Let me set out the reasons for our reforms in context, which relates to the point that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) raised. The first and overriding objective is to put power in the hands of local people. Over the years, we developed arrangements in this country—most recently through the regional strategies—that sought to resolve issues outside what people thought of as their communities. I understand the reasons for that and I do not think that those efforts were ill-intentioned by any means. However, the consequence has been that

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many people in this country feel that planning is something that is done to them, rather than something that involves them. I am not alone in saying that: the problem was also recognised in our discussions in Committee on the Localism Bill. The last planning Minister in the previous Government, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said:

“I inherited the regional spatial strategies and quickly found that they had…few friends…what was clear to me…was that our regional spatial strategies and our approach to planning…was too top-down”.—[Official Report, 30 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 272WH.]

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): This is really about definitions. I asked the Prime Minister a question about that, and he said that the measures were about giving power to local people, but does the Minister think that local people and local authorities are the same thing? These measures will give power to local authorities and planning committees, not to local people.

Greg Clark: I am pleased that the hon. Lady has raised that point. We are indeed giving power to local councils, which are the democratically elected representatives of local people. We are also scrapping the regional strategies that impose decisions on them. Crucially, however, the Localism Bill—many Members participated in the debates on it—creates the legal right to a neighbourhood plan in any parish, town or neighbourhood below the local authority level. It is absolutely right that neighbourhoods should have that ability, which is part of our reforms.

Bill Esterson: My constituents have similar concerns to those of my hon. Friends about the Bill’s impact. The biggest issue in my constituency is protection of the green belt. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the legal opinion obtained by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which says that green-belt policy

“could be undermined by the sustainable development presumption together with the expectation that applications should be approved unless there are adverse impacts to policies in the NPPF as a whole.”

I hope that he will take that opinion on board, or does he have an alternative legal opinion that counters what the CPRE has said?

Greg Clark: I will address that point explicitly later in my remarks. I might just say, however, that the hon. Gentleman’s predecessor in Sunderland—

Bill Esterson indicated dissent.

Greg Clark: I do apologise; the hon. Gentleman is from Sefton. I will therefore not make the point that I intended to.

Let me continue the point about the importance of putting local people in charge. The British people are a pretty bolshie lot, and when we feel that we are being dictated to from above, the natural response is to seek to frustrate, thwart, resist and impede whatever is being imposed without enjoying the consent of the community. We know from this country and around the world that it is good practice to involve people in plan-making early and to allow them a genuine say in producing plans for their area, because then they will participate with enthusiasm. People are right to resist when bad

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planning is done to them, but when good planning is done with them, they will prefer to get involved and create positive places. That is why we are scrapping the regional strategies and the right of the Planning Inspectorate to rewrite local plans and why we are introducing compulsory pre-application scrutiny for major developments and neighbourhood plans to ensure a local voice.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Local decisions by local councils are important, but may I draw the Minister’s attention to what has happened in my constituency within 48 hours of the consultation closing? The neighbouring local authority, Tendring, decided to allocate land for about 3,000 houses immediately adjacent to the borough boundary with Colchester, 2 miles away from the nearest community in Tendring. In other words, our neighbouring authority is putting its housing on Colchester’s doorstep. Who will make the decision there?

Greg Clark: My hon. Friend will understand that planning Ministers cannot comment on specific situations such as the one that he raises, for reasons that he knows. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) also knows perfectly well why that is not possible. However, over the years there have been examples of precisely such situations, which is why the Localism Bill will impose a legal duty on neighbouring authorities and other public bodies to co-operate, so that both authorities take into account the consequences for the neighbouring area’s infrastructure. That is an important test in the Localism Bill—indeed, it was strengthened by consensus with the Opposition—that will provide the kind of general protections that my hon. Friend seeks.

Several hon. Members rose

Greg Clark: I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) and then make some progress.

Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): I thank the Minister for everything that he is saying about delivering localism in planning, for which those of us on the Government Benches have campaigned over many years. We are therefore pleased to see it happening. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that the reason we have to make such fundamental changes is that the system we inherited was not fit for purpose? The top-down approach did not work, which is why we did not have the sustainable development that we should have had during the 13 years of the Labour Government.

Greg Clark: My hon. Friend is right, and that is now a shared view. As I have said, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne has said that. Indeed, in our conversations about the Localism Bill, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), whom I congratulate on his promotion, also recognised that the regional approach would go and not come back. It has not worked for the reasons that I have mentioned: it sets people against the planning system.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con) rose—

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Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab) rose—

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC) rose—

Greg Clark: I want to make some progress, because lots of Members want to speak and I do not want to take up too much time. However, I will take some interventions a little later.

The first objective is to make the local plan central to what happens and to transfer power to local communities. That has to be crucial. However, if we are to put local councils and people in neighbourhoods in charge, it is essential that the policy context in which they operate is accessible. They have to be able to understand it. When I first started to review the planning policy statements and planning policy guidance notes over a year ago, I asked for them to be brought into my office. They had to be carried in—in boxes. It is not possible to put local councils and members in charge if they have to wade through more than 1,000 pages of national policy. The policy has accreted over time. It was not the intention of the previous Government or Governments before them to accumulate such a mountain of policy; it has grown up piecemeal over time. That is why—to respond to the hon. Member for Huddersfield, who has now left the Chamber—it was important to take the issue seriously and review the policy from first principles. That is what we have done to make it accessible. The proposals that we have received to boil it down and distil it reflect a consensus in the House and beyond. In the submissions that have come in from the groups outside the House, I have seen many detailed “track changes” comments, and none of the proposals departs significantly from the type and length of document that we are aiming for.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having elevated the debate on planning policy, which is vital for the economic future of the country. May I also tell him, however, that all those who work in the planning system now need certainty? Will he move on as quickly as possible from the consultation to provide a definitive national planning policy framework, to give us that certainty?

Greg Clark: I will, and I will have more to say about that shortly.

Derek Twigg rose—

Greg Clark: I want to make some progress, because this is principally an opportunity for colleagues to make speeches and contributions to the consultation.

We need to make planning policy accessible if we are to achieve our aim of putting local communities in charge. That is the purpose of our reforms. It is also important to consider the effects of the policy regime that we have established. I do not pretend that the planning system is the only factor behind the low levels of house building and the difficulties in commercial development that we have at the moment. That would clearly be wrong. There are also difficulties in accessing finance, for example; there is a shared recognition that that is an important factor at this time. It is important to recognise, however, that the planning system makes an important contribution.

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I have been looking at the joint submission from Shelter, Crisis, Homeless Link, the National Housing Federation—representing social housing providers—and the Chartered Institute of Housing. It says that

“reducing the quantity of policy will help simplify the planning system, make it more accessible to all users and will remove a significant barrier to much needed development”

—in this case, in social housing. Recent statistics show that in the five years to 2010, real spending on planning, through planning applications, increased by 13%, while the number of applications fell by 32%. By my reckoning, that means that the average cost has risen by something like 66%. That is a factor.

Mr Raynsford rose—

Greg Clark: May I just finish this point?

The British Chambers of Commerce has said that the system is

“too complicated, too costly and too uncertain. It creates mistrust…and holds back our recovery.”

With that breadth of analysis, it is important to recognise that the planning system is one of the factors that is leading to the silting up of the system.

Mr Raynsford: Does the Minister not recognise that, if he takes the period of five years from 2005 to 2010, which embraced the last two years of the boom before the crash and the three years of recession, he will inevitably get some pretty distorted outcomes? That is not a fair parallel. Does he also accept that, in 2007, the last year before the recession, the figure of 207,000 net additions to new housing was the highest for 20 years? It is therefore completely nonsensical of him to say that the previous system was not capable of delivering new housing.

Greg Clark: It will be obvious to the right hon. Gentleman that I am taking a long-term view. I have said explicitly that the faults that I have diagnosed relate to the long term, but he chooses to cite particular years. Looking at the whole life of the previous Government, from 1998 to 2010, the number of homes built and completed in England was lower than under any previous Government since the war. He is therefore alone in thinking that there is not a problem, and that we do not have a lower level of house building than is appropriate.

Let me outline the consequences of the problem for families. If we persist, over the long term, in building a far lower number of homes than the number of households that are being formed, the inevitable consequence will be poverty. People will have to spend more in rent and have less to spend on their children. It will also be more difficult for people to get on to the housing ladder for the first time. We know that the average age for first-time buyers who do not have assistance from their parents is now getting close to middle age, at nearly 40. We want people to be able to get on; we do not want them to have to make choices.

I received an e-mail from a member of the public, which stated:

“Being part of a couple with a 2-year-old son, living in a flat…we are desperate to buy a family home with a garden, but have little chance.

The social consequences of house prices being so high seem catastrophic to me—both parents being fixated on earning enough to pay for a mortgage, both too”—

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the next word might be unparliamentary—

“for much of a social life, every…penny going on the mortgage with nothing left over for holidays that I took for granted as a child. We are currently having to decide whether to abandon our families and friends and go and live…where neither of us has lived before…or to stay in our flat, with our son unable to run around without the people underneath us banging on the ceiling!”

There is a problem for families that we need to address by changing the system and dealing with some of the long-term flaws. That is the purpose of this policy.

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I am with the Minister when it comes to abolishing the regional spatial strategies. They were authoritarian and anti-democratic in just apportioning numbers of houses to particular regions. I have concerns about the proposals, however. One of the factors in helping urban regeneration and the renaissance of our cities has been the prioritisation of brownfield land over greenfield land. The Minister is talking about poverty and the creation of new households, but those problems have to be dealt with in our cities. I am worried that his proposals will lead not to green-belt development but to green-land development at the expense of our cities. Will he comment on that?

Greg Clark: Of course I will. Let me turn to some of the concerns that have been raised, of which that is one. I shall preface that by saying that it is not our intention to change the purpose of the planning system. There has been some suggestion that the proposals represent a fundamental change in what the system is about, but they do not. They will, quite rightly, balance the environmental, the social and the economic, and there is no change in that regard, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has declared.

Let me turn to some of the concerns that have been expressed, including the definition of brownfield sites that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned. It is true that the draft national planning policy framework does not use the words “brownfield sites”. However, that is not for the reasons that have been imputed to us. The reasons are rather more prosaic. Many Members will have participated in debates during the previous Parliament in which we discussed the fact that it was being presumed that gardens that had ended up being included in the brownfield definition were available to be developed. One of the first things that we did was to take them out of the definition.

Natascha Engel rose—

Greg Clark: I am responding to the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer).

In the draft framework, we decided not to use what had been quite a crude definition. Another example—something that I did not know before—is that a china clay quarry in Cornwall apparently falls outside the definition of a brownfield site. Paragraph 165 of the national planning policy framework therefore contains a requirement on councils to allocate land of the lowest environmental value. That was suggested by the environmental charities. There have been representations to say that some strictly brownfield land that has been developed has, over the years, been put back into use to support nature, especially in our cities. That was the reason behind having a more environmentally based definition.

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Without pre-empting the consultation, which would clearly be wrong, let me say that there have been suggestions that, because some people have got used to the word “brownfield”, they might appreciate some reference—some explanation—that links the policy to that. That is a representation that has been made, and given that it is our intention, for all the reasons that the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton suggests, to ensure that we bring back into use first land that has been derelict or previously developed and that makes a lesser contribution than green fields, that will be made absolutely clear when we respond.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): The planning framework also requires local authorities to bring forward an additional 20% spare land beyond the sites required to meet their five-year housing supply, so it is entirely possible that one sixth of all the land made available in the plan is not developed, while the rest of it is developed. We could therefore see development on land that is certainly not of the least environmental value.

Greg Clark: It is the Government’s clear intention that it should be the case, as it is a requirement to bring forward land of the least environmental value, but let me comment on my hon. Friend’s point about the sixth year, as it were. If we are putting local plans first and genuinely want a local plan that is sovereign and determines what will happen for the future life of a community, it must be deliverable, sound and accurate. What is known empirically across the country is that not every piece of land that is allocated turns out to be capable of development in the way anticipated. Sometimes there can be fewer homes developed on a site than originally thought, with an allocation for six or seven homes ending up with only four or five, for various reasons—perhaps a tree is subject to a tree preservation order, for example. There is always some fallout. The proposal in the consultation suggests that if we are to plan for the number of homes that are really needed—there is no longer any number being handed down from above—we have to anticipate some drop-off, so a buffer is necessary. It is not a requirement to build any more homes than needed; the purpose is simply to make the plan as accurate as it can be.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green) rose

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con) rose

Greg Clark: I want to make some progress, as I want Members to able to contribute to the debate. Let me deal with a couple of important issues that have been raised about the definition of sustainability.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab) rose

Greg Clark: I will give way to the Chairman of the Select Committee.

Mr Betts: Let me ask the Minister about the issue of 20%, as it is important to the context of building on land where that building will have the least environmental damage. If there is an extra 20%, will local authorities be able to prioritise which sites should be developed

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first within the 120% requirement? If not, it will be open to developers to cherry pick which sites they build on and it will be the land associated with the least environmental damage that will be left behind, as they will be the hardest sites to build on, while the greenfield sites will be built on first.

Greg Clark: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point; it is exactly the intention that councils should be able to prioritise and to bring forward the lowest environmentally valuable sites first. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point.

Natascha Engel rose

Greg Clark: I want to make some progress, and the hon. Lady intervened earlier.

Let me say something about the definition of sustainability, which I know has attracted some interest. The definition that we have used is the one used by previous Governments. It is the Brundtland commission’s definition, which has stood the test of time. It has been suggested that it is a high-level definition, so there should be a further elaboration of it. Hon. Members will know that planning policy statement 1, for example, contains the Brundtland definition in one paragraph and includes an extra 10 lines referring to the sustainable development strategy. That has been part of the previous document and some organisations and perhaps some Members have suggested that we should make reference to the current version of the sustainable development strategy, the 2005 document.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. It appears that rumours are circulating that Colonel Gaddafi has been captured. If that is true, will you ask a Secretary of State or a Minister to make a statement to the House today?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): What I can say is that it is up to the Secretary of State to decide whether to make a statement. The point has been noted and everybody is aware of it. Has the Minister finished?

Greg Clark: That was more hope than expectation, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will finish shortly. I did not think anything more interesting would happen today than our discussion of the national planning policy framework, but I was clearly mistaken.

The Government have not revoked the sustainable development strategy of 2005. Members of the Environmental Audit Committee who interviewed me last week asked some questions about it and it is the subject of one of the suggestions that have been made in the consultation. Let me explain why it was not included in the draft as it stands. As I say, it has not been revoked or repealed in any way. It is simply a matter of whether a document produced in 2005 has the timelessness of the Brundtland definition.

It was necessary to update the 1999 strategy in 2005. Six years on, there are some respects in which thinking on sustainability has progressed. For example, there is the idea that the separate pillars of the economy, the environment and the social aspects of sustainability can be traded off, one against the other. Some people argue—and I think there is some merit in doing so—that that is

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a rather defensive position and that one should be looking for positive improvements to the environment, not simply to trade-off. That is very much the thinking in the Government’s natural environment White Paper, which talked of a net gain for nature. In response to the consultation we could listen to such representations, but let me say simply that our intention was to make sure that we are not stranded in our thinking when we might have a more progressive approach to sustainability.

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab) rose—

Caroline Lucas rose—

Greg Clark: I am not taking any more interventions, as Mr Deputy Speaker has indicated that he thinks I have spoken for long enough.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): It was the Minister himself, not me, who said that he would be brief in order to allow Back Benchers to contribute. The Minister may carry on.

Greg Clark: You are correct and punctilious, Mr Deputy Speaker, in holding me to my commitment.

Let me deal with another issue of concern—transitional arrangements.

Derek Twigg rose

Greg Clark: I am taking no more interventions.

It follows from everything I have said about the purpose of these reforms, which is to advantage local plan-making by putting local communities in charge rather than have planning dealt with by appeal through the planning inspectorate, that in the transitional arrangements we will put in place—again, in response to the consultation; we have had many representations on what they should be—we will be clear that no local council or authority that has developed a plan that expresses the future of its community will be at all disadvantaged. We are not going to take decision making from them. Part of the transitional arrangements will ensure that the community is advantaged rather than disadvantaged from the outset. It would pre-empt the consultation if I were to say which suggested approaches we favour, but I make the commitment to the House that we will safeguard and strengthen the ability of local councils to be in charge of their own destiny rather than the reverse.

As was recognised by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, this debate has provided an opportunity for every Member to participate in the reform of a planning system that, over time, had lost its capability of delivering its purpose of planning for communities in a way that we all want. The reforms are necessary to make sure that we have an environment that our future generations can cherish as we do. It is important to give voices to people in communities and, for all the reasons I mentioned about sustainability, it is important to improve and enhance our environment and to restore habitats where we can do so. We also want to improve the standards of design, which have turned many people against development. We also want, of course, to deliver the jobs and homes that the next generation needs, but not at the expense of these important aspects of the environment that we cherish.

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I look forward to hearing the contributions of hon. Members this afternoon and to reading all the responses to the consultation that have been made. At the end of this process, I say to every hon. Member, we will have a planning system that reflects the best endeavours and the best intentions of everyone who wants to contribute positively to this process. It will be something of which we can be proud for future generations.

12.59 pm

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): Like the Minister, I would like to express my appreciation to my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). I thank her and my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) and for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) for their work on the Opposition Front Bench in holding the Government to account. I also welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) to the shadow Department for Communities and Local Government team. Alongside them, and on either side of me today, we have continuity in the form of my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and for Derby North (Chris Williamson).

I welcome today’s debate. I am sorry that the Secretary of State did not open it—although he has done us the courtesy of attending—because given that he is seeking, with the Minister, to make the most fundamental change to our planning system for more than two generations and given that this is the first opportunity for the House to debate the matter since the publication of the national planning policy framework, it would have been good to hear from him. I look forward to the next occasion. Nevertheless, this debate, which we welcome, is extremely timely. The Minister expressed it well: planning at times and to some people can seem rather technical, but in fact it is about how we shape the places in which we live and how we build our communities. That is what Civic Voice has described as “everyday England”.

We know that there is a finite quantity of land. As Mark Twain famously said,

“buy land because they’ve stopped making it”.

There are many competing demands on land. England is a very densely populated country, and the population is growing. The planning system’s job is to help us to meet our future needs for housing, jobs, economic development, transport, growing food, tackling climate change and generating energy in a way that balances all these things—the right sort of development in the right place, which, in the end, is what we all want—while protecting the natural environment, by which I mean the moors and the mountains, the rivers and the lakes, the green fields and the countryside that make up our islands’ unique and beautiful landscapes. They matter because we cherish their beauty and their capacity to lift our spirits and because, as human beings have belatedly learned, they sustain our very existence. We need planning to protect this environment because, in the absence of that balance and if we fail to reconcile

“competing economic, social and environmental priorities”—

in the words of the Conservative planning Green Paper—there would be a free-for-all.

I welcome the idea of simplification and the principle of greater clarity, and I support enabling planning decisions to be taken as near as possible to those whom

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they will affect. It was, after all, a Labour Government who introduced the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which helped local councils to designate green belt. However, the central problem raised by the draft NPPF and the reason the Government are in difficulty is that Ministers have failed so far to convince people that they have got this balance right. It seems that even Conservative-controlled Tunbridge Wells borough council, which is the Minister’s own local authority, is unhappy about his reforms. It is reported that the council “strongly disagreed” with the Government’s suggestion that the NPPF had the right approach towards sustainable development—I shall return to that point—and argued that it was

“vague and open to interpretation”.

The council also strongly disagreed that green belt would be protected under the NPPF. People are entitled to ask, if the Minister is having difficulty persuading his own Conservative-controlled council to support his plans, how anybody else can be expected to have confidence in them.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): We are fortunate in Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent to have a robust local core spatial plan. I do not know whether that applies to Tunbridge Wells, but much of the country does not have such a plan. Is there a case for arguing that the Government should take a considered pause in the implementation of the framework and resource councils sufficiently so that they can put local plans in place?

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend raises an important point. I shall come to it later because it is fundamental to the likelihood of what the Government say that they want to achieve—few would disagree with the ambition—actually happening, given the nature of the framework and the issues with its implementation.

Alok Sharma: I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with much of what my right hon. Friend the Minister has said. The right hon. Gentleman is implying that there was a golden age of sustainable planning under the Labour party, but clearly that was not the case. Does he agree that reducing the planning policy document from 1,000 pages to fewer than 100 pages will be good news for encouraging what we all want to see—more sustainable development in this country?

Hilary Benn: The planning policy that we all inherited had great strengths and evolved over time. My concern is that, as was argued by others during the consultations, in reducing the amount of guidance, we might end up not with greater clarity, but with greater uncertainty. In the end, all words will be argued over by developers, considered by local authorities and ultimately determined by the courts.

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman seems to be indicating that he favours the previous Labour Government’s approach of the regional spatial strategy. Is that Labour party policy?

Hilary Benn: I am interested that the hon. Gentleman reads that into my remarks. I shall say something about

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that in a moment. The RSS had its strengths but also its weaknesses, and we have to be perfectly honest about that.

Natascha Engel: I want to return to the point about confusion in the Government’s message. Does my right hon. Friend think that it would help if, when people asked the Government about greenfields, they did not respond by talking about green belt? They are completely different.

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful point. Such responses created considerable concern while the NPPF was being considered.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is most unfortunate that my Labour-led borough council in Broxtowe has not only accepted the RSS target figure of 6,000 new houses, which means that 4,000 houses will be built on my green belt in Broxtowe, but is not waiting for the Localism Bill or the framework, which will protect the green belt? Will he speak to the Labour party in Broxtowe, urge it to pause and accept the Localism Bill and abandon the RSS targets that his Government laid down?

Hilary Benn: It sounds like the hon. Lady is describing localism in action. If the Government say that local councils should be able to take their own decisions—that point was made forcefully by the Minister—Government Members should accept that as a way of proceeding.

Several hon. Members rose

Hilary Benn: I am going to make a little more progress.

The ham-fisted way in which aspects of planning policy have been handled by the Government has been entirely of their own making: parts of the policy were drafted in a rush; they did not listen properly to advice; they have created uncertainty—hence the result of the consultation and the need for clarity—and, most disappointingly of all, they responded initially to criticism with retaliation. That is quite some achievement. In this respect, as in others, the Government cannot help going too far, too fast.

The Government have got themselves into this position partly because of the difficulties with their economic policy, which is central to planning reform. Everyone can now see confidence plummeting, unemployment rising, growth grinding to a halt and nothing like enough private sector jobs being created to replace those being lost in the public sector, even though we were promised last year that that was what would happen. Worst of all, however, in the face of this failure, the Government have no plan to put it right. There are some in government, not so much in DCLG but elsewhere, who have blamed the planning system for a lack of growth, even though, over the past 60 years—to respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma)—it has helped our country to build many new homes, to establish many new businesses and shops and to undertake a great deal of development.

No one is going to say that the planning system is perfect or that it cannot be improved upon—decisions could certainly be made quicker. However, given that the Government’s own impact assessment makes it clear

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that 85% of planning applications were approved in 2009-10, it is hard to see how it can be described as a system that stands in the way of economic growth. What worries people when they read the NPPF is the possibility that it will usher in a “big bang” development free-for-all, which no one in the House would want.

Derek Twigg: The Government did not explain exactly what they meant by giving communities a greater say. Most of my constituents who have written to me on the subject fear that they will actually give business a greater say. One of my constituents asked, “Would what the Government are doing have stopped the housing development down the road to which I objected?” Will the Government be giving communities more power to stop development? Most people who contact me want to stop it rather than support it. Are the Government creating a smokescreen by saying that they will give communities a greater say, rather than actually giving them greater power to determine the outcome of applications?

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend has raised an important point. There are those who think that neighbourhood planning will give them the opportunity to reduce the number of houses planned for the areas in which they live—this takes us back to the point made by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry)—but I understand from the NPPF that it is a one-way lock. A neighbourhood plan cannot say, “We would like to have fewer houses than proposed by the local plan”; it can only say, “We would like to have more houses”. People who have seen neighbourhood planning as a potential way of doing what the hon. Lady wants to be done will find themselves rather disappointed.

Under the current system—I want to recognise its strengths—councils have granted developers planning permission for 300,000 new homes that have not yet been built. Why have they not been built? It is clearly not the fault of the planning system, which has done its bit. What are the Government doing about the fact that the number of new homes built in England in the first year under the coalition was the lowest for at least 20 years, and about the fact that plans for 200,000 new homes have been abandoned since their election because of the chaos and uncertainty created by their planning proposals? That is but one example of the way in which the Government’s draft framework is leading to confusion.

The Government hope that planning reform will help growth to get going again, and we all want that. However, their actions in rushing reform in a way that has lost people’s confidence and hurrying to try to abolish the regional spatial strategies have led to uncertainty among planners, councils, developers and the courts. As a result, the system may slow down while everyone works out what the new words mean.

Bill Esterson: I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees that retaining the “brownfield first” policy, under which the proportion of property built on brownfield increased between 1989 and 2010, is the answer to many of the current problems. It would, for instance, solve the problem raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), whether it applied to green belt or greenfield. Does he think that one of the reasons for its absence is the attachment of developers—

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who, in my constituency, have been buying up land in both green belt and greenfield—to the Conservative party?

Hilary Benn: The developers must speak for themselves, but I cannot understand why the Government have abandoned what was a very successful “brownfield first” policy. The fact that they have done so has raised public concerns.

Public confidence is very important. We all accept that the planning system needs public support in order to work. Let me say, with all respect, that describing those who have expressed genuine concerns about the draft NPPF, including such well-known revolutionaries and radicals as the National Trust—I suppose that I should declare my membership of that radical and revolutionary organisation, as should other right hon. and hon. Members—as “semi-hysterical”, “left wing” and guilty of “nihilistic selfishness” was a profound mistake on the part of Ministers. Even worse was the accusation that the criticism was

“a carefully choreographed smear campaign”.

What were Ministers thinking of? Is it because they are so out of touch that, instead of listening and responding to what people were saying—as, in fairness, the Minister has today—they chose initially to attack while bulldozing onwards? That is the very opposite of what the public expect in the way of balanced discussion and proper consultation.

Nor, as the Minister knows, are the accusations true. For example, both the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England have supported housing development, in some cases on greenfield land, because they thought that it was the right thing to do. This is not about people who want no development at all; it is about the Government’s recognition that the way in which they approached the matter at the outset was a mistake. We need only look at the size of the petitions that have been received to see the extent of the concern that is felt. It is fair to say that recently, including today, we have observed a more emollient tone, and I for one welcome that; but it is not before time.

It is clear that, having gone about this in the wrong way to start with, the Government will have to make some big changes in the right direction. Paragraph 14 of the NPPF contains the

“presumption in favour of sustainable development”

that was originally announced in the Chancellor's “The Plan for Growth” in March, which also used a phrase—

“the default answer to development is ‘yes’”

—that is repeated in paragraph 19 of the NPPF. That has created a lot of anxiety, because it suggests decision-making that is automatic rather than considered and because, in the words of the National Trust, it constructs “a fundamentally unbalanced system”.

Caroline Lucas: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the

“presumption in favour of sustainable development”

will make it considerably harder to refuse environmentally damaging development, even when it harms sites of special scientific interest? Would it not be helpful for the Government to say today that they would rule out planning for any kind of development on SSSIs?

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Hilary Benn: That point has been raised by a number of organisations in response to the consultation, and I shall put a specific point to the Minister about it shortly.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Hilary Benn: I have given way a number of times already, and I am anxious to make progress.

Given the primacy of the sustainable development presumption in policy, given that so much flows from it, and given that no one in the House wants development at any price, the Government need to get the definition of sustainable development right. The Environmental Audit Committee has already made clear its view on which definition should be used. As the Minister will know, in a report published in March, it called for the inclusion of the five internationally recognised principles of sustainable development that were set out in the 2005 sustainable development strategy, which, as I recall, the then Opposition supported at the time, as I do now.

I listened carefully to the argument presented by the Minister today, and I hope that the Government will bear it in mind when they produce their revised draft, because there is a risk that in the absence of a complete definition, there will be more argument about what the term means. The last Government, with support from the then Opposition, replaced the original Brundtland definition with the 2005 definition, and I was not persuaded by what the Minister said about why that should not endure in time. If we stick with it, it will be well understood and enduring.

Mr Raynsford: I strongly agree with what my right hon. Friend is saying. Does he agree with me that it is necessary not only to have a proper and full definition of sustainable development, but to establish a link between it and the operational principles that govern the handling of planning applications? That point was made very well by the Town and Country Planning Association in its submission. The absence of operational principles allowing implementation of the overall definition is one of the greatest weaknesses of the current NPPF draft.

Hilary Benn: I agree with my right hon. Friend. I am sure that the revised draft will be a slightly longer document, but the existence of a bit more material sometimes assists decisions in the planning process rather than making them more difficult.

I do not know whether the Minister has seen the CPRE legal opinion, issued by a respected planning QC, but it addresses this very point about the definition of sustainable development. The QC argues that

“there is an ambiguity which permeates the NPPF, and which is likely to lead to uncertainty in its application, with a consequent increase in the number of appeals.”

None of us wants that. This serves as a powerful argument that the Minister should reflect on possible changes, as he has undertaken to do.

Mark Pawsey: The issue of sustainable development comes into play only in the absence of a local plan. Does the right hon. Gentleman therefore agree that

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Government and Opposition should come together to encourage local authorities to get their local plan in place early?

Hilary Benn: The NPPF says that in the absence of such a plan there should be a presumption in favour of sustainable development, but regardless of whether there is a local plan, someone must still decide about what constitutes sustainable development.

The second issue I want to address is the choice of land for development. There are many competing pressures, and we want to protect as much green space as possible. That point was made eloquently in this week’s Westminster Hall debate initiated by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry).

Because of our heritage, we have a lot of previously developed brownfield land and, building on the foundations laid by a previous Conservative Government, Lord Prescott created the “brownfield first” policy. It was very successful. Last year, 76% of new dwellings were built on brownfield sites, up from 55% in 1989. We need only look at the centre of cities like Leeds and Manchester to see that it is working, or consider that in the last decade the proportion of new homes built on the green belt fell from 4% to 2%. It is estimated that there are almost 62,000 hectares of brownfield land in England that are ready for building on, which would be enough to build about 1.2 million homes.

The Minister appears to argue that a

“land with the least environmental or amenity value”

approach is the same as this “brownfield first” policy. If that is the case, why change it? If it is not the case, then we can understand why people are worried. Indeed, the Government’s own impact assessment refers to

“removing the target and the priority for brownfield development”.

Mr Marcus Jones: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Hilary Benn: I have given way to the hon. Gentleman before, and I want to make some progress.

I cannot understand why the Government wish to get rid of the “brownfield first” policy. It is simply wrong to let undeveloped land, including greenfield sites, be used while old buildings and previously developed land in our towns and cities are available. I hope the Government will reinstate that policy.

Another reason why the removal of this policy has caused so much concern is the worry that green belt and other green land will be put under greater pressure as a result. The Minister has denied that, but that confidence is not shared by others. Existing planning policy—planning policy statement 4—states that:

“Local planning authorities should ensure that the countryside is protected for the sake of its intrinsic character and beauty”.

There is also a presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt. I hope that both those points will be fully reflected in the revised draft. That would, after all, be consistent with what the Minister said today about the Government’s natural environment White Paper and the value of nature.

I ask the Minister to address the following questions. Has he seen the CPRE’s legal opinion, which argues that the new formulation of words may weaken green

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belt protection? I accept that the legal argument is quite technical, but it makes the point about uncertainty and it deserves an answer.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Hilary Benn: No, I am going to draw my remarks to a close, as many Members wish to contribute to the debate.

Has the Minister seen the legal advice of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that the draft NPPF would weaken protection for sites of special scientific interest? Will he therefore consider including SSSIs in the protection provided by paragraph 16 of the framework?

In respect of development, where would the Government’s alternative to the “brownfield first” policy leave agricultural land where someone seeks to argue that it has low environmental value? We need an answer to that. I also hope the Government will reinstate the “town centre first” policy, as removing office development from the sequential test is the wrong approach.

The framework must support affordable housing. As currently drafted, it implies that affordable housing can be traded off to make a scheme more viable. What is an “acceptable return” for landowners and developers? That is not defined, so who will make that judgment?

Turning to the important question of how this will all be implemented, because of the speed with which the Government want to introduce their new policy, there is a risk that local councils’ own development frameworks will not be ready in time. They might therefore be considered out of date or unclear, and people worry that communities might be left with little protection from developers because of the proposed presumption in favour of sustainable development. That is because paragraph 14 instructs councils to:

“Grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date.”

Only about half of councils have already drawn up local plans. What assessment has the Minister made of how long it will take all councils to get their plans in place, especially given the cuts in the number of council planning staff? In essence, the worry is that in the absence of proper transitional arrangements, a Bill that everyone has been told will put them in charge of decisions about development may leave them powerless in the face of developers because of the sustainable development presumption. I welcome what the Minister has said today, but he will have to do something about the implementation timetable.

Other issues will also have to be addressed. How will “silent”, “indeterminate” and “out of date” be determined? Will that ultimately be up to the courts? How will the duty to co-operate work in practice? One of the weaknesses in the NPPF is that no one knows what that means, apart from there being a duty to talk. This is important, of course, because planning issues to do with transport and other infrastructure extend beyond the boundaries of a single local authority. We also note that one part of England will retain a regional plan: London.

Why does the NPPF say that supplementary planning guidance cannot add to the cost of development? Where does that leave design standards, for instance? The Minister has spoken eloquently about the importance

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of good design, and I agree with him. Where does that leave policies for conservation areas, too, especially as they could not be said

“to bring forward sustainable development at an accelerated rate,”

which is the circumstance under which such costs are allowed? We need some clarity on this issue.

We do not want to end up with the planning system becoming increasingly combative, rather than consensual, and with applications being decided by the courts—although the courts can already take account of the draft NPPF because it can be seen as a material consideration. We are currently awaiting the Select Committee reports, but will the Minister say whether he intends there to be a further period of consultation after publishing a revised draft? That would be very welcome and would offer reassurance. Does he also intend to enable Parliament to vote on these proposals, as it should? We are changing 60 years of planning policy—we are changing the post-war planning settlement—in a way that many have concerns about, and the Government should not fear a vote in the House.

Ultimately, planning should be about helping us to find the right balance for the places in which we live and the landscapes upon which we walk. We support a streamlined and effective planning system, but it needs to make all of us feel that we can shape those places and care for that landscape. We need to feel it takes account of our need for homes, jobs and businesses to be backed, and for a countryside that we can all cherish.

Ultimately, when we leave to one side all of the words, paragraphs, material considerations and statutory obligations, the aim is to find that balance. I hope Ministers will listen to the debate that is raging on these proposals—we need only look at the number of Members wishing to speak today—because a profound change is worth making only if it makes for a better system and a better land.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. May I remind Members that there is an eight-minute time limit on speeches?

1.29 pm

Rebecca Harris (Castle Point) (Con): It is an honour to be called so early in this important debate, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I wish to start by saying how much I salute the Government’s aims in making planning more accessible for all. Most residents, and even some councillors and MPs, myself included, find the current complexity of the canon of planning law impenetrable. The existing planning system has not worked. It has not managed to deliver the number of new homes we need, nor has it been flexible enough to meet the needs of business. Of course it has also generated an enormous amount of suspicion and hostility. Last month, my local council voted to withdraw its local development framework after the planning inspector, on the basis of the existing legislation, explicitly instructed it to include more greenfield sites in its plan.

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Duncan Hames: Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government will have failed to achieve greater localism through their reforms if we end up with more decisions being made by planning inspectors in that way?

Rebecca Harris: I absolutely agree. I very much want decisions to be much more locally based. That inspector’s demand would have resulted in a crazy oversupply of land and it caused uproar in the local community, and I am indebted to my local councillors for the withdrawal. It seems that the inspector had been very much persuaded by the counsel of the large-unit developers that the council had failed to provide enough deliverable land in the first years of its plan, despite the fact that it had allocated a good quantity of land on previously developed sites to meet its current targets.

The existing system in this country requires councils to allocate sites for which they have evidence that the building can take place within the first five years and then within the second five years. After that, there is up to a decade or so of supply of more safeguarded land. However, I have watched the processes at first hand and it strikes me that what counts as evidence in planning circles is often simply argument—often that of the large-unit builders.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head in relation to planning inquiries: Swindon has had similar experiences of this, as have I. Does she agree that it is essential that in the new policy framework the concept of deliverability is construed in a way that allows local authorities to argue before planning inspectors that economic realities often mean that although on paper it may not look as though they have a five-year land supply, they in fact do. That is particularly relevant to Swindon.

Rebecca Harris: I very much take that point. It is often much easier to argue that a very attractive, leafy, virgin greenfield or green-belt site can be brought forward in the early stages of the plan and it is always easier to argue that the previously developed or the brownfield sites, possibly in multiple ownership—

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I apologise for stopping the hon. Lady in mid flow. Does she accept that the Government’s new homes bonus policy militates in favour of councils providing and supporting greenfield development, because they will get more money back as a result of doing so?

Rebecca Harris: I am not sure that it does. The new homes bonus gives something new to councils to help them to bring forward brownfield sites, because they will have an incentive to do so through a reward—I will come on to discuss that.

The system has expressly driven greenfield and, in my area, green-belt development, almost irrespective of how much less environmentally sensitive land there is in a council area. That contradicts the previous Government’s boast that they had a genuine town centre or brownfield-first policy in the past decade. The system we have had could best be described not as a planning system but as an allocation system, with allocations made on the basis of the sites that best suit the business model of the developers, not the needs and aspirations of local communities.

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Despite two Treasury-led Barker reviews, it was comprehensively shown that that approach to planning failed to deliver the number of new homes that we desperately need, even during a housing boom. The added irony is that in practice land was often just land-banked for developers, as happened in my constituency, making a mockery of the stated objective of bringing these sites forward in the early part of the process.

The current draft national planning policy framework maintains a requirement on councils to show “deliverability” and “developability”, which means evidence that sites will come forward. I appreciate that the Government are clear about their intention to protect the green belt, and I wholeheartedly welcome that, as do my constituents. However, I strongly believe that their final document needs to make it much clearer to councils that they will now have a duty to work a lot harder to bring forward previously developed land first and will not be able to fall back on green belt land, as happened in the past. As I said, the new homes bonus now gives councils the confidence to invest in working harder to do that by aggressively packaging their brownfield sites and dealing with empty properties. I hope that it will be very clear to councils that they should take this much more proactive, positive approach to planning in the future. They should not just allocate sites and sit back and see what happens.

I want the Government to go even further: I would like them to drop the requirement to plan for so many years ahead. I appreciate that the industry will say that it needs certainty and possibly therefore needs to have certainty of supply for 16 or more years, but I can see that as being of benefit only for those who wish to land bank. Economic and social conditions in an area can change enormously over that time frame and the requirement to make decisions for so many years ahead may cause more consternation, opposition and planning blight needlessly. It paints a picture for communities of huge housing expansion, which may never happen. It is therefore perfectly practical, and in no way detracts from the emphasis on a plan-led process, to have councils working on a rolling five-year basis. They would then be working much more on the basis of evidence, and much less on the basis of supposition and what I consider to be argument. Plans would be based on fewer assumptions, could be much more responsive to local community needs and economic changes, and would certainly generate less suspicion and opposition.

I also appreciate that the Government have said that they will introduce some form of transitional measures to protect councils from speculative applications by builders while we are between the two planning regimes. The transitional arrangements will have to take into account the fact that a lot of local authorities have been working on their previous local plans and have a bank of published evidence that they have put together to meet the demands of those previous plans and the previous housing targets. I fear that that so-called evidence, which, as I have argued, is sometimes just argument, could be used by developers to try to prove a presumption in favour of sustainable development for their sites in future. So the transitional arrangements will need to protect councils from that risk during the period between the two documents. The draft NPPF rightly allows councils to re-evidence their proposed local plans and base housing need on relevant local factors. I hope that it will be made very clear to them that they also should do so.

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In conclusion, I congratulate Ministers on wiping away this very damaging legacy from the previous Government’s planning regime and ensuring that, in the spirit of localism, local people have a chance to shape their neighbourhoods on the basis of accurate and true local need. There is a wider legacy left from the former planning regimes and the final document needs to be careful to address that.

1.37 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I welcome the new draft national planning policy framework’s stated aim of reducing the bureaucratic burden of development by simplifying and reducing national planning policy and guidance, and promoting sustainable growth. However, although I support the aims, I have concerns that some important aspects have been lost or watered down, which could have a negative long-term effect on future planning decisions.

I wish to focus my remarks on the importance of retaining and enhancing traditional street and covered markets, and to express my concern that there is no mention in the new framework of the important role that such markets can play in promoting healthy communities and sustainable town centres. Markets are the original high streets; they are places where people come together to buy and sell goods, meet each other, catch up and enjoy a sense of community in a public place. Stockport has sustained a traditional market, which recently celebrated its 750th anniversary. It is situated in Market place, which is itself of historic interest with the recently refurbished market hall and Staircase house.

As well as being a source of food and goods, markets provide jobs, opportunities for social interaction and an important public space that can be used for concerts and other community events. Many big names, such as Marks & Spencer, started off on market stalls, and markets have always provided an opportunity for business start-ups. The latest innovation from the National Market Traders Federation, endorsed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is a new initiative called First Pitch, which encourages budding entrepreneurs to try their hand at market trading. In Stockport, like elsewhere, there are many empty shops, so once traders involved in First Pitch have established themselves they can perhaps could move their businesses into those shops, thus benefiting town centres as a whole.

Town centres, like markets, are facing challenges from out-of-town shopping centres and internet shopping, which have undoubtedly taken their toll. If town centres cease to be attractive to shoppers, markets in those town centres will suffer, but if markets cease to be attractive, the town centres will suffer. They complement each other.

I was pleased to attend this week’s meeting of the all-party group on town centres, chaired by the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who, I know, has a strong interest in the regeneration of town centres and in markets. It was very interesting to listen to the guest speaker, Mary Portas, who has been asked by the Government to conduct an independent review on the future of the high street. I look forward to her report.

I strongly believe that it is no use blaming out-of-town shopping centres or the internet. We must recognise that shopping habits are changing and people will make

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choices about where they shop. All town centres will have to think innovatively and consider developing their own unique “special offer”. I look forward to Mary Portas’s thoughts on that.

I know that Stockport is very much focused on just that and I believe that it could, in future, develop a unique special offer based on cultural and historical sites and on continuing to develop its market. It is important that Stockport does that because it faces competition from nine other shopping centres in Greater Manchester. I welcome the support for markets from the previous Government and from this Government and the Minister responsible for markets, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell)—and Hazel Grove is in Stockport.

The current planning policy statement 4 contains an express statement supporting the role of and investment in markets. It states that local planning authorities should proactively plan to promote competitive town centre environments and provide consumer choice by retaining and enhancing existing markets and, where appropriate, re-introducing or creating new ones and ensuring that markets remain attractive and competitive by investing in their improvement. That is not in the new planning policy framework and although I understand the need to reduce the volume of policy and guidance documentation, I would still urge the Minister to put in an express reference to the role of markets in contributing to retail diversity and to healthy and sustainable high streets and town centres—including farmers markets, which bring an important sense of place by providing foods that come specifically from the local area.

Traditional street and covered markets have been at the hub of our town centres for centuries and they are well able to adapt to the challenges of the future. I believe their value should be emphasised in any planning guidance for promoting consumer choice and competitive and vibrant town centres. I look forward to the Minister taking those remarks on board.

1.42 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): May I, too, welcome the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) to his new role? I also congratulate the two previous speakers, the hon. Members for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), who both made very thoughtful—and different—contributions. As I am being nice to everybody, let me also say that I share the ambitions outlined by the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). I really do. I also welcome this debate, because it is an opportunity to show that we can engage in constructive debate and ensure that we get this important change right.

Locally, I was a vociferous opponent of the implications of the south-west regional spatial strategy for housing in my constituency. It could have destroyed green belt and it was entirely top-down and very unpopular. I welcome the thrust of the idea contained in the Localism Bill and neighbourhood planning measures that our approach should be bottom-up, rather than top-down. I liked the Minister’s reference to the idea that planning should not be done to people, but should involve working

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with them. I want to achieve that, so I hope he sees my contribution as constructive because, although I like the principles, a lot of the detail needs attention.

I support the need to reform our planning system. It has achieved a great deal in the past 50 years, but it can be improved and needs to encourage further public participation at a local level. That is important. We need to reduce delays and to have more flexibility in the system and I believe that we could better deliver sustainable development. It is a great idea to reduce 1,000 pages of guidance into a more concise framework and if we were to aim for fewer than 100 pages, that would probably be good, but the clarity and detail of that reduced document must, of course, be right.

The document as it stands reads as having a presumption in favour of development as distinct from sustainable development. For me, it is crucial that we address that. I agree with previous speakers that getting the definition of “sustainable development” right in the document at the outset is crucial, and if we keep to that consistent definition throughout the document, everything else should fall into place. We should be considering the 2005 definition because it is generally accepted and we do not have the time, now we have started this, to embark on setting out a definition that might—perhaps—be better in some respects. We have set the hare running, we must go with it and, I suggest, the 2005 definition is pretty good. We must also be absolutely clear that sustainable development and sustainable economic growth are not identical concepts and we should be very careful of the language.

I want to see a planning framework that can create economic prosperity, meet the needs of all sectors of society, protect our environment and its resources and provide a pathway to a low-carbon future. Within that, my personal priority for my constituency is to ensure we have the right type of affordable housing. Under the top-down targets we have had in the past, there have been two-bedroom flats galore and not enough family houses. There are all sorts of things we must be careful about. My main objection to the housing targets from the south-west regional spatial strategy was that I could imagine executive homes and second homes galore all over our green belt, and I felt that that was totally wrong.

So, first, let us get the definition right and be absolutely clear. The five principles that have already been outlined should be carried forward. Let me quickly go through some of the detailed points that need to be addressed. I absolutely support the principle that development must be plan-led and our clear definition of sustainable development should set the scene for such local plans. I am personally quite inspired by the idea of neighbourhood plans, but we must take care that everybody has equal access to resources to enable them to be carried out. I want to be sure that the local development plan, when it is completed, has genuine sovereignty. I do not want the Treasury to have a trump card over what has been determined locally.

We have mentioned the transition period, which is crucial, over and over again. I must emphasise how important that is, given that local authorities do not have up-to-date development plans. It is totally unacceptable to say that the default answer is yes, unless the plan is in place. I have made some proposals for possible time periods in my response to the consultation.

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I am also weary about the five-year land supply plus 20%. That is top-down and the situations will be different for different authorities. There should be co-operation between authorities because some authorities will have such great constraints that they will be forced into the precious green sites in their urban structure. It is important to have a wider vision so that there is co-operation and we ensure that local authority plans are assessed against each other.

The provision, quality and quantity of affordable housing is very important.

Caroline Lucas: I very much support what the hon. Lady is saying, passionately, about housing. However, does she agree that the main impediment to house building in recent years has been not the planning system but money and that if the Government were really concerned about it they could reverse the 60% cut to the affordable housing budget? That would do more for housing than ripping up England’s planning system.

Annette Brooke: I think that the Government have been rather successful this year in achieving a commitment to affordable housing with the money that has been made available—170,000 is a figure not to be sniffed at, although, obviously, we all want more.

I do not want to lose the current section 106 provision, which is an important top-up to what the Government might be providing. It is very important that the Planning Inspectorate should not be able to override a local plan that has specified a certain proportion of affordable housing on particular sites.

On the “brownfield first” approach—I think that is in paragraph 165—we need to have the guidance to go with that. A very important point has been made about good-quality agricultural land, but we need a sensible sequential test. That has to be considered in the context of the whole five years, or six years, as has already been mentioned, and of the outstanding 300,000 planning permissions. We really do want to make sure that we use the least-valuable land first. That is very important.

We should also be looking at giving some encouragement to developers to implement their planning permissions, because that gives a further break. There are a lot more points that I wanted to make. I support the heritage lobby, which is all-important, and I note the importance of protecting the diversity of our local high streets. More needs to be said about neighbourhood plans and how we may amend local use classes. That needs to be clear. Transport and spatial plans are also important, as is flood risk management. Most of all, let us be clear that we need our three pillars: economic, social and environmental considerations.

1.52 pm

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): I draw attention to the interests declared on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and highlight two non-pecuniary interests as an honorary fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute and as a director of the Town and Country Planning Association.

I welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) about greater clarity in the definition of sustainable development—a point on which I shall pick up—and I agree with a number of the other points she made.

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I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) on his new appointment and on his absolutely first-rate contribution to the debate, in which he forensically analysed the Government’s failures and highlighted the key issues that will need to be addressed if we are to get some sense out of the mess we are in. Let there be no mistake about it—we are in a mess on planning, and it is a mess of the Government’s making.

The Government’s actions were based initially on an incorrect analysis of the problem. They were very happy to speak glibly about the previous system having failed to deliver, and they have continued to make those claims with no regard for the facts. I am going to put on the record, for the Minister’s benefit, the facts about net additions to the housing stock during the period of the previous Government leading up to the recession. From a low of 130,000 net additions to the stock in 2001, we saw an absolutely steady, year-on-year increase to 143,000 in 2002-03, to 155,000 in 2003-04, to 169,000 in 2004-05, to 186,000 in 2005-06, to 199,000 in 2006-07 and to 207,000 in 2007-08. That was not a system that was bust. Members on the Government Benches who oppose housing development may not have approved of it, but it was delivering more homes at a time when there was a shift in favour of brownfield development, so more of those homes were on brownfield sites and the countryside was being more effectively protected. That was a success, and it is shameful of the Government to fail to acknowledge that and to try to pretend that their radical new proposals are somehow addressing a problem of failure when they are not.

Having made their proposals on the basis of an incorrect analysis, the Government built up false expectations by promising the earth to neighbourhoods about their having the ability to refuse unwelcome planning applications. In the run-up to the general election we heard again and again that the Conservative policy of neighbourhood planning would enable neighbourhoods to refuse developments. Having built up those expectations, the Conservatives precipitately, when they came into government, acted to cancel regional spatial strategies without bothering to take the trouble to find out whether what they were doing was lawful. As a result, that policy was struck down in the High Court. What a shambles! What a way to go about doing things. In the course of doing that, they inevitably created uncertainty, and the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) rightly highlighted what all people interested in development know—that certainty is absolutely crucial if we are to have an effective planning system. I am afraid that the Government’s actions have destroyed any certainty.

George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Raynsford: No; I have limited time and I have to make some progress.

Having thrown the system into chaos—

George Hollingbery rose—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to give way he will give way. The hon. Gentleman should sit down when he will not.

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Mr Raynsford: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. When the system had been thrown into chaos, contributing to a collapse in planning applications, the Government’s friends in the Treasury realised the damage that was being done, so we saw the very significant U-turn in policy that was announced by the Chancellor at the time of the Budget in which the policy was to change. “Yes,” he said, “Of course neighbourhoods must have a say, but the presumption will be in favour of development; the default position will be, ‘yes’.” That was entirely at odds with Ministers’ previous rhetoric, and, not surprisingly, all those who had been led to believe that the new Government were going to have a system that would make it easier for communities to refuse development felt incensed.

That is the explanation for the mess that the Government have got themselves into. They have simultaneously achieved the lowest level of new planning permissions for housing almost in recorded history while having an absolutely incensed body of campaigners who believe that they are opening the door to concreting over the countryside. It is a pretty extraordinary achievement to have done those two things simultaneously, but that is what they have achieved. There has been a disastrous collapse in planning applications for housing. The figures, just in case the Minister is not aware of them, are that just 25,171 residential planning permissions were granted in England in the second quarter of this year. That figure is 24% lower than that for the first quarter and 23% lower than that for the equivalent quarter in 2010. Indeed, it is one of the lowest figures ever recorded—ever recorded! That is the reality. It is fewer than half the number of homes we need to meet needs: 60,000 a quarter would be required to keep pace with requirements. At the same time, they have incensed all the people who care about the countryside, who think they are opening the door to inappropriate development.

George Hollingbery: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Raynsford: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

George Hollingbery: I am very grateful. I suspect that what we have just heard is long on invective and short on fact. These proposals are about more than housing; they are about planning in general. Does the right hon. Gentleman describe a system in which 50% of local authorities had not adopted local plans and in which large areas of the country had not adopted regional spatial strategies as anything other than confusion and mess?

Mr Raynsford: First, I have given a number of facts. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should advise his Front-Bench team to be rather more respectful of the facts. Secondly, when I was the Minister for Housing and Planning in the early years of the Labour Government I inherited a position in which the reforms of the previous Conservative Government had resulted in large numbers of councils not having up-to-date plans in place. The main thrust of my work as Planning Minister was about getting the existing system to work better, rather than about imposing radical changes. I have advised the current Minister and his colleagues that they would do far better to try to work with the existing system than to seek a radical overhaul, which would be likely to create confusion and uncertainty and lead to paralysis in the planning system—which I am afraid is what we have got.

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That leads me to the national planning policy framework. The problem with that document is that the Government have confused brevity with clarity. They have assumed that by reducing the volume of existing guidance they are producing a clearer and simpler statement, but that simply is not the case. The reality is that in many areas, some of which we have discussed today, sufficient care has not been taken with the definitions in the NPPF to give certainty and clarity. Sustainable development is one such area, and I endorse the views that have been expressed about the need for greater clarity.

Secondly, there is the “brownfield first” issue, another area where the Government have blundered and will need to change. Thirdly, there is not a single reference to new settlements and urban developments. There is no mention whatever of the principles that should apply to those. It is extraordinary that that should be entirely overlooked.

Heidi Alexander: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on an excellent speech. Does he share my concern about the absence of the word “cities” from the national planning policy framework? I find it remarkable that we can have a planning framework for our country that makes no reference to our cities.

Mr Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes, as always, a very telling point. This is the problem: the NPPF has been put together in a hurry, and the Government’s objective has been brevity rather than clarity, and as a result it is wanting in many areas and will have to be rewritten.

The fourth area I want to highlight where the NPPF is defective is in respect of mixed developments to ensure that we have balanced communities with affordable and social housing as well as market housing. The NPPF’s statement is very inadequate, as the Minister knows only too well. There is a loose reference to “larger scale residential developments” benefiting from mix, but no definition of “larger scale”.

The problem, as the Minister knows perfectly well, is that in the absence of clear definitions and documents such as those that existed under the previous regime—the planning policy guidance statements—individual developers, local authorities and communities will form their own judgments, they will be in dispute with each other and there will be a rise in appeals and litigation. It will be the lawyers who determine the outcome rather than the Government, the local authority or the local community. That is the real risk of the position in which the Government are putting themselves and our planning system. In the absence of transitional arrangements, the need for which the Minister now belatedly accepts, people will reach for the lawyers to try to determine what should happen because plans are not fully prepared and in place in time to be referred to.

In summary, we have a planning system that plays an absolutely critical role in mediating between competing interests, which requires carefully considered judgments based on experience built up over decades. Against that background, it was unwise of the Government to proceed in a hubristic way with a year zero approach of trying to rewrite the rules. I am glad they are now beginning to recognise their mistake and to row back. I hope they

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will now apply rather more intelligence, thoughtfulness and consultation to preparing their revised NPPF, which should be a better document than the current one.

2.2 pm

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), but I am going to say somewhat different things.

As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on local government, I have had a very exciting few weeks, with many representations being made to me on this very important issue, as well as my constituents contacting me. I heard much from my Front-Bench colleague today that I thought was very important. I welcome the clarity given on the green belt, on a definition of “sustainability”, on the future of planning policy concerning Travellers and on why green infrastructure is so important, linking neighbourhood to neighbourhood. There was clarity too on the importance of sports and recreation fields and, most importantly—because it is the most important part of South Derbyshire—the national forest, which can be linked to future greenfield, green infrastructure areas. Having clarity, including clear definitions, on those matters in the new NPPF after this first draft will be most helpful.

I hope that my constituents, who have written to me in droves about this, will understand the need for the clarity that we will be able to provide with this new document, compared with the mess of the thousand pages of documentation that we had before. We will have neighbourhood and community-led planning, which will be a utopia. I challenge anyone to find a better constituency than South Derbyshire, where we managed to provide a new village of 2,500 houses with only 20 objections because we had community-led planning.

I know that many Members want to speak and I take the view, “If you can’t say it in a few minutes, you can’t say it at all.” Finally, therefore, I say to Ministers, who will be listening to many people today and to much advice, that what they have said today and the clarity that they have provided is most helpful.

2.5 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I draw Members’ attention to the interests of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), in which I have an indirect interest.

The Government claim that we need a new national planning policy framework because existing planning rules are holding back house building and growth. That is a false claim, and I want to reinforce the points that have already been made very forcefully in the House and certainly by Members on these Benches.

In the five years to 2007, the last year before the global banking crisis, the credit crunch and the subsequent recession, there was year-on-year growth in house building, with more than 207,000 additional homes delivered in England in 2007 and the delivery of more than 250,000 additional affordable homes over the period of the Labour Government. That is over a third more than this Government hope to deliver over a five-year term. The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) implied that 170,000 new homes is a substantial figure, but that is nonsense when we look at the need for housing.

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Only last week, the Minister for Housing and Local Government had the bare-faced cheek to try to claim credit for the 60,000 additional affordable homes completed in England in 2010-11. The fact that those were planned for, paid for and started under the last Labour Government, under the existing planning regime, seems conveniently to have slipped his mind.

The reason house-building levels fell during the recession and remain low—indeed, they fell during this Government’s first 12 months in office—is not the old planning system. Planning is, of course, important to growth, but the Secretary of State’s unlawful meddling with regional spatial strategies last year has, according to some estimates, cost the country hundreds of thousands of new homes already, and in so doing seriously damaged growth. That is the direct outcome of Tory policies on planning and a very clear indication that the Government’s left hand does not know what their right hand is doing.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I remind the hon. Lady that the regional spatial strategy in Northumberland meant that authorities could build no more than about 20 or 30 houses. It was a very severe limit on the numbers that they could build, and its removal has given them freedom to build more houses, not fewer.

Alison Seabeck: I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but regional spatial strategies were set up to ensure that, ideally, houses were built where there was most need. Clearly, across the country overall, that need was starting to be met under the last Labour Government.

Developers are sitting on land. We have heard about the 300,000 existing permissions. What right-minded developer will build homes when nobody is able to buy them? Again, that is not due to the planning system. Instead of dealing with the critical issue of the economy, and the finance and confidence necessary to deliver the investment and pick house building up off the floor, we are having this smokescreen of a debate on planning. However, a debate has sprung up around the country, and it puts planning at the heart of the conflict between growth, the economy and the countryside. That point was very well made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) in his excellent speech. That is a false choice and it has unhelpfully polarised opinion.

It is important that we have clarity in the system—I do not disagree with hon. Members in different parts of the House on that issue—but this false debate is now proving to be a total distraction. The NPPF is a deeply flawed document that needs to be seriously amended, and I hope that the Minister is listening to Members in all parts of the House because the Government are committed to railroading it through.

Under Labour, the green belt was expanded. We pursued a policy of “brownfield first”. Brownfield expanded as a proportion of new build as we focused on developments and regeneration—a word that is sadly missing from both the Localism Bill and this document.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Alison Seabeck: No, not at the moment.

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We focused on existing communities, and that is missing from the NPPF, and we will see more building on greenfield sites.

The need to protect gardens was not dealt with clearly in the Minister’s statement, although it was the driver behind the change in the “brownfield first” presumption. It is not clear exactly how an assessment will be made of land of the least environmental value, and I think that houses and gardens in some very nice areas will fall into that category. We need clearer definitions, and I am pleased that at least he is willing to rethink the wording of brownfield provisions. I urge him to speak to the Prime Minister and insist that when he answers questions on development in the House he should make it clear that there is no threat to the green belt. The Prime Minister should answer the question that he is asked. If he is asked about the threat to green fields—not green belt—he should deal with that. I have to say that the green fields that are going to be built on are in leafy Tory shires.

The NPPF is silent on affordable housing—a point made by my right hon. Friends the Members for Leeds Central and for Greenwich and Woolwich. When is the assessment of housing need going to be made, as there is just a cursory reference to it in the NPPF, and how will the evidence of that need be collated? Again, that is far from clear.

Finally, there was a glimmer of hope or common sense on transitional arrangements, which are vital. Without a transitional period, there will be fears on the one hand of a development free-for-all while, on the other, developers have concerns about the lack of such arrangements. When the Localism Bill is enacted, regional spatial strategies will disappear, and there will be a gap before the NPPF is introduced, with further losses of planned homes on a scale of the losses that have already taken place as a result of announcements by the Secretary of State. This is an incredibly important subject for people on both sides of the debate, and I am pleased that there appears to have been some backtracking.

In the Committee that considered the Localism Bill, the Opposition were asked to legislate without sight of the NPPF. The House, on Report and on Third Reading, was asked to legislate without sight of the document, and now developers and local communities are going to be asked, some time in the future, to plan without sight of the details that they will need, either to support good-quality local development, designed to meet needs, or to protect local areas of importance. Even today, we have had another statement on the abolition of RSSs that discusses the requirement to undertake a proper environmental assessment, albeit voluntarily. It says that the Government are undertaking another consultation on the matter. How can we legislate and make decisions about things as important as the planning policy framework without seeing the outcome of those consultations?

I welcome the fact that the Government have backtracked on their proposals on yet another ill-researched policy that has been introduced in haste. Along with my colleagues, I await the revised NPPF and the debate on it, because the wording of today’s motion is far from accurate. The House has not, in my view, considered the NPPF, and we should be allowed another debate on the revised paper, and a vote.

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2.13 pm

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): The consultation on the draft national planning policy framework is far and away the biggest issue in my constituency, although this weekend it may be run a close second by the forthcoming vote on an EU referendum.

Concerned residents in my beautiful Colne Valley constituency were angered by a poor-quality consultation on Kirklees council’s local development framework. The Labour-led council is still obsessed with the top-down housing targets introduced by the previous Government, and it is trying to impose 28,000 new homes on our area. Then came the fiasco over the planning permission for 294 new homes and a data campus development on Lindley moor, which is north of Huddersfield. Despite the fact that democratically elected councillors originally voted against the housing plans, the planning department and the council leadership kept going until they secured a narrow 8:7 vote in favour of the controversial development on green fields. The development should have been rejected on the grounds of poor infrastructure, with clogged roads, oversubscribed schools and medical services at full stretch.

Graham Jones: The hon. Gentleman seems to know a lot about that development. In the planning committee, what did the Highways Agency say about access to the site? Was it in favour, or against?

Jason McCartney: The hon. Gentleman is quite right— I know a lot about this, and sat through a whole day of the planning committee’s considerations. I spoke against the proposal. The committee came up with highways figures but, as a number of local residents rightly pointed out, those figures were out of date and they did not apply to peak times in the morning and evening. I attended the committee for many hours, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue, as he has helped to make a good point.

Concerned local people have read and heard about the draft NPPF with deep suspicion. While the aim of simplifying 1,000-plus pages to little more than 50 is laudable, residents in the beautiful countryside of the Colne and Holme valleys, as well as Lindley, fear the phrase,

“presumption in favour of sustainable development”.

Local people have interpreted that as a developers charter for more unwanted developments on their rapidly reducing countryside. There is confusion, too, about what sustainable development actually is, and there is a need for a clear definition, as we have heard in our debate.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I want to expand on the point that my hon. Friend made about residents’ fears. A planning appeal is under way in my constituency in which the developers are using the phrasing of the NPPF to try to push through, and argue for, wind turbines. We therefore need clarity on what is meant by sustainable development.

Jason McCartney: My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner on the issue of wind turbines in his constituency, and I know that he will continue to campaign. That was an excellent point.

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I shall return to housing, which is the big issue in my constituency. The draft NPPF aims to give local people a real say via their local plan. As I have said, people in my patch have to suffer a Labour-run Kirklees council hellbent on development, whatever the cost to our countryside and environment. All of this suspicion, fear and rumour has led to numerous community groups getting together to have their say on the flawed local development framework and the NPPF. I have fully engaged with those groups, especially the Kirklees community action network. I have spoken at meetings in Slaithwaite and my home village of Honley, and will be doing so in Meltham in a fortnight.

Like many hon. Members, I have received numerous e-mails and letters and, as I said, I have met local action groups, which have copied me into their submissions to the consultation. They have spent many hours on their consultations, and they have made some excellent points, some of which I shall summarise. I urge Ministers to take note of them. First, we should change the main presumption statement to read: “presumption in favour of sustainable development on brownfield sites or those of lesser environmental impact.” Basically, we should adopt a brownfield-first policy.

Secondly—and Opposition Members will not like this—we should stop councils using the old top-down housing targets. I appreciate that the Government have tried to do so through the courts—they have been frustrated—but we should get this in the NPPF, because the problem, as I said, is that my Labour-run local council is sticking with the regional spatial strategy target of 28,000 homes even though no one has any idea where it got that figure from.

Thirdly, Kirklees council has more than 11,000 empty homes. It is madness to keep building on green fields when we have those empty homes. We should try to get as many of them back into use as possible, and there should be more mention of that in the NPPF.

Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has put the emphasis on a Labour council, but in my Tory-run council residents groups are at loggerheads with our Tory mayor and cabinet, who insist on building houses next to a country park, when brownfield sites are available. Should we not say that all councils can be stubborn, instead of putting the emphasis on Labour councils?

Jason McCartney: I thank the hon. Lady for her comment. Obviously I can only talk knowledgeably about my local council. We are working hard in Kirklees to get a Conservative-run council, and then we will be able to compare them.

Fourthly, let us accept that relaxing the rules on development will not necessarily help the economy—a point that has already been made. Houses are not being built because home buyers cannot get mortgages as a result of the huge deposits required, not because of a lack of available land with planning permission. The only reason houses are not being built is that builders cannot sell them. Across the country thousands of newly built and older homes are currently unoccupied, as I have already pointed out, and developers are sitting on hundreds of thousands of unimplemented planning permissions. In Kirklees alone there is land equivalent to 5.1% of the existing housing stock or about 16 years'

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supply of building land at current levels of house building activity already with planning permission, but it has not been built on yet.

Fifthly, although the framework offers some theoretical protection to green-belt land, for example for sites of special scientific interest and heritage sites, it also gives local authorities and developers the freedom to override those protections if development can be shown to offer significant economic benefit. It offers no protection to other greenfield land. That is wholly inappropriate in semi-urban areas, and we are really worried in my part of the world, particularly with provisional open land, that the net effect might be that the villages will end up sprawling together. These are all points that my local community groups have been talking about.

As I have said, people in my neck of the woods are between a rock and a hard place. On one hand there is the presumption in favour of sustainable development if no local plan is in place, and local people are interpreting that as a developer’s charter. On the other hand, there is a Labour-run local council that is trying to shove through the plans for 28,000 new homes by massive green-belt release. We have either a flawed local plan or that presumption; no wonder people in my area are so worried.

Heidi Alexander: I am genuinely interested in the hon. Gentleman’s answer to this question: are community groups in his constituency coming forward with an alternative plan, through neighbourhood forums and their own neighbourhood plans, for areas where they could accommodate new housing growth?

Jason McCartney: The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. That is why I have given those groups details about the neighbourhood planning front-runners scheme, which can assist them in developing neighbourhood plans and provide funding of up to £20,000 to help that. The groups are very well organised and I have pointed them in the right direction. They have come forward and are working with other local groups, such as civic societies, town trusts and parish councils, to come up with a neighbourhood plan, which is a very positive side of our localism structure.

In summary, we should of course simplify the planning system, but let us prioritise developments on brownfield sites, bring empty homes back into use and protect what is left of our countryside by ensuring that local plans genuinely reflect local wishes.

2.22 pm

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): The Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, is in the middle of an inquiry on the national planning policy framework, so, like the Minister, I do not want to come to conclusions today, as it is important to hear all the evidence before reaching any decisions. I thank the Minister for advising the Committee at an early stage of his intention to bring in a new NPPF and for asking us whether we wanted to be involved in the consultation process by conducting an inquiry. We have indicated that we will reach our conclusions before the Christmas recess as part of the consultation. I also want to welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) to his new post and thank him for raising a number of important points in his contribution, many of which have been raised with the Committee and which we want to address.

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I am sure that the objectives that the Government are trying to achieve—building more homes and providing more jobs—are shared across the House. I certainly have a long-standing interest in trying to increase the number of homes being built in this country. It is a prime need and something that all Members should be interested in. The real issue, of course, is where that building and development will take place. That, in essence, is what the planning system is all about.

In looking at the Government’s proposals, there are a number of questions we want to ask first. Is the planning system really responsible for the lack of house building and growth in this country? Is there evidence for that? Those are the questions we should address first. If there are problems with the planning system, is it a problem of the policy and guidance, or one of process? Is the process of getting local plans agreed too lengthy? Those are the sorts of issues that the Committee wants to look at, but the fundamental question is this: is there clear evidence that planning is holding back house building and growth, or are other factors more important?

The Committee has certainly heard much conflicting evidence. We had the National Trust and the Home Builders Federation sitting before us giving evidence together, so it was apparent that there are slightly different views about the wisdom of the Government’s proposals. We all welcome the fact that the Minister is listening, and hopefully he will listen to the Committee’s recommendations when they are made. If he is minded in the end to make some significant changes to his proposals, will he consider a further round of consultation? If we are really to get this right, is it not important that we have the maximum amount of dialogue, because there is a common interest in trying to ensure that the matter is taken forward in the right way.

I welcome what the Minister said about transitional arrangements. We have heard much evidence suggesting that we cannot simply press a button and change from one system to another without an awful lot of problems being created. Indeed, there is legal evidence suggesting that, because no local plan will be in place that has had a chance to take account of a new framework once agreed, on day one all local plans will effectively be out of date and inconsistent with the national guidance. Clearly, therefore, there must be a transition to allow change to take place. The history of changes in planning policy and legislation reveals that any change at all, and even the proposal of change, creates uncertainty and tends to cause delay, increase the number of appeals and involve the lawyers to a greater extent. We ought to look at how we can minimise those impacts and get to the best position.

A number of specific concerns have been raised with the Committee which we will want to look at. First, is all the guidance that is being scrapped really useless? Has any planning authority really said, “This is irrelevant and we have no need for it?” Is there a danger that once it is all removed at national level councils will start to look at the local level and incorporate more and more in their local plans, because if their local plan is silent on something they will worry that they will get development that they do not want? That is a concern that we must reflect on. Will simply stripping out everything and pretending that it does not matter really be of benefit?

What is the precise link between the national guidance, local plans and neighbourhood plans, which are very new and untested? The framework refers a great deal to

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the importance of local plans, but it does not say that any application that is approved has to be consistent with the local plan. That is stated in national legislation, so there is a relationship, but is it absolutely clear, because national legislation apparently has primacy over the guidance? That relationship has to be worked through. Having listened to Government Members, I think there is clearly an issue to be worked through about the national requirements for more homes, on climate change and regional requirements on waste disposal, and on Traveller sites and how they relate to local aspirations at local planning level where there may be differences. If all the local plans and the plans for housing in them do not add up to the requirements that we need at national level to build sufficient homes, where does that leave us? There are clearly concerns that go beyond one local authority boundary. The duty to co-operate is in place and the Minister has taken steps to strengthen it, but is it sufficient to ensure that we can deliver on those wider issues? There are some carrots, but are there any sticks? Can any penalties be imposed on local authorities that do not co-operate, and what does not co-operating actually amount to? Those are also concerns.

Concerns have been raised with the Committee about sustainable development. Should there be a national definition, which is much clearer and, perhaps, written down in legislation or in the framework? Should it be included? If it is, the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) made will be important. Will the definition be applied consistently at a local level, or will there be differences in an application and in how we apply the definition in a northern industrial town with lots of dereliction, as opposed to in a leafy suburb in the south or, indeed, in a national park? There is not much special reference in the framework to the differences that might be applicable and relevant in different areas, so we want to address those matters in particular, and it is important that we do so.

People have made the point to the Committee that the framework came out of proposals for growth. There are three legs—economic, social and environmental—to the stool of sustainable development, but has the economic leg become a little longer than the other two, and is the stool becoming a little unbalanced? Is too much emphasis being given to economic factors, which in any decision might override environmental and social factors?

Duncan Hames: I am finding the hon. Gentleman’s speech very informative, as indeed was his pertinent intervention during the opening speech. Does he share my concern that the question of whether an application qualifies for the presumption of sustainable development might end up being decided by the courts and through case law, rather than by local, democratically accountable councillors?

Mr Betts: That is absolutely right. No one here wants lawyers involved in making decisions that should properly be made in this Parliament, and that is why we have to get the policy absolutely right and look at the definitions. Indeed, there is a range of definitions in the framework, some of which are untested and we want to be clear about.

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In the Select Committee the other day, we took evidence on the issue of “significant and demonstrable”. What does it mean? When we pushed a practitioner who was on the group that made the initial recommendations to Ministers, asking him, “What does significant mean?” he said, “Well, of course, if it wasn’t significant, it wouldn’t matter.” That is an issue, because the adverse consequences of a development might outweigh the benefits, but if they do not outweigh them in a significant and demonstrable way, the application will still have to be accepted. We have to probe some of the definitions.

I welcome the Minister’s comments on brownfield development and on taking another look at it. I understand some of the concerns of Government Members about building in gardens, but we should not allow those concerns to enable the removal of brownfield development. The Minister is looking again at that issue and, in particular, at how it relates to the additional 20% of houses and the contingency that will have to be planned for. That is very welcome, indeed.

We have to look at the “town centre first” issue. Why have offices been removed from it? They are an important part of a sustainable “town centre first” strategy, so will the Minister make it clear that, if an application fails a sequential test, it will be deemed unsustainable? How does the sequential test relate to that issue?

The Minister has not mentioned the needs test, which it was Conservative policy in opposition to reinstate. I opposed the previous Labour Government’s removal of it, so will he look at that issue, too?

The Select Committee has a lot of issues to look at. We will try to do so in an evidence-based way, which is how we try to operate; we will try to identify the real concerns; and, where we think that there are genuine concerns, we will try to go to the Minister with some clear proposals on how the document might be amended with benefit.

2.32 pm

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee, because he is one of the more knowledgeable Opposition Members on these matters, and he made some very pertinent points.

We may trade figures, as the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) started to do, but his Government inherited a golden legacy, and although the planning system can bring forward permissions, it cannot ensure that houses are built. His Government inherited a golden legacy, but they managed to ruin it, and we are now are in a very difficult situation in which we need to build more houses. The planning system has a part, but only a part, to play in that; the market has a big part to play, too.

I welcome the actions of my right hon. Friend the Minister in getting rid of regional spatial strategies, which the previous Government introduced. I have opposed them very strongly, simply because they have not worked. They have not produced the number of local plans required, and they have alienated many local people from the planning system, so my right hon. Friend has done the right thing in bringing forward this new national planning framework. I wish him every possible success.

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I declare an interest, which is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I have property that could benefit from these planning changes, and I, like the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich declared, have a non-pecuniary interest, too, because I am a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and used to practise in the planning field.

One issue that is not in the NPPF is the costs in the planning appeal process. In my experience, small local authorities often have to weigh up the correct planning decision while bearing in mind the cost of appeal. My local authority has a development budget of about £2 million, and, if it has to take on board four appeals in any one year at £50,000 each, that is 10% of its entire development budget.

I have a proposal to deal with that. The default setting should be that the developer, who after all gets the benefit, will be expected to pay the local authority’s reasonable costs on an appeal. The issue of costs could then be varied by either the planning inspector or the Secretary of State in a particular place where the local planning authority has acted blatantly and without good reason against its own local plan or has ignored relevant national guidance.

Turning now to the issues that are governed by the draft NPPF, my first concern is about the guidance relating to the increased supply of housing. I am particularly concerned about the requirement in paragraph 109 for local authorities to provide an additional 20% of the existing five-year land bank. The five-year land bank is a rolling programme. Every time one permission is built on, it has to be replaced with a new permission. In my area, that is bringing about a substantial amount of new building land. If we impose this extra land on top of the existing five-year land bank, it will become unsustainable, it will sterilise more land through planning permission than is necessary, and it will give rise to the wrong assumptions on infrastructure planning. I hope that the Government will think very carefully about introducing this additional 20%; otherwise, many people in our areas will become very disillusioned with the planning system.

Duncan Hames: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I will give way once.

Duncan Hames: In response to my earlier question, the Minister said that he did not want to require local authorities to build for more than the five-year housing supply. That being the case, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that the housing that is derived from windfall developments should be taken into consideration against the need that the local authority needs to meet?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He must have my notes, so I shall continue.

The Government should reconsider what counts towards housing numbers in a local authority area. First, they should allow for windfall sites; after all, these are real gains, and they should be encouraged.

Mr Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): We are a team now.

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Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: Well, we are in coalition together.

Secondly, exceptions and additional neighbourhood sites should be included. Thirdly, new agricultural and forestry dwellings should be included. Fourthly, sheltered or high-dependency housing accompanying a nursing home application should be included. That is particularly relevant to my constituency, where we have three large such applications on areas that perhaps would not usually be given permission, but they would gain greater currency in the local community if people felt that they were contributing towards the five-year plan.

Paragraph 109 requires local authorities to

“identify and bring back into use empty housing and buildings”.

This has been a problem for many decades. There are about 740,000 empty houses in England. When I had a housing brief in opposition, I surveyed most of our major institutions that had a presence on the high street to discover why so many of the flats about their shops were empty. Most said that they did not find occupants for those flats because it was too administratively burdensome. The NPPF needs to have stronger guidance to bring back into use these empty properties, which are a shocking waste of our built environment.

The vitality and viability of town centres is dealt with in paragraph 78. Town centres, particularly in smaller rural market towns such as those that I represent, are undergoing significant change. The increased trend towards shopping online is causing many retail businesses to reduce their presence on the high street or to leave it altogether. Many town centres are therefore coming under pressure as demand for retail space drops. Nothing is worse for a town than the sight of a large number of derelict shops. The NPPF needs to be straightforward so that local authorities can consider ways of strengthening the vitality and viability of town centres and are able to resist applications where they are threatened, first, by out-of-town centre schemes, and then, by edge-of-town centre schemes.

Jason McCartney: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I said that I would give way only once, if my hon. Friend does not mind.

Special consideration needs to be given to small market towns, because they are particularly vulnerable to such large developments.

Design is a very important issue for those in special vernacular design areas such as the Cotswolds. On the whole, post-war planning has been successful in keeping the distinctive Cotswold stone wall and roof construction. However, guidance such as that in paragraphs 21 and 118 seems to run totally counter to what has been achieved in the Cotswolds over so many decades. The way around this would be to allow particular vernacular styles to predominate only in those areas where it can be proved that it has done so in the past, as must be clearly demonstrated in the adopted local plans.

Finally, as the Member of Parliament for a constituency of which more than 80% is comprised of areas of outstanding natural beauty, I warmly welcome Ministers having said that national parks, green belts and areas of outstanding natural beauty will be protected. However, I think that the guidance in paragraph 167 needs to be strengthened in that respect. I suggest to my right hon.

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Friend the Minister that it follow the wording of policy ENV3 of the south-west regional spatial strategy on protected landscapes:

“Particular care will be taken to ensure that no development is permitted outside the National Park or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty which would damage their natural beauty, character and special qualities or otherwise prejudice the achievement of National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty purposes.”

These are some of the most special landscapes in the country. As has been said, we live in a densely populated country, particularly when the hilly areas of England, Wales and Scotland are taken out of the equation. It is therefore particularly important that we get the planning system right and, in particular, the NPPF.

I urge my right hon. Friend to resist too much more additional consultation. Planning practitioners now need to get on with the system, which I am sure will be improved and will be more friendly to local people. I warmly welcome the idea of local decision making and neighbourhood plans. I can tell my right hon. Friend that many of my parish and town councils are lining up to draw up neighbourhood plans, because they have become so fed up with a regional planning system that is based many hundreds of miles away. They want to feel that they have ownership of the planning system and that they will benefit from applications in their area.

I only have a couple of seconds left, but I just want to say that pre-planning application is really important. I have gone through it successfully with a big house builder in my constituency and we have got an application that is much more acceptable to the local communities. I urge Members to encourage that. Good luck to my right hon. Friend.

2.41 pm

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): This is an interesting and important debate, not least because it comes in the context of the Government’s intention to be the “greenest Government ever”. We must ask how their planning policies sit within that ambition. This debate comes as the climate change talks and Rio+20 are about to take place. We want the Government to go to those international negotiations with real leadership, backed up by the action that is being taken at home. That action must relate to planning policy.

It is important that this matter is considered as a cross-cutting issue. Whatever the Department for Communities and Local Government puts before Parliament has to be consistent with the policies of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, so that the national policy statements about major infrastructure investments sit side by side with the localism agenda and planning policies. One problem with this consultation is that it is still being brought forward with a silo mentality. The Minister urgently needs to cross-reference it so that everything that comes about as a result of the new planning policies is consistent with the business plans of other Departments that relate to sustainable development. Otherwise, sustainable development will not underpin everything that is done.

Having made those general comments, I wish to congratulate many of the Members who have spoken, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield

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South East (Mr Betts), who chairs the Communities and Local Government Committee. It is important that the Minister and Parliament take account of the scrutiny that takes place in Parliament, which is why this parliamentary debate is so important. If Parliament is to be fit for purpose, fit for the 21st century and fit to create the policies that we will need in generations to come, it is right that the Minister should give an undertaking when he responds that he will give us more time to take account of what is said by the Select Committees of the House of Commons. I am sure that the Liaison Committee will want to consider that as well.

Every Member of this House represents their constituency first and foremost. I will therefore say a brief word about an issue that relates to my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North. It is the issue of brownfield sites, which many Members including my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) have mentioned.

I was interested that the Minister gave away the fact that the priority that there used to be to develop on brownfield sites has somehow been lost as a result of the need to prevent development in gardens. There are large industrial or former industrial parts of the country with huge amounts of brownfield site. In Stoke-on-Trent we have 175 hectares of brownfield land available for development. If we do not get the planning policy framework right, developers and property companies will cherry-pick green belt and greenfield sites.

Greg Clark indicated dissent .

Joan Walley: But where are the inducements to build houses in Stoke-on-Trent, where there is planning permission for them? It is not the planning permission system that is failing; it is the policies of the Treasury and other Departments. They are not ensuring that we can build the homes that are so desperately needed on brownfield sites.

I wish to mention the role of the Environmental Audit Committee. I am very pleased that we are collaborating with the Communities and Local Government Committee to examine the whole issue of planning. Our Select Committee has been charged with considering the definition of “sustainable development”. That is a key issue, and Ministers from DCLG and DEFRA were before the Committee in a united stance just last week. The present Minister gave what I thought was an undertaking to go away and look at the evidence—I stress that we are examining evidence-based representations. He now needs to consider how the detailed recommendations that we will make on a definition of “sustainable development” can be integrated into the national planning policy framework before it is too late. That is critical.

Duncan Hames: The hon. Lady is recognised for her expertise on this subject. Does she agree that the reason the definition of “sustainable development” published in the draft framework has three legs is that all three of them count? It would not be satisfactory for developments to benefit from the presumption in favour of sustainable development if they were contributing to just one of those three legs and the overall net effect on sustainability was negative.