I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish independent local planning processes to determine housing development planning applications submitted by local authorities;
and for connected purposes.
This Bill is designed to improve scrutiny and transparency in the planning process, particularly in the light of the growing appetite of local authorities to build more homes for private sale themselves and to act more like private developers than local authorities.
Hon. Members will know that at present, the foundation of our planning system rests with an impartial assessment of a planning application being carried out by the local planning authority. That assessment takes into account the council’s own planning policies and the views of a wide range of consultees. In conjunction with bodies such as the Environment Agency, Natural England and the relevant transport authority, a local planning officer will then either determine the application under delegated powers or provide an officer recommendation and allow councillors on the relevant planning committee to make the final decision, with regard to key planning issues at hand.
The fundamental point in the current process is that both the assessment and the determination of a planning application are independent. In the majority of cases, the current system works well, and local planning authorities can deal with the full spectrum of applications they receive from individuals, small and medium-sized enterprises, large private developers, housing associations and other parts of the public sector. Yet in a system that works well, there are examples where local authorities can effectively mark their own homework.
Many local authorities bring forward applications for new council housing or, in the case of unitary authorities, new schools, meaning that the council is, in effect, both the developer and the applicant. Generally speaking, those applications relate to core council and public services, so perhaps these relatively infrequent conflicts of interest could be overlooked. However, as I alluded to, many local authorities are beginning to move away from the provision of just council housing and core public services, and to focus instead on building more houses for private sale. In effect, councils are starting to act more like private developers.
Nowhere is this more evident than in my constituency of Eastleigh. As I have raised in the House previously, the Liberal Democrat council in my area is taking forward a large-scale application for 2,500 houses in the village of Horton Heath, all built on green fields, to the considerable dismay of local residents. The council has borrowed large sums to fund the development. It has bought land from a private developer and expanded the original planning permission for the site from 900 homes to 2,500.
We already know that the profits from that development, which is overwhelmingly for private sale, are built into the council’s future budget. I hasten to add that the borough council currently has a debt of £540 million, or £4,000 for every man, woman and child who lives in my constituency. I would argue that that is not a good business model, but that questionable business model has contributed to Eastleigh’s having built 49% more housing than required by Government targets in the last three years, and it is continuing to inspire the council to build 4,311 houses in the next five years, nearly 20% more than targets ask for.
Naturally, this has left many of my constituents feeling angry and let down by the planning system. These plans appear to go through the council’s own planning system with ease, given that this level of overdevelopment is the policy of the Liberal Democrat administration. Many residents are rightly asking how this can be right when there is such an obvious conflict of interest.
We must ask ourselves: where is the independent scrutiny that we apply to other planning applications? Is there any realistic proposition that this application would be refused when the council is so heavily invested in a project, both financially and politically? To a lesser degree, would the council treat itself in the same way as a private developer when it comes to issues such as transport, flood mitigation, density or the provision of affordable housing? I say to the Minister that my experience is that it would not. It should also be acknowledged that even if the current system does not generate any difference in the treatment of applicants, the perception of applicants being treated differently is just as damaging to the whole system.
To be clear, I am not saying that local authorities should not be able to build and develop housing themselves. I entirely agree that they should. However, I am concerned about the lack of transparency and the absence of the usual checks and balances afforded to other developers. It stands to reason that if a local authority wants to act as a developer, it should be treated as such and should not take advantage of the fact that it is the local planning authority. That is why I believe that this Bill is absolutely vital to protect the integrity and probity of our current planning system. In simple terms, the Bill would reform the process by which planning applications made by a local authority in its own area would be determined. The process would ensure that any application made had been scrutinised and determined properly.
Before outlining how the reforms would operate, I will first set out the process for triggering the new independent process. The mechanism for determining applications could be triggered in one of two ways. The first way would be if a local authority brought forward any development of 300 units or more in its administrative boundary. That would automatically trigger the independent process.
To supplement this and to provide a mechanism for the public to trigger the process, the second way would require a level of public engagement subject to a threshold. When a local authority submitted a planning application to itself, there would be a grace period of 30 days before a planning application was processed. Local authorities would be obliged to set up an online portal that allowed people to register their request for the independent process to be triggered. If 10% of the electors of a council ward affected by the development signed the petition, the independent process would also be triggered. This would not only provide a safeguard for multiple applications just below 300 units, but allow members of the public to direct controversial applications to the independent process if a suitable number of electors was reached. This would then lead to the reforms to the actual process.
Once the independent process is triggered, the first step in it is for the planning application to be assigned to a statistical neighbour planning authority. The neighbouring planning authority would allocate a planning officer to act as the case officer, and the case officer would determine the application in line with host local authority’s planning policy and usual consultees. A fee would be paid to the neighbouring planning authority by the host planning authority to cover the costs in officer time. The decision would then be referred to councillors at the host planning authority for determination. The public could be assured, however, that the officer recommendation was based on an independent assessment of the planning merits.
The second part of the independent process would automatically refer any decision made by councillors from the host authority to the independent Planning Inspectorate. In order for the planning application to be approved, it would be necessary for a planning inspector to ratify the decision made by councillors. If the planning inspector disagreed, the application would then be referred to the Secretary of State for a final decision.
I believe that this small but significant reform to our planning system would bring much-needed transparency back to the current system. It would ensure that local authorities submitting their own planning applications were subject to proper scrutiny and would provide reassurance for members of the public and constituencies across the United Kingdom. It would end the conflict of interest that exists in the current system and ensure that local authorities were not granting planning permission to themselves.
The planning system—I say this as a former planning committee chairman—can be a game-changer for house building across the UK. However, many people still see it as opaque and favourable to big developers. This is a small step to correct that view and give our residents the reassurance that they need. I commend the Bill to the House.
I have been given no indication that anybody intends to oppose this motion, and I see no one rising, so I intend to put the Question.
Question put and agreed to.
Paul Holmes accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed (Bill 286).