House of Lords propose changes to Neighbourhood Planning Bill

Baroness Cumberlege moved the following amendment:

1: Before Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—

“Duty to uphold neighbourhood development plans

(1) The Secretary of State has a duty to uphold neighbourhood development plans, and in fulfilment of that duty must not seek to override neighbourhood development plans except in exceptional circumstances of national importance.

(2) The Secretary of State has a duty to ensure that local planning authorities have sufficient resources to enable them to own, implement and defend neighbourhood development plans.

(3) If it is deemed necessary to override a neighbourhood development plan and require the provision of additional housing, the Secretary of State must—

(a) have regard to the policies of the neighbourhood development plan, in particular, policies on employment opportunities; and

(b) inform the local community of the number of houses and types of housing required.

(4) If a neighbourhood development plan has been overridden in accordance with subsection (3), it is the responsibility of the local planning authority, in consultation with the local community, to decide where it is most appropriate to provide the additional housing, and their decision must be accepted by the Secretary of State unless there are exceptional reasons of national importance not to do so.”

  • My Lords, I start by declaring an interest: I have a legal case concerning a planning application pending at the moment. I have taken advice from the Clerk of the Parliaments and been told that the sub judice rule does not apply in my case.

    We had a very interesting and wide-ranging debate at Second Reading. I thank my noble friend the Minister for his introduction to the Bill on that occasion, and for his courtesy and his very thorough winding-up, in which he undertook to inform noble Lords of the process he wanted to work through. He said he wanted to be inclusive. He has certainly been so until now, and I am sure he will be in future.

    The Bill reflects the very foundations of society. It is not just about building houses, although they are very much needed; it is about building homes, strengthening communities and ensuring that we create better lives for future generations. As my honourable friend Gavin Barwell, Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, has said:

    “Done well, with genuine local consent, garden villages and towns can help tackle the housing crisis. They can be preferable to what is currently happening in too many parts of the country—poor quality developments plonked on the countryside, in the teeth of local opposition and in defiance of good planning principles”.

    He is absolutely right. Developments plonked in the countryside without a community infrastructure have no soul and are uncared for, unloved and unalterable. Through my amendments I seek to mark a real change: good planning with tight boundaries that is less top-down and gives more respect and power to local people.

    It is the duty and the right of the Secretary of State and Ministers to establish a policy and set the types and numbers of houses to be built in each planning area. Thereafter it is for the local planners to decide how best to deliver these policies in conjunction with people who know their neighbourhood intimately. No Government can understand the nuances of every local authority. Local people must be allowed to build communities and that takes time and skill. My amendments, therefore, are based on trust—trusting people, respecting people and enabling those people who know their beat best.

    We are beginning to trust people in the health service with personal budgets and we know they work. We are trusting parents and schools to define their own standards. We must do the same for planning. Just houses without integrated communities are at risk of becoming drug alleys, and of contributing to family breakdown, crime and despondency, which have huge costs for people and those who try to deal with the devastation left behind.

    My proposed new Clause 1(1) places a duty on the Secretary of State to uphold neighbourhood development plans, which can be overridden only in exceptional circumstances of national importance. The purpose of my amendment is to delineate between the responsibilities of central government and those of the local planning authorities. The Secretary of State is responsible for strategy and local authorities for implementing the strategy. There is huge danger when these two roles are confused and the Secretary of State and the department start to meddle in the detail of something of which they know little. I am not criticising them; they are not equipped to understand the nuances, history, thinking and understanding of local communities. Surely that is what localism and neighbourhood planning are all about.

    In proposed new subsection (1), I conclude that the Secretary of State should be able to intervene in matters of national importance; that is, to prevent neighbourhood plans being used to frustrate national schemes. These include, very topically, HS2, airport expansion, major highways or rail schemes, military necessities and so on.

    Proposed new subsection (2) would place on the Secretary of State a duty to ensure that local planning authorities have sufficient resources to enable them to own, implement and defend neighbourhood plans. Drawing up a neighbourhood plan is costly. It is costly to the makers of the plan—who are frequently volunteers—as they can spend an inordinate amount of time drawing it up. Those in work lose financially. It is also financially costly to the local planning authority, since the Bill introduces a new procedure for making modifications. This will require additional guidance from officers and a new examination, which will place an additional burden on local authorities. Every time a parish or town council seeks to make changes, the planning authority will be expected to review the plan, provide guidance and take it through another examination. So far, costs have not been assessed in terms of the modification which some neighbourhood plans will require. Perhaps this is something we shall address through regulation or the promised White Paper, which we are told we will receive before the next stage of the Bill.

    On top of this, costs for planning appeals can range from £10,000 to £50,000. The neighbourhood plan is owned by the local authority and, on occasions, it will have to defend the plan with its associated costs, including fighting planning appeals. Developers make no secret of poaching the best staff from local planning authorities and paying them more. Planning authorities struggle and are wrong-footed, unable to cope with the demands of developers. This is detrimental to good planning. Good-quality planners must be better paid.

    I turn to proposed new subsection (3). As I explained, there can be situations where—regrettably, but with good reason—the Secretary of State finds it necessary to override a neighbourhood plan. Even so, he or she must have regard to the policies in the plan. If it is necessary to vary the neighbourhood plan, it may be to provide more houses than originally anticipated. This should not be a free for all among developers. The planning authority should instruct the neighbourhood plan makers to make the required provision and ensure that this is done legally and correctly in the interests of the community. This may mean considerable modification to the neighbourhood plan. In our case, there are a number of policies in the plan but, particularly, the requirement of a break between parishes, no more five-bedroom houses, no street lighting and the incorporation of opportunities for employment. I could go through these, but I shall not because of the time I have already taken.

    I want to mention one policy because it goes across a lot of neighbourhood planning. Employment is one of the policies in our plan on which we are very keen. We need employment. In the Second World War, our lanes were turned into roads. We have had no improvements since the first tarmac was laid. We excel in congestion and pollution. Trains are so full that you cannot get a seat—and that is when they do run. The policy was refused because we do not have a square on the map saying “industrial estate”. We want employment threaded throughout the community, such as in Poundbury in Dorset. Dorset Cereals and other employment gives Poundbury a sense of purpose and pride. We need diversity and we want the Secretary of State for Communities to be exactly that, not the Secretary of State for dormitories.

    Proposed new subsection (4) recognises that when the Secretary of State overrides the neighbourhood plan it is the responsibility of the local authority, working with the local community, to decide where the most appropriate sites will be for additional development. The people who formulated the neighbourhood plan have scrutinised every aspect of their community, through consultation and data collection. It is respectful and prudent for those people, in consultation with the local planning authority that advises them, to decide where best to build additional houses, and when they should be built within the time set up to 2030, unless specifically directed towards another date.

    It must be recognised that if a neighbourhood plan is overridden, other changes to it may be necessary, commensurate with the degree of change. Simply accepting a planning application that happens to be submitted, which may or may not have any synergy with the neighbourhood plan, is not generally compatible with good planning. That is what the Minister, Gavin Barwell, has conceded. The Government and Whitehall cannot appreciate intimate details of a community’s life. When Governments or inspectors think they know best, there is huge annoyance and resentment. Again, people will do a better job when their decisions will be more respected.

    I hope my noble friend will consider these points, that he and his officers will see some merit in them, and that we can come to some agreement on how they might be incorporated in the passage of the Bill. I very much look forward to his reply. I beg to move.

  • I declare an interest as a member of a neighbourhood forum in an unparished area at an early stage of development. I will speak very much in support of what the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, said today and at Second Reading in her very eloquent presentation of the difficulties her area faced.

    The balance has tilted from the need to defend local plans and local communities’ building plans from the activities or, sometimes, inactivities of local planning authorities; they also need to be protected from what happens as a result of the interference of inspectors and the Secretary of State. In that sense, Amendment 1 from the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, is at the hard end—rather surprisingly, she is the hard cop—and my Amendment 5 is a rather more modest proposal. Again, perhaps unexpectedly, I am the soft cop.

    I am strongly in favour of the presentation she made and the amendment she has moved. I, too, would be very interested to hear what the Minister has to say by way of explanation for the interventions that have taken place so far and which run the risk of undermining, at a national level, the credibility and popularity of neighbourhood plans that we can see at present.

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