David Heath introducing the debate
In the absence of agreed local plans and agreed five-year supply, far from empowering local communities, we are disfranchising them from decisions that will have the most profound impact on their local areas. That is what I want to impress on the Minister today….
Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): …Does he agree that it is all about a sense of proportion? Things seem to be out of all proportion, which is what is causing concern.
Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Let me come on to where I think things are going wrong. We have a free-for-all at the moment, an avalanche of applications that are opportunistic in nature, because the local plans have not been agreed.
The key is the five-year supply, which I have mentioned. There is a lack of definitive guidance on how it is to be calculated. There was a clear promise from the Department for Communities and Local Government that definitive guidance would be produced in August last year, but it has not appeared. Two things are happening as a result. First, planning authorities are struggling to understand exactly what is required. Secondly, plans are being picked apart at planning inquiries by clever QCs, who are going back to the first principles in the planning framework and using those to override any sensible local decision making.
There are tensions within the system. Historically, census figures have been used, but it now seems as though economic aspiration is a key factor. Economic aspiration is fine, except that if it does not come to fruition, an area is left with the houses but not the jobs, which does not make sense.
I have a number of modest requests for the Minister. First, I want emerging local plans that are on the point of publication to have real weight in the planning process—to have what is called materiality. That is simply not the case at the moment. If he wants that to happen, he has to make it happen by regulation—to instruct planning inspectors that they have to give the plans real weight and back local councils in doing the right thing. That is the whole principle of localism.
Secondly, the Minister needs to provide definitive guidance on the five-year supply, to show exactly what is to be taken into account and how it is to be calculated. He must not leave it to clever QCs representing house builders to determine what is right for a particular local area. That is not localism, but an absolute divorce from it. Until we have that clear guidance, I do not believe the situation will improve.
Thirdly, we need to give real weight to the views of parish councils. That is a gap in the new legislation. At the moment, they are virtually non-people, and do not have the locus they should have in planning decisions. ..
Her Majesty’s planning inspectors—I am not criticising them because they are only doing their job within the rules they have been given—are the planning authority for many of our rural areas. That cannot be right.
Interesting is the intervention from the MP which was the single strongest supporter of the NPPF during its consultation debates
Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): My hon. Friend has made a powerful case outlining the mess that we are in.
Even the Sedgefield method got a look in
Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): …The first is on the five-year housing supply, which will be a requirement—not only when there are approved local plans, but until 2031. At any point between now and 2031, developers will be able to come forward and say to a local authority, “At this moment, you haven’t got a sustainable five-year housing supply, so we are entitled to build wherever we want within your district”.
At present, there is no agreement on the methodology used by planning inspectors to determine the five-year housing supply. Two distinct methodologies seem to be used by planning inspectors. Different methodologies are used in different cases. One is now referred to in planning shorthand as the “Liverpool” method of calculation, and the other as “Sedgefield”.
In a recent decision in a planning appeal in my constituency at Deddington, the planning inspector calculated housing supply locally on what could even be described as a third method and a variation of “Sedgefield”; it might be described as “Sedgefield-lite”. It is simply not good public policy for local councillors, chief planning officers and others not to know what methodology a planning inspector will adopt in calculating whether a local planning authority has met its five-year housing supply. Ministers have to make clear and unambiguous the methodology that they expect planning Ministers and everyone else to use in calculating the five-year housing supply…
Deddington is due to take something like 80 new houses to the end of the survey period in 2031. However, the location of up to 85 has already been decided—not by the local community, but on the basis of whoever happened to get their planning application in first. With respect, that is not neighbourhood planning. It is not a plan-led system; it is a system of first come, first served.
Nigel Evans makes the point we have always made on this blog.
More than disappointed. I used to use a counter-argument against those in my constituency who said, “This is a disaster. This is what is going to happen if the Localism Bill goes through.” I said, “No, localism will give power back to the local authorities.” Now, when we look at what has happened, it seems as if there has been some Orwellian double-speak. Localism sounds as if it is giving power back to the local people when in essence it has not done that at all—quite the contrary.
I thought it would be helpful to see how long the process takes. In about half the cases, the plan has been fully adopted. It is interesting to note that the time between a plan being submitted and being found to be sound has increased substantially in the past year. Since the national planning policy framework became live at the end of last March, the number of days between a plan being submitted and being found to be sound has increased from nine months on average— a normal human pregnancy—to 14 months. There is a material difference: the time period is not as long as an elephant’s pregnancy yet, but it is certainly increasing—the size of the mammal is going up.
And the Labour Shadow
Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): …I want to put on the record that I agree with some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, particularly those about technical starts; land banking; land supply; the need to get better quality into our house building system; the need to strengthen brownfield policy further; and how we take more notice of neighbourhood planning. I concur with all those points and will talk about them in more detail in a minute or two….
The Government are right—I want to emphasise this—to allow housing need to be objectively measured locally as outlined in the NPPF, but as the National Housing Federation has stated in its briefing for today’s debate, more could be done to clarify the methodology used. Indeed, it appeared to back Labour’s call that we need a common methodology to be applied across all local authorities to ensure a consistency of approach. That might help to address some of the concerns raised by Members this morning.
And the minister
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): Thank you, Mr Gray, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) on securing this debate, which has become something of a “Groundhog Day” experience for me. I am absolutely sure that this is not the last time that I will have this experience, although whether I will end up with Andie MacDowell at the end of the movie is open to question.
I welcomed many of the questions that my hon. Friend asked, but I must object very strongly to how he opened his speech. He seemed to imply that I was not a supporter of maintaining agricultural land for farming. I heard some bellows from up above, where my recently departed father, a sheep farmer in Devon, and my rather-longer-ago departed grandfathers, farmers in the Mendips and in Devon respectively, were outraged at the implication that I am anything other than a passionate supporter of farming.
Mr Heath: I am very pleased to hear that. I just seem to remember that the hon. Gentleman once called agricultural land “boring”.
Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is such an experienced Member that I am surprised he believes what he reads in the newspapers.[err accyrately reporting a Policy Exchange speech minister].
In the very short time available to me, I will try to cover some of the main issues raised this morning…
The first issue is housing projections. What is the role of figures from the Office for National Statistics in supporting housing projections? The fundamental situation is that, just as we expect local authorities to make plans to meet their needs for schools and for social care, we expect in the national planning policy framework that local authorities will make plans to meet their housing needs. Those plans have to be evidence-based. Of course, we cannot entirely reject ONS population projections, because the ONS is our national statistics body and those projections are the best that we have, although I entirely understand why they are often wrong and flawed, as all projections necessarily are. [The minister makes the simple mistake here of confusing projections with forecasts. I fully expect the head of the ONS rto wriote to him to cirrect him]
What I have said, however, does not mean that those ONS projections are the last word. It is absolutely open to any authority—Cornwall council will certainly have this opportunity—to look at the actual figures achieved in the past, relate them back to the projections that were in place then and then say why it thinks that projections are not the last word and that different numbers have an evidence base. It is absolutely open to authorities to do that, but their numbers must be based on evidence; they cannot be based on assertion alone. [Boles full into an absolute bear trap hear and has probably totally screwed up the Cornwall plan as he nearly did in the last debate re York, The Member for St Ives carefully referred to a report of local need defined in a away that excluded migrations and Boles did not notice it. Boles needs to urgently write to Cornwall council before its meeting next week or they may approve a plan with housing needs set to low leading to its rehection at examination and a year of free for all appeal led planning in the county] Authorities must use evidence and that evidence will be challenged in an examination by developers and others, so it needs to be pretty robust.
I will now address the subject of the five-year land supply and particularly the question put by my hon. Friend about this rather vexed question—I cannot believe that we are all getting into this business whereby we are all experts on Sedgefield and Liverpool, not as places, football teams or constituencies, but as methods of calculating land supply.
What “Sedgefield” and “Liverpool” simply refer to is a particular question. If an area has had an under-delivery of housing in the past, how quickly—in the area’s new plan—should it catch up on that under-delivery? Rather than getting into the whole question of, “Is it Liverpool and is it Sedgefield?”, which will mean precisely nothing to our constituents, I will just read out what the draft guidance, which we hope to finalise in a very few weeks, says about this issue:
“Local planning authorities should aim to deal with the under-supply within the first five years of the plan period where possible.” [Sedgefield but if not possible Livcrpool]
Now, some things are not possible; some things will conflict with other sustainability policies that are very important in the NPPF. However, it is not unreasonable to expect that, where past performance has undershot need, if it is possible we should try to catch it up at the beginning of the plan and not during the full 15-year life of the plan. [This is a confusing fudge and unhelpul, the guidance say ‘not possible’, not ‘not deliverable whilst conforming to the policies of the NPPF, if this is what the mionister means this is what the guidance (and ot should be in the NPPF) says].
Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): I thank the Minister for giving way on that specific point. Of course, by catching up quickly in the plan, my local authority—Test Valley borough council—faces a situation where in years six to 15 it is unable to include sites such as windfall sites, which we know will inevitably come forward. Does the Minister have any plans to allow my local authority to include windfall sites again, or are such sites off the agenda for ever?
Nick Boles: I cannot comment on any particular plan, but windfall sites absolutely can form part of a plan. Where an authority can evidence that it has had a consistent delivery of housing through windfall sites in the past, and it is reasonable to expect that there will continue to be such a delivery of housing through windfall sites, it is absolutely reasonable to say that part of its planned projections assumes a level of windfall site delivery. There is nothing in the policy to prevent that. [Important LPAs often make this mistake para. 48 of the NPPF is about the five year sipply, it does not prevent windfalls being included in years 6-15 providing their methodoligy avoids double counting and is realistic].
I will move, very briefly, to the question of the weight of emerging plans. The hon. Member for City of Durham was absolutely right to say that it was a vexed issue in the last debate that we had on this subject. We are trying to make this issue clearer in the draft guidance and although the consultation has closed on that draft guidance, as far as I am concerned consultation never closes.
If hon. Members would like to look at that draft guidance, they should refer to the Department’s website. I would be very happy to take any comments or concerns from them. We have also invited my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), who both had very serious concerns about this process, to meet the chief planner to discuss in detail how it will work.
Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): I did not get the opportunity to speak; I will put my speech on the website. The Minister can go further than issuing draft guidance and actually amend the NPPF, because all is not lost. He does not have to come back to Westminster Hall and have “Groundhog Day”. He can also take into account the cumulative effects of development within the NPPF, at paragraphs 186 and 187, to close a loophole that he has been hearing about today; he has also heard about the pain that that loophole has caused. I also have other suggestions that I will write to him about.
However, what we are looking to do in the draft guidance, which we hope to confirm shortly, is to make it clear that it is sometimes reasonable—in exceptional circumstances, but exceptions happen all the time—to refuse a planning application. That is the case if, one, the application is so substantial that it runs the risk of undermining the plan to which it is being referred, and, two, where a local plan has been submitted for examination—it has not yet passed examination, but has been submitted. A refusal can also happen in the case of a neighbourhood plan, when it has entered into what is called the local authority publicity period; it has completed consultation but it has not yet gone to referendum or, indeed, to examination. Before the plans have been examined, they will have material weight and they can, in exceptional circumstances, be used just on the basis of prematurity to refuse an application, if the application is so substantial that it could completely knock the legs out from that emerging plan.
I hope that I have reassured hon. Members. We have listened very carefully to the concerns that have been expressed. As I say, we have met other Members who have had concerns about this issue and we have done our utmost to listen to them, and to try to reflect those concerns.
I simply point out that that is not entirely within our gift, because, much as I understand how my colleagues from all parts of the House would dearly love to abolish the Planning Inspectorate, I can tell them where these things would end up if we abolished it—they would end up in court. It would cost their local authorities a lot more money to fight these things in court than it does to fight them either through an examination or in an appeal with the Planning Inspectorate. Planning inspectors are a better solution for local councils and local communities than the available alternative in a system where the rule of law enables people to challenge Government decisions whenever they like.
In the minute or so I have left to me, I will address the very important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome made about design. To reassure him, hopefully, I will read the draft guidance about the very point that he made:
“Development should seek to promote character in townscape and landscape by responding to and reinforcing locally distinctive patterns of development and culture, while not preventing or discouraging appropriate innovation.” [This doesn’t meet the point – because you could build four identical Cotswolds villages next to a Cotswold village and destroy it character through sheer scale and loss of setting. This of course is just what is happening up and down the land].