I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I welcome Teresa Pearce to her new position. I wish her and her team all the very best.
I have been a Member of this House for six-and-a-half years. In the countless contacts I have had with my constituents over that time, one issue has come up more often and more consistently than any other: housing. I am sure other hon. Members would say the same. Whether it is a lack of affordable accommodation, standards not being met, calls for housing to be built on one site or campaigns against it being built on another, the subject dominates inbox, postbag and surgery alike. Meeting that challenge requires action on many fronts, but at the heart of it all is the need for a clear, fair and, above all, effective planning system.
My two Conservative predecessors at the Department for Communities and Local Government did more to reform planning than all their Labour counterparts combined. More than 1,000 pages of policy was reduced to just 50 and the Housing and Planning Act 2016 did much to streamline and speed up the process. It is a record of real action and real change that is already paying off. The year 2015 saw more planning permissions delivered than in any year since records began. Almost 900,000 new homes have been delivered in England alone since the start of 2010.
As I said just last week, however, there is much more to do. The Prime Minister has been absolutely clear that, if we are going to build a Britain that works for everyone, we need a housing market that works for everyone. That means doing still more to tackle the housing shortage by giving communities greater certainty over development and reducing the time it takes to get from planning permission to completion. This Bill will help us to do just that.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way so early. He is quite right about the inbox: this subject dominates so much of the dealings we have with our constituents. There are two areas the Bill does not cover that I think it ought to. I wonder if, over the course of the next few weeks, he and his fellow Ministers could consider whether the Bill should be amended to deal with them.
The first point is that inspectors, on dealing with developers’ appeals, take into account the number of planning permissions given but not the number of housing starts. Planning permissions are in the hands of the district planning authority, but housing starts are in the hands of the developer. If the developer will not make use of the planning permission, it is unfair on the district council and unfair on the affected neighbourhood that does not want to see the planning go ahead.
Secondly—I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will be very, very quick indeed—in relation to matters going up to an inspector, I gather from the Minister for Housing and Planning that they cannot be called in once they have gone to the inspector, but they ought to be if there is to be any even-handed justice and equality of arms.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes some very good points. The first part of his question was whether we might be able to take some of them into account in the Bill. I anticipate that at some point there will very likely be some amendments to the Bill. If that is the case, they will of course be discussed properly at that time. He made some suggestions that I will think about carefully, in particular regarding what some people call “landbanking” by certain developers.. I talked about that very important point last week in my party conference speech. It is something on which we will be taking further action.
Might the Secretary of State also consider amendments that focus on the sustainability of new housing, in particular moving towards carbon-neutral housing, which also has the benefit of reducing cost to occupiers because of lower energy costs?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that several initiatives are already in place to make sure that new development is sustainable. A review is looking at what further measures we could take.
Neighbourhood plans are a key part of the Bill. Not all planning takes place at local authority level. Neighbourhood development plans, which were introduced in 2011, have proved to be extremely effective. Far from being a so-called nimby’s charter, some neighbourhood groups with plans in force have planned for housing numbers above the number set by the local authority for that area. Those communities have, on average, planned for 10% more homes. Neighbourhood planning gives residents and businesses greater certainty about developments in their area, ensuring that they have a choice on how best to meet local housing needs.
The Bill contains some excellent provisions on neighbourhood planning, but neighbourhood plans are predicated on a local plan being in place. I represent two authorities: one has a local plan and the other does not. Will the Secretary of State, either through the Bill or otherwise, take strong action against those authorities that do not have a local plan in place?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the lack of consistency in approach by neighbourhoods. So far some 2,000 community groups have got together, out of which some 240 neighbourhood plans have been adopted. We would like to see a lot more, and these measures will achieve just that. My hon. Friend will know that giving communities greater influence over the planning process can reduce the number of objections to planning applications so that more homes can be built more quickly.
The introduction to the Bill says that one of its central aims is strengthening neighbourhood planning and giving local people more certainty over where homes will be built in their area. The Minister for Housing and Planning has said that putting power into the hands of local people to decide where development occurs is a key objective. The Secretary of State will be aware that Birmingham’s Labour council wishes to build 6,000 homes on the Sutton Coldfield green belt and no account has been taken of the virtually unanimous opposition of the royal town’s 100,000 residents, who have been completely disfranchised. Will he agree to take account of the unanimous view of the newly elected Sutton Coldfield town council, who are adamantly opposed to this on behalf of the 100,000 people they represent?
Order. I have already made it clear that the first long intervention was not to be a precedent. This second long intervention is definitely not a precedent. I have been patient because this is the first day back, but perhaps Members who have served several decades in the House have forgotten that interventions have to be short. We have many Members wishing to speak this evening and I will have to impose a time limit, so it is simply wrong for interventions to take so long. Short interventions make good debate!
My right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell has spoken passionately about this issue before. I listened to him then and I have just listened to him again, and I will of course reflect on what he has said. I am sure he will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to talk about a specific planning application, but I will reflect on what he has just shared with the House.
The Housing and Planning Act reforms to speed up and simplify the process came into force just a few days ago, and the Bill will strengthen the process still further. It will make it easier to update a neighbourhood plan as local circumstances change. It will give communities confidence that advanced neighbourhood plans will be given proper consideration in planning decisions, and it will give neighbourhood plans full legal effect at an earlier stage.
Of course, there is no point giving control to communities if they do not know that they have it or lack the skills to use it. So the Bill will also require planning authorities to publish their policies for giving advice or assistance to neighbourhood planning groups. It will also allow the Secretary of State to require planning authorities to keep those policies up to date. These provisions will make the neighbourhood planning process fit for the future. They will make it more accessible for everyone, and they will ensure that neighbourhood plans are fully respected by decision makers.
Should the Bill become an Act, will there be any circumstances in which a local authority can overrule a neighbourhood development plan that has been duly endorsed by said authority?
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that for a neighbourhood plan to become effective it needs to be adopted. It will be looked at by the inspector and a local referendum will be held. As I mentioned earlier, some 240 plans have gone through that process and, when that happens, they need to be given due weight in the consideration of planning decisions.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way again. He will know that Bassetlaw has more local plans in process and agreed than anywhere else, so we do know a little bit about them. If he is saying that a local council or the Secretary of State can decide to overrule a local community that has been through a huge, state-funded consultation, had a referendum and decided where the housing will go, what is the point?
The hon. Gentleman will know that once a neighbourhood plan is adopted, it becomes statutory and is taken into account when planning decisions are made. It is not a question of a local authority overruling a neighbourhood plan; once it is adopted, it is part of the local plan, so they are part of the same package, when it comes to making those decisions. Local authorities do not have the right to overrule a plan once it has been adopted.
Local and neighbourhood plans are vital tools for delivering new planning permissions. If we are to tackle the housing deficit, it is crucial that shovels hit the ground as soon as possible once permission has been granted for a development. There are a number of reasons why that does not always happen. One is because too many planning authorities impose too many pre-commencement conditions that unreasonably hold up the start of construction.
Of course, conditions can play a vital role. They ensure that important issues such as flood mitigation and archaeological investigation are undertaken at the right time. That is not going to change, but pre-commencement conditions should not be allowed to become unreasonable barriers to building. Not only do they delay the delivery of much-needed houses, but they create cash-flow issues for builders—something that is particularly problematic for smaller builders and new entrants to the market. To tackle this, the Bill reflects best practice by stopping pre-commencement conditions being imposed without the written agreement of the applicant. It will also create a power to restrict the use of certain other types of planning conditions that do not meet the well-established policy tests in the national planning policy framework. We are currently seeking views on both measures in a consultation paper published by my Department last month.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for taking a short lawyer’s intervention. When he is consulting on planning obligations, will he also consult on the option that was considered in the Housing and Planning Act 2016: the ability for local authorities to buy their own land with planning obligations, as the local planning authority? That would greatly speed up the redevelopment process in urban areas.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the changes to pre-commencement regulations will not mean that developers will not be held to their obligations to develop the infrastructure surrounding new housing? It is often a real challenge for local communities if that is not delivered in a timely way.
I can assure my hon. Friend that the provisions will not mean that happens. Developers will still have clear obligations, and this process will ensure that they will be held to them.
The system of permitted development rights already offers a rapid means of turning commercial premises into much-needed homes. However, we lack accurate and precise data on how many homes are created in this way, which makes it all the harder to build the right number of homes in the right areas, so the Bill will create a requirement to record on the planning register certain applications made under permitted development rights. Collecting these data will bring more facts to the national conversation on house building, help communities to develop neighbourhood plans, and help planning authorities and inspectors to make informed, appropriate decisions. Such a move is long overdue.
Before my right hon. Friend moves on, may I ask whether he will use this Bill to clarify an issue that is much discussed in Wycombe: the status of green-belt land? Is it sacrosanct, or should local authorities review it with a view to getting their local plans through the inspector, who I am told will not pass local plans unless the green belt has been reviewed?
The Bill does not look at green-belt issues, and it does not change in any way the very important protections for the green belt. As my hon. Friend will know, green-belt development can be looked at only in the most exceptional circumstances, and the Bill will not change that.
Before my right hon. Friend moves on, I was wondering whether he would mention the privatisation of the Land Registry. I understood that that was to have been done under the Bill, but that no decision was taken, and that the issue was, in effect, kicked into the long grass. Has privatisation of the Land Registry gone? Could it be brought back? Where are the Government on the issue?
As my hon. Friend has rightly identified, measures on the Land Registry are not part of the Bill, and the decision on privatisation will be for the Government to make in the future; it will not form part of this Bill, nor will it be introduced into the Bill in any shape or form at a later date.
Part 2 concerns compulsory purchase. In an ideal world, such a process would not exist. I would always prefer to see agreement secured through negotiation. However, as a last resort, we all know that it is sometimes necessary, and when that is the case, it is right that the process operates clearly, quickly and, above all, fairly. That does not always happen. Part of the problem is that the process is governed by a complex patchwork of statute and case law that has built up over many years. This slows the process down, increases costs, and bewilders individuals who are caught up in it. Ultimately, it benefits nobody—with the possible exception of lawyers. Clauses 9 to 30 will tackle these issues, making the system more effective, more transparent, cheaper and easier to navigate. Untying the tangle of red tape will speed up the process. Once again, this will mean more homes—and the infrastructure that is required to support them—getting built more quickly.
On the compulsory purchase clauses, what action have the Government taken adequately to consult with Welsh stakeholders, and to learn the lessons of the Housing and Planning Act 2016, given that the Assembly voted down a legislative consent motion relating to the Act on the grounds of insufficient consultation with Welsh stakeholders?
The hon. Lady will know that there has been widespread discussion, and we are still in discussions with the Wales Office and Welsh stakeholders on the issue that she raises.
The first set of provisions will make the process of compulsory purchase clearer. They include consistent rules for temporary possession of land where a permanent compulsory purchase is not required, giving all relevant bodies the same powers. The Bill also establishes a clear and coherent framework for compensation in such cases, filling a long-standing gap in the law and ensuring that all landowners are treated fairly. It sets out exactly what a property owner’s rights and options are when faced with a temporary possession; it is the first time that has been enshrined in primary legislation. The Bill also provides a clearer way to identify market value, making it quicker and easier to agree compensation.
At the moment, the price paid for property subject to compulsory purchase is assessed in the so-called “no scheme world”. This is the market value of land if there were no threat of compulsory purchase, not taking account of any increase or decrease caused by the scheme. The no scheme world is a mixture of obscurely worded statute and over 100 years of sometimes conflicting case law. This Bill brings things up to date; it clarifies and codifies the no scheme world, without altering its core principles, to provide a clearer starting point for all compensation payments.
The new provisions put mayoral development corporations on the same footing as new town and urban development corporations for the purposes of assessing compensation, and extend the definition of “scheme” in those limited circumstances in which regeneration is enabled by a transport project. The Bill repeals redundant legislation that allowed additional compensation to be negotiated after the original settlement. This will further reduce the potential for confusion and uncertainty.
The next set of provisions make the process faster. They create a statutory deadline for bringing confirmed compulsory purchase orders into effect. They also allow Transport for London and the Greater London Authority to make a single, overarching compulsory purchase order for transport and regeneration purposes. At present, they have to artificially divide projects and run parallel processes. This causes unnecessary cost, confusion and delay to much-needed development.
The final clauses will make compulsory purchase fairer. In particular, they ensure that where property is acquired by compulsion, the compensation entitlement is fair to all business tenants occupying the property. They will align the disturbance compensation entitlement of businesses with minor or unprotected tenancies with the more generous entitlement of licensees.
There are already many excellent examples of local authorities working together to meet the housing needs of their areas. Through devolution deals, we have seen combined authorities’ ambitions to bring forward strategic plans that address the needs of real-world communities, rather than of administrative divisions. I want to see more of this. I want more joint planning, more tiers of government working together and, of course, more plans put in place. I want all areas to have one. Failing to put a plan in place creates uncertainty among communities, who are left with no idea of what will be built where, and it creates resentment when developments are eventually imposed through speculative applications.
The House will not be surprised to learn that I agree with the central thrust of the local plans expert group’s recommendations in this area. We need more co-operation and joint planning. The requirement to have a plan should not be in doubt, and the process for putting a plan in place needs to be streamlined. As the expert group set out, most of those changes can and should be made through national policy and guidance, rather than through primary legislation. Should primary legislation be required, I look to use this Bill as the vehicle for it. If we do use the Bill in that way, we will of course ensure that the House has sufficient time to consider the provisions.
In conclusion, we have a nationwide shortage of high-quality, secure, affordable housing. To tackle this, we need new ideas, new policies and new legislation. This Bill provides a solid foundation on which to build. The Bill gives greater responsibility to local communities, letting them decide what sort of development they should have, and where it should take place. It removes more of the red tape that all too often delays construction. It gives us more of the data we need to make informed decisions about planning, and brings the compulsory purchase system firmly into the 21st century, turning it into a well-tuned machine for making development happen. Moreover, the Bill has been welcomed by the British Property Federation, the Royal Town Planning Institute and many others. Above all, the Bill will make it easier to build the homes that our children and grandchildren are crying out for. That is why I am delighted to commend it to the House.
I would like to put on record my thanks to the Secretary of State for his warm welcome.
The Neighbourhood Planning Bill does not appear at first glance to be a controversial one. Indeed, it includes many measures that we support. There are, however, elements of the Bill that could be strengthened or amended, so it was good to hear the Secretary of State say that he might be open to amendments in Committee. Labour Members will support appropriate measures that seek to streamline the delivery of much-needed new homes and further engage local people in the shaping of their communities.
We urgently need new homes, so it is a shame that the Bill misses measures to achieve what was announced in the Queen’s Speech in May, namely putting the National Infrastructure Commission on a statutory footing. However, we are pleased that, following pressure from both sides of the House, the unnecessary step to privatise the Land Registry has been dropped. That has been warmly welcomed by almost everybody in the housing sector, but the Bill must be seen in context, and it cannot be detached from the wider housing crisis we currently face.
The Government say that the aim of the Bill is to free up more land for new housing and to expedite the beginning of building once planning permission has been granted. We face the biggest housing crisis in a generation and urgently need more homes, and the Bill does not go far enough to provide them. The Bill could do so much more to encourage development and engage local residents in the process.
The Bill introduces measures in four key areas: neighbourhood planning, planning conditions, the planning register and compulsory purchase orders. The proposals on neighbourhood planning will allow neighbourhood plans to influence the planning process at an earlier stage, and will help to streamline the making and revision of neighbourhood plans. We support measures to streamline neighbourhood planning and to promote the ability of local residents to participate, but the Bill raises a number of questions. First, as the British Property Federation has noted, greater clarity is needed on the level and weight attributed to neighbourhood plans at every stage of their preparation. For example, more clarity is needed on whether a general direction of travel of a neighbourhood plan would be considered in the determination of a planning application.
Secondly, there is huge concern surrounding resources and the impact that the measure will have on our already stretched local planning authorities. Many of them already lack the resources they need to promote quality placemaking. The new measures make significant demands in terms of time and resources, and many planning departments are working on local plans before the deadline next year. How will the Minister ensure that they will be able to resource both adequately? Local authorities have a statutory duty to support neighbourhood planning groups and to provide a local plan. That could present problems for smaller district councils that have limited resources and capacity to respond to multiple pressures.
I would rather not give way because many hon. Members want to speak and we are short of time.
The Bill needs further measures to clarify the true costs of neighbourhood plans. Currently, councils receive £5,000 for each neighbourhood plan area designated, and £20,000 for each neighbourhood plan referendum, but those figures are the same regardless of the number of electors or the complexity or size of the neighbourhood plan. The costs can exceed the moneys that the council receives.
In addition, neighbourhood planning must be open to all, and disadvantaged communities need to be able to participate. Neighbourhood planning comes with complexities and can require professional support. Planning Aid England and the RTPI help to support groups across the country pro bono, but the Government should adequately support local planning authorities and local communities to shape development in their areas.
The Bill allows the Secretary of State to prescribe when councils should review their statement of community involvement, but why are local councils, which understand their communities and can respond directly to local needs, not trusted to decide when to review their statements of community involvement? Why cannot that be decided at local level rather than being imposed from above? A better balance can be achieved, possibly through amendments in Committee.
The British Property Federation has made a number of recommendations on neighbourhood planning that the Government have failed to explore, including ensuring that neighbourhood plans are consistent with and conform to the national planning policy framework, and setting a minimum turnout threshold in referendums on the adoption of neighbourhood plans. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister is receptive to those suggestions.
The greatest concern in the Bill is on pre-commencement planning conditions. Councils approve almost nine of every 10 planning applications and there is little evidence to suggest that development is being delayed by pre-commencement planning conditions. There has been a cautious reception for the Bill from the sector. London Councils has said that there is little robust evidence to suggest that the current planning conditions system has led to an under-supply of housing.
Before being elected to the House, I ran a business that financed construction projects. I have to tell the hon. Lady that people engaged in such projects frequently complain about the onerous conditions. To give one example, they complain about the requirement to have a bat survey.
I am very interested in the hon. Gentleman’s previous employment, but people always complain about restrictions. Our job is to balance the complaints of the developer against what is best for a local community. I am yet to see firm statistical evidence of how much pre-commencement planning conditions restrict building.
If the hon. Lady is not inclined necessarily to listen to the voice of developers, may I refer her to the representations all hon. Members have received from the District Councils Network? It states:
“The DCN has acknowledged that the discharge of planning conditions can be a factor in slow decision making and supports the government in seeking to address conditions.”
I thank the Minister for his intervention but I would like to see real statistical evidence. Are we trying to solve a problem that does not exist? We all have anecdotal evidence, but perhaps in Committee we will see more evidence.
It is my experience that some developers welcome pre-commencement planning conditions because they enable planning permission to be secured without finalising the full details. It can save work duplication. For example, a developer may not wish to spend significant amounts of time deciding between different types of render for the outside of a development when they know it could be agreed at a later date. Indeed, a condition could be established in the consent to match the local area and street scene.
London Councils says that the measure will put considerable strain on the resources of local planning authorities. It proposes that a better solution would be to promote best practice in pre-application discussions between developers and local planning authorities. There are questions on the process. For example, what if late representations are received, and what if a councillor wishes to add a pre-commencement condition on the night of the planning committee?
Behind that lies the fact that pre-commencement planning conditions are not a bad thing. They have an important role in securing sustainable development that is careful and considerate of local communities. Conditions should be imposed only when consent would not be acceptable without them. By allowing room for negotiation, we are changing the nature of how conditions are set and their purpose. We could inadvertently either encourage inappropriate development by lowering our standards of acceptable development or, when disagreement arises between applicant and planning authority, discourage developers from building, which no hon. Member wants. There are questions about whether the measure is necessary. I look forward to seeing the stats behind it to show that it is. There is an existing framework for applicants to appeal specific conditions that they consider do not meet the national policy tests.
If we are to proceed, it is essential to ensure that the Bill does not have unintended negative consequences. Greater clarity is needed on appeal routes when agreement cannot be reached, and on pre-completion and pre-occupation conditions. It is right that there is a public consultation, but even if the Bill becomes law, I do not anticipate it adding any of the extra homes that we urgently need. It is not pre-commencement planning conditions that slow planning consent, but the chronic underfunding of local planning authorities. It is not pre-commencement planning conditions that slow construction, but the drastic skills shortage in the construction sector. It is not pre-commencement planning conditions that slow new schemes coming forward, but the lack of strategic infrastructure involvement.
I am afraid I need to move on because many hon. Members wish to speak and the hour is late. [Interruption.] There are lots of Government Members.
The Bill makes provision for permitted development to be recorded on the planning register. Given the existing pressures and further commitments in the Bill— I have mentioned the wider question of resourcing—I should like the Minister to consider the funding of planning authorities. When local authorities are pressed for resources—they must decide, for example, between child protection and adult social services—planning is often squeezed.
The Bill attempts to streamline compulsory purchase powers, and includes temporary possession of land to enable schemes to store equipment and machinery so that they can be delivered. The temporary possession of land has been used widely in my constituency under the Crossrail Act 2008. The proposed changes to compulsory purchase orders would enable councils to capture the value from increased land prices to invest in the local infrastructure needed to complement and facilitate new housing schemes. While that can accelerate development, CPOs still require approval from the Secretary of State. Nevertheless, it is hoped that those measures will help to encourage development.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the Bill is what is not in it. Along with the Local Government Association and others, we welcome the news that the Government have not included the planned privatisation of the Land Registry. Will the Minister clarify whether the initiative to privatise the Land Registry has bitten the dust? Has it been kicked into the long grass or is in the rubbish bin?
The Bill is quite different from the measure outlined in the Queen’s Speech earlier this year. The Prime Minister said in her conference speech last week,
“something…we need to do: take big, sometimes even controversial, decisions about our country’s infrastructure.”
However, in the Bill, the Government’s proposal to place the National Infrastructure Commission on a statutory footing has been withdrawn. I hope that the Government will think again.
The Bill aims to build houses, but it does nothing to build communities. The failure to provide the commission with statutory powers to enable strategic decision making on infrastructure is a missed opportunity to tackle the housing crisis. The House Builders Association, which represents small and medium-sized builders, said that the Bill was unlikely meaningfully to increase supply.
This is the sixth piece of legislation in the past six years to make provision for planning. Another Bill passes and the Government fail adequately to resource planning departments, which have faced a 46% cut in funding over the past five years. A recent survey by the British Property Federation identified under-resourcing as the primary cause of delays to development. Another Bill passes, and the Government fail to increase the transparency of viability assessments, which many people believe is the key to ensuring that there is sufficient and appropriate affordable housing. Another Bill passes and we are no closer to developing garden cities and new towns, which we need to build to ensure that our children and our children’s children can find a home of their own.
The Bill will not deliver social housing and the genuinely affordable homes that are desperately needed. It will not provide facilities on new housing developments that are required to build communities, and it is unlikely to facilitate opportunities for the struggling SME builder, or tackle the growing skills crisis in the construction sector. The Bill has failed to tackle those issues, but I am interested to hear the Minister say that there is an appetite to look at the Bill and perhaps amend it in Committee. If it is not amended, the missed opportunity will manifest itself in a continued housing crisis until the Government can step up and match their rhetoric with substance.
I have to admit that I did not expect to be stirred by the statements of the shadow Secretary of State, but her remarks about clause 7 would strike anyone who has been engaged with the planning system over the past many years as quite extraordinary. Pre-commencement conditions imposed by local authorities are a major cause of delay and also distract the officials who she complained were underfunded. One reason why they are over-occupied is that they are too preoccupied issuing absurd pre-commencement conditions that are not properly enforced and lead to massive delays in the process. I warmly welcome clause 7, and hope that the regulations introduced by the Secretary of State will be extremely strong on that issue and will be accompanied by measures to enable us to do in parallel what is currently done in sequence. It takes about two years on average from the time of the first application to the actual completion of homes. Other countries manage that in a year or less, and we could too if processes that are currently done repetitively and in sequence were done in parallel and singly. I hope that we will see those regulations as the Bill proceeds.
Those of us who have been involved with neighbourhood planning since the Conservatives first introduced the proposals—amazingly, nine years ago—are conscious of its huge success. We were told at the beginning that it would be a nimby’s charter, as the Secretary of State rightly mentioned. We were told by others that it would never grip the nation and that there would not really be any neighbourhood plans, but we find that they have been introduced in some 2,000 places. Judging by my constituency, that is the beginning of a tidal wave: more than half the villages of West Dorset intend to engage in neighbourhood planning, and that is increasingly the case for the towns as well. There is no doubt, as the Secretary of State rightly said, that the measure is far from being a nimby’s charter, but as communities engage in neighbourhood planning they wrestle with two conflicting issues: their desire to preserve the look and feel of the places in which they live, which is a reasonable human desire; and the desire that their children and grandchildren should be able to find a home in the locality. I do not know whether the Secretary of State has experienced this, but people have come to my constituency surgery in tears because they could not get a foot on the housing ladder. I cannot remember another subject that has provoked that kind of emotional intensity. For families who have grown up, in some cases over hundreds of years, in small villages where they simply have not been able to build, this is liberation. It has been brought about by neighbourhood planning, because the community feels that it can control the shape and character of what is built so that it is appropriate to the location. That is not something that can be judged from miles away: it is judged on the spot by the locals, and it is a huge success. I therefore warmly welcome clauses 1, 2 and 5, which are the guts of the Bill.
I want to make a few observations about things that I hope can be developed in Committee and on Report. Clause 5 deals with assistance for neighbourhood plans. I had hoped that it would be a little stronger and meatier. It simply requires local authorities to produce an explanation of what they will do to support neighbourhood planning. That is fine—there is nothing wrong with that at all—but I know local authorities, and I suspect that the Department does too, that will write any number of plans and do absolutely nothing. What is needed is the ability for neighbourhoods—in some cases, hard-pressed neighbourhoods that do not have much money; in other cases, neighbourhoods that are small parishes that do not have much money—to get on with the job of neighbourhood planning. I do not think that anyone can expect the public purse to meet those costs, so we need to examine the proposal introduced by the National Association of Local Councils for more of the community infrastructure levy to be devoted to neighbourhood plans, at least when they introduce local development orders, which are extremely effective. We should also look at the possibility of a loan arrangement, in which money from the community infrastructure levy for a neighbourhood plan is used to repay or defray the costs of engaging in the exercise.
It is not a simple exercise. In most neighbourhoods that I have visited up and down the country, and in my own constituency, hundreds of people get involved and it is quite a management exercise. Neighbourhoods can only do it if they employ one or two people who can put the vision up on the board, explain what is proposed, and go through the detailed process—the examination, the referendum and so on—which requires up-front funding. I hope that that can be looked at.
Finally, clauses 1 and 2 are long overdue. In retrospect, we should have introduced them right at the beginning, in the 2010 legislation. My hon. Friend Robert Neill and I were both involved in that, and it is great to see weight being given to post-examination, as in clause 1, and it is absolutely right that post-referendum neighbourhood plans should go into local development plans even if the local authority does not, for one reason or another, complete the task of introducing them. That is an excellent provision in clause 2. However, my hon. Friend Geoffrey Clifton-Brown made a point that is highly relevant. As the Secretary of State said, there are too many local authorities that have not yet introduced new-style local development plans. Unless the neighbourhood plan is couched in terms of a new-style local development plan with a proper strategic grip it is impossible to formulate the right kind of neighbourhood plan, which must conform to the strategic considerations of the local development plan. In some cases, I fear, local authorities have discovered that they can stymie the ability of neighbourhoods to produce neighbourhood plans simply by being recalcitrant about producing new-style development plans.
Given that, in clause 7, the Secretary of State is rightly taking powers to make regulations relating to pre-commencement conditions, I think he should at least consider the possibility of taking further powers to force local authorities to produce new-style local development plans, or else simply to allow a neighbourhood plan to stand in as the development plan for that neighbourhood, sui generis. Either would do, but I think that something must be done to address the problem raised by my hon. Friend.
Having said that, I will end by saying that the Bill is a progressive piece of legislation which should be welcomed throughout the House and throughout the country, because it may help our children and grandchildren to have the homes that they need.
Order. I must congratulate Sir Oliver Letwin on a perfect speech. In my opinion, of course, the content does not count; what counts is merely the length, in precise minutes. I was about to say to the House—but the right hon. Gentleman has illustrated my point perfectly—that if everyone who wishes to take part in the debate speaks for between seven and eight minutes, as the right hon. Gentleman has just done, everyone will have the opportunity to speak, and there will be no need for a formal time limit. If Members do not stick to a self-imposed time limit, there will be a formal time limit, which makes for much less easy-flowing debate.
Before I express my agreement with Sir Oliver Letwin on one important point, let me congratulate the Secretary of State on his brilliant campaign 18 months ago to stop the development of more than 2,000 houses, which was well advertised in his local newspaper. He is truly the king of the nimbys—or, as some would say, he is backing his constituents and his local communities. That contrasts slightly with the message that I understand him to have conveyed somewhere last week when he was attacking the nimbys, because over the past two or three years, following his successful campaign, he has been the greatest of all the nimbys in the House.
I should like to see precisely what the right hon. Member for West Dorset proposed. If a neighbourhood goes through the pain and democracy of agreeing on where more houses should be built in its community, which is part of the requirement of a neighbourhood development plan, and if that is agreed by referendum and endorsed by the local council, it should not be possible to overrule such a level of democracy; but it is.
For example, at the most recent planning committee meeting in the Sturton ward in Bassetlaw, which I know extremely well, the neighbourhood development plan was overruled because the planning officers pointed to the Government’s five-year housing land supply, as identified by the developer. They said, “You can’t have that; you’ve got to have this.” In other words, they said, “You have a plan. You have specified where the housing should be, and what type of housing it should be. A huge number of members of the community participated in the consultation, there was a massive turnout for the ballot, and the plan was unanimously adopted by the district council, but you cannot do it, because Big Brother”—the king of the nimbys—“says that you have to have this, because you have not got enough housing.” However, they had just agreed that they would have more housing. The people who had agreed to have more housing were overruled, which is a total nonsense. The Government could do something about it today, but if they feel that they do not have the necessary power they could stick it in the Bill and then some of us would be happy, because that would be local democracy.
It is not true that the Government are not responsible for the delays in local development plans. On
That is a nonsense, and the Government could do something about it instantly. Our plan would be speeded up overnight if that happened. The public would be consulted, and would agree where housing should go. The Government would get their numbers, and we would get our housing everywhere. Even Bromsgrove would get the housing that it needs.
Let me give a couple of examples of the beauty of neighbourhood development plans. The Sturton ward provides one of the prime examples in the country of how a development plan should be written: an environmentally green development plan that specifies the kind of energy that we want in the community, the implication being that priority in new housing will go to developers who use green technologies. That is a community which is looking to the future and encouraging the right kind of housing. Such planning will enhance green technologies in this country, unlike the arbitrary wind farms and so forth which communities, strangely, do not like. Let communities have control through their development plans. The Government could announce that today—and that is my second request to the Minister.
When mayors are coming to city regions like the new Sheffield city region of which Bassetlaw will doubtless become a part, we should let those new mayors have the appeals. Let us localise the process more, so that there is more accountability, which will mean more housing rather than less. Let us take the process away from the Minister and the Minister’s officials. Surely that appeals to Tory Back Benchers and their sense of community.
Another big plan of which we in Bassetlaw are pioneers is the urban neighbourhood development plan. Virtually everywhere in the country has villages and parishes with parish precepts. They have a bit of money, and they have a democratic structure—rightly so—and that includes parts of my area. But how can such plans be created in an urban area where there is no such structure? It is necessary to think imaginatively. We had the great historic priory church and the Chesterfield canal, and we said to the community, “This is why the church is here, and this is how houses have developed. The church, as an institution and as a building, formed the centre of the community.” Neighbourhood planning of that kind would transform urban environments through lateral thinking. As for funding, hopefully the Canal & River Trust might lend us a plan or put in a bit of money, because the development of the canal would obviously be in its interests.
We have recreated the old, traditional church community. Imagine how planning in this country would have developed if the same had been done in the case of great cathedrals such as St Paul’s 30 years ago! Perhaps people who would visit the other place rather than here would be happy about what might have happened at St Paul’s.
The ability to define community by what has historically been there—waterways, forests and churches—is fundamental to the possibility of transforming urban planning through neighbourhood development planning. The key barrier will be money. That little impoverished community in my area around the great priory church, which was once the biggest church in the country—the end of the road through the forest, historically—has no funding itself, and has no structures for funding. We could have 30 or 40 urban neighbourhood development plans in my communities, but that would impose a huge burden on a small district council. The Government need to think about how to provide incentives, and get the models going. In Retford, for instance, the church is keen to be not just “church as building” but “church as the heart of the community”. Retford can lead the way in developing the built community around the church. Not just churches, but the many communities that have been built around those churches historically, need that kind of original thinking. That could be allowed, but the Government need to give a bit of flexibility. The powers that are local must be kept local. The Government must not overrule them.
The hon. Gentleman ought to know that neighbourhood planning had its origins in the 2003 legislation. That is how Bassetlaw got in first, and I have been around since then promoting it. The concept has been part of the planning arrangements since 2003.
I have endorsed the moves by the Government, except for the absurd one introduced on
Finding a way to build the new homes we need while ensuring that we safeguard our green spaces and protect the character and quality of life in our urban and suburban neighbourhoods is one of the biggest challenges we face in modern Britain. We clearly have to respond to the concerns of the many young people who are finding it difficult to buy or rent the homes they want in the places where they want to live. In my view, however, it is also crucial that we do all we can to protect our open spaces, which play such an important role in the towns and cities of this great country of ours. As an MP representing a constituency that includes substantial areas of green-belt land, I am very much aware of how important it is to maintain full green-belt protection. I welcome the fact that the Bill is entirely consistent with that aim. It is crucial to prevent the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas, to conserve wildlife habitats and to provide crucial opportunities for outdoor health and sporting activities.
Does my right hon. Friend also acknowledge that we need to conserve the ecology of such areas, especially through the use of hedgehog superhighways?
I warmly agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiment and commend his hedgehog campaign.
A number of provisions in the Bill will be helpful in delivering the new homes that we need and to which the Government are committed. We have had some helpful insight into how clauses 1 to 6 will help to strengthen neighbourhood planning and make it more effective. Establishing a register of prior approval applications for permitted development rights under clause 8 will also be welcomed, not least because of the concern felt about such rights. More visibility and transparency will be helpful in that regard. Clauses 9 to 30 look as though they will make the eye-watering complexity of some aspects of the compulsory purchase system somewhat easier to navigate. I hope that that will assist some of the major regeneration schemes.
However, a concern has been raised with me by my constituent Dr Oliver Natelson about the provisions in clause 7 on pre-commencement planning conditions, about which my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin has spoken eloquently. Dr Natelson was worried when media coverage of the announcement of the Bill in the Queen’s Speech indicated that obligations to carry out archaeological and wildlife surveys would be “swept away”. I welcome the Secretary of State’s clarification on that today, and I invite the Minister to expand on it and to confirm that clause 7 will not restrict the power of local councils to impose the planning conditions necessary to make a development acceptable, including those relating to wildlife, habitats, flooding and heritage.
I would also urge the Minister to consider an important point that is not covered by the Bill. It relates to vacant public sector land. An example in my constituency is a site in Wood Street in High Barnet that is owned by the NHS but has not been used for many years and is becoming increasingly derelict. No matter how many times I raise this with the NHS, nothing seems to happen. In my view, it should take a decision either to use it for healthcare purposes or to sell it on so that it can be used for new homes or open space.
I should like to illustrate some of the general issues underlying the Bill and its objectives by considering the situation in my Chipping Barnet constituency. Over the last five years, around 5,300 new homes have been delivered in the borough of Barnet, including more than 2,000 affordable homes. This is the biggest programme of house building in outer London, and Barnet’s Conservative council plans to deliver another 20,000 homes over the next 10 years. In order to do that while conserving our precious green spaces and protecting the character of our suburban environment, the council has embarked on a number of large regeneration projects. These include four of the borough’s largest housing estates, one of which is Dollis Valley in my constituency. These regeneration projects are due to deliver 7,000 new homes—4,000 more than were previously on the estates—with a mix of social rent, affordable and market rate homes to buy. Although this work started over 10 years ago, it has much in common with the council estate regeneration strategy announced by the Government in February. By 2020, it is hoped that the council will have built 500 new council homes. So far, 40 have been built but the pace of delivery is increasing.
A key consideration in relation to planning and house building, whether in national debates in Parliament such as this one or in local discussions on development proposals, is whether the local infrastructure can cope with the new demands being placed on it. Locally in Barnet, work is under way to try to deliver this in relation to the housing schemes I have mentioned. For example, 10 new or replacement schools are planned across the borough at primary and secondary level, as well as new college and university buildings. I also warmly welcomed the recent opening of the Hope Corner community centre as part of the Dollis Valley regeneration scheme in my constituency, and I thank Barnet Council and Barnet Churches Action for enabling that to happen. I am sure that the community centre will be a great asset for the many new homes that are already being delivered as part of the regeneration.
However, issues surrounding infrastructure are sometimes difficult or impossible to resolve. In my constituency, that is particularly true when they relate to local roads and transport. This was one of the many reasons I opposed the redevelopment of Cat Hill on the boundary of my constituency. It is deeply regrettable that my constituents are already suffering the negative consequences of Enfield Council’s decision to grant planning permission for that project. I am also concerned about a proposal to redevelop the North London Business Park in the Brunswick Park area of my constituency. Many residents are strongly opposed to this plan, and understandably so. I try to support new homes where I can, but that application is just not acceptable. Some 1,200 new homes are proposed, including five blocks at least seven storeys high, with other blocks of up to 10 storeys high. As my constituent Gilbert Knight put it in his representations to the planning authority, this would be
“massive in scale and out of keeping with the surrounding low-rise residential areas”.
Another grave concern is the proposal to create an entrance to the site from Ashbourne Avenue. A similar proposal was rejected back in the 1960s because the roads could not cope with it, and I sincerely hope that it will be rejected again for that reason. That is one of the many reasons I am resolutely opposed to this development, alongside ward councillor Lisa Rutter.
I should like to move on to some happier examples in which the planning system looks as though it will deliver new homes in a way that is much more acceptable to local residents and much more in tune with the local environment. New Barnet provides an example of how active community associations can shape the character of their local neighbourhoods, defeat plans they do not like and still deliver significant numbers of new homes. In a four-year battle, the Save New Barnet campaign group defeated attempts by both Asda and Tesco for new supermarkets in the area. Rather than just opposing the plans, residents put forward a credible and workable alternative for new homes. Eventually, both supermarket giants gave up the struggle and decided that it was best to work with rather than against the local community. New homes have been built on the Tesco site, and around 364 are now likely to go ahead on the Asda land. There are still issues to be resolved, not least in ensuring that section 106 money goes to benefit the immediate surrounding area rather than being spent further afield. None the less, this is an illustration of how a system that has a very active role for local communities is not incompatible with delivering new homes, which is why I thought it was appropriate to refer to it in a debate on this Bill.
In conclusion, although the Bill provides some useful improvements to a number of aspects of the planning system, there are still some important issues with which to grapple. I will leave the Minister with a few questions about the Bill and the Government’s approach to delivering more homes. First, I would like his views on the calls by local authorities to be able to recover more clearly the costs of the planning process through the fees that they levy on applications made. Secondly, what further steps can be taken to ensure that landowners build the homes for which they have been given planning permission, rather than land banking them? Thirdly, what further action can be taken to help London residents to buy property in the capital and compete with investment buyers from around the world who are pushing up prices?
Finally, I wish to draw the House’s attention to some picturesque fields in the northern part of my constituency in High Barnet. This is known locally as Whalebones because of the whalebone gateway that frames the entrance to the land. With its field of geese, it is a local landmark that is held in great affection. Sadly, it is now under threat from development.
In my speech this evening, I have sought to emphasise some of the big efforts that are being made to deliver thousands of new homes in my local borough through regeneration and brownfield development. We need new homes, and this Bill will help to deliver more of them. We can build them without sacrificing vital green spaces such as Whalebones. That is why I will be campaigning with determination to protect this much-loved enclave of green space, which matters so much to my constituents in Chipping Barnet.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, and it is a pleasure to follow Mrs Villiers.
I am a supporter of neighbourhood planning. Before entering this place, I spent my working life as a town planner seeking to involve and engage communities in planning policymaking. I know the benefits that come from giving communities the ability to shape planning policy and from giving that policy formal weight in the planning process. I therefore welcome the measures in this Bill, which will strengthen neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood planning. I also have concerns about several aspects of this Bill, which reflect my wider concerns about the Government’s approach to planning.
We have in the UK a strong plan-led system, which allows democratically elected local authorities to lay out the basis on which applications for new development will be considered. There is no excuse for not having a plan in place or for poor performance. Last year, the Government made that system less coherent with the introduction of permission in principle, which introduces a blunt form of zoning into our finely balanced plan-led system that is capable of balancing so many different interests and concerns to get to a good decision.
I am concerned that this Bill does nothing to address the serious under-resourcing of planning departments while also giving local authorities new responsibilities to resource neighbourhood planning. Resources for local planning departments have been cut by 46% in the past five years, and the British Property Federation—not councils themselves but the private sector—identifies that this under-resource is the primary cause of problems in the planning system. During debates on the Housing and Planning Bill, I argued that councils should be able to recover the full cost of development management services through fees. I was very disappointed that the Government rejected that proposal at the time, and I hope that the new Minister will reconsider it. It is a common-sense proposal that will make a huge difference to efficient planning decision making.
Councils must also be properly resourced to support neighbourhood planning, Involving and engaging communities is resource intensive, particularly in areas where there are high levels of deprivation, but unless it is done properly we will not have neighbourhood plans that fully represent the views of the local community. Sadly, it remains the case that those in our communities who often stand to gain the most from the things that planning can deliver—for example those in housing need—are often those whose voices are not heard in debates about planning policy, and that must change.
I am concerned that this Bill proposes to water down pre-commencement conditions. Planning conditions are one of the significant levers that local planning authorities have to secure the best possible outcomes for communities. Very often, the things that form the basis for conditions are make or break issues for communities—anything from providing additional sewer capacity to the choice of bricks. Conditions should not be unreasonable, but it should remain the prerogative of the local authority to decide what conditions best protect the interests of local residents. The idea that conditions can be imposed only following the written agreement of the developer greatly underestimates the role that conditions play in ensuring good outcomes. This proposal also sets up an unnecessarily adversarial relationship between applicant and local authority where, in reality, it is best practice for the parties to come together to discuss and agree conditions through the pre-application process. I hope that the Government will reconsider this proposal.
I am concerned that the measures in this Bill relating to permitted development rights do not even begin to address the problems that are being caused by the extension of those rights to allow the conversion of offices to residential without planning consent. In London, the policy is having a detrimental effect on the supply of business space in some areas. We are also seeing new homes being delivered without regard for the physical infrastructure or public services to support an increasing population because they are not subject to section 106 agreements. We are seeing new homes being delivered without regard to minimum space standards or the types of homes that are most needed. Most importantly, we are seeing new homes being delivered with no affordable housing being provided in areas where it is desperately needed.
Instead of tinkering with the policy around permitted development rights, the Government should be radically rethinking it so that all new homes are subject to the full requirements of the planning process and developers are not able to profit from new homes without contributing to the green space, play space, school places and medical facilities that their residents will need in the future.
Fundamentally, this is a tinkering piece of legislation when we need major reform. It is polishing the bannister when the staircase is falling down. The housing crisis is one of the most significant issues facing our country. The planning system is critical to delivering both the new homes that we need and the successful communities that we want to see. This is no less than a debate about the future of our communities for our children and our grandchildren, the kind of places that we want them to be able to live in and the quality of life that we want them to have. Properly resourced planning is a tool for delivery not a barrier—a tool for ensuring fair outcomes and high quality. Instead of this paltry Bill, the Government should be setting out a vision for planning and for involving communities in planning; bringing forward a national infrastructure commission on a statutory footing, because infrastructure is critical to the delivery of new homes; building up our plan-led system as the basis for certainty in decision making; establishing a basis in legislation for new towns and garden cities; setting a context for communities and councils to come together to plan for the future; and resourcing councils to build the genuinely affordable council homes that we so desperately need. As this Bill passes through Parliament, I hope that the Government will take the opportunity to reconsider it and to make it fit for the challenges that we face.
It is a pleasure to follow Helen Hayes. I agreed with some of the things that she said, and certainly with the emphasis that she placed on infrastructure and the need to get it right. We have a strange system in which we bring forward development as if it is a bad thing, and put in facilities—she mentioned green spaces, but there are many other things that communities want, such as health facilities and primary schools—afterwards to mitigate the “bad effects” of development. However, recognising that the words “cities” and “civic” are cognate with “civilisation”, we should be bringing forward holistic schemes that create good places in the first instance.
I disagreed with the hon. Lady, though, when she nearly made it sound as though the planning system would be almost as perfect a work of art as any rendered by Leonardo da Vinci were it not for one thing—the way that not enough taxpayers’ money was being hosed over the planning departments of this country. Teresa Pearce said something similar. It seems to me that the problems are rather more fundamental.
I welcome the Bill, mainly because it gives people a local voice. I agree with all the views expressed by my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin; he is no longer here, so I shall not dwell on this, but I welcome the fact that John Mann is in his place. He is a great tribune of his constituents and is also the vice-chairman of the all-party group on self-build, custom and community house building and place-making, which has a longer name than any other all-party group as it is a better and more important all-party group than any other, with the possible exception of the all-party beer group. It recognises, as does the hon. Gentleman, that the really important thing about getting the voice right is that it should be the voice of the people who are going to live in the dwellings.
The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood said that the local planning system should embrace every single house, and talked about the colour of bricks as if it were a good thing that local councillors were deciding the colour of bricks. I had a conversation recently with a local house builder who had a plan for a very modern house. Naturally, he wanted a render that was appropriate for that. It was bright white. He had a conversation with his local planning officer—I am not making this up—who said, “No, no. It’s too white. It’s too stark. You shouldn’t do that,” so he asked the planning officer to look at the relevant page on the website and choose the colour. She was a little nonplussed by this, but the house builder said, “You don’t want the one that I want, so why don’t you choose one and save a lot of time?” Eventually she chose a colour, which he said he would change in due course if he did not like it. It ought not to be necessary to have such a conversation. I have met house builders who have had seven or eight choices of gutter colour refused.
In each of our constituencies, we can think of examples of developments that, because of poor finishing and poor-quality choices of building materials, blight their communities for decades. It is not a trivial point that I am making. Once something is built, it affects that community for many, many years to come. These things are important.
I agree that they are important. The best people to choose the quality of the materials, and to make sure that they are of the highest possible standard, are the people who will live in those dwellings, not somebody else working to a profit margin, which is why more self-build and custom house building will result in higher quality.
I said earlier that I agreed with the hon. Lady on the subject of the local voice. I support the Bill because we need more local voice. The fundamental problem we face is that when people oppose development, they do so not because they want to see their family in trouble or not having somewhere to live. I have yet to meet the woman who wants her daughter or granddaughter to live in a ditch, and I do not think I am going to meet that person. They oppose development because they feel that local people have no say—no voice—in what gets built, where it is built, what it looks like or who has the first chance to live there. If we change that, we change the conversation completely.
Another reason why self-build and custom house building driven by customers is so important is that instead of opposition, it is met with local acceptance. I know that the chairs of many parish councils want to see dwellings in their local areas designed by local people for local people, to help local people. Of course, that also has the benefit of helping local house builders—local small and medium-sized enterprises, rather than large combines such as Persimmon, which are interested only in the bonus pool, which will result in 150 top managers getting a £600 million bonus pot, if they do reasonably well; it will be larger than that if they do very well. That business, like the banks, has been propped up by huge amounts—many billions of pounds—of taxpayers’ money through Help to Buy and various other schemes. I would rather see that money going into higher-quality materials, better thermal performance and bigger spaces.
The fundamental question, which we have not been very good at answering so far, is why we have a shortage. People give different answers. We have heard about the lack of planning resource, although we have thousands of unbuilt extant planning permissions, so the reason can hardly be planning by itself. We often hear that there is a lack of land. Only 1.2% of the land area of this country is taken up with houses. The Ministry of Defence alone has 2% of the land area of the UK. There are more golf courses in Surrey than there are houses. The problem is not planning per se; it is a lack of accessible land, a lack of financeable propositions, rather than a lack of finance, and a planning model that is broken.
If we want to correct that, we need to put customers at the heart of that model—people who will live in those dwellings. The way to do that is to separate the business of placemaking—all the things that I am sure the hon. Lady would agree with: creating places that are well served, well designed, well run, well governed and well connected—from the business of building houses on infrastructure that is already in place, with well serviced plots that have all the things that we would expect, including fibre to the premises, water, gas and so on, provided by one of the many hundreds of suppliers. There is a growing market of people out there who are willing to supply the house that people want, rather than what a very small number of large companies are telling people that they want. We need to put the customer at the centre, as in all other successful markets. That is the way that we will solve the housing crisis.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr Bacon, who is an authority on housing and planning. It did not take him long to get on to self-build homes.
It is a great pleasure to participate in a debate on planning—an area in which we get only one opportunity in many generations to get it right. Once land is developed, it stays developed for many years—perhaps several hundred years, if it is housing. We need to give more thought to getting that right. Development provides economic activity, the homes that are so badly needed, better conditions and a better environment.
Since the Localism Act 2011, the role of neighbourhood planning has been well entrenched as an integral part of our planning system. I am proud that in my constituency the 100th referendum has taken place in Coton Park. That arose as my constituency is the fastest-growing town in the west midlands. I am pleased that the neighbourhood plan was developed in an urban area. It was interesting that John Mann seemed to indicate that it was easy for villages to draw up a neighbourhood plan, but more challenging for urban areas. That certainly is the case. One of the first issues for Coton Park was identifying the area that the plan would relate to. I was very proud to add my foreword to its neighbourhood plan, and I would like to learn from its experience.
It is important to understand how the neighbourhood plan came about. This was a new community with housing that was built 10 or 15 years ago. There was no established community in the area. The community came together, interestingly, to oppose a planning application for industrial use close by. It argued its case and succeeded, causing the developer to change his plans for the site. I advised members of the community that, having come together to effect that change in planning, there was a strong reason for them to remain together and produce a neighbourhood plan that would influence future development in the area. They started in 2011 with their application for front-runner status. It took them until October 2014 to submit their neighbourhood plan, which went to a referendum in October 2015 and was finally approved in December last year.
Among the many observations I have about the plan, the first is that it took too long. The process took four years, and I am concerned that the time taken on the only such plan that has been prepared in my constituency will be a disincentive to other communities. It was my hope that, the community having been a front runner and having got its neighbourhood plan in place, I would see other communities in my constituency come forward. However, only four others have done so, which is disappointing. I hope that when he responds, the Minister will talk about ways of speeding up and simplifying the process. I am pleased to see the provisions in the Bill that require local authorities to set out the nature of the support that they are able to provide to communities. That will give those communities the confidence to embark on the project.
In Coton, the community was incredibly lucky to have a number of forum members who were not in full-time employment and were able to put in the work involved in developing the neighbourhood plan. That is pretty extensive. It involves surveying the entire area, talking to residents and getting those surveys back before starting the work of drawing up the document. Perhaps the Minister will speak about the level of detail required in some neighbourhood plans. In some instances, it goes too far, which exaggerates the amount of work and time required to develop the plan.
It is certainly harder for urban areas to bring forward a neighbourhood plan, but in constituencies such as mine, where the majority of development is focused in the urban areas, rural communities often wonder why they should bother with a neighbourhood plan when it is so much easier, cheaper and quicker to develop a parish plan. Parish plans do not carry the same weight within the planning system, of course, but if development is unlikely, there is a question mark over whether a community would want to go through the substantial amount of work involved in drawing up a neighbourhood plan.
However, there are some absolutely wonderful benefits of a community undertaking a neighbourhood plan, and one of them is that it gets new people involved in the democratic process. It strengthens local democracy and brings forward people we might not otherwise see. A great example is a lady called Jill Simpson-Vince, who chaired the Coton Park neighbourhood plan team. She had never considered getting involved in local democracy, but she was persuaded, through her involvement in the community, to become a councillor. She now chairs our local planning committee. Neighbourhood plans are therefore a great way of bringing people forward.
Of course, when people get engaged in that way, they become much more receptive to development, because they can have a hand in influencing exactly what takes place. The Secretary of State spoke about this earlier. Communities that develop their own neighbourhood plan tend to take, on average, 10% to 11% more housing than they otherwise would, because they find themselves in the driving seat. To pick up on the remarks from Helen Hayes, where people can shape development, they will ensure better development. Sometimes it is hard to get a community to understand what good development is. They often know what bad development is, because they have seen it, but too often they do not recognise good development when they see it. However, if they are involved in a neighbourhood plan, they will go to places to see what good development is, and they will then be able to recognise what is good in their own neighbourhood plan.
I have one negative point to make. One experience from the Coton Park neighbourhood plan is that the community at times felt a little hamstrung by the control that the local planning authority held. For example, the grant that was provided to the community to develop the neighbourhood plan was initially devolved to the local authority, which led to a feeling within the neighbourhood plan team that the local authority had a say in what they were bringing forward. If the Minister can find some way to subvert that, so that the money goes directly to those communities, we will end up with better neighbourhood plans.
I want to thank the Royal Town Planning Institute and its team of Planning Aid officials. For example, a gentleman called Bob Keith provided expertise to Coton Park. I gather that that advice and expertise is being provided from other sources. It is incredibly important that a community that is coming together to draw up a plan has someone who can offer help and assistance but is not part of the local authority.
The success of Coton’s neighbourhood plan is that the team identified serious issues within their community, particularly with access roads and existing roundabouts. The area covered by the neighbourhood plan has been extended and will include Coton Park East, and the developer of the area has adopted within its planning the principles laid down in the Coton Park neighbourhood plan. I am delighted that the community has just been informed that the section 106 moneys that are coming forward from development will improve the roundabouts, which were the biggest single item that emerged from the local survey. That would not have happened without the neighbourhood plan, but it is frustrating that it took as long as it did to rectify a problem that was identified five years ago.
I am delighted that more weight will be given to neighbourhood plans as this process is developed. It means that even if the process does take time, there will be much greater regard for it, and the results will be evidence-based.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you are indicating that I should bring my remarks to a close. There is much in this Bill that is of great advantage. The neighbourhood plans system is working effectively. We just need more encouragement for more communities to take advantage of the opportunities that the Bill will provide them with.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mark Pawsey. Since becoming a Member of Parliament, I have found that, rather like the Secretary of State, concerns about planning are by far the most common issue that constituents raise with me, whether it is increasing pressure on local services and transport infrastructure or frustrations with the local council for failing to listen to and act on their concerns. A recent email I received perfectly captured local feelings in just four words: “Enough housing, infrastructure required”.
Planning failures—everything from the daily commute, to people’s children having access to a good local school, to the place where they live having a sense of community— have the greatest impact on peoples’ lives. When building new houses, the focus has too often been on providing new dwellings for newcomers, with an apparent disregard for existing residents. Road networks designed for a village have to cope with the traffic of a town, plus the additional out-of-town traffic thundering through narrow streets. As the demand for housing increases, we must recognise and respond to the challenges that additional housing brings for existing residents, rather than focusing all our attention on creating new residents.
A glaring example of the failure of planning is the A5225 in my constituency, which ought to be serving the local population. Wigan Borough Council has built most of the route that goes through its borough, but Bolton Council has not followed suit. In fact, in Atherton there is a roundabout junction with massive concrete blocks showing where the A5225 should have been continued, and daily we see the problems that its absence creates. There is now a proposal for 1,700 houses to be built over the proposed route of the A5225, thus preventing its completion. That is a double failure that guarantees that road upgrades will be impossible while delivering massive and unsustainable housing development.
Hundreds of constituents replied to my online survey about congestion in Bolton West, and the vast majority of people from Westhoughton thought that a revived plan for the A5225 would be the right solution to our congestion problems. I am currently running a petition, to be presented to Bolton Council, against the proposed 1,700 houses at the Chequerbent roundabout, and it has been signed by over 1,000 local people. This development, and those proposed for Hulton and south of Atherton, will add many thousands of people and cars to the local area. Local opinion is that the council, rather than seeking to fulfil a house building quota, should be playing catch-up for the decades of missing infrastructure.
My constituency is now part of the commuter belt for Manchester, a work destination for other commuters and a place where people further out in Lancashire use the local railway stations for park and ride. That all adds pressures on the local road and rail network that do not seem to have been addressed when each individual housing project is designed and built. The pace of development for transport is lacking considerably in Bolton West. For example, I receive many complaints about the rail service and how capacity can be increased on the line, which takes people from Blackrod, Horwich and Lostock en route to Bolton and Manchester. Although I welcome the electrification that will add 281 new carriages to the local route, with an increased service of 12% by 2019, in the longer term that will not reduce the pressure on services due to an increased population resulting from the additional housing.
I would be grateful if the Minister informed the House what discussions his Department has had with the Department for Transport on what type of housing developments are best for encouraging the use of public transport, and what conclusions have been drawn from this. Norman Lamb, who is not in his place at the moment, highlighted carbon neutrality as an important part of any new development. A great problem with suburban developments and rolling suburbia is that it is very difficult to have local transport infrastructure—whether buses or railways—that works. We perhaps need to be more mindful of the need to build up and not necessarily always out.
I am pleased that the Bill includes measures to further strengthen neighbourhood planning and to give even more power to local people, but I hope that, by setting ambitious targets to build 1 million homes by 2020, the Government are not creating an environment in which councils—perhaps under pressure from developers—will disregard infrastructure requirements or the opinions of local residents. After all, the original title of the Bill, as introduced in the Queen’s Speech, was the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill, and we should not make a decision on one without being mindful of the other.
Communities need as much certainty as possible about where and when development will take place. I am encouraged that the Bill seeks to increase transparency on the part of the local council, requiring local planning authorities to publish their policies for giving advice and assistance to people preparing or updating neighbourhood plans. At present people have little faith that their council has the bigger picture in mind when several smaller developments are approved without thought to local amenities, while a development that is as large as the sum of those smaller developments would require accompanying infrastructure support. There is much more to be done to give communities—not councils—more rights in the planning process.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate and to follow my hon. Friend Chris Green.
Let me say at the outset that I have no quibbles at all with the provisions of the Bill, which are sensible enhancements to the neighbourhood planning process. I very much support the overall principles of neighbourhood planning: it is absolutely right that local communities have the ability to shape the future size and content of development. I also accept absolutely that neighbourhood plans cannot be out of kilter with the overall strategic housing needs of a town or a wider local authority area. My right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin correctly made the point that neighbourhood plans have not been a nimbys’ charter, and communities engage enthusiastically with them.
However, I do have some concerns, which I would like to put on the record. I am concerned that the potential for neighbourhood planning is impaired by some of the unintended consequences of wider planning issues, and several Members, particularly John Mann, alluded to that. Let me illustrate the point further with an example from my constituency.
On the southern edge of Milton Keynes is a charming little village called Bow Brickhill. It has a few hundred residents. It is a place of great civic pride and engagement. If there is a charity event to raise funds for a local facility, the residents are the ones who put together all the events to raise the money. They have engaged enthusiastically with neighbourhood planning, and many of them have devoted considerable time and energy and their own resources to developing the plans. They are far from being nimbys; in their plans, they wish to see some sensible development. They want, naturally, to preserve the semi-rural character of the village, both for its own sake and because it is one of the leisure facilities of the Milton Keynes area, with plenty of open spaces. However, the residents are now becoming confused, exasperated and, indeed, angry that the hard work they have put in may come to nothing. The problem is nothing to do with their neighbourhood plan; it is to do with Milton Keynes’s ability to meet the rigid five-year supply target. Let me just put that in context.
Milton Keynes has made an enormous contribution to the number of new houses in this country. We celebrate our 50th birthday in January, and our population is already well in excess of the quarter of a million the original planners envisaged. We have developed plans, which are now being considered by the local authority, to further expand the population—potentially by as much as 400,000—over the next few decades. The National Infrastructure Commission has been tasked by the Government to look at developing the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor as an economic and housing growth and a transport development project, with projects such as east-west rail and the Oxford to Cambridge expressway. I am in the top 10 electorates in the country, and at every election I contest there—I have done four now—there are more and more doors through which to deliver leaflets.
In addition, in 2013, Milton Keynes Council passed its core strategy, which will deliver 28,000 houses over the next 10 years, but they are not being developed quickly enough. I do not have time to go into all the reasons why that is the case, but we are not meeting that target. Consequently, unplanned, speculative applications for housing outside the development areas are being granted, and some of those are immediately adjacent to the village of Bow Brickhill. If they are granted, they will, effectively, render redundant its neighbourhood plan. That is why the neighbourhood is considerably concerned.
Compounding this situation is the fact that the neighbouring authority—Aylesbury Vale—had a local plan that did not get through the inspectorate. It is now working on a new plan, but in the absence of that, applications for even larger speculative developments are being put in right on the border between Aylesbury Vale and Milton Keynes. These are massive developments and would change utterly the semi-rural area around Milton Keynes.
Therefore, we have a situation in which, in a part of the country where we have expanded and want to develop; where we have enthusiastic communities that want to take part in shaping their neighbourhoods; and where we are in line with wider Government objectives on transport planning and we are developing the Oxford to Cambridge corridor; all that planned, sustainable development is under threat because we are not meeting the rigid targets I mentioned.
I therefore simply ask the Minister to give us some space and flexibility to develop our plans, either by giving flexibility on the five-year target or by bringing in measures to speed up the delivery of already agreed housing. That would be widely applauded in the local area, and it would reignite the enthusiasm for neighbourhood planning.
I am grateful to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to follow my hon. Friend Iain Stewart. I will be brief, as the hour is late. I have one or two things, as a chartered surveyor and declaring my Member’s interests as a landowner, that I would like to say about the Bill, which I warmly welcome.
Neighbourhood planning is very important. The problem is that, in my constituency, it is not working. It is not working because I represent two local authorities, one of which has a local plan and the other of which—Cotswold—does not have a local plan, for reasons best known to itself. The result, I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, is that, in The Cotswolds, which is 80% in the area of natural beauty, we have one of the most complicated planning systems anywhere in the country. I represent over 100 towns and villages, and we do not have a single neighbourhood plan adopted, because we do not have a local plan in place. That cannot be acceptable, and I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s statement today that he will take powers in the Bill to force local authorities, that have been laggards, like mine, to get a local plan in place.
My hon. Friend has taken the words out of my mouth—I would do exactly that. We need to simplify neighbourhood plans, as we have done in this Bill. We need to give them greater weight, as we have done in the Bill.
However, there are problems even where there is a local plan in place. Stroud District Council has a local plan in place. I have a village in the very south of my constituency, which is huge—65 miles long—that has an advanced-stage, very professional neighbourhood plan, and there is also a local plan in place. However, a developer took the district council to appeal over an area right next to the cricket pitch and the village hall. The village was desperate not to develop it, but the decision was overturned on appeal. I would just say to my hon. Friend the Minister that, where there is a local plan and a neighbourhood plan in place, it should be de rigueur that the Planning Inspectorate does not overturn those plans on appeal, except in wholly exceptional circumstances.
I warmly welcome the powers to look at pre-commencement orders. As a chartered surveyor, I have advised, on an unpaid basis, on a very big development in East Anglia. Although it was designated in the local plan from the beginning, the process took five years because of the over-zealousness of the local authority. Think of all the houses that could have been built by now if the over-zealous pre-commencement conditions were not in place.
Finally, I want quickly to move on to compulsory purchase because nobody has said much about that in this debate. I spent many months sitting on the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill Select Committee, and I have seen how HS2, as a major public acquiring authority, works. Some of the compulsory acquisitions, of which there were a very large number, were in my view over-zealous. We need to be careful about large acquiring authorities being over-zealous.
I am grateful for the provisions in the Bill on temporary acquisitions, but, equally, the requirement for such acquisitions should be tempered by what the acquiring authority needs to do on them. If it needs to demolish somebody’s house, proper compensation should be paid.
I am concerned about the provision to do away with the 10-year disturbance payment. Where there is an uplift in the value of the land, even subsequently, the person whose land has been acquired gets some benefit from that uplift. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about the no scheme world. In theory, that is an ideal way of valuing a property—as a chartered surveyor, I know about these things—because it ignores the uplift, or indeed the fall, caused by the scheme itself. The danger is that the acquiring authority will acquire properties too cheaply, because there will be no allowance for any hope value for potential planning permission. Given that a lot of the big schemes are near centres of population, where the land will—if not immediately, at least in due course a few years down the line—get planning permission, it seems to me that the acquiring authority is getting an unnecessary advantage.
However, I warmly welcome the provisions for compulsory purchase whereby interest can be paid and payments in advance can be made. As we saw on the HS2 Bill, all these things are desperately necessary. With those few words, I warmly welcome this Bill.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate because planning has certainly affected my constituency for a good number of years. I was going to touch on the five-year land supply issue, but that has been ably covered by a number of colleagues.
My constituency is part of Leeds. It has enjoyed a great deal of prosperity and growth, but if I look at just one of the wards in my constituency, it has seen more than 1,000 homes built in it during the past few years, with very little infrastructure to support it. There is therefore a growing sense of frustration when people cannot get to work because the roads are congested, when their children cannot get into the school or when they struggle to get a doctor’s appointment. As a consequence, when neighbourhood planning was first introduced, it was seen as an opportunity for communities such as mine.
I must say, however, that in our instance there was concern right from the very outset. In its core strategy, the city council decided to build 70,000 homes during the plan period. That is an ambitious target—it will mean a considerable number of houses have to be built each year—but the problem is that that target, we believe, was based on outdated information. It was based on the 2008 population projections, which said that the number of people across the city would go up to 765,000 by 2011. The census showed us that that was wrong, with a 14,000 difference.
I am raising this matter because the city council obviously has to find sites on which to build these houses. In my constituency, all the mills and factories have gone, and we have done the right thing by building houses to regenerate those sites. However, all we have left now is the green belt. The neighbourhood plans in my areas have to conform to the strategic approach of the city council, which says that we have to build 70,000 houses. My areas have to adhere to that in the neighbourhood plans, and are therefore being forced to look at green-belt sites. They do not want to do that—of course they do not want to—and they are actively trying to stop that happening. I see a real problem because if my areas put forward such green-belt sites in a referendum, there is absolutely no way that that would get through, and we would not therefore have a neighbourhood plan.
I have asked questions time and again. I welcome my hon. Friend to his post. He will be hearing a lot from me, I am sure, over the coming months.
Indeed. I extend to my hon. Friend a warm invitation to visit my constituency so that he can see the issues that we face at first hand.
Time and again, in questions and letters, I have asked about the exceptional circumstance in which the green belt can be developed and, time and again, we have been told that housing targets cannot be considered as an exceptional circumstance. However, in the neighbouring authority of Bradford—it abuts my constituency—the inspector recently said that such houses can be built because the figure is aspirational and the employment criteria allow it to happen. There is now even more concern in my constituency that when this goes to the inspector, he will say, because the figure of 70,000 has been agreed, that we can build on the green belt. That would have a terrible effect on my constituency. The green belt is there to stop urban sprawl. We do not want to be just a part of the big city of Leeds. The identifiable towns of Guiseley, Yeadon, Rawdon, Horsforth, Calverley, Farsley and Pudsey all have their own identity.
Yes, Rodley. If I miss one out, I will be in real trouble.
I am trying to make the point that there is a willingness to make neighbourhood plans work, but when there is such a conflict with the city council, it is very difficult to introduce them. There is real concern about the green belt, and I hope that the Minister will come to my constituency soon so that I can show him, in detail, the problems we are facing.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and to welcome the Minister to his place. I will be comparatively brief because I endorse everything said by my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin about neighbourhood plans. One of the great enjoyments of my earlier career was to work with him in developing the policy at an early stage. He is right that we did not pick up on some bits of it at the time, but the Minister and his colleagues now have a chance to finish the job.
I have two thoughts about neighbourhood plans. It is important that we push forward with them. I have been disappointed by the slow take-up in areas of outer London, for example, compared with many other parts of the country. That is why it is right to take the measures we are taking. If I may be blunt, I also have a concern that, in some cases, some of our colleagues on local government planning authorities do not always encourage the development of neighbourhood plans because, frankly, they do not want to give up the power that comes from sitting on the borough or district planning committee. That goes wholly against the spirit of what we, as a party, are trying to do. I therefore welcome such steps.
I have another practical suggestion. Currently, the Government leave a gap of eight weeks between the referendum and the making of the plan. I understand why that is done. According to the statute, it is essentially to enable the consideration of any conflict with European and human rights law. Will the Minister consider whether that gap is necessary? Eminent lawyers have suggested that it is almost inconceivable that a plan would advance to the referendum stage without those issues being considered. If we revisited that, we could probably shave another two months off the bringing of a plan into force. Perhaps we may discuss that as the Bill progresses.
The proposal on planning conditions is right. I have seen the abuse of planning conditions. To give just one example, a religious body based in my constituency wanted planning permission for a place of worship in a neighbouring authority, I am glad to say. It was hit with 24 conditions, 14 of them pre-commencement. A number of them in effect duplicated building regulation requirements, including one that undermined the exemption that the faith group has under part L of the building regulations on fuel conservation. That cannot be right and is an abuse.
There is a concern that if one appeals against a planning condition, potentially the whole permission is up for consideration by the inspector. Would it not be sensible to amend the regulations such that it is purely the condition that is appealed against that is subject to the appeal and any consideration of papers or, although unlikely, an inquiry? That would save uncertainty for the whole scheme and encourage people to move swiftly.
It would certainly speed things along markedly.
The planning register is a sensible and useful device. May I float another suggestion with the Minister? The Welsh Assembly Government have put the historic environmental record on a statutory footing. It might be useful to do that here so that local heritage information is available. That would avoid the risk of something being thrown up that delays the process after a good deal of investment has taken place.
Finally, I endorse all the comments made by my good friend, my hon. Friend Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, about compulsory purchase. He referred to the rates of interest. It is important that we deal swiftly with those matters. As I said to the Secretary of State, perhaps he would be prepared to meet some of us to yet again revisit the vexed issue of the inability of local planning authorities to impose planning conditions on their own land—land that they own as a landowner—that they would enforce as a local authority. Their inability to do that is bizarre. My London Borough of Bromley has ambitious schemes to drive business and business rates growth, but it is bizarre that it cannot, as an authority, put an obligation on its own land that it wishes to comply with in order to drive the rest of a scheme.
I hope that those are constructive suggestions that will make a good Bill even more useful.
I am delighted that the Government are giving local people the opportunity to shape the future of their communities. Our constituents have long asked for a greater say on planning, so I welcome the fact that the Bill gives them more power and delivers on our manifesto promises.
There can be no doubt that there is a need for housing, but it is vital that it is delivered in a way that is not only sustainable, but that complements and enhances our local areas. I am therefore very supportive of the key aims of the Bill. Results are already emerging to show that the Government are right to trust our communities to develop their own neighbourhood plans. As has been pointed out, early figures indicate that the level of house building in areas that have a plan is more than 10% higher than in the council’s local plan.
I will raise three matters with the Minister that are of concern to my constituents. He may be able to reassure them that they need not worry. First, I am conscious that although an acceleration in house building is required, developing a neighbourhood plan is a long drawn-out process. That means that those who are now starting on the journey and have a plan that is sufficiently developed to provide meaningful input to the local plan do not have the protections of those who have gone through the referendum phase. Clause 1 goes some way towards addressing that, but will the Minister clarify what guidance will be given to local authorities so that there is consistency in the decision-making process not only from community to community, but across all decision makers? I welcome clause 5, which sets out the support a local authority will offer those who wish to create a neighbourhood plan by way of a statement of community involvement, which should be an enabler of quicker implementation.
Secondly, sustainability should be a key consideration for any development. It is understandable that local residents show concern when consultations are put forward for sizeable developments in their area. A good example is Dordon and Polesworth in my constituency, where 3,000 new houses have been proposed. That would have a huge impact on the infrastructure and services that residents enjoy, not least on the already creaking road network. It is important that plans are made and that residents always have an input on potential new schools, roads, doctors’ surgeries and other local services. With that in mind, I ask the Minister to ensure that the provision of infrastructure and amenities is always a key consideration for local authorities when granting planning consent, and that when there is any significant house building the sustainability of the area is at the forefront of the design plans.
Finally, I wish to raise an issue of particular interest to me and to many of my constituents and those of other Members: the protection of our green belt. I am fully aware that the NPPF puts great emphasis on that, and there has been minimal development on it under the Conservative Government. However, areas such as Keresley and Fillongley in my constituency live in constant fear that a perceived demand for housing, particularly under the duty to co-operate with larger neighbouring councils, puts their green belt at risk of being developed on.
One of the key messages that I receive regularly from parish councils is that the calculation of housing needs seems to be over-inflated and does not reflect actual requirements, especially when local borough councils have met their supply targets. There is a real threat that predominantly rural areas such as North Warwickshire, which, as I have said, are annexed by much larger authorities, will be forced to develop on their green belt to meet the needs of other areas. That cannot be fair.
I must question the method of calculation. I was recently given the example of Coventry, which is seeking to take a number of properties in my constituency as it is unable to meet its own housing demand. It was calculated by the Office for National Statistics that there would be a population increase of about 79,000 in Coventry by 2031, which Coventry was unable to satisfy. Closer inspection of that number is quite revealing, however, showing that the predicted numbers of internal migration and immigration movements essentially cancel each other out, leaving the 79,000 people to come almost wholly from international immigration. As a result of the referendum in June, the Government are committed to a system of controlled immigration, so it is reasonable to assume that that number may no longer be a true reflection of need once the Brexit negotiation is concluded.
I would therefore like the Minister to consider including a further measure in the Bill: a pause on green-belt development unless there is a specific request from local residents. That would enable a review of the demand that our councils will face, which is surely difficult to estimate until the exact nature of what breakfast will look like—[Interruption.] I mean Brexit—somebody else got into trouble for that the other day. It is catching. It is difficult to estimate until the exact nature of what Brexit will look like is concluded. Once the green belt is developed on, it is lost for ever. We should always ensure that we have strong safeguards to protect it wherever possible.
Good development requires the developer, local people and the council to work together, and the Bill encourages dialogue to ensure that development better meets the needs of all interested parties. There should always be a balanced approach between providing the right number of houses and affording our local communities the opportunity to improve their infrastructure while retaining their identity. The Bill strikes that balance by giving local people real control over their future, and I will support it tonight. However, I ask that due consideration be given to the important concerns that I have raised.
It is a great pleasure to support the Second Reading of the Bill, and it is always a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Craig Tracey. I do not intend to speak for more than five minutes, because I have noticed for the last hour that when Members do that, the cough of the Whip, my hon. Friend Graham Stuart, gets worse and worse. In the interests of preserving his voice, I will keep my contribution short.
I wish to focus on a couple of key points. First, we in Fylde are not against development. Indeed, about 6,000 houses have been developed there, mostly on greenfield land. However, Fylde is a small local authority, so 6,000 houses represent a lot of new build. We are currently working through an emerging local plan, and during the first stage, as part of an agreement, certain sites were taken off the plan and others were added. However, developers who realised that lucrative sites had come off the plan slapped planning applications on them, regardless of the will of the neighbourhood or the council. That was particularly true in villages such as Warton and Wrea Green, much to the frustration of local people. The result is an even greater number of houses than the plan started with.
I find it frustrating as a Member of Parliament that after people and the council have been asked to go along with the process of neighbourhood plans and local plans, and after they have identified suitable sites near the M55 that could be developed without controversy, developers seem to have given them the two-finger salute by putting in big applications on sites that were taken out of the plan. Everyone seems to lose out but the developers.
My main focus is on the number of sites for which planning applications have been granted yet nothing seems to have happened. There is no great reason for that—there are no infrastructure blockages or any of the other reasons outlined tonight by other Members. It is just land agents sitting on top of blocks of land with planning applications, and God only knows what is happening other than that they are trying to extract the best possible price from developers. That is not acceptable. If a site has a successful planning application and there is no good reason why it is not being developed, it should be developed to meet housing needs.
Another key point is that on many sites developers seem to be building just 30 or 40 houses a year, regardless of the market conditions. They drip them out to a steady drumbeat of 30 or 40. That makes it more difficult to deliver against the five-year housing supply number and the local council’s annual build targets. Frustratingly, it does nothing to make houses more affordable for local people. The prices keep going up. The Government are being robbed of their whole aim of building more houses and making them affordable, because we are dependent on a large number of developers who have got us by the throat. They decide how many houses enter the local supply chain, and nobody else. That is not right.
I urge the Minister to get tough with the developers. We want to build houses that are affordable and available to buy, and it should not be down to developers to dictate planning policy and tell us what ultimately is going to happen. We are the Government. We decide. This is something we care passionately about.
My other key point is that I want councils to be imaginative about provision of affordable homes, and not simply pass over responsibility to housing associations. They should not just pass the buck, pass the cash and hope it all comes out in the end. I want councils to ensure that there are more affordable homes to buy, to allow people to get on the housing ladder, have a stake in the game, feel part of their community and own part of that community. It is not acceptable for a council to say that it is building 30% affordable homes, when that provision is being made by housing associations, which are often very unresponsive to the needs of local people. Councils must understand that we as a Government want affordable homes to be owned by people, to give those people the opportunity to trade up.
I can see that the throat of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness is starting to go again, and I do not want to make the cough any worse. I am delighted to see the Minister in his place. I know that he is committed to housing. As an MP for a Greater London constituency he knows the pain of not being able to get on the housing ladder more than many other people in this House. I wish him well in his endeavours, but he needs to know that we on the Conservative Benches will support the Government provided that we see the Government doing everything they can to get those houses built.
I am pleased to be able to speak on Second Reading of the Bill, which I broadly welcome. I support its main aims of making the housing market work better for everybody, helping to identify and free up more land to build homes, and speeding up the delivery of the new homes that are so badly needed in many areas of the country. Those aspects of the Bill will help to improve the planning system to make it easier to deliver the Government’s ambition of 1 million new homes by the end of this Parliament.
When I arrived in the House last year a sage senior colleague advised me never to get involved in planning matters. Although that may be very sound advice on conservatories and house extensions, it is none the less our duty to ensure that we play a full role in the scrutiny of the Bill. With that in mind, it is good so see such a strong new ministerial team on the Treasury Bench; I look forward to engaging with that team constructively.
I also support the Government’s manifesto commitment to encourage communities to be more engaged in neighbourhood planning, particularly as a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for civic societies. Community engagement is vital; we need it to build homes and infrastructure while ensuring that that is done in a way that is sympathetic and sensitive to the wishes of local communities. In my view, that will mean that we can build more, not less, as developers and local authorities ensure communities are brought on board at an early stage and are therefore more likely to support developments. That process is under way in Marple in my constituency.
There is no magic wand to solve the housing shortage. It will require many years of investment, hard work and difficult choices, and while Government play a role, ultimately the work is done by those building houses: the developers. To my mind, there are three ways that developers are stalling in the process to deliver the homes we need at the rate required. The first is land banking, which many hon. Members have mentioned, whereby developers buy up land, often brownfield sites suitable for building and sometimes with planning permissions already granted, but do not build on it, either because they have priorities elsewhere or because they are waiting for the value to increase.
The second issue is when developers are keen to build, but there are delays between the granting of an outline application and the submission of the full planning application. Thirdly, once planning approval has been granted, there can be delays from developers in starting construction, which can sometimes be the result of deliberate land banking, as I have mentioned. These delays cannot always be laid at the door of the planning system, which is a common cry of developers. Developers must take some responsibility themselves. However, measures from the Government to encourage developers to reduce delays are welcome, and these are contained in the Bill.
In Northern Ireland we have a planning system that enables social housing to be set aside in each new development for private house building. When it comes to social housing and those who cannot afford a new house but need a rented house, does the hon. Gentleman feel that some of the land in a development should be set aside for that purpose?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. That is something that my local authority in Stockport is looking at, to ensure it can use its land assets for the development of housing, so I agree with him on that.
One thing missing from the Bill, although certainly not from our debate this evening, is the issue of the green belt. We know that green-belt land is protected under the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, and it plays an important role in protecting the environment and semi-rural communities, such as the ones I represent, from urban sprawl. Fundamentally, the green belt preserves natural green land, open spaces, wildlife habitats and the character of such areas.
Although it is not currently addressed by the Bill, I am deeply concerned about the threat posed to the local green belt in my constituency by potential massive building development. For instance, the Greater Manchester spatial framework, a policy of the Greater Manchester combined authority, which my hon. Friend Chris Green referred to, will determine where residential development can take place, including the release of green-belt land. The policy could threaten large areas of green belt in my constituency. I am concerned by the prospect of thousands of properties being built on previously protected land, especially in the High Lane and Marple areas of my constituency. There are significant doubts about whether already stretched local infrastructure could support such development.
Saying that, there is no doubt that we need more housing. However, the areas that should be developed first are brownfield sites, which are those areas previously used for other purposes. Stockport has many such sites that have not yet been developed for housing, and across the country it is conservatively estimated that there is enough brownfield land for the development of some 650,000 properties, making a significant contribution to the Government’s target. I therefore want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister, if this is not covered in the Bill, what is being done or can be done to prioritise brownfield development and to protect green belts from over-zealous local authority plans, such as that in Greater Manchester. I can only hope that development in the green belt in my constituency will be as sparse as Members on the Opposition Benches are this evening.
I welcome this Bill. The importance it places on neighbourhood plans validates the extremely hard and challenging work that so many of my constituents in the village of Brereton and the town of Sandbach have undertaken, in some cases over years, to develop neighbourhood plans and have them adopted. I congratulate them. Other areas in my constituency are working on their neighbourhood plans, which are vital in a constituency with distinct and individual local communities, lying as it does in a relatively large unitary council, Cheshire East, which stretches from the fringe of Greater Manchester down towards Shropshire. If localism is to mean anything, it is important that the people who live in such towns and villages have a real say in the development of their communities.
Does this Bill go far enough? I want to challenge the Minister in one or two ways.
I am pleased to hear the Minister say that neighbourhood plans will be given “proper consideration” in the planning process, that “due weight” will be given to them and that they will have full effect. However, will he clarify precisely what that means where a large principal authority still has no local plan and no agreed housing supply numbers? My constituents who have gone to the trouble of preparing neighbourhood plans are asking whether, if there is no local plan and no agreed housing supply number, their plans should have the status and strength of a local plan when planning decisions are made. That is the critical question.
Without that reassurance, my constituents—particularly those in Sandbach, who are besieged by developers and who have gone far beyond making what I believe is a reasonable contribution to housing numbers in the Cheshire East area—are saying they are becoming “very disillusioned” with the neighbourhood planning process. They quote a recent planning decision in September with respect to an area of land in Sandbach. The inspector acknowledged that the Sandbach neighbourhood plan had been adopted, but said he would not examine the application in the light of that plan. Instead, he set it against the as-yet unadopted local plan with the housing supply number as yet not agreed, which relates to the whole Cheshire East area. According to my constituents, the inspector seems to be saying that the neighbourhood plan is “an irrelevance”. Will the Minister look again at strengthening the authority of neighbourhood plans where there is no completed local plan and no agreed five-year land supply, and declare that the neighbourhood plan has the weight of a local plan where there is no such plan in place?
My constituents have been encouraged by three recent appeal decisions to the Secretary of State in East Sussex, West Sussex and Bath. The Secretary of State cited local plans in the appeals and prevented developments, highlighting neighbourhood plans as a key factor in his decision. I thank the Minister for that and hope that it indicates a trend of thinking in this area.
I support the references that have been made to land banking, or, as I refer to it, permission banking. The former mayor of Sandbach, Mike Benson, wrote to me saying:
“During the Public Inquiries held in Sandbach…Cheshire East’s Head of Planning Strategy…gave evidence that in some parts of the Borough, planning permissions granted over the last 5 years” had resulted in not one house being built in those locations. Nevertheless, appeals continue to be allowed across Cheshire East on the basis that Cheshire East Council does not have a five-year housing supply. He says:
“What would be fairer is a formula which regards the granting of permissions as the determining factor, not the number of houses actually being built.”
Will the Minister consider that as the Bill progresses? Will he also consider the fact that it is very important to ensure we balance the need for housing with the need for employment land? Businessmen in Congleton tell me that they need more employment land. We cannot afford to have our communities turned into vast commuter belts, because there are simply not the jobs for local people to work in.
I have two final points. First, it is quite clear that in some cases where developments are occurring, for example in Congleton where 4,000 houses are projected to be built in the draft local plan, we will need extra health facilities. However, Cheshire East Council officers have contacted Public Health England, which has been unable to identify any community infrastructure levy-compliant projects to which contributions could be sought for development. It is very important that the Minister liaises with his counterparts in the Department of Health to ensure that health provision projects that can be used for community infrastructure funding are in place.
If I may stretch your patience, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to add one further point, which relates to an issue I have been asked to raise by Cheshire East Council on the importance of guiding developments so that they avoid the most sensitive locations. I refer to a recent decision by the Court of Appeal that renders protective policies, such as green belt, green gap, wildlife conservation and Jodrell Bank safeguarding, which is critical in my constituency, as similar to “housing supply policies”. If a local authority cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of housing, such housing supply policies are deemed out of date, carrying much less weight.
I have an appeal going through now to the Secretary of State for a large development near Jodrell Bank. Jodrell Bank is concerned that having many more houses in the area will interfere with its instruments. It is a critical, individual, specific issue, and that area needs protection. It is important that that protection is not weakened if the council is unable to resist housing in unsuitable locations. Will the Minister clarify that the Bill will ensure that such sensitive designations will not be overridden and developers’ appeals will not be allowed? Will he confirm that that will be embodied as an amendment to the NPPF?
I welcome my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Gavin Barwell, to his place; I am delighted to see him on the Front Bench. I am also glad to see the hon. Members for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods), and for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), fighting the fight from the Opposition Front Bench. I recall with fondness the many hours we spent this time last year on the Housing and Planning Bill Committee.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I have a shareholding in a company that finances construction projects.
I welcome the power that the first part of the Bill on neighbourhood plans will place in the hands of local communities. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider strengthening that power further in two ways. First, the preamble to the Bill says that in all but exceptional circumstances local authorities are expected to grant planning permission only in conformity with a neighbourhood plan, but if permission is granted in contradiction to a neighbourhood plan, I ask that it be made clear that it would be expected that the Secretary of State would call that in as a matter of routine, in order to create a clear incentive for local planning authorities to respect neighbourhood plans.
Secondly, is there any way to strengthen further neighbourhood plans in relation to local plans, given that neighbourhood plans will, by definition, have been passed by local referendum? The stronger they are in relation to local plans, the better. I fully accept that the local plan must be respected when it comes to total housing supply, but on questions of detail, I wonder whether the neighbourhood plan should trump the local plan, providing that it would not damage overall housing supply. The Minister will know some examples from our borough of where that might happen.
I say gently to the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead that pre-commencement conditions are frequently a significant problem. The bureaucracy they create ties up both the local planning authority office and developments. When I intervened earlier, I touched briefly on a couple of examples—the notorious cases of bat and newt studies. Bat studies can be done only at a certain time of year, so some developments get held up for an entire year while the bat survey gets done. As for newts, the greater crested newt is apparently an endangered species across Europe. It is not an endangered species in the United Kingdom, as the wretched creature pops up on every site for development as a potential reason for delay. If the Minister could give serious consideration to making sure that the requirements relating to bats, newts and similar creatures were proportionate and appropriate, it would help to expedite the construction of housing in our country.
I agree with the point made by the hon. Lady about resources for local planning departments. Helen Hayes also correctly pointed out that resources in those departments are under great pressure. They do not have enough officers, time or resources, and that is a real constraint on the granting of planning consents. Although I am not of course usually in favour of any taxes or fees, many developers would be willing pay significantly higher planning fees if they were ring-fenced to fund local planning offices and attached to a particular service level—so if a planning decision were delivered within a certain time, a higher fee would be payable.
As Louis XIV’s Finance Minister, Colbert, said, the art of taxation is about plucking the goose so as to produce the least possible amount of hissing; well, here is a goose that is begging to be plucked. The goose, if I may put it this way, wants to pay extra money to have these decisions made more quickly. It wants to pay more fees. That would help local authority planning departments, as they would then be properly resourced. I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to that point in his concluding remarks. I shall trespass no further on the House’s time or patience, and conclude with that point.
Beneath the thatch and clay tiles, in the shady byways and cobbled marketplaces of North West Hampshire, people are breathing a little easier as this Bill starts its passage. I would go so far as to say that on the village hall wall, next to the portrait of the Queen and the newly hoisted portrait of the Minister with responsibility for broadband, my right hon. Friend Matt Hancock, they are making space for a picture of the Minister for Housing and Planning, because he has finally taken a big step in bringing some sanity to what has previously been a gamble of a planning system.
We managed to get ourselves into a high-stakes game of poker between developers, councils, landowners and the Planning Inspectorate, and the compromise that emerged was often unsatisfactory to local residents, extremely expensive, and bureaucratic. That injected a sense of tension and an adversarial tone into the planning system, which should be constructive, in all senses of the word, and try to build the homes that we need.
The Government’s great peace offering to local people was the neighbourhood plan. Nowhere has embraced neighbourhood planning as strongly as my constituency, and the string of pearls running down the A303 from Oakley, Overton and Whitchurch down to Andover. We are destined to take tens of thousands of houses there over the next 20 or 30 years. Those places are embracing neighbourhood planning as the only way that they can see of making sure that planning is done with them, rather than to them.
Notwithstanding that, some ridiculous decisions have been taken in my constituency over the last year or so. In Oakley, just seven days before the referendum on the neighbourhood plan, which had been three years in the making, the Planning Inspectorate allowed an appeal for a slab development of 80 houses, which drove a coach and horses through the plan. The community might as well not have bothered. At that stage, people in the village had already voted by post, yet they knew that permission had gone through. I am very pleased that this Minister and his predecessor took on board the concerns of lots of Members, particularly rural Members, about the need to strengthen such plans.
I would like to raise with the Minister a couple of areas where the Bill could be given even greater strength. The interaction of the different actors I mentioned and the interaction between neighbourhood plans and local plans are absolutely key. Many Members have talked about providing some kind of stick to make sure that councils have a local plan in place. Thus far, neighbourhood plans are pretty pointless without the local plan being in place. Too many councils do not have them.
I wonder whether we could offer councils an incentive, rather than a stick. Where a village has put a neighbourhood plan together and it has been approved, where a borough has a local plan that has been approved, and where there is a five-year land supply, there should be a double lock, whereby the Planning Inspectorate has no remit. These people are playing ball. They have said, “Yes, we will take the houses. This is where we want them, and this is the size and mix we want.” That has all been approved by the Planning Inspectorate, so why should a speculative developer, with an ability to pay legal fees and for hearings, and with QCs on tap, be able to come along and bully the council into reaching some kind of compromise? The council knows that if it goes to the Planning Inspectorate, the decision may not go its way, and is worried about the fines it faces if it loses. A double lock would be a way of freeing people from the man in the suit from Bristol; that would be an enormous incentive. There would certainly be a huge amount of pressure from local residents on borough councils to get a neighbourhood plan, so as to protect the residents. I put that proposal on the Minister’s plate.
My second point is on getting local people to accept housing estates. Neighbourhood planning certainly makes people much more accepting of housing, but the Government’s admirable starter homes scheme could be used to get even more acceptance. When starter homes are built as part of a development—I will have a huge development with lots of starter homes outside Basingstoke in my constituency—anybody from anywhere in the country can apply for them. How about we give local people a short period of perhaps 28 days after completion in which they have first dibs on the houses built in their neighbourhood? That way, the children and relatives of local people—people who can prove a local connection—could snap up those houses first. It would go a long way to getting people over the line, particularly as regards the large-scale developments I will have, if they have that incentive, on a generational basis.
My final point, which I would be grateful if the Minister could address, is on the provision of broadband in new developments. I raised the issue in debates on the Digital Economy Bill. It seems mad to me that we are not putting broadband compulsorily into new developments, as we would gas and electricity.
My hon. Friend shows his customary ambition. I agree that we should make developers provide fibre to premises in all developments, particularly large ones. The Government are pumping billions into the housing industry over the next few years—rightly, because we need more houses. That will inflate the housing industry, and there will be a lot more activity and a lot more money to be made. The least developers could do is absorb the cost of putting future-proofed broadband in those houses. If we can get those measures into this great Bill, we will have something that neighbourhoods, particularly in North West Hampshire, will welcome. They will wave aloft the Bill as they hoist the Minister’s portrait in the village hall.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Kit Malthouse, who made important points about the local development plan process, as did my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin. My constituency is a tale of two halves. The half that is in the Cheshire West and Chester Council area is protected by a local development plan. The numerous beautiful areas in my constituency that have put their neighbourhood plans in place have a protection that is not afforded to the other half of my constituency, which is in the Cheshire East Council area. Without an LDP, the neighbourhood plans do not have the same legal status. I join other hon. Members in urging the Minister to ensure that neighbourhood plans carry full protection and force.
I agree with the suggestion for an incentive. When Cheshire West and Chester Council was run by Conservatives, a proportion—10%—of the new homes bonus automatically went to the local parish council to allow it to improve amenities. I urge the Minister to consider putting that proportion in the Bill, because it allowed my local communities to make improvements to their area when they could see a direct result from new housing. For example, Tattenhall in my constituency would have used the money to build six homes for rent for local people in the agricultural community—they would have been permanent protected homes available for young people, allowing them to stay in their farming communities. Unfortunately, the council has switched to Labour control, and has swiped the whole of the new homes bonus. It will not now go to my local communities that are bearing the brunt of the housing development.
I, too, have a string of pearls in my constituency—wonderful villages such as Bunbury, Audlem, Tattenhall, Malpas and Tarporley, which developers are desperate to develop. It is vital that those communities that accept housing see a direct benefit from it. I urge the Minister therefore to consider allocating a proportion of the new homes bones to those communities. Ten per cent. is not unreasonable, and would give an incentive to people to accept development.
On the impact on infrastructure, the Minister has heard many Members of Parliament say the same thing. A recent planning decision exempted doctors’ surgeries and schools, which are statutory services, from section 106 agreements and leveraging funding from developers. This is an ideal opportunity to deal with that and allow the developers to contribute to the additional infrastructure costs that otherwise fall on the local council.
Finally, I urge the Minister to crack down hard on developers who repeatedly put in applications against neighbourhood plans, knowing that they are acting against an adopted neighbourhood or local plan. If planning permission is turned down by the local council, and the developer appeals unsuccessfully and is turned down again, I urge the Minister to consider penalty costs against them. A third of those costs could go to local councils; that could contribute towards alleviating the legal costs that they incur trying to fight these appeals. Another third could go to his Department to provide the resource that is needed for it to look at those appeals, and the final third could go to the Treasury to deal with the infrastructure impact of other developments. That would be a real win.
I urge the Minister to look at that in the Bill, because my constituents are frustrated when they see a planning process in which developers have deep involvement. They think that it is an unfair fight, with no incentive for councils to appeal against decisions or stand up to what they regard as bully developers. Not all developers are the same—we have many good developers in Cheshire—but the feeling among local people is that they are fighting a tide of applications that are swamping them. Some form of disincentive to tackle those repeated applications would, I hope, go some way towards discouraging that type of behaviour.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow my hon. Friend Antoinette Sandbach. I fully support the provisions of the Bill, and I congratulate Ministers on giving people unprecedented power over planning. It is clear that this is a power not to limit development, but to decide where properties will go and what infrastructure is required. It is a power to decide how it looks—design is a key element in persuading local communities to support new housing in their area.
I welcome the Bill’s giving more weight to neighbourhood plans, which, as detailed in clause 1, will be effective earlier in the process. However, there is a conundrum, as colleagues have mentioned, but, as is not uncommon in the House, I will mention it again. A neighbourhood may have an effective neighbourhood plan that works with the numbers given by the district in its local plan, but it may not be able to demonstrate a five-year land supply. In those circumstances, would it not be appropriate to give full protection to a neighbourhood that delivers those numbers within the overall context of the local plan? That would be a great incentive for local communities to develop a neighbourhood plan and deliver the extra houses that are important to our communities and our national economy.
The neighbourhood planning process is dealt with in clause 5. Local authorities can give help, support and advice to neighbourhood planning steering committees. Some local authorities are less keen than others on neighbourhood plans, and regard them as an encumbrance. Would it be possible to provide some formal training, perhaps delivered centrally? I was delighted when my hon. Friend John Howell, who has been such an advocate of neighbourhood plans, came to my constituency to talk to local steering groups about how to develop them. As a result of his intervention, we now have some neighbourhood plans back on track.
I also think that small and medium-sized enterprises should be given more help. As we know, SME developers used to build 100,000 houses a year, whereas today they build about 20,000. They are critical to the supply element of the equation. I understand that the idea of extra financial support for SMEs has been mooted in connection with the autumn statement, because lack of finance constitutes one of their biggest difficulties when it comes to developing new homes, but another of their difficulties relates to land, and finding suitable small sites. The whole planning system seems to be stacked against SMEs. It is far simpler to build houses on allocated land than to build them on the windfall sites on which SMEs tend to develop them, but such sites are few and far between.
SMEs are important not just in terms of the number of houses that are delivered, but in terms of their contribution to local communities. They employ local people: local suppliers and local apprentices—SMEs account for a much higher percentage of penetration of apprenticeships per completion than larger developers—and local consultants as well. There are plenty of good reasons for the provision of more small sites that would be suitable for SME house builders, and there are a number of ways in which we could do that. It is frustrating that one of the local authorities in my constituency concentrates all its housing on large allocated sites, rather than spreading the load around the towns and villages for the purpose of not just sustainable development but sustainable communities.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned sustainable communities in the context of planning. Does he agree with Dame Alice Hudson, the head teacher at Twyford Church of England High School in my constituency? The school wants to expand, but feels that it is stymied by planning legislation. It has identified the site for a badly needed new high school, but at present there is opposition because of housing that will come with it. Dame Alice says that there must be a way of helping the school to provide more performance and other facilities for community use and public benefit. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me, and with my constituent, that there should be more joined-up thinking?
I definitely agree that there should be more community engagement. However, although many people in smaller villages and towns want more development, the policies of local authorities prevent that from happening, which is entirely counter-intuitive. The lack of new development puts schools, shops and public houses at risk. I wonder how we can influence local authorities and encourage them to spread the load around our smaller communities as well. Alternatively, could not a percentage of one of the larger sites—10% or 20%—be allocated to SME developers, so that they could meet some of the needs of larger communities?
Those are some thoughts for the new Housing Minister. SMEs are critical to the successful delivery of the houses that we need in the United Kingdom. However, I am happy to support the measures in the Bill and the ideas behind them.
It is a delight and a pleasure to see the Minister for Housing and Planning, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), sitting on the Front Bench. I have known him for 20 or 25 years, since he worked in the environmental research department of Conservative central office. He was also the special adviser in the department, and he has been following this issue for a long time.
I must declare an interest. As is shown in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I still have some shares in a public relations consultancy which advised developers on how to obtain planning permission. I have to say that I have also worked for the opposition, notably in Fulham. However, I have a fairly good understanding of the importance of taking the local community with you to get a planning application through.
One of the best people I ever came across was a man called David Prout, who was in the Department. He was also the director of planning at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea when we were trying to do a development on what was known as the Tesco tower on the West Cromwell Road. We had failed to get planning permission, and he eventually decided that we needed to produce a master plan in order to ensure that the local community was very much engaged in the whole process. In such cases, it is important to talk not only about the design but about the other community facilities that will be made available. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that as we seek to put housing development in place, we also look at other issues such as community facilities. I shall say more about design in a moment.
I am the chairman of the all-party group for excellence in the built environment, and we have just published an important piece of work on the quality of housing. I am pretty unique—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I am pretty unique on the Conservative Benches in that I represent a totally inner-city seat. The only piece of countryside in my constituency is the Ponderosa pony sanctuary, which, to be honest, is just a rather muddy field. However, I have a large amount of parkland, which was developed by the Victorians and is absolutely wonderful. What is so super about it is that it has space and the settings of the properties are absolutely brilliant.
We need to recognise that if local authorities grant planning permission, that should not be the end of the matter. They must also ensure that the developers produce the development for which they have been given the planning permission. All too often, companies build up land banks but do not do anything with them. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider a proposal whereby a local authority could charge a developer business rates if it had not produced the development, having got people’s expectations up. Developers should not be allowed to have property sitting around doing nothing. It is not good enough simply to get planning permission; getting the property developed is the most important thing. That is what we on this side of the House will be judged on.
We also need to ensure that we have good-quality design. I have a lot of new build in my constituency, thanks to the party opposite. When Labour was in power, it provided a lot of money for new development down in Devonport. I have to say that I am appalled by some of that development. There is brown mould on some of the buildings, and I hear stories of windows and doors that do not fit. The other day I even heard of an instance of sewage going in underneath the floorboards. That is not good enough. This is one of the reasons that I am looking forward to talking to my hon. Friend the Minister about the all-party group’s report. We must ensure that we have better-quality buildings, rather than shoddy developments that could become the slums of the future. We need to have quality in our design as well as quantity.
I also want to encourage the Government to consider ways of getting local authorities to appoint someone to review the quality of the building and design in their area. I have been very lucky. I went to the most beautiful school in the whole country: Stowe. It has the most beautiful Palladian architecture; it is absolutely fantastic. I am not arguing that we should have Palladian architecture throughout the whole country—well, I probably am, actually—but we need to ensure that the volume house builders do not simply build the same factory-produced developments all over the country. I am passionate about this. It is vital that we give people a sense of belonging in their communities, and we need to ensure that we have quality development that will also deliver good community facilities such as doctors surgeries and village halls. It is vital that neighbourhood planning should be done in the round, rather than in isolation.
I thank all Members—they were mostly Government Members—who have contributed to this debate. They did an excellent job speaking up for their constituencies and the various planning issues that affect them, and extolling the virtues of neighbourhood planning. My hon. Friend John Mann also did an excellent job in explaining how important neighbourhood planning was to his constituency and the need for local plans to refer to it. I was also grateful to my hon. Friend Helen Hayes who, as always, pointed out exactly what was wrong with the Bill, what needs to be improved and how we need to support planning more effectively.
I am rather surprised to be speaking again on planning legislation so soon after our proceedings on the Housing and Planning Act 2016. After all, the ink is barely dry on the paper. However, as there have been six pieces of planning legislation in the past six years, I perhaps should not be that surprised.
The Minister said that he wants to have shovels put in the ground, but I am not sure that this is the Bill to do it. Indeed, the Bill is much more interesting for what is not in it than for what is. I am not sure whether it represents—in the words of the Secretary of State earlier— “action on many fronts”. In fact, his own colleagues came up with quite a substantial list of things that should have been in this Bill. They thought that there should be something about infrastructure and how it could be funded effectively to underpin developments and something about carbon-neutral housing. They felt that local plans should have a strong relationship with neighbourhood plans, or that neighbourhood plans should trump local plans, and that there should be a green-belt review. There was some suggestion that there should be a statutory footing for local plans and deadlines for their delivery. There were other suggestions that the Bill should cover broadband in developments, the use of vacant public sector land, how to protect hedgehogs, how to pluck geese, how to repeal applications, how to use fees more effectively, land banking and permission banking, the failure to address Brexit, and a call-in procedure for neighbourhood plans. Those were just some of the issues that were raised, so there is a lot to be addressed by the new Minister, whom I welcome to his post. I look forward to working with him in Committee on improving the Bill.
We strongly welcome the measures to strengthen neighbourhood planning. We all agree that communities should be at the heart of development and that development should start with our neighbourhoods. Any measure that will strengthen neighbourhood planning should be welcomed. Too many people think that planning is done to them, and we need to return to a much happier place in which communities feel that they and their representatives have some control over planning.
There are a few issues about neighbourhood planning that I hope to address in Committee. We need to look at whether it is being properly resourced, and whether the links to local plans are strong enough. We welcome the opportunity of a planning register that will allow for better scrutiny of permitted development and, in particular, the scale of use of permitted development. The Government Front-Bench team will know that we have a long-standing objection to permitted development being used for the delivery of housing in this country. Indeed, we would not need a register if we did not use permitted development in the way that it is used, as all homes would have to go through the planning process properly, and there would be some control of the infrastructure that supports them and the quality and standards of the properties being built. However, as the Government are using permitted development, it seems sensible for a register to be in place.
One of our main bugbears with the Bill is that it does not sufficiently recognise the difficulties that local planning departments are facing as a result of the lack of resources to carry out their responsibilities. Ministers would be living in a cupboard if they did not know that right across the housing and planning sector, developers large and small, a large number of agencies and planning departments are saying that the lack of resource for planning departments is the major spanner in the works for delivery. Since 2010 spending on planning by local authorities has almost halved, from £2.2 billion in 2010 to £1.2 billion last year. The Royal Town Planning Institute, the Local Government Association, the Town and Country Planning Association and the British Property Federation have all pointed to the fact that greater expectations must mean greater support for planning, yet the opposite is happening. Planning fees are vital to plug the gap.
Would the hon. Lady support greater flexibility for each local authority to be able to set its own planning fees to meet its own circumstances, and possibly to allow higher fees to give accelerated results?
Indeed. That was one of the amendments that I tabled to the Housing and Planning Bill when it was going through the House. Alas, it was rejected by the then Housing Minister. It was interesting to hear the same point being made earlier in our discussion. I am pleased if Conservative Members are coming round to our view that planning departments should be able to set fees at full recovery level.
On a more positive note, we welcome the measures to streamline compulsory purchase orders. The new Ministers must have been studying their copy of the Lyons review. We argued strongly there that CPOs were not fit for purpose and needed to be streamlined. I am pleased to see those measures in the Bill but, again, they could be improved.
I want to spend a minute or two on pre-commencement planning conditions, which is the area of the Bill on which we will probably have most discussion in Committee. I am pleased that Sir Oliver Letwin is in his place. He criticised pre-commencement planning conditions at length, yet I have a list from a development taking place in my constituency and I cannot see what is wrong with any of these conditions. The developers have to provide samples of materials. The development is in a conservation area, so that is important. They have to provide full details about bats. Well, we must protect bats. There must be noise mitigation and notice of demolition.
The hon. Lady gives the example of notice of materials. I can entirely see why that is a legitimate issue if the development is in a conservation area, but why must that be settled before a spade goes into the ground and the groundworks start?
That is a question that I would like the Minister to put to his constituents. People surrounding new developments very much want to know what the development looks like, what the quality of the build will be, what materials are going to be used and whether they fit into the surrounding landscape. If he is serious about neighbourhood planning and giving people a say over what happens in their area, pre-commencement planning is important. Some of the measures could lead to more delays in the planning system, rather than speeding it up, which I think is what the Minister is trying to do.
The hon. Lady mentioned landscape. One of my SME developers was required to submit a landscape scheme before starting on the development itself, as a pre-commencement condition. Does she not see that some of these conditions are completely inappropriate?
The problem is that we do not know why the local authority required that particular condition. It could have been worried that no plan might ever be produced.
I recall that when I was knocking down and rebuilding a wall, for which I required planning permission, I was expected to provide a sample of brick in advance, from the wall that I had not yet taken down because I did not have planning permission. Is there not the potential for some compromise between the two sides on this?
Certainly not is the answer to that question—absolutely not.
In conclusion, we think that it is a real pity that the Bill does not contain more about infrastructure and how to deliver garden cities and new towns, but we look forward to having those discussions with the Minister in Committee. We do not intend to divide the House tonight, but we will see what happens in Committee.
This has been an excellent debate, with contributions from 18 colleagues on the Government Benches. My right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin and my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) got to the heart of the matter: the interaction between neighbourhood plans and local plans, and particularly the issue of the five-year land supply. We will want to return to that issue as the Bill goes through Parliament.
We should be honest that there is a tension here. On the one hand, clearly we cannot expect our constituents to put a huge amount of work into neighbourhood plans if they do not hold weight in certain situations. On the other hand, if there is a local authority that either does not have a plan, or that has a wholly deficient plan that does not meet housing need in its area, any Member of this House who cares as passionately as we do about building the homes this country needs cannot allow such a situation to persist for years and years. That is a difficult issue, and I think that the suggestion of a mix of carrots and sticks is probably the right way to address it.
I certainly do, and I think that there are ways we could look at addressing the issue, either through the Bill or through policy changes. I am very conscious of what the problem is, and I am sure that we can work together to find a solution as the Bill goes through.
My right hon. Friend Mrs Villiers spoke passionately about the green spaces in her constituency. She also sought reassurance on pre-commencement conditions, which I can provide. The consultation paper states:
“This measure will not restrict the ability of local planning authority to propose pre-commencement conditions that may be necessary—for example, conditions in relation to archaeological investigations or wildlife surveys.”
So there is protection there.
My hon. Friend Mr Bacon spoke with his customary passion about the importance of custom build. My hon. Friend Mark Pawsey asked about support for groups producing neighbourhood plans. We have made £22.5 million available between 2015 and 2018. I can reassure him that that money will go directly to the groups doing the relevant work.
My hon. Friend Chris Green said that the view of his constituents was, “Enough housing, infrastructure required.” I half agree with them; it is absolutely right that we must get a much better linkage between the provision of infrastructure in return for taking more housing, but I cannot agree that we have enough housing in this country. We need more housing, but the infrastructure must go with it.
My hon. Friend Stuart Andrew, who is such a fantastic advocate for his constituency, spoke with passion about the difficulties it is facing. It is certainly the case that neighbourhood plans must be consistent with the relevant local plan, but he tested the issues in relation to the green belt. If he will forgive me, I cannot talk about the particular plan, because it may well cross my desk at some point, but if I can talk in the generality, we would expect inspectors to test the figure for objectively assessed need and to test whether the circumstances in which an authority seeks to change green-belt boundaries meet the test in the NPPF, which is that they should be exceptional circumstances.
The Minister mentioned green-belt de-designation, and I just wondered whether he had any thoughts on metropolitan open land. Twyford C of E High School in my constituency, which I mentioned, has identified a new site—a disused Barclays sports ground—but the school is tied up in knots because of the land’s status.
Metropolitan open land is a status that is specific to Greater London, but it holds the same weight, effectively, in Greater London as green belt. If the hon. Lady were to consult the London plan, similar circumstances should apply in terms of its de-designation.
My hon. Friend Robert Neill showed his huge experience in this area in his contribution. He made a number of constructive suggestions, which we will certainly look at.
My hon. Friend Craig Tracey raised issues around the calculation of assessed need and in particular in relation to migration. The population projection figures do assume a fall in migration. While migration is clearly a factor, about a third of household growth nationally is due to net migration, so even if there were no migration into the country, there would still be significant pressure for more housing.
My hon. Friend Mark Menzies made two very powerful points. The first was about build-out rates. As a Government, we want to listen to developers and to address evidenced concerns about things that are slowing up development, be it pre-commencement conditions, the time it takes to agree section 106 agreements or concerns about utilities. However, if we do all those things, I think we have a right to turn to the development industry and ask what it is going to do to raise its game in terms of the speed with which it builds out. My hon. Friend also made another critical point, which is that, when we talk about affordable housing, yes, council and housing association housing are a part of that, but what most of our constituents want is a home that is affordable to buy, and he was absolutely right to stress that.
My hon. Friend William Wragg made the powerful point that this problem is going to take time to solve. There is no quick switch that anyone can throw to deal with it. He rightly wanted to hear more about what we can do to focus development on brownfield land. The Act that received Royal Assent earlier this year set up the principle of brownfield registers, where local authorities will set out clearly the brownfield land that is available in their areas and suitable for housing development.
My hon. Friend Chris Philp, and Opposition Members as well, referred to resourcing for planning departments, and that is something the Government have consulted on. As part of the White Paper, we will want to come forward with a response to that consultation.
Are we going to intervene in the case of indolent councils that claim they have the right resources but continually fail to provide a local or a neighbourhood plan, which we will certainly not see until the end of next year at the earliest? Can we bring in a planning inspector sooner?
The Government have signalled that we will intervene early in 2017, potentially, on councils that do not have local plans in place. The Secretary of State talked about that issue and about our determination to take it forward.
My hon. Friend Kit Malthouse raised the critical issue of broadband, and I hope I can provide him with some reassurance on it. We have legislated through the building regulations to require that, from January 2017, all new buildings, including homes and major renovations, include in-building physical infrastructure. We are also legislating to introduce a new broadband universal service obligation to ensure people can request an affordable connection at a minimum speed from a designated provider. There are therefore measures in place, and I am happy to discuss them with him and to check that they reassure him on that vital issue.
My hon. Friend Antoinette Sandbach talked about the importance of incentivising communities by seeing a proportion of the uplift in land value going back to the community. I do not know whether her council has adopted the community infrastructure levy, but if it has, there is a proportion—15%—that goes to the local area, and that increases to 25% if the relevant local community has a neighbourhood plan.
My hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake made an absolutely vital point about the importance of small sites. If we want to get small builders involved in greater numbers, it is about not just financing but releasing small sites.
Finally on the Government side of the House, my hon. Friend Oliver Colvile made the absolutely critical point that this is about quality as well quantity, and that if we build beautiful buildings, it will encourage communities to go for growth.
Turning very briefly to the Opposition, there is no doubting the passion of Labour Members in addressing our housing problems, but several things were said that show their policy prescriptions sometimes do not match such ambition. I entirely understand concerns about permitted developments, but it is worth putting on the record that we have had over 11,000 permitted development applications. We do not know the number of homes involved—we want to collect data on that—but reform of permitted developments has made a significant contribution to increasing the housing supply.
We have also heard concerns about the duty to co-operate. I know that that is difficult, but for a core urban area that cannot meet all its housing need, it is vital that surrounding areas play their part. Getting rid of the duty to co-operate might mean not providing the housing we need in such areas.
Finally, concerns were raised about planning conditions. The shadow Secretary of State asked for data, and I have had time to dig some out. A survey of small and medium-sized builders carried out by the National House Building Council reported that 34% of them were concerned about the time to clear conditions and 29% of them were concerned about the extent of those conditions, so there is real evidence of concern on that issue.
In conclusion, last week the Secretary of State set out the first step in our plan to get this country building the homes it desperately needs. This Bill is the second step. We entirely accept that it is not on its own a solution to the problem and, later in the autumn, we will publish a White Paper. However, the fact is that for years and years we have not built enough homes in this country. The consequences for the ability of young people to get on to the housing ladder have been dramatic: 50% of 45-years-old owned their own home by the time they were 30, but only 35% of 35-years-old owned their own home by the time they were 30 and the projection is that only 26% of 25-years-old will own their own home by the time they are 30. This Government are determined to build a country that works for everyone, and critical to that will be creating a housing market that works for everyone. The Bill is an important step in a wider plan to deliver that critical ambition for the future of this country.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.