Pinchers Westminster Hall Speech on Planning Reform and Zoning


It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing the debate. He is a doughty campaigner for his constituents in the Isle of Wight, and I know that he thinks deeply and for a considerable length of time on these important, and sometimes intricate, planning matters.

I am very happy to look at the proposals that he has written to us about, because we all agree that we want to get our planning reforms right. We also all agree, including representatives from Shelter and KPMG, that we need more homes in our country. Both organisations will say that we need to build north of 250,000 new homes a year in our country to address our housing challenges. However, the present planning system, with all the plans calculated as a total, represents less than 180,000 new homes planned each year, so we do need to build more homes in the right places, and of the right quality, to serve our constituents. That is why we launched two consultations last year; that is sometimes, I think, forgotten. We launched the consultation on planning reform, because yes, we do want there to be more homes, but we also want a planning system that is more transparent, more predictable, easier to navigate and more speedy and that delivers good-quality, well designed homes. That is what we intend to achieve through our planning White Paper and the reforms that we will introduce later this year, and also a White Paper on local housing need in order to ensure that local authorities are planning for 300,000 homes each year. But the LHN—local housing need—number is not binding and is not an end to the process; it is a beginning point from which local authorities can then identify constraints, if they have them, or opportunities, if they want them, to build fewer or more homes than their target local housing need. The green belt is one example that local authorities can use as a constraint on building.

What is important is that local authorities keep their local plans up to date, because if they do not, they expose their constituents—all our constituents—to speculative development from applications that come forward, which the Planning Inspectorate will give great weight to if the local authorities do not have a plan, and do not have control of their local housing supply. I have to tell you, Mrs Cummins, that the local authorities in York, Gateshead, South Lakeland, and Bath and North East Somerset have plans that are out of date. They need to get them “in date” in order to protect their constituents from speculative developments. I say gently to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) that it is little use lecturing me about planning; what she should be doing is encouraging her local authority to get its plan in place and protect her constituents from speculative development.

We are keen to build a planning system that works for the 21st century and that moves faster than the present glacial pace of planning. It takes local plans seven years in many cases—on average—to be instituted. It then takes five years for many planning applications to see a spade in the ground. It is taking far too long. The process needs to be speeded up. But crucially, it needs to engage more people. That is a point that I know my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight has mentioned and that my hon. Friends for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb) and for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) have also raised as an issue. Right now, sometimes as little as 1% of the local population in a planning authority area gets engaged in plan making. That rises to a whopping 2% or 3% when it comes to individual applications. And as we have heard, nine out of 10 planning applications—90%—are passed anyway. That is not particularly empowering; it is not particularly engaging. We want to do better.

Will the Minister give way?Christopher Pincher Sharethis specific contribution

I will give way in a moment to my hon. Friend, but I am conscious, if I may say so, that I have a lot of questions to answer that he and others have asked and he does get a second bite of the cherry later.

We do need to ensure that more people are engaged, and we believe that by digitising the planning process, by creating map-based plans of local areas, we can engage many more people in the planning process, and they can get more engaged up front, making real decisions about the sorts of buildings that they want in their local geographies—the densities and the designs—and about the infrastructure to support those homes. That is real power, given to people much earlier in the process, so that they can become much more engaged.

Rachael Maskell Sharethis specific contribution

Will the Minister give way?

I will give way to the hon. Lady in a moment, but I will make a little more progress first.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight suggested that we are scrapping the planning system. We are not; we are proposing to reform it—and I will give him an example of what I mean by reform, rather than scrappage. These are our proposals. In areas that we have designated as growth sites, a local plan can set design and density standards, and describe the infrastructure expected from developers in those areas.

If the developers tick all the up-front boxes agreed in the plan and consulted on with local people, they will get their outline planning permission to begin their building process. They will still need to keep coming back to the local authority for consents, but they will get their outline planning permission. However, if they do not put forward an application that conforms with the local plan, they will have to put forward an application in the normal way under the present rules.

If developers bring forward an application in what we have described in the White Paper as the protected areas, they will have to bring it forward under the present system. The present system will remain, but we want an accelerated process to identify places where local authorities want to see development taking place, and to bring forward in those places designs and infrastructure requirements that the local communities want, need and have bought into.Rachael Maskell Sharethis specific contribution

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Is he open to considering a process of deliberative democracy around planning, which really involves engaging with all parts of the community to work through the very difficult challenges in planning and come up with solutions that work for everyone?Column 212WHis located hereChristopher Pincher Sharethis specific contribution

I think that I am describing exactly that process. We want more people to be involved and we want them to have a say earlier on about specific matters that should concern them, including what areas may be sites for accelerated development in their areas and what the designs, the design codes and the infrastructure should be. I think that is deliberative democracy.Bob Seely Sharethis specific contribution

I am not for one second trying to catch the Minister out, but at the beginning of the White Paper the Prime Minister said that he wanted to tear the system down and rebuild it. We are now evolving into a reform process rather than a scrapping process, as part of the very sensible evolution and listening process. Is that correct?Christopher Pincher Sharethis specific contribution

As I said, we want to reform the system. If my hon. Friend listens to what I have said and to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, he will know that we are keen to make sure that we have a process that reforms our planning system, which is outdated and needs change. However, we are not proposing to scrap it, to use the term that he used.Wera Hobhouse Sharethis specific contribution

Will the Minister give way?Christopher Pincher Sharethis specific contribution

I will not give way, because I am conscious that I do not have long left—Wera Hobhouse Sharethis specific contribution

Can I raise a point of order?Judith Cummins (in the Chair)Sharethis specific contribution

Please sit down. That is not a point of order.Christopher Pincher Sharethis specific contribution

I am grateful, Mrs Cummins, for that ruling. I am conscious that I probably have only about six minutes left in which to conclude my remarks, to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight time to sum up the debate.

A number of Members have raised the issue of infrastructure. We all know that when we build homes, those homes need the requisite infrastructure to support them: the GP clinics, the parks, the schools, the roads and the roundabouts. We want to make sure that we have a system that provides those things when they are needed and not way down the line. We do not believe that the present system—a mixture of section 106 agreements and community infrastructure levy payments—meets that requirement.

Indeed, 80% of local authorities tell us that section 106 does not work for them. It is loaded in favour of developers, especially the bigger guns, and often means that infrastructure comes late or not at all. If it does appear to be coming, it is often negotiated away in a manner that local authorities and local communities do not want. That is why we have proposed an infrastructure levy, which will provide up front the infrastructure that local communities want and need. We will make sure that, in doing so, we deliver just as much affordable housing as is delivered in the present system.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) made the very important point about the challenge that some rural communities face. I am open to considering ways in which we can help local people to remain living close to where they come from or where they work. One of the initiatives that we have Toggle showing location ofColumn 213WHannounced is the first homes initiative, paid for through developer contributions, which will ensure that local people will be able to buy, at a discount of at least 30%, a home in their local community. Those homes will be covenanted, in perpetuity, to ensure that when or if they are sold on, the buyers, who will be local people—they could be key workers—will also buy at 30% at least below the then local market rate. However, I am open to hearing from colleagues about what other opportunities there may be to encourage local people to stay close to their communities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight also raised the issue of neighbourhood plans. I am very keen that we build, and bake, neighbourhood plans into the new planning system. They can be very effective and engaging. The trouble is that there are fewer of them the further north—or further into urban areas—we go, so in our planning reforms we are looking at ways to ensure that more neighbourhood plans are produced across the country so that additional housing is identified, with good designs and local infrastructure, to support those communities.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the importance of recycling. We have already made it very clear—in our national planning policy statements, and in the national planning policy framework—that brownfield ought to come first. We have backed that up with fiscal spending to ensure that we are paying for remediation in and around our country. Some £400 million was made available last year for the remediation of brownfield sites in mayoral combined authorities, with a further £100 million made available by the Chancellor in the latest Budget. We are determined to put brownfield first.

In our permitted development rights reforms—I know some colleagues are not so very keen on those—we also encourage the development of redundant sites, or shops that are no longer viable, in towns and city centres. That means we are building homes in the places where people need them, which takes the weight off the transport infrastructure as they are close to GP clinics and other services that people want and need. We are addressing that issue of recycling, too.

In the short time that I have left, I will speak about build-out. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), talked about a ten-minute rule Bill. I would suggest that it is a “ten-minute thought” Bill, because we do not really know from their proposals how the Opposition would deal with issues like gaming or whether they would help and support small and medium-sized enterprises, rather Toggle showing location ofColumn 214WHthan making the system more difficult for them. We do not know whether they are proposing that the timetable system should relate to the permissions granted or the building commencement date.

However, we are keen to ensure that we find sensible mechanisms to encourage the build-out of permissions where they exist. We have heard what people have said, both across this Chamber and in response to the consultation, and we are determined to ensure that, where appropriate, permissions are built out rapidly.Wera Hobhouse Sharethis specific contribution

On a point of order, Mrs Cummins. I want to put on the record the fact that the Minister gave this Chamber incorrect information. Bath and North East Somerset Council has a fully updated local plan in place. It is going through a partial revision and is halfway through the terms of its current plan. But while the partial revision is taking place, the local plan is fully updated.Judith Cummins (in the Chair)Sharethis specific contribution

The Minister is here and your point of order is now on the record.Christopher Pincher Sharethis specific contribution

I am grateful, Mrs Cummins. I can tell you that the information I have is that the plan was last updated in 2014—some seven years ago.

We are determined to ensure that our reforms meet the tests that my hon. Friend, and others, have set—to speed up the planning system to make it more effective, engaging and transparent. I look forward to the support of all colleagues across the House when we bring our proposals forward later this year.

Planning Law and the Descent into Complexity

One of the main themes of this blog in recent months is that a precondition of reform is simplification of Planning Law. Hence my proposed draft single planning act.

The Deputy Senior Presiding Judge Sir Charles Haddon Cave has made a speech on this issue.

“English Law and Decent into Complexity”

The Rule of Law requires that the law is simple, clear and accessible. Yet English law has in become increasingly more complex, unclear and inaccessible. As modern life becomes more complex and challenging, we should pause and reflect whether this increasingly complexity is the right direction and what it means for fairness and access to justice. 

the law seems to have grown like ‘Topsy’ : the algorithms and manifestations of the law have multiplied exponentially and become ever more complex and voluminous. The fact is, we labour under the heavy yoke of a lot of law and a lot of dense, complex law at that. Does the law really have to become more complex as the world becomes more complex? Or should we…move in the opposite direction towards simplicity? I venture to suggest that the more complex modern life becomes, the more important it is constantly to strive to simplify the law…

The American political scientist, Professor Steven Teles, coined the term “kludgeocracy” to describe the
complexity and over-regulation of modern American government. A “kludge” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfil a particular purpose”…

There is also, an admirable culture of counsel of perfection which had pervaded the
development of English law – mostly to its great benefit, namely, a desire to devise laws,
rules and exceptions that cover all potential scenarios and achieve uber-consistency and
predictability. But this can, sometimes, be self-defeating and lead in practice to
difficulty, obfuscation and uncertainty. As Arthur Conan Doyle said, “A counsel of
perfection is easy at a study table”21. As Voltaire said, “Perfect is the enemy of the
good”. Sometimes, the perfect can simply mean lawyers endlessly arguing amongst
themselves in their own Tower of Babel. Sometimes, the pragmatic and workmanlike is
better than the legally perfect, as well as of more use to society in the long run. Anyway,
enough of all that…

.Complex legislation comes in principally in two forms. The first is outdated legislation drafted in another era which is badly in need of reform for the modern age, … The second is legislation which is
born complex and then repeatedly amended to make it even more unintelligible….

Sometimes, to be fair to us judges, we are simply having to deal with the myriad of points
and citation of authorities thrown up by counsel. Without raising a cut-throat defence,
can I echo the words of Sir Stephen Irwin: “The excessively long and complex skeleton
argument is a curse”.65 Sometimes hunting in a skeleton for the real point in the case
hidden amongst many is like “Where’s Wally?”.