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Planning Debate: Westminster Hall

Planning DebateWe're currently working on an article setting out Fylde's decision on the Blackfield Green prospective appeal, and about a meeting to launch the Neighbourhood plan in Warton, but we simply couldn't miss squeezing in a report of an important debate in Westminster Hall on Wednesday.

In essence it was an opportunity for MPs with constituency concerns about planning to hold a Minister to account for what is happening.

And about time too, we'd say.

In this case the Minister was the Anti-Planning Minister Rt. Hon Nick Boles MP, and he was harangued (in polite parliamentary language) by several MPs including Fylde's own Mark Menzies who, we have to say, made a first class showing on behalf of his constituents.

We've extracted the whole debate from Hansard - the official verbatim record of proceedings - and anyone interested in planning ought to read it in full, but we've done a précis below for those that don't want to read the full 25 pages.

The debate was secured by Conservative Steve Baker (from Wycombe), and he spoke of what he called "real public anger at the prospect of building on all of High Wycombe’s reserve sites, which would further burden the inadequate infrastructure, especially our roads."

But he also recognised "there is an obvious, acute need for more homes, especially those that people, particularly young people and families, can afford. In some cases there is a real sense of despair; I am thinking particularly of one working father I talked to with a family of four who will not only struggle to buy a home locally but might find himself facing the prospect of a Bank of England cap on the mortgage he would need"

He said the government's current approach is failing for three key reasons.

  • "First, collaborative democracy is inherently unlikely ever to meet policy makers’ aspirations.
  • Secondly, a duty to co-operate is not the right way to co-ordinate decision making, and works against localism.
  • Thirdly, the crux of the matter is that the current system leaves individuals and families facing the imposition of costs without adequate recompense."

He expanded each of these in some detail but readers will get the flavour from these quotes

He said one neighbourhood group's chairman had said "The NPPF seems to us to be a disingenuous mixture of high-sounding intent and contradictory assertion. It identifies planning as aiming to achieve ‘sustainable development’, a term which, because it defies succinct interpretation, has come to mean popularly, ‘the importance of building houses."

And he added that whilst the Government might have had an honourable intent with the planning changes it has made, it had not produced collaborative democracy: "we now have council, not community, power. Land use planning remains a complex and specialist subject, so Wycombe’s local plan was produced by planning officers, not residents bravely taking control of their own lives."

In what we thought was a telling quote (and we could imagine Minister Boles silently fuming at it) he said "the NPPF and collaborative democracy in planning have turned out to be an opportunity to comply enthusiastically with the goals set by authority, which is, I am afraid, the freedom to obey."


Even better was his (disturbing) quote of.....

"I understand that moves are now afoot to ask Local Enterprise Partnerships to co-ordinate local planning authorities. When the chief executive of our LEP told me that a particular problem was that there were now so many economic plans that people could not reconcile them, I asked him, light-heartedly, “Are you saying that what we need is a strongman, with the power, authority and vision to resolve the plans and impose the solution on everyone?” He said yes, but of course, I was parodying Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom”; it seems that, once again, life imitates literature, if not art."

How right he is.

He concluded by asking for three short term actions:

  • A genuine simplification of the existing rules, so that complexity does not undermine public trust in the system.

    As one simple example, he criticised the complexity of what constitutes Permitted Development (for which no planning application was needed) and said permitted development should be abolished and replaced with a situation where, if there were no response to a proposed development within an eight-week period, the development would be allowed to go ahead.

  • Secondly, he said the Government should ensure that the duty to co-operate is not allowed to produce a creeping reinstatement of unaccountable, unelected regional government through the Local Enterprise Partnerships.

    As an aside here, we're becoming increasingly concerned about the undemocratic nature of these beasts. Communities run by businesses are most definitely not the way to go forward.

  • And finally, for his particular circumstances, he asked the Minister to confirm the view he set out in his letter of 3 March 2014 to Sir Michael
    Pitt, regarding the sanctity of green belt land.

We've only been able to give a flavour here, readers interested in planning really should take the time to read the whole debate.

Mark Menzies first contribution is at Page 11 where he noted that he had worked alongside the Planning Minister in the Department of Communities and Local Government for a time.

(That's not just bull**** - between the lines, it shows there is scope for personal contact outside the formal debates of Parliament).

Mr Menzies said he wanted to focus specifically on local plan matters relating to his constituency.

He picked up the localism theme saying "The Localism Act 2011, of which I am a great supporter, was warmly received by communities in Fylde. Upon its introduction there was a clear intention to move away from the previous Government’s imposed top-down approach to planning that was driven by the regional spatial strategy"

He went on to say that whilst Fylde accepted there would be development, the council found itself frustrated on a number of key points.

First, because the previous Government had imposed a moratorium on building in Fylde, they believed they were supposed to meet the previous housing numbers shortfall when calculating the housing numbers for the 15-year plan period. He said many people believe the housing need as stated in Fylde is "greatly inflated and distorted"

He said a Ministerial statement in March had made it clear that all councils that had been under a housing moratorium could take this into account if they were struggling to meet their five-year housing supply.

He noted Fylde is currently at a 4.5 year supply, and could soon be over the thresholds. However, when Fylde had raised the exclusion of the moratorium with officials, Fylde was told they could NOT use the previous moratorium as part of its calculations.

Mr Menzies said he had sent letter to the Minister asking for urgent clarification on this issue, and said "I would hate to think that the Planning Inspectorate is failing to follow his wise ministerial guidance."

He also spoke of the work being done in Warton and "the often valid suggestions put forward by local communities."

He said Warton had been "exemplary" in how it has embraced the local planning process.

He said Fylde's draft local plan, "had proposed that Warton would receive up to 1,400 new homes, which would have in effect doubled the size of the village, and that rightly caused great concern at a local level. However, the way in which the village responded truly embraced the core principles of the Localism Act 2011 in a way that I hope the Minister would appreciate."

He told pf the public meetings that had been held and how every home had been leafleted to seek their opinions, culminating in a local referendum.

He said "As a result of the people of Warton’s hard work, it is my understanding that Fylde borough council is looking to reduce the number of new houses in Warton to somewhere in the region of 600." Adding that "To reassure the Minister, the council has identified other areas in the borough that it believes are more suitable for taking up the balance of the houses proposed for Warton."

We understand that, as a result of pressure from Warton residents and from Warton's independent councillors, Fylde's Local Plan Steering Group has pressed the Portfolio Holder to accept a number in the region of 640 homes. They seem to believe this 640 figure has now been accepted by the Portfolio Holder, but the decision is his alone, and we worry that it could yet change.

Time will tell.

Back in Westminster Hall, Mr Menzies said "I believe that that approach [by people in Warton] reflects the core principles of the Localism Act 2011. To my disgust, I have learned that developers want to ignore all that work and are proposing to put in planning applications to take the number of houses in Warton to more than 1,400. It appears that developers are using the lack of a five-year housing supply as a loophole to ram through applications against the intentions of the council and the wishes of the local people."

He was then interrupted by Conservative Andrew Bingham (from High Peak) who said "We have similar situations in High Peak. Does he agree that the situation is causing a belief to fester among our constituents and residents that all these housing targets are being more centralised, as opposed to decentralised to the local authorities, as we are trying to do?"

Mr Menzies responded: "Sadly, I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The aims of the Localism Act 2011 are not being delivered on the ground, and that is one of the areas of great frustration.

Developers know that if the council’s planning committee refuses applications for 800 homes in Warton, they can go straight to the Planning Inspectorate to appeal. We have seen that on a number of occasions across the borough.

I have been informed that each appeal costs the council tax payers of Fylde something in the region of £50,000 plus costs and is done in the almost sure-fire knowledge that the Planning Inspectorate will bow to the developers’ demands.

That ignores the views of democratically elected Members, local planners and, above all, the local community, which has worked tirelessly to come up with sensible alternatives. "

He went on to say "I hope the Minister will agree that that makes an absolute mockery of the principles of the Localism Act 2011. If that approach is allowed to continue, we will end up with not a local plan, but a mishmash of planning decisions that have been railroaded through by developers and speculative land agents."

In what we thought was a telling quote, he said "I am not prepared to sit around and let that happen in Fylde. The example I have given relates to Warton, but the same could be said of developers in Wrea Green, Staining, Wesham, Kirkham and now, as I have learned in the past week, Lytham St Annes."

(We're not sure where he means for LSA as yet, but we're on the lookout).

We can't help wishing that Fylde's Conservatives would take such a stand, but they seem to follow Portfolio Holder Trevor Fiddler's lead in planning meetings and he, almost invariably, finds reasons whey they should support development - or rather whey they should avoid the risk of costs being awarded against them at appeal if they decided to refuse.

Mr Menzies continued "The problem is that each scheme is examined on its own merits by the Planning Inspectorate, rather than as a joined-up plan. As a result, there is a real danger of infrastructure failing to keep pace with development. The approach is unsustainable and could lead to a vast array of problems in our communities.

Developers need to understand that the Government have reformed planning policy to ensure that the UK’s housing and development needs are met in the future. It appears that some developers are starting to abuse the aims of the legislation.

He concluded by saying "the planning Minister needs to understand that the Planning Inspectorate must work better with local councils.

If the Planning Inspectorate fails to recognise the changes borne out of the Localism Act 2011 and continues to dance to the tune of developers, it should not be surprised if there is a groundswell of Members demanding that it be reformed.

The subject is important for my constituency and I wish the Minister well in his endeavours, but it is important that he takes on board the concerns."

We think that's close to what non-politicians would call 'fighting talk', and we were delighted to see our MP standing up for his constituents.

Conservative Nick Herbert MP from Arundel and South Downs (who we think has as good a grasp of the planning problems as anyone) also spoke well in the debate, as did other MPs.

Then it came time for the Anti-Planning Minister Nick Boles to respond.

His response was not at all encouraging, but to some extent that didn't matter.

It was the fact that he had been called to make it, and that there is a visible and growing band of opposition to the planning mess that he and George Osborne have created.

Having done the hatchet job, we think he will eventually be moved on.

But like Beeching's foolish destruction of the railways, Boles' foolish destruction of planning will be the bit that abides in the nation's memory.

He began by saying he saw around him the 'usual suspects' who were making his life less comfortable.

He said the difficulty was that it was no comfort to those having problems to know that others were "beginning to be able to make the system work"

He said "It is of no consolation to the residents of Fylde to know that in many other parts of the country, because residents there have managed to get a local plan in place, local decisions are being made and adhered to, not overturned by planning inspectors."

He added that: "The responsibility for the Government is to create a system that applies to everyone and every area, in which every community and every council knows what its responsibilities are."

We wondered what that was, if it was not a top down, centralised, Stalinist, Regional Government, one-size-fits-all policy that is 100% and 180 degrees away from the policies of Localism.

But he really got into his stride, and warmed to his theme when he said::

"I would like to start by explaining where the concept of objectively assessed need comes from.

In every constituency, there are people who would like to buy a house or a flat.

They might move several times, because they currently rent, and rental leases are often relatively short.

They might not even get on the electoral roll or, indeed, be living in the area where they would ultimately like to buy.

Who represents them in this democracy?

Who represents them in local residents’ meetings deciding how many houses the community is willing to accept?"

We have to say we struggled with his logic here (as we struggle with much of what passes for Mr Boles' logic).

So far as we know, we've never been to a public meeting that excluded people who lived in rented houses.

We've never seen a referendum that was not also delivered to occupied rented addresses.

And quite why the Mr Boles thinks he owes a special responsibility to the rented sector above the responsibility due to the home-ownership sector is completely beyond us.

The man is a complete walking disaster.

But it gets better.

Because he then went on to say "We need to represent them; that is why a national Government are elected. That is why Governments have a responsibility to tell local councils, “Yes, you should decide where you are going to meet your development needs, but, no, you don’t decide whether you meet them.”

And there you have it Writ Large.

In his planning regime, you may decide WHERE the houses are going, but under his Ministration, YOU WILL NOT DECIDE HOW MANY houses will be built.

He concluded "We represent those who do not have a vote in these public meetings and have not voted for the local councillors, perhaps because they do not live in the area yet or are not even of voting age. I take that responsibility very seriously, and I make no apology for that."

What an absolute load of rubbish.

The only response we can think of begins with 'b', and ends with 'ollocks'

That's almost as ridiculous and crass as his "I don't believe planning works, and chaos is a good thing" (mp3 sound file) speech that we have reported in previous articles.

He continued with another startling new piece of information "we have decided to allocate to neighbourhoods that put in place a neighbourhood plan.....25%, uncapped, of all revenues from the community infrastructure levy.

That will go to the community - to the parish council - to spend on community assets, community facilities and improvements to community amenities, as the community determines. That will not be decided by the council or a Minister - it will be decided by the community. That is a proper reward for the
intense and usually entirely unpaid work people in places such as Kirdford and Bassett put into their neighbourhood plans."

We suspect that's not going to go down too well at FBC, because 25% of the cash they would expect to get is now going to be farmed out to Parish Councils (presumably except in places like Lytham, and Ansdell where they don't have one).

Mr Boles finished by saying:

"I want to conclude by, in a sense, warning hon. Members and, indeed, those they represent to be careful what they wish for as they approach the next election; indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) referred to the simple matter of planning becoming an election

I say that because the alternative proposed by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and the Labour party is dramatically less localist than what we, albeit with problems - one step forward, half a step back - are trying to achieve.

The hon. Lady referred to the review the Labour party has commissioned from Sir Michael Lyons. Let me refer to an article from today’s Guardian—I am sure she will agree that The Guardian it is a bible of wisdom - which quotes his speech to the Local Government Association conference in Bournemouth yesterday.

The article says:

'Speaking to the LGA in Bournemouth, he said a Labour government would not be abandoning the current national planning policy framework that requires councils to make land available, and if anything it would be turning the screw on councils. He said: ‘We are breaking eggs to make omelettes. The backlog is so serious here that we have to do everything we can.’

His remarks suggest the National Planning Inspectorate will, if anything, have a bigger role in ensuring houses get built.”

The British people have a choice. It is not a choice of whether to meet our housing need and to offer the next generation what I suspect every Member of Parliament in this room enjoys - the ownership of their own home. The choice is whether we try to work with local councils and local communities, giving neighbourhoods incentives to work out what new houses they will build, or whether we allow Ministers in a Labour Government to impose decisions on them. I know which choice I will be making next May."

We think he's right about the Lyons review. We have serious concerns about what Labour is planning for completely new towns in the countryside.

We also agree that, unless there are significant changes before next May, planning *will* become an election issue, and it will be an issue chiefly in Conservative shire counties - often referred to as the Tory Heartland. The tricky part is where such voters might go.

We think it's unlikely, but if UKIP were to adopt a policy of more sensible planning, we think a lot more folk would defect to them than would otherwise be the case.

In the European elections (which admittedly are not a realistic guide to voting in a general election) the Conservatives polled 351,985 votes (20.1%) and UKIP polled 481,932 votes (27.5%) so the threat is there.

We can't see that affecting Mr Menzies though.

Despite his recent personal problems and (we hear) some would-be assassins being resurrected from amongst Fylde's Conservative undead by those hoping to bloody their fangs, we think he's safe in his seat.

He certainly will be if the regard in which he is held for what he is doing to support Fylde's communities in planning matters continues as we expect it will do.

Far more than anyone from FBC (who are supposed to *do* planning) he is the one fighting the corner for Fylde's residents.

And along with other able MPs, he is holding a (what we regard as incompetent or even a wilfully obstinate) Minister to account.

And of course, the polite discourse that we see used in formal public meetings and reflected in Hansard does not mean that behind the scenes strong points are being made in private to the Minister and, as more and more MPs are drawn into the planning debate and further pressure is applied, we would not be at all surprised to see a change of Minister before the election.

Dated:  11 July 2014


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