Regional Spatial Strategies Debate

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown welcomes the abolition of housing targets and the introduction of incentives for local authorities to deliver sustainable development, but cautions that the current arrangements have created a “window of ambiguity” for developers to push through controversial projects.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) for securing this important and timely debate on regional spatial strategies. The relevant provisions in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 that established regional spatial strategies were repealed and replaced, from 1 April 2010, by new provisions set out in part 5 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009. The strategies are therefore now known as regional strategies, so perhaps from now on we should refer not to RSSs but to RSs.

When I was going around the towns and villages in my constituency during the recent general election campaign, I was surprised by how often the housing problem was raised, so the crucial development on housing numbers and the planning system is important. In 2008, the ratio of house prices to earnings in the Cotswolds was 18.8, which was the third highest in the south-west. The practical effect of that is most first-time buyers who want to stay in the area where they were brought up find it simply impossible to get on the housing ladder. It is vital that we have appropriate legislation on planning and house building.

The invidious effect of Labour's planning system can be seen in the heart of villages and towns in the Cotswolds and throughout the UK: pubs, shops and post offices become unviable and are forced to close; local industries cannot find workers; and schools have fewer and fewer people enrolling. By dictating that all major developments are built on principal urban settlements, the RS deprives smaller villages of the flexibility to allow a small number of appropriately built and designed, affordable private sector houses to keep village communities alive.

Beyond considering only the issues in parts of the country such as the Cotswolds, I would like to highlight the wider failings of RSs. Estimates have suggested that an average of 252,000 new households a year are expected to be formed between now and 2031, which is a total of 27.8 million. In the previous Government's 2007 housing Green Paper, they set out to develop 240,000 homes a year by 2016, but I do not believe that their RSSs or policies would ever have delivered anything like those numbers, even if they were sustainable. A check of the figures for permanent dwellings completed in England between 1997 and 2008 shows that the number was 2.3 million, or 192,000 a year. That figure compares badly with the 209,000 achieved by the previous Conservative Administration. I have also come across a staggering figure for public sector housing-[Interruption.] Perhaps the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), will listen to this. In each year of the Labour Government, they built half as many dwellings as the last Conservative Administration.

Let me make it clear that the RS approach was flawed and has failed. The new Government's commitment to repealing that approach is to be welcomed, and their localism agenda has the potential to make the changes that are needed, particularly in parts of the country such as the Cotswolds. I hope that the Minister will listen carefully to a quote from the Campaign to Protect Rural England:

"We hope that the new Government will not, however, abandon strategic planning altogether, as we believe it is essential in order to co-ordinate development, infrastructure, service delivery, landscape management and conservation of the natural, historic and cultural environment, and address cross boundary issues-"

that subject has been raised by a number of colleagues in this debate-

"that might arise from several different planning strategies."

Some of the themes of larger area planning also need to be borne in mind.

I understand that it is envisaged that housing targets in the RSs will be abolished and replaced by local development frameworks, which in most cases will probably return to option 1 figures. In the south-east, for example, the RS figure was approximately 30 million, although the option 1 figure would return that to 20 million. My own council, Cotswold district council, has already returned to a target of option 1 in its housing numbers.

As stated in "The Coalition: our programme for Government", the coalition promises to provide

"incentives for local authorities to deliver sustainable development, including for new homes and businesses".

That is terrifically welcome, but the danger with that approach is that the Government might find that insufficient houses are built in the pressurised areas of the east, south-east and south-west. I have a long memory about the subject, and I say to the Minister that even the previous Conservative Administration found that they had to take increasingly centralised powers to deal with local opposition to house building.

There is a need to establish in the local development framework some form of land bank where houses are likely to be permitted over the next 10 or 15 years. That is in line with the CPRE statement, and it is a sensible provision so that infrastructure can be targeted towards those areas of growth. Across England last year, there were approximately 651,000 empty homes, and incentives need to be provided to get those houses back into occupation because having such a number of empty houses in our country is a huge waste of resources.

Some points need deeper discussion, but I will deal with them as quickly as I can. We need clarification of the current situation, following the letter from the Secretary of State to council leaders on 27 May. Recently, two substantial planning applications were determined in the Cotswolds. They each sought to build around 300 homes in Moreton-in-Marsh. That is a relatively small market town of around 1,500 houses, so 600 houses would be a huge increase. When the district council made its decision, one application was permitted and one was refused. However, the letter of 27 May from the Secretary of State was cited by the planning authority in its refusal. The important sentence in that letter was:

"However, I expect Local Planning Authorities and the Planning Inspectorate to have regard to this letter as a material planning consideration in any decisions they are currently taking."

What can be described only as a window of ambiguity has now opened with regard to the prospect of appeals, both in this instance and for other councils across the country. There is particular concern for rural councils such as Cotswold, where a major appeal can cost the equivalent of a 1% council tax rise. That is in an environment in which all councils are urged to set a minimal-if any-rise in council tax, so it is difficult to budget for the costs of major appeals.

The major grounds for appeal from the developers whose application was refused will be that Cotswold did not have sufficient land supply in its RS. If that application goes to appeal, it is unclear whether the Planning Inspectorate will have been told to disregard the figures in the RS, following the letter from the Secretary of State.

Let me highlight the confusion by outlining what has happened since the general election. On 20 May, the Government published "The Coalition: our programme for Government" which stated:

"We will rapidly abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils, including giving councils new powers to stop 'garden grabbing'".

On 27 May, the Secretary of State wrote his letter, and on 28 May the inspector in the key Leeds city council case adjourned the hearing. On 2 June, Taylor Wimpey, the applicants responding, resisted the adjournment, and on 4 June, the applicants in the Grimes Dyke and Boston Spa inquiries responded by resisting the reopening of the inquiry, pointing out that it was open to either the inspector or the Secretary of State to invite written representations. One can therefore begin to see the confusion that is arising.

On 9 June, planning policy statement 3 was amended and republished. The advice on assessing housing land surveys, which is based on the RS requirements, has not been amended, which is something to which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) alluded. On 10 June, advice from the Planning Inspectorate stated:

"The proposed abolition of RS is a Government commitment that Inspectors and other decision-makers should take into account as a material consideration."

My hon. Friend the Minister has stated:

"The Planning Inspectorate's note does not supersede the Secretary of State's letter of 27 May".-[Official Report, 21 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 26W.]

As he is no doubt aware, the suggestion that the abolition of the RS is a material consideration in determining appeals is being challenged by a number of weighty legal opinions contending that the letter would not stand up in court as it assumes that the RS will be abolished, although the matter has not yet been determined by Parliament.

Whether or not such views are correct, it should not allow the paralysis of the planning system. The Minister will also be aware that it is highly unlikely that section 79(6) of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 would allow the Secretary of State to abolish the RSs wholesale.

With no timeline in place for the proposed decentralisation and localism Bill that the Government intend to introduce, there is concern that councils throughout the country will face a number of hugely costly legal challenges by judicial review and appeals to defend. Therefore, the difficulty for decision makers is what legitimate weight they should accord the Secretary of State's letter.

Peter Village QC, a planning silk, is of the view that:

"It is well-established Government policy that the weight to be given to any such emerging policy or guidance will depend upon the stage which it has reached in the relevant process for its introduction...Accordingly, it is difficult to conceive how an intention to change the law in the future can itself be a lawful material consideration to the determination of a planning application now under the existing law without having the unlawful effect of seeking to give effect to a change in the law absent the necessary change of the primary legislation."

I also want to raise the issue of whether the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004 will require a strategic environmental assessment to be carried out before a RS is abolished. If that is the case, it will delay the introduction of provisions in the proposed decentralisation and localism Bill. As my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, RSs could be subject to that requirement. Will he clarify how a new policy would work in accordance with those regulations? I hope that he will acknowledge that these concerns exist among developers and local planning authorities throughout the country, and I hope that he will be able to close that window of ambiguity. It would be extremely helpful to know whether, in the near future, the Secretary of State plans to make any written or oral statements to Parliament so that the confusion can be cleared up.

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