Further provision about statement of community involvement

Neighbourhood Planning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 25th October 2016.

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Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing) 9:25 am, 25th October 2016

I beg to move amendment 12, in clause 6, page 5, line 27, at end insert

“in cases where the local authorities’ statement of community involvement was regarded as inadequate.”

This amendment allows the Secretary of State only to require planning authorities to review their statement of community involvement if they have failed to produce one.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. Clause 6 will enable the Secretary of State to make regulations to prescribe how and when a statement of community involvement is reviewed by a local authority. Amendment 12 would mean that the regulations only apply where there is some evidence that what a local authority is currently doing with regard to its statement of community involvement is inadequate. We want to do that for two reasons.

First, we are not sure what problem the Government are trying to fix with the clause. It would be helpful if the Minister outlined whether there is widespread evidence of local authorities not doing a statement of community involvement or not doing it properly. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we have some concerns about the Bill being a continuation of previous Bills on housing and planning that contain lots of centralising measures, giving the Secretary of State lots more power to get directly involved in what local authorities are doing. Of course, if I wanted to, I could say that this is part of what is actually an anti-localist strategy, not a localist one.

This might seem an innocuous little clause, but it sanctions a major interference from the Secretary of State in the everyday affairs of local authorities. However, if there is good reason for that—for example, if local authorities simply are not doing the job properly—we would want to look at it. We would need to look at why local authorities are not producing their statements of community involvement or why those statements are in some way inadequate.

From our discussions in this Committee and the evidence we have taken, we know that local authority planning departments are incredibly under-resourced. The British Property Federation’s annual planning survey last year had 300 responses from planning departments. Some 86% of local planning authority respondents believed that under-resourcing of their departments was their most significant challenge and was really impeding them achieving the aims they had set themselves.

I will outline a scenario for the Minister. A local authority might have great ambitions in its statement of community involvement to be as inclusive as possible and to ensure that there is a regular review process in which local people feel they can be directly involved. However, if the local authority does not have the resources within its planning budget to achieve those aims and that great vision of local community involvement in planning, what is the statement there to do? These are the really stark choices that a lot of local authorities are having to face. Do they take money from the social care budget? Do they take money from their gritting budget, as we are about to go into winter? Where are they to get the additional resources from in order to have an up-to-date statement of community involvement and to make it really inclusive?

I am sure that is what the Minister wants the clause to achieve. He may correct me if I am wrong, but my reading of it is that rather than just having a statement of community involvement that sits there on the shelf with a tick box, as he will know, on the local plan documents—“We have done our statement of community involvement and been out there and talked to some community groups; that is done and we do not need to revisit it until we are doing some major revision to the plan or a new plan”—I am sure that the Minister wants this to be a much more living document with direct involvement from local people, and that he wants people to know how they can get directly involved and what the timetable is for reviewing it. That is the sort of engagement and involvement that we all want from our planning system, but that will not be achieved simply by putting a clause in the Bill. In particular, that will not be achieved by putting a clause in the Bill that simply puts more burdens on local authority planning departments, without ensuring that there is adequate resourcing for whatever the additional burden is.

It would also be helpful to hear whether the Minister has any idea what the Secretary of State is likely to prescribe in terms of the statement of community involvement and the timings of when it has to be subject to review. We have not yet heard from the Minister on this point and it would be useful to know how much of a burden is being placed on local authorities. I say “a burden” because at the moment I cannot see any way that they will be able to fund this.

That is not to suggest for a minute that Opposition members of the Committee do not think statements of community involvement are important. I am sure the Minister heard me say on Thursday that in drawing up a local plan, local authorities should start with the neighbourhood. They should start with the community and find out what people want. My experience is that, generally speaking, people are very good at knowing what their communities should look like for 20 or 25 years going forward, and if they are included in some of the Planning for Real exercises, or with Planning Aid, that can be a very helpful exercise for the local authority.

It is really important that communities are directly involved in drawing up their local plans. In fact, the Opposition are arguing that that should really be where local planning starts. We want local authorities to be able to have a very strong community involvement plan, but we also want to ensure that they have the resources to do a really good piece of work and for it to be very meaningful, not only for the community but for the local authority as well. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

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

Mr Bone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again. If this meets with your approval, I would be happy to talk to both the amendment and clause stand part.

I am happy with that.

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

The clause will ensure that no community can be left in any doubt about the ways in which they can participate in wider plan-making in their area. It will do that in two ways. First, it will introduce a requirement for local planning authorities to set out, in their statements of community involvement, their policies for involving communities and other interested parties in the exercise of their functions. Secondly, it will enable the Secretary of State to require authorities to review those statements. It will then be at an authority’s discretion as to whether it is necessary to update it; if an authority is content that its statement does not need updating, it will need to publicise its reasons for not doing so.

Let me now try to address the points that the hon. Member for City of Durham raised about amendment 12. I hope we can all agree that in order for statements of community involvement to be effective, it is essential that they are reviewed and kept up to date. The hon. Lady asked for evidence that there is a problem, which is a perfectly reasonable question. During the summer, my Department undertook a review of local planning authorities’ statements of community involvement, and found that a third were last updated before 2012—shortly after the introduction of the Localism Act 2011 and neighbourhood planning—and that 10% were 10 or more years old.

Clearly, a number of councils have not reviewed the statements since the entire world of neighbourhood planning came into being. I hope we can all agree on the importance of the communities that we have the privilege to represent having up-to-date information on how their local planning authority will support their ambitions. That is why it is necessary to legislate in this way.

The Bill will enable the Secretary of State to introduce regulations that require local planning authorities to review their statements at prescribed times. On 7 September, we issued a consultation in which we proposed that statements be updated every five years. We chose that figure because, as members of the Committee are aware, that is the existing expectation for local plans. Therefore, it makes sense to align those two things. The consultation closed on 19 October. It also sought views on proposals for an initial deadline of 12 months following Royal Assent for an initial review. The consultation provided an opportunity for authorities to comment on the implications for resourcing. I hope that reassures the hon. Lady in that regard.

There is consensus in the Committee that the issue needs to be addressed, but I felt that the hon. Lady overdid the case a little bit. I entirely accept that there is pressure on local authority planning departments and I went a long way to try to show what the Government’s thinking might be on that. However—this goes to the point I made to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw in the previous sitting—despite the difficult period that local government has gone through over the past five or six years, local authority planning departments have generally done an amazing job in raising their performance in updating local plans and dealing with major applications on time. Perhaps I have more confidence than the hon. Member for City of Durham in local authority planning departments’ ability to review a statement of community involvement in their existing budgets.

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

I would not want anyone to get the impression that we think that local planning authorities are not doing a very good job with limited resources. Nevertheless, my point was that statements of community involvement put particular expectations into the community because they see what involvement they are supposed to have. In some instances, that has a huge resourcing implication. Does the Minister accept that?

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

I do accept that in so far as our constituents’ heavy involvement in the planning system—in the preparation of local plans and the consideration of planning applications—can, in instances, create more work for planning officers dealing with particular situations. However, it might also save money in the long run because if a local plan enjoys broad support among a local community, a lot of the contention that can creep into our planning system down the line should be removed. I certainly regard—as I hope all Members of the House do—putting an effort into engaging our constituents in how the planning process works as a worthwhile investment that will pay dividends in the long run.

Let me explain one concern I have about the amendment. Whereas the Bill currently says that the statements should be reviewed—potentially on a five-yearly basis, if we proceed with what we have set out in the consultation—and does not seek to make judgments about the quality or otherwise of the plans, the amendment would ask the Government to make a judgment on whether they are happy with the plans put forward by an authority. That seems to be a more centralist measure than the Government’s one. The Government are merely saying, “Councils can come up with their own statements. All we ask is that they are updated regularly.” However, the amendment would ask us to make a judgment on the quality or otherwise of the statements.

In response to other points made by the hon. Lady, if I may say so—I do not want to start the proceedings on an off note after Thursday’s consensual sitting—I thought it was something of an exaggeration to suggest that the power is a major interference in local government. It is simply asking councils to check that this important statement of how communities can get involved in the planning system is kept up to date. I do not think most people would regard that as a draconian, centralist measure.

I thought we had reached a consensus on this. We have a new shadow housing Minister and I have spent time reading some of the things he has said in recent months and years. One thing that really interested me in an interview he gave was that he acknowledged that the planning system had become far too centralised under the previous Labour Government, and he recognised that as a mistake. That may even be seen as welcoming the move towards the more locally, plan-driven system that we have seen under this Government.

Those who know me will know that my natural inclination is not to seek division. I quite like the fact that on several of the statutory instruments we have discussed, the Opposition have supported some of the things that the Government are doing. It is good if we can build consensus around these things.

Let me reassure the Committee that my starting point is that we should have a planning system that is locally driven through the development of neighbourhood and local plans. I see my role as purely intervening on occasion to ensure that things are kept up to date or compliant with the overall strategic national policy.

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

I have not had the opportunity to see the responses to the consultation paper, so it is not clear to us why 10% of councils have not updated their statement of community involvement for such a long time. That is a fairly low percentage but it would be useful to know what reasons were given in the responses to the consultation and when we might see the responses.

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

I confess that I have not had the chance to read every single one of the consultation responses yet, either. I will certainly ensure that we publish a summary of those consultation responses as quickly as possible. The intention regarding the regulations is certainly to make them available as the Bill goes through its parliamentary process, so there will be plenty of opportunity for Parliament to scrutinise those regulations.

The hon. Lady focused on the 10% that are significantly out of date. I will check, but I think I said about a third since 2012. That is when the provisions from the Localism Act began to come into force. It is quite a substantial minority whose statements are not sufficiently up to date.

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

I do not think it is right for us to assume the reason that those could be delayed, because planning authorities may have their own reasons for that. It is probably more likely that this is just a very pragmatic sequencing decision that has been made, where land supply and local plan reviews are taking place. It would be reasonable for a local authority to say in that context that neighbourhood plans would be sequenced in order to meet that timetable. It is far less likely that they just decided it was not important.

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

I do not make any assumptions. I am sure it is not deliberate malice, if the hon. Gentleman would like that reassurance. None the less, given that there appears to be a strong consensus across the House that neighbourhood planning is a good thing, I hope we can all agree that it is disappointing if there is a significant minority of councils whose statements of community involvement do not explain to residents how they go about setting up a neighbourhood plan.

The hon. Member for City of Durham asked for evidence as to why we might want to require people to update regularly: that is the evidence. Whether the hon. Gentleman finds that compelling is up to him.

I will make one final point, very gently tweaking the hon. Lady’s hair. She talked of the need not to put pressure on local authorities’ resources and all those issues. I remind her of an amendment we considered earlier, where the Opposition sought to put more specific detail into the statements of community involvement, saying exactly how to set up a parish council.

To a degree, the two amendments point in different directions. On Thursday, the argument was that we should be more prescriptive about what goes into these statements. I think I said there was a strong case that such information should be covered but I was not convinced that we should include it in statute. Today it is argued, in support of an amendment, that it is a terrible major centralising measure that they should be reviewed every five years.

I would gently say to the hon. Lady that there is good evidence that these statements have not all been kept up to date, and that it is reasonable to require them to be reviewed, ideally every five years. However, as a national Government we should not get into the business of prescribing exactly what is in them or assessing whether we think they are good or bad statements. We should simply ask councils to keep them up to date. For that reason, I urge the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

Order. To be clear, we are now debating not only the amendment but clause stand part—we are doing both at the same time. I also remind Members that they are not restricted to speaking once; they may speak as many times as they like, if they catch my eye.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing) 9:45 am, 25th October 2016

Thank you, Mr Bone.

The Minister made a point about consistency. The amendments that were tabled on Thursday—along with, indeed, amendment 12, although perhaps not so much the latter—are clearly probing amendments. It is the Opposition’s job in Committee to test the Government’s thinking. It is not what we are doing that is the subject of the Committee’s scrutiny, but what the Minister is doing. Our amendments are merely about trying to get on the record further information from the Minister about what underpins some of the clauses in the Bill.

I was going to say that our discussion of clause 6 had been very helpful in getting on to the public record the Minister’s thinking and the limits of the Secretary of State’s involvement. I am sure that once the Minister has the chance to catch sight of the responses to the consultation, he will want to shape the regulations that will underpin the clause in the light of what has been said throughout the consultation process. Again, that was a useful exchange to have and it gave us a useful bit of information.

The Minister is welcome to go on discussing whether every single amendment we table in the Committee is mutually consistent, but I remind him that that is not the point of the amendments. Their point is to elicit from him further information. Because of the extra information I got from him this morning, I—along with, I am sure, my Opposition colleagues—would like to look at the outcome of the consultation and see whether the Government’s response is indeed proportionate to the problem. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7