Sorry if there is a bit of a lag; I am down in Australia at the moment, at a local government conference. I am Councillor Sam Chapman-Allen, the leader of Breckland Council in Norfolk. I am also chairman of the District Councils Network for England. I represent 184 district councils across the country, and we serve 22 million people, which is 40% of the population, covering 68% of the country’s area. In turn, we provide support to 40% of businesses across the whole of England. I do not know how brief you want me to be, Chair.
Thank you—that is fine. We are just a bit anxious about the other two members of the panel not being able to connect yet. I will throw the questions open to the Government side first.
Q Thank you, Sam, and thank you for making the time this afternoon. One of the goals of the Bill is to amend the law in order to make it easier for us to extend the devolution of powers to more areas outside our cities, particularly areas with two-tier governance, and to respect that two-tier governance. It both makes the process of setting up a combined authority quicker, and also creates combined county authorities. The Government’s intention through combined county authorities is to leave the option of having a mayoral combined authority in place, but to create a model in which the consent of every single district in the area is not needed for the creation of the combined authority.
However, it is the Government’s intention to have a strong role for lower-tier authorities once those combined authorities are created. I wonder if I could pick your brains on what sorts of things your members might want to combine powers on as voting members of those new CCAs or through joint committees, for instance as a single local authority devolution deal. What sorts of powers would your members potentially want to combine powers on, and to what end?
Thank you for the question. Initially, I think we need to talk about the scale of ambition that local authorities and leaders are trying to achieve. The levelling-up framework sets out the clear positions of levels 1, 2 and 3 for what can be devolved within those nine vanguard areas. For me particularly, those six are in those two-tier areas.
Neil, you spoke about the county councils and unitary councils being enablers for the CCA and what districts would be willing to support moving forward. I think it is important to say that district councils in some areas where these deals are being suggested are being more ambitious than those counties and unitaries. Therefore, whoever is willing to be most ambitious should ensure that they have a seat around the table, but in turn ensuring that no sovereign body has those powers and/or responsibilities removed. There should be opportunities for districts, with those key enablers around business support and planning and growth.
Having spoken to colleagues across the country, but particularly in my area of Norfolk, which is one of those areas, I think we would be willing to have conversations with those that want to share strategic opportunities in the wider planning piece, be they in local planning, master planning, the duty to co-operate —although that is a blight, it is being diluted as we move forward, which is important—our housing challenges and how we support each other to ensure that our housing policies support residents in our localities and, in turn, how we deal with inward investment, to ensure that, regardless of where you want to land in a county locality, you have the same opportunities and support on business rates, business rate exemption and that planning process.
However, it is important that those individuals and sovereign councils buy into being a part of that CCA. In turn, they have to be a constituent part. We are talking about combined authorities, so district councils need to be combined in the decision-making process. There should absolutely not be a veto. I do not think that any individual in that combined authority should have the opportunity to veto, but if they are relinquishing some of that sovereignty through partnership and collaboration, they should have an equal say in how policies, strategy, spend and projects come forward.
Q That is helpful. Can I press you a little further on that? Obviously, the Government completely agree that no sovereign body should lose power without consent, and that lower-tier councils should have a vote where they are pooling powers. In the light of what districts and boroughs do at present—culture, waste, democracy, tourism, leisure, inward investment, planning, homelessness and so on—how can we best use the new models of combined authority in two-tier areas? How can we best set things up to make it as easy as possible for districts to come together in the ambitious way that you have described?
The frameworks and structures around MCAs already exist. Some individuals in Whitehall cite failures of governance in some of those MCA structures. We do not necessarily need to throw the baby out with the bathwater as we try to recreate a CCA. We can actually use the existing framework and governance structure, and tweak them to ensure that we are delivering for residents and businesses across our localities and communities.
It comes down to the bottom-up position. Localities and sovereign councils absolutely see the opportunities presented in the levelling-up framework and the Bill, but we have to make sure that we are able to help in shaping those opportunities moving forward. District councils across the country collaborate with each other through partnerships every single day. In my locality in Norfolk, we have a shared waste partnership across three councils—it is one of the biggest waste partnerships in the country—and, of course, as the collection authority across the whole of the county of Norfolk, all the district councils provide a set framework for how we collect that waste.
That district collaboration in some statutory service provision—be it waste, planning, housing, or homelessness —occurs not just in Norfolk, but across the whole of the country. We just have to make sure that we lift that to the new body—whether it is an existing MCA or the new CCA—which will be able to help shape the agenda as we move forward and ensure that there is equal say at the table on policy and spend.
Q Great—I will tailor my questions accordingly. Sam, thank you for attending. Do you foresee any issues with the requirements in clauses 75 to 81 relating to planning data and digitisation? Local planning officers will go to their IT departments and ask them to help facilitate that digitisation. Are district councils sufficiently well resourced, in terms of their IT capabilities, to manage the introduction of and ongoing compliance with those sorts of standards?
There are two parts to that question. One is that, across the whole of the country, regardless of which tier of government deals with planning, we have a shortage of planning officers. That, sadly, is the nature of the beast, with their desire to work in the private sector, where incomes will be greater.
For us in district councils, for those who have not got a rural locality basis—that ability for residents to interact with their council—through poor broadband provision, I think the proposals for digitalisation for planning is the real positive. As for how district councils will operate that, we are already in the vanguard of that AI—artificial intelligence—and how we interact with our residents on digitalisation.
The trial that has already taken place across the country has been really successful. Both we and the Department have learnt a great deal from it. As long as the outlay, with some capital support, is forthcoming in the Bill, to ensure that we are able to uplift our software and our hardware, I think it should be a seamless transition. However, we have to ensure that we build that into our capital programmes and into the activity of our staff, so that we can deliver it and, in turn, train up how our council officers operate and, more importantly, ensure that the public understand how they begin to interact and use that new digital service.
Q That is really helpful; thank you. Some specific software requirements are proposed in clause 78. Do you think that there is a risk that they might undermine public investment in software tools that have already been purchased and are in use, if the Government are in a sense dictating the types of software that need to be used across the country?
There will be legacy licences for some existing software. They will have a lag time to run out or, depending on the Government’s position on this, if there is a hard reset date, there will be a revenue cost to the authority. That needs to be picked up as it moves forward. However, I do not think that it will be a challenge, because the uniformity for residents on planning—in particularly for developers and individuals applying with planning applications—will allow the smooth understanding of how to interact with their local planning service.
Q On the national management development policies, clauses 83 and 84, the LGA has published concerns. Does the DCN share those to any extent? In particular, will you comment on how you see the impact of national management development policies on the ability of district councils to tailor plans to their local circumstances, to innovate and to embed higher standards that the Government might want to see in particular areas?
I am not completely sighted on that clause, but in the wider sense of the LGA and DCN’s position on the proposed rules moving forward, this must be a bottom-up approach. As we have said time and again, in order for growth to take place, communities have to see the benefit realisation, whatever that is, whether for infrastructure, design or the specification of units we are building. As long as residents see the benefit to their communities, the policies that are forthcoming to date are in line with what we were expecting; with what we asked for back in the planning consultation in August 2020. That said, there will be nuances in every location across the country that will sit outside the NPPF, in which local planning policies from local plans must have that flexibility to support local needs and desires, and therefore those sorts of outputs.
Q Great. I have two more questions, Chair—I will try to rattle through them. Sam, earlier you touched on planning officers and the profession. Do you think that this Bill is missing an opportunity to address some of the issues around morale, capability, resourcing and status of planning officers within authorities?
I do not necessarily think this is a position around culture and morale. Being a planning officer is one of those specialist trades in a district council, no different from an environmental health officer or a health and safety officer. It takes years to get to the standard required to undertake that duty and that requirement.
The challenge we face is that framework and that position, and the fact that we are competing with the private sector. So, particularly for those districts that surround the M25, it is immensely easy for those planning officers to transit in between and to commute into London. For those districts that are in rural locations, some of those challenges on connectivity, and on access to health and education, make it a career choice sometimes for people as to whether they want to reside in those locations.
Of course, the new agile lifestyle post covid presents some further opportunities, but it once again comes down to pounds, shillings and pence. We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. We can always pay more for planning officers, but sadly we are not able to get 100% cost recovery on planning applications. So, in response to your question, we could go further to ensure that district councils and others that deal with planning matters could get 100% cost recovery and therefore pay a higher value for those planning officers to deliver that service.
Q Brilliant. Just finally, nowhere in legislation is the purpose of our planning system set down. Do you think there is any value in more clearly defining the aims of the planning system? Is this Bill an opportunity to do that?
Yes, there is, but I will put back on the health warning that with planning the clue is in the name—we need to make sure that we are planning for our communities for the next 10, 15, 20 or 30 years, and not being reactive. Also, this cannot be a top-down exercise for what we are trying to achieve. Every one of our locations, in our communities and in your constituencies, has its unique beauty, its unique opportunities and its unique challenges. Therefore, those local plans must be derived locally. As much as the national planning policy framework sits at a national level as the umbrella, I do not think it should necessarily dictate completely how we deliver planning locally for us.
Q Thank you very much, Sir Mark. I am half-tempted to say, “G’day, Sam.” Thank you for your time today.
Just touching on the local plans, obviously at the moment we have about 39% of England covered by local plans, which means that there is a significant area not covered by them. Clearly, the Bill is trying to simplify the process of developing local plans. What has been the reaction your members of to the measures in the Bill to try to achieve that, and are there any other suggestions they have made that they think would be helpful, so that we can get more local plans in place within a much shorter timescale than we are currently experiencing?
Just before you answer that question, Sam, can I just bring it to the Committee’s attention that we have now been joined by Councillor James Jamieson, chair of the Local Government Association, and Councillor Tim Oliver, chair of the County Councils Network. Welcome to the sitting. I am sorry that you have had those technical problems, but we are glad to see you here. We are just partway through a question from the Minister, Stuart Andrew, at the moment. I will bring you both in and we will obviously tailor some of the questions towards you both as the sitting progresses.
Thank you, Chair. Stuart, the answer is twofold. Local planning is an immensely complicated process—that to-ing and fro-ing with the planning inspector makes it immensely challenging. I think it comes back to the previous questions: “Is this a top-down exercise? Do we need a very clear framework for what planning is?” But planning derives from that local position.
If we are being really clear and setting clear parameters for what local communities need to deliver through that formula of housing growth, challenge if it cannot be delivered, and allow those local communities to move forward and deliver upon that in a set timeframe, then we will expediate that. In my local authority in Breckland, we delivered a local plan, confirmed in December 2019. We are already out for review again, at vast cost, vast expense and vast frustration for our communities, when actually we should probably only be tweaking some of those local policies.
The sad fact is that some of those locations that you mentioned, which do not have a developed local plan, are now in the challenge around nutrient neutrality and an inability to deliver those plans, and of course the duty to co-operate places a further burden on those councils to provide that local plan.
In answer to your question, really briefly—sorry to waffle—make the timeframe shorter; allow that local drive to come from the bottom up; ensure that the national planning inspector supports those local policies, not a top-down approach; and I think you would see expediated local plans and adopted local plans across the country.
Q Thank you. I will try to give you a bit of a breather now, and involve our other two witnesses.
I want to turn to the infrastructure levy. The intention behind this is that it is non-negotiable, to try and reduce all the time that planning officers seem to spend on negotiation. Are the measures welcome? On the development of the infrastructure statements that local planning authorities have, do you see the opportunity for greater working between county and district councils in agreeing, as part of a local plan, the sort of infrastructure that is needed within those communities ahead of development being granted?
Thank you and apologies for my technical problems. On the infrastructure levy, I do think that is a helpful move. All too often, developers use viability as an excuse to increase their profits, or landowners to increase the value of their land. Really, where there is a significant uplift in the value of land as a result of receiving planning permission, it is only right and fair that that bonus of increase in value should go towards providing the essential infrastructure that is needed to support that development, whether that is roads, schools or soft infrastructure, such as health and community support. We welcome the community infrastructure levy as a simpler mechanism and one that will be applied to more developments, both commercial and housing.
One of the issues we have raised many times is the fact that developments of fewer than 10 houses do not pay anything. Quite clearly, that is all very positive. Of course, there are parts of the country where the land value uplift is not sufficient to provide the infrastructure, and that needs to be addressed and will have to be addressed by funding from Government. However, in areas where it is—yes, we welcome the fact that it is simplified. Of course, Sam just mentioned some of the other issues, such as nutrient neutrality, which is yet another imposition on development, so we need to be cognisant when we look at the infrastructure levy of the other levies and costs that are put on the land.
Many thanks, and my apologies too for the technical issues. We absolutely welcome a simplified community infrastructure levy and section 106 arrangement. At the moment, CIL is administered by the district and borough council, and the county council, in normal circumstances, would make an application for a part of that funding. It would be helpful for the Bill to provide clarification on how that infrastructure levy should be used. It is a levy to enable infrastructure support to facilitate housing and development. I know that part of the suggestion in the Bill is that 25% of that infrastructure levy would be set aside for parish councils, but, to your point, I would hope that there would be early conversations between all three tiers of local government, where they exist, as to how that levy should be spent for the benefit of the community.
Thanks Stuart. Just before I bring in Tim Farron, I will give both Neil and Matthew the opportunity to ask a question to the other two panellists, who unfortunately were not present earlier. Neil, have you got any brief questions? I will then bring in Matthew.
Q Thank you, Sir Mark. James and Tim, the Bill contains measures both to simplify and accelerate the process of creating new combined authorities, be they mayoral or non-mayoral, and to create a new type of combined authority, which is more regularly usable in two-tier areas and respects the division of powers in those areas. I do not know what your views are on how much interest there is among your members in forming further combined authorities and doing further devolution deals. What is your view of the powers to accelerate and create new models to enable us to move forward with devolution in two-tier areas and avoid the unintended consequence of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, which gave each district in an area a veto over its neighbours and led to us not moving forward with deals in Lincolnshire and in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire previously? I suggest James answers first.
First, in broad terms, we welcome the move to enable every part of the country to have devolution. Previously it has been very much city focused and, of course, most of the country is not in cities, so we welcome that fact and the ambition that everywhere should have a devolution deal.
Obviously, simplifying the process is always welcome, provided that there is a fair and reasonable consultation, and involvement of all relevant parties. Clearly, we should not ride roughshod over various parties. However, as ever with devolution, we think devolution should be led by devolving and not by restructuring. That is one of the issues that has happened in the past, and we need to ensure it does not happen this time. There needs to be genuine devolution from Whitehall down to the local level, at which point we will find much greater acquiescence at the local level when it comes to how to come up with a structure that works.
When we first start talking about restructuring and then about devolution, I am always concerned that we should devolve the powers down and then look at what is the best way, on a local basis, which will be different across the country, to deliver the outcomes from that devolution. I would emphasise—Neil, I really appreciate the work that you are doing—that we certainly believe that far more can be done on a place basis than on a Whitehall basis in local devolution, simply because if I am in the north of England or Northumbria that is very different from Cornwall or central Bedfordshire. We have different priorities and issues, and that can only be done at the local place level, so the more that is devolved, that is clearly better. I emphasise devolution first, and then restructuring to match the powers that are devolved to us.
Thank you very much. The County Councils Network and my members are hugely supportive of the intentions set out in the Bill. We see this very much as an opportunity for the two thirds of the country that are not currently able to benefit from any devolution deal.
We see this as the devolution of powers from Parliament down to local government. The complications that exist at the moment will be taken away by the Bill. I think we will see members embracing the opportunity to have a devolution deal. In terms of the CCA, only 50% of my members would need that, where they have an adjoining county authority or unitary authority. The other 50% could benefit from a simple devolution deal.
My understanding is that this is not about the organisation of local government, either overtly or through the back door. This is about the flow down of powers from central Government to local leaders, where those leaders are clearly identified, and then the county level engaging with all our partners. This is as much about delivering the health system, and the integration of health and social care, as it is about any tier of local government. It is important that the process is simple, straightforward and quick. If at all possible, we want to get on with this. Then it is for the county authority to engage with the other two tiers of local government, if those exist, and to work out how best to deliver that.
I am very supportive, as is the CCA. I am grateful to the Minister for clarification on some confusion around clause 16. That seems perfectly workable and reasonable, so I very much support the direction of travel.
Q You will be relieved to hear I am not going to go over all my questions, Sir Mark, but I will ask James and Tim the specific question that I asked Sam about clauses 75 to 81 on planning data and digitisation. Can you foresee any issues with how authorities can implement those measures, specifically in terms of how well resourced IT departments are to do so? In his response, Sam from the District Councils Network said that yes, it will all work fine, presuming that the correct amount of capital support, and so on, comes with it. What needs to come with the Bill for you to properly implement those measures around data and digitisation?
The key thing is that we are all immensely supportive of digitisation; it is the way to go. We do not want paper. In fact, one of the things that we saw during covid was that a number of local authorities moved to remote working and digitisation anyway, which made the process so much easier.
This is something that we are supportive of. I think Sam is right that we need clear guidelines, the relevant capital support and clear technical things, such as, “How will the system work?” and “What are the data protocols?”, because we want a very clear system that works for everyone. As ever, I think we are all slightly nervous about big IT projects, but this should work, with proper engagement with local government to ensure that we do it in the right way.
Yes, I agree with both James and Sam. Obviously, planning is largely in the remit of the district and borough councils. In an ideal world, I would hope to see some sort of spatial development strategy, or the ability to create that. The duty to co-operate has not worked particularly well, and, where we are creating CCAs and county deals, it would be very helpful for there to be some input, at least, from a county-wide perspective. In terms of the digitalisation, I would leave that to the other two and I agree with what they said.
Q Hello to all three of you; it is really nice to see you. Thank you very much for your time. My question is on housing and planning, so it is probably for Sam, but with a little bit of James, and we would be perfectly interested to hear what Tim has to say as well.
If we take it as a given that, particularly in the rural communities that many district councils serve, there is a collapse of the private rented sector into the Airbnb sector and a massive growth in second home ownership at the expense of permanent occupied dwellings, do you think that this Bill gives you any additional powers that help you to push back against that? What additional powers would you like?
The relaxation for local authorities to tax second homes for council tax purposes had a really positive impact. We are seeing that across those communities in which second home ownership is immensely high. For communities such as yours, Tim, that Airbnb community is a challenge. First, it removes those rental properties from the market for long-term tenants. Secondly, it creates a really fluid community, and sometimes there are risks of antisocial behaviour related to that. There could be more strengthening for those local authorities to place conditions on new builds and new properties to ensure that the type of mix and tenure, and/or usage around holiday homes and/or Airbnbs, could be strengthened.
That said, we have the existing legacy problems for coastal communities, market towns and cathedral cities already. I would not necessarily want to suggest that we change that through this Bill now. We need to ensure that we are working with those landlords positively, as with housing providers and housing legislators, to ensure that they understand the challenges they face, but more importantly, the challenges that the communities face.
We have a long way to go. Over the last 12 months, there has been a lot of change for landlords. Sadly some of those have now vacated the market because of the changes in regulations, and policies required of them. We must ensure that we have a suitable housing mix across the country, and those who want to and do rent have an important part to play. Therefore, landlords have an important part to play in that process. I would not necessarily want to over-regulate so that landlords no longer want to operate in that market. However, there is a challenge around Airbnb and there is further work we can do to support the Government in implementing some legislation on that.
I agree with Sam on the issue of second home owners—I think that is a helpful move. Airbnb is a slightly separate issue that needs to be thought through because there is a whole range of issues associated with it. It is not just about taking it out of the market. As Sam alluded to, it is a potentially antisocial issue; it is a transient nature; and it potentially puts more pressure on local authorities. It is more about how we manage that type of property, which is something we are very keen to have a conversation about—on enforcement, on ensuring that the accommodation is suitable, and on things like a potential tourist tax. I am not quite sure the solution to Airbnb is part of the levelling-up White Paper. It is potentially a separate issue that we need to look into quite carefully.
However, you were right when you alluded to the fact that housing just costs far too much in far too many parts of the community. In your area, Tim, and in the south-west and coastal communities, housing is being soaked up by holidaymakers and second home owners, with not enough homes available for people who want to work there. There are manifest stories of people wanting to go on holiday—to, say, Cornwall—but the pub has to shut because it cannot get any staff, because they cannot afford to live there.
Q Yes. I have one totally separate question—hopefully it will be of interest to all of you. The Government state that having an elected Mayor is essential to providing strong leadership. Do you agree? Are there exceptions?
Our view is that we have excellent local government leaders. There is a role for Mayors, but it should not be essential to have a Mayor everywhere. There are plenty of powers that could be devolved to the existing structure without the need for a Mayor. As I said, there is nothing against Mayors; they are absolutely appropriate in certain places. We think it should be the choice of the local area as to the best governance arrangement for them.
I support that. I understand and agree with the Government’s desire to have a single accountable leader. However, I think that in the case of a county council leader, that person already exists. I know that my residents know exactly who to write to if they have any issues, particularly on potholes. We do not necessarily need to have a directly elected Mayor or leader to deliver the devolved aspects and benefits that will come with the Bill. We respect the Government’s position, but we do not see that as an absolute prerequisite.
Thank you. In response to Tim’s question, I would say that, once again, it comes back to the bottom-up position. We are sovereign bodies in our own right. We work in partnership across our localities, whether through public sector leaders’ boards or leaders’ forums, and we can already operate in that structure. The past two years, with the pandemic, have proven that collaboration.
In direct response to Tim’s question, the risk is that, as we move forward, there are powers being devolved, and actions and functions—particularly around local enterprise partnerships—that are moving away to a single person who is not elected for that role directly. We should be using existing structures, arrangements and collaboration to deliver on behalf of Government. Coming back to James’s point, we do not actually quite know what is being devolved from Government yet.
Thank you, Sir Mark. A big theme we are talking about today is localism in the Bill. Many a council over recent decades has been elected on a promise to stop overdevelopment, only to then preside over massive development. The common excuse is Government targets. Should there be a nationally set house building number, or should it be left entirely to local areas to decide what is needed?Q
I represent localism, and I think it is all about localism. The Government need to be very clear about their objectives. Setting national targets and then blaming councils when houses are built and forced through on appeal by the Planning Inspectorate is slightly disingenuous.
Order. I am afraid that that brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions in this afternoon’s sitting. On behalf of the Committee, I thank our witnesses for their evidence. The Committee will meet again at 11.30 am on Thursday in this room to hear further oral evidence. Thank you all for attending.