I welcome the panel. Can you tell us whether you think the provisions of the Bill enhance or undermine the concept of sustainable development, which is at the heart of the national planning policy framework?
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: Thank you very much for the question. Essentially, we think that this Bill does not tackle the main issues. If it is trying to tackle the economic problems that this country is facing, it is doing so, in a way, as it looks towards growth; yet it does not look for quality of outcome. As the CBI has said, the UK’s green business is very important to the economy and has been a growth part of the economy. If you wanted to grow, for instance, green technology in the construction sector, you would put provisions within planning to encourage that kind of development and to make sure that developers who are using green technologies have an advantage over others. That is one example of how a growth and infrastructure Bill that was looking for quality of outcome and for sustainable development could perhaps address that.
The other thing about the Bill is that, in terms of environmental impact, quicker decisions do not necessarily mean better decisions. For major applications in particular, one needs to spend a bit of time in order to get quality of outcome. I do not think that speed is going to be the primary factor there. What you should be looking at is what the development is actually delivering. The impact assessment says that promoting sustainable development will be done
“by creating a more positive environment for investment, which is beneficial for communities.”
Sustainable development in the national planning policy framework is discussed in terms of social justice, environmental limits and the sustainable economy. So there are two different concepts here of what sustainable development is. The Bill is in favour of approving quickly but not necessarily looking at quality.
Ingrid Samuel: Obviously, last year, a great deal of the debate around the NPPF, as we know, was around the importance of sustainable development and what actually constituted sustainable development. We arrived in a place where the Government and the Prime Minister in particular agreed with the National Trust and others that planning itself was an essential tool for balancing a variety of land-use interests in pursuit of an overriding public one and that a strong, effective planning system is absolutely vital for making sure that the right things get developed in the right places and the wrong things do not get developed in the wrong places. The persistent myth that planning is an obstacle to growth is evidenced in some clauses in the Bill. We feel that the planning system and the NPPF in particular need time to bed in: local authorities are creating their local plans, and we need time for that to bed in.
Ruth Bradshaw: We have heard quite a lot of discussion about clause 7. Members of the Committee are probably aware that that is our main concern in the Bill. Commenting on that clause in particular, I would say that it does not support sustainable development, because it effectively undermines long-standing environmental protections in the pursuit of economic growth. We very much support the view that it will potentially have a damaging effect on economic growth in rural areas if it deters people from visiting.
It is interesting that you have all, in some way, mentioned growth. Would you support the assertion, which underpins this piece of legislation, that the planning system is holding back growth? If it is, do you think that the provisions in the Bill are the right ones, or do you think there is just a problem with it?
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: I suppose it depends on what you mean by growth. Are you talking about growth in GDP, which does not necessarily equate to a sustainable economy because you are not necessarily doing those things that you need in order to deliver well-being, jobs, security of income and social justice, or are you talking about building more houses? In the case of the latter, as the Home Builders Federation brought up last week, there are many other factors restricting the building of properties. Those in greatest need will not to be able to access a home through the market-led system, so there needs to be more social and affordable housing. One has to unpack a little bit what one means by growth.
Ingrid Samuel: There is a danger in assuming that deregulation is the only route to achieving growth. The problem is that you potentially create more problems than you solve. One of the outcomes of a piece of research that we did last year with the CPRE and the RSPB was that the economic benefits as opposed to the costs of planning really have not been properly recognised, explored and taken into account—the certainty that is provided to developers.
Ruth Bradshaw: We would not agree that planning is causing a barrier to economic growth. We have heard previously the statistics about the high percentage of applications or prior approval requests for telecommunications infrastructure that are granted in national parks, so there are clearly other factors in terms of the economics of delivering broadband in those areas. In that specific example, there is the fact that there has been a delay in getting state aid approval. It is not planning that is delaying implementation.
We have heard different views on whether the proposals in the Bill are a positive or a negative for town and village greens in relation to development. Have you got views on that?
Ingrid Samuel: As an organisation that grew out of the movement to protect public open spaces, we would be very concerned about anything that had the potential to diminish protection for town and village greens and public open spaces, or to reduce the opportunity for local community involvement. One of our concerns is that it is quite difficult to predict the impact of these clauses on public open spaces and towns and village greens. Will they reduce the opportunity to register such spaces, or will landholders be more willing to allow community use of their spaces without the risk of registration?
In clause 12, it would be useful to add something about publicising the fact that a statement is made by a landowner to give people that opportunity—they have a two-year opportunity to seek to register the town or village green—and to provide them with the awareness that the clock is ticking and they should be thinking about that.
In clause 13, we recognise that there will remain opportunities to engage through the planning system in connection with these open spaces. In general, however, planning authorities are not really geared up to assess when looking at planning applications whether land should be registered as a village green. There is a danger that some of the trigger events and the points at which we cut off the opportunity for communities to make their case disadvantage them.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: I think it sends the wrong signal. Town and village green spaces are incredibly important to sustainable communities. There has been a report by the adaptation sub-committee, which is a sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change, looking at adaptation. In urban areas, in particular, one of the big issues that you need to deal with is urban heat. One of the ways that you can mitigate against that is by having urban green space.
The committee found that in the local authorities that were surveyed, almost all of them had lost urban green space over a number of years. The risk is that that sends a signal that it is easier to build on those spaces, and in fact, what we need to be doing, if we are looking at developing sustainable communities, is saying, “We need more green space in urban areas. We need more green space for sustainable communities, and therefore, we need to send a signal that this is something you should be planning for. You should be actively looking at that and assessing whether those sites can provide biodiversity value.” All that sort of stuff needs to be promoted, and the signal here is not one that would chime with, for instance, the adaptation needs.
Ruth Bradshaw: We as an organisation have not taken a view on the town and village green issue. This is a general point that perhaps applies to other clauses in the Bill, because so much of this is about things that have been introduced without very much—or anything—in the way of prior consultation. It is hard for small organisations such as ours and for the general public to really have an opportunity to understand the implications of some of the measures. It would be good to allow more time for proper consideration of some aspects.
Is there a way of dealing with the vexatious problem but continuing to maintain the protection of designation? Can you see a way to improve what is currently there to provide protection for green and open spaces through designation, while avoiding the vexatious problem?
Ingrid Samuel: I have not seen evidence of how big a problem that actually is. There is an interesting question about what is vexatious. To some people who see the space that they use and love threatened, that is a real reaction, a real risk and a real loss to them. Whether that is a vexatious action or not is questionable.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: You have to see it in context. It is so site-specific that it is one of those things that is difficult to deal with. What may have happened in a situation is that people did not realise they were going to lose that piece of land, and that land might be very important for them. The developer may see it as vexatious but for the community who live there, whose space it is, it is obviously not something vexatious for them. It will have a big impact on their local community.
In terms of planning, it is very important to understand that the local plan is a difficult process to get involved with. Friends of the Earth does quite a bit of training to try and get communities—we also do training with councillors, actually—to understand the local plan process and the importance of getting involved, but it is quite difficult to get people involved in something, and it is particularly difficult to get involved in something if you then see it set aside in the future, so you have to value that contribution and input.
Ingrid Samuel: Something can possibly be done in terms of looking at the individual trigger mechanisms that put a stop on registering something as a town or village green. Considering each of those individually, there are some that may be fine. For example, when a local plan is finalised and agreed, that is one thing. If we are stopping any opportunity right at a consultation stage, which is the first that a local community have heard of it, or when a planning application is first lodged, which is the first time that a community have heard of it, and it is already too late, those sorts of things need to be considered. Therefore, perhaps looking individually at trigger mechanisms and how that would work in practice, and whether it unduly disadvantages communities in favour of developers, is something to think about.
Last week, we heard from a housing association how it had built some houses, and after people were living there, somebody tried to register it as a town and village green, which seems somewhat ridiculous. Where I used to live, I am delighted to hear again that a blocking application was turned down, because that was sensible; the land had never been used as a town or village green. May I ask the National Trust in particular to tell us about your experience of using the planning system, the delays that you found, and the cost of excessive information requirements? I am thinking of quite a lot of work that the National Trust has to do. Could you say a bit more about that?
Ingrid Samuel: Certainly. We are very active in the planning system, both as a landowner and as an organisation that protects and cares for special places and is concerned about the impact of other people’s developments on our special places. Similarly, we have found that, in terms of the planning system and the amount of information required from us, we have had moments when we have been asked to present a great deal of information, possibly more than we thought was reasonable, but equally we have had many times when not nearly enough information was being offered to make good quality decisions. We know of a few cases right now where local authorities, because they are concerned about speed and pushing through applications as quickly as possible, are making decisions on the basis of very slim evidence indeed.
Ingrid Samuel: They are in the process right now. We have one in Hampshire—in Stockbridge—where the case is about a solar farm proposal on a highly visible space in the hillside right next to a grade II listed building and some National Trust property. The local authority has chosen to make a decision on the basis of very limited information and has also withdrawn its initial objection because it is concerned that it will go to appeal. Things like that are already happening. We are concerned about clause 1 in particular and the proposals that have been suggested that speed and overturning decisions on appeal are the type of things that will mean that the local authorities are designated and power taken away from them and given to PINS.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: May I add an example about lack of information? For instance, Friends of the Earth is involved at the moment in some of the shale gas test drilling exploration in Lancashire. If you look at the applications, there is very little information on the conditions about impacts and contamination on groundwater. There is one PDF diagram, which has a cross-section of the drill and how it goes through the different geological formations, but there is absolutely no information as to how that can impact the groundwater.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: Yes, it is test drilling. It is Lancashire county council. There are four applications there at the moment. We have got various local groups up there who have asked us for a bit of help. The point is that there is not much information and because it is a novel technology there is a real difficulty. People do not understand what the impacts might be. They just have a cross-section diagram of a 3 km drill, and there is a lack of information there.
Is the council not asking for it? I am trying to get to the point. You will get complaints; I have had complaints as an MP. People ask for loads of information and then in the end it does not feel like much of it is being used. That is the issue we are trying to understand. Are we asking for information overload, which costs a lot of money, but does not actually have a consequence on the decision? That is what I am trying to get at.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: It is different for different applications. That is one of the issues. There has to be a certain exercise of judgment. There has to be reasonableness. Sometimes there is a lack of skills in the planning office, or a lack of expertise. They do not actually know what they should be asking for, which sometimes means that they are not asking for enough. At other times they are under pressure, so, perhaps to cover their backs, they ask for more. Essentially, if you are trying to get at good decision making, you need the right information to make a good decision. That is what we need to be focused on in the clause.
Ingrid Samuel: You will always have cases, I suppose, where you might feel that you are being asked to give too much, so yes, I could not say that there has never been a case where the National Trust has felt that it has been asked for more information, but whether that means that we ought to put a great deal of pressure on local authorities and suggest that they should not ask for what they think is reasonable is a different question.
Finally, on broadband infrastructure, a lot of rural communities are concerned. There is great news today: we have been given state aid clearance, so we can finally start getting on with our planning permission applications. Communities are concerned that they particularly do not want to see long planning application processes now getting in the way of their faster broadband. Do you think that all cables need to be underground, even if it stops communities getting the benefits of super-fast broadband on the move as well as in the home?
Ruth Bradshaw: Infrastructure needs to be designed in a way that is appropriate for the setting. In many cases in national parks that may mean that undergrounding is the more appropriate option. That is why we are keen to see the existing processes continue, where local planning authorities are working closely with the developers to ensure that infrastructure is designed in a way that is appropriate to the national park. We will not then have the potential economic disbenefits detracting from these landscapes that have specific protection under legislation that has been in place for many decades.
The other thing I would like to say on that is that, as was touched on earlier, there is evidence of people’s willingness to pay for the undergrounding of overhead lines in national parks and AONBs. That is the process that is already in place for the electricity industry. There is an allowance of £60 million for the current five-year period for distribution network operators to underground their overhead lines, and they are working closely with stakeholder groups, which are consulting local communities to identify the priorities for undergrounding. That clearly demonstrates that there is an appetite and a willingness to pay for undergrounding where it is appropriate.
I would like to take you back to village greens. You started by saying that over the past few years we had lost a lot of green open spaces, particularly in urban areas. Would you accept that the legislation that was put through in the Localism Act and the national planning policy framework has introduced the right to restore those green open spaces through the planning process?
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: What is in the national planning policy framework is positive about that, but this seems to be going the other way, so I am just wondering about the trajectory. Are these things pulling against each other or are they working together to deliver more urban green space, for instance?
On one hand there is a new right to create green open spaces, which we set out in legislation, and on the other there is some tidying up of the village greens legislation that is required as a result of that. If you say, as one of you did, that village greens are all about the use and love of space, that is for the birds. That does not form any resemblance at all to the experience that I have had with village greens, where we have had a lake included as part of a village green application. These are vexatious and they come up after the planning application has gone in as a way of frustrating it.
Ingrid Samuel: I guess I repeat what I said before: it depends on perspective, I suppose, whether it feels vexatious or not. The town and village green, and the right to register town and village greens, have purchase with local communities, who understand how they work. I am not saying that this should not and cannot be done through the planning system in some circumstances but that one needs to think carefully about the specific trigger events and whether or not they disadvantage that opportunity to engage with that particular—
With respect, that is a waffly answer which gets us absolutely nowhere. This is an attempt to tidy up this legislation; it is an attempt to bring some sanity to the village greens experience that we have had; and it is allowing communities to set up their own green open spaces. I cannot see what is wrong with that.
Ingrid Samuel: I think we accept that there is an opportunity to engage through the planning system. I think, as I said, that it is about thinking about the individual trigger mechanisms and if at each point when we close down that opportunity to engage with village greens, that that does not disadvantage a community opportunity to state what is important to them.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: I think that the question is, “What happens in areas where people are not taking up neighbourhood plans?” If there is not total coverage in England of neighbourhood plans, then you have obviously got gaps there. And I think that although your perspective is that the legislation is designed to deal with vexatious applications, our concern is that perhaps it is too much of a sledgehammer and that there needs to be something softer about dealing with vexatious claims. But it does not get away from the fact that people perhaps do not appreciate their greens and open spaces until they are threatened by development. So that is another issue, and a contextual factor, that has to be taken into account.
Yes. You asked, “What about areas that are not producing neighbourhood plans?” They are not producing neighbourhood plans where there is no chance of development, so the village green issue does not come into it.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: My experience of working with communities—I work, for instance, with communities in east London and other areas, such as Liverpool—is that they are not doing neighbourhood plans because they do not have the resources to do neighbourhood plans, and I think that is a very big issue for them. For instance, one community that we have worked with, up around the Seven Sisters redevelopment, did a community plan pre-dating the neighbourhood plan legislation, but they found it very difficult to get that community plan recognised or taken into account by the local authority. So I think that they did want to look at neighbourhood planning, but I would not say that everywhere that could do a neighbourhood plan is doing a neighbourhood plan at the moment.
May I take you back to the issue of shale gas? I am a Lancashire MP. Shale gas is a valuable asset that the country has got; we have something like 50 years of gas sat under Blackpool at the moment. The Institute of Engineers confirmed that there is absolutely no problem getting the gas out. Most geologists who have looked at the situation have confirmed that the gas is way below the watercourse—it is something like 5 to 7 km down into the earth, and the watercourses that we would normally come across are nowhere near that sort of depth—and yet the search for and the commercial production of this asset is being held up by what I would call issues that are not planning issues but issues that are more about frightening people rather than informing them of what is going on.
How do you oppose the fact that the planning authorities have got the proof that this is okay? It is being opposed by putting fear into people that it is going to affect the watercourses. One comment was, “If you drill for shale gas in St Annes, or Southport, there will be an earthquake in Blackpool.” There is no proof of that, yet this fear is being spread among the people of Lancashire.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: As the Committee is not looking into shale gas, I shall restrict my comments to be relevant to the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. On information, the British Geological Survey have done a report on the potential groundwater impact from exploitation of shale gas in the UK. There is information there about the sorts of chemicals used in shale gas, such as hydrochloric acid. There are also various reports because in the UK it is not a tried and tested process. There is this idea that we need to have more information, particularly to fulfil conditions so that we are not contaminating groundwater. We are assessing how that might happen.
My point about the application is that there was not sufficient information with that application to understand what the possible impacts could be. As you know, there are market gardeners in that area, there is the Ramsar site in the Ribble estuary, and there were issues about what the possible impacts could be which were not clear from the application. We, for instance, asked the planning officers for information on the conditions, and that information has not been forthcoming; we are still waiting for an answer about the information on conditions. There were issues about what happened to the waste water, and the Environment Agency have been able to answer questions about that, so my point was merely in relation to the provision on information requirements in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill—that there are occasions when information is required, because it is a novel technology and one needs that information.
Another example of information that you might want to require with a development is, for instance, on the viability assessment of a development that comes forward. I was also involved in another application, in London, where a community had asked for information as to why no affordable housing requirement was put forward as part of a large development where there was a great affordable housing need. The viability assessment, which had been produced by the developer and provided to the council, was not forthcoming before the decision was made on the application during the consultation period. It was then, of course, difficult for the community to say, “Well, we do not understand why there is no affordable housing requirement,” as they had not seen the arguments put forward by the developer. That is another example of information that you might want to provide with an application so that when the community is being consulted, they can make an informed response.
Order. I do not want to get into a discussion about the planning merits of shale gas in Lancashire and the merits of the planning application. The merits of the Bill are what we are focusing on.
I want to bring you on to something that was brought up by Dr Stone in his evidence in the previous session. You may or may not have heard it. It is relevant to national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, and it is about the section 106 provisions that allow for affordable housing but prevent that housing being lost through market forces because of the huge potential value of any home in an outstandingly beautiful setting like that. Rather counter-intuitively, his evidence reinforced a concern that I think the Committee should be very concerned about: if a viability test is applied after agreement has been given for such provision for an affordable home, subject to a section 106, once the consent has been granted, if the applicant were then to come back and say that it is not viable and seek to have the rules relaxed, that property would no longer be available for the purpose for which it was agreed and on which the landowner may have granted the land at below market price on the understanding that it would be for affordable housing needs. That feels counter-intuitive, but I suspect that Dr Stone has got a point.
I would welcome your views on whether you think there is a risk that clause 5 could affect agreements that have protected the provision of affordable housing for very special needs, such as for people who need to work or have good reason to be in a national park or an area of outstanding natural beauty. Those properties could be lost because market forces would inevitably push up prices to a point where local people on relatively low incomes would not be able to afford them. Do you think that is an issue, and do you have any evidence of that?
Ruth Bradshaw: I would be happy to send something to the Committee in writing after the meeting. Due to resource constraints, we have not been able to look in detail at all the clauses in the Bill. However, I think we would share the concerns of the national park authorities on the difficulties and the importance of being able to provide affordable housing in national parks. If these measures were to make that more difficult that would be of particular concern to us. I am happy to go away and see if we can identify any evidence through our members in national parks societies.
Yes. Clause 4 introduces a limit on the information that local planning authorities can require to be submitted alongside a planning application. You were talking earlier about information. I wonder what sort of impact that might have on the quality of planning control.
Ingrid Samuel: We were talking before about the importance of having the right information for each individual planning application. Depending on the complexity of the planning application, different amounts of information will be required. It needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis and local authorities need the ability to ask for what they need to ensure the right outcome.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: There are so many impacts. It depends on how big the development is as well. Major applications can have a massive impact on traffic, air quality and access to schools. There are so many different factors that it can have an influence on. Obviously, if the local authority is making a sound decision, it does need to have information on those things. If the applications are smaller it should be relevant and pertinent to the actual case itself.
Clearly, the whole planning process is about reconciling and getting the right balance between conflicting interests and concerns. As you will be aware, clause 1 provides for poorly performing authorities to have planning decisions pushed up to the Planning Inspectorate, but without any opportunity for appeal against its decision, short of judicial review. Clause 2 gives the Secretary of State greater powers to award costs. As organisations representing and often deeply engaged in community interests and ensuring that there is an effective community voice, how far do you think that the Bill gets the right balance?
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: I think that the Bill is quite centralising in the sense of clause 1 added to clause 21. It is obviously drawing decisions upward. The issue about public participation in decision making comes under the Aarhus convention, to which the UK is a signatory, which talks about public participation. What concerns me is that public participation is not explicitly mentioned. Although clause 1(6)(a) says that the local authority needs to do what it normally does, it does not specifically say that there needs to be consultation. That is something that should be up there as being important to happen. You want to get consent and feedback from the community about this application.
The issue about the Secretary of State drawing more decisions upward is with who is holding the Secretary of State to account. If that is happening through judicial review, the Prime Minister has recently announced that he wants to reduce the number of judicial reviews. In the explanatory notes, there are many references to judicial review. It says not to worry about the lack of appeal in clause 1, because you can judicially review. That does not really make sense, because you want a system where you do not want to have to resort to judicial review. There needs to be safeguards.
Clause 1 has real problems in that it is taking the decision away from democratically elected councillors in a local authority, but communities are expecting them to make the decision. If there is no clarity on how local authorities are designated, why a local authority has been designated or whether there are extenuating circumstances —perhaps that local authority took longer than 13 weeks to make a decision, because it was making a quality decision and was engaging with the developer and the developer was engaging with the community—it seems ironic to be picking on those authorities who are trying to make quality decisions, but maybe taking a bit longer about it, and saying that they are performing poorly on timeliness. The quality of outcome or the strength of participation in that decision is not looked at. There are quite a few issues with the clause.
The other thing is that there has obviously been no White Paper prior to the Bill, so we have not been able to discuss and look at evidence and have that in-the-round debate that is necessary if you are going to bring forward a piece of legislation that is quite different to the current system where the local authority is making the decision, except on major infrastructure and big pieces of kit, as it was put earlier.
I am thinking of the way in which you all might assist local communities in voicing their concerns and the way that communities themselves can engage within the planning process to get their voices heard.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: Clause 1 states:
“The Secretary of State may give directions requiring a local planning authority to do things in relation to an application made to the Secretary of State under this section that would otherwise have been made to the authority”.
That is not clear. If I am going to explain to a community what right they have to be consulted on this application that is going to the Secretary of State, it is not clear to me, and I do not have much explanation around that to explain to them how they get involved and have their say, so that is an issue.
What might happen is that communities that are engaged in planning—Friends of the Earth local groups are engaged in both supporting and arguing against development that they feel is unsustainable—will feel that they have elected their local members, who are in the local authority and supposed to be making decisions on planning, but suddenly they are not making that decision anymore. They will not understand why that is happening. Then, if the local authority was poorly performing on timeliness, communities might think, “No, they were just taking the right amount of time to deal with that major application, which was very problematic and contentious.” There might be a public perception that their voices are not considered as important as just getting a rubber stamp.
I would like to go back to clause 7. We have talked a lot about broadband and what the implications for broadband will be with regard to clause 7, but clause 7 does not actually mention broadband directly. It mentions electronic communications. Is there any concern or apprehension with regard to the section of the Bill that says that
“the need to promote economic growth in the United Kingdom” is directly related to electronic communications, without the explicit mention of broadband?
Ruth Bradshaw: You are right to flag that up as an issue. This clause is being introduced for the purpose of trying to secure the roll-out of broadband as quickly as possible, but the implication is that it could actually be used much more widely for any kind of telecommunications infrastructure. That is a concern. We have not touched on that specific clause regarding promoting economic growth, and that is another issue that would potentially be something that would override other protections and be at the expense of long-standing and important protections that have been put in place to protect special areas.
Ingrid Samuel: It is potentially a concern. It is the first time that the statutory purpose of the national parks has potentially been eroded since 1949. There is a risk of a precedent being set. I know that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in its announcement on 7 September said that it would be talking to mobile operators after broadband to consider what they need and would consult for mobile after the fixed Cabinet consultation, so there is potential here for continued erosion.
Ruth Bradshaw: We would prefer to see the measure dropped from the Bill altogether, partly because of the precedent being set in terms of making changes to the national park legislation. Even if it were to be more tightly defined within the Bill as to specifically what infrastructure it referred to, that precedent would still be in place.