Property Market Debate

Peter Aldous welcomes the Localism Bill and the fundamental changes in the planning system to a bottom-up approach. However, he raises some aspects of the Bill that need further scrutiny and calls on the Government to ensure the Bill is a catalyst for growth and not an obstacle to it.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) for securing the debate, which gives me the opportunity to raise issues that I did not have the time to raise during the Second Reading of the Localism Bill last week.

I make these comments having worked as a chartered surveyor for 27 years before arriving in the House. I am no longer practising and I have no ongoing consultancies. I have also been a district councillor and a county councillor. I support the Bill, although as my hon. Friend highlighted, some parts require further scrutiny.

A steady supply of sites needs to be made available for development so that we can not only build much-needed homes, but enable the construction industry to play its full role in securing the economic recovery. We need to ensure that the Localism Bill is a catalyst for growth and not an obstacle to it. Change is needed because the current system is not working. We are not building enough houses. Patchy local plan coverage has helped to inflate residential land values, taking what were affordable homes out of the reach of so many. The country's infrastructure is also crumbling.

The Bill is radical and bold, and the Minister and his colleagues are to be congratulated on thinking outside the box, proposing a fundamental change in the way the planning system works and a move from a top-down to a bottom-up approach. There is a need to accept that the man from the Ministry does not know best, and there must be a shift of power and responsibility to individuals and local communities. They are, after all, the people who know their areas best.

I support the move towards local decision making, but decisions need to be made in a broad framework to ensure that sufficient land is available for development and to avoid piecemeal, unco-ordinated planning. I would like this framework to incorporate several features. First, we need to ensure that local decisions and local developments have regard to surrounding areas and fit into a countywide and regional framework. The regional spatial strategy was too rigid a straitjacket, but is local authorities' duty to co-operate, as proposed at present, sufficient to ensure an adequate strategic overview? This aspect of the Bill needs to be scrutinised further.

Secondly, to ensure that sufficient houses are built in a district, I propose that consideration be given to asking local planning authorities regularly to assess local housing need, which should be measured in the same way across the country. That will enable councils to monitor their success in providing for development land on which to build the new houses that are so badly needed. Thirdly, arrangements need to be put in place to speed up the whole planning process, including determining planning applications and preparing local plans. One of my complaints, in the past 10 to 15 years of working as a surveyor, is that the system has been getting slower and slower. I look forward to receiving details of how the Government intend to speed things up.

Finally, an issue that needs to be considered is whether the principle of sustainable development should be embedded in the Localism Bill, with the requirement for sustainable development explicitly stated. At present, it is proposed that the need to follow sustainable development principles will be implicit, because that will be included in the national planning framework. However, that has not yet been published, and for my part I believe that sustainability needs to be at the heart of the planning system.

I welcome the move towards neighbourhood planning, with communities being able to write their own neighbourhood development plans. That will give people a real say in how their neighbourhoods evolve, including what type of homes are built, and where they are built.

Graham Jones: For the third time I raise the point that under the previous Government, supplementary planning documents meant that, if local authorities wished, their planning departments could approach local communities to develop neighbourhood plans. That facility exists without neighbourhood development orders. I presume that the hon. Gentleman has served on a planning committee. Most of the powers in question exist and were delegated to local authorities. It is the failure of local authorities to develop supplementary planning documents that is the weakness.

Peter Aldous: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, which I shall come on to, as I want to set out the issues that need to be addressed for neighbourhood planning orders to be successful. There is a need for capacity building in neighbourhoods, and for communities to have access to advice, training and funding. With that in mind, the ending of support to Planning Aid from March appears short-sighted and I should be grateful if consideration were given either to reviewing this decision or to putting new arrangements in place. It is also important to ensure that all communities participate, not just a few. I should welcome further information on how it is planned to promote neighbourhood planning in those deprived areas where it is most needed.

There is a concern, too, that that some developers might hijack the system. For example, a house builder might offer an enticing planning gain package in a particular neighbourhood, which might appeal to that particular community, but which could have a negative knock-on effect in surrounding areas. How is it intended to guard against such a scenario? Finally, to pick up the point that the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) made, there is no doubt that local planning authorities will incur additional costs in overseeing and promoting neighbourhood planning, and I hope that their funding settlements will ensure that they are not out of pocket in doing so.

The history of levies such as the proposed community infrastructure levy is not a good one. The betterment levy and development land tax resulted in a significant reduction in the amount of land coming forward for development. That is something that the country cannot afford at the current time. I think, however, that the new levy could be different. First, the money will be spent locally and will not be siphoned off by the Treasury. Secondly, much of it will be spent on infrastructure, which most people recognise is badly in need of improvement. Thirdly, an independent examiner will ensure that levies are not set at too high a level. I should welcome clarification from the Minister of why he and his colleagues did not go a step further and abolish section 106 agreements. They have, after all, often been abused over the years. All infrastructure and affordable housing needs could instead be funded out of one easy-to-administer roof tax, which would provide house builders with much-needed certainty.

I am concerned about funding the provision of infrastructure through such a levy, as the dynamics of the development process are such that there may be plentiful funds available for infrastructure improvements in high-value areas, but not in less affluent places, where projects are less profitable and less money is generated for works that cost approximately the same wherever they are built. I would be grateful for clarification of how the Minister will address that concern. The regional growth fund has a role to play, but it is only part of the solution.

The Localism Bill covers a lot of ground, and its objectives are to be commended. It has the potential to change planning in Britain for ever and to re-engage with many who have come to feel disenfranchised. However, the devil is in the detail, and for the legislation to achieve its objectives there are a number of issues that need to be addressed in Committee.

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Peter holds regular surgeries at various locations in the constituency. Please call 01502 586568 to make an appointment.

Next Surgeries - 2018:
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