Growth and Infrastructure Bill

Memorandum submitted by The Marches LEP (GIB 84)

Growth and Infrastructure Bill

1. Introduction

1.1 On 18 October the Government published the Growth and Infrastructure Bill.

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, introduced the second reading of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill in the House of Commons on Monday 5 November. The Bill has now been sent to a Public Bill Committee for scrutiny and there is a call for written evidence.

1.2 The Marches LEP Planning and Housing Partnership discussed the Bill on the 7th of November and asked for a report to be prepared and circulated to enable the Marches LEP to submit its views in writing to the House of Commons Public Bill Committee which is going to consider this Bill before the end of the Co mmittee stage i.e. by Thursday 6 December. (Email to scrutiny@parliament.uk)

2. Executive Summary

2.1 The bill is being brought forward by the Coalition Government as a means of empowering local areas to drive economic growth. However, we consider that as currently drafted the bill risks failing to deliver the growth we need unless it more fundamentally tackles the real barrier to growth of stalling development rather than concentrating on restrictive planning practices, which where they do exist can and should be reconciled locally.

2.2 In common with many other LEP’s the Marches LEP has thousands of homes available to be brought forward across its three councils in unimplemented planning permissions; our Marches local councils approve over 90% per cent of planning applications, and do so within agreed performance times, making it clear to us that planning is not the key barrier to growth.

2.3 The Marches LEP recommends a series of amendments to the bill which focus on further devolution of power and freedoms to the local area to enable the LEP, in harmony with its constituent councils, to really drive growth from the bottom up. These include devolving skills funding, removing constraints on local authority borrowing for housing and providing councils with more flexibility over their application of planning rules.

2.4 The Marches LEP has recently published a High Level Statement on Planning and Housing "poised for Growth" to make its position clear to would be investors and are now urging the Government to focus on improving access to development finance and mortgages as the key barriers to bringing forward much-needed housing, for instance by lifting restrictions on local authority borrowing for housing, freeing our councils to build new affordable homes and kick-start job-creating infrastructure projects.

3. Summary of key measures within the bill

3.1 Clauses will:

~ Enable the Secretary of State to designate authorities as ‘poorly performing'. Once an authority is designated, applicants will be able to apply directly to the Secretary of State for the determination of their planning application.

~ Allow an appeal to the Secretary of State seeking the renegotiation of the affordable housing element of a Section 106 (S106) agreement if the local authority has not agreed to modify the agreement or has failed to make a determination within a specified time.

~ Limit the information that a local planning authority can require when determining a planning application to those issues that will have a material consideration in the determination of the application.

~ Amend the Town and Village Green registration process to prevent a Town and Village Green application from delaying or preventing development in cases when a planning application is in progress or has been approved.

~ Include ‘promoting economic growth' as a key consideration in the Electronic Communications Code.

~ Add commercial and business projects to the Major Infrastructure Regime under the Planning Act 2008.

~ Postpone the business rate revaluation until 2017.

4. Enable the Secretary of State to designate authorities as ‘poorly performing'

4.1 This provision allows an applicant to choose to have their planning application determined by the Secretary of State where the local planning authority has been designated as poorly performing.

4.2 It is clear to the Marches LEP that planning is not the main barrier to growth, we have responded to initial industry concerns by making a clear commitment to growth and for a proactive "wraparound" planning service to support investment opportunities through our "Poised for Growth" Planning and Housing Statement. Timely planning decisions are crucial to an efficient and effective planning service, but it is most important to reach the right decision in a timeframe agreed with the applicant, rather than an arbitrary deadline. That said, we are prepared to hold our local authorities to account locally to ensure that they deliver the growth necessary for our success. To this end we have established a Task and Finish Group reporting to the Planning and Housing Partnership of the Marches LEP charged with responsibility for further streamlining planning processes and being accountable in ironing out any regressive, anti- growth practices where they are identified anywhere within the planning system including lengthy legal processes.

4.3 Defining performance upon quantitative measures ie meeting arbitrary time targets ignores qualitative performance by which for example, a decision may take a little longer than the target but reach a good quality conclusion and can consequently result in unnecessary, and in the current climate, inexcusable waste of time and resources

4.4 What is alarming to the LEP is the degree to which access to mortgage and development finance is constrained because developers can't borrow to build and first-time buyers can't get mortgages. Whilst the LEP notes the efforts being made by the Government to address these difficulties, it is clear that the problem will not be addressed by taking planning decisions away from local communities and placing them with a centrally appointed body. This we would argue runs counter to our efforts to support and develop local fit for purpose decision making and would be far from cost effective in any guise. The Marches LEP wishes to make the point very strongly that Government should be investing much more dynamically and working with LEPs to find ways to unplug the blockages which are halting new development and dragging growth potential down.

5. Allow an appeal to the Secretary of State to renegotiate Section 106 affordable housing

5.1 The measure introduced in the bill to allow the Secretary of State or his planning inspectorate to intervene in renegotiating agreements which have already secured crucial affordable housing is unnecessary in our experience as the local authorities in the Marches LEP area have shown themselves to be open and willing to renegotiate agreements on an "open book" basis where viability is a genuine concern. In our view the measure may actually lead to further delays to implementation and delivery as developers are encouraged to wait for the new provisions to come into force hoping for a stronger negotiating position. Indeed, Shropshire Council’s prevailing target rate for affordable housing, which is based on dynamic viability model agreed in conjunction with a local developer panel, currently stands at just 13%. As has been mentioned above already, amending S106 requirements alone will not tackle the key issues holding up development and removing the process further from local areas will likely undermine community confidence which, although not discussed in the bill is crucial to enabling growth and development that has to be acceptable locally. The Marches LEP are of the strong opinion that the provision of affordable housing can contribute to growth in its own right by providing housing for a workforce in rural areas where house prices are disproportionately higher than urban areas due to lack of supply and high demand.

6. Limiting the information required for determining a planning application

6.1 Local planning authorities will be limited to requesting information that is reasonable with regard to the nature and scale of the proposed development.

'Reasonable' is defined as information that will have be a material consideration in the determination of the application in question.

6.2 The Marches LEP is in full agreement with these provisions which seek to appropriately unravel layers of complexity imposed on Local Planning Authorities with the otherwise sensible introduction of ONEAPP. We have established a TRI-Council review of development management practices and procedures to draw out and expand upon best practice within the service and introduce this consistently across the LEP area as part of our "Poised for Growth" approach.

7. Amending the Town and Village Green registration process

7.1 The Bill allows an owner of land in England to deposit a statement and map with the commons registration authority to bring to an end any period of use ‘as of right' for lawful sports and pastimes on the land.

Applications to register a Town and Village Green will be restricted if, for example, a planning application has been made or the land has been identified in a draft or finalised local plan.

7.2 The Marches LEP is very concerned that in the past town and village green legislation has been used by opponents of particular schemes to seek to register land that would not normally be considered ‘green', in the usual sense of the expression, in order to stall or block development. This runs counter to our remit to promote sustainable growth and business.

The Marches LEP is supportive of these proposals that will unlock badly-needed regeneration projects.

8. Include ‘promoting economic growth' as a key consideration in the Electronic Communications Code.

8.1 The Marches LEP supports the provision which adds the need to promote economic growth to the list of considerations which the Secretary of State must have regard to when making regulations, conditions and restrictions on the applications of the electronic communications code. The LEP supports the provisions which will sweep away red tape and allow broadband street cabinets and other infrastructure to be installed rapidly without requiring lengthy approval processes. However, we are most concerned that these measures will not in themselves, tackle the real barrier to broadband roll-out which is the EU State aid hurdle faced by the Government in seeking to allocate £530 million to superfast broadband. In order to address the Rural Broadband "not spot" problems faced across the Marches which continually hampers business competitiveness and farm diversification, the Marches LEP asks that the main focus for Government should be resolving this blockage whilst helping us push delivery beyond those areas which are commercially attractive to service providers.

9. Add commercial and business projects to the Major Infrastructure Regime

9.1 The bill enables the Secretary of State to direct that certain additional development will in future require consent under the nationally significant infrastructure regime. This currently includes energy, transport, water or waste projects with business or commercial projects to be prescribed.

9.2 The Marches LEP support new initiatives that would help to fast track nationally significant projects falling into this category. The proposals, however for such large scale business and commercial projects to be fast-tracked within 12 months is puzzling however as the three local planning authorities within our area are already dealing with Major Planning applications in a more timely manner than this and in a timeframe which is largely pre-agreed with the developer. Over 90% of all local applications are dealt with within agreed timeframes to the satisfaction of all parties and there are already options for an applicant to appeal against non-determination if the LPA has not issued a decision within the13 week deadline for major schemes. As stated above the Marches LEP is prepared to hold our local authorities to account locally to ensure that they deliver the growth necessary for our success.

10. Postponement of business rates revaluation until 2017

10.1 The Marches LEP views the move toward local retention of business rates as a step in the right direction. It is vitally important that the new system shares a fair balance of risk and reward between local authorities and the Treasury, and delivers a fair deal for all local areas with varying capacities to grow.

10.2 However, the Marches LEP cannot support the postponement of the revaluation of rateable value as it will simply exacerbate and perpetuate the difficulties being faced by our high street retailers, amongst others during an exceptionally tough trading period. We appreciate that the delay will signal a period of stability for businesses holding a property portfolio or trading in areas where underlying rents are increasing but in respect of the Marches area we feel that the impact on town centre viability will be significant.

December 2012

Prepared 10th December 2012