Planning Rules

– in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 26th February 2016.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jackie Doyle-Price.)

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health) 2:31 pm, 26th February 2016

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. My apologies for the fact that this debate means that you, the Minister and I will have to spend the last half hour of this parliamentary week together.

I want to talk briefly about some of the planning issues that are impacting on a particular part of my constituency, Haughton Green. For the benefit of the Minister, I will explain that Haughton Green is an urban village. Had he visited the place 60 years ago, he would have found open countryside separating Denton and Haughton Green. That has gradually been filled up, mainly by the creation of a Manchester City Council overspill estate in the late 1950s and 1960s, to the point where there is very little open space separating Denton and Haughton Green, although Haughton Green still classes itself as a village and is proud of its historical identity as a village.

The plan-led system has, in part, protected places such as Haughton Green, but Haughton Green now feels under siege. I first became involved in planning issues in the mid-1990s, when I was successfully elected as a member of Tameside Council representing the Denton West ward. Back then, there was a controversial proposal to build a business park on some open space between Denton and Gorton called Kingswater Park. It was so controversial that the application was called in by two Secretaries of State: the noble Lord Heseltine in 1990 and the noble Lord Prescott in 1998. Ultimately, the planning application never saw the light of day, thankfully.

Let me set the scene in respect of how the people of Haughton Green feel badly let down by the planning system. That started in 2008 with the application for the demolition of the old rectory. The Minister probably will not appreciate that the old rectory is part of a collection of significant Victorian architecture across Denton. It was part of a collection of quirky and unique buildings designed by James Medland and Henry Taylor, who were two of the most important architects at work in the Manchester area during that period. We are very fortunate to have a number of Medland and Taylor buildings in Denton. They were responsible for the grade I listed church of St Anne in Haughton, the grade II* listed rectory of St Anne in Haughton, the grade II* listed extension to St Lawrence’s church in Denton and the grade II listed St Mary the Virgin church in Haughton Green.

Sadly, the old rectory of St Mary the Virgin church in Haughton Green never made it on to the register of listed buildings. English Heritage initially decided not to recommend the building for listing, but—as result of representations by the Denton Local History Society and local residents, led by my friend Margaret Smethurst, and the Manchester Victorian Society—the Department for Culture, Media and Sport asked English Heritage to look again at its recommendation. Sadly, English Heritage refused to reconsider the building for listing, citing the many changes that had been made to the internal and external structure over the years. However, I believe that enough original features were left to warrant listing the building in its own right, and certainly to do so as part of the collection of Medland and Taylor buildings in and around Denton.

The application for the redevelopment of the old rectory site was passed by Tameside Council, and the application to demolish the old rectory was approved on 30 June 2009. We now have the blight of a derelict site in Meadow Lane, the most beautiful of locations in Haughton Green, because the site has never been brought forward for redevelopment. As a result, we have a lost some pretty significant local architecture.

Local residents, not wanting to lose any more of the unique heritage of the Meadow Lane area, the historic core of the old village of Haughton Green, applied for the grant of conservation area status. The Minister will not know that everybody who goes down Meadow Lane appreciates its beauty and historical character, particularly in the urban area of Denton. Tameside Council was very sympathetic to its becoming a conservation area, but at the time it had what I can only describe as a pretty useless conservation officer. Unless a property was a Cotswolds, chocolate box cottage that had not been in any way altered throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, let alone the 21st century, she came up with every reason why it could not be protected or listed. She pretty much blocked the Meadow Lane area becoming a conservation area.

All has not been lost, however, because Tameside Council found a way around that. It is in the process of consulting local residents about designating the area under a supplementary planning document. I hope that that will offer some residents a say in how the Meadow Lane area, the historic core of Haughton Green, is permitted to develop in future, not least because we still have the blight or eyesore of a big gaping hole where the old rectory once stood. I will work with local residents to make sure that Tameside Council gets that SPD right for the people who live in Haughton Green.

That brings me to the devolution agenda. As the Minister will know, I have raised this several times because I have real concerns about how the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has gone about the initial, so-called public, consultation for its spatial framework. I and my constituents feel that we have been locked out of the process. The GMCA had a call for sites and identified those that were suitable for new housing development across the whole of Greater Manchester. Significantly, however, a very substantial number of infill sites have been identified in and around Haughton Green.

The deadline for public consultation was 11 January. Sadly, I only found out about that not because I was contacted as a Member of Parliament—I was not—but because I noticed that I had retweeted something on Twitter that I thought was linked to health devolution in Greater Manchester. It turned out to relate to this planning process. When I saw it I just about had enough time to put in my own comments. After the consultation deadline passed on 14 January, I raised in business questions whether we could have a debate on the approach of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in respect of its flawed public consultation.

I would argue that nobody is against future development. Greater Manchester needs it as much as anywhere. However, there has to be sufficient public buy-in and there has to be a sensible release of sites across Greater Manchester. Whole swathes of sites are suitable for housing development. Some of the sites in the Haughton Green area may be suitable for the future housing development needs of the people in Haughton Green. The wodge of paper I have here are all the sites that have been identified by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority as being suitable for future housing development. These differ in sizes from one extreme, the school playing fields of the former Two Trees secondary school, which have been identified as being suitable for 237 new homes, right the way down to small sites such as a patch of land on Keats Avenue, which has been identified as being suitable for six new homes. In total, in Haughton Green alone, these sites would amount to 423 new homes. I say to the Minister that that is fine, but we need the infrastructure to be able to cope with that. We need to ensure that Haughton Green can cope with the additional new properties.

I urge the Minister to familiarise himself with the “Manchester A-Z”. He will see that Haughton Green is in a cul-de-sac. It is at the end of two country lanes that are now urban roads: Two Trees Lane and Mill Lane. They are the only ways in and out of the entirety of Haughton Green, including the massive Manchester overspill estate that was built in the 1960s. Already, those two lanes are log-jammed at peak times. I urge him to think very carefully about how we pay for the infrastructure if we are going to use all these infill development sites. None of the developers for those individual sites is going to say that they will pay for a new access route into Haughton Green, with the massive capital cost that that would incur. It is reasonableness by degrees, but if we put all the developments together, it is fairly certain that the existing road infrastructure into and out of Haughton Green will not be able to cope. It is struggling as it is. If we are going to use these sites—and I have issues with a number of the sites proposed by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority—we need to think about how we do so without generating traffic chaos.

The Haughton Green Methodist chapel is a very early example of a Methodist chapel. It opened in 1810 and is the oldest place of worship in the village. In 1791—I do not know if things have changed that much—the authorities agreed that the district of Denton and Haughton was one of the most uncivilised parts of England. A Wesleyan society was established and the church remained in use from 1810 to 2010. It then moved across the road to the newly refurbished Sunday school building, and this is where the Methodist church still meets to this day.

The old Methodist chapel was built by a speculative developer who did nothing with the old historic building, much to the frustration of local residents, and it quickly fell into dereliction and the churchyard became overgrown. It was put up for auction last year and bought by new owners. As the Minister and other Members will appreciate, when a building goes up for auction, the rumour mill starts as people wonder what is happening, and some of those rumours led to local concern.

For that reason, a month or so ago, I, together with councillors Claire Reid and Mike Fowler, and George Newton, a local community activist, met the new owners in my constituency office. They confirmed that some of the rumours were correct and that they intended to convert the building to a community centre and a new place of worship. As the Minister will appreciate, that is acceptable for a class D1 property—it was a place of worship and will still be a place of worship—and so no planning permission is required.

I want to drill down into the community centre side of the issue. Nearby, we have the Haughton Green centre, the Oasis centre, the Green Park centre, Haughton Green Methodist church, St Mary’s church and St John Fisher Catholic church, all of which have community rooms, buildings and facilities. There is no need for another community centre in Haughton Green, unless it is for a community that does not currently reside in Haughton Green, and that is where there are concerns. It has been confirmed that the Methodist church is to become an Islamic community centre and place of worship.

I have no interest in extending some of the views expressed by some of my constituents, but there is a large degree of concern, because it potentially means lots of people coming to Haughton Green to use a community building that is not for the community of Haughton Green. I will briefly detail the ward profile: Denton South has a population of 11,230; 98.2% is white; 77.7% is Christian; and 0.5% is Muslim. As sure as anything, the people using the community centre and place of worship will be coming from outside.

The church is on Two Trees lane—one of the two lanes I told the Minister were already gridlocked. If the Methodists were coming to Haughton Green, in the year 2016, they would almost certainly not get planning permission for a Methodist church on Two Trees lane without parking facilities. There is obvious frustration and concern among local residents about traffic, but local councillors are working to see whether traffic regulation orders can be put in place. There is also a concern about the graves. The council will almost certainly not permit the new owners to remove the graves from the churchyard. Furthermore, the new owners have put in a new mezzanine floor, suggesting it will be used by an awful lot of people. I have contacted the county fire officer to see whether fire safety regulations can invoke the need for a planning application.

I have raised those three issues, because, put together, they have left the people of Haughton Green feeling locked out of decisions about how their village is developing. Given the relaxation of planning rules and regulations, I fear this will become a growing problem across every constituency. Unless residents can buy into the planning system, unless their voice counts and unless their vision for their community matters, I fear that the disconnect between politicians and the public will just widen. That is why I urge the Minister to listen to the concerns of the people of Haughton Green. I will do my bit to ensure that their views, their voice and their concerns are raised at every appropriate level from local government right up to the Minister. If we believe in localism, we need to make sure that local people have a say in how their towns and villages develop in the future.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Minister of State (Communities and Local Government) 2:50 pm, 26th February 2016

I congratulate Andrew Gwynne on securing the debate.

I want to pay tribute to his clear and energetic campaigning on behalf of his residents. As we have seen here today, he is fully committed not just to urban regeneration but to ensuring that we see the right kind of environment and community for his residents—something we all want to see right across the country. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that for reasons of propriety, as the Minister for Housing and Planning, I cannot comment on particular planning proposals or draft local plan documents. I am nevertheless happy to respond in general terms to the issues that the hon. Gentleman has aired today. I hope to suggest some possible ways forward for his constituents.

Having listened to what the hon. Gentleman has said, it seems to me that his concerns relate more to policy, both local and national, than to rules. This Government’s expectations of the planning system are set out in the national planning policy framework. It is an important document and one of its important objectives is to promote the highest standards of architecture and design as well to ensure that the historical environment is allowed to play its part in place-making.

This is not just a matter of ensuring that conservation areas and buildings listed for their architectural and historical interest are safe. The character and distinctiveness of our villages, towns and cities are often dependent on townscape features that are not designated as heritage assets, as the hon. Gentleman outlined very well. Buildings, for instance, have clearly accrued over time and tell us about our history; they have varied texture and human-scale design; and they avoid the “sameness” that in reality spoil too many of the town centres and developments that we have seen over the last few years.

Local authorities, of course, must ensure that appropriate roads and other hard infrastructure are there to support the developments they approve, but green infrastructure matters, as well. Trees and open spaces, whether or not protected by designation, play a vital role in place-making and promote public health. New infill development that shows care and respect to a town or village’s character and context can not only raise the spirits, but help to attract visitors and businesses and increase property values. The framework also makes it clear that local authorities should prioritise suitable brownfield land wherever practicable.

Whatever the development planned, it is best to make sure that the community is involved early on and is clear about its ability to get involved. Local residents have three main opportunities to have their say about future development: plan-making, neighbourhood planning and directly through planning applications. I shall touch on those in turn in the next few minutes.

Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council is in the early stages of scoping a supplementary planning document for the area. The council has already engaged planning and design consultants to lead early community engagement. I think that is a good thing, but we need to make sure that that engagement goes forward. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will urge his constituents to contribute their views through the plan-making process.

One of this Government’s ambitions in determinations for localism is to make sure that local people feel empowered and if possible take the lead on the approach to designs adopted in their area. If there is concern that buildings have not been listed for their architectural or historical interest, and that they are vulnerable, a community can use its local plan to create a local list of heritage buildings so that their merit is not ignored. Local people can also investigate a new design toolkit, which has been launched by the Prince’s Foundation and is entitled “Beauty-In-My-Back-Yard”. I commend it as something for the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to have a look at as providing a possible basis for dialogue with Tameside council and developers.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly outlined, there is the wider context of the Greater Manchester spatial framework. The 10 authorities of Greater Manchester have a long and successful history of working together to drive economic growth. The devolution deal provides further opportunities for that. At the local level, each individual authority will have to sign up and be accountable in the local area. Each authority must consult and involve the local area so that local people will have a say over development in their areas. I encourage all the hon. Gentleman’s constituents in Haughton Green to take part in the consultation, and I hope that they will consider engaging in neighbourhood planning as well, because that would be a massive step forward.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

I agree with everything that the Minister has said so far, but local people need to know that a consultation is taking place. That is the problem that we had with the call for sites.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Minister of State (Communities and Local Government)

That is a good point. It is important for local authorities to work hard to engage their local communities. However, neighbourhood planning allows people to have a direct say in the development of their areas. Not only can they work on the design of the plan, but every resident in the neighbourhood has a vote in a referendum. I am pleased that, so far, 88% of people have voted “yes” in neighbourhood planning referendums. If people are interested and involved, they will have confidence in the process and get behind it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned parks and similar areas. We feel that people should be encouraged and empowered to have a say in what happens to assets of that kind. The community right to bid allows pieces of land, and buildings such as churches, to be listed as assets of community value when that is appropriate. I should be happy to give the hon. Gentleman further details of the listing process, which is extremely straightforward and simple, and can prove very successful in protecting assets. It is necessary to ensure that the right assets are protected, and the community is best placed to do that. We need a localised, flexible and reformed planning system that is driven by communities, and enables them to make decisions that are right for their areas. The people who know best are the people who live in those areas, and that is what neighbourhood planning, and assets of community value, are all about.

The people of Haughton Green, like those elsewhere, have statutory opportunities to comment and criticise when a local plan is revised, when a spatial plan is developed, and every time a planning application is made. Even if land is allocated for development in the spatial framework or local plan, a particular planning application can still be refused permission in response to evidence and well-argued objections. That brings me back to something that the hon. Gentleman has heard me say at the Dispatch Box a few times before. We want more homes to be built, but we also want them to be the right homes, in the appropriate places and for all tenures.

There are many opportunities for local people to have their hopes and concerns reflected in our modern, reformed planning system, especially if they have volunteered to work on a neighbourhood plan that is brought to a successful conclusion and adopted following a local referendum, and there are many ways in which to secure well-loved and useful local buildings and protect them from unnecessary loss. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will take those opportunities on board, have confidence in their ability to use them, and enjoy success in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.