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Joan Walley: This is a really complex issue, and the former Labour Government had problems with it when the legislation on regional development agencies was first introduced. There was a strong view that there should be a legal definition of the term in that legislation.

The witnesses before our Committee last week said that the Government seemed to be going backwards. We had the Brundtland definition of sustainable development, then we subsequently had the 2005 definition that was included in planning permissions. Now, with the changes that the Government are introducing in the framework, there will be no clear definition. That means that the three pillars of sustainable development—economic factors, social justice and the environment—will not be linked to any proper framework within which they can be properly assessed so that reasoned and informed decisions are made. The Government need to think carefully about a proper definition to be included in the framework and about providing clarity about what is meant by sustainable development. That needs to be matched in the Localism Bill, and sustainable development must be defined by all Government Departments and in all Government legislation.

Some other details need to be considered as the framework goes forward, one of which is how to include the long-term needs of the mineral extraction industry. At the moment, permissions are given for a 25-year period, which can provide some degree of certainty. That has to be balanced against how we define sustainable development.

Those issues cannot be properly resolved unless we have a clear, valid definition that is consistent over time. That is what we need, so when the Minister replies, he needs to set out the procedures that can be brought to bear to ensure that that is included as the national planning policy framework is taken forward.

2.50 pm

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I declare my relevant interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Let me begin by warmly welcoming the objectives that my right hon. and hon. Friends have set out in this policy framework. This has been a good debate, in which we have seen an emerging consensus behind those objectives, even though some questions of detail have arisen. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) for supporting the objectives of the Government’s planning policy framework. In fairness, questions of detail are bound to arise when, as is the case now, a Government try to simplify a policy that was previously very complex indeed. However, I strongly support the objective of simplifying planning policy as it stands.

I know that hon. Members have talked about developers, lawyers and so forth, but my experience as a constituency Member of Parliament is that the unequal playing field between developers and members of the public—as well as local authorities, with the cost that they face—has been created by the sheer complexity of the current planning system. To be fair, I am not blaming the previous Government for that; we are talking about something that has grown up over the years, under Governments of all descriptions. It is my experience that the developers turn up at planning inquiries with armies of consultants, lawyers and lobbyists, giving the impression that the

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system belongs to them, that there is no place for members of the public or communities to have their say and that local authorities, particularly smaller ones, are at a disadvantage, as they are always mindful of costs, something that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) rightly mentioned.

Graham Jones: Would the hon. Gentleman therefore be in favour of a right of appeal not for the applicants, but for those whom we might consider the defendants—that is, the people objecting to an application?

Mr Clappison: That is an interesting proposition that could perhaps be considered on another day and in the fullness of time.

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased that the objective of localism has been fulfilled through the national planning policy framework, and in particular through the opportunity to establish neighbourhood plans to take into account the views of local communities. At the same time—I grasp the nettle on this issue—I welcome the planning policy framework’s approach towards promoting development and growth, which is a perfectly proper consideration for such a framework. The planning system should not be, as it sometimes has been, an obstacle to appropriate and justified developments in the right place. It is a question of getting development in the right place and striking the right balance among the social, environmental and economic factors that have to be taken into account. I welcome the willingness that Ministers have shown so far, including today—they will no doubt continue to show it in future too—to listen and seek to strike the right balance among those different considerations. I understand that that is a work in progress, and I urge Ministers to continue with it.

I have heard a lot about sustainable development. Although I do not have a problem with the definition in the policy framework, I would ask Ministers to look again at the presumption in favour of sustainable development. We can all see what Ministers are trying to achieve, but more work needs to be done on how that operates throughout the planning policy framework, because the word “presumption” creates the impression that there is something that has to be rebutted. I think we know what Ministers are trying to achieve, but more work needs to be done.

I have two further points to make. The green belt is a particularly strong interest for me, as much of my constituency is covered by it. However, I am rather at a loss to understand some of the legal opinion that has been quoted about protection for the green belt, because as I read the planning policy framework, the protection for the green belt is at least as strong as in the existing documents, if not arguably stronger. I am not sure whether those who say that there is no protection against inappropriate development have got as far as paragraph 142, which states:

“Inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.”

What could be plainer than that? I welcome that plain speaking. I think that that provision is probably stronger than what were said to be the safeguards allegedly taken out by the Government, because it represents a prohibition,

“except in very special circumstances.”

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I would ask the Government to go further than the enhanced protection that they have given to the green belt. Over the years, I have seen developers come to my constituency with ingenious arguments about what might amount to special circumstances to justify development in the green belt. Time and again, those applications have been made, and if every one had been granted, there would now be no green belt left in my constituency. I therefore ask for still further protection for the green belt.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con) rose—

Mr Clappison: I will give way to my hon. Friend, because I think that that will gain me an extra minute.

Bob Stewart: When we refer to “special circumstances”, are we referring to a situation in which locals really want something? Is that the way my hon. Friend would read it?

Mr Clappison: What the developers have done in the past is give their interpretation of what local people should want, but that is not what local people actually want. They can be very ingenious.

An important point about the green belt that has not yet been mentioned is that this document protects the existing green belt. The Government have abandoned the doctrine of the previous Government which stated that the loss of existing green belt could be compensated for by the designation of green belt somewhere else in the country. For example, under those rules, the green belt in Hertfordshire could be built on if that was compensated for by the designation of fresh green belt in, say, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Northamptonshire, Norfolk or somewhere else in the country. That doctrine would have resulted in the rolling development of the whole country, so I welcome the new protection.

A matter of great interest to my constituents is that of green spaces. I welcome the inclusion of that important concept in the document. Green spaces can include spaces in urban areas near to the green belt. I should like to make a plea to the Minister on behalf of my constituents. I know that the Government cannot designate green spaces everywhere, but will they be as flexible and generous as possible in that regard, because those spaces are a tremendous boon to my constituents and those of other hon. Members? I am speaking particularly on behalf of the Woodcock Hill environmental community project in my constituency, which has worked hard to establish a village green on a treasured green space that I hope will remain for many years to come, long into the future after we have all gone.

I support what the Government are trying to do, but I would also urge them to listen to the valid points that have been raised. This is work in progress and there is more to be done, but the Government are approaching the matter in the right way and getting very close to their target of fulfilling their original objectives. We should give them the support and help that they deserve as they seek to achieve their important objectives, balance them together and build a better future for our country.

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2.58 pm

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison). I associate myself strongly with his comments about the protection of specific areas of green belt, as well as those about green spaces. As ever, Her Majesty’s Opposition are here to help the Government get out of a hole, and it is a hole of their own making. The production of the draft national planning policy framework has been a disastrous process, and I very much hope that we will begin to see some sense from Ministers as they respond to the consultation. In fact, I think that we are beginning to see that now. It is a great pleasure to hear that they have dropped the rather abusive and unconstructive tone that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) mentioned. Talk of smear campaigns by left-wingers and “nihilistic selfishness” on the part of organisations such as the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Campaign to Protect Rural England does little to elevate the debate or enable us to think creatively about planning in this country.

The point of today’s debate is this: the national planning policy framework as drafted threatens to undermine the very successful urban renaissance of recent years. I know that we now have a “Cities Minister” from Tunbridge Wells—that great conurbation—but even the Tory party’s recent conference in Manchester should have allowed it to see the great success of Labour’s “brownfield first” densification strategy of recent years. All of that could be undone by the current document because, as we have seen, it allows a series of get-out clauses for expansive free-for-all development, which will inevitably mean greenfield, if not green-belt, development. As the Home Builders Federation puts it, the NPPF allows a new presumption

“that requires local planning authorities to explain why development should not go ahead rather than placing this onus on the applicant of convincing the authority as to why it should be approved.”

The HBF regards this as

“a radical change of approach”.

In one sense, this should not come as a surprise, as a little history will show, Mr Deputy Speaker, if you will allow me. When we look back through the 20th century, we discover that the Conservative party in office is very rarely a friend of the countryside. In the inter-war years, we saw the remarkable expansion of ribbon development, laissez-faire sprawl and unregulated suburbanisation. England was uglified as the Tories, as usual, gave the whip hand to developers, who quickly sought to merge town and country.

Thankfully, the forces of progress intervened when, in 1926, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England was established. Then the great Herbert Morrison introduced the green belt around London and we thankfully had a Labour Government who introduced the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, the national land fund, the national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and the rolling out of the green belt—the securing of our post-war planning settlement, which separated rural from urban, town from country, which is now under threat by this new policy.

What I have described has made England what it is. Whereas the Conservative party cannot bear the idea of planning and would rather have the anywhere/nowhere sprawl of modern America—or, increasingly, of Italy

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and Spain—we Labour Members believe in preservation, zoning, development and planning. This is not nimbyism, but a sophisticated approach to how we should deal with planning issues. This is particularly the case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) suggested, when we come to complicated matters of climate change and recycling.

Of course, when the Tories came back in the 1980s, they sought to undermine all that all over again. Once again we had the deregulation of planning, out-of-town shopping complexes and sprawl—the result of laissez-faire deregulation. In 1997, the tide turned again—thanks in part to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford)—as we sought to undo the damage. Not only did my right hon. Friend sanction another national park—opposed by the Conservatives—and conserve the green belt, but the percentage of new dwellings built on brownfield land rose from 56% in 1997 to 78% in 2010. The results are there to see in our cities. In 1990, there were barely a few hundred people living in the centre of Manchester; today, there are more than 20,000. In Liverpool, the inner-urban population increased as well.

Mr Marcus Jones: The hon. Gentleman extols the virtues of the “town centre first” policy. I know that he is a well-known historian, but history tells me that that policy was adopted by the previous Conservative Government, not the Labour Government.

Tristram Hunt: We were so happy when the former Secretary of State, the former Member for Suffolk Coastal, John Gummer, saw the light. I agreed not only with his “town centre first” plans, but with his plans for the regeneration of major stately home building, although that does not make me popular on the Labour Benches. Now, however, the “brownfield first” plan is gone; planning permission is to be granted where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date. That means developers can build where and when they like. What makes the English landscape so special—that rural/urban divide and the post-war planning settlement—threatens to be undermined. It is threatened because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central said, there is no economic growth. The Government’s growth strategy has collapsed, and they think that ripping up the planning process will solve the problem.

Andrew Percy: I spent 10 years as a city councillor under the previous Government’s planning system, and I am afraid that I do not recognise the nirvana that the hon. Gentleman is painting. Instead, we had central Government diktat telling us what to do and where to do it, deciding that communities that wanted to grow could not grow and making us put housing where local people did not want it. That was the reality under the previous Government’s planning policy.

Tristram Hunt: I know that Government Members do not believe in fact-based discussion, but the reality is that under the previous Government’s planning policy, we saw an increase in house building, increasing densification and growing numbers in Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Bristol—I do not know about the great urban centre of Tunbridge Wells, but perhaps there was an increase there as well. Weak planning does not deliver strong economic growth.

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Greg Clark: The hon. Gentleman is seeking to draw partisanship into the debate. Has he listened to the words of the former Labour housing Minister, Lord Rooker, in the House of Lords last week when he was introducing a debate? He said clearly:

“I am actually with the Government on this issue…The draft planning policy nowhere near seeks to destroy our countryside, areas of outstanding natural beauty, the green belt or our vast open countryside. Those are the facts”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 October 2011; Vol. 730, c. 1836.]

Why is the hon. Gentleman trying to create contention where there is none?

Tristram Hunt: I believe in contention. I think it is a good thing. Politics results from it. I think that the noble Lord Rooker is not unfamiliar with contention either.

Deregulating planning does not deliver the kind of economic growth that the Government think it does. We have only to look at Spain, Ireland or the American states of Arizona or Nevada to realise that a strategy of ex-urban sprawl does not deliver such growth. As the Minister should know, business park vacancies currently stand at 17% and 1.6 million square feet of commercial space is free for letting. In a recent letter to the Financial Times, the planning adviser Paul Hackett revealed that when he was asked to investigate Treasury claims that the planning system was a barrier to growth, he

“failed to find any convincing evidence, other than planning controls holding back speculative development by developers and out of town supermarkets and hoteliers”,

that the previous system had undermined sustainable economic growth.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) said, both her and I are privileged to represent a city facing challenges of growth, structural economic change and structural unemployment. We do not think that ending the “brownfield first” and the “town centre first” strategies will provide the kind of development, housing and businesses that we want in Stoke-on-Trent, not least because, as the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) suggested, we have 750,000 homes sitting empty and existing planning permission for 330,000 unbuilt houses. The problem for development in many situations, particularly for housing, is as much about the financial and mortgage systems as it is about the planning system.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said, we want a proper definition of sustainable development, a return of the “brownfield first” policy—we welcome the Minister’s elongated U-turn on that—the dropping of the default “yes” when a plan is out of date or silent, a recognition of the intrinsic value of the unprotected countryside, not just green belt, that covers so much of England, and a return to the “town centre first” policy and, with it, the sequential policy. All those decisions would benefit our constituents, who want not only urban regeneration in Stoke-on-Trent but the protection of the Staffordshire moorlands and the towns and villages surrounding it.

As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, next year marks the centenary of the death of Octavia Hill, the founder of the National Trust—perhaps she was a left-wing nihilist, although I doubt it. Instead, she believed in good housing, vibrant cities and a natural environment

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“for the enjoyment, refreshment, and rest of those who have no country house, but who need, from time to time, this outlook over the fair land which is their inheritance as Englishmen”.

I hope that we now have a Government who believe the same.

3.9 pm

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): As others have observed, this is a good debate which raises issues that go to the heart of our communities. I pay tribute to the way in which the Minister has battled through the last few months. He has taken quite a battering from some rather hysterical media reporting, most of which has been full of misinformation.

I spent 26 years as a local councillor. During that time, like many other Members, I fought battles both for and against certain developments. I also spent six years as a cabinet member whose responsibilities included everything from roads to rubbish to licensing tattooists, and also included planning policy. A very successful coalition controlled the council—a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, I should add.

I realised during that time that the planning system was a hindrance to the development that is so desperately needed in many parts of my constituency, but protection is also needed: there has to be a balance. My constituency includes parts of the Humber estuary, a site of special scientific interest, and is on the edge of the Lincolnshire wolds, an area of outstanding natural beauty. Of course I welcome the protection that will remain in place for those areas, but my constituency also includes town centres, and they need to be protected as well. Barton-upon-Humber, for instance, is a beautiful market town with many Georgian buildings, but like all market towns it suffers from empty shops on the high streets.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Does my hon. Friend not agree that the best people to decide which areas in a given part of the country need protection and which need development, whether they are town centres or parts of the surrounding countryside, are local people? Is it not because local people have been cut out of the planning process that so few houses have been built where they need to be built, while houses have been built in areas which local people would like to be protected?

Martin Vickers: I entirely agree, but none of the measures for which I am arguing would take power away from local people. I spent most of my quarter of a century as a councillor bemoaning the fact that central Government were telling us to do this, that and the other, and not allowing us to note what local people were saying. I believe that the system that is evolving will feature widespread consultation from the bottom up, and—I hope—the making of final decisions by elected and accountable local authorities rather than distant planning inspectors. The more we are able to ensure that decisions are made locally, the more communities will be shaped in a manner of which local people approve.

On the importance of maintaining the vitality of town centres, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), shopping habits have changed and continue to change.

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It is a fact, regrettable in many ways, that we shall need fewer shop units in the coming years. Let me give an example from my constituency. The entrance to Cleethorpes, that beautiful seaside resort on the east coast, is to some extent blighted by a drive through an area containing parade after parade of shops, many of which are empty. Many others serve local needs, but the fact remains that we need fewer of them, and we certainly need policies that will allow those areas to regenerate themselves. I was pleased to note that the NPPF mentioned the need to remove “barriers to investment”. That is one of the key developments that I hope will result from the implementation of the Government’s plans.

Reference has been made to the need to speed up the system. Local plans and development frameworks take an age to proceed from A to Z. Reference has also been made to consultation. Yes, we need consultation, because we need that bottom-up feedback from local people, but we must recognise that plans need to be determined quickly. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who represents a neighbouring constituency, I have spent much time over the past year trying to overcome the barriers to a major development in our area, caused partly by the fact that the overall process does not recognise the commercial pressures on potential investors to meet needs in the face of competing areas and, in some instances, competing countries. Speed is also essential for those who oppose developments. A week or so ago we debated High Speed 2 and the possibility that areas could be blighted for many years while waiting for decisions to be taken. Both sides need urgency, therefore.

The transition period is a concern, and I hope the Minister will spell out how areas without local plans in place will be dealt with. Many Members have also asked about the definition of sustainable. It is one of those warm and cuddly words that we are all supposed to hug to ourselves, because none of us wants our local papers to report that we support unsustainable development or want an unsustainable economy. We do need a proper definition of sustainable, however, and I ask the Minister to supply one.

Andrew Percy: We should pay tribute to those councillors who are leading on sustainability and community-led plans. As my hon. Friend knows, in our area, North Lincolnshire council—the only council to pass from Labour control to Tory control in May—has already established proper mechanisms to get communities up and running and to get community plans written up so we have them in place for when this transition happens. We should pay tribute to our hard-working councillors.

Martin Vickers: My hon. Friend, who is rapidly becoming the intervener-in-chief on the Government Benches, makes a welcome contribution to the debate, and I heartily support what he says, of course.

Despite the few caveats I have mentioned, I wholeheartedly support what the Government are doing, and the sooner they get on with it, the better.

3.17 pm

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): I represent Luton South and live in south-east England, where there is a great and pressing need for affordable housing. I am sad about the demise of the regional spatial

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strategies, but I appreciate that other Members do not share my opinion, and I recognise that they will not be reintroduced any time soon. They did, however, put in place a requirement for local authorities to work together to solve their housing needs.

Martin Horwood: Regional spatial strategies did not encourage local authorities to work together; they imposed things from on high. The south-west RSS took six years, cost £10 million to develop, was never implemented and attracted 35,000 objections.

Gavin Shuker: That highlights the point I have just made: Members have different opinions. I regularly knock on doors in my constituency and find people living in the most terrible circumstances, with private landlords taking advantage of them. I am torn about whether to report that to a housing department, as I know that there is such limited housing stock. It is therefore worth looking at different areas in different ways.

There is a quiet crisis in housing across the south-east in particular, but also in other areas. I am certainly not opposed to simplifying the planning system; one of our jobs as Members of Parliament is to simplify things. However, to slim down a 1,000-page brain surgery manual, as it were, to just 60 pages is not the best way to proceed. The best way to proceed is to say that we want to have more housing and more localism, and that we want people to have choices in decisions affecting their own constituencies and communities. We want to do that sensibly, however, which is why this debate has been very good so far.

Many of today’s speeches have been wish lists of various items about which people are concerned, and mine will be no different. I have specific concerns about a number of areas and I hope that the Minister will respond to them consensually at the end of the debate.

My first concern relates to sustainable development, about which we have heard from Members on both sides of the House. I have counted four or perhaps five possible definitions of “sustainable development” published either by this Government or previous ones. I have shadowed the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team and seen sustainability go from being the sole remit of one Department to being mainstreamed. The Department for Communities and Local Government has been one of the major winners from that. As I have shadowed the DEFRA team, I know that DCLG has probably scored more points against DEFRA than Labour Members have, and that applies on various things, including bin taxes. There is uncertainty about “sustainable development” and its definition, and it is important that the body of this policy framework defines incredibly clearly what that is. Brundtland’s work obviously provides a good starting point, but the tighter the definition the easier it will become for planning applications to go through and for us not to end up with things in court for six or seven years when the definition could be clearly set out from the start. If we want more affordable housing, we need to be clear and exact in our definitions—that is a great place to start.

The Attlee Government enacted sites of special scientific interest in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, and we have been clear about wanting to

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maintain those protections. The chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Mike Clarke, has stated:

“One thing the final plans must state clearly is protection from development for some of the nation’s finest wildlife sites—those areas designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. We have received legal advice this week which suggests that the proposals as they stand will weaken protection for these areas.”

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that SSSIs and areas of outstanding natural beauty result from environmental legislation, not the planning process?

Gavin Shuker: I am not entirely clear on the hon. Lady’s point.

Sheryll Murray: We are discussing the NPPF, which I understand will not do anything about the existing SSSIs and AONBs.

Gavin Shuker: I am happy to clear that up for the hon. Lady, as I do not believe that is the case. The NPPF does not abolish any of those things, but the RSPB, which has taken independent legal advice, has suggested that it might “weaken protection” for those areas. For that reason, it is incredibly important that we get this right, as Members on both sides of the House would want to make sure that the best protections are in place.

In a former life—if it is indeed possible to have a former life after only 18 months in this House—I shadowed on forestry for the Opposition. I have concerns about the effect of this framework on forests. We know that DEFRA has made a forced U-turn on the issue and we are all awaiting the findings of the interim report by Bishop James Jones on forestry in the next few months. I am concerned that the presumed “yes”, which does not apply to ancient woodland—that is a good move and we are very positive about it—applies to other woodland. We have particular concerns about the effect on areas such as the Forest of Dean. Normally, we grow trees, chop them down and then allow them to grow back, but the areas left fallow may be subjected to the conditional “yes”—the presumed “yes”—to sustainable development. It is very important that we examine that in more detail.

One other area of particular interest to my constituents and to those of many hon. Members is protecting village and town greens. I live in a constituency that has one of the highest population densities in the country. We know that it is important that we do not just have urban sprawl and that green areas and green spaces need to be protected in our towns. I welcome the protections for green areas and green spaces, but to ask local communities to get together to raise the money to protect those spaces—the consultation suggested it could cost £1,000 just to get the process started—might not be the best possible way to proceed.

Let me turn to a few other areas of the legislation. I was pleased to hear the Minister’s warm words on brownfield. I hope he will define it more clearly as time goes on and give us the opportunity to respond on his reworded NPPF on brownfield sites. We understand that brownfield is important; last year 76% of homes

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built across the country were on brownfield sites. The policy was working well, so we need to be careful if we tinker with it.

In summary, I want development. I want to see more affordable homes and I want to see people living with what they deserve in a country that, despite the current austerity, remains one of the richest in the world—that is, a decent home, a decent job and green and pleasant space to enjoy wherever they live, whether it is the countryside or the town. There is a difference, however, between brevity and clarity in the planning framework, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) pointed out. In the rush to brevity, we must not overlook the need for clarity, which is the best way of ensuring that planning decisions are taken in a timely fashion and in the right way.

In my area, the local core strategy is split between two different areas—Central Bedfordshire and Luton—that, regrettably, could not agree on the local plan. Central Bedfordshire has adopted its plan, but Luton remains unprotected against predatory and subjective applications. I hope that the transitional arrangements will ensure that local authorities are given time to put core strategies and local plans in place to protect their areas. Otherwise, my fear is that we will not deliver on the promise on which we were elected to this House—to ensure that people have decent homes, decent jobs and a pleasant environment to enjoy.

3.26 pm

Mr Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker), as always. The subject of planning and development, and more recently the national planning policy framework, matters a great deal to my constituents in Winchester and Chandler’s Ford—and that is an understatement. If I was in any doubt about that fact, the past few months, as the ministerial team knows, have clarified matters somewhat.

At the end of September, we had the long-awaited decision of the Secretary of State in response to the planning inspector’s recommendation for 2,000 homes on the now infamous Barton Farm site, owned by CALA Homes. In the words of the Secretary of State in his decision document,

“a decision to grant planning permission is likely to undermine the process of Blueprint which is clearly an important policy objective for Winchester and, as the Inspector notes, the community has contributed considerable time and effort to this process”.

That is called localism and I have no doubt whatsoever that had that decision been taken by a Secretary of State in the previous Government, it would have been rubber-stamped and once again key decisions affecting my constituents would have been taken over their heads.

It would have been quite wrong for the planning inspector, or even the Secretary of State, to make the decision and it has now returned to where it should always have been—in the hands of democratically elected local councillors. As I have made clear many times, localism does not mean saying no any more than it means an automatic yes. It simply means a local decision, taken by local people, with a clear and transparent evidence base, in the local interest and—this is the key point—by local politicians who are accountable at the ballot box. That might be an uncomfortable position

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for some councillors and I am sure it was far easier when Ministers took the flak, but the new way must be right. It is what I and many colleagues campaigned on for many years before entering this House and I want to be clear in saying today that I still believe in localism—and Father Christmas.

Since publication of the NPPF in August, there has been clarification of the strength of feeling on the issue in my constituency. I agree with the coalition Government’s commitment to decentralising power and making the planning process more accessible. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who I have known for many years and who brings an enormous amount of personal credibility to this subject. I know that he wants to get this right for all our sakes.

I think that my constituents want their councillors and community groups to use the planning system for properly planned growth in their neighbourhoods and, equally, to protect what they hold dear about them. Somewhere, the process of localism has stumbled in recent months and it has not yet secured the confidence of the many highly informed organisations and individuals in my constituency, such as the Alresford society, the city of Winchester trust and the Winchester city residents association, to name just a few groups. Among the very thoughtful and sensible individuals who regularly bring their many years of experience to their local Member of Parliament, two names that spring to mind are Keith Storey and Bob Howland—and I thank them for that.

The NPPF presents an opportunity, when the Government respond to their consultation, to replace what I see as qualified localism with a purer form of localism. Paragraph 48 of the NPPF sets out the requirement to meet

“unmet requirements from neighbouring authorities where it is practical to do so”.

I have to say that deep unease about this has been conveyed to me locally. Winchester city council has undertaken a great deal of cross-boundary work, through the development of joint studies, where there are common issues to be explored, and it is an active partner in the partnership for urban south Hampshire, known as PUSH. It is rightly concerned, and has expressed its concerns to me, that local authorities are not likely to be able or willing to provide for the development requirements of a neighbouring local authority and that it is an unreasonable requirement for local unmet needs to be picked up by neighbouring authorities.

Paragraph 109 contains the requirement to provide an additional 20% of specific deliverable sites within a five-year housing supply to allow for choice and competition. There has been much talk about that this afternoon. The NPPF should make it clear that the identification of sites for housing and the maintenance of a rolling supply is a monitoring issue rather than a development target. The 20% addition is unnecessary and should go.

There has been much focus on the now iconic phrase

“presumption in favour of sustainable development”.

I find this slightly odd because there is and always has been a presumption that an application will receive planning permission unless it is contrary to national or local planning policies. If it is refused, clear “material” reasons for the refusal must be given. That is where we

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have been for many years. However, to require “sustainable” development assumes that this is a black-and-white issue and that a development is either sustainable or not. The criteria used to assess sustainable development in the NPPF, and in the Localism Bill, cover economic, social and environmental issues. If the NPPF is to promote the concept of sustainable development—and I know that that is the wish—it should set out a clear definition with a list of desirable factors that need to be satisfied. As the city of Winchester trust says in its response to the consultation, and as it has said to me, the word “sustainable” is used so many times in the draft document that it comes across more as a brand than as a matter of substance. Town and country planning is, in the trust’s view, a discipline that is based on weighing up all the material issues, and then making a judgment. The trust goes on to say that there should be a presumption in favour of development that complies with adopted national and local planning policy—and I have to say that its Member of Parliament agrees.

Paragraph 165 of the NPPF states that local plans should allocate, first,

“land with the least environmental or amenity value”.

I think that Ministers feel that this is the way in which the NPPF says “brownfield first”, but we do not have the luxury of subtlety. If that is what we mean, we should say so and be clear in the document.

My reading of the NPPF shows an inconsistency between the desire for what it calls “succinct Local Plans” and the presumption in favour of sustainable development. It states that planning permission should be granted where the plan is “absent, silent” or “indeterminate” on a point. Surely, that will steer plan makers towards producing plans that deal with every eventuality to ensure that plans are not silent on, or fail to deal with, a possible development proposal. That suggests that local plans will need to be very detailed and comprehensive rather than succinct.

That leads me to another question: what are the transitional arrangements and will the Minister say whether an emerging plan will have sufficient weight as emerging policy to ensure that my constituents are not wide open? Finally, will he confirm beyond doubt that when a local plan is agreed and in place it has primacy? If it does not, we will have not the pure localism that I mentioned, or even qualified localism, but localism that does not mean very much at all.

In conclusion, planning is, as the NPPF rightly says, about a balance of economic, social and environmental issues. Almost every correspondence I have had on the subject has made the point that the repeated emphasis on economic growth in the document creates a slightly unbalanced document and ignores or understates the other two considerations. It should be left to individual local authorities to determine how much weight and emphasis should be given to economic considerations when framing their plans and taking decisions. So, I make a simple plea that we should trust local people— I think the Minister is absolutely right and he knows that I have campaigned alongside him on this for many years—believe in localism in its truest form and let people get on with the job.

3.34 pm

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): I speak today as someone who has spent four years of my life dealing with the planning system in London. Before becoming

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an MP, I was a councillor in Lewisham and had responsibility for regeneration. I worked with planners, with developers and with the community, and I can say that in some ways it was the best job of my life and in others the worst.

I know how controversial planning applications can be, and I know how fiercely people will defend their own interests. There is nothing wrong with that, but someone, somewhere has to take a decision about the wider interests of the community, and indeed the wider interests of the country. Sometimes that will fall to councillors, but sometimes the responsibility will stop at the door of the Government. I have a real concern that on the evidence of the past 18 months this Government are not up to the task. They want to wash their hands of the task of setting out a vision of where in the country new homes will be built and where new jobs will be created. They talk about sustainable development but fail to provide an adequate definition. They hide behind a smokescreen of empowering communities through neighbourhood plans, but then use the planning system as a political football to justify the lack of economic growth.

In my view, the planning system is a vital tool in helping to create places where people want to live.

Henry Smith: Will not the hon. Lady concede that during the last decade and a bit of the previous Government, despite the massive top-down, centrally planned housing targets, house building fell to its lowest level since the 1920s? How does she reconcile those two things?

Heidi Alexander: I know that the hon. Gentleman has not been here for the whole debate. We have heard convincing evidence from a number of hon. Members about how house building and, most importantly, the building of affordable houses increased over the last decade.

I was setting out why I believe the planning system is so important. It is one of the only ways in which we can determine where to locate the things that we all need but perhaps do not like, such as places to deal with our rubbish and noisy hospitals with lots of traffic. It is also one of the only ways in which we can start to change how we live in the future. It is a simple fact that we need fewer cars on our roads. That will happen only if the jobs of tomorrow are located in places where public transport is good and if new homes are built in places where people can walk to the shops. That is what sustainable development is about. It is not just about shiny bits of eco kit on buildings; it is about how we live our lives. It is about investment in our town centres, making the most of brownfield land in our cities and protecting those parts of the countryside that we all hold dear.

The Government tell us that the planning system is a brake on economic growth and that planners are the enemies of enterprise. That is rubbish. In 2010-11, 86% of planning applications were approved, and 90% of commercial applications were approved. In London, planning permission exists for 170,000 homes on which work has yet to start. It is not the planning system that is stopping those homes being built; it is the availability of developer and mortgage finance.

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Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): The hon. Lady speaks of 86% of planning applications having been approved, but does she have information on how many times those applicants have been round the block? In my experience, what tends to happen is that people apply once, get refused and have to apply again, having changed something. That is what we mean by a brake that is slowing the process.

Heidi Alexander: I do not have the figures that the hon. Lady requests, but I was about to go on to say that we need to look at more than planning policy; we need to look at the planning process. That may address one of the issues that she touches on.

I accept that it can take a long time to get planning applications approved, but we have to make sure that there are enough resources in council planning departments to deal with applications speedily and sort out, at the outset, some of the problems to which the hon. Lady refers. We all know that council and, indeed, planning department budgets are coming under huge pressure as a result of the Government’s austerity programme.

We also have to look at perceptions of the planning system and do more to encourage developers and planners to work more collaboratively. I say this as a politician: one of the biggest frustrations for developers is the politics in all this, such as the planning application that gets stuck in a council a year before an election and is not decided. A whole range of issues impact on problems with the planning system. The Government are wrong to look at planning policy on its own, and it is wrong to assume that a slimline version of the NPPF is the answer to the country’s economic woes.

It is wrong to assume, too, that just because the NPPF is much shorter than previous planning guidance it is any clearer—a point that has been made in our debate. There is a real danger that the NPPF is a blank cheque for planning lawyers. As Simon Jenkins pointed out when he gave evidence to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government this week, the document is littered with adverbs. On the basis of the NPPF, developers can argue for “acceptable” returns. Acceptable to whom? Something that is acceptable to me is probably very different from something that is acceptable to the chairman of a big house-builder. The document refers to the fact that councils can refuse applications where the adverse affects “significantly” and “demonstrably” outweigh the benefits. If ever there was a word for lawyers to fight over, surely “significantly” is it. The document is sloppy and ambiguous, and it could have a raft of unintended consequences.

My other main concern about the NPPF relates to whether it does enough to address some of the big challenges that we face as country. Let us take the example of affordable housing. The framework does away with previous targets for the amount of affordable housing that should be provided by developers when they are building schemes where the majority of homes are for sale on the open market. It is left to councils to decide whether they have such targets. It is the same for the threshold for when any affordable housing requirement must kick in: local councils can decide. That is not to mention the issue of what constitutes “affordable housing”, or how housing requirements are properly assessed.

Mark Pawsey: Will the hon. Lady give way?

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Heidi Alexander: I have given way several times, and I am conscious that many Members wish to speak.

The housing needs of my constituents in Lewisham are not going to be met in Lewisham alone. If every house built in Lewisham over the next 10 years was an affordable home—and I mean genuinely affordable—we would still not solve our housing crisis. There has to a Government plan to deal with this. There is not, and on the basis of the NPPF, I fear that the problem will just get worse.

I question the usefulness of a document that contains stronger stipulations about the habitats of birds than it does on, say, housing for the elderly. There is a one-word reference to the way in which councils should take into account the housing needs of older people, compared with a very clear statement about sites protected under the birds and habitats directives. I am not against the inclusion of clear guidance on bird habitats, but I am against the absence of clear guidance on planning for the enormous demographic challenges that our country faces.

Before I conclude, I should like to touch on the apparent contradiction between the NPPF and the Government’s supposed commitment to giving local people more say over what happens in their neighbourhood. During our deliberations on the Localism Bill, I said that neighbourhood plans would serve to stoke up communities’ expectations about their ability to say “no” to development in their area—a nimby’s charter. However, according to the Government, the default answer to development should be yes. How can the two be compatible?

I put it to the Government that they have over-hyped localism. Neighbourhood plans have been sold on a false prospectus. They will not deliver power to communities to define the sort of development that they want to see in their area, as neighbourhood plans have generally to conform with the council’s strategic plan, which in turn must be consistent with the NPPF requirements on meeting housing need. The only way neighbourhood plans will work is if communities ask for lots and lots of new homes to be built. They may well do so in Tunbridge Wells, but that is not my experience in Lewisham.

In conclusion, the Government appear to have a laudable “consensus” view of planning. They believe that local people, working with local authorities, will ultimately deliver plans that meet the needs of the nation as a whole. I am not so sure that they will. Planning is ultimately a mechanism to resolve fierce competition over a finite resource. Judgments must be made in a balanced way, and consideration must be given to the environment and society, as much as to the economy. Planning policy and guidance has a role to play in setting out how those decisions are taken. Yes, planning policy could and should be streamlined, but let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As a local civic amenities society in my constituency, the Culverley Green residents association, stated in an e-mail to me this week:

“Revision is a reasonable option but a bonfire is not.”

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. To accommodate more Members, the time limit on speeches is being reduced to five minutes. That is a ceiling, so Members should not feel that it is necessary to fill the five minutes, as others wish to speak.

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3.45 pm

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate, which holds great significance for my constituents. I want to explain why I support the Government’s general approach in the draft NPPF and point to areas where I think it could be honed and improved. If the Government take on those suggestions, it might allay some of my constituents’ current concerns. To do that, we need to assess where we are coming from, with regard to the current planning system, and to consider where the proposals will lead our communities and how our communities will engage in the planning process in future.

The current system—the previous Government’s approach—was quite simple: there were top-down targets, with the Government deciding numbers, and local people could decide where to impose the Government’s will. It was a classic “Government knows best” approach. I applaud the current Government on their approach of freeing up local communities to set their own course and allowing them to set a local vision. It gives local people a real say in planning that vision and more control over their own destiny, which I think is incumbent on a Government led by the Conservative party.

It will be a day of liberation when the Localism Bill receives Royal Assent and the ghastly regional spatial strategies, which many of my constituents have feared for years, disappear. However, I fear that before we get planning liberation several of the local communities I represent might be caught with unwanted developments as a result of a lack of coherence in the planning strategy of the Labour-controlled Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council, where contradictory assessments of housing need have already lead to one unwanted development being imposed by the Planning Inspectorate.

We must also recognise that although locally based planning is vital, for consistency of approach we also need a strong national framework. I am encouraged by the draft NPPF that the Government have put before us and by their intention to balance the important concept of local planning with the fact that we are all living longer, more of us want to live apart than together and that we all need those homes for our children for the future, which is a major concern in many constituencies.

The draft NPPF cuts the current guidance down to size and puts it into a format that can be understood not only by planners in town halls, but by the communities we all serve. It is clear that if people put their local plans in place and get all their ducks in a row, based on clear evidence, their communities will be protected from speculative developers and the will of the Planning Inspectorate. It is clear that the local plan will hold primacy. However, I have some suggestions for the Government.

First, the NPPF contains a carrot-and-stick approach; the presumption in favour of sustainable development being the stick, and the fact that the presumption will not be effective if an evidenced-based plan is in place being the carrot. The Government must honour that principle, because some planning authorities are more advanced in putting together their local plans than others. We cannot have an indefinite and open-ended situation in which local authorities decide not to put local plans in place, but I think that we should give

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them the opportunity to put their local plans in place as quickly as possible by allowing a transitional period in which they can do that. I welcome the comments that the Minister made on that this afternoon.

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Jones: I am sorry; unfortunately, because of the time I have left, I cannot give way.

Local plans must be based on up-to-date local evidence; they must not be predicated just on figures hanging around from the RSS if they are not appropriate to the local community. I hope that the inspectors who check those plans and the evidence base in them will look at truly local evidence, and do so with a fresh set of eyes, not through regional spatial strategy-tinted spectacles. I fear that, if the Government do not make sure of that, it will come back to haunt many of our communities.

3.50 pm

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): There have been many good contributions today, and many points have been made, but in the short time that we have been squeezed into I want to focus on some issues in Hyndburn.

First, the north is not the south, and one cap does not fit all. The pressure in the national planning policy framework to build, and the under-supply of housing in the south which is driving that, will simply cause problems in Hyndburn.

Secondly, the framework document exists in a vacuum, ignoring other Government policies on sustainable communities, health outcomes and the effects of brownfield sites in areas such as mine, which are of predominantly low value and experience low demand. The consequences of concentrating development on those sites will be detrimental.

Gavin Shuker: Does my hon. Friend agree that the complexity he mentions is a primary reason why, when the framework comes back to the House, we need a full, affirmative vote on it ?

Graham Jones: Yes, I do, and that was a very good intervention.

Given that this is a housing supply-side problem, I have every sympathy with the Government’s presumption in favour of sustainable development, and they are attempting to achieve what the previous Government also tried.

Parts of the national planning policy framework are to be welcomed, particularly the removal of brownfield targets for housing; the protection of community facilities in inner-urban areas; green space designation, which the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) mentioned and which should be used as a tool to green our towns and cities; and the issue of Traveller sites, which I do not wish to go into but do support.

Mrs Glindon: My hon. Friend mentions several things that could be included in the document, but many hon. Members have said that empty housing should be included more forcefully. Does my hon. Friend agree?

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Graham Jones: Absolutely. My hon. Friend has obviously seen an advance copy of my speech.

The planning document is crude, and I want to highlight some of its failings, which I hope the Minister will consider. I accept that in some areas of the south there is an insufficient availability of housing land, but I do not want to say any more about the southern dilemma. I want to reflect on why the framework will not work in Hyndburn and some of the old industrial towns of the north.

In the document, there are two particular spatial planning failures. The first is on empty homes, and it was raised by the hon. Members for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) and for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), and by my hon. Friends the Members for North Tyneside and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt). The issue clearly has cross-party support, but there is nothing substantial about it in the NPPF. There should be, and we should do more about it. In my constituency there are 2,500 empty homes, and those properties must be part of any housing consideration. The national planning policy must include a presumption—of first preference, I would argue—that they are brought back into use. Brownfield and greenfield sites should be somewhat secondary.

The national planning policy framework also takes a blanket view on sustainable development. Unmanaged sustainable development will not abate the over-supply of housing in my constituency but exacerbate the problem.

Secondly, there is the issue of old factory sites in my constituency and the gaping hole in the definition of sustainability, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) mentioned. “Sustainability” is quite a loose word in the document, and I am concerned about that, because it does not recognise some of the important aspects of sustainable communities which go beyond housing. Put simply, inner-urban brownfield development can be a disaster for poor and deprived communities, and there is a case in some areas for a policy of no more urban infill. We need a framework that alleviates the problems of an ageing stock where there is de-population, a static population or sufficient housing.

Hyndburn is a constituency where 89% of people live in an urban area, and in many neighbourhoods there is a lack of open space and recreational areas. As hon. Members are probably aware, it has row after row of terraced housing sitting by derelict former mills and factories, now classed as brownfield sites, for which housing planning permission is frequently sought. It comes as no surprise that Hyndburn has one of the lowest rates of physical activity for adults in England. It has consistently been in the lowest 25% of all localities as regards adults having 30 minutes of physical activity three times a week. Consequently, it has poor and/or chronic health statistics. The impact of this national planning policy framework on health and lifestyle inequalities cannot be underestimated.

The previous “brownfield first” presumption on which much of this debate focuses favours the rich and privileged on the urban fringes and works against the urban poor. It is not fair to maintain an expectation that the poor who neighbour many old brownfield sites should shoulder the burden of housing development. It is no wonder that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening when the national planning policy framework

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sits in a policy vacuum where it has no relation to, and works against, the objectives of other Government Departments.

Health inequalities are widening. The Prime Minister’s happiness index would do well to reflect the national planning policy framework as regards some of these sites. If the Government are serious about putting forth an agenda of improving the health of our people, they must resist the further crowding of densely populated urban areas by brownfield developmental pressure. A free-for-all urban infill based on gross housing need simply will not work in my constituency.

To put that in perspective, 60% of the terraced houses in my constituency sit cheek by jowl with old unwanted industrial sites. For the past 20 years, I have lived in one of the most deprived wards where, as one would expect, there are all the social problems that the Government wish to address. We must resist a “brownfield first” presumption of development of such former industrial sites. One of those in my neighbourhood stands out as a particularly good example, as it is turned over to housing. It is surrounded by old Victorian property that sells for £40,000 per house. Many properties have been boarded up or are empty; most of the remainder are in the hands of landlords who do not really care much for the area. I am sure that hon. Members understand the issues. The pressure to release the brownfield site resulted in a successful housing application to build what can only be described as the slums of tomorrow. No one is willing to develop a former industrial site in a poor area with five-bedroom luxury homes and open space, and the national planning policy framework will not prevent that from continuing. I hope that the Minister will address my concerns.

3.57 pm

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): We have learned this afternoon of the momentous news from Libya of the death of Colonel Gaddafi. On Sunday, the European Heads of Government meet to consider the eurozone crisis, and we have our own debate on this issue on Monday. Parliament often considers these great matters of state and international affairs, but often our work as Members of Parliament is more drawn to the issues that we have covered in today’s debate. Planning issues that shape people’s lives and communities are the bread and butter of our work as Members of Parliament and the work of this House. It is a timely debate, and it has been interesting and illuminating to hear from colleagues from all around the country of their own experiences of planning. I will also draw briefly on my own experiences.

There has been much reference to the position of the National Trust as against that of the Government. The National Trust’s manifesto for planning states:

“Effective planning should promote good development, which contributes to prosperity and growth.”

I think that every one of us would agree with that. It is totally consistent with the policies set out by the Government and with having planning based on good local plans that include a sound assessment of local economic need and of the needs of local individuals.

Some of the remarks by Labour Members have presented us with a false dilemma and a false challenge that is not borne out by people’s experience. It is suggested that development would take place in urban centres only if it

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were required and incentivised by the Government, and that development out of urban areas is unnecessary and promoted only because it may be cheap and expedient. Those of us who represent urban and rural communities are aware that such development can be a very important trigger for bringing in investment and helping to stimulate the local economy. That applies just as much to small rural villages and seaside towns, such as Folkestone in my constituency, as to major urban centres.

Over a number of years, Labour and Conservative Governments have pursued a strategy of urban and civic renewal and many of our major cities have benefited from that consensus. However, we should also consider the need for development in rural communities, such as the villages in the middle of Romney Marsh in my constituency. I had a meeting with representatives of Newchurch parish council, which is right in the middle of Romney Marsh. They expressed their frustration that they had been blocked in trying to get planning permission for a small amount of rural development in the village which might have made the community more sustainable. People with rural constituencies will be familiar with such planning concerns.

It has been suggested in this debate that the regional spatial strategies ensured that a certain amount of housing development took place, and that without them it simply would not have happened. However, many Members will be aware that the local authorities in their constituencies have been keen to pursue a strategy for growth. Shepway district council, which covers 90% of my constituency, has set growth plans for housing that exceed the levels set in the regional spatial strategies. It understands that sensible and sustainable development can play an important role in stimulating the local economy. When that is welcomed by the community, it should be welcomed by all. I think that people realise that.

The new homes bonus is helpful because it gives local authorities a means of compensating a local community and addressing the concerns that it may have about the dilution of the quality of local services because of additional development. That is money that councils can control. For a district authority, a development of even several thousand housing units over a number of years could bring a substantial reward to the local community in investment.

Development can also support the delivery of local services, particularly the roll-out of broadband services, which are often a complaint in more remote parts of the country. The investment from the developer that comes into the community can help the roll-out and expansion of broadband services and other services. There is a lot that we can commend.

I will touch on one aspect of planning policy and of major infrastructure planning policy in particular that has affected my constituency: the planning of new nuclear planning stations. The previous Government were remiss in not allowing local economic decisions to be considered in the site-specific report. In my constituency, a new power station at Dungeness would have been of considerable benefit to the local economy. It has been held back because of planning restraints to do with nature conservation on the site around the power station. It would be welcome if the Government revisited those regulations. They are largely based on European law. In this case, they are not welcomed by the community and have put a barrier on development at the site. We should

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look again to see if there is the flexibility to revisit the way in which such regulations are imposed. Communities change, and the nature of regulations may no longer suit the needs of the local economy and community. We should always keep a vigilant eye on that.

4.2 pm

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. When I was first elected as an MP, one of the older hands advised me to steer clear of planning applications and leave them to councillors because we have no power over them. I have singularly failed to follow that instruction, but then I have had two open-cast mines, a gasification plant and consultations on various supermarkets to deal with in my constituency. It has not been an issue that I could have kept out of.

Seven years as a district councillor taught me that the planning system is far too complex and that neither local people nor developers really get what they want. We tend to get a nationally enforced plan with a nationally enforced target. The council then sets a local plan and turns down applications on valid planning grounds, but then the inspectors approve them anyway. That is the worst of all worlds. What we want is clarity so that everyone can understand what should be approved and what should not. If something is turned down validly, the decision ought to stick.

I want to discuss two issues: the green belt and mineral planning. The last thing that any of us wants is to lose any green belt, which is so valuable to our communities. One thing that is certain is that once it is gone, it is unlikely to ever come back. There is one encouraging remark in the draft framework in paragraph 137:

“Once established, Green Belt boundaries should only be altered in exceptional circumstances.”

I wholeheartedly agree with that. Green belt should be changed only where it absolutely has to be. I urge my local council to bear that in mind as it looks at options for future housing development.

David Tredinnick: Does my hon. Friend agree that we also have to protect green wedges and agricultural blocks to avoid urban communities coming together? That is the case in Hinckley, in my Leicestershire constituency.

Nigel Mills: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and reiterate that point. One of the key advantages for the green belt set out in the framework is that communities will be prevented from being merged and our distinct historic communities will be maintained. When there have been threats to the green belt in my constituency in recent years, either real or rumoured, the local people have come together strongly to fight the loss. I have seen that in the village of Shipley with the Hardy Barn development, with the threats to the old American Adventure site and with the Lodge House open-cast mine in Smalley, which was sadly approved last week. There are matters still to be decided in Heage and in the villages around the Cinderhill development, where the council removed some green-belt land to try to encourage the cleaning up of an old, contaminated site.

More recently, in Ripley, the council has consulted on whether to sell land for another supermarket. I strongly welcome the framework’s stating that if councils are willing to consider out-of-town development such as

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supermarkets, they need to bear in mind the damage that would be done to existing shops in the town centre not just for a short period but for 10 years, when the supermarket grows and gets more popular. That is especially important because these days supermarkets sell not just food but newspapers, books and clothes and have a pharmacy, a mobile phone shop and an optician. Almost nothing in a town centre can compete if there is a supermarket like that.

The key thing for the Government now is to get the emphasis right and ensure that the green belt is strongly protected by the framework. That should come right at the start of the plan. We should say, “Okay, we have a presumption in favour of sustainable development, but we also have a strong presumption against development in the green belt.” We do not want councils to reduce the size of the green belt when they set their local plans.

I wish to mention mineral extraction. It is worth reiterating that what we put in the framework is what developers will quote when they submit their planning applications, and they will want decisions to be enforced based on it. If councils try to go beyond what is in it, there will be a real risk of successful appeal. I strongly believe that we have the balance wrong on mineral extraction. The section on minerals states first, in paragraph 103, that “significant weight” must be given to

“the benefits of the mineral extraction”,

but then paragraph 106 states that there is a presumption against the extraction of coal. I would have thought that that presumption against it should come right at the start, so that we all know we are starting from that point, especially in the case of green-belt sites. Then we could consider circumstances in which that presumption could be overturned and approval granted, so conditions could be set to ensure that excessive damage was not done to people living near the sites in question.

That is where it gets complicated for a council assessing applications. There is no guidance in the draft framework on what noise levels are acceptable at such sites. There is a comment that when a site is started, a noise level that is not generally acceptable may occur, because it is unavoidable given the blasting needed to set the site up. However, there is no comment on how long that noise can go on or how excessive it may be. If I were the applicant, I might think that six months was a short time for a four-year site, but if I were living next door to it I might think that 30 minutes was far too long for excessive noise. It will be very hard for a council to interpret that provision if there is no national guidance. Although I wholeheartedly support the need to slim down the guidance, we need some clarity about what is and is not acceptable in that situation.

I refer Ministers to the private Member’s Bill on open-cast mining separation zones, and to the amendments that I tabled to the Localism Bill to try to ensure separation. People need to be sure how close to their house a mine can be. A mine that was approved in my constituency is just over 200 metres from someone’s back door, which is far too close, especially given that open-cast mining was taken out of the neighbourhood planning process in the Localism Bill. Local communities have no protection against that.

I conclude by saying that I wholeheartedly support the simplification of the system but that some refinements to the details are still needed.

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4.8 pm

Mr Sam Gyimah (East Surrey) (Con): The Minister is quite familiar with my constituency, given that he has been kind enough to speak to members of my association a number of times, so it will come as no surprise to him when I say that I have received more than 130 letters on the NPPF, or that more than four organisations in my constituency have contributed to the consultation. As he is aware, it is in a part of the country where people are focused on shaping the places in which they live and building their communities. They are doing that in many parts of the country, as the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said earlier.

In the brief time available to me I want to focus on just two points. However, I would like first to thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for agreeing to meet the organisations in my constituency that are concerned about the NPPF. They include Tandridge district council, CPRE Tandridge, CPRE Surrey, the Oxted and Limpsfield residents group, Reigate and Banstead council, Nutfield residents association and Woldingham parish council, which are just a few of those that we could fit into one meeting. I thank my right hon. Friend for being open to meeting them.

Although I understand the need to simplify the planning system, the need for house building, the need for localism and the need to stimulate growth, my main consideration is the core strategy and how it will work. We have had a core strategy in Tandridge district council since 2008, and many hours have been spent developing it. The main concern now is that the transitional provisions would still leave a period of uncertainty, so why do we not let the core strategies, in which so much time has been invested, be tested out there, rather than completely overruling them?

Nicky Morgan: My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. He started by talking about how many of his constituents care very much about this issue. Does he agree that it is therefore a great shame that although we have heard some powerful speeches from the Opposition, there now appear to be just three Opposition Members in the Chamber for this important debate? It may not be a debate about matters of state, but as he knows, it is about an issue of great concern to all our constituents.

Mr Gyimah: I thank my hon. Friend for her point, which has been well noted in Hansard.

The concern about the core strategy is that developers might take councils to appeal on every planning application because of the fact that their core strategies were developed in different times, when demands were different, and thus are not in line with the NPPF, which focuses mainly on economic needs. I seek assurances from the Minister on how consistent the transition period will be with the core strategies that have been worked on for so long.

East Surrey is 94% green belt. Again, I already know of two sites in Oxted that have been bought by developers in anticipation of the rules being relaxed. As they see it, they will be able to develop on green-belt land, which is causing a lot of anxiety among my constituents. My suggestion for the Minister is that it might be better to incentivise developers to build on brownfield sites, because

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we already know where they are in our core strategy and that would cause less anxiety to my constituents.

Those are my two principal points for the Minister. I again thank him for being open to meeting the groups that I have mentioned, but I would also like reassurance from him that the NPPF will protect the core strategy and the green belt. I am conscious that the consultation has just finished and that he might not be able to give me all the assurances that I need, but I would like to hear his comments about those matters.

4.13 pm

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): Top-down, imposed on communities; done to people, not with them; reflecting the ambitions of regional quangos, not local circumstances; adversarial, pitting communities against each other and individuals against developers; lop-sided; not transparent; appeal-led; not delivering on the ground—that is where we are today with the current planning system. It is absolutely right that the Government should seek to reform it, and I welcome that. My belief is that the combination of the Localism Bill and the national planning policy framework will deliver an inclusive process that will bring people together, enabling a plan-led approach where developers and communities get round the table together to work out what is in their neighbourhood’s best interest. Such an approach will be bottom-up, secure consent, take conflict out of the system and finally be transparent in a way that it has not been until now.

I have a great deal of sympathy for what is in the NPPF and the way it relates to the Localism Bill and the need to simplify national guidance and be clear about the need for sustainable development. However, we also need to ensure that development is well planned and genuinely sustainable, and that we create a planning system that delivers attractive communities in the right places, not endless cul de sacs that, although they might cumulatively occupy a large amount of space, fail to deliver the places that people want to live in. Such places need schools and pubs, leisure facilities and green spaces. I agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) that we need a clearer definition of “sustainable development” in the NPPF. We need to ensure that the provisions cover economic, social and environmental concerns together, and that no one leg of that tripod is given too much prominence.

A second major principle of the NPPF is the presumption in favour of sustainable development. I think that I understood my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr Brine) correctly when he said that the first presumption that he wanted to see in the NPPF was that development should be carried out according to local plans. He said that that should be the bottom line; it should be where we start from. That is very much the Government’s intention, and it would be useful to make that slightly clearer in the proposals.

As the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) said, when the NPPF is finalised, all existing unadopted local plans, as well as those that are in an advanced stage of preparation, will technically be out of date. As a result, the presumption in favour of sustainable development will apply to all development proposals when the contents of the NPPF become the de facto

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policy across the country. As I understand it, that will remain the position until local plans are updated to reflect the guidelines in the new NPPF.

Paragraph 26 of the document states:

“It will be open to local planning authorities to seek a certificate of conformity with the Framework.”

That optional approach appears to imply that the Government will offer to test the draft and adopted local development frameworks to see whether they conform with the NPPF. That raises a whole new series of questions about how an LDF based on a revoked regional strategy or on the existing PPS1 could ever meet a test of conformity with the new NPPF, especially in relation to the presumption in favour of sustainable development. When the final version of the proposals comes out, will the Minister clarify how that will work effectively? We need to be clear about the transitional arrangements because the lack of a transition plan would be an open invitation to anyone with land to put in an application to develop on it. What does the Minister think about implementing a two-year process, so that local authorities can get up to speed with their local strategic plans before the provisions come into effect?

If we get this right, we will end up with much simpler planning guidance that will significantly increase the local neighbourhood role in planning and support a genuinely more sustainable approach to development, while still delivering the homes to support the economic development that we all need.

4.18 pm

George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con): I apologise in advance if, having had to truncate my remarks, they sound a little staccato and disjointed. I also draw attention to my declaration of interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I want to make a few short points to Ministers and other Members. I sat on the Select Committee and heard a lot of evidence from developers and from all sorts of interested parties in planning. We face a situation in which sustainable development is being somewhat perverted by the document before us. Paragraphs 13 and 54, among many others, clearly shorten one of the three legs of sustainability—namely, that of economic growth. The table is clearly tipping in that direction, and we need to shove some pieces of paper under that leg to even it up and make it the same length as the other two. If we are to have truly sustainable development, it must take equal account of all three legs of sustainability.

Unlike many Members, I do not think that we need to do a great deal more on the definition of sustainable development. As long as local authorities are allowed to take equal note of all three corners, we will be in a good place. However, little evidence was presented to the Select Committee that planning has ever really stood in the way of economic development. That is another good reason to re-examine those provisions in the NPPF. It is equally true to say that, while planning might not have impeded economic development, it has not encouraged it much either. There is not much evidence on either side of that argument. There is certainly evidence that it is process, rather than policy, in the planning system that has caused delay, and we need to look as carefully at how we manage the planning process as at the policy that drives it.

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Moving on quickly to definitions, we have two different problems at two different levels. At the general level of definition—I mention the comments of the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) about “significantly and demonstrably”—there are any number of wide-meaning phrases in the NPPF that could do with some substantial testing. Perhaps we should employ some aggressive planning lawyers; there may be one or two in here who would like the work. [Interruption.] There is none present at the moment. We need to be absolutely confident that there can be a generally accepted definition of these terms; otherwise we will end up in severe trouble and face many delays over the next few years.

We have also heard a lot of evidence to show that we need to define more clearly things that are important to local authorities. Let me quote Winchester city council here:

“The brevity of the draft NPPF is refreshing but there are many matters that have been removed in their entirety. For example, guidance which explains how noise issues, specialised rural housing, enforcement, and historical assets and landscapes…should be dealt with”.

This issue is going to come back again and again. I have a short suggestion for Ministers. I have not thought this through terribly carefully but there are a lot of existing policies on these issues. Could we make these available to local authorities to adopt in whole or in part, or could they be modified in a way we find acceptable and then be made available for adoption if authorities thought they were sensible, particularly at a time of strained assets and strained capabilities in local government?

I have another little idea—re-inspection of local plans. It seems to me that a lot of the tension we have at the moment happens because plans can go out of date. The NPPF says very particularly that where a plan is out of date and demonstrably so, the presumption is in favour of development. Why can we not have a light-touch re-inspection on a regular basis? Each local authority is currently mandated to produce an annual report, so why could it not entail a very short re-adoption of the local plan with minimal consultation to see if the major tenets of the plan have changed? If we did that, we would not only have robustness against challenge from developers, but we might even be able to lose the 20% over-allocation, because that would have been regularly monitored throughout the period of the plan. That might satisfy many different constituencies.

On the interregnum, I believe, as others have said, that two years is a good number in which to adopt a new plan, which will then come into force. It is essential, however, that that is an absolute limit. One of the great attractions of the NPPF is that it forces local authorities to put plans in place. There must not be any budging on that. We are left, are we not, with two alternatives? Do we allow the current local plan derived from the regional spatial strategy to continue for two years, or do we give increasing weight to the emerging new local plan? I favour the latter course, but we need to make a decision on that front.

There are many other important issues—the balance of process, brownfield sites, “city centre first”, the balance of spatial planning, the “larger than local” planning—but far too little time to cover them. The broad thrust of the

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changes is right. If we put power back in the hands of local people and make the plan robust to challenge, we will all be in a much better place.

4.22 pm

Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Following the spirit of what the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, I mention the fact that my family are members of the National Trust. I was a member until I came to this place and now have no time to visit its beautiful houses and locations—but perhaps I will again one day.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this afternoon’s debate. During the conference recess, I attended a number of meetings on this subject in my constituency and I would like to pay tribute to the Garendon Park Countryside Protection group, the Barrow residents action group and the Loughborough south-west action group, all of which took the time to brief me on their thoughts and concerns about what is being proposed.

As we have heard, planning is a popular issue for constituents to write about. I estimate that about 100 people contacted me through individual letters, which were often signed by many more people, and those letters were about the framework, the Localism Bill or specific planning applications within the last few months. I am not at all surprised to hear the Minister say that there have been 10,000 responses to the consultation on the framework. I wish him well in reading them all—or, at least, a proportion of them.

We have heard the current planning system mentioned this afternoon. I have to say that I do not think the current system has anything to recommend it. I have not been a local councillor, but I am married to one and I have watched him grapple with the system as it affects councils in my constituency. I think the current planning rules are inaccessible for local residents; I think 1,000 pages is far too long. I believe the current system is basically a lawyers charter—and I speak as a former lawyer. Communities feel shut out of the process: there are limited grounds for objection—I cannot think how many times we have had to ensure that there are highways grounds or other reasons for objecting—and those wishing to develop land have no obligation to consult. I consider that a mistake but it is something that the framework will put right.

The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), who, unfortunately, is no longer in her place, was right about the planning process: planning applications take too long and appeals are too costly. That is why we need a proper plan-led system, which the framework will deliver. I have already told the Minister privately that, although much of the discussion has been about house building, we have forgotten the needs of business. Small businesses in my constituency often need places to expand, but, as I said in an intervention, people often have to go around the houses several times before getting their applications approved. I would like to think that that would not be the case if we could get the system working as we want it to work.

As we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, we all know of people who cannot get on to the housing ladder, whether for affordable housing, family housing or older people’s accommodation. There is

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definitely a need for more housing, but it has to be where people want it to be in their local communities. We have also heard how the planning system is in limbo and leaves councils vulnerable to speculative applications. I have taken that point from a recent paper presented to the Charnwood borough council cabinet by the planning officers. We cannot allow this limbo to continue for too much longer.

I am broadly supportive of the aims of the framework, but I would like clarification on some key areas. We have talked about the presumption in favour of sustainable development. At the risk of ousting the DCLG officials, who, I am sure, have given this much more thought than I have, I would argue that sustainable development might be better achieved through the general principle of building long-term successful communities that support economic growth, environmental protection and general well-being—to use that rather woolly phrase mentioned earlier. There also needs to be further clarification of the relationship between local authorities and neighbourhood plans.

I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr Brine). If we believe in localism, which I think Government Members do, we have to go for it; we cannot have half-baked localism. I am unhappy, therefore, about the idea of a five-year supply of housing land plus the 20% allowance, which seems to contradict the Government’s aim of abolishing top-down housing targets. I also endorse what has been said about the use of existing housing stock. Loughborough has a number of houses that used to be occupied by students but which are now sitting empty. I would like the council, supported by the Government, to find innovative ways of bringing those houses back into family use.

We have talked about markets, and I entirely endorse what the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) said about their importance in town centres. We have already talked about transition arrangements. It has become clear to me that there is other guidance that might not fall within the planning system—I am talking particularly about highways. I discovered this week something called, “Manual for Streets 2”, which talks about traffic junctions, which appear to be driving the need for the council to give the go-ahead for a development in Barrow upon Soar. That cannot be right.

I thank the Government for providing the time for this debate. I cannot remember the last time that we debated something while it was still in consultation.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Because people have shown restraint, for which I am extremely grateful, I can increase the time limit back to six minutes. We should get everybody in.

4.28 pm

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): I hope that I do not take my six minutes, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Like many other hon. Members, I have served as a local councillor and grappled with the complicated planning system over a number of years. I would like to thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for the fantastic effort that he has put into the Localism Bill. The planning proposals represent a serious move towards achieving

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the localism agenda, and I know that my constituents will benefit hugely from them. They will make the planning system clearer, more democratic, more effective and give real power to local people to determine planning permission themselves or at least to have their views taken into account.

That is necessary. The economic climate means that local councils across the country do not have the money to spend on lengthy, costly planning appeals, as has been mentioned. The national planning policy framework provides guidance for local councils on drawing up local development plans and empowers local communities to come together, through local parish councils or neighbourhood forums, to draw up neighbourhood plans for the local areas that they know best. The neighbourhood plans will be included in the local development framework, and I understand that it is those documents that will be used to determine planning applications, giving people a real say in what happens to their local areas.

Proposals for local green space designation and the identification of suitable areas for renewable and low-carbon energy are extremely welcome. We must bear in mind that protections conferred by earlier legislation will still apply to, for instance, areas of outstanding natural beauty, but I am keen for councils to back them up with good neighbourhood plans. I know from my experience as a councillor, and from talking to my constituents, that it is local people who show real passion and enthusiasm for their own areas, and it is right that their voices should be heard.

There is just one point that I should like clarified. Will some sort of contingency plan be provided when a council does not have a live local plan to protect it from unwanted development?

4.31 pm

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate. While I endorse the vast bulk of the Government’s proposals, because I have only six minutes I shall focus on the one tiny aspect of the framework that causes me slight concern. I refer to the chapter on the historic environment.

I have two non-pecuniary interests to declare. First, for reasons that I do not yet understand, I am still a member of the National Trust—an organisation which, it must be said, has not risen in my estimation in recent weeks. Perhaps more important is the fact that I am also a member of the Twentieth Century Society, which campaigns for the protection of buildings constructed during the last century. When the society first comes into contact with many heritage assets, they are not designated as listed assets, so it finds it very difficult to persuade Governments to take them seriously. What worries the society, and many amenity societies, is that the “Historic environment” chapter concerns only designated heritage assets, and does not refer to other aspects of heritage that may be brought into play.

I fear that, given the emphasis on localism, neighbourhood planning and local groups at the grass roots, on the bringing together of local plans and on putting what local people want first, many types of architectural heritage that ought to be valued but, for one reason or another, may not be will not be given the full consideration that they deserve. That may strike many Members as a subtle discrepancy, but I think it is an important one. Let me give an example.

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Each year, the World Monuments Fund—many Members may not know of its existence, but I assure them that it does exist—issues a “watch” that lists sites around the world that are of historical importance and under great threat. This month’s watch has adopted “British brutalism” as a genre. I assure Members that that refers not to the Chamber but to three sites in the United Kingdom: the South Bank, which the Government sadly failed to list despite English Heritage’s recommendation; Birmingham central library, which, as I am sure the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) is aware, is the subject of a long-running saga; and Preston bus station, the subject of an equally long-running soap opera. The position of all three has been highly controversial. None of them is officially listed, which greatly concerns the amenity societies. If they are not listed, how can they be catered for?

The most recent edition of The Architects’ Journal describes brutalism as “fashionably unfashionable”, which is, perhaps, how many of us regard what we consider to be concrete eyesores in our constituencies. It is a great concern that buildings that might not immediately be aesthetically pleasing to us now but that might at some point in the future be deemed to have great historical and heritage value will not get the protection they deserve under this framework. Although I welcome the ambition of shrinking the framework document from 1,000 pages to 100 pages, brevity should be not just the soul of wit, but the soul of clarity. We must ensure that certain current statutory protections remain in place, and I seek reassurance on that. Given the degree of local autonomy that is proposed, there is great concern that such buildings will not be protected.

That reassurance can be given in a number of ways. The Minister could tweak the framework or add warm words, or reconsider the role he envisages for statutory bodies such as English Heritage and existing amenity societies that cover the 20th century, the Victorian and Georgian eras and periods further back in history. He might also reconsider the role he envisages the Department for Culture, Media and Sport playing in respect of neighbourhood plans.

How can we ensure that when our local village considers its neighbourhood plan and makes decisions about a building that some might call a concrete monstrosity but others might call a beautiful example of a postmodernist bungalow, it takes into account not only its own aesthetic impressions, but the heritage value of what it has in its community? What steps can we take to ensure that the legitimate concerns of the amenity societies are respected? As we are engaged in a consultation process, I do not expect an answer now, but I hope that some reassurance on this point might be forthcoming in the very near future.

4.36 pm

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): I broadly support the intentions of this new framework. For far too long, the planning process has been riddled with uncertainty and ambiguity, leading to widespread misunderstanding and frustration. In particular, I welcome the simplification of the guidance from a bewildering 1,000-plus pages to a manageable 52 pages. I also welcome the removal of top-down pressure by the abolition of the unpopular regional spatial strategies. That has resulted in a reduction

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of 20% on the previous Government’s insistence that 12,400 houses should be built in south Wiltshire, where my constituency lies.

I also welcome the framework’s safeguards for the green belt, areas of outstanding national beauty and sites of special scientific interest, as well as the acknowledgement of the need to protect wildlife, biodiversity and our cultural heritage. However, I have considerable concern about how the principle of localism will work in reality. Frankly, the devil is in the detail, and the precise mechanisms for collating, calibrating and putting together local views to create a local core strategy need to be clarified.

In Salisbury, there was a decision on Hampton Park II four weeks ago. The Secretary of State overturned the decision by a local planning inspector, thereby approving the building of 525 homes, which has fundamentally undermined confidence in the planning process. That may be due in part to the previous Government’s determination to abolish the district council in Salisbury by amalgamating other district councils to form a Wiltshire unitary authority. The price of this change has been the perception of a considerable distancing in decision making, and that is particularly keenly felt in planning.

I wish to pay tribute to Councillors Moss and McLennan, who have done so much to champion the concerns of the Laverstock and Ford parish. Councillor McLennan expressed his views to me. He said that

“from a local perspective, the core strategy was a poisoned chalice. The forward-planners of Salisbury district, who morphed and increased under Wiltshire council to become ‘spatial planners’ had our strategic gap in the frame…However, we were negotiating until the remote spatial folk from Trowbridge overruled the locals.”

He recognises that other parishes will be able to determine the nature of the housing that should be built, but in this transitional period the consequences of unclear guidance have been devastating.

Specific concerns about the need to include a strategic gap—a piece of land that acts as a barrier between new planned development and the separate parish—have not been recognised. In fact, Ron Champion, chairman of Laverstock and Ford parish council has told me that

“the views of this parish have been wholly ignored in regards to the numbers appropriate for the development known as Hampton Park II and Wiltshire council got itself into a position of opposing a development of 500 homes on the site in front of one inspector—whilst supporting the 500 homes in front of another.”

The inadequacy of the consultation process on the development of the core strategy to replace the RSS has left a bitter taste. In essence, there is much confusion over the definition of the word “local”. When parishes are motivated to make, and indeed do make, a constructive, considered and meaningful contribution to a core strategy only to find that three weeks before it is formally adopted the Secretary of State overturns an individual planning decision by a local inspector on the basis that the core strategy is still awaited and so only limited weight to its provisions can be given, that means my local constituents’ views have, in effect, been set aside. That is how they see it.

My constituents are angry. They believe that the Secretary of State could have delayed this decision by a few weeks to await the protection that the core strategy could have provided, because it is in the detail of those provisions that good individual planning applications and decisions are enabled. My local parishioners were

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not saying, “No housing here.” They made a serious attempt to define the design qualities required to fit in with the local community’s wishes, but they now have a scheme, approved by a Minister, that is sub-optimally designed and does not fit with what is in the core strategy.

I ask the ministerial team to review the guidance and procedures adopted by the Department in handling appeals, so that when core strategies are not quite adopted some serious attempt is made to acknowledge what is in them and they can have a bearing on decisions made. I do not want any more of my constituents to say to me, “What does ‘localism’ mean? We did what was expected. The core strategy gave guidelines that contradict the logic of the Secretary of State’s decision and, had he known about it, it would have had some meaning.” The new framework must not simply be a codification of sensible rules for the future; it must also deal with the practical contradictions and realities of the present, and with the pipeline of unadopted core strategies that appear to give opportunistic home builders a smooth ride to build sub-optimal developments.

4.42 pm

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I begin by stating that before I came to this place last May I was a chartered surveyor for 27 years, during which time I saw the planning process get slower and more bureaucratic, with an increasing complexity of planning regulations. There is a need for a faster and more flexible process that brings the plethora of guidance notes down to a manageable size. The publication of the draft NPPF is very much a move in the right direction, although some amendments and rewording may well be necessary.

Many have argued that by introducing the principle in favour of sustainable development the Government are undermining the whole planning process. That is not the case, as the presumption in favour of development was first enshrined in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. What the draft NPPF seeks to do is reiterate and reinforce that, and it introduces the 21st-( )century principle of sustainability.

There has been much debate as to whether sustainability should be defined and embedded in the Localism Bill, whether a fuller definition than the Brundtland one should be provided and whether the 2005 definition should be used. My own view, which is supported by the Local Government Association, is that a more detailed definition should be left to local planning authorities; it should be for them to decide on the definition that best suits them, taking into account local circumstances and concerns.

That may include consideration of whether adequate infrastructure can be provided to underpin a particular development so as to ensure that the development is properly sustainable.

I was going to say a bit about the housing crisis, but it has been said. I will say, however, that planning is not the principal cause of the housing crisis, but a streamlined and less bureaucratic process has a vital role to play in overcoming it.

Much concern has been expressed that the NPPF is a developers’ charter and that it will open up the countryside for development. I do not believe that that is the case, as the framework preserves the green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty and introduces a new

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designation of local green spaces as an additional tier of protection for valuable open space that local planning authorities can incorporate in their local plans. Moreover, the natural environment White Paper has an important role to play in delivering wider protection for the environment.

I am also conscious of the future of our town centres and the need to reinvigorate them. The “town centre first” policy that has been pursued since 1996 has an important role to play in achieving that, and although it is referred to in the framework, I ask the Minister of State to consider ways in which this part of the framework might be strengthened.

The Minister is to be commended for providing a strong focus on design. Towns and villages across Britain reflect a wide variety of local designs and architecture built up over many centuries, and that very much defines Britain and the built environment that we all cherish. We have lost that in recent decades. The sense of place has been replaced by a sense of “sameness”, with the same developments by the same developers across the country, with little regard to local traditions, styles and identities. We need to move away from that, and the incorporation of design in the framework provides the opportunity to do so.

Over the years, while I was practising, I came across many schemes that had obtained planning permission that would never be built because they were financially non-viable. I therefore welcome the conclusions on viability in the framework. However, it is important that if a scheme is non-viable in the first instance, the planners and developers consider redesigning or reshaping the scheme rather than straight away permitting a development that might be described as inadequate.

The Minister is introducing radical proposals for how planning works in this country and it is my view that they are for the better. What he is proposing is in fact a double devolution, not only empowering local authorities but also local neighbourhoods. It is important that transitional arrangements are put in place to ensure a smooth move to the new system.

The framework puts local people in the driving seat. Councils and local communities will be able to control what happens in their local areas as long as they have an up-to-date local plan in place. The framework will ensure that heritage is protected and local authorities will be able to decide where development should take place and which areas should be protected.

The Government are right to approach this matter with a sense of urgency, to have brought forward the framework in this form and to have this debate so that they can take full account of hon. Members’ opinions as well as the views of the many bodies that have made representations. There might well be a need for some revision, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister’s door is open and that he will listen to well-reasoned proposals. In places, the wording of the framework might need to be tightened and there might be a need to expand the document to, say, 80 or 90 pages, but this streamlined process is vital to ensure that the planning process works properly and efficiently and takes full account of local people’s concerns.

Many people have expressed the view that the framework is too development and growth-oriented. There is a need for growth, but it is a need for “good” growth that

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also ensures that environmental and social interests are not prejudiced. I believe the framework gives us the basis for achieving that.

4.48 pm

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): I am delighted to have the chance to speak in this debate and, in particular, to congratulate those on the Front Bench on their localism agenda, which is so important to this country and not least to Northamptonshire, the county I am proud to represent. Under the Labour Government, Northamptonshire’s regional spatial strategy forced development on to greenfield sites, with the unwelcome intrusion of large developments on the edges of villages, which members of the local community have been unable to resist. I certainly recognise the need for more housing, but the worst part of that approach has been the inability to keep Northamptonshire’s infrastructure in line with the growing population.

According to the Office for National Statistics, Northamptonshire was the second-fastest-growing county between 2004 and 2009. It was very much an area for growth, but the policing and health care settlements and the local government grant have lagged far behind the demographic growth. When I was out canvassing for the general election in 2010 people told me, for example, that they were eight months pregnant and still did not have a proper midwife because there simply were not enough midwives. Northampton general hospital is often on red alert because its services are so pressed. We really do have a backlog of infrastructure needs, so I thoroughly welcome, first, the desire to achieve more localism and, secondly, the desire for sustainable development, which means bringing alongside the infrastructure that is necessary.

I should like to make a few points about the concerns for my constituency specifically as a result of the mad rush for growth of the past 10 years. Northamptonshire is suffering from a grey area, because the regional spatial strategy has not yet gone and we do not have a coherent local development plan. My constituency has 92 parishes, and the prospect of trying to write 92 neighbourhood development plans within six months is a very tall order. We will need a period during which there can be no prospect of some developer free-for-all. It is no exaggeration to say that almost every green site in South Northamptonshire has some developer option on it. That is of real concern to my constituents.

The last thing we want is any pause in the Government introducing legislation that will give clarity to my constituents. Equally, however, we do not want something else that is happening now, I am afraid, where planners, particularly at appeal, are taking into account the NPPF while it is still under consultation. I very much regret that. In a recent appeal regarding a wind farm development, the inspector took into account these measures, which are still under consultation, in his considerations. We do not have a result yet, but I very much hope that a misinterpretation of the term “sustainable development” does not lead to a wind farm that should have been subject to other considerations.

Specifically on wind farms, I congratulate our Front-Bench team on inserting a material planning consideration regarding how windy an area is. It has always seemed to

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me complete madness that that did not matter, but it is very important in Northamptonshire because we are not a terribly windy county. You might think that we produce plenty of wind here in the Chamber, Mr Deputy Speaker, between the seven of us, but we are not a very good site for wind farms, so I am very glad to see that measure. Nevertheless, we really need to reinforce local communities’ ability to take the right decisions for their area.

There are three issues on which I urge the Government to focus for the sake of Northamptonshire and, indeed, the whole country. First, I would like them to focus on the definition of sustainable development to ensure that planners have to take into account not only current needs but any backlog of infrastructure requirements that have resulted from disastrous Labour policies. Secondly, we need to ensure that we have clarity between now and when our local development plans are in place and signed off. Thirdly, we need to defend our greenfield sites against development when plenty of brownfield sites remain. I urge the Front-Bench team to bear those issues closely in mind.

Let me finish by making two suggestions—I am not sure whether they have been discussed during the debate. A big problem that I have come across in South Northamptonshire is the time developers have for planning permission, and I wonder whether we could constrain that. First, there are an awful lot of permission sites that developers are sitting on, presumably waiting for the market to turn round. Secondly, there is the issue of developers building a few footings and then leaving a development for ages and ages. If we could constrain those practices, that would help considerably in building the homes that we certainly need.

4.54 pm

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I draw everyone’s attention to my interests as listed in the register.

I am committed to protecting the environment in my constituency. I am committed to ensuring that we have more houses. I think that those two things are quite compatible—they certainly are if we have strong local plans underpinned by proper consultation and the involvement of local people. The Minister was absolutely right when he opened his remarks with the observation that people are worried about having planning done to them rather than being involved in planning. I have noticed that most of the criticisms of the national planning policy framework are along the lines of, “This is going to be terrible for us. Something is going to happen.” We have to disabuse people of that fear. I have been doing that to some extent in the constituency already, and this debate has been a useful opportunity to continue that process.

I have listened to Stroud district council, which is very pleased to find that it will have fewer national guidance documents and more simplified ways of proceeding. It welcomes the idea of having a local plan that will be effectively informed by local opinion. I have also talked to the Gloucestershire Campaign to Protect Rural England. CPRE has been involved nationally, but locally it recognises the importance of a sovereign local plan and wants one in place. We must make sure that it is. The CPRE is also very keen on the idea of the duty to co-operate, as specified in the Localism Bill. That is a really important step, and one that we need to consider.

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As far as planning principles go, it is critical to realise that a proper understanding of sustainability is often found at the local level. That is certainly the case in my constituency. That is because factors such as flooding must be included, and local people know about such things. They will be able to put into a local plan a realistic appraisal of the impact of such factors in terms of sustainability. It is right that we make sure that the local plan includes a proper definition of sustainability, and that that has some force and power.

I turn now to the National Trust. It is national; it is not a local structure in the sense of having accountability. Having read the National Trust Act 1971, I cannot find evidence of any accountability at all. However, I agree with some of the points that the trust made to the Environmental Audit Committee, such as those about the definition of sustainability. I tested the Minister on those issues and on issues of local planning, and I am satisfied that the Government have properly thought about the need to link the national planning policy framework with local plans.

There are five things that we really must get right. The first is the transition. There is a lot of concern about the situation that we now find ourselves in, where the NPPF is starting to be referred to as material evidence, and about what might transpire in a planning situation, so we need more clarity about the transition, and also more speed. The second area is the power of local plans. We must be sure that they are the things that matter, and we need to make more noise about that. Certainly we need to talk about the role of the inspectors. In Stroud, the inspectors overturned a decision of the district council, allowing a building development to take place—Foxes Field—which has turned out to be the source of huge trouble. If people had listened more carefully to the local opinion, that would have been avoided.

The third area is the capacity of local planners. We have great local planners in Stroud district council, but we need to make sure that all our councils are properly equipped with the right capacity to make sure that they have a local plan in place, and that that local plan is informed by evidence and reflects local opinion. The fourth area I would like to talk about, which I referred to earlier, is co-operation between councils. Stroud district council is up against Gloucester, and of course there are issues about where developments take place, so councils need to learn to co-operate. The Government should put more emphasis on that and they should do something if there is no co-operation.

Finally, we need to protect areas of outstanding natural beauty—Harold Wilson’s one great achievement—national parks and so on. I am committed to protecting my area, as we have some fantastic places along the Slad valley, and so far we have fought successfully to stop a development on Wades farm. We intend to fight to stop a development on Sellars farm near Hardwicke. We are fighting, first, to protect the AONB and, secondly, to protect the integrity of a village. That is the sort of thing that local people want to do, and they will be able to do it more easily if we have strong and robust local plans.

5 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): In the spirit of the debate, may I refer hon. Members to the register and declare my membership of the Campaign to Protect

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Rural England, the Gloucestershire wildlife trust, Friends of Leckhampton Hill and Charlton Kings Common, and the Leckhampton Green Land Action Group? May I pay tribute, too, to the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who has responded constructively and openly to this debate, and to the wider debate? He has certainly spent a lot of time with me and with other Back Benchers who have expressed concern about the national planning policy framework, which is very much appreciated.

I share the emerging consensus across the House that the general principles of the framework may be good, and that the idea of simplification is welcome—certainly to anyone who has tried to trawl through volumes of planning guidance. There are, however, serious concerns about the way in which the first draft has come out. I agree, in particular, with many of the comments about the six-year supply rule and the large loophole regarding the ability of developers and others to challenge not just local plans but individual policies and evidence on the basis that they are out of date, absent, silent or indeterminate. Points have been well made on those, and I will not repeat them.

This should have been a trouble-free area of coalition policy. The precedents were very good, and I was shocked at how good the Conservative policy on planning was in “Open Source Planning” when it was published. It was very, very impressive; we were rather startled and felt the need to catch up. [ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has obviously been involved in developing even more robust policies. There was an emphatic statement in “Open Source Planning” which I thought was very good:

“Our emphasis on local control will allow local planning authorities to determine exactly how much development they want, of what kind and where.”

It balanced that with incentives, so there was not a temptation to say no to everything, but that emphatic statement was rather good, and if it can be repeated in the framework, that will be helpful.

Some Liberal Democrat policies on the natural environment, including the one that I helped to co-author on natural heritage, which was adopted by the party, made some complementary statements on the protection of the natural environment. We said:

“Too often we have parcelled off a small number of sites or areas for special protection by experts and left the rest to the mercy of market forces where different values often prevail and valuable natural resources are lost.”

That document originated the policy of local green spaces, which is in the framework, and which I very much welcome. It is designed to help to protect green spaces, not for their biodiversity or outstanding beauty, but simply because they are important to local people and have been proven to be so.

Those themes have been reinforced in government, in the Localism Bill, in the natural environment White Paper, with its very strong emphasis on the valuing of natural capital, and, indeed, in the statement last November by the Prime Minister, who said that

“we will start measuring our progress as a country not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving, not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life.”

That is important.

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There are tensions in this debate, and it is important to consider the need for housing, including the very real need for affordable housing, and the need to tackle the affordability crisis, but it is a mistake to think that growth will be a panacea for those problems, for a number of reasons. First, as a country we need to learn to live within our environmental limits. Green space is a finite resource, and certainly on a crowded island with limited suitable areas for recreation and enjoyment, as well as for building, we cannot simply build and build and grow and grow. That is fundamentally unsustainable in the end.

Secondly, there are about 1 million more homes in this country than there are households, according to answers given to me by the Minister’s own Department. The problem, of course, is that they are not in the right places for jobs and work and where people want to live. It is local patterns of supply and demand that are the really big factors. In some areas, such as my constituency and others that have been mentioned, the demand is simply insatiable. Cheltenham has grown by 60% over recent decades, but we still have relatively high house prices and a housing waiting list. We can build on enormous amounts of countryside and those things will still apply because we will still have—I hope—really good jobs, good schools and a good built and natural environment. It is those kinds of things that drive this.

It comes as a bit of a shock, therefore, to find ourselves accused of producing a developer’s charter. The reason for that, I think, is in the wording of this document and the imbalance in it. There are very definite statements that

“local planning authorities should plan positively for new development”

and that planning

“must operate to encourage growth”,

The statements on the environment, however, are much more measured and often qualified. Even the one that states:

“Plans should allocate land with the least environmental or amenity value”

is immediately qualified:

“where practical, having regard to other policies in the Framework including the presumption in favour of sustainable development. Plans should be prepared on the basis that objectively assessed development needs should be met”.

Even where we are trying to use language that is more environmentally friendly and values social and environmental factors, it is heavily qualified. That needs to be rebalanced, because this language matters. It is listened to by local planners and the officers who drive local policies.

5.6 pm

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): May I begin by saying that I was delighted to have the opportunity on Tuesday to hold a debate in Westminster Hall and thank everyone who contributed to it? I do not intend to repeat the many points I raised, but I remind those who want to read the report of the debate of any interest I declared in my various comments about the green belt. The green belt is a passion for me because of the situation in my constituency, which has no greenfield land, only green belt and brownfield sites.

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I agree with so much of what has been said by all hon. Friends on the coalition Benches, especially the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), that I think we are in danger of breaking out into a bit of a love-in. I thought he was about to escape, but it seems he feels compelled to stay. I want to thank the Secretary of State and his Ministers for the various reassurances they have given and public pronouncements they have made, particularly about the green belt, which I wish had been more widely publicised. Of course, it has never been said of the Secretary of State that he is not one for coming forward, as he has come forward on many occasions and spoken in his normal, robust manner. Unfortunately, I do not think that enough people heard him when he gave the reassurance that the framework contains not only a continuation of the existing policy to protect our green belt, but a very good argument that the coalition Government are determined to ensure that it is even better protected. I thank him for that.

I would like to raise two points. The first—I am being completely parochial about my constituency—relates to open-cast mining. We touched on this very briefly in the debate in Westminster Hall. I know that the framework refers to mineral extraction and really hope that the Government will listen to Members with constituencies in which there is a threat of open-cast mining. In my constituency, open-cast mining would be on green-belt land between Cossall and Trowell. It is very precious and beautiful land. It is historic and has connections to D.H. Lawrence. I submit that it is a complete contradiction to say that we could ever have open-cast mining on green-belt land. The two simply do not go together. If the Government cannot go as far as to agree with me on that, I urge them to look at the very good idea, put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), for a buffer zone between residential property and any open-cast mining.

I was slightly cynical about the framework when I first examined it, but over time I have found within it many things not only that should satisfy everybody’s concerns, but that we should welcome and trumpet. I am particularly impressed by the neighbourhood plan, and this is where I refer to the Liberal Democrats, because unfortunately Broxtowe’s small group of remaining Liberal Democrat councillors have, in their wisdom, chosen to remain in coalition with Labour, and they control Broxtowe borough council. As part of their policy, they have accepted the plan for some 6,000 new houses in my constituency, but there is enough room for only 2,000 on the brownfield site, and the rest will have to be built on the green belt.

I am opposed to that decision, and I believe that the majority of people in my constituency are, too, but the Liberal Democrat who represents the village of Trowell makes a very good point when he says, “I’m being realistic, and, when we look at previous decisions in Broxtowe and a particular stretch of land, we will have difficulty persuading anybody that there should not be a large number of houses built on this particular stretch of green belt known as Field farm.”