Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con): I am grateful for your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker. Never having warmed up in less than two minutes, that should be something of a challenge.
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate—a little earlier than expected tonight—what has increasingly become a total fiasco around housing needs in north Somerset. Let me begin by describing how we got to today’s absurd situation. As a result of the election of the coalition Government in 2010, greater decision making powers were returned to local councils, so North Somerset council was able to provide a revised regional spatial strategy that reflected local needs, infrastructure and objectives, which had a total target of 14,000 houses by 2026. That was a dramatic reduction on the previous regional spatial strategy target of 26,750, which was abandoned after the 2010 election and the defeat of the Labour Government.
North Somerset’s core strategy was put before the planning inspector for public examination at the end of 2011. The inspector determined that the plan was sound and it was adopted in April 2012. However, the plan was subsequently challenged in the courts by the university of Bristol, which wants to build on green-belt land in my constituency. That is, in my view, an appalling testament to how much it values its own coffers and how little it values the local environment.
In the High Court, the judge ruled that the Government inspector had failed to provide proper reasons in his report to support his conclusion that North Somerset’s 14,000 housing target was appropriate. Let me be clear—this was a failure on the part of the inspector, not of North Somerset. Had the inspector given adequate reasoning, North Somerset would now be required only to provide 14,000 houses.
Dr Fox: At this point in the story, we expected that there would be merely a re-examination process where the inspector would provide more detailed reasons for the support of North Somerset’s core strategy. Unfortunately, the judgment did not provide a remit for the re-examination process. As a consequence of the inspector’s error, North Somerset council had to submit the key parts of its plan, which had been remitted, for re-examination. Of course, by this time the context had changed significantly with the publication of the national planning policy framework in March 2012. The stated objective of Government was now to
“boost significantly the supply of housing”
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“full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the housing market area”.
There was, however, one overwhelming problem in the context of North Somerset. Planning on housing numbers, and perceived need, had been done in conjunction with the local authorities in Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire. The other three authorities had their plans accepted in full, which meant that only North Somerset would have to have its numbers reconsidered in line with the 2012 NPPF assumptions. Bizarrely, we are now being asked to meet what is termed “Bristol’s unmet need”—something that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will understand from your own constituency interest—although the adopted Bristol city plan did not identify such a need.
So what are the implications of all this? First, we have found ourselves with a new inspector who has told our elected council that even an increased number of 17,000 houses is too small, and that 20,000 would be a starting point for discussion. It is clear that the number is rising back towards the 26,000 target that was in the RSS specifically abolished by the Government. It seems that the bureaucrats always get their way, whatever local or nationally elected politicians want in the names of those who cast their ballots.
Secondly, despite the fact that the error came from the planning inspector and not from the council, it is the council tax payers of North Somerset who have had to carry the burden in legal and other costs of well over £100,000 so far. Why on earth is this not being carried by the Planning Inspectorate, which is where the mistake occurred, and therefore by central Government funding?
Thirdly, and most importantly, the problem caused by the original Government inspector’s error is being compounded, as the delay to the adoption of the core strategy is holding up progress on the detailed allocation of sites for new housing, and creating uncertainty over the council’s five-year land supply. This means that local villages around North Somerset are being subjected to developers attempting to grab large greenfield housing sites in the hope of being able to receive planning permission on appeal. Villages such as Yatton, Claverham and Backwell in my constituency, and Congresbury and Churchill in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) are under attack from speculative development. That is clearly at odds with, and undermines, the Government’s objective of a plan-led system.
As my hon. Friend the Minister can see from the maps I have supplied, North Somerset is not able to accommodate the scale of housing without encroaching into flood zones, green belt, sites of special scientific interest or areas of outstanding natural beauty. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will assist us in defending those hugely sensitive areas. Even a housing target of almost 21,000 dwellings—50% more than had originally been determined to be necessary—will put enormous pressure on those lying outside the green belt. The infrastructure in villages such as Yatton, where the GP surgery and the local primary school are already full, is utterly unsuitable for that level of growth. More of the housing needs of Bristol need to be met in the city through redevelopment of brownfield sites, as is accepted by all the authorities in the sub-region. Indeed, North Somerset council has worked hard to secure the
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south Bristol link road, which will open up access to south Bristol and facilitate regeneration there—the type of regeneration we all need.
So what do we want? We have already worked hard with Bristol city council, South Gloucestershire council and Bath and North East Somerset council on their longer-term strategic housing needs as we start to work together towards our strategic housing market assessment for the period to 2036. It seems utterly ludicrous to be asked, in effect, to work out a largely arbitrary housing allocation while preparing that plan. The most logical thing would be to put back in place the North Somerset core strategy originally agreed by the Government inspector while we assess, with our three partner authorities, the wider developmental needs of the region.
The Government must give these commitments: they must underline the importance of the plan-led system, ensure that the Planning Inspectorate withstands the pressures from developers, and allow democratically elected councils to get their locally prepared plans in place.
Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for calling this extremely important debate. Large areas of the land he is talking about are green-belt land. Just as people in south Gloucestershire and Kingswood have happily protected the green belt, it must be up to local residents to decide whether they wish for building on the green belt; they should not have some kind of mission creep from Bristol. Does he agree that the plans set out by Labour in the Lyons review that would allow Bristol to expand into areas of north Somerset and south Gloucestershire are completely unacceptable, and that we must preserve and protect the green belt wherever possible?
I think we all speak with one voice when we say that the Government must tonight reiterate that green-belt protection will not be weakened and that the Bristol green belt will be retained in its entirety to defend the adjacent North Somerset countryside from development. Additionally, it must be made clear that greenfield development should come only as a last resort after all brownfield sites are exhausted. Finally, the infrastructure that is needed to support new development, including schools, GP surgeries and, where appropriate, roads must be provided by the developers; the cost must not fall disproportionately on local council tax payers.
In North Somerset we are facing an expensive fiasco that is undemocratic and producing unsustainable outcomes. We have been very patient, and our very competent council has been extremely co-operative. Now we need answers.
The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) for securing this debate and for his staunch
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advocacy of the views of his constituents and of North Somerset council. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) has made similar representations.
I regret that as a result of a legal challenge by Bristol university, elements of North Somerset council’s plan have had to be re-examined. I understand that this legal action successfully challenged the methodology for calculating existing housing need in North Somerset. The issue will have been thoroughly considered by North Somerset council and at the re-examination. The challenge was partially successful. The judge’s decision handed down on 14 February 2013 said that the inspector, in appraising the council’s housing requirement figure as 14,000, failed to give “adequate or intelligible reasons” for his conclusion that the figure made sufficient allowance for latent demand—that is, demand unrelated to the creation of new jobs.
Although the judgment found shortcomings with the inspector’s approach, the housing calculation methodology, which ultimately led to the plan being thwarted, was proposed by North Somerset council. I welcome the fact that the re-examination of elements of the North Somerset local plan appears to be nearing its final stages, but I recognise that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset, many of his constituents and others have concerns about the approach to housing need coming through the re-examination process.
My right hon. Friend will appreciate that my ministerial role means that I cannot comment on the approach proposed by the North Somerset local plan, as it is currently at examination. However, I hope that some of the points I am going to make on the issues to which his specific concerns relate will none the less be useful in putting the matter in context and give some surety and confidence.
As my right hon. Friend said, he has previously raised concerns directly with the Planning Inspectorate about its handling of the initial examination of the plan. Again, propriety prevents me from commenting on the conduct of independent inspectors, but in general terms their role is to ensure that plans are consistent with national policy and sound in other respects, and they cannot propose amendments to plans other than where asked by the relevant council.
For many years we have failed as a nation to deliver sufficient housing to meet growing demand. That is why our policy rightly asks that authorities plan to meet objectively assessed development needs in a way that is consistent with national policy as a whole. Localism means a choice over how the needs of communities are best met, not whether they are met.
I will return in a moment to the balance between enabling sustainable housing and conserving the natural and historic environment, as it is of central importance to planning nationally and in North Somerset.
Dr Fox: Before my hon. Friend moves on from the liability of the Planning Inspectorate and its role in this mess, I simply ask, for the sake of natural justice, how it can possibly be defensible that a mistake made not by the local authority, but by the Government inspector, can lead to the local authority and the local council taxpayers carrying the financial liability rather than the person and the funding source from where the mistake emanated?
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Brandon Lewis: My right hon. Friend rightly makes the case on behalf of his local authority and I appreciate the points he makes. As I understand it, the core issue behind the judge’s decision related to the way in which the housing assessment was done. That is a matter for the local authority, but I will look into the specifics of what happened with the Planning Inspectorate. I will touch on that later, but perhaps I could also arrange to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss the issue.
Housing pressures are felt as equally, possibly more acutely, in the west of England as they are elsewhere in the country. National housing data indicate high demand for homes in North Somerset. I am also aware that affordability is more acute in North Somerset than in many other parts of the country. The evidence of North Somerset council itself suggests housing need of close to 26,000 homes, and the regional spatial strategy noted a figure of 26,750. Both figures are some 6,000 above those that the council is currently considering in its examination.
Dr Fox: I apologise, but that is simply not accurate. The figure of 26,000 was in the regional spatial strategy that we were elected to abolish, and we did abolish it. Those numbers were not drawn up in terms of local need in North Somerset. They were drawn up by bureaucracy, which seems to be getting its way by the back door. Neither the local authority nor central Government, who abolished the strategy, wanted those numbers, but they keep coming back. Why is that? Is democracy meaningless in this process?
Brandon Lewis: The figure in the regional spatial strategy was 26,750. The supporting evidence provided by North Somerset council indicates that its housing need may be as high as 25,950. Those are the figures it is working on. Obviously, this is a two-stage process and the second stage will focus on what the council can deliver within environmental constraints. I will return in a moment to the point raised by my right hon. Friend, but the council is looking at what it can deliver and I believe the figure it is currently considering is more like 20,000.
Our policy asks that authorities plan for their areas on the basis of the appropriate evidence, including preparing a strategic housing market assessment to identify the scale and mix of housing likely to be needed over the plan period. That evidence should inform local plans to establish an aspirational but deliverable vision for the homes, jobs and infrastructure that are needed in areas. I stress that there are three parts to that.
I know that my right hon. Friend and his constituents rightly place a high value on the environment in North Somerset, much of which is of exceptional quality. Let me make it absolutely clear that, as our planning guidance sets out and as we re-established in guidance just this summer, establishing development needs is only the first part of the plan-making process and should be unconstrained by policy restrictions.
Once an authority has objectively assessed needs it is then important to look closely at constraints, whether they are related to the environment, landscape, or infrastructure provision, to determine what level of development it is appropriate to provide and where. Policy is absolutely clear that need does not automatically equal supply and there are strong protections in place to
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guard against inappropriate development. Let me stress some of the examples to give confidence to my right hon. and hon. Friends. Those protections cover the green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty and areas vulnerable to flooding, even in the absence of a local plan. I know from the maps I have seen that those are all areas that are important in Somerset, and particularly in North Somerset.
“realistic about what can be achieved and when”,
including in relation to the constraints that infrastructure might put on delivery. Similarly, guidance published in October of this year sets out the Government’s view that unmet housing need is unlikely to outweigh the harm to the green belt and other harm to an extent that constitutes the “very special circumstances” required to grant permission for inappropriate development in the green belt. We made it clear in the guidance that the presence of constraints, such as the green belt, might limit the ability of an authority to meet its need. That is an entirely legitimate evidence base.
Leaving aside the protections in national policy that always apply, we are all agreed on the importance of getting plans in place as they set the framework in which decisions are taken locally, and we have returned power in plan making to the local level wherever possible. As my right hon. Friend outlined, we revoked the unpopular regional strategies. We have enabled communities to introduce neighbourhood plans and have reformed local plan making so that inspectors may propose modifications to a plan only if invited to do so by the council.
Of course, much of North Somerset’s local plan, including on protections for sensitive areas, has been in place since April 2012. I also want to be clear that, as set out in the national planning policy framework, emerging plans may start to carry weight in decision taking before they are formally adopted. I would take the opportunity to welcome recent progress in the wider west of England towards getting local plans in place. In particular, Bath and North East Somerset council adopted its plan on 10 July, and Mendip district council’s plan was found sound on 2 October. Alongside already adopted plans in other areas, that recent progress has put authorities and communities on the front foot in determining what is appropriate and where.
In general, we have recently seen a substantial uplift in plan making. Now 80% of authorities have published a local plan compared with 32% back in 2010 and 60% of councils now have adopted local plans compared with just 17% when the Government came to power. Neighbourhood planning, introduced in the Localism Act 2011, also gives communities real power to bring forward their vision for the sustainable development of their areas and has been eagerly taken up by communities.
More than 1,200 communities across the country, covering more than 5 million people, are now developing neighbourhood plans. I welcome the fact that there are four such groups of which we are aware at various stages of the process in North Somerset. I understand that Backwell parish council’s neighbourhood plan has passed examination, Long Ashton parish council’s work is subject to planning consultation and Winscombe and Sandford parish council has applied for its proposed
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area to be designated as a neighbourhood plan area. I would very much encourage those organisations to progress with their plan-making work.
We recognise that legal challenge can in some cases unnecessarily delay planning. That is why we have introduced a raft of reforms to ensure efficiency in the legal handling of planning matters to complement our wider reforms improving the efficiency and speed of the system. The reforms include reducing the window in which claims for judicial review can be made against planning decisions, introducing a permission stage into the statutory review of plan making to weed out unmeritorious challenges at an early stage and establishing a specialist planning court within the High Court to speed up the determination of challenges to planning and infrastructure schemes.
I encourage all Members to focus on the positive progress that has been made recently in respect of North Somerset’s local plan at examination and to look towards getting plans in place. I appreciate that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset and my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare have issues with how we got to where we are.
Dr Fox: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, as a member of the Government Whips Office, is unable to make his voice heard, so perhaps I may speak for both of us. We seem
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to be in a ridiculous position. The plan was put forward in 2011, agreed by the inspector and adopted in 2012, yet here we are at the end of 2014. If I am not mistaken, at the end of 2015, we will begin the planning period in which we will look at housing allocation through to 2036. It would be the height of absurdity if we were one of only four councils in the sub-region to be asked not only to look at our 2026 housing allocation, but to start the process all over again at the end of next year and look at the 2036 allocation. Surely this is a complete waste of public resources, as well as being utterly contrary to what my hon. Friend the Minister says is the Government’s aim, which is to encourage greater localism.
Brandon Lewis: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we want to encourage localism. That is why we want the decisions to be made locally. I appreciate the frustration that the legal process has brought into this case. I know that he appreciates that I am limited in what I can say about any specific case, particularly while it is going through examination. However, I am happy to discuss this issue with my right hon. and hon. Friends in greater detail at an appropriate point and to write to them to outline the detail behind their queries, particularly in respect of the Planning Inspectorate and the legal situation, so that I cover any issues that I have been unable to address this evening.