George Freeman leads debate on protecting town and village neighbourhood plans

30th January 2018

George Freeman leads a Parliamentary debate calling on the Government to better protect town and village neighbourhood plans from aggressive national large scale developers.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered town and village plans.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for being here and for his support in the past few days as we prepared for the debate, and I thank colleagues for turning up in numbers to intervene and contribute.

I am here today to highlight a problem that we are experiencing in my constituency of Mid Norfolk and that I am aware colleagues are also experiencing. The problem is essentially that the promise of the Localism Act 2011—supported, I think, by all Government Members and probably by the whole House—is, on the ground in Mid Norfolk, being failed by what I suggest is an either accidental or deliberate, but none the less clear, exploitation of the well-intended five-year land supply rules; those were meant to ensure that councils could not put out a plan and then ignore it.

The rules are being exploited, through a legal loophole, by big out-of-town volume house builders, which are banking permissions that are clearly there in areas where the councils and communities sensibly want to build, in order to take the opportunity to force through developments in areas where one would not sensibly want to build.

Does my hon. Friend share my delight and enthusiasm about the recent decision of the High Court to accept the reduction of the five-year housing land supply to a three-year housing land supply, where there is a neighbourhood plan and where sites are allocated?

I absolutely welcome that and will in due course list some of the very good things that the Government have been doing to try to help. I am here today to flag a problem and offer the Minister some suggestions to try to help find a solution.

At its heart, this is about the difference between rural and urban planning; in government, in Parliament, we tend to legislate as if the two are the same. In my patch, Mid Norfolk, we could build many more houses if we were able to get the essence of the localism promise right—build where we want, build how we want, build for local people as well as those moving into the area, and build in a way that supports the grassroots. I am talking about development being seen to be done by and for communities, not to communities by those far away.

There is real frustration in Mid Norfolk; I would be lying if I said that this was not the No. 1 issue in the recent election. In fact, in that election campaign, I promised to come to Parliament, talk to colleagues and Ministers, and see whether we could find a way to deal with it.

If I may, I will briefly set the scene by setting out my very strong support for the Localism Act and for what the Government have been trying to do in promoting a much more bottom-up model of local planning; by signalling where I think the national planning policy framework has helped but is also hindering in relation to the five-year land supply; and by describing some of what is going on in Mid Norfolk at the moment and some ideas about how we might deal with it.

When the Localism Act was introduced, the then coalition Government were stunned by the level of support for it. The Minister, like me, welcomed it strongly, because in essence it says that development is something that should be owned and valued by local communities. Despite the previous Government’s well intended desire to get houses built, we took the view that it was a flawed approach to sit in London and allocate numbers by region, by county, by district, and that numbers allocated from London were unlikely to motivate the towns, villages and communities that we wanted to embrace development. Instead, we said, “No, the better way is to ensure that every area has to put together a local plan.”

There is no number for Mid Norfolk in some filing cabinet in Whitehall, which I am delighted about. My area and colleagues’ areas have to put together their own local plans, taking into account their own population dynamics and economy, and put out a 20-year plan. To prevent councils from simply doing the plan but not actually building, the five-year land supply was introduced to ensure that houses were actually built, in accordance with the plan.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the value of the local plan is that it also has regard to local infrastructure needs, potentially at village level? The current loopholes that are being exploited see developers coming forward with plans for wholescale, 300 or 400-house developments without that infrastructure, which are against the interests of many of our villages in Suffolk and Norfolk.

My hon. Friend makes the very point that I will be making. This is about infrastructure and public services. A proper plan is not just about houses, but about the community, its needs, the public services, the infrastructure, the drainage and so on. Like many colleagues, I welcomed the Localism Act. I could understand when the former Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced the national planning policy framework, with its presumption in favour of sustainable development, to shift the balance, particularly at a time when the housing market was on its knees, and to encourage the building of the necessary houses and the development that we needed. The five-year land supply makes logical sense. We do not want a nimby’s charter, which allows councils to plan and then ignore their own plan.

However, what is happening in Mid Norfolk is giving the lie to that promise. For those of us who backed and supported localism, it is beginning to undermine public trust, and not just trust in the local planning system and support for development. It is beginning to foster the very nimbyism that was not there before and, even worse, is beginning to foster, complicate and compound a distrust in political promises. That is damaging to the planning system at a time when we really need proper strategic planning and local support.

If you will indulge me for a moment, Mr Hollobone, I would like to paint a picture of where Mid Norfolk sits. I know that that has worried colleagues since I arrived in the House eight years ago—it has worried quite a lot of my constituents. As it was a new constituency, most of my constituents were for several years asking, “Where is Mid Norfolk?” It sits right in the heart of God’s county. People who are used to going to the coast will drive past and around my beautiful patch, and those who drive up the newly dualled A11 to Norwich will leave my patch to port of their journey. People need to be in search of the real, the authentic, the heart, the glinting jewel in the crown to come and find Mid Norfolk; it sits right in the middle, at the heart of our county. It is not a place that someone would need to go to unless they were looking for it.

In Mid Norfolk, we have four magnificent towns: Dereham, Wymondham, Attleborough and Watton. Attleborough and Wymondham are both on the A11, just south of Norwich. Norwich is growing very fast. The Norwich research park is booming. All credit to the Government for their fantastic support through the industrial strategy and the support for small businesses. In many ways, Norwich is becoming a mini Cambridge, which is only 40 miles down the newly dualled A11. Indeed, when the Government have opened up the Ely junction and made half-hourly the rail service, Norwich will become part of a Greater Cambridge cluster. That is why there is such housing demand along that corridor. There are 15,000-odd houses going in at Ely, 5,000 at Brandon, 5,000 at Thetford, 4,000 at Attleborough and 2,000 at Wymondham. It is a corridor of growth.

For that reason, my local council wisely suggested that the bulk of its housing target should be placed on that A11 corridor, where the rail and road links support the cluster of development. Unfortunately, however, the developers, cognisant that they have those permissions and that allocation there, have taken the opportunity of the five-year land supply to begin to do what they would not normally be able to do: dump very substantial, large-scale commuter housing estates on a number of the villages close to Norwich in my constituency, without, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) mentioned, the necessary investment in services and infrastructure.

Dereham, which I like to think of as the gateway to the Norwich research triangle—it has not yet gripped that strategic role for itself, but over the next 10 to 20 years it will become that—is now becoming in the morning a traffic jam, almost as visible from space as the Cambridge traffic jam. The developers are now piling into south Dereham, along the main roads. It is the classic model of putting the big housing on the road, where it is easy, without any infrastructure. A string of villages between Dereham and Norwich—Yaxham, Mattishall and Swanton Morley—have all found themselves the subject of aggressive, large-scale, out-of-town developments.

In each case, the villages have been working on putting together their own village plans, taking the powers that we gave them in the Localism Act; the idea was that local neighbourhood plans would be put together and that the local plan adopted by the council would be an amalgamation of those and work around them. In fact, what has happened is that the local communities have put together plans—I want to talk in a moment about the Swanton Morley plan in particular—and then that process of going through a neighbourhood plan has, as we might have predicted, led to a strong conversation locally about the community’s needs, such as jobs and services. In every case, that has led to more houses being suggested by the local council than were originally thought of.

Therein lies the beautiful truth at the heart of the Localism Act: if we empower communities to think about their own futures, most will end up planning development where they want it, in the style they want it, for their own vision of their own community. People are not naturally nimbys, but they are resistant to growth being dumped on them by a remote bureaucracy, whether it is in Brussels or London.

I am very encouraged by what the hon. Gentleman says. Back home in my constituency, the local Ards and North Down Borough Council has initiated a new idea—the very thing that he refers to—of village regeneration. It is village regenerating with village, with town, with village; it is a domino effect where we all get together. Out of those plans have come some very forward-thinking ideas for economic expansion, house building and how villages can interact with each other. If we do it right with consultation, we get agreement and we are always better off.

Not for the first time the hon. Gentleman makes my point better than I. He is absolutely right that if we get this right, and if we trust people in communities and empower them, which is what the Localism Act was about, we will be surprised by what communities can do. There are wonderful examples of that around the country, including in Northern Ireland. That is why I am optimistic. I know the Minister is keen to bend every sinew to ensure that we are able to unlock this and get the houses that we want built.

I appreciate that colleagues represent different areas with different circumstances, but if the Minister said to me, “Can you find a way in which we could build the houses that we need in East Anglia?” the answer from my part of the world would be, “Absolutely!” Let us build a really serious new town—a proper new town—and design something that we could be really proud of. We might even have a couple. Given the housing demand in the south-east of England, one might even say that every county could probably find somewhere to build a stunning new town. We could even make it a competition and see who comes up with the most beautiful one. We could build a new town with proper energy-efficient houses and modern transport. We could make our new towns the test beds of the modern-living technologies that we are developing in this country.

I will give a location for a new town in my patch. On the Cambridge-Norwich railway, where RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall sit adjacent, Lakenheath is a tiny town, with a lot of poverty and deprivation, on former peat that has gone to grade 3 clay. It is a town aching for investment. It is on that railway and would not be 25 minutes from Cambridge. We could build the most stunning town there, possibly on the former airfield, and ease a lot of the pressure on our villages.

I am not saying that because I do not want development. In my patch we could build, and I am pushing a project to build, a garden village on the old Beeching railway line from Wymondham to Dereham. I am working with local developers to see whether we might come up with a model where we can plough the profit from the development back in, in conjunction with the railway company, to create a new model development company, with housing and rail linked in the way that it was by the Victorians. The Government are pushing that model forward in East West Rail.

I pay tribute to the work of the Secretary of State for Transport, who is clear that he wants that Oxford to Cambridge east-west railway not to be a traditional model of slow, bureaucratic franchising and competing interests, but a development company that lays the track, builds the houses and captures the value of housing gain to recycle into public transport.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and apologise for interrupting his flow. The Scottish Conservatives would like to see between six and eight new towns built in Scotland. Is not the heart of the issue about bringing people with us? As well as following the ambition of the post-war generation in building new towns, we must learn from their mistakes in design and infrastructure. We must make sure that these new towns fit with their environments, so that the communities surrounding the developments can support them and feel that they have been listened to.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We should look at the lessons from those garden towns. Many years ago, I fought the constituency of Stevenage—as colleagues know, it fought back—but Letchworth, the first garden town, is still regarded in that part of the world as a great tribute to proper planning. It is a place of great pride for the people who live in and around it. That is unusual for new developments, so there are real lessons to be learned.

I know the Government are supportive of this model of new town development and of garden village development, but the problem is that it is not happening. Seven years after we passed the Localism Act, when I say “localism” in Mid Norfolk I am greeted with groans and occasionally with jeers—although my constituents are very well-behaved and extremely polite. There was the promise of localism, where we said to people, “You will be empowered. The community will be able to plan. We will support your plans and back you.” But people are seeing their plans ignored.

I want to mention Swanton Morley as a case study. Swanton Morley is the home of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, and formerly of the Light Dragoons. It has an old RAF base. It is one of my small market towns with a 2,000-odd population, and it has put together a magnificent plan. I want to pay tribute to Roger Atterwill, the chair of the parish council, and Faye, his assistant, who have worked assiduously on the plan over the past two or three years. It is a model of local planning. There were village hall meetings, consultations, surveys—real engagement—and they have produced a real vision for the future of the village.

But unfortunately, on examination, the examiner appointed by the district council struck out all of their sensible, local conditions, such as that there should be an allocation of houses for people who come from the Swanton Morley area and around the percentage of affordable housing, all of which were provided for in the spirit of the Localism Act and in legislation. One cannot help but see that they were struck out because the main planning authority, Breckland Council, has both hands tied behind its back. It is up against the wall with a five-year land supply and it has no leg to stand on: it is terrified of being taken to court by big out-of-town developers.

I want to make it clear that I am not having a go at all developers. There are some magnificent developers in this country and in Norfolk. I would cite Tony Abel, for example. Abel Homes is a really good local business, building high-quality local developments. However, when it comes to the likes of Gladman, which has come into our patch, we never meet the people behind the developments.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s point, which he is making so well. In my constituency, the local builders are immaculately behaved, do a very good job and try very hard. But some of the big builders’ behaviour is frankly atrocious. They game the system, cheat the people who they are meant to be working for and bully the district council. Their behaviour is often absolutely reprehensible.

I am grateful to my venerable and right hon. Friend for putting that so robustly. I would not be here if I did not share that view. We all understand that we need houses built, and we all know that we need developers to do it, but there is a contract. When we provide developers with the powers and the balance of probability on the sustainable development framework, and we say that there is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, we mean sustainable development. We do not mean that as an excuse for them to dump a housing estate on our villages and towns and then sugar off. They have an obligation, as local builders and local landowners understand.

For that reason, I recently called a rural housing summit with Hastoe Housing Association—I see the Minister nodding—which is a leading, if not the leading, rural housing specialist. All around the country it has put together schemes with the support of local communities. It is doing more than anyone in rural housing to defeat nimbyism, because the quality of its developments is so high. At this rural housing summit we showcased best practice from all round the country: people putting together affordable housing schemes, shared equity schemes, covenanted land, parish councils. There is a wonderful cornucopia of good rural housing models, but we are not seeing it in Norfolk because our councils have both hands tied behind their backs.

When I say to my councillors, “Why aren’t you using the design codes that we gave you? Why aren’t you using the powers that we have given you in these Acts?” the answer comes back, “We are desperate to get our five-year land supply in order. We are terrified of legal challenge. We are trying to keep our council tax down. We are bearing the brunt of very necessary public spending constraints, and frankly every penny we make goes back into the deficit.” Our councils have their hands tied behind their backs, and are therefore unable to implement the spirit of the Localism Act.

Is my hon. Friend not concerned that the whole thrust, which is understandable from the local councillor’s point of view, is towards economic growth, as otherwise they do not get the funding? So they are all being encouraged to go at a speed that perhaps they would do well not to go at.

My right hon. Friend makes the perfect point. He is absolutely right, and that is happening in my patch as well as in his.

I am conscious that others want to speak. I want to give them a chance to do so and the Minister a chance to respond. To sum up my opening speech, we all know that we need to build houses, but as with so many problems that is a challenge in London. I have been a Minister pulling the ministerial levers, and I know that there is a big problem to be solved in the corridors of Whitehall.

However, in our constituencies, the problem is smaller, more manageable and easier to deal with. In Mid Norfolk, I see the answer to a problem that is very big in the Minister’s in-tray. If we can revisit the spirit of localism, re-empower local communities and re-incentivise councils to retain and harness the benefits of growth and put them into local infrastructure, we will restore faith in the planning system and deliver more growth, not less.

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And at the conclusion of the debate

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak again and for the chance to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon.

I thank colleagues who have come to Westminster Hall to support this debate and the points that I have been making. We find out who our friends are when we put our heads above the parapet, and I could not wish for a better platoon of support. I should also say—both to you, Mr Hollobone, and to the Minister—that several colleagues who support the points that I have been making could not be here today.

I am grateful to the Minister for his typically assiduous, detailed and honourable answers and reassurances. There was some important and good news in there, in that the Government recognise the importance of the issue and in the steps that are being taken. However, having been a Minister myself, I know that officials often think that the issuing of a written ministerial statement or the granting of a new power might solve a problem. One has to remember that on the ground, our councils are up against real pressures, and new powers and written ministerial statements do not always cut through or solve the problem that exists here and now.

It is really important, not only for this issue of building houses but more broadly, that we recognise how free markets work. The Minister is a great advocate of free markets, as am I, but they operate in the context of the incentives and regulations that we set here in Parliament. If we are going to build the housing that we need and an economy that works for everyone, we really have to get this matter right. I ask the Minister—I am sure the answer is yes, as he has indicated so—whether he will agree to meet me, Councillor Gordon Bambridge, who is my local head of planning, and colleagues to discuss how we can take the matter forward.

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