF the potential downgrading of the importance of affordable housing. The Wolfson paragraph, as I have come to call paragraph 173, allows affordable housing to be traded off in the development process. Lord Wolfson complained on “Newsnight” about how a friend of his, a developer, hoped to develop a major site in Clerkenwell but was unable so to do because the council insisted on affordable housing. The council was absolutely right to do so, and it is wrong to downgrade its importance in development.
It is kind and generous of the hon. Gentleman to give way. Does he agree that it is imperative, as well as Labour party policy, to protect our green belt? Will he join me in urging Labour-controlled councils not to allow the development of thousands of homes on our precious green land?
Labour, as the champion of the countryside and the green belt, strongly believes in a brownfield-first presumption.
On the subject of housing and more generally, our fear is that the planning system will be thrown into chaos at the worst possible time. Growth is key, but all the predictions from all those to whom we talk suggest that we run the risk of hiatus, confusion and planning by appeal. That is what the planners themselves believe. In a poll, 86% said that they predicted with certainty that there would be potentially years of such problems as the system bedded down.
The Communities and Local Government Committee was right to say that brevity is not necessarily clarity. I am surprised that among the tributes read out on Tuesday there was not one from planning lawyers, because Ministers are the toast of planning lawyers. They believe that homes will be built as a consequence of the new NPPF, but they will be homes in Marbella—second homes for planning lawyers who make a killing on the back of the confusion and uncertainty that the Government are creating.
My father-in-law, who has been a listed buildings expert for his entire career, is delighted with the Government’s latest iteration of the NPPF and thinks it will add significantly to house building in this country.
I ask the hon. Lady to give my best regards to her father-in-law, even if his judgment is profoundly suspect.
There are two problems with the transitional period. We agree with a plan-led approach without hesitation, but cash-strapped local authorities will struggle in the time available to develop plans that are crucial to protecting the interests of local communities, with those communities being at the heart of developing those plans. The neighbourhood planning process, on the other hand, is ill resourced by the Government, and we fear that it might well become the preserve of the better-off. We want neighbourhood planning and a real say for people in developing their localities, but that cannot be simply for those who can afford it.
Has progress been made on the high street? Yes, it has. Labour, as the champion of the high street, was the first party to table amendments to the Localism Bill, and eventually the Portas review was announced. There is no question but that there is all-party support for the fact that the high street is now centre-stage. Although the Portas review takes us a long way in the right direction, the Government were wrong to reject some of Labour’s proposals that should have been included, for example in respect of retail diversity, to give local planning authorities real powers to ensure that our high street is protected, including from the flight to out-of-town retail centres.
I say this in confusion—[Laughter.] That is what happens if you are sprinting. I say this in conclusion about the confusion on the Government Benches. Better the NPPF certainly is; flawed it remains. Will it work? Our fear is that, no, it will not.
The Government welcome the opportunity to debate this subject both today and the day before yesterday. It is one of a series of parliamentary debates on national planning policy and demonstrates very clearly our commitment to ensuring that hon. Members have a full opportunity to discuss such important matters. Perhaps I can underline a point made clearly by my right hon. Friend the Minister on Tuesday: our view is that it would be right for the House to have an annual debate on the progress of the planning reforms and our planning system in general.
The content of the final framework shows the seriousness with which we take the issue of consultation. The debate, in which we have heard 15 speakers, has yet again demonstrated how important it is to get these things right. Planning is how we create communities that work, how we create places that we can be proud to live in, and how we lay the foundations for businesses to grow to develop a prosperous country.
All hon. Members want to protect and enhance our green spaces and our countryside, making both available for our enjoyment today and for generations to come. As has frequently been said, we have produced a document that is some 50 pages long, replacing 1,000 pages. Jack Dromey said that simpler and shorter is not always better, but I have found it difficult to find anybody who believes that producing the guidance in the NPPF in the way that we have has not made it much more accessible and transparent. It has taken the mystification out of the planning process and means for the first time that ordinary members of the public have a realistic chance of understanding the decisions that are taken around about them, and of playing an active part in those decision-making processes without the need first to resort to people with two degrees in planning.
The NPPF is a very important step towards localising the planning process. There have been plenty of references to neighbourhood plans, which are an integral part of the planning reforms we have introduced. No hon. Member has mentioned neighbourhood development orders, but they are another significant step forward, because local communities can take charge of their future and their area. Of course, that fits together with the local development framework of all planning authorities.
I entirely agree that the community infrastructure levy is an important part of the planning architecture, and we will publish our proposals on it in due course.
It is also right—this was reflected in the debate—that the planning process is not about creating a fictitious Disney World; it is about resolving tensions, and competing interests and goods. Hon. Members have acknowledged that we neither have the free-for-all, wild west scenario that some of our sternest critics predicted in July last year, nor are we retaining the top-down, lock-down alienating system we inherited in 2010. This balanced document is part of a balanced framework.
I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful contribution. It is one of a large number of well informed and important points that have been made during this debate, not least of course by my right hon. Friend the Minister when he said that the local plan is the keystone to our reform process. The local plan of the planning authority will be the guideline for development decisions in an area, with the neighbourhood plan of course forming an important statutory part in those areas that have plans in place.
The Minister is talking about an improved system. When we add up the sum total of the planning approvals given for housing as part of the planning system that is being created, does he expect that number to be up or down on those given before the new system is put in place?
The Chair of the Committee—incidentally, it made an extremely important contribution to our consideration of these matters—makes an important point. I say to him and to Mr Raynsford that as the targets went up under the last Government so the performance of housing went down. The idea that there is some connection between top-down, top-driven targets and performance on the ground is not supported by the evidence. What we maintain—and as we have heard from my hon. Friend Iain Stewart and others—is that there is clear evidence that when local communities are put in the driving seat they fully understand the need for homes and jobs for their children and grandchildren, as well as parks and recreation spaces.
The hon. Gentleman was honest enough to say that housing did not have centrality under the last Government—his words, not mine. The number of housing starts in 2011, the first complete year of the coalition Government, is higher than the housing starts in 2009, the last complete year of the Labour Government. We have a programme that has 170,000 social and affordable homes in it, and more than 112 contracts have now been signed with the Homes and Community Agency and various partners to make those homes a reality.
In the limited time left, I shall address the points made by Roberta Blackman-Woods. If I do not respond to Members’ questions, I am more than ready to follow them up after the debate. The transition arrangements have been agreed with the Local Government Association, so it is somewhat petulant for it to complain. It is also absurd for it to complain that this document contains obscure language, when it is responsible for the 1,000 pages and obscure and impenetrable language, which only people with PhDs in planning can understand, of the planning policy guidance document.
Some contributions to the debate demonstrated that local authorities are already getting to grips with the duty to co-operate. Indeed, my hon. Friend Chris Heaton-Harris asked whether joint plans would be acceptable.
I could talk at length, but I have run out of time. I look forward to hearing what Members’ queries I need to follow up on.
Question put and agreed to .
That this House has considered the matter of the National Planning Policy Framework.