Examination of Witness

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:10 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Dr Hugh Ellis gave evidence.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 3:56 pm, 23rd June 2022

As there is only one gentleman on this panel, it is easy for me to ask him to introduce himself.

Dr Ellis:

Good afternoon. My name is Dr Hugh Ellis and I am director of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

For your benefit, Sir, the purpose of this Committee is to gather evidence to help us when we consider the Bill as we go through it line by line next week. One advantage of this Committee is that the Minister gets to ask questions. That is the only fun that he will have in this Committee, so I think we will start with him.

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

Q Thank you very much, Mr Bone.

Dr Ellis, thank you very much for your time this afternoon. Could you perhaps tell us what your organisation and its members think about many of the reforming aspects of the planning system that are contained in the Bill?

Dr Ellis:

I think they regard it, and we regard it, as a mixed picture. We welcome the issues on hope value and on development corporations, and strengthening the development plan is certainly welcome. But then there are a series of issues on which we need some serious reassurance. There are just three. First, how can we drive delivery and does the Bill do enough on that. Secondly, democracy and public trust are absolutely critical to everyone because, as we have already heard, there is a lack of public trust in the system. Finally, there are the really positive measures that could be taken on climate change.

Briefly, I will throw one more in. When we write legislation on planning and when planners think about the future, we often have a tendency to think about it through our lens. I think it would have been great to see more creative, local community solutions in the Bill, particularly on the cost of living. The planning system has enormous potential to be a solution for things such as local food growing and local flood defence. It would have been great to see some concrete measures enabling that kind of activity from the bottom up.

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

Q Given that about 39% of England is covered by up-to-date local plans at the moment, do you think that the measures in the Bill will make it easier, or is there anything else that should have been included to try to progress these plans; to give confidence to communities about what will be developed in their areas?

Dr Ellis:

The primacy of the local plan is really important. We are very worried about the relationship with national development policies and whether that masks a centralising tendency. Local and neighbourhood plans are so important in giving certainty to communities. As is often the case, we are making some changes to the process of planning reform—that is nothing new—but the fundamental issue is about resources. Most people who talk to us about planning and the delivery of local plans would say, “Well, if we had more resources we could deliver them more quickly, and if we had more certainty we could also do that.” So we should not get too hung up about changing the law.

We have divided the local plan into several pieces now through this Bill: we have said there is a local plan, then a supplementary plan, and then a strategic plan, and two of those are voluntary and one is not. In that sense, we have created that framework. The answer is that it all depends: it depends on resources and on how much power the Secretary of State wants to take to the centre on the content of local plans. We have an honest concern that if you want to rebuild public trust, you need to handle those powers with extreme caution.

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

Q Do you welcome the strengthening of neighbourhood planning and the neighbourhood statements included in the Bill to try to engage more of that community involvement?

Dr Ellis:

I think we do. We are obviously desperate to preserve the rights to be heard. That is an important point. We are losing some rights to be heard and communities really need them. The TCPA fought for them from the 1960s onwards so that people had a right to be in the inquiry of a plan. Our planning system is very asymmetrical; the development sector is very dominant in that process.

A lot of people are sceptical about the idea of neighbourhood planning. I admit my own scepticism about it, because plans are often happening in places with more social and economic capital than others and we absolutely have to address that, but they are proving powerful—I speak as an ex-parish councillor, so I have served my time on this. Whether the statements get us over the line in creating something simple and meaningful is the challenge we want to see explored through this Bill’s progress. Will those statements actually have weight? Yes, you have to have regard to them, but what exactly will that mean in detail? Local and parish councils are denigrated, but they do have a powerful and meaningful role in the planning process.

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

Q Finally, we have heard time and again about complexity and bureaucracy in the development of local and neighbourhood plans. What has been the reaction of your association’s members to the digitisation of the planning process in the Bill?

Dr Ellis:

There are two sides to that reaction. First, what is not to like about digitisation? There are some very archaic practices in the planning process and it would be great if we could catch up and have the resources to digitise. That will make information more accessible. It is also really important that we are able to integrate environmental data, because there are competing datasets out there. One of the most important recommendations is that we sort of need a national laboratory for that spatial data, as that would simplify the process no end.

But digital data goes so far. There is an issue about digital exclusion that worries us for communities. We can have as much digital information as we like, but we also need access to the arenas where decisions are made, so there is a twin relationship between understanding what is going on and being able to do something about it. That is where rights to be heard, which we are so exercised about in the planning process, are so important.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Thank you, Hugh, for giving up your time to speak to us. I want to start with some of the measures you have spoken about in terms of local planning. The TCPA is on record as having concerns about some of the centralising thrust of the Bill. What impact do you believe clauses 82 to 84 and schedule 7 could have on public participation, trust and confidence in the planning system, and how would the TCPA ideally like to see them amended?

Dr Ellis:

There are two issues. One is about rights to be heard. We have decided now in the Bill to call several documents “development plan documents,” which has a specific legal meaning and a specific legal way. So the strategic plan, the supplementary plan and the local plan are now all development plan documents. If a development plan document is being prepared, it has legal weight in planning, and the quick answer is there therefore must be a right to be heard. On the strategic plans, the Bill currently says that it positively excludes the right to be heard at an examination. That seems to us wholly wrong and unnecessary. If people want to, we should give them the opportunity turn up at an inquiry and test the evidence.

To be clear, even if the criteria are set nationally, green belt allocations will probably be set in those strategic plans. In other words, the issues that people really care about have to be debated in an arena where there is a right to be heard. That would be an easy modification to make, and I so hope that Ministers will seriously give it consideration.

The other issue is centralisation. That worries us even more, because nationally described development management policy has a new legal status. There has been some debate about that, and we are absolutely convinced that it does have a new and special legal status as national policy described in law. The clauses elevate that policy so that where there is a dispute, it is resolved in favour of the national policy.

There are no limitations on what the Secretary of State can include in that national development management policy; nor is there a robust process of parliamentary scrutiny, which there is for national policy statements in major infrastructure. That has to change. If the Government are determined to have such a policy, parliamentary scrutiny and public participation in setting it are crucial.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q The Bill proposes the abandonment of the duty of co-operation. What do you think are the likely consequences of that proposal for strategic planning and the delivery of new homes?

Dr Ellis:

Simply, there will not be any. The duty to co-operate was a problematic measure—a stop-gap measure—inserted after the abolition of regional planning. You would expect me to say this, and it may not be popular, but regional planning in this country was critically important to our future. I understand and have to accept that there was insufficient public support for it. Again, it simply did not have the right kind of governance, but it was important.

Put simply, for the reasons you have heard, which I will not repeat, it is absolutely essential that we have bigger-than-local decision making. That enables communities to make decisions; it does not trump them. If you want to preserve the east coast from a sea level rise of 1.5 metres by the beginning of the next century, which is predicted by the Environment Agency, you cannot expect 33 district councils between the Humber and the Thames to do that on their own, so it is very important that we get that right.

Removing the duty to co-operate and replacing it with a policy imperative just makes a situation even worse. Devolution could help, but of course, that is an ad hoc process; we do not yet know who wants to do devolution. I am sat in Derbyshire, and I have no idea whether Derbyshire wants to be a combined authority or not. It is vital that we have that strategic tier.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Part 6 of the Bill aims to standardise the range of powers available to each type of development corporation, and gives local authorities the power to request their formation. Are those measures likely to have much of an impact? If not, how might the Bill be strengthened to ensure that development corporations can contribute more effectively to delivery?

Dr Ellis:

Development corporations are really welcome, but it is worth remembering that when you have effective planning, which links planning to delivery—that is what a development corporation does; you can really drive change—the most important thing is that their governance needs to be modernised so that they are genuinely accountable and participative. The purpose of a development corporation is to draw on what Oliver Letwin recognised in his review: the critical role of the public sector as master developer in de-risking development.

Much of the challenge in why we are not delivering the homes that we consent in the planning process is because the private sector has limited incentive to deliver beyond certain levels, based on absorption rates. Development corporations can do that. It is worth reflecting on the fact that, within 20 years of the war, we consented 33 new towns, which housed 2.8 million people and paid for themselves. That record is largely forgotten but still very powerful.

The answer is that the challenge in giving the powers solely to local authorities is that they work only when Government stand behind them. I think it is the Government’s role in housing that we need to draw out. They need to be more muscular in supporting local authorities. The experience from the locally led development corporation in north Essex illustrates that point.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q In our previous session, we had an interesting and thoughtful discussion with witnesses about how the planning system might help us to respond to the climate and environment emergency. I will finish with a question that I asked in our second session. You will know that nowhere in legislation is the purpose of the planning system set down. Do you think there is any value in more clearly defining in legislation the aims of the planning system on climate change and other issues? Is the Bill an opportunity do to that, and if so, what would that look like?

Dr Ellis:

I think there is a huge opportunity to do that. It is essential that the Bill contains a purpose for planning if you want to recreate public trust by making it clear in statute what the system is for. It is interesting that there are currently four outcome duties in law on planning, but there is nothing in the Bill equivalent to what we see in Bills on social care or in national parks, where there is a clear sense of what planning is meant for.

If you want this new journey—we all do—to benefit the future of England, you need to need to set down that purpose around sustainable development. That is an inclusive goal; we are already internationally signed up to it, and for me, it is the only development goal that is credible for the future of this nation. Underneath that, I would quickly say that it is heartbreaking to see the potential that planning has to deal with climate change mitigation and adaptation and the dysfunction that we are currently presented with.

I have just seen an inspector remove a net zero policy from an area action plan for a new development in West Oxfordshire. That tells you that Government policy urgently needs to be reviewed. The whole sector has been calling for an urgent ministerial statement to clarify how net zero is delivered. We really cannot wait for the NPPF review at the end of 2024 for that; it must happen now. On adaptation, the issue is even more serious, in terms of having to begin to think about shifting population off the east coast, the challenges of surface water flooding, the endless flooding in Calder valley and how plans need to grasp the allocation of land for natural flood defence.

I know that I cannot go on, but all I can see is huge potential. We need to bind the planning and climate Bills together. The climate Bill must have specific requirements on the sixth carbon budget, and stronger requirements on adaptation, specifically around water and flooding.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Through the devolution agenda, we have devolved powers at scale over things such as transport and regeneration, giving places the power to create things such as development co-operations. Through this Bill, we will make it easier and quicker to set up new combined authorities, particularly in two-tier areas, and make it easier for them to widen and take on new powers. There are also a range of measures in the Bill to drive more brownfield regeneration—the infrastructure levy, CPO reforms, high street rental options, street votes, heritage protections, and so on.Q

As we negotiate devolution deals with areas such as Derbyshire, where we are in talks at present, how do we best bring together the new instruments and new combined authorities to achieve everything we potentially can through spatial planning to drive the kind of join-up you have been arguing for in this session?

Dr Ellis:

That is a complex question, but time is short. The single biggest issue is with trust and public consent—whether the people of Derbyshire understand the benefits of the combined authority. I am tempted to say, at the moment, that they do not. People have talked in the past about double devolution, and I think that is still important. You have two problems going on; you have the fantastic opportunity that devolution presents to empower local authorities and collections of local authorities, but then you have an important issue about the citizen and trust within communities, and how they relate to that.

In thinking about the devolution agenda, it is important to show regard and care to things such as parish and town councils—that lower tier—and what powers they might get. Otherwise, all that happens is that you shift the trust problem down a notch. The opportunity is there when resources and powers are provided for places to begin to set a new course that tells a story about that place. That is desperately needed in this country.

My only fear is that we need coverage across most of England—we do need that—and the ad hoc nature of this is giving different powers to different areas. The status of the strategic plan in Liverpool, legally, is different to the one in Manchester, which is different again to the London plan. That might be fine, but it also creates levels of legal uncertainty. There is a tension between those things, but I would continually emphasise the point on community trust and what communities can do, as well as what local authorities can do.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Thank you, Mr Ellis, for your clear and concise evidence. We very much appreciate it. We must now move on to our seventh session of the day.