“(3A) To support Neighbourhood Plans, the Secretary of State should set out the weight that should be given to approved development plans at key stages in the planning process.”
This amendment gives weight to Neighbourhood Plans at key stages along the process and not just at the post-referendum stage.
I stress at the outset that this is very much a probing amendment to try to determine whether we need greater clarity, either in the Bill or somewhere else, about what weight, if any, should be given to a neighbourhood plan before a referendum has been held, and before the plan is adopted by the local authority and becomes part of its local plan documents. Given the number of witnesses who mentioned the lack of clarity, it is important that we get additional clarity from the Minister.
“It is important that any proposals do not have the unintended consequence of undermining the ability of a local planning authority to meet the wider strategic objectives”.
I suppose the LGA was trying to clarify at what stage attention needs to be paid to the neighbourhood plan. If the neighbourhood plan does something outwith the local plan objectives, when does the local planning authority need to intervene to point that out to the neighbourhood planning forum or parish council?
Similarly, the British Property Federation said:
“Clarity must be provided about the level of weight attributed to neighbourhood plans at every stage of their preparation (for example, whether a draft plan’s general ‘direction of travel’ would be considered in the determination of a planning application)… The relationship between the statutory development plan-making framework and such material considerations must be clear for all stakeholders, in order to allow greater certainty in the development decision-taking process”.
Matt Thomson from the Campaign to Protect Rural England put it well when he said:
“The question reflects one of the key problems that we have been facing with the operation of the planning system for decades. That is…where you have tiers of nested planning policy documents, there is always a question of which has precedence over the other. It should not necessarily be just a question of the one that is produced most recently holding the most weight in a planning application environment.”––[Official Report, Neighbourhood Planning Public Bill Committee,
A number of our witnesses were dealing with a situation—I am sure that it will be well known to a number of members of the Committee—in which there is a controversial planning application that would not be allowed by a neighbourhood plan. When other sites for development have been designated but the plan has not yet been adopted, what weight should the local planning authority give to the general direction of travel in that neighbourhood plan?
I have met many parish councils and neighbourhood planning forums over the years who find that to be a frustrating aspect of the neighbourhood planning system. They might have been through extensive work locally. They might have done all the preliminary stages, including looking at the economy and the wider social environment, and doing character and neighbourhood assessments. I have seen many forums identify bits of land that nobody else knows about but that they believe are important to bring forward for development. They put a huge amount of work into the plan. Just before they have a draft plan but after they have identified sites, they find that their whole direction of travel is knocked aside because a significant site that they do not want to be developed, or that they do not want to be developed in the way described in a particular application, is not only considered but approved. That causes major headaches.
In some cases, the forums or parish councils almost have to start again with land use allocation or in the identification of sites. Furthermore, that situation undermines faith in the process. People say, “We did all this work, identified all the sites and did what the Government wanted us to do. We have put the plan in, but it has not been voted on. Nobody, particularly the local authority, seems to be paying any attention to it.”
It is about certainty not only for the people who put the plan together, but for developers. If a developer knows that a plan that is about to be submitted for a referendum has a lot of weight attached to it, they might not seek planning permission for a site that is not in the neighbourhood plan, or for an inappropriate use of the site. It is about the Government giving certainty not only to communities, but to developers, so that everybody is clearer at an earlier stage in the process what weight should be attached to the neighbourhood plan.
Clause 2 builds on clause 1 to ensure that neighbourhood plans come into force sooner as part of the development plan for their area. It inserts a new subsection 3A into section 38 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 to provide for a neighbourhood plan to become part of the development plan for that area when it is approved in the relevant referendum.
Without that change, there is a risk that neighbourhood plans might not be given sufficient consideration by decision makers in the period between the community expressing its support for the relevant plan at a referendum and the formal decision by the local planning authority to make the plan. When the neighbourhood plan provision was originally introduced, there was no fixed time period between those events. The Housing and Planning Act 2016 established an eight-week limit. The clause essentially says that the relevant neighbourhood plan will be part of the development plan for the area immediately after a successful referendum.
The hon. Lady made two or three points and it is important to disentangle them. For some of the time she spoke about precedence, which was raised repeatedly in the evidence we received. I hope I satisfied the Committee on that point earlier when I quoted paragraph 185 of the national planning policy framework, which states:
“Once a neighbourhood plan has demonstrated its general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan and is brought into force, the policies it contains take precedence over existing non-strategic policies in the Local Plan”.
I do not think I can make it any clearer than that. Neighbourhood plans must be consistent with the relevant local plans, in terms of the strategic framework, but once they come into force they take precedence over the relevant local plan on detailed non-strategic issues.
The hon. Lady raised, and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw expressed powerfully, the wider concern that people can put a lot of work into producing a neighbourhood plan and then find that decisions about applications in their area that are contrary to their neighbourhood plan are being approved, either by their council or by the Planning Inspectorate on appeal. Clearly that is enormously frustrating. I am not sure whether I can guarantee that it will never happen, but we should certainly seek to minimise it. I argued in response to the hon. Gentleman that clause 1 will help—I think he accepted that—but I accepted that it is not a complete answer. I promised that in the White Paper coming later this year there will be further policy measures that will go a long way towards satisfying him.
The amendment would introduce a third term—this is where my problem comes—that is about weight. I will try to clarify the position, because this is a complex area. First, let me say to the hon. Lady by way of reassurance that the Government’s policy is clear that decision takers may give weight to relevant policies in emerging plans. The national planning policy framework sets out with some clarity the matters they should consider. I will read an excerpt from it, because it will help the Committee:
“From the day of publication, decision-takers may also give weight to relevant policies in emerging plans according to: the stage of preparation of the emerging plan (the more advanced the preparation, the greater the weight that may be given); the extent to which there are unresolved objections to relevant policies (the less significant the unresolved objections, the greater the weight that may be given); and the degree of consistency of the relevant policies in the emerging plan to the policies in this Framework (the closer the policies in the emerging plan to the policies in the Framework, the greater the weight that may be given).”
In relation to a neighbourhood plan, that would imply that the greater the consistency with the strategic policies of the relevant local plan, the greater the weight that could be given.
We need to remember that the essence of our planning system, particularly when considering individual applications for development, requires choices to be made. We should not seek to alter the long-established principle that it is for the decision maker in each case to determine precisely what weight should be attributed to different material considerations. Let us take the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw and imagine a hypothetical situation in which a local planning authority does not have a local plan with a five-year land supply and is well below that. There is a neighbourhood plan in place that sets out where the community thinks appropriate development should go. A decision maker would then have to look at this.
The presumption in favour of sustainable development would apply because the five-year land supply is not there, so that would be one material consideration. The neighbourhood plan would be a material consideration pointing in the opposite direction, presuming the application was for a site that was not identified in the neighbourhood plan. There may be other material considerations—the views of local people will clearly be one. The site in question may be green belt or prime agricultural land, and there may be policies in the NPPF that would be material considerations. We have to accept that, in the way our planning system works, it is for the decision maker—whether that is a council planning officer, the planning committee of the relevant council, a planning inspector or, in some of the largest applications, a Minister—to look at the different weights to be applied to those material considerations.
Without referencing specific applications, which would not be appropriate, I can tell the Committee that in the three months I have been doing this job, I have had applications where a recommendation has come to me from one of my inspectors saying, “The decision should be x,” and I have taken the contrary view, because the weight that the inspector has given to a particular issue is not the weight that I would give to it. It is important to say that that does not mean that the inspector made a mistake. It is for the different decision makers to weigh the evidence before them, in the same way a judge does in a court of law.
My fear about the amendment is that changing the Bill to require the Secretary of State to set out precisely the weight that should be given to neighbourhood plans in all circumstances would take away some of the vital flexibility that decision makers have. The factors that I have talked about, including how far down the road the plan has gone, and whether there is unanimity that it is a great plan and there are no objections to it—as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said, real contention can sometimes arise about the policies in a particular plan—have to be judged on a case-by-case basis.
I hope that the hon. Member for City of Durham will withdraw the amendment. The NPPF is very clear that weight can be given to emerging plans, but I do not think that we should be setting out in detail what weight should be attached to each part of the process, with the sole exception of what we have done in clause 1. We know that when a plan has gone through an examination process, those issues have been resolved and somebody has tested conformity with national planning policy and the relevant local plan. There is therefore a much higher degree of confidence at that point in the process.
I have listened to what the Minister has to say, and I am not sure that his comments really addressed the very real concerns expressed both by those putting together neighbourhood plans and by those who might have to abide by them, in terms of the planning applications they wish to make. We can have a discussion about the degree of exactitude we might put into guidance about the weight at different stages of the neighbourhood planning process, but I would have thought that it is perfectly possible for some rough idea to be put into guidance or subsequent regulations so people sitting on a planning committee understand the sort of weight they should attach in certain conditions and how the neighbourhood plan should be weighed against other considerations.
It is clear—there are lots of examples of this from across the country—that many planning committees are unsure how to give weight to a neighbourhood plan if it has not gone through a referendum and been adopted. In fact—I am sure the Minister has heard of many groups that have had this experience—neighbourhood plans are often completely ignored by planning committees, which might not even be aware that a plan has been undertaken in a particular area.
If the Minister does not want to put guidance in place, I urge him to think about how local planning authorities can be a bit clearer about what they can and cannot do with a neighbourhood plan at different stages in the process. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.