Dr Liam Fox MP:
It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke). We have all been through either the thrill or the ordeal of our maiden speech, and many of us will look back with different emotions—pride, affection or regret. Hers was certainly one to be proud of. I am sure that the whole House will recognise that we have in her a Member of great calibre when it comes to speaking in the House. She paid a very generous tribute to her immediate predecessor, which I am sure many of us would echo. She spoke in staunch defence of the cider industry, which is perhaps one area in which I can genuinely offer my personal help for the profitability that she seeks. She set out a wide range of rural matters that are extremely important to those of us who represent different parts of Somerset.
The hon. Lady, in placing herself in context with a range of well-known predecessors from the part of the country that she represents, who were accomplished in different walks of life, demonstrated a lack of self-absorption that she will find somewhat rare in the House of Commons. I hope that she retains the refreshing self-effacing attitude that she brought to the House today. In the light of her top-to-bottom description of her constituency, if she were ever to leave this House, voluntarily or involuntarily, she is certainly likely to get a place on the Somerset tourist board.
I thank all those who brought the Bill this far. During her speech, the Minister referred to local plans, which are extremely important for my constituency. She said that it is not just the assessed housing need that matters but how much of that need can be accommodated in any one area. That matters hugely to a number of us. In North Somerset, for example, 40% of land is green belt, 30% is floodplain and 12% is in an area of outstanding natural beauty. One reason we are so delighted that the Government are abolishing the national housing targets is that they cannot be applied equally to areas with a lot of land that can be built on and areas where there are natural constraints. Such constraints are imposed by Government, who say, “You cannot build on green belt and you cannot build on floodplain.” It makes a lot of sense to hand the power back to local areas so that they can make decisions for themselves.
The removal of the five-year land bank is also an important increase in freedom for local authorities. I am delighted that, throughout the passage of the Bill, including in the other place, the Government put the protection of the green belt at the centre of what they were doing to stop urban sprawl—which, of course, we face in North Somerset as we are so close to Bristol—to protect our environment, as has been mentioned in relation to a number of issues, and to stop inappropriate development. That is likely to become an important election issue given that the Labour party has said that it will build on the green belt, and the Liberal Democrats have said that they will reintroduce national house building target numbers if they are able to do so.
I echo what a number of my colleagues said about encouraging nature recovery strategies in the amendments, as well as about banking hubs, which have been raised on a number of occasions. It is important in rural areas and small towns, particularly for the elderly, for those who are not necessarily computer-literate, and for those who find it difficult to travel, that we maintain some form of connection with traditional banking. I fully accept the Minister’s argument that these are market decisions to be taken by individual banks, but we cannot have banking deserts when our constituents need access to banking services.
Wendy Morton MP:
We often think about rural communities when discussing banking hubs, but my right hon. Friend’s point about banking deserts is equally important to constituencies such as mine, which now has only one bank left. Some in the banking sector think it is fine for my constituents to have to drive into Walsall or Sutton—it is not.
Dr Liam Fox MP:
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. It is incumbent on us all to work with Government and the banking sector to ensure that our constituents have access. She makes a good point: the lack of access was previously more pertinent to rural locations, but then it applied to smaller villages, then smaller towns, and now even larger towns face the situation that she describes.
I wish to make two points to the Minister, one of which I raised during an intervention when I asked, “When will we see the new NPPF?” She indicated that we will see it as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent. I hope that means that we will have the new NPPF by the time we get to Prorogation, which is not far off. I am sure that we will all hold the Minister to account for the very welcome timeline that she placed on that today.
I would like the Minister to consider one issue above all else, and to respond to it during the debate. There will be a hiatus between the passage of the legislation and its implementation date, but planning permission requests for housing developments will still be made. Will the Minister make it clear that the Planning Inspectorate needs to take into account this legislation, rather than the previous NPPF, when considering such planning applications? It would be quite wrong and profoundly undemocratic if both Houses produced legislation along the lines that the Government have proposed but planning inspectors applied an older version of the NPPF, thereby allowing planning applications that are clearly against the expressed will of Parliament to be approved. We cannot have unelected inspectors making decisions against what this Parliament has clearly decided. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance in her wind-up that, for any planning applications in that hiatus, instructions will be given to the planning inspectorate that it is expected to follow what the Government have set out in the legislation.