Geoffrey Clifton-Brown leads a debate on the National Planning Policy Framework

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown leads a Parliamentary debate to discuss the national planning policy framework and the problems for councils without an adopted local plan in place.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): I am delighted to be able to lead this debate. I thank you, Mr Turner, and the Backbench Business Committee for giving me and the House the opportunity to discuss the national planning policy framework. I am especially grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for being here. I believe that he was in his constituency this morning, and I am sure that he did not want to be dragged back here this afternoon. I believe, from today’s Order Paper, that a written statement will be made later today, and I would be grateful if my hon. Friend could refer to it in his winding-up speech if it has any relevance to this debate.
Planning is an important issue that the House has discussed a number of times. The Government have just published their response to the Communities and Local Government Committee’s good report on the operation of the national planning policy framework, so it is timely that we are able to discuss it today.
I welcomed the introduction of the national planning policy framework when the former Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), introduced it in 2012. For far too long, our planning system was incredibly complicated and consisted of more than 1,000 pages of policy. The NPPF simplified that guidance into an easy-to-read, readily available, concise document. I also welcomed the Government’s publication of guidance, which streamlined 7,000 pages into a sensible online guide. All those steps to simplify the planning process were a welcome innovation.
I accept that the Government have to find a difficult balance. Most people recognise that we need more housing. There is a national need for additional housing, so every community will have to play its part. That is mainly because we are an ageing society with more single households and an increasing population. The CBI has said that Britain needs to build 240,000 houses to keep up with the population growth. It is welcome news that the Government are on track to build 700,000 new homes in this Parliament. However, although we recognise the need for more housing, we must ensure that houses are built in the most appropriate places and, as far as possible, in accordance with the wishes of local people and with good design.
The Government have rightly been driving a localism agenda over the past four and a half years. Unfortunately, in many areas of the country, including my constituency, localism is almost non-existent in the planning system. The purpose of this debate is not to criticise the existence of the NPPF, but to highlight to my hon. Friend the Minister where the NPPF is not working in the way it was intended. I will talk about local plans, which are critical to the NPPF, and the problems associated with councils whose plans have not yet been adopted. I will discuss the merits of neighbourhood plans, speculative planning applications, appeals, the protection of areas of outstanding natural beauty and other concerns about heritage and infrastructure requirements. I will try to be brief, because other hon. Members want to contribute.
Let me start with local plans, which are at the heart of the NPPF. The NPPF is a plan-led process, and local plans, where they are in place, are a useful planning tool. They provide a clear indication of how much development there will be, when it will happen, what else needs to occur alongside the new developments and other points that are of concern to local people when new housing is built. However, there is a gaping hole in the NPPF for planning authorities whose local plan has not yet been adopted, such as Cotswold and Stroud district councils, which are both covered by my constituency. It is frankly frustrating, but those councils are not on their own, because two fifths of local planning authorities are in the same position. It is worrying that a significant proportion of the planning authorities that are trying to operate within a plan-led system are without a plan. It is simple logic that for a plan-led system to work, a plan must be in place. Without a central document holding together all the different fragments of the planning process, the system will fall apart, as it has in my constituency and, I am sure, in other parts of the country.
I have had discussions with various organisations, including the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and it seems that, in general, high-growth urban areas tend to have plans in place, while sparse, rural areas with limited resources tend not to. Those areas are the most vulnerable to speculative planning applications, and they are also some of the most beautiful places in these isles. Perhaps I am biased, but the Cotswolds is a jewel in the UK’s crown. The levels of tourism that my constituents see suggest that people flock to it to see idyllic Britain, rather than a large construction site. I genuinely believe that there is a risk that inappropriate development will ruin such rural areas, and that the impact will be felt locally and nationally for generations to come.
Without a local plan in place, planning authorities are at the mercy of developers. My constituency has seen a significant number of speculative planning applications, which are often sizeable. There is currently a proposal for a development of 2,350 dwellings in Chesterton, on the edge of Cirencester. That is a large number of additional houses for any small to medium-sized town to take.
One of the biggest problems for authorities whose local plan has not been adopted is the sheer lack of clarity about the housing situation in the area. It means that everybody is working from either out-of-date or incomplete information, whether it is an old core strategy, or a local or regional plan. It allows an area to be subject to speculative applications, because developers know that they have a good chance of success at appeal. In the Cotswolds, we increasingly find that councils are not refusing applications that do not conform because they fear that the application will be allowed at appeal, which can lead to a huge financial loss for the council. 
Each appeal can cost councils upwards of £50,000, which is a significant amount of money for a small rural council with limited resources. I will address the lack of resources shortly.
If there is no local plan, it is up to each individual planning inspector to decide how many dwellings are needed over a five-year period. That figure can change significantly between inspectors, who have subjective views. That is caused in part by a lack of up-to-date information about local housing need. Decisions about an issue as complicated and controversial as planning, particularly in the Cotswolds, should not be based on the subjective views of different inspectors. There needs to be a clearly defined housing need assessment methodology, so that all planning authorities and applicants can work with the same system.
The ratcheting up of housing need is illustrated by the number of appeals in the Cotswolds that were upheld by different inspectors over an 18-month period. An appeal in Tetbury determined that the council had not met its five-year housing supply, and stated that, as a result of persistent under-delivery of housing in the Cotswolds, an additional 20% should be added, which brought the figure to 2,426 dwellings required over the next five years, or 485 annually. However, it was contradicted by an appeal in Kemble, which stated that it was not necessary to apply the 20% buffer. In a more recent decision on an appeal in Fairford, a different inspector claimed that the annual requirement needed to be between 500 and 580. The same report said that it could go up to as much as 650. It is simply ridiculous for planning inspectors to be unclear about what the housing need is in an area. We need a clear and robust methodology for assessing housing need, so that the number of dwellings necessary is clear and is not up to the subjective view of each planning inspector.
The Communities and Local Government Committee’s report says, and I totally agree, that all sites that have been granted planning permission should count toward the five-year land supply. Allowing planning permission for speculative applications on appeal and requiring the local authority to find a five-year land supply, let alone an additional 20% buffer, means that the amount of land set aside for development is excessive.
However, my constituents are concerned not just by the number of houses, but by the location of the new houses. They have to be put in the right place, particularly considering designations such as areas of outstanding natural beauty. It seems that those who are most logically placed to receive recommendations on where new developments should be sited are the current residents. They know their communities inside out and know where a new development would be best sited.
An example in my constituency is in the parish of Kingswood, which is under the authority of Stroud district council and was identified in the Communities and Local Government Committee report. It is currently facing an application at Chestnut Park, which is at one of the highest points of the village, with fantastic views over the AONB, which would be diminished by a housing development. The parish council has diligently produced a comprehensive village design statement, which identifies alternative sites for development. However, due to the fact that Stroud district council does not have an adopted local plan, it is unlikely that that speculative planning application will be refused for fear of an appeal. I say to the Minister that this is a classic example of local people doing all the right things, but not having their voice listened to.
Kingswood is one of the villages in my constituency that would like to produce a neighbourhood plan. Neighbourhood plans are a fantastic innovation and I welcome them—indeed, when the Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), was the Planning Minister, he kindly visited the Cotswolds and spoke about the benefits of neighbourhood plans. Following that, I wrote to all my parish and town councils encouraging them to develop and adopt neighbourhood plans. The problem is that without an adopted local plan in place, neighbourhood plans have to be considered but can be overruled in the local planning process. That is a severe erosion of localism in the planning process, and I believe that it is why so few neighbourhood plans are emerging in my constituency. It renders all the incredibly hard and in-depth work required to produce a neighbourhood plan redundant if it can simply be ignored. Will the Minister issue guidelines that provide greater weight to emerging neighbourhood plans or village design statements, even in the absence of local plans?
I mentioned the limited resources that rural councils often have to deal with planning problems. It seems to me—and during discussions with others, they have agreed—that when local authorities come to reducing their expenditure, planning departments are often on the receiving end. As we all know, planning is complicated and requires much expertise. It is difficult for a small planning department to undertake its statutory development control function simultaneously with its forward planning function, and it is the forward planning function that usually suffers. What can the Government do to ensure that planning authorities have the resources that they need to produce local plans in a timely fashion?
I have a suggestion for the House and for the Minister, who I hope will consider it: the Government could create a mandatory scheme whereby each planning authority that does not have an adopted local plan is provided with a specific planning inspector who can mentor that council through the various stages of its development plan. That should hugely help authorities to present to the inspector a timely local plan, which is more likely to be judged sound. Critically, that would avoid further delay caused by the plan having to go back to the drawing board locally. The mentor inspector would always be different from the inspector who would eventually consider the plan, to ensure impartiality and avoid judicial reviews.
That process would work by an authority being allocated an inspector, and thereafter, a timetable for agreed actions to complete a plan being set by the mentor inspector and the authority. That inspector would then be obliged to report back to the Secretary of State if they felt that the timetable was seriously slipping. It would then be for the Secretary of State to take any action that he saw as necessary to ensure that good progress was made with the local plan. I would be grateful if the Minister considered that. It would be a carrot-and-stick approach, but after all, all authorities have had at least four years’ notice that they need to have plans adopted, yet some are still a long way from that objective.
Another resource issue faced by local planning authorities is that they need a number of professionally skilled people, such as landscape architects, town planners, heritage experts and so on, all of whom have specialist knowledge. I was pleased when the Cotswold, Forest of Dean and West Oxfordshire district councils and Cheltenham borough council struck a deal recently to pool their back-office functions, saving an estimated £5.5 million a year. Although not yet agreed, I believe that the arrangement will mean that between them, they can employ people with the necessary skills, so that they will not have to spend a lot of extra money on outside consultants when drawing up local plans.
Related to that point is the duty to co-operate, which is rightly stipulated in the NPPF. The Cotswolds is a district that shares its borders with 10 different local authorities, some highly rural, such as North Wiltshire, and some urban, such as Swindon borough council, therefore making planning matters even more complicated. I would be grateful if the Minister touched on how we can ensure that the duty to co-operate is more clearly defined.
I want to mention two additional factors, beginning with infrastructure requirements. I have already mentioned an application—or rather, an aspiration at this stage—for 2,350 houses proposed at Chesterton on the edge of Cirencester. However, the infrastructure there, particularly the roads and the sewerage network, is already at breaking point and simply cannot cope with such a large new development. We have already experienced dreadful water and sewerage problems during the flooding in 2007, 2012 and 2013. Building 2,350 new homes, without adequate additional infrastructure, would simply exacerbate that problem further. Indeed, Thames Water, at a recent meeting and in a follow-up letter from the chief executive, has explicitly stated to me that a new sewer would need to bypass the existing Cirencester sewerage network catchment if the development were to go ahead.
I would like to take this opportunity to put on record my strong belief that water and sewerage undertakers should always be statutory consultees in the planning process, alongside the Environment Agency and bodies that have that status. Water undertakers are critical for new developments, so they should be involved at the core of the process. Some might say that that would slow the process down, but I believe that the opposite would be the case; rather, it would concentrate minds on what infrastructure was actually needed.
There is the same problem throughout the rest of the Cotswolds, and I am sure, throughout the country. For example, in Moreton-in-Marsh, a town that has faced an increase of more than 30% in its housing stock since 2011, infrastructure improvements are desperately needed. The main road bridge into the town already cannot cope with two heavy goods vehicles crossing it at the same time from opposite directions; it certainly will not be able to deal with the additional traffic from new housing. The NPPF states that infrastructure provisions must be central to planning applications, but there is not enough evidence of that.
The problem will be compounded by the introduction of the new community infrastructure levy on 5 April 2015. That will limit the amount of pooling of section 106 agreements to pay for community infrastructure. No more than five section 106 agreements will be allowed to pay for the same project. That could prevent important services from being provided to towns and villages, such as new schools, doctors’ surgeries, libraries and so on, which are required as a result of new development. I know that the community infrastructure levy is intended to pay for those types of projects, but yet again, I understand that it will apply only when the local authority has an adopted local plan—another example of how not having a plan in place is really handcuffing local communities.
Will the Minister consider strengthening guidance to ensure that applications receive only permission if guarantees are put in place that the necessary infrastructure will also be delivered during the course of the development? If that does not happen, the indigenous population will suffer because of the new development, and that will create even more disquiet when further development is proposed.
Finally, I want to touch on protections for AONBs and conservation areas, which I appreciate the Government recognise as important, but which, I believe, are not being given sufficient weight by appeal inspectors. Roughly 80% of my constituency is located within the Cotswolds AONB, which is hugely important not just to me and my constituents but to the country as a whole. I have already referred to the Cotswolds as a jewel in the UK’s crown, and I would be grateful to receive reassurances from the Minister that due protection will be granted to AONBs.
I suggest that the Minister should ensure that NPPF guidance states that equal weight should be given to social and environmental issues as is currently given to economic development issues. That would have a positive impact in ensuring that the most important landscapes, which many enjoy, are not damaged beyond repair.
I will conclude now, because I know that others want to contribute. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about assistance for councils that have not adopted local plans, and about my suggestion of a mentoring-type scheme. I would also be grateful to hear from him about infrastructure concerns, the protection of AONBs and the other important matters that I have raised.
1.51 pm
In winding up the debate:
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: May I thank you, Sir David, and Mr Turner for so graciously chairing today’s superb debate? I wish the public saw more such debates on technical, difficult subjects. Ten colleagues participated in it, and if the public saw more of the working of Parliament, I think they would hold us in higher regard.
I thank all the Clerks and the Hansard Reporters, and I thank the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) for her gracious remarks to me. She said a very important thing in welcoming the introduction of the NPPF. That remark will be widely welcomed around the country, because that gives us certainty in the planning system, which is really important.
I repeat what I said about my hon. Friend the Minister. I am incredibly grateful to him for being here, because I know he has a busy schedule. Some of his remarks today were incredibly important, in particular those on neighbourhood plans. They will be heard widely around the county and will give a big fillip to communities, so that tomorrow more of them may consider whether they could introduce a neighbourhood plan. I warmly welcome the Minister’s offer to write to the Planning Inspectorate and leaders of local authorities to clarify certain matters relating to local plans, such as the weight to be given to them and to the five-year housing supply, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).
I also pay warm tribute to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, this might be my last opportunity to do that. His contribution to the House over the past 40 years has been immense. I have enjoyed working with him on the Liaison Committee, where I have seen at close hand the quality work that he does.
All in all, this has been a thoroughly good debate. I will say just one final thing to the Minister: he could not say this today, but I stress again that those authorities that do not have a local plan need to be given a bigger stick.



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