Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-258)
Q240 Chair: Good
afternoon and welcome to the fourth and final session of our inquiry
into the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies. Unfortunately,
Councillor Symon Fraser from the East Riding of Yorkshire Council
is not able to be with us. I think he had a problem with a cancelled
train and was unable to catch a later one to get here. For the
sake of our records, could you say who you are and the organisation
Ken Thornber: Chairman,
I am Ken Thornber, Leader of Hampshire County Council.
Jim Harker: I am
Jim Harker, Leader of Northamptonshire County Council, and I represent
East Midlands Councils.
My name is Derek Antrobus and I chair the Greater Manchester Planning
and Housing Commission.
Q241 Chair: You
are all welcome. If at any stage comments are made by one of
your colleagues with which you agree, do not feel it necessary
to repeat it. If you just say you agree, that is it. We can
probably make more progress that way, because we have quite a
lot of interesting things to explore with you.
To begin, quite a lot of the evidence we have had
so far suggests that if and when the Regional Spatial Strategies
are abolished there will still be a need for some arrangement
between an individual local authority and national planning guidance.
Do you concur with that? If so, will we recreate Regional Spatial
Strategies in some other name that in practice will be a similar
I think Regional Spatial Strategies transcend local authority
boundaries, so whatever we do we need to recognise the porosity
of those boundaries and to think wider than the individual local
authority. That can take a variety of forms. For example, in
Greater Manchester, there is a long history of the 10 authorities
that constitute the conurbation working together. We also need
to be alive to our connections with authorities that border Greater
Manchester: Warrington, East Cheshire and so forth. There will
always be a need to integrate our thinking on spatial planning.
Jim Harker: One
of the challenges is that we have such a mixture of local government
in England, particularly in two-tier areas, that it is essential
to have a wider spatial planning provision other than district
councils. I can think of an example under the structure plan
process in my own county of Northamptonshire. We wanted to build
a dual carriageway to link the M1 with the A14 and A45. That
went through five district councils: Daventry, Northampton, South
Northants, Wellingborough and East Northants. It would have been
almost impossible to get that sort of road built under a system
whereby strategic planning was left with the district council
authorities in a two-tier structure. I think the two-tier arrangements
between the counties and the districts will be particularly challenging.
I would hesitate to go back to the structure plan approach.
Nonetheless, I think that at substrategic level, there is
a real role to be played by the counties in two tiers.
Ken Thornber: I
would not disagree, but I can see a three-tiered structure, most
of it voluntary, and for all that, gaining great commitment at
district, county, sub-regional and regional level. If you take
regional level in the South East, prior to RDAs we had what was
called SERPLAN, a south-east region plan, which was voluntary
but for all that was very effective. We now have south-east England
council leaders78 of themwho meet as 78. Obviously,
they span the region, and that would be a vehicle for regional
planning; or we have the south-east strategic leaders' forum formed
of strategic authorities, counties and unitaries. Therefore,
we have the ability to fill what I believe to be a bit of a void
now between RSS and local level. We can do it in a sustainable
way; we can do it voluntarily, and I think it would have greater
Q242 Heidi Alexander:
Councillor Thornber has just spoken about filling that void through
some of the forums that already exist. The Government have proposed
a duty to cooperate. How do you see that working going
forward based on all your experiences? Equally, do you have any
concerns about the lack of sanctions? If a local authority does
not choose to cooperate what happens and how do you resolve
Ken Thornber: The
duty to co-operate is one that we welcome. We would like to see
it strengthened so it is a duty to co-operate not only at district
level but with the strategic authorities. We think that in that
way you can have a sub-regional coordinated approach to
planning. The Honourable Member speaks of sanctions. In terms
of housing plans, one of the greatest sanctions is the knowledge
that, if you do not plan where you want your houses and the numbers
you want, you will get planning by stealth, by application of
developers and so on. That is one of the sanctions available.
I am not one to want sanctions but I believe in the construct
that there ought to be the reserve power of final intervention
by the Secretary of State.
Jim Harker: I agree
that it will be really difficult to enforce. I am not sure how
the sanction will work unless there is guidance. Perhaps the
proposed national planning framework might give some guidance
about the sort of areas in which co-operation is required.
The recent Flood and Water Management Act imposed a duty on the
various agencies involved in flooding to co-operate. That appears
to be working well. I do not think there would be any difference
with local authorities joining together. If there is a duty to
do these things, local authorities tend to obey the law.
Jim Harker: We
have some evidence from Northamptonshire, which is a growth area.
It has two local delivery vehicles of which you are probably
aware: the West Northants Development Company and the North Northants
Development Company. Both of those in two halves of the county
have been working in partnership with the relevant district councils
and county council to prepare core strategies. It is a mini-strategic
plan. Therefore, co-operation can work.
Q243 George Hollingbery:
Do the witnesses agree that if the data that backed the Regional
Spatial Strategies were robust, the outcome of co-operative groups
of this sort is likely to be that of the Regional Spatial Strategies?
Is there any truth in that?
Jim Harker: As
far as the East Midlands are concerned, the total number will
probably not be that much different. The demand for housing is
still there. Indeed, all the evidence is that, without the Regional
Spatial Strategies, for the past 10 years the growth has shown
up. There is a lot of variation between different parts of the
region. For instance, South Northamptonshire does not want development.
They have already told me that they will have very limited development
as a result of it. Corby in Northamptonshire wants development.
I think you will find that, while the total numbers are probably
about the same, there will be a lot of different choices between
different parts of the region.
Q244 George Hollingbery:
Can the witnesses elaborate a little wider than housing, because
clearly the RSSs covered a great deal more than just housing?
Jim Harker: Yes,
although it was really just moving on, wasn't it? Separately,
the RDAs were charged with preparing the RES, Regional Economic
Strategy, for jobs, roads and industry, and the regional councils
did the RSSs, Regional Spatial Strategies. The previous Government
had just begun to put those two together and integrate spatial
strategyhousingand jobs, which was the sensible
way forward, although on a much bigger scale. I would like to
see that copied on a much more local scale. If I may say so,
if I get the opportunity in Northamptonshire, I will take a combined
approach that looks at economic developmentjobs and inward
Ken Thornber: The
number of houses proposed by 11 district councils and two unitaries
supported by Hampshire County Council is 5,600 a year. That is
almost exactly where we started with our draft plan before intervention
by government to increase that allocation. Looking across these
districts, there is an accepted need to plan for that number of
houses. We have robust discussions and they will continue, but
at the end of the process we had agreement around that number
of houses. Those houses are now being put forward by local district
councils and, therefore, there is still a measure of agreement.
It might be argued that if you are close to the RSS housing allocation,
why can't we replace the RSS with something else at regional level?
Indeed, I spoke of voluntary arrangements that could do that.
In my experience, it is not the case that districts
in particular clamour for a lower number of houses; they accept
the need. I think the big problem for us all, and certainly in
Hampshire, is the infrastructure to keep pace with that level
of housing. There is an infrastructure deficit. I think every
district council and county would plan for these houses and it
would not be that much different from the RSSs, but there is an
infrastructural deficit which we need to address if we are to
produce that number of houses.
The question was specifically about areas other than housing which
might create some difficulties. There are some areas about which
I would have concerns. I sat on the regional planning group for
the North West. One of the most contentious areas where some
authorities were reluctant to allocate was to do with Gypsies
and Travellers. That was very controversial. I wonder whether
or not local authorities would make adequate provision for that
without the sanction of Regional Spatial Strategies. I also chaired
Greater Manchester waste planning committee for the production
of the DPD. That was also controversial. There were some very
sensitive sites. In the end, we recognised it was our duty to
provide sufficient sites to meet the requirements of the RSS.
I do not know what would have happened if it had not been a statutory
Ken Thornber: One
request we would make is for the return of planning powers to
upper-tier authorities consistent with their statutory obligations,
which are certainly transportation, waste, mineral extraction
and probably areas of education and social care. These are statutory
responsibilities. We would look to a situation in collaboration
with our district councils where Hampshire County Council planned
these strategic planning concepts, if you will, in order to provide
support. I focused on housing, but it is far more than just that;
it is roads, infrastructure, health centres, education and social
Q245 Heidi Alexander:
Councillor Antrobus picked up the point that I intended to raise
which is that, while housing can be controversial, sometimes there
are even more controversial things such as the siting of Gypsy
and Traveller pitches and the building of waste disposal facilities.
Councillor Antrobus, you said you would have some concern about
those provisions in the region, were it not for the obligations
placed upon local authorities. In the new world in which we find
ourselves, possibly without the Regional Spatial Strategies, how
do you deal with that problem? In your opinion how do you deal
with the thorny, knotty issues that are very controversial?
Ken Thornber: If
I might Chairman, this may sound like an unabashed grab for power.
Chair: The district councils
might think so.
Ken Thornber: If
you have these responsibilities at upper tier level, they will
be exercised. If I look at the lovely county of Hampshire, it
has its Gypsy problems as well as others, we could vest the strategic
authority with the role of agreeing with district councils the
disposition of Gypsy sites. We would have been doing that in
the era of SERPLAN and before planning powers were removed. I
would offer that as a way to tackle these controversial issues.
Jim Harker: Before
the RDAs were inventedI know we keep talking about the
two-tier system but that is really where the issues arethe
old idea was that counties were responsible for the strategy and
the structure plan. They planned where the roads, schools and
main items of infrastructure were to be; they dealt with minerals
and the bigger strategic issues of their sub-region, if that is
what it is. The districts then had the responsibility to apply
those strategic guidelines and had development control for housing
and the industry that went along with it. It was not a bad system.
Q246 Chair: There
was never any conflict in that situation, was there?
Jim Harker: Quite
frankly, there was not that much conflict. We have been around
a long while. I have been a member of the county council for
32 years and I chaired the old Planning Committees. There was
not so much conflict because you thrashed it out. At the end
of the day, it was your responsibility to get to a solution and
you got it. In a way, conflict is inevitable, because if you
left it to districts to make those individual decisions it would
be quite difficult to get things done. You need the element of
conflict and debate where everybody has the opportunity to put
their point of view, but having somebody a bit more dispassionate
who takes the decision is the right way to go about it.
Q247 Simon Danczuk:
What do you think of the New Homes Bonus? Do you think it is
a great enough incentive to get more homes built?
Jim Harker: In
our experience in the East Midlands, we have plenty of extant
planning permissions anyway; we have nearly 100,000.
Q248 Simon Danczuk:
But I suppose we are looking to the future.
Jim Harker: There
are a few issues around the New Homes Bonus. The first is that
it is not yet clear exactly who will get the bonus, whether it
will be the district council that gives the permission or the
parish council that suffers the housing to be put upon them.
We are not sure how it is to be shared out in the two-tier system.
We have an indication that 80% will go to the district and 20%
to the county. That is the reverse of the cost of providing the
infrastructure. I understand it is not necessary to provide the
infrastructure, but it will be part of that. We know that roads
and schools cost 80% of the funds available. There are still
quite a few issues around the New Homes Bonus. The other thing
people are not sure about is that, because most of the funding
for it is to be top-sliced, it means we have to pay for it to
Q249 Simon Danczuk:
You do not sound very enthusiastic.
Jim Harker: I can
understand the principle, which is to compensate localities for
putting up with development. That is a terrific principle, but
it will not be that easy to apply it. I do not disagree with
it; I think it is the best we have, but we need some answers to
Ken Thornber: I
have done some basic arithmetic: 5,600 new homes per year in Hampshire
with an average band D of around £1,500 yields an extra £10 million
that will be divided among 11 or 13 authorities, so clearly it
is less than £1 million each. While the bonus is welcomethere
will be councils with deprived areas that want to take advantage
of this there will be affluent areas that are willing to
forgo not a very great amount of money in order not to upset their
I think it is mixed. There will be benefits for
some councils to do this, but I am bound to say that £10
million for 13 authorities that cover 1.3 million people
is not a great incentive from the point of view of infrastructure.
80% of £900,000 at district level is still not great. Given
the statutory responsibilities of county councils, upper tier
authorities, the 80%/20% ought to be reversed, because of all
council tax bills, 80% to 85% of that bill is attributable to
the upper tier. I say that in passing. Jim mentioned top-slicing.
I welcome the concept. While people will not feel it in their
pockets, they may see some minor improvements as a consequence.
Q250 Simon Danczuk:
What you are saying is that to ignore the amount a local authority
could receive from the homes bonus might be a price worth paying
so they do not have the headache of having to get through all
the new house building in their locality?
Ken Thornber: I
think that is a real danger and in some localities that bonus
will be forgone.
I think it is fundamentally flawed and unfair, although nowadays
I am not quite sure what "fairness" means. If you are
an authority like Salford, where most properties are in the lower
council tax band, compared with an authority where the housing
market is buoyant and properties are in the higher tax band, you
will be rewarded differently for exactly the same output. For
every unit that is built in Salford, an identical one built in
a more prosperous authority where house prices are higher will
secure a greater grant. It seems to me there is a disjunction
between the bonus and the effectiveness of the local authority;
the level of reward you get is purely down to the market.
I think it is even more unfair when you look not
at the outputs but the inputs. In order to secure development
in Greater Manchester, we need to invest heavily in infrastructure
and place-making to encourage development to take place. There
are 69,000 extant planning applications in Greater Manchester.
The main reason many of them do not go ahead, apart from the
current economic climate, is the fact that we want people to invest
in good places, and that requires public sector intervention.
I think our current local investment plan with the
Homes and Communities Agency amounts to £375 million
over the next 15 months. If you compare that with what is to
be substituted for it, the £1.4 billion regional growth fund
over three years for the whole country, you can see that the resource
available to invest in those places and transform them is to be
sharply curtailed. It is that investment we need in order to
deliver these housing units.
Another issue that concerns me is the fact that the
New Homes Bonus will use the net figure. To secure high-quality
family housing in many northern cities requires the demolition
of old sub-standard housing that has no market value. That will
count against us and we will not benefit from the New Homes Bonus.
By doing that we will lose out because the net figure will be
My third concern is about the reaction of the public.
I have dealt with two applications in the past month. In one
case, we needed to secure grant funding from the Homes and Communities
Agency for some affordable housing. Obviously, that would have
been beneficial in terms of the New Homes Bonus and the addition
one gets for affordable housing. We got the very clear message
from the local community, local councillors and the planning panel
that they would not make that decision based on the financial
benefits; it had to be about the quality of the environment and
development. That particular application was refused by the planning
panel. Therefore, it is not necessarily the case that just by
waving a cheque in front of a local authority it will agree to
housing; it has to be of the right quality, and people in the
community must be persuaded that it is right for them. Recently,
we gave planning permission for a new Tesco. Because the council
sold some land, we were slated in the media for selling planning
permission. That is totally untrue, but that is the public perception.
If people think that you are allowing development to go ahead
simply because of financial gain, my experience is that they will
not go along with it.
Q251 Bob Blackman:
Moving on to the impact of the New Homes Bonus, have you decided
to delay decisions on any planning applications, or seen any evidence
of delays, pending its introduction?
Jim Harker: Certainly,
as a county council we are not a development control authority,
but in my area, no. We have extant permissions, a lot of them
granted only recently. The problem is not so much giving the
planning permissions as selling the houses, for the reason that
young people in particular cannot find the deposits. They could
service the loan if they could get the deposit, but at the moment
what stops them is having to find 25% to 30%, which can be £30,000
to £50,000, as a lump sum before they can even start to think
about buying a house. I believe the way forward in future is
to find a way to allow young people, particularly first-home buyers,
to borrow the deposit as well as the main funding. That would
be a great help. The recession we have been in for the past few
years is very much the cause of that.
The recession is also putting major pressures on
the provision of infrastructure. All the new developments and
planning permissions that have been granted, which are linked
to 106s, are predicated on the idea of capitalising the land values
so the developer is allowed to make substantial contributions
to the provision of infrastructure. That is not happening now;
indeed, in no way will some of the permissions negotiated two
or three years ago be able to be built because the developer and
the permissions were granted when the land was worth £1 million
per acre and it was easy to allocate £300,000 or £400,000
of that to infrastructure. That is no longer with us. It will
hopefully come round again in due course, but until it does and
until, sadly, house prices go up and provision is made for people
to be able to buy those houses and borrow the money, I think we
are in a bit of a stick.
Ken Thornber: Sadly,
I find little evidence that the number of houses planned bears
any relation to the imminence of the New Homes Bonus. Strategic
authorities in particular are very aware of a national presumption
of sustainable development. We know that if housing numbers are
not put forward something to which I alluded earlier will happen:
there will be speculative development and planning appeals. We
as a county will find development where we did not really want
it. That imperative will not drive housing numbers rapidly upwards
but will drive strategic authorities in their planning.
I understood from a letter we received during the summerI
think it was from Greg Clark or perhaps Grant Shappsthat
the New Homes Bonus was operative from that date, so any property
built after it would qualify. We have been relying on that and
have kept a copy of the letter
Chair: Very wise.
And the number of homes we have approved since that date.
Jim Harker: I do
not believe that is clear.
Q252 Bob Blackman:
We may clear that up a bit later in the evidence. Given that
every authority has already published the level of housing that
it expects to see developed, do you think it is right that it
should be given an incentive to achieve that target?
Ken Thornber: It
is not really to achieve the target, is it? If it is essentially
to compensate communities for taking on that development then
I think that is a good idea. It is a big stumbling block.
Q253 Bob Blackman:
If I may cut across you, the thrust of my argument is that they
have published a target that has been accepted by the community,
so should not the incentive be applied to something above the
target? In other words, if your target is 5,600 or thereabouts,
which was the figure to which Councillor Thornber referred, and
you build 10,000, then you will be rewarded for the 4,400 extra
houses that are developed. Would that not be a fairer system?
Jim Harker: It
is another way of looking at it. I am not sure it is fairer;
it depends on what you want it for.
Q254 Bob Blackman:
The thrust from government is that they want to see more houses
developed in a faster timeframe because we are at a low point
in terms of house building development. Local authorities have
said that that is what they plan to do anyway. Therefore, if
the New Homes Bonus is to apply, surely the argument would be
that there should be an incentive to build extra properties, not
the ones they will build anyway.
Jim Harker: But
the targets were not set by the local communities; they were set
top down by the Government of the day. The local communities
did not really have much choice about it. They had a consultation
period and made certain variations as a result of that, but the
top-down targets for the growth areas anyway were set by the central
Government of the day. In that case, I think it is reasonable
to say that the village or town that must take on these 5,800
housesprobably doubling or trebling the size of the community
that is there at the momentought to have some compensation
I think the issue is not so much about targets. In Greater Manchester,
the RSS indicated 200,000 extra homes over the next 15 years.
Each of the local authorities in Greater Manchester through their
core strategies is imbedding that aim in their planning policy.
The fundamental issue is not planning policy; it is about delivery.
Q255 Bob Blackman:
To take that point, should the incentive be on delivery?
The incentive should be on delivery, but it is not the local authority
that delivers these by itself; it does so in partnership with
developers and local communities. It is the level of investment
in places that encourages developers to build homes in those places.
They have to be attractive places and we need that level of investment.
Ken Thornber: I
think I would go for the honourable Member's compromise, which
is actual delivery of what local government said it could deliver.
My understanding of the Coalition's philosophy is that they would
not be prone to target setting or directing from the top. I can
speak only for Hampshire. If we do our job properlythere
is a good will out thereassess us on what we say we will
Q256 Bob Blackman:
We have received an answer to this, but I want confirmation of
it. Do you think that the financial incentives proposed are sufficient
to overcome the objections most residents have? Normally, when
they object to planning permission they do so on social or economic
grounds or some impact on them and their properties. Do you think
these financial incentives are sufficient to overcome those particular
Jim Harker: I think
it depends where the incentives go. I can give you an illustration.
Kettering, a town with a population of 50,000, has just agreed
an urban extension of 5,800 houses; it is more than a 10% population
growth. It has agreed that in the parish of Cranford next door,
so the people who will pay for that are those who live in the
parish of Cranford. It is a brilliant idea, but I am not sure
how it will work. A much more effective way to reimburse local
authorities for the growth they accept is to look at the way the
grant system works for local authorities. At the moment, because
we use the figures from the Office for National Statistics that
are two years out of date, sometimes longer, it is at least two
years before we get the grant to pay for these people. If that
could be tackled on a fairer basis it would compensate the areas
taking the growth much more satisfactorily and to a much larger
degree. Of course, there are issues around that, but I do not
understand why the Government cannot work out the grant on current
population statistics rather than something that is two or three
years out of date. That would help a lot.
Ken Thornber: I
do not think local government should ever reject the concept of
earning more on the basis of what it produces. I am bound to
say, however, that at the level I indicated for Hampshire it is
extremely difficult to see how fundamental infrastructural deficits
could be addressed by a bonus of this sort. It may be that is
not in government's mind and it is concerned more with a community
and small improvements to its infrastructure, but this goes for
six years and there is top-slicing of the strategic authorities.
There is, therefore, in terms of the 80/20 split very much reverse
and imbalance. I would like to encourage government to persist
with this idea and allow local government to say what it can do
and then reward on that outcome, as Mr Blackman says.
Q257 Chair: I
suppose the question is: what happens if in the end local government
collectively does not deliver as much as is needed? The National
Housing Federation gave evidence to us that 180,000 planning applications
have not been granted but would have been granted prior to the
abolition of the Regional Spatial Strategies. Is that not a problem?
I do not think you have quite addressed that.
Ken Thornber: Chairman,
if I have understood it correctly, we then do not get the £1.25
for every pound of the council tax.
Chair: That is right.
It will vary according to different parts of the country. In
Greater Manchester, there is sufficient land allocated to meet
the requirements of the Regional Spatial Strategy and the requirements
of the core strategies of the local authorities. We have 69,000
extant planning permissions, so it is not a question of the local
authority not delivering; it is about getting the houses built
on the ground, which means investment in land.
James Morris: I return
to the need for strategic planning which we discussed earlier.
A lot of the evidence presented to us is that there is a need
for broader strategic planning. Local Enterprise Partnerships
have been introduced. To what extent do you think they could
act as a vehicle for strategic planning in this context?
Q258 Chair: Can
you give fairly brief answers because the Secretary of State is
sitting outside, waiting to give evidence?
Ken Thornber: My
fundamental problem is that an unelected, unaccountable organisation
is being given responsibility for some planning matters. Indeed,
if the split between local government and business people is 50/50,
with a business-led chairman and corporate governance having a
casting vote, you could argue that unelected people are taking
planning decisions or are planning strategically. I have great
difficulty with that. I am not sure that business necessarily
wants to conduct the process of strategic or detailed planning.
Certainly, what business in Hampshire is concerned about is outcomes
and getting the planning process simplified and speeded up. I
do not believe LEPs are the vehicle. The vehicle for what you
have said is the upper-tier authorities co-operating with LEPs,
but unaccountability worries me.
Jim Harker: It
does not worry me so much. It depends on the size of the LEP.
If you have a great big LEP frankly you just replicate the old
RDAs and you are back to the same issues. I would not go for
that. If you have reasonably small-sized LEPs on one, two or
three counties I think there is a good case for letting them become
hands on, not just consultees, as far concerns preparation of
the strategic plan. Maybe you need the local authorities to sign
off, but I want them to be more involved than just consultees.
I agree with Ken. What the LEPs need is not more planning powers
but more resources to ensure the delivery of what the plans have
Chair: Thank you very
much indeed for your evidence. You'll have a very favourably
disposed Secretary of State when you go out, for getting him in