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relevant provisions in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 that established regional spatial strategies were repealed and replaced, from 1 April 2010, by new provisions set out in part 5 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009.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 might arise from several different planning strategies."
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.
"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.
"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."
"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.
"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.
Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me say that I hope to commence the winding-up speeches at about 3.40 pm. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind, so that we can get everybody in.
Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con):
Let me reassure hon. Members that I will be brief. Many of my colleagues have already raised points that are similar to mine and I want to allow as much time as possible for the Minister to respond. Let me add my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North
(Mark Lancaster) for securing a debate on a topic that was of great significance to people in the constituency of West Worcestershire during the general election.
I also thank the Government for moving so quickly to send letters to councils explaining that they can take the intention to abolish regional spatial strategies into account as a material consideration, as that has certainly greatly relieved local communities.
Let me explain a couple of the specific issues that have arisen in West Worcestershire, so that the Minister can perhaps use the debate to give some guidance to my local councils-Malvern Hills district council and Wychavon district council. During the regional spatial strategy planning process, Worcester, which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), was designated a regional growth point, and the three south Worcestershire councils were allocated 25,500 homes to find room for.
The county town of Worcester is bordered on the one side by the M5 and on the other by the River Severn, so there is no room inside the city boundaries for it to expand as a growth point. The south Worcestershire joint core strategy was therefore obliged to look at Malvern Hills district council territory to find room for the 25,500 homes. The council would thus be given more than 10,000 homes under the regional spatial strategy. That caused great resistance in communities where only 1,500 people are on the waiting list for housing.
Let me describe the impact on the village of Lower Broadheath, which is the birthplace of the great composer Elgar. The village is about four miles west of Worcester, but it is, importantly, on the other side of that significant geographical barrier, the River Severn. The village, which was designated Worcester West, has only about 800 homes, but it would be obliged to have between 3,500 and 4,000 more built on the green fields that separate it from Worcester.
I have some specific questions for the Minister. First, what guidance can he give Malvern Hills district council? Bloor homes has applied for outline planning permission to build the 4,000 homes in west Worcester, which is causing severe blight and concern. Planning permission was applied for at the beginning of the year, before the proposed abolition of the regional spatial strategy, and the council is looking for guidance on whether that proposed abolition is a material consideration and on what the next stage of the plans is. Secondly, will the abolition of the regional spatial strategy automatically abolish the characterisation of Worcester as a new growth point? Will the Minister clarify exactly how we will go forward on that?
On behalf of my constituents, I thank the Government for taking things forward this far, but I agree with many of my fellow speakers that it would be helpful to have swift further clarification of the other matters that we have raised.
Residents of my constituency will welcome the end of the regional housing targets in the regional spatial strategies. That is especially true of those seeking to protect Birds Marsh woods and land along Chippenham's floodplains from development. The Minister met residents when he visited my constituency just a few months ago, and I am sorry that I did not get the chance to meet him, although the circumstances were such that that would perhaps not have been welcomed by all.
Wiltshire councillors were keen to blame the development proposals on the regional spatial strategy. Others promised that they will be stopped if the new Government abolish the strategy. Only time will tell if that promise is as true as that made by the parties that have come together to form the coalition Government to abolish the regional spatial strategies.
In place of such development proposals, I hope that we will see opportunities to provide housing-particularly affordable housing-partly through a renewed commitment to bring empty homes into use. There are also exciting proposals to secure small affordable housing schemes in our villages, as has happened very successfully in Broughton Gifford, just down the road from me. Such schemes will be essential for small communities to sustain themselves and to ensure the viability of village schools.
Wiltshire council is keen to receive advice from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on whether planning inspectors will now disregard the regional spatial strategies, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, that for the south-west has the status only of an emerging strategy. Not only the council has asked me about the issue; local conservation campaigners fear that if Wiltshire council does not adopt a core strategy, its draft core strategy, which sought to conform to the regional spatial strategy, may impose regional housing targets by the back door while a local policy vacuum remains.
I clearly opposed the regional housing targets, and I wrote to the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), the then Secretary of State, as part of the consultation on the regional spatial strategy to make that opposition clear in the case of Chippenham. However, I also looked closely enough at the region's draft RSS before her Department's intervention to see that there were some welcome policies to promote the energy efficiency and resource sustainability of the proposed buildings. My final request to the Minister, therefore, is that he and his colleagues facilitate the availability of such best practice, so that local councils can adopt it, should they so choose.
The debate over the regional spatial strategies has been a case of representative democracy in action. The democratic process has effectively communicated the strong feelings of our constituents and delivered a response from their new Government. In supporting the coalition agreement, Government Members have started to do their bit, and I am sure that the Minister is determined to complete the job in government. However, it is imperative that, between his officials, councils, planning inspectors and skilful developers, our constituents' wishes are not overridden as a result of any hiatus or vacuum in terms of the policy applicable. I would very much welcome the Minister's comments on such concerns.