Changes to neighbourhood areas etc

Neighbourhood Planning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 20th October 2016.

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Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing) 2:30 pm, 20th October 2016

I beg to move amendment 7, in clause 4, page 4, line 3, at end insert

“providing the subsequent area is not smaller than a parish or town council area or local authority ward.”

This amendment ensures that the size of a neighbourhood area is not smaller than a parish or town council area or local authority ward.

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 8, in clause 4, page 4, line 11, at end insert—

“(6E) Modifications made to a neighbourhood area must be subject to consultation with local people.”

This amendment ensures that neighbourhood areas are only changed after the consultation with local community and that changes are driven by what the community wants.

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

This is a probing amendment, to test the Government’s thinking, if indeed there is any, on the appropriate size of a neighbourhood area—[Laughter.] Sorry, I did not quite mean that. The clause allows a change to be made to a neighbourhood area and outlines the process for doing that.

Some developers who are concerned about this clause have brought to our attention the question of whether there is a minimum size for a neighbourhood area. The concern raised is about a situation where three streets in a particular area have their own neighbourhood plan, while another three streets next to them have a different neighbourhood plan. Those two plans might not speak to each other or be travelling in the same direction with regard to some of the detail, yet they will both be given sufficient weight.

This is an attempt to tease out from the Minister whether he thinks there is any value in setting a limit, such as a given number of electors. The amendment says that a neighbourhood area should not be smaller than a parish or town council area or local authority ward. I am not particularly tied to the exact wording of the amendment, but we want to find out: if it is not a local authority ward or a parish area, what is it?

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

I understand that this is a probing amendment, but are there any examples of existing neighbourhood plans that the Opposition feel cover too small an area?

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

I am not aware of any. We are trying to ensure that the provisions in this legislation will not lead to neighbourhood areas that are very, very small indeed. Of course the Minister will say, “Well, it’s up to the local authority to decide whether it is an appropriate area,” but the authority might come under particular pressure to agree a specific area or think it is in its interest to promote a very small area, because it will not have so many people to deal with in terms of neighbourhood planning.

We know that the whole of neighbourhood planning legislation leaves it very much up to the community to set the boundaries and to say what brings that neighbourhood together, why they think it is important that the boundaries are set where they are and what the spatial dimension is to the plan. Usually it is very obvious, because they are using village boundaries or some sort of settlement boundary, or there is something that binds that particular community together. They also have to talk, and are usually very good at looking at the community networks and informal networks that might underpin those. The physical characteristics of the neighbourhood will also come into play.

The community will decide whether it is a business area. They will talk about the natural features. There is a huge list of things that the community will look at when putting the initial application together, in terms of determining why the boundaries are really important and what binds the neighbourhood together. That is a very good thing, and I know it has led to some really interesting discussions in communities—I am sure the Minister has seen this—about what is important to them in their neighbourhood and what binds them together. That can facilitate the next stage of development: what they want their community to look like in 15 years and what they need to put into the neighbourhood plan to achieve that.

It seems to us that there is nothing beyond those general characteristics to indicate to a community or neighbourhood that the area should be of a certain size. It may be that we have been lucky to date and no one has brought forward a very small area. I cannot see anything in the Bill that would prevent that from happening. That is why we tabled amendment 7. It is pretty much the same as the others in asking for greater clarity and some reassurance for people who have to deal with neighbour plans and neighbourhood planning forums.

Amendment 8 continues our discussion about modifications and changes not being made without community consultation. In clause 4, the modification is a change to the neighbourhood area. The amendment seeks to ensure that neighbourhood areas are changed only after consultation with the local community and that changes are driven only by what the community, not the local planning authority, wants.

I will not rehearse our earlier arguments about modifications to a neighbourhood plan or a neighbourhood development order, but they apply, and we want a positive and constructive dialogue with the local community should there be a boundary change. We absolutely understand the need for boundary changes. Areas may change and parish council boundaries may be redesignated; there may be a new development resulting in too many people, or there may be lots of new developments requiring a new parish area to be created. All sorts of things may happen that require initial boundaries to be changed.

We are not saying that boundaries have be set in stone and cannot be changed. That would be ridiculous. However, we want an assurance that any boundary changes will be made with the agreement of the community and, critically, that they make sense to the community and all the things that bind them together. We do not want communities to find one day that, having thought they were living in one neighbourhood plan area, the boundary has been changed.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw 2:45 pm, 20th October 2016

Mr McCabe, I trust it is in order to make comments appropriate to clause stand part, as well as to the amendment.

indicated assent.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

Thank you, Mr McCabe. That is helpful, because the amendment probes the critical issue—this is not a criticism of the Government—of the real potential for inventiveness for neighbourhood planning in urban areas and occasionally in rural areas. I will give some illustrations. So far, the model has been community orientated and based on existing structures. In my area, we have 22 plans under way. Only two parishes do not have one and I am going to those parishes to encourage them to move down this path quickly.

Parish councils and villages have been beneficiaries from successive Governments. They get more lottery money for village halls and village sports facilities because they are defined areas and it is much easier to make an argument. There is a danger that neighbourhood planning and neighbourhood development plans will reinforce that further. One could argue that the inventive parish councils will, for example, build in areas for future recreational development that might not already exist. That would be a smart move. In other words, the parish council might say, “This piece of land will be for a future playground for children we don’t yet have.”

Without doubt, having got that through, bids for money would be more successful, as one would be part-way through the planning process, even for larger structures that might require detailed planning consent—of course, it could also apply to change of use of land—such as village halls and that kind of facility. We have precisely that situation in Ranskill, a parish in my area, where the community is expanding. It is quite a big village—I am meeting people from there in the next 48 hours—but it does not have a village hall. The people of Ranskill are more than happy to have more housing, if it is in the right place, and to use planning gain to fund what they have long wanted and not managed to achieve. They would see this as rather assisting them, if it goes the right way. Other issues, which we dealt with previously, are clouding that, with developers jumping the gun.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

I will, but it might be more helpful if I make a little progress first—the hon. Gentleman could make an even more succinct point later. I will come back to him, but I will first expand on what I am saying about opportunities with two examples.

I will start with a rural example—not an abstract example, but the example of a mountain: Blencathra in the lake district. Plenty of effort is being made to save Blencathra mountain for the nation. There are many byways, roads and properties around Blencathra. In my view, it would make perfect sense, should local people wish it, to designate the mountain and its surrounds as the neighbourhood.

Given the size and nature of mountains, that neighbourhood would probably cross constituency, council and parish boundaries—parishes do not go around mountains, but take segments of them. However, for housing, the amenity, facilities, walking routes and highways, the key determining factor is their relationship to the mountain. That would be the case for many other examples in the lake district. Neighbourhood planning on Blencathra would do something fairly revolutionary, because it would take the whole of the amenity under the democratic control of the people living there, because they are the ones defining things. That would be very powerful indeed.

Secondly, at the priory church in Worksop, working with the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, I have proposed that the area defined historically by the priory church as its immediate parish—not the current parish boundaries, which are all over the place, because churches like to increase their congregations, but the original boundary—should be the boundary of the neighbourhood plan. That is how we are proceeding. Even better, part of that boundary has been created in more modern times—300 years ago—by the canal, so it is a natural boundary. We have a grand, huge church, once the largest in the world, which defined the buildings around the community, and we now have the ability to reset the church building for the community, the surrounding housing and future housing development. We are also taking the worst bit of the Chesterfield canal and reopening it.

What should be done is fairly obvious. The Prince’s Foundation has done the masterplan, which has been created, and the community is engaged—what the community is interested in are things such as antisocial behaviour, but from a planning point of view that means where pubs are, their opening hours, or where people walk, drive and park. They are very happy for housing to go on brownfield sites—blighted spaces—of which there are two. They would be very happy to have a car park on one of those, which is a former gasworks site, where housing probably could not go. These are all great opportunities.

There is no controversy about that with the population; they are after other things. That is a community of 200 or 300 houses. It is tiny, but its impact on the centre of Worksop and the amenity for tens of thousands of people is huge, because the other part of the community is bounded by what one would describe as the park, although that is not the term we use in Worksop. I would like to turn it into a park and give it more space; indeed, one of the conclusions of the neighbourhood planning might be that we define a proper park boundary.

This is hugely exciting stuff for the residents, who are both tenants and home occupiers. If they are occupiers, their property values will go up, so they will be quite happy. Antisocial behaviour undoubtedly will go down because their quality of life will go up. New housing will be at a premium, because it will be near a canal and a park in a beautiful, well-designed area. Everybody is a winner. It is a classic case of where neighbourhood planning would open up an area in which the local authority has never once proposed housing, because of land ownership and because there has been no minor master planning.

Photo of Oliver Colvile Oliver Colvile Conservative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

I am a rather unique Conservative Member, in that I represent a totally inner-city seat outside London, as the hon. Gentleman may know. I only have the Ponderosa pony sanctuary—a rather muddy meadow—in my constituency. Does he not think there is an argument for urban conurbations such as mine to also have their own parish councils? It should not just be left to rural communities.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

There is such an argument, but in a small community with 200 or 300 houses, a parish council may be too grandiose. In that example, I would like to see the church managing and leading the development and consultation process, because that is the fixed community entity. I could give other examples in my area where the church building can be redefined as the church at the core of the community, precisely because the building was built as a community venue. Of the great cathedrals, Lincoln would be a great example, but the best of all is St Paul’s. If this was available 30 or 40 years ago, one could imagine that the buildings around the great St Paul’s cathedral would be more in tune with it, as opposed to what has been built haphazardly and chaotically around it. That is where smaller areas could be very empowered. I will give another example [Interruption.] The Whips are always keen to put Members on Committees and then try to restrict important debate.

This is fundamental to the Minister’s thinking and to his civil servants’ thinking. Planning is being seen in terms of housing and structures, with an additional side of highways, which have a major and fundamental role. The Prince’s Foundation work was done by Ben Bolgar, the top person there, and Fred Taggart, who are two brilliant planners—real planners, not just planners for real. They looked at where people historically moved and walked, which is what defines a community.

The walkways and jitties that are a problem could be closed off. That could be specified in a very localised plan: “We don’t want a walkway here. Close that off and get rid of it, because there’s antisocial behaviour. We want people to walk this way, drive that way and park here rather than there.” One gets into real localism, which never in a local plan would be possible. One could not in a local plan specify, “This little jitty will be closed down and we’ll create a walkway here. This bit should be grassed to allow more access to the canal.” That is far too much minutiae.

However, local people are hugely engaged in how that would operate. Those precise, minor details are actually the major details for them because they define their communities. If the price of that is to have to spend time saying, “Also, here’s the kind of housing we would like in the spare spaces that are available; here’s where we don’t want them and here’s where we do,” local people are more than happy to do it. Indeed, they propose more housing than would ever have been proposed before because they can work out the geometry and geography of the local area and the blights that should be resolved.

That is why I appeal to the Minister, in the context of amendment 7, to go more and more small scale and to actually think through how, even with a neighbourhood plan in place in a larger conurbation, it should be logical to take that plan as a basis for micro-ising it for things like walkways and adding further detail, so that people have some control over their communities. When there is planning gain, they can then say to developers, “No, your cycleway will go here because it fits the community,” or, “There will be a cycleway because the community needs it, and you will have a footpath because it suits pensioners and young people and the kids going on their route to school.”

School routes—this is the final thing I will say—ought to be part of the local planning process and could be built in. There is nothing to stop it being built into the neighbourhood planning process. That really would be powerful, and I hope the Minister will be able to demonstrate that he is more than open to that, and that he is fully engaged in thinking through, with his brilliant officials, how this could be best and most quickly done.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Housing, Planning and London) 3:00 pm, 20th October 2016

Let me start by saying the hon. Gentleman knows how to push his agenda effectively with officials and with the Minister. I thank the hon. Member for City of Durham for tabling these probing amendments to clause 4. Before I address the amendments I will make some general remarks about clause 4, which aims to ensure that neighbourhood planning is suitably flexible to respond to changes in community aspirations.

Currently, there is complete agreement that it is not possible to modify a neighbourhood area if that would result in a neighbourhood plan or an order covering more than one neighbourhood area or more than one plan in one area. The practical effect of that is that, once a neighbourhood plan is in place, it may not be possible to make a new neighbourhood plan for an amended area without first entirely revoking the existing plan. That would leave that community without the plan it had worked so hard to produce until the new one came into force. Clause 4 amends sections 61F, 61G and 61J of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, and sections 38A, 38B and 38C of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 to change the procedure for modifying the boundary of a neighbourhood area.

Clause 4 will, for example, allow parish councils that had previously worked together to produce a multi-parish neighbourhood plan to apply for the neighbourhood area to be amended so that they can prepare a plan just for their individual parishes in the future. Equally, it would allow neighbouring forums that had previously prepared their own plans to apply for the area to be amended, so that they could come together to write a plan for both of those areas.

I reassure the hon. Member for City of Durham that I fully understand her concern in relation to both amendments. The Government have considered whether a designated neighbourhood area should follow ward boundaries. We sought views and consulted on that question as part of a technical consultation on our planning reforms in July 2014. The answer to that consultation was, almost unanimously, no, they should not. We, and nearly everybody who responded, believe that it is necessary, first that there is flexibility for communities to ensure that the area plan reflects the aspirations of that community, and secondly that the local planning authority has a positive and constructive dialogue, in order to arrive at a final decision for the area.

I represent a constituency within a London borough. Mr McCabe, you are probably the best example of this: you represent a constituency in the City of Birmingham. I think I am right in saying that your authority has the largest wards of any local authority in England, and some of those wards will cover more than one community. I can certainly think of examples from my own constituency. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw earlier mentioned the Shirley ward. Most of that ward includes an area in which most people would think of themselves as living in Spring Park, but there is also a separate development that used to be a large children’s home run by Lambeth Council—where, sadly, some shocking abuse took place—called Shirley Oaks. That is a separate and distinct community. If the people of Shirley Oaks wanted to produce a neighbourhood plan for their area, we should not be legislating to say that they cannot do that.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw made his case powerfully from his own experience. So far in this Committee, I find myself agreeing with him on a number of points. If his objective was to stop being appointed to future Bill Committees, he is probably doing very well, but we can tell from the passion with which he speaks that he really believes in what he says. It is great to hear about the number of neighbourhood plans in his area. He has put it on the record that he is on his way to the two remaining parishes that do not have one, and nothing could do more to drive progress than the prospect of his imminent arrival to push the case. He raises a powerful point.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

Just a flippant point: the way that we got residents to come to the priory church initial meeting was with a letter from the MP, using parliamentary envelopes and headed paper. That got far more people than a letter from a council would have done.

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

I was gently teasing the hon. Gentleman. I wish more Members of this House had done what he has. He has clearly put in a huge amount of work in his constituency to encourage people to take up the reform from the Localism Act 2011. It is fantastic that he has done so and it is great to have him on the Committee as such a powerful champion of the process.

There is a really gritty issue here, which is that when asked, “Where do you live? What community are you part of?” people do not necessarily say what the local council might expect them to. In some cases—for example, if people are part of a village with a distinct identity—the village will be the right unit of identity. However, in urban areas—the hon. Member for Bassetlaw has given some interesting examples of rural areas—there may be other creative ways of thinking and bringing people together.

I very much share the hon. Gentleman’s view, which is that we should not prescribe in legislation the maximum or minimum size of the unit. We should let a thousand flowers bloom and see what people think of the appropriate units. Earlier, I asked the hon. Member for City of Durham for examples of neighbourhood areas that cover too small an area, and I do not think there is any evidence that things are happening at such a micro level as to cause a problem. She is quite rightly probing and asking the questions, but it is clear that the view of the Committee is that we should allow for the current flexibility.

On amendment 8, which is on the consultation arrangements required when a neighbourhood area is changed, I am sure we can all agree that consultation with the wider community is crucial. I assure hon. Members that there is already provision for that to happen where a designated neighbourhood area is amended and a neighbourhood plan is already in force. It is currently the case that where all or part of a neighbourhood area has already been designated, the local planning authority must publish and consult on any modifications to that area for at least six weeks. If the hon. Member for City of Durham would like to add to her reading list, that is in regulation 6(c) of the Neighbourhood Planning (General) Regulations 2012. That should keep her busy this evening. Exactly the same regulations will apply to the new provisions.

The clause will ensure that, as neighbourhood planning continues to mature, the system is suitably flexible to respond to changes in people’s aspirations when it comes to the nature of the geographic area covered by the plan. It will also ensure—the hon. Member for City of Durham was quite right to raise the point—that any proposed changes are properly consulted on, and that the public have the chance to feed into the process. I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment, and I hope that clause 4 stands part of the Bill.

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

I have listened carefully to the Minister, and he has given us the reassurances we sought. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5