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Greg Mulholland

Time to give communities a real say in the planning process

May 1, 2014 10:38 AM

National Planning Policy Framework (Community Involvement) Bill - Ten Minute Rule Motion - 30th Apr 2014

Greg MulhollandToday I introduced to the House of Commons my National Planning Policy Framework (Community Involvement) Bill. It seeks to both build on the initiatives in the Localism Bill to give local communities more of a say in planning decisions but also to amend the National Planning Policy Framework, which despite having much to commend it and being a much needed simplification of planning law, has not got the balance right between the rights of developers and the rights of local communities and is not being properly implemented - or, it seems, even understood - by some local authorities which undermines this further.

In a June 2011 guide to the Localism Bill, the then-planning minister stated that the purpose of the government's localism agenda was "to help people and their locally elected representatives achieve their own ambitions".

While this Government has taken many steps in the right direction, through Community Rights schemes, introducing neighbourhood development plans, the Assets of Community Value initiatives, many of my Leeds North West constituents, and indeed residents around the country, including constituents of many colleagues from both Coalition parties as well as all over the house know that currently all too often communities have unwanted development imposed upon them and also see the unnecessary loss of valued local amenities, often with them having little chance to do anything about it.

We still have a situation where developers cherry pick greenfield sites and build expensive multi-bedroom houses in areas that do not want and cannot support significant development. This is actually not what the country needs - but rather, more affordable homes in key areas and more social housing. So reform is needed to ensure that building happens where it is wanted and needed by communities and regions, and is done on brownfield sites, not simply where developers will make the most money building homes out of the reach of most people.

Two years on since the National Planning Policy Framework came into force, it is clear that further reform is needed. What I am proposing today is not radical nor is it an attempt to stop all development. It is about getting the balance right between the need for new housing - but the right housing in the right places - and the right of communities and councils to have control over where that development is.

Many of the measures in the Bill are supported by national campaign groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Civic Voice, the Local Government Association and many local authorities and also the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). I want this Bill to bring all interested organisations together, a year before the General Election, to produce a different vision of a planning system that gets the balance right between the need for appropriate and necessary development and the rights of local communities and councils to manage their own areas. That I hope will then influence the thinking of all the parties going into the election.

Leeds & Leeds North West

The situation that has developed in Leeds will ruin much-loved Green Belt, over-stretch existing infrastructure and ultimately fail to deliver on the real housing needs in the area. Developers are attempting to build on greenfield and some greenbelt sites in areas such as Cookridge, Bramhope, Pool-in-Wharfedale, and Adel. Local schools are already full, services are stretched. Otley on its own is facing housing numbers that would increase this medieval market town by up to a fifth. It is not wanted, it is not reasonable. At the same time there are other areas and sites that are crying out for development, existing housing that stands empty, being land banked and ignored.

Despite the lowest population increase of any major UK city since the 2001 Census- just 5%- Leeds City Council are proposing to build 70,000 homes by 2028, the highest new build figure among all major UK cities. This figure is from the Strategic Housing Market Availability Assessment (SHMAA) produced for the Council's Local Development Framework (LDF). A local campaign group, Wharfedale and Airedale Review Development (WARD) have pointed out that another scenario calculated for the SHMAA, one that does take 2011 Census data into account, would lead to a much lower housing target of 48,528. Sadly, the higher the housing target, the higher the five-year land supply must be, meaning that more greenbelt land must be allocated for development. This in turn means existing brownfield sites are less likely to be developed for housing, and the lack of thought given to extending existing infrastructure will stretch schools, GPs and roads to the very limit.

This is just the situation in Leeds, but the same story is happening around the country. And wherever local communities have concerns about excessive development, there is no mechanism in current neighbourhood planning legislation that allows them to challenge or appeal against the housing targets laid down by local authorities, many of whom are not only getting their sums wrong, but who are also seem not to have a strategic plan for where housing should go. Some of this is caused by the need for housing supply figures, some caused by the lack of legal powers to challenge this and some of it is caused by poor planning in the past, inadequate home building and through fear of legal challenge by wealthy developers. All these things must be dealt with if local areas are to have the kind of strategic local control - with genuine commuihty as opposed to council input - over planning.

Permitted Development Rights

We also have a situation where communities can do nothing to prevent the loss of valued facilities, community centres, local shops, post offices, pubs due to the absurd loopholes that remain in the planning system with wholly inappropriate permitted development rights between uses that are clearly fundamentally different and involve the permanent loss of a valued community facility.

It is not right that (for example) pubs, so often the heart of a community- can be converted into supermarkets or offices without developers needing planning permission. It is very welcome that the Government has now accepted that any new betting shop needs to get planning permission, but why the blind spot when it comes to all the other fundamental changes of use?

I have raised many times with communities and local government ministers about the clear lack of real protection for local services, including pubs. Their response is always ACVs, that local authorities should use Article 4 Directions and consider compulsory purchase. We keep going around in circles. They fail to address the fundamental and obvious point - that the permitted development rights are clearly absurd and indefensible and are often denying communities ANY say over many local assets and services. This is not something that anyone who claims to support community empowerment and localism can defend.

Assets of Community Value (ACVs)

Whilst I have commended government for some of the measures it has introduced to empower communities, there is a need to strengthen both the Assets of Community Value (ACVs) scheme and the Community Right to Buy scheme. A welcome initiative that allows communities to list local assets, the reality is that without national planning reform and tougher planning protection ACVs themselves are undermined and often are little more than tokenistic.

Leeds City Council plans panel disgracefully passed a planning application to build on a playing field in the Hyde Park area, despite the fact that there was an Asset of Community Value application pending. The Localism Bill is being ignored and sidelined by such decisions. This must be stopped.

We need to look at the actual success of ACVs not actually so much by the numbers that have been listed, but the numbers of these that have been saved as a result.

For example, out of over 350 pubs we have listed in the UK, how many have been saved via the community buyout process? I fear the answer is not very many. London CAMRA have raised these concerns. The Castle in Battersea is a heap of rubble. The George IV in Brixton is a Tesco Store. The Chesham Arms is an office with an unauthorised flat. The Antwerp Arms in Tottenham is lying empty, the owner holding out for an over-inflated sum whilst the community rattle money tins knowing that even if they raise the sums involved, the owner can ignore them.

The reality is that ACVs, however welcome - and they are - are in themselves not saving many local services, because they continue to be undermined and sidelined by the simple unacceptable reality of permitted development rights. In some cases they are not even helping due to the reality of the planning system. In some cases they can't even come into play. Article 4 Directions, however, have much more success but hardly any local authorities will use them through fear of compensation and the legal headaches; but local authorities should not need to use them. The national planning system must be reformed.

The measures in the bill

So clearly change is needed and the changes in the Bill are as follows:

1. Right to Appeal for Developers abolished & the abolition of the Planning Inspectorate

There is a great imbalance in terms of the powers available to developers and the powers available to communities. A report by estate agents Savills showed that 75% of all planning appeals for 'large' housing developments between March 2012 and March 2013 had been allowed, after local councillors had initially voted down proposed developments.

2. Housing supply and local power to control development

Whilst we do need more houses, the current system doesn't ensure they are built where they are wanted and needed, and often allows them to be built where they are neither.

3. Ensuring Brownfield Land is prioritised

4. Replacing plans panels with equitable planning hearings with an independent chair

I have had bitter experience of this in Leeds. Back in 2009, the Plans Panel voted for a care home to replace the Summercross pub. After sitting through a lengthy PowerPoint presentation of the developer's plans and computer generated imagery of what the building would look like - by Council officers - I and one member of the community was given just 3 minutes each. Worse still evidence presented to the panel and to officers was disregarded or ignored. The officers decided to accept the developer's claim that the pub must not be viable, due to a lengthy but utterly spurious report that they had had costly consultants draw up. Yet they had in front of them, but completely ignored the actual sales figures and accounts of the pub that showed it was trading profitably at the time of closure! Perhaps even worse than that, officers actually gave one incorrect piece of information on planning law to panel members.

Five years after this shoddy decision and process, the Summercross pub remains boarded up, landbanked and deteriorating. The feeling locally is that the developer is cynically land-banking this pub and allowing it to fall into disrepair, so they can then seek to demolish it and either build an even bigger care home or go back to their original plan of cramming 14 town houses on the site - despite it being in a conservation area and them being forced to retain it by the council. A former senior planning officer has admitted to me that they got that decision badly wrong. Yet at the time they claimed that the community had been consulted when they hadn't been. The reality was that the decision may well have been overturned at judicial review - the only avenue currently open to communities but clearly too expensive and risky for communities to consider.

Very recently the plans panel process was brought into further disrepute in Leeds when councillors in Leeds nodded through an application to build on playing fields in Hyde Park simply because they were worried about the costs of going to appeal, when there was an asset of community value application in from the community. To completely ignore the community's right in the Localism Bill to apply for ACV status is simply scandalous and an attempt to undermine that important piece of legislation. This must not be allowed and must be prevented in the future.

So we need to get rid of the wholly inadequate plans panel system and instead give all communities in all areas access to a genuine hearing, chaired by an independent non local authority chair and with equal time for both proposers and opposers to put their case - as clearly should be the case with any due process.

5. Permitted Development Rights

This is something that a number of organisations are calling for, including CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, who of course particularly focus on pubs, though the same arguments apply to other local assets too. They know that pubs - including many profitable pubs - are being deliberately closed and sold off as the owner seeks to cash in for development or by selling to Tesco, the Sainsbury's or the Co-op. Communities then find that not only do they lose their pub - but they end up with a supermarket in their midst that they did not want and that damages local independent shops. Yet neither they, nor local businesses, were given the chance to even comment.

The utter nonsense of permitted development comes into stark view when communities find that they cannot even comment about a new supermarket that has replaced their valued pub; but only on the new large signage that Tesco's want to erect! It is farcical but tragic for those communities, be they suburbs, towns or villages that are losing things they want and having something they don't want in its place.

With pubs in particular, with the appalling asset-stripping being undertaken by the large indebted pubcos, they are colluding with supermarket chains and flogging off valued local pubs knowing that communities can't stop them being converted. It is a national scandal that we are losing valued community pubs up and down the country, without local communities being able to have any say, due to the weakness of the planning system. It is simply absurd that you can turn a pub into a supermarket or office without even needing to get planning permission for what is clearly a fundamental change of use - and the permanent loss of a community facility.

So my Bill will also revise use class orders, including a new separate one for community pubs. Then not only would any attempt to change the use of a pub have to go through the planning process, but it would also allow specific rate relief for pubs, to properly acknowledge their community value. This model could also be looked at for other important local services, like post offices and village shops.

6. ACVs & a Genuine Community Right to Buy

Conclusion

Ministers in this Parliament have set out to give communities more involvement in the planning process, but if that is to be achieved in a meaningful and not a tokenistic way, further reform is clearly needed, and at the heart of this must surely be empowered and involved local communities.

It is time to get the balance right between the need for more housing - but it has to be the right sort of housing in the right areas - and the right of local communities to have a genuine say over how their local area is developed and changed. It is time communities were given a real voice and that voice must listened to.

I now look forward to working with the likes of CPRE, Civic Voice, English Heritage, CAMRA and the LGA - and local communities - to push for sensible but much needed changes to the planning system that will give us the best possible future and give communities a real say over that future.