Examination of Witnesses

Neighbourhood Planning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:01 pm on 18th October 2016.

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Gavin Barwell MP, Steve Evison and Tony Thompson gave evidence.

We will now hear oral evidence from the Department for Communities and Local Government. We have until 4.45 pm for this session, and we have been saving the best for last. Would the witness introduce himself, even though everyone knows who he is?

Gavin Barwell:

It is not just me, Mr Bone. I am Gavin Barwell, the Minister for Housing and Planning.

Tony Thompson:

I am Tony Thompson, DCLG planning.

Q Shadow Minister, do you have any questions?

Gavin Barwell:

Mr Bone, before we go into questions, may I make a short statement? It might be helpful for the Committee. With your permission, I would like to make some introductory remarks in relation to amendments on plan making that we will be tabling. As we heard from the Secretary of State on Second Reading, the Government agree with the central thrust of the local plans expert group recommendations. Most of those recommendations can be implemented via policy changes, but some require a change in the law. Where that is the case, we will bring forward amendments to the Bill to make those changes.

Specifically, the amendments will do four things. First, they will place beyond doubt the requirement for all local planning authorities to have a plan, but with greater freedom on the detail in those plans, providing that they address strategic priorities such as housing and infrastructure. We will do that by requiring every local planning authority to have a development plan document—the documents that collectively make up a local plan—that sets out policies to deliver the strategic priorities for the development and use of land in the area. Local planning authorities will have the flexibility to rely on the spatial development strategy, if they wish to do so. Additionally, they will be required to review those documents at intervals determined by the Secretary of State.

Secondly, the amendments will see more collaboration to address issues that require solutions across geographical boundaries, keeping plan making at the lowest level of government possible. We will do that by enabling the Secretary of State to direct two or more authorities to work together to produce a joint development plan document where that would ensure effective local planning in an area, for example, to address housing needs.

Thirdly, the amendments will see plans made at the lowest level of government, keeping things local where possible, by enabling the Secretary of State to invite a county council in a two-tier area to prepare or advise on a local plan where a district council has not done so. Fourthly, the amendments will allow us to take the opportunity to improve the accessibility of plans to local communities and others. We will do that by enabling the Secretary of State to set data standards for certain planning documents.

It has been clear from our discussions today that there is a great deal of concern about speculative development around the country. Clearly, one of the key ways in which we can deal with that is getting plans in place throughout the country. That is what we are determined to do. I will write to all members of the Committee when we table the amendments, putting in writing what I have described briefly to you today. However, I wanted people to have the chance to ask me questions about those amendments, as well as what is in the Bill.

Thank you, Minister. That sounds like rather a lot of amendments to the Bill. I have to say to the Government that it would have been far preferable to have had the amendments before the evidence session, so that our witnesses could have been questioned about them. I have had a word with the Clerk, and we will make them available as soon as possible to all Committee members. Perhaps the Opposition have something to say about this—I call the shadow Minister.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

Q Thank you, Mr Bone. I accept absolutely what the Chair has said. Nevertheless, I am very impressed by the new Minister’s reading of the Lyons report that Labour produced a couple of years ago, because it is gradually being rolled out.

I want to get a few points of clarification from the Minister about what he has just said. I totally agree about the requirement for local authorities to produce a plan. Will he put a particular time on that? Will plans have to be in place by a particular date? Furthermore, as the Minister knows, the duty to co-operate has simply not worked in practice, so the Opposition very much welcome having a direction to a council on producing a plan, because that is something that has slowed up development. However, I will stop there and get some immediate feedback from the Minister before my follow-up.

Gavin Barwell:

If I may respond first to what you said, Mr Bone, I completely understand your sentiments. Obviously, we had a significant change of Ministers in July, so we wanted to take the opportunity to ensure that we could use the Bill as a vehicle for any other changes we might want to make to legislation. We are very conscious of the experience last year—or this year—with the Housing and Planning Act 2016, when a large number of Government amendments were tabled late on in the progress of the Bill. In this Bill, we wanted to ensure that any Government amendments were tabled before Committee consideration began. In an ideal world, obviously, they would have been part of the Bill by the time it was introduced, but I think people will understand why that was not possible. We have sought to ensure that people have as much time as possible to scrutinise the amendments.

In response to the question that the hon. Member for City of Durham asked, on the timing of intervention, the existing situation is slightly confused. There is no single place in statute where the duty to have a plan is clearly identified, but the Government have previously said that they will start to intervene early next year with those authorities that have not yet put planning documents in place.

In the Bill, partly we are providing a clear statutory requirement, but we are also broadening out the ways in which we intervene. At the moment, if we were to intervene next year under the existing framework, all we can do, in essence, is to intervene where a council has not met its own timetable for the process of producing a plan. Ultimately, the recourse is that we step in and produce the plan.

I do not think that is ideal, because I hope that we would all broadly agree that we are localists and want to see local plans driven from the bottom up. My ideal solution would be for every council to do that, but where they do not we must look at options where we could get a couple of councils to work together to produce one plan, or we could look at a county council potentially having a role; that might help.

There were a couple of intakes of breath, possibly from the direction of the Chair, when I mentioned county councils.

No, no; I have no views on the matter.

Gavin Barwell:

Clearly, these are powers that we do not want to use unless we absolutely have to, and hopefully the existence of the powers will help to focus minds and ensure that we get plans in place. In relation to the designation regime, in terms of the speed with which authorities are taking planning decisions, since the Government took those powers to designate I think we have only had to use them so far on three occasions. So, the existence of the powers has led to authorities raising their game and that is what we hope will be the case in this regard as well.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

I suspect that we will come back to this issue in Committee, Mr Bone—

Q Order. I assume, Minister, that these will be additional clauses at the end of the Bill.

Gavin Barwell:

They will be additional clauses to the Bill, indeed.

Q Because obviously where they come in the Bill will determine when we can debate them.

Steve Evison:

I understand that they are scheduled to be taken after the clauses that are already in the Bill. So they will be taken then—

Q Fine, because obviously we would like all Members to have as much time as possible to look at them before—

Gavin Barwell:

Understood. I think we are hoping to table them tomorrow.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

Q I want to ask the Minister two further questions. We have heard from a lot of the witnesses about the difficult situation we are in with regard to funding infrastructure now. Infrastructure was in the Bill—or at least bits of stuff about the National Infrastructure Commission were in the Bill and have been taken out. I would just be interested to know whether addressing all the infrastructure issues is on the Minister’s agenda.

My second question is about the consolidation and review of CPO legislation, which also seems to be coming through from a number of witnesses as an issue that really needs to be addressed if we are serious about getting enough land into the system to deliver the homes that we need.

Gavin Barwell:

I will take those two issues in turn, Mr Bone. Regarding the National Infrastructure Commission, obviously that already exists in shadow form and the Treasury has confirmed that we will make it an executive agency. A charter has been published, setting out how the commission will work. So, the Government still attach huge importance to the work that it is doing; we just came to the view that we did not need to create it as a statutory body. So that can be taken forward without the need for legislation. However, it has already produced a number of reports. Its work is ongoing. So, absolutely, our commitment to that organisation, but also to the wider piece of work on making sure this country has the infrastructure it needs to support the housing we desperately want to see, remains unchanged.

In relation to the second issue about CPO, I think in the sitting we just had it was really the latter evidence session that concentrated more on the CPO powers rather than the other issues. However, I think there was a general recognition that what is in the Bill is moving things in the right direction. There were some concerns about some points of detail.

We recognise that there is an appetite out there for a more comprehensive reform of CPO law, but our view was that at this point in time, when there is not a clear consensus about what form that comprehensive reform would take, we should concentrate on the elements that clearly are not working well at the moment and try to sort them out so the system is fairer and faster, and then look over time to see whether we can build a consensus about more radical reform.

Q Just before we move on, I think Mr Evison ought to introduce himself, and Mr Thompson should also introduce himself, formally for the record.

Steve Evison:

I am Steve Evison. I am deputy director for local plans and neighbourhood plans at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Tony Thompson:

Tony Thompson, DCLG planning, deputy head of development management division.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

Q We have heard a lot—I think it was raised in almost every evidence session today—on the concern about resource in our planning teams. It is not only about the number of people to administer the process and existing applications but about the quality of expertise within teams as well, and reference was made to archaeological support and conservation specialities within those teams, too. This could be a significant new burden for local authorities at a time when they are struggling to keep their heads above water. What plans do the Government have to address that concern?

Gavin Barwell:

I am not sure we would necessarily accept that there are huge new burdens in the Bill itself. There are obviously requirements to support councils with neighbourhood planning, and the new burdens doctrine certainly applied when they were introduced in the Localism Act 2011. More than £13 million has been paid out since 2012 to help with this. Under the current arrangements, a council gets £5,000 for each of the first five neighbourhood areas it designates, £5,000 for each of the first five neighbourhood forums it designates and £20,000 for plans when a referendum date has been set after the plan has been through the examination process, so there is financial support there.

Without getting into all that detail, I would very much accept the overall point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, which is that if we want to build the housing that we desperately need in this country, we need to make sure that our planning departments are adequately resourced. The Government have recently consulted on the level of planning fees, and we will be responding very shortly to the results of that consultation. Without pre-empting that response, I can say that in a lot of the meetings I have had in the first three months in my job, people from different bits of the housing world have said contradictory things to me, but I have had an almost unanimous message from local government and developers themselves on the need to get more resourcing into our planning departments. That is clearly an issue that I am looking at.

The evidence that we heard today identified one of the real challenges we have there: if we did allow fees to rise, how do we ensure that all of that money goes into added value in our planning departments, and is not used to allow local authorities to release funds elsewhere? I entirely understand the pressures local councils are under—I was a councillor myself for 12 years before becoming an MP—but I think, in my current job, if fees were to go up, we would want to make sure that every penny of the extra money raised was going into planning departments, increasing their capacity, both in terms of numbers of people and, as you say, expertise to deal with these issues.

There is also some interesting potential in the competition pilots that the Housing and Planning Act 2016 will provide for. There is now some interest in the local government world. There are councils that are potentially interested in looking at whether they can take their planning department and offer it as a service that would cover a wider area. In some of the evidence we had earlier today, people sometimes said, “You might have a small district council that would only deal with one application of a certain type every year,” and if you were dealing at scale over a wider area, you might develop a greater expertise in some of those applications.

I think money is part of the problem, but we are also thinking, interestingly, about how we could restructure services and about how councils might work together on some of this agenda, which might also lead to some improvement.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

Q A point was also raised about how the profession is perceived and whether it is really attracting talent and new people who want to come through. The suggestion was made that we should work with local universities to try to bring that through. Have the Government got any plans to raise the status of that? When it works well, it is developers that want to build a great product and planners that want to build great communities, and together they find a way of making it work, and everyone benefits from that.

Gavin Barwell:

I am very interested in talking to the profession about that. You are obviously aware that we are publishing a White Paper later in the year. We are thinking about an overall strategy for how we get this country building the homes that the Prime Minister wants to see us building, and a key ingredient of that is ensuring we have enough people with the right skills, both within local councils’ planning departments, more generally in the planning world and in the construction industry—making sure that we have got enough people out there to actually build these homes. The skills agenda—ensuring we have got the right people in the right places with the right skills—is absolutely a cornerstone of the strategy that we need to build.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

Q I have two questions. The first one is on neighbourhood plans. In my area, we have more than 20 under way. The vast majority of land proposed in them or agreed in them to be allocated for housing would be classified under the previous aborted local plan—the rules were changed by the coalition—as windfall sites. My estimate is that there will be approaching 1,000 units of windfall sites just in Bassetlaw, just from those neighbourhood plans. That is a huge number. Every single one of the urban neighbourhood plans that I would like to promote, for which there is a clear community interest and a definable community that, according to my subjective judgment, would be keen and easily engaged—and there are a lot of them—would also classify entirely as windfall sites, despite the fact that Bassetlaw is required to find around 5,000 housing plots in its local plan. That is a huge number in addition.

Bearing that in mind, first, what additional resource is going to be made available to allow the creation of new neighbourhoods and the required planning work where no existing infrastructure—such as parish councils —is in place? Secondly, you rather strangely suggested that you would have county councils taking over where district councils were failing to deliver. I am not exactly sure what the core competence in planning in county councils would be for that, but will that power also apply to city regions?

Gavin Barwell:

I will deal with your second question first; I would like a little clarity on your first question before I answer it.

In terms of city regions, the answer is “definitely”. Some of the devolution deals have already included an appetite to produce a strategic plan for the area. For example, in Greater Manchester—the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton is nodding—rather than the 11 districts in the Greater Manchester area all producing their own local plans, they have made the decision to use the devolution deal to produce a strategic plan for Greater Manchester as a whole. From a Government point of view, that is extremely welcome, because it allows us to cover off all those areas with one plan.

It is not necessarily something that we would want to impose, but if, as part of the devolution process, areas have an appetite for looking at strategic planning across an area like that, there is a lot to commend it. I am looking forward to going to Greater Manchester soon to co-chair the Greater Manchester Land Commission and look at how that plan is progressing. It is potentially a very attractive idea.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

Q That is not quite the same as intervening powers.

Gavin Barwell:

No. We are not taking it as an intervention power. It would be something we would look to negotiate on a case-by-case basis for each devolution deal. I stress that the county council power is not something I would anticipate using regularly, but if you look at the parts of the country in which there has been a struggle to produce local plans, it is often because you have two or three districts where land use is heavily constrained, because large amounts of the land are green belt or protected in some other shape or form. As the hon. Member for City of Durham was saying, the duty to co-operate is therefore not working and the housing need is not being reallocated around the area. Hypothetically, there may be cases in which having a county council look across the county and ask, “Where in the county could the housing need go?” might be a way to deal with it.

I say to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw: I see my job as the Minister very clearly. I do not want to be the person writing plans for local communities. As the Minister, my job is to say to local councils, “It’s your job to produce the vision and aspiration for the area.” I have one role in the process, which is to say, “I’m not going to let you duck the tough choices.” We have, as a country, to meet the need for housing in our country. As the Minister, it is my job to say, “You have to find a way to do it in your local area.” Whether that is several districts working together, county or individual local plans, or an agreement on a devo deal in Greater Manchester, I am open to different ways in which it can be done. I hope we all agree that we have not been building enough housing in this country for a long time, and that we have to find a way to make sure that we have that coverage throughout the country.

On your first question, were you asking about how we make sure we resource the groups that might produce the plans in urban areas of your constituency?

Gavin Barwell:

Okay; understood. A £22.5 million support programme is available and has so far made more than 1,500 payments. All groups can apply for a grant of up to £9,000, but, as I represent an urban constituency, I absolutely recognise that it is more difficult to do this kind of work in more deprived areas—sometimes in more transient parts of the country as well—so additional funding and technical support is available to people in such priority areas. There is a national network of 132 neighbourhood planning champions who provide advocacy and peer-to-peer support. We recently launched an advertising campaign to promote the take-up of neighbourhood planning. That targeted a number of urban areas. I know that both you and Helen Hayes have spoken about this before, and are keen to push it. I am keen to listen to you and to think about whatever else we can do to help. I do not want the policy just to work in rural parishes, although the contribution it makes in those areas is important. It should be something for the whole country.

Steve Evison:

May I just add a further point? For instances where the individual local authority has not written its plan, the 2016 Act enabled us to invite a Mayor or the combined authority to write the plan in place of the individual local authority. At the moment, that power is not available to county councils. Through the change, we are ensuring that we have the same options in two-tier areas as we do in areas with Mayors and combined authorities.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q I am pleased by the comments you made earlier about the plans to consult on increasing planning fees to get resources into local authorities. Could you lay out, for the Committee’s benefit, the proposed timetable for replying to the consultation? How will you go about enacting that when you have considered the results?

Gavin Barwell:

That is a fairly simple one. The consultation has happened and we are waiting to respond to it. The realistic likelihood is that the response will come in the White Paper.

Gavin Barwell:

Later this year, so you will not be waiting long for an answer.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q Is your decision implemented by regulations, by a circular or by primary legislation?

Gavin Barwell:

By regulations, I am told. That is something that we should be able to make progress on quickly, should we decide to.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q Okay. In the first session, we talked about giving planning authorities the ability to charge extra fees, which would be refundable if they failed to meet a certain level of service, such as the delivery of a decision by a certain time. Would that mitigate, in part at least, the concern you raised in your answer to Mr McMahon about money not seeping out through the back door?

Gavin Barwell:

Clearly, that provides some protection for applicants. If they are paying more money and do not get a better service, they get a refund, but we are thinking about a wider issue, which is how to come up with a mechanism to ensure that all the money goes through to extra spending in planning departments.

For example, there might be a council department where 60% of the budget is funded through fees, and 40% comes through council tax. The council could take the extra fee income and just remove the money that was funded through council tax. Not a penny more would be spent on planning, but they would have released some money somewhere else for the local authority. Now, I can well understand their desire to do that but, in my job, I want to ensure that if more money comes in, it leads to more money being spent in total.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q The Minister is quite right to say that any extra money raised by way of fees should fund incremental extra levels of resourcing, and not simply replace money from general subsidy. To that point, do you agree that we might learn some lessons from the way in which business improvement district funding works? Extra money comes in by way of the business rate supplement but the local authority has to agree the existing level of service provision in writing in advance, and it cannot reduce that. The extra bid funding provides for incremental service levels. Could a similar approach be adopted in this situation? You would agree with the council, before they levied extra fees, that there are 30 people working in the council’s planning department and that the extra fees must lead to incremental hires on a cost basis. Would that be a way of avoiding the problem?

Gavin Barwell:

There are a number of mechanisms. I do not want to get into too much detail speculating about them now, but that would certainly be a possibility. A very good point was made in previous evidence sessions that we are partly interested in the speed with which decisions are made on applications, but that is by no means the sole arbiter of how effectively a planning department is doing its job. We also want section 106 agreements to be reached speedily, planning conditions to be discharged speedily and local plans in place. There are a number of strands of work.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q I am glad that the Minister mentioned section 106 agreements. As far as I can tell from the Bill, the pre-commencement conditions get folded into the planning application. If I have read correctly, section 106 agreements will still come after planning permission. Am I right about that?

Tony Thompson:

They are normally negotiated as part of the process. The expectation is that they would be agreed before the final decision notice is issued.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q But sometimes you get section 106 agreements that are not agreed or signed until after planning is granted. Sometimes it can be sequential. It is better that it is simultaneous, as you described, but sometimes, currently, it does happen sequentially.

Tony Thompson:

Sometimes we encourage completion of the section 106 before the final decision is issued.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q So in that case, might you go further than simply encouraging it, as you do now, and introduce a provision in this Bill to make it a requirement? Rather than simply encouraging, why not compel, if you think it is best practice?

Tony Thompson:

The expectation is that you should complete them, but there are sometimes very exceptional circumstances—perhaps a very significant development—where it is exceptionally agreed that the section 106 can be done afterwards. But in those circumstances, the expectation is that when the committee takes the decision to approve and issues that decision, there is a clear understanding of precisely what the section 106 should comprise, even though it has not actually completed the process. As I said, those are the exceptions rather than the rule. We wanted that element of flexibility, rather than a clear point that could not be exceeded.

Q Order. I am sorry to interrupt. Would it be possible for you to write to the Committee giving us the numbers of how many are exceptional and how many are not? That would be helpful to the Committee.

Gavin Barwell:

I am sure we could do that, Mr Bone.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q The Bill provides for the Secretary of State or one of his or her Ministers to proscribe certain kinds of planning conditions—to ban them from being imposed. Can you explain for the Committee’s benefit, Mr Barwell, what kinds of planning condition used currently you have it in mind to proscribe or ban using the new powers?

Gavin Barwell:

My hon. Friend is quite right. Clause 7 tries to deal with two different issues. One is what we see as overuse of pre-commencement conditions; the second is taking a fairly wide-ranging power to proscribe certain types of planning conditions. I will give a brief answer and refer him somewhere where there is a lot more detail. Essentially, one thing that we want to stop is the use of conditions that essentially just replicate things that are either in the building regulations or other statements that legally oblige developers already. There are things that do not need to be restated as planning conditions because there is already a legal obligation on the developer, for example, to do them.

We published a consultation paper when we introduced the Bill that sets out in more detail how we would choose to use the regulations. The main point of reassurance that I would give the Committee is that it is clear on the face of the Bill that the power cannot be used in any way contrary to the NPPF. It cannot be used to water down protections clearly set out in the NPPF.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q But are there any specific planning conditions currently used that you have it in mind to outlaw, for illustrative purposes?

Tony Thompson:

The consultation paper talks, for example, about something that requires the completion of the development. That is an issue about the certainty that could be achieved with that condition. In that particular instance, the expectation is that such a condition should not be imposed.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q Thank you. Can Mr Barwell comment on neighbourhood plans versus local plans? Are there any areas where you think it may be possible to give slightly higher weighting to neighbourhood plans than to local plans, provided that the neighbourhood plan is consistent with the overall level of housing supply predicted or required by the local plan, given that they are more local and have a bigger democratic mandate?

Gavin Barwell:

It is really important that we do not see it as local plans versus neighbourhood plans. Neighbourhood plans should be consistent with the overall planning policy framework set out in the local plan. I think the issue we have at the moment—as some of our witnesses say, the Bill goes some way toward addressing it, but we also need to consider policy changes that could help—is that you either do not have a local plan, or you have one that does not have a five-year land supply. At that point, the presumption in favour of development in the NPPF applies, and that can sometimes, although not always, lead to neighbourhood plans being overridden.

That is where the issue is. I do not think it is so much about the conflict between the local plan and the neighbourhood plan; it is about when you either do not have a local plan, or you have one that has not met the five-year land supply test. There are some things in the Bill that will help a bit with this, but I think the main thing we need to look at is how that five-year land supply test is working and whether we can provide some protection to local councils where perhaps there is suddenly a problem with one site and that therefore drops off. Overnight you thought you had a five-year land supply plan but you do not. Can we provide some protection where councils think about other options available to get things back up to the required level? Can we also ensure that, at least for a period of time after neighbourhood plans are approved, they afford stronger protection so that where a parish or a community in an urban area has worked really hard to produce its neighbourhood plan and, through no fault of its own, its local council does not have a five-year land supply, it does not find that its neighbourhood plan is immediately undermined by speculative development?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q Where there is a large local authority—we were just talking about having a local plan that covers the whole of Manchester, which is a gigantic conurbation—or indeed a large London borough like our own, Croydon, a local community might have a different view on where housing can be built in their neighbourhood from that of the local authority or, in the case of Manchester, the entire metropolis. There might be a conflict between where the local plan thinks housing should be built and the local neighbourhood—the parish or whatever it might be. Provided that the neighbourhood plan has enough houses in total, would you not want to give priority to the views of the local community, particularly given that that is backed by a referendum?

Gavin Barwell:

Yes. As long as the neighbourhood plan is consistent with the overall strategic planning for the area in the local plan, the neighbourhood plan can absolutely fill in that level of detail. If a local plan says a particular town within the district will take a certain level of housing growth, the neighbourhood plan can fill in what the community feels are the right sites and the required mix of housing.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Q I have a final question. One of the bugbears that people developing housing will have told you about are these wretched great crested newts, which apparently are endangered in Europe. The reason they are protected in the UK is due to European regulations, which of course will cease to apply relatively shortly. When the European regulations cease to apply to the United Kingdom, will you be minded as the UK or England and Wales planning Minister to remove or loosen the restrictions that the European Union has hitherto imposed on us?

Gavin Barwell:

The first thing to say is that that moment is not yet upon us. We are still within the EU and at the moment all those European laws apply. Clearly, as the Prime Minister has set out, the decision we took as a country on 23 June will lead to some short-term challenges—it will change our role in the world and we are going to build a new future for the country around that—but it also offers some opportunities to look at the laws that we have and ask, “Are these the right laws for the UK?” I am sure that all Members of the House will want to ensure that we have proper environmental protections and proper protections for endangered species, but if we look at a law and say, “Actually the way that law is working in this country is disproportionate or leading to some perverse outcomes,” there will be an opportunity to review it.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt you, Minister. I hate to say this, but we are talking a little bit too much about the European Union, which is slightly outside the scope of the Bill. We should not really be banging on about Europe.

Gavin Barwell:

Having served as your Whip for nearly two years, Mr Bone, I know you have been waiting for the chance to say that to me.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Conservative, Croydon South

Those are words I never thought I would hear.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

Q Minister, you will have gathered from my line of questioning that I am concerned about protection for neighbourhood plans. I am pleased to see what is in the Bill, but part of the genesis of the Bill with the previous Minister was, I think, a case in Oakley in my constituency where an appeal was allowed five or six days before the referendum on the neighbourhood plan, notwithstanding that even at that late stage, under existing planning regulations, the plan was meant to have been taken into account. Why will this be any better?

Gavin Barwell:

The honest answer is that this will not solve the problem in that very specific case, because as I understand it that appeal was determined days before the examination—

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

No, before the referendum. It was post-examination.

Gavin Barwell:

In that case it would help. This will make it clear in statute that some weight should be given to that emerging neighbourhood plan, because it had been through examination. So the inspector who was determining that particular appeal would be required by statute to give some weight to that emerging local plan.

What I cannot do—this is a complex area and it is important that I am entirely open with Members about the balance here—is give a guarantee. You will know that when any planning committee or inspector—or indeed I as Minister—takes decisions on planning applications, they have to look at all the material considerations. What the local plan says is an important material consideration What the relevant emerging neighbourhood plan says is an important material consideration. The views of the people who live in the area are a relevant material consideration. The national planning policy framework is a relevant consideration, and there may be other ones in particular cases. All those things have to be weighed, and I know from the cases that cross my desk every week that sometimes they are weighed in a way that would support the neighbourhood plan. You cannot guarantee that that will always be the case, but this change in the law would help in that situation because it would give some weight to an emerging plan and would ensure that, immediately a referendum is held, the plan is in place, whereas at the moment there is a period of time that you have to wait for the council to make the plan.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

Q Once this is in place, and hopefully it will go through—I do not know whether anybody has ever done any work on the consistency of decisions. Talking to colleagues, it is apparent that decisions about whether neighbourhood plans are given weight are a bit random, which is part of the problem with the rather wide definition of “giving weight.” It does not really mean anything and it seems to be at the whim of the individual inspector rather than a central policy. Once the planning inspector has had a look at the plan, it has been approved and gone through all the checking in Bristol, or wherever it goes, they should be broadly happy. That means it should be predictable that any appeal will not be allowed against the decision of what might be a different inspector, whereas in fact that is not the case. You get two different inspectors and they make different decisions.

Gavin Barwell:

I would make a number of observations. I think this goes to the crux of the argument about this issue, and it is one on which we will no doubt spend a lot of time when we go through our line-by-line consideration and on Report.

Where there was a local plan that had a five-year land supply, with a neighbourhood plan beneath that, and a developer attempted a speculative application that was inconsistent with both, I would regard it as highly exceptional—you can never say “never” in planning—that such an application would be approved on appeal if it was turned down by the relevant local authority. Clearly, all the local planning policies would point against that application.

It might be useful for the hon. Gentleman to know—one of the difficulties of my job is that I never know which of my decisions have or have not been made public, so I will anonymise the place I am talking about—that I had three applications on my desk the other day, all in the same council area. The applications were affected by two different neighbourhood plans. The council concerned does not have a local plan with anything like a five-year land supply, so the presumption applies. In one case, I judged that not only was the neighbourhood plan an argument for turning down the appeal but that the application would also have eroded a key strategic gap between two settlements. There were two very strong arguments against, and in favour was the presumption for development, so I turned down the appeal.

In the other cases, although it was contrary to the neighbourhood plan, the land concerned was not green belt, prime agricultural land or anything else that you could give weight to, so I allowed the appeals on the basis of the presumption. That is what we mean when we talk about giving weight to different things. Although it is difficult for us, and I have also felt the frustration that the hon. Gentleman is expressing as a constituency MP and as a local councillor in the past—I know exactly where he is coming from—we have to recognise that the planning system is quasi-judicial. In the same way that you can take a case to a court of law and a judge will rule in a certain way and then you can appeal to the Appeal Court, which might take the same evidence and come to a different judgment, it can happen in the planning system as well. The judgment of different individuals looking at a particular case can be different.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

Q I understand that parallel, other than the fact that, obviously, in the judicial system each judgment is informed by the judgment before, whether or not it is taken by a different judge. Part of the problem with the Planning Inspectorate is that that common law aspect does not seem to take place.

Gavin Barwell:

The chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate is one of the people I work with. If she were sitting here, she would say to you that one of her key objectives is to try to improve the consistency of decision making. She understands the concern.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

Q Would it be possible to find out how many appeals have been allowed—I know it is early days—in areas where there are neighbourhood plans and local plans in place?

Gavin Barwell:

Where there are both?

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

Yes, so we can see whether, as you say, this is exceptional or whether it is happening on a fairly regular basis.

Gavin Barwell:

I will try to see whether we can find that out without disproportionate effort.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

Q That would be great. The second thing I want to ask about is the local plans. You are absolutely right about them being key. I think it is encouraging that you are going to be pushing for that in local areas. We have heard a lot of evidence today about the local plan, and the critical thing is the certainty of devising and defending a five-year land supply. There are two methods of calculation. Often you get challenged on one if you have used the other, so it might be helpful to have a single definition. I did not hear you talk, in your four things, about making five-year land supplies post-approval more defensible from a highly paid QC. Are you planning on including anything on that in the Bill?

Gavin Barwell:

Those are issues more for policy than for legislation, but my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire has correctly put his finger on one of the problems. It is not about not just the five-year land supply but how to objectively assess need, by which I mean how we calculate how many homes we need to build in an area. One of my key jobs over the next few months is to see whether we can find ways of taking conflict out of these processes. Can we find an objective way of calculating that need figure and identifying five-year land supply that gets rid of costly legal battles—a lot of money is currently spent on them—arguing the point with the developer who is trying to overturn a local plan? We need to have a process that attracts much more confidence, so that people know clearly where they stand.

The second issue is the one I have already alluded to, which is that if there is a change in the status of a particular site and a council therefore dips below the five-year land supply, we want to give them a window of grace where they can adjust to that, rather than them literally coming in to work one morning and finding that they are now open to speculative development, when they were not the day before.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

Q The final question from me is on whether you might consider including within the Bill a general anti-abuse clause on five-year land supply and the situation we outlined, where you can have a developer who gets permission on one site, fails to develop and challenges on another site on the basis that the five-year land supply has lapsed.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Housing, Planning and London)

We can certainly talk about those issues. There is a fundamental thing that we need to address in the White Paper. I am sure that one of the difficulties we will have as a Committee is that the Bill is going through Committee at the same time as we are developing some of the policy responses. I will do my best within the constraints I am under to try to keep Members informed about where we are going in policy terms and what we believe needs to be done through legislation and what can be done through changes in policy.

One of the fundamental questions that we have to apply ourselves to is that the changes that the Government have made to the planning system over the past six years have had a profound effect on the number of applications that have been granted. In the year to 30 June, our planning system in England granted permission for 277,000 homes. That is the highest figure since we started collecting the data in 2007, at the height of the boom before the great crash. The planning system in most parts of the country is granting lots of planning permissions, but there is an increasing gap—people cannot live in a planning permission—between the number of planning permissions that we are getting out of the system and the number of homes actually being built. We need to understand the cause of that gap.

My view, a few months into the job, is that there are a number of things here. Planning conditions are a factor, which is why we are trying to deal with them in the Bill, but I would not say to the Committee that they are the sole or even the dominant factor. There are issues around our utility companies and the time it takes them sometimes to put in the basic infrastructure on site that the developer needs before they start building. There are some real issues about developer behaviour, essentially.

I am interested in looking at policy vehicles that can ensure we speed up the rate at which applications get built out. One of the things that I am saying to the Home Builders Federation is, “You give me all the things that you say are slowing you up, and I will look into them. If I think there is a problem, I will deal with the problem, but once I have got through your list, I expect you to raise your game.” I am definitely interested in looking into that area, and perhaps as the Bill goes on we can talk about what the vehicles might be.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

That is encouraging. It is certainly the case that it is possible to make more money holding land and trading it than it is developing it. The other area to look at, I suggest, is developer finance, because none of them have got any balance sheets that they can use to expand their operations beyond where they are. I am grateful for the answers, Minister.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

Q I have two quick questions. Can you address the concerns that Carole Reilly raised about neighbourhood forums and their lack of accountability, lack of infrastructure and resources and lack of clear identifiability to local communities? There were also issues raised—I have raised them on a number of occasions—about the intensity of resource you need genuinely to engage a diverse community in a deprived area.

Gavin Barwell:

This is a real challenge and I am very open to talk to the hon. Lady, to the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton, and to others who have an interest in this matter about how we go about doing things. As I said, there is extra funding in deprived areas that a rural parish would not get. There are also people who have expertise in this area and who can engage with groups.

There is a democratic issue; I do not think we can get around that. Clearly, if someone is in a part of the country where there are parish councils, there is an automatic accountability and legitimacy that comes from that. Although we can now have parish councils in Greater London, I think there is only one in the whole of Greater London; we do not tend to have that kind of infrastructure. So there is a challenge in making sure that the plans that come forward have that legitimacy and are genuinely owned by the whole of the community, and not by a particular group of people who have a certain interest.

If we look at the average turnout in referendums on neighbourhood plans, it is running at about a third, which is actually not that different from the kind of turnout that we would see generally in local elections. That is quite an encouraging average figure in terms of trying to ensure that there is some legitimacy—I think the hon. Lady would regard her local council as legitimate on that kind of turnout—but there is certainly more that we can look to do and I am very happy to have a dialogue with her about that.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

Q Thank you. I have a second question. The issue of permitted development rights continues to be a cause of concern. I appreciate that it is not within the scope of the Bill, but it has a direct bearing on neighbourhood planning, so it is essentially a way in which development can take place that is not allowed for in a local plan and that has not been discussed by the local community, who have not been consulted about it. It is under the radar, without anybody having any say about it at all. I wonder whether the Minister has any plans at all to address the concerns that have been raised about permitted development rights.

Gavin Barwell:

I would say two things there. There is some limited scope for local say. The main one that the hon. Lady is probably talking about is the office to “ressy”, or residential, permitted development. There you do have to give a prior approval application to the council. The council can only look at certain limited things such as flooding; there is a list of four or five things that can be looked at. It is not a full planning application, but there is at least a little bit there.

I tried to touch on this in my response to the Second Reading debate, so I understand some of the concerns that people have. You do not get the affordable housing contribution, for example, that you would get if there was a full planning application. However, I think it is demonstrably the case that permitted development has delivered additional homes that we desperately need.

I went on Friday night to see one in central Croydon. It is a building called Green Dragon House that was essentially an old office building with very low levels of occupancy and it has been converted into 119 homes. In my community, those homes are desperately needed and I am not sure—in fact, I am pretty confident that if we had left things as they were, many of the buildings that have been converted would not have come forward. Now, they are not all as good quality as Green Dragon House, so I am perfectly prepared to accept that there are challenges here.

I suppose the point I tried to make in response to Opposition Members on Second Reading is that if you genuinely believe that there is a really urgent need to get us building more housing, you have to look at some measures that you would not take if you did not feel that urgency was there. That is the argument about PD. However, the one thing that this Bill does on it is uncontroversial, I would have thought, which is to say, “Let’s make sure we get good data.” At the moment, all we know is the number of applications that have gone in, but not how many homes they are delivering. So, the one measure in this Bill on this issue is trying to ensure that we collect data on how many units the policy is delivering and then, as we debate our different opinions on this policy, we can at least be informed by what the output is.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

Q So you do not have any further plans at the moment, either by way of additions or amendments to this Bill, or within the White Paper—?

Gavin Barwell:

No. There is an issue that I think we have consulted on, which is around the office to “ressy” thing and whether you should be able to do it potentially through demolition rather than just refurb, but there are no plans to amend this Bill further to change the PD rules.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

Q During your introduction, you said that part of the reason why the amendments were so late in coming was actually change of positions and looking at the Bill with a fresh pair of eyes, and that was the result. Given the tone of the contribution, I take that at face value, and I appreciate the comments that you have made.

When you were looking at the Bill and at opportunities to enhance it further, did you consider the roles of listed buildings in that? In my constituency, we have a very old mill—apparently one of the oldest mills with a concrete floor, if anyone is interested in those kinds of things—but it is a blight on the local community. Last year, there was the death of an 18-year-old, who fell through the floors, because the mill is so unsafe. The fire service, the council and the police have all put a notice on the building, because it is absolutely liable to cause another death very soon, but its heritage value for the experts in London, who do not have to live in its shadow, maintains that it should stay there. It is scuppering development on the site—a £248 million tram system runs alongside it, with a station there ready for development. Did you consider that the process is stifling the development of what should be attractive places to live?

Gavin Barwell:

The simple answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that that is not an issue that I have looked at in particular, but if he wants to write to me to set out his concerns, I would be very happy to take that forward. He knows his community and what the issues are, better than anyone who is adjudicating on such things from a distance. I am very happy to help him to get that issue resolved.

Photo of Craig Tracey Craig Tracey Conservative, North Warwickshire

I want to pick up very quickly on something that Mr Thomson from the CPREQ talked about, which was about councils having to chip away at the green belt to deliver the provision. He mentioned that often they do not feel that they are getting the backing of the Secretary of State. I am aware that several local authorities in my area have jointly commissioned a report to grade areas of green belt, based on the extent to which they make all five functions in the NPPF. They are basically suggesting that some areas do not have as much value as others, and they are planning to use the report to recommend parcels that can be used to facilitate building. So there still seems to be a lot of confusion in local councils about how the green belt rules are applied. Is there any provision in the Bill to strengthen that? The former Housing Minister was great and came to my constituency to explain to one of the councils how things needed to be implemented, but it still does not seem to be filtering through, and I am guessing that that could be the case in a lot of councils.

Gavin Barwell:

At the moment, there is nothing in the Bill that touches directly on the green belt. What I would say to my hon. Friend is that the national planning policy framework is very clear on this. Basically, there are two issues: one is how an authority deals with an application for development on the green belt. Essentially, with the exception of certain very limited uses, which are defined in the NPPF, development is inappropriate in the green belt. The second issue and the one to which he is alluding, I think, is when you want to change the boundaries of your green belt. The NPPF has a very clear presumption against doing that, too. It should only happen in exceptional circumstances, and one of the features of green belt should be its permanence.

What we asked local authorities to do—again, I think it is very important that these decisions should in most cases be made locally—is to assess objectively the need for housing in their area. When they have done that, they need to look at how they can meet that need. It is certainly possible that there are authorities for whom meeting that need without making use of prime agricultural land, green belt or some other kind of protected land is not possible. It is then a judgment for them about what they should do. They might decide, “We will release some land and make some changes to our local plan in order to meet the need.” However, they might decide, “Actually, we don’t believe that it will be possible to meet this level of need without having too detrimental an effect on these particular sites, therefore we will provide for less than our level of need,” and when an authority does that—the hon. Member for City of Durham has now left the room—it should certainly be having conversations with neighbouring authorities about whether they are able, through the duty to co-operate, to take up some of the slack.

The inspector’s job is to test whether authorities have applied that policy correctly. There are examples of local plans in which an inspector has accepted an authority’s judgment that it is not able to meet the full level of need for those kinds of reasons, and for others the inspector has said, “Actually, no, there are other things that you could have looked at, but didn’t look at. You need to go back and look at them.” Some people think that there is an automatic presumption that the green belt can never be a justification for not meeting the full level of need, but that is not true; nor is it true that it automatically is either, if you see what I mean. The test is there in the NPPF, but the circumstances have to be exceptional.

Photo of Craig Tracey Craig Tracey Conservative, North Warwickshire

Q As a quick follow-on question—where a constituency like mine comes under pressure, because we are a rural constituency surrounded by big areas we are having to co-operate with, what are the mechanisms for challenging their assessed need? That is where the calculation figures are often seen to be well away from what we would expect.

Gavin Barwell:

One of the things I was alluding to for Mr Malthouse was whether we can look at a more objective method of saying what need is. The starting point, it seems to me, is the household projection figures. One of the concerns people raise with that is that we have taken the decision we took on 23 June, so migration levels may well be lower. It is worth saying that what the projection numbers do is look at past trends and roll forward, so they are already assuming a reduction in the level of migration over the time period and they are updated every few years.

The starting point, as I said, is those household projection figures. Then if I were running a council, I would be looking at what the market is telling me. In other words, what is the ratio of house prices to salaries in my area? If that ratio is very high, we have not been building enough houses; so we need to do a bit more than the household projects would suggest, if we are going to try to get that ratio down. To me, those are the two things you would be looking at, but if what is being said is that it would be helpful to have more certainty about what those numbers are, and to have more confidence in them, I agree with that and that is something we are looking to do.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

Q Obviously the key concern that has been raised by some of the campaign groups, such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, is that local authorities are being driven to propose green belt development because they cannot meet their targets and they cannot make the duty to co-operate work. So in order to avoid the risk of having their local plan rejected altogether they are putting forward green-belt or greenfield developments. What is the incentive on a local authority—on the other end of a duty to co-operate —to accept somebody else’s housing targets? I do not see how the duty to co-operate can work effectively if you are saying that local authorities have to somehow persuade their neighbours to accept their housing needs. I would be grateful if you could explain how the duty to co-operate is supposed to work.

Gavin Barwell:

There are some local authorities that genuinely want to go for growth, and therefore they are almost happy to take extra housing because they have made a strategic choice that that is what they want to do in their district. Those are probably not the kinds of authorities in the areas my right hon. Friend and I represent or the areas immediately around them, where land is very much at a premium. One of the things we need to look at in the White Paper is what more we can do to provide those kinds of incentives. To me, a lot of that is about much more explicit links between housing numbers and infrastructure. I actually want to get down to the level of having very bespoke conversations with individual authorities saying, “If you were going to take an extra x thousand in your area, what does it need to make it work? What would make it politically acceptable?” and then trying to have those kinds of bespoke deals.

There is also a real role for all of us to provide some political leadership here. What many people imagine is that if we do not build the homes, the people will not come. Actually, evidence in London in recent years shows that that is not true; they do come, and you end up with people living in beds in sheds at the end of gardens and things like that. We do not want to live in a city like that, so Mr Tracey is absolutely right—we need to have confidence in the numbers and we need to believe that they are genuinely what is going to happen in a given area. But then there is a moral duty on us to make sure that we provide housing, once we have confidence in the figures, to meet that level of need.

Sometimes that is going to involve difficult choices. I have tried to avoid being parochial so far, but I will just give a Croydon example. In my constituency—it has been really interesting to see over the nearly 20 years that I have been involved in local politics—essentially an explicit choice has been made to build very high in the centre of Croydon in order to protect our green belt. If someone had come to Croydon 20 years ago and said, “We are going to have seven or eight buildings over 40 storeys in the town centre,” they would have been laughed out of town. Confronted with either not meeting the housing need we have—people can see the housing need all around them—or building on our remaining parks or green belt, people have actually said that this is a better option. It is near where the infrastructure is—the East Croydon station route into London and all those kinds of things.

In some parts of the country there are no easy ways of doing this. It is a question of having an honest debate about what the options are. I certainly believe that in parts of London higher density is part of the solution. Even that is not an easy sell to people because it does change the character of an area, but we need to think—what are the alternatives?

Order. I am afraid that time has beaten us in this session as well. I thank the Minister and his team for the full and frank engagement with the Committee, which is really appreciated.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Jackie Doyle-Price.)

Adjourned till Thursday 20 October at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence to be reported to the House

NPB 01 National Association of Local Councils (NALC)

NPB 02 Compulsory Purchase Association

NPB 03 Brethren’s Gospel Trusts Planning Group

NPB 04 Royal Institute of British Architects