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MP raises SWDP delay concern in Westminster debate

20th November 2013

West Worcestershire MP Harriett Baldwin has today called for an increased pace to confirm the South Worcestershire Development Plan during a planning debate at the House of Commons.

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The MP was speaking in Westminster Hall after calling for a special debate on the SWDP held today (Wednesday November 20) and outlined her concerns about the delays approving the local plan.

Harriett joined forces with Mid Worcestershire colleague Peter Luff and Worcester MP Robin Walker and Redditch MP Karen Lumley to discuss the decision by the local planning inspector to refuse permission to continue developing the plan without more housing developments identified.

And Harriett has already spoken in one debate and met with Planning Minister Nick Boles to raise local concerns regarding the plan hold-up.

And Harriett has consulted Wychavon and Malvern Hills District Councils before making today's speech in Westminster Hall.

Harriett told the debate: “Once the Inspector has reached his conclusions on Stage 1, he will only then be able to give details of the timescales for Stage 2. It sounds as though this process could easily run until the end of 2014.

“Frankly, World War 2 took less time than the bureaucracy and red tape surrounding this local plan. And what is worse, all this bureaucracy and red tape is actually strangling housing growth in our area.

“In balancing the interests of tomorrow's population with the interests of today’s home-owners and home-builders, we are strangling growth, preventing house-building and stalling construction in my constituency and elsewhere.

“I look forward to hearing from the Minister on his plans and the Secretary of State’s plans to unblock this Byzantine process.”

Speaking after the debate, Harriett added: “The Government has not yet been able to give us any clear steer on how we can speed up this process.

“However, what is clear is that neighbourhood plans, once they are adopted, will take precedence over any other plan so it is important that communities look at this in detail.

“I held a neighbourhood planning meeting for my parishes earlier this year and I hope that some of the attendees will see that, in the end, local views will become the most important views of all when setting housing numbers for generations to come.”


Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I start by declaring that I have an interest in the south Worcestershire development plan, because I am fortunate enough to be a home owner in the beautiful Malvern Hills district. On 24 October, in this Chamber, I discussed the matter with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who has responsibility for planning. There were some unanswered questions on that occasion, and since then we have had an initial opinion from the inspector, hence my request for today’s debate.

Planning is in a much better place than it was under the top-down regional spatial strategies of the previous Government. I fully support the need to build new homes to meet the pent-up demand for property in south Worcestershire, which has resulted in an average house sale price of £224,500 in the past quarter—well above the national average for affordability. I also appreciate the importance of house building for jobs and growth in the construction industry, which is only now recovering from the economic shocks inflicted on the country by the previous Government.

In south Worcestershire, our three local councils—Worcester city council, Malvern Hills district council and Wychavon district council, which my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for planning visited recently—have been working in partnership for seven years to develop an ambitious and sound local plan for housing growth. After the 2010 election, and in light of the planned revocation of the west midlands regional spatial strategy in the coalition agreement, they immediately and presciently commissioned expert projections of local population growth. In so doing, they perhaps got a head start on other councils, and their evidence base is fresh and up to date.

All three local councils democratically agreed the plan last December. Although it caused much controversy at the time, one of the factors that encouraged councillors to vote in favour of the plan was that it would allow them to secure a plan-led system, which would provide certainty on the amount and location of development until 2030. The plan was submitted for examination in public on 28 May, and on 28 October the inspector issued his interim thoughts about stage 1 of the inspection.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, to which she has already made a strong introduction. One of the welcome things from the inspector’s report was the support for the job numbers that were being targeted in the south Worcestershire development plan. Does she agree that it is vital for us to be able to take the plan forward to provide the local jobs and growth that our county badly needs?

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The plan is so ambitious for jobs and growth in south Worcestershire that we even had some complaints from Birmingham city council. It is a proactive and positive plan for growth in our area.

The inspector recognises in his initial assessment that the legal duty of the councils to co-operate has been met. He recognises that economic forecasting is notoriously difficult—some of us might say that it was impossible—and that none of the other six analyses of housing need presented to the examination by the development industry provides a sufficiently firm basis on which to derive an overall housing requirement for the plan period.

Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that the plan must be adopted as soon as possible to stop speculative developments, such as that in Hanbury in my constituency, being put in to our planning authorities? Such developments can cost councils a great deal of money in appeal costs.

Harriett Baldwin: I am not familiar with the details of the Hanbury proposals, but I know that there is no stronger champion of the interests of Hanbury residents than my hon. Friend. She seems to be in complete agreement with the gist of my speech.

Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): I join in the accolades to my hon. Friend on this important debate. On the subject of speed and speculative development, which my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) rightly raised, is it not crucial for the plan to be delivered as quickly as possible? It is an ambitious plan for growth, but delay is destroying faith in local democracy because councils appear to find speculative development, in places where it is not appropriate, to be irresistible. Speed is of the essence in getting the plan adopted.

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the importance of localism and local democracy, and I completely agree with him. The plan has been locally agreed, not set down from on high. He also makes the point that the protracted appeal period is slowing down growth and construction in our constituencies and that much-needed housing is not being built as a result.

The inspector has effectively rejected all seven of the econometric methodologies presented to him, which surely demonstrates a significant flaw in the process. Across the country, there are disagreements over the amount of development required to meet needs, and such differences of opinion concerning circumstances many years in the future are wasting very scarce resources.

The test should be that the plans and projections are competent, not that they are perfect. We do not possess perfect foresight; if we did, we would all be able to retire as billionaires tomorrow, because we would know exactly what tomorrow’s closing stock prices would be. Particularly when there is opportunity for a revision during the plan period, can we agree that in a time of constrained resources it is inequitable to place such a high evidential and process bar on councils, and that to do so is a disproportionate use of resources?

The plan-making system does not appear to recognise efficiency of process to minimise the impact on the taxpayer. Can the Minister issue clear guidance on the methodology that should be used to calculate housing needs, so that other councils do not suffer the same delay and costs as the south Worcestershire authorities have?

The inspector highlights the difficulties of economic forecasting, particularly beyond 2021. He makes a range of helpful technical points about past under-supply, affordable housing provision, windfall provision, non-delivery allowances, phasing and buffers. He discusses bringing empty housing back into use and whether C2 extra care provision should count towards a council’s housing supply. On that point, the provision of extra care to include C2 accommodation is a key priority in our area, and we are keen to attract such development. If the housing allocation in the plan were x thousand, and y% of the units were for C2 extra care, will the Minister confirm that that would meet housing need and would not be considered as double counting?

On Monday this week, I learned that the three south Worcestershire councils have published a timetable for the additional technical work requested, which will take until the end of January 2014. The inspector has decided “in the interests of natural justice”, as he puts it, that further hearing sessions will be required and that the earliest that they could start would be the week commencing March 10 2014. Only once the inspector has reached his conclusions on stage 1 will he be able to give details of the time scales for stage 2. It sounds as though the process might easily run until the end of 2014. Frankly, world war two took less time than getting through the bureaucracy and red tape that surrounds the local plan.

To make matters worse, all that bureaucracy and red tape is strangling housing growth in the area. Because the plan has not been agreed, developers are submitting speculative planning applications in areas that are not in the plan, and applications are being determined simply on a first come, first served basis, despite the potential of other, more favourable sites to meet local housing need. That leads not to the house building that we want to see, but to a long series of legal disputes between developers and the council. When such appeals occur, it appears to be for each planning inspector to decide how much weight should be given to the emerging plan and how much to the old—we thought defunct—regional spatial strategy.

For example, a planning inspector referring to an appeal about Abberley common in the Malvern hills said on only 18 October:

“The policies within the SWDP carry some weight given its reasonably advanced stage of preparation. Nonetheless, there are a number of outstanding objections to its strategy for the delivery of housing, including the overall housing requirements. These will be considered at the examination which will determine whether the approach in the SWDP is sound, or whether an alternative housing strategy should be adopted. For this reason, having regard to the guidance within the Framework I attribute the housing targets within the SWDP limited weight. I consider this approach to be consistent with the ‘Axminster decision’ referred to by the Council where the Court found that although the emerging plan was a material consideration, the weight to be accorded to it was a matter for the decision-maker.”

Please can the Minister issue guidance that an emerging plan such as ours, where the disagreements are mainly about housing projections in 10 years’ time, should be given almost full weight today? If not, why not?

Peter Luff: I strongly endorse what my hon. Friend says. Is she as concerned as I am that developers are building up land banks with planning permission they would never normally get? They are not building, but just land banking and trading among themselves, making a fat profit for developers, without building a single house in Worcestershire.

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend speaks passionately of our desire to see home building start according to our democratically agreed local plan, which provides a sound basis for the next few years’ growth and the development of the south Worcestershire area. Clearly, some minor tweaks need to be made—in particular, to the forecasts affecting housing numbers between 2020 and 2030—but our local councils are keen to enable local growth without unnecessary delay. Why can we not proceed on the basis of the emerging plan, while simultaneously making tweaks to distant years, especially as the councils are planning to review progress in 2019?

Turning now to neighbourhood planning, may I ask the Minister for his thoughts on how we as MPs can best support emerging neighbourhood plans? I love neighbourhood planning. It is an excellent way to give power to local people, to bring back an organic approach to planning and to reduce the need for vast swathes of land to be swallowed up by urban extensions.

Mr Robin Walker: My hon. Friend brings up a key element. Proper neighbourhood planning will allow us to protect the green spaces around places such as St Peter the Great and Battenhall in Worcester, which are valued by local people, while going ahead with the development that we need to provide affordable homes. I urge all power to her arm in pressing the case for real neighbourhood plans.

Harriett Baldwin: Provided that my hon. Friend’s constituents are consistent with the overall parameters of the local plan and the plan still provides the housing that we need, a neighbourhood plan is an excellent way for local people to have some control over how their villages develop. Villages such as Lower Broadheath in my constituency have been put off by the complication and complexity and the possible powerlessness that they interpret in the current rules. Will the Minister reassure villagers in Lower Broadheath and other parishes that, once they have agreed their neighbourhood plan and won a vote on it in a referendum, it will take precedence over the local plan, even if that local plan has been adopted? Will he elaborate on the remarks made to The Sunday Times this weekend by his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford, who said that he will make the process of neighbourhood planning easier for villages and other neighbourhoods?

What can the Minister say to the octogenarian farmer in my local area who lives in a draughty five-bedroom home, owns land nearby and wants nothing more than to build a bungalow in the field next door for the final years of his life? Under today’s rules, such building is prohibited in open countryside. If a neighbourhood plan permits such single homes inside settlement boundaries, will my farmer have any hope that he can build his bungalow? Will individuals be able to get planning permission to build a single home on land that they own
in the countryside? That is how our beautiful villages originally developed. Can a parish put that in their neighbourhood plan?

To conclude, I have come to the view that the planning process still remains extraordinarily baroque and subject to the whim of distant bureaucrats with no stake in the locality. Planning lawyers surely rub their hands in glee at all the legal fees involved. One local parish, Powick, raised £10,000 for its own lawyer. How is that a good use of family budgets? How does it help the economy? In balancing the interests of tomorrow’s population with the interests of today’s home owners and home builders, we are strangling growth in south Worcestershire, preventing house building and stalling construction in my constituency and elsewhere. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about his and the Secretary of State’s plans to unblock the Byzantine process.

4.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on securing the debate. I should explain at the outset that, although I am speaking on behalf of the Department for Communities and Local Government, I am sure that when she requested the debate, she hoped that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) would reply, as he is the planning Minister. He is unable to be in London today, so I shall reply to the debate.

I acknowledge the passion with which my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire put her case. I have heard the planning system described in many ways, but the use of the words “baroque” and “Byzantine” in the same speech is quite an achievement. I will try to answer her questions, but I hope she will understand the dual constraint I am under: I am not the planning Minister, but even if I were, due to the quasi-judicial nature of the Secretary of State’s position, I would not be able to comment in depth on some of her points or certain individual cases that she raises.

National planning policy places local plans at the heart of the planning system. Those plans set out a vision and framework for the future development of an area. The Government urge councils to get on with their local plans: 51% have now adopted a local plan and 76% have reached at least publication stage. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, that represents good progress over the past three years. When the Government came to office, only 17% of councils had an adopted plan that complied with the 2004 legislation, which is an extraordinary state of affairs. When I became a Minister in the Department, I was surprised to find that in 2010, 83% of local authorities had not adopted an up-to-date local plan, despite the fact that six years had passed since the legislation. In the general context of what she says, that fact might support the idea that the planning system is both baroque and Byzantine to some of those trying to navigate their way through it.

The purpose of the local plan is to identify what development is needed and assess where and how that can best be delivered. That gives local people more control over the planning decisions that affect them. I cannot comment on the details of the plan in south Worcestershire or housing needs there in particular, because the plan is currently before the Planning Inspectorate. The Government have removed top-down targets for housing delivery. My hon. Friend mentioned the west midlands regional spatial strategy. When I was an MP in the previous Parliament—you may remember this, Mr Hood—Westminster Hall was often full of west midlands MPs, in the case of my hon. Friend, and west country MPs, in my case, complaining about regional spatial strategies and how they had been imposed by fiat from central Government. They were often resisted by MPs of all political complexions. The fact that the coalition Government removed them is welcome.

Targets did not incentivise housing delivery. As a country, there is a significant problem that we must counter: we simply have not been building enough houses to meet our needs. The latest household projections suggest a need for 221,000 homes a year. In the most recent year for which figures are available, 2012-13, the number of first-time buyers in England who were able to buy a home without their parents’ help fell to one third—the lowest level since we began recording such information. My hon. Friends from Worcestershire will have come across that issue when dealing with their constituents. I am sure that we all come across that problem whatever area we represent, whether cities such as mine, more rural areas or a cathedral city such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker). I recognise the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire raised: we desperately need more housing to be built.

Harriett Baldwin: I thank the Minister for his opening remarks. I would like to press a particular question. He alluded to the quasi-judicial role of the Secretary of State. I would hate to allege that he is hiding behind that to any extent, but he and the Secretary of State can issue guidance and influence the overall weight given to emerging plans. Will he elaborate on what power the Secretary of State has to try to speed up the delivery of homes, which he has rightly pointed out are needed in our area?

Stephen Williams: I will shortly be coming on to the weight that should be given to emerging plans. Assessment of objectively assessed need is not an exact science; the regional spatial strategy proved that. It depends on a number of assumptions about future conditions, so the examination of any local plan must test those assumptions. Agreement on housing need involves difficult decisions, but such decisions bring a security that the plan will steer development to where people agree it should go. If need is underestimated, housing shortages will be perpetuated for decades.

Regarding the methodology for calculating housing need, the draft national planning practice guidance suite has expanded on the requirements for assessing objectively assessed housing need, and aims to provide clarity. To answer a specific point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire, we are currently considering comments on the guidance and will issue the final guidance shortly. [Interruption.] I hear a snigger coming from a former Minister. None the less, those are the words that I have been given.

Peter Luff: Will the Minister give way?

Stephen Williams: I will press on for just a moment.

A balance must be struck between applying a fixed methodology and the need to give flexibility to adjust for local circumstances. One methodology is unlikely to suit all circumstances. We favour local flexibility, underpinned by robust evidence of local circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire mentioned C2 accommodation and extra care homes in particular. The planning Minister is certainly aware of that issue. He fully supports the need to ensure that housing for elderly people is properly planned and provided. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester said that he too wants to see that in his area.

Mr Robin Walker: In Worcester, we have a lot of extra care plans. Does the Minister agree, in principle, that where extra care enables people to vacate homes for families, it can be valuable in dealing with the overall housing shortage as well as the housing shortage for elderly people?

Stephen Williams: I agree with my hon. Friend, and would extrapolate from that across the Government’s welfare reform policies. One planning decision certainly can have the beneficial effects elsewhere that we are trying to achieve.

The planning Minister is considering whether clarity can be afforded on extra care housing and housing supply in forthcoming planning guidance. The message to my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire is that there are revisions and new guidance in the pipeline. Perhaps the Planning Minister will write to her with a timetable on when the guidance will be issued.

The thrust of what my hon. Friend was saying concerned the time taken to put the south Worcestershire plan in place. Clearly, we all want plans to be put in place as quickly as possible. However, the length of time taken at an examination depends on many factors, including the complexity of the issues and the level of objection. It is quicker in the long run for the inspector to give the council an opportunity to revisit evidence. The alternative is withdrawal from examination, which will leave councils without a plan for a longer period.

My hon. Friend asked some questions about what weight should be given to emerging plans. I cannot comment on the individual cases and areas she mentioned, but I can say that Government policy sets out the fact that plans become more robust as they evolve through the plan-making process. Decision makers, whether they are councils or inspectors, can consider whether they should give weight to emerging policies in local plans. That weight will increase as the plan evolves.

We need to strike the right balance. We cannot have a situation where development decisions are put on hold whenever a plan is in preparation. It would not be sensible to have some form of moratorium on development during that period. It would not be advisable to give draft plans the same weight as an adopted plan. Applying such weight to a draft plan would allow councils to postpone examination, perhaps indefinitely, leaving uncertainty for all concerned. Our draft planning guidance sets out what we think is an appropriate way forward. It establishes the exceptional circumstances under which applications should be considered, but we need to consider carefully the comments made on the draft guidance before reaching a final view.

My hon. Friend mentioned neighbourhood planning, and I am glad that she said that she loves neighbourhood planning. Before I became a Minister in this Department, I was involved with the preparation of the Old Market neighbourhood plan in my constituency of Bristol West—even writing its foreword. I share her enthusiasm for neighbourhood planning, a major reform introduced by the coalition Government in the Localism Act 2011. There is a growing momentum behind neighbourhood plans. I think there are more than 700 plans at the beginning of their journey. At the moment, four have gone all the way to the end—to a referendum.

I asked one of my officials in the Department to show me the voting figures in those referendums. Interestingly, even when the referendum was coterminous—on the same day—with a local government election, the turnout in the referendums was higher than in the election of a councillor for the same area. That shows the enthusiasm of local people in engaging with the process. That is what the Government are all about in this area: trying to grow organic, grass-roots activity to get people involved in shaping their own community.

Harriett Baldwin: I appreciate the enthusiasm that the Minister shares with me on neighbourhood planning. What would he say to the parishes in my constituency that are in the process of developing neighbourhood plans and are concerned about the timetable and other obstacles in their way? Will we be hearing in the guidance soon about how the process will—

Peter Luff: Shortly.

Harriett Baldwin: Is shortly longer than soon? I can never remember.

Will we be hearing in the guidance about how the process will be made simpler, easier, quicker and less complex for smaller villages to develop their plans?

Stephen Williams: I will see whether my concluding remarks will satisfy my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend also asked about the role of Members of Parliament in delivering neighbourhood plans. I have mentioned my own role in my local plan before I became a Minister, and I would certainly encourage all Members of Parliament to take an active interest in neighbourhood planning—not to have a top-down approach, but to involve people. Often as constituency MPs, we know our communities in great detail, so there is a role for us on the ground, perhaps to bring people together and to act as mediators between local businesses, amenity groups, residents groups and local planning authorities.

On the legal status of a neighbourhood plan—my hon. Friend mentioned Lower Broadheath in particular—neighbourhood plans should implement the strategic policies set by the local plan. I appreciate that in this case the local plan is out of date, and where an up-to-date local plan is not in place, the community and the local authority should work together to produce complementary neighbourhood and local plans. The law requires the decision maker to favour the most recently adopted plan where there is any conflict.

Regarding my hon. Friend’s invitation to comment on the planning Minister’s comments in The Sunday Times about putting neighbourhood plans in place, I must say that the planning Minister makes quite a lot of controversial comments in newspaper articles, some of which are not very complimentary about her party leader—or my party leader—but we will not go into that.

We are learning from the process of neighbourhood planning. I said that 700 were in their early stages and four have gone all the way. The Department takes great interest in how the plans develop. I chaired a round table with another Minister recently with all sorts of groups interested in the whole suite of community rights. We are certainly encouraging neighbourhood and campaign groups, such as the Campaign for Real Ale, Supporters Direct and other amenity groups and civic societies, to come forward to give us their experience on how the whole suite of community rights under the Localism Act has been adopted.

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