LORD GREAVES ON NEIGHBOURHOOD PLANNING BILL | SECOND READING
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“Let a Thousand Flowers Flourish”
Another new year, another planning Bill! I am reminded that it is only about a year since we discussed what is now the Housing and Planning Act. I worked out that I have spent exactly half the years of my life as a member of a planning committee of some kind on some kind of local authority. It gets worse than that: I have actually enjoyed doing it. I should also declare that I am a member—not a very active one—of the steering group for the Trawden Forest neighbourhood plan, which is an interesting experience.
I say not for the first time in your Lordships’ House that in my view the planning system in this country is bust in many respects. However, it is not bust in the way that housebuilders and the Government think. I refer to the two main reasons the Government have put forward for the Bill—namely, to help identify and free up more land on which to build homes and to speed up the delivery of new homes.
Building new homes is an important part of neighbourhood planning but it does not define it. Neighbourhood planning is all about vision and that vision is about far more than simply building homes; rather, it is about the whole future of communities. We should not allow a single-minded objective of building houses in the Bill to make us lose sight of that. It is not what neighbourhood planning was intended to achieve.
The planning system often gets the blame for low housing numbers. Government after Government seek quick fixes by tinkering with the planning system whereas what we really need to look at is the supply of new houses and why people are not building them. There are clearly some instances where people would like to build but say they cannot do so because of bureaucratic obstruction by the planning authority. But that is not the main reason why the number of new houses being built in this country is not high enough. One of the major reasons is the stubborn refusal of successive Governments to allow local authorities to borrow money against their assets in order to build new houses. It is just extraordinary that we cannot do this.
If the planning system is to blame for this or that or is not working properly, the real problem lies not with development control—or development management, as we now have to call it—but with the plan-making system. I believe that system is over-bureaucratic, over-expensive and sclerotic in many ways. If we go back over the history of this we will see that there have always been local plans of some sort since planning was first invented. Some of us remember the old town maps.
Modern plan-making started with the local government reorganisation of 1974 following which, in a two-tier area such as mine, we had county structure plans and district local plans all set out under a development plan scheme. Originally, these were fairly simple affairs. They have become more and more complicated as time has gone on, and more and more subject to central government interference and the attempt to micromanage what happens locally. I suppose that peaked under the last Labour Government when they invented regional spatial strategies, which were no bad thing in themselves but involved setting out centralised housing targets for a whole region. They were divvied out among sub-regions and counties and were then divvied out to districts. It was all very top-down and prescriptive.
In my own part of the world in East Lancashire, the District Councils were told—10 or 15 years ago, I think —that they were not allowed to give planning permission for any new housing. We wanted to give planning permission for housing but were not allowed to do it unless it was a case of replacing housing that had been demolished, or in one or two very specialised cases such as converting old pubs into apartments. It was called the moratorium. There was a ridiculous moment in your Lordships’ House when I tabled an Oral Question to question the Government on this. The junior Minister stood up and replied that there was no moratorium, it did not exist. All the planning officers in east Lancashire fell off their chairs when they heard that.
Six months later we managed to get the changes agreed and start giving planning permission again. In those days we had been banned from giving planning permission for new housing. Now the opposite applies. We are being given targets that are impossible to achieve within the housing market in East Lancashire. It is the same problem, which is that Governments operate a one-size-fits-all type of policy-making which they apply to everybody. If they just left the people in the districts to get on with it, we would do much better.
Back then we were told that we had too many houses, so we could not give any more planning permissions. Now we are told that we do not have enough, so our half of Lancashire is being forced to give planning permissions for houses that we know will never get built, at least not within the period of the plan under which they are being given planning permission. When the coalition came in in 2010, it said—it sounded great—“No more top-down targets for housing”. But what it actually did was to set detailed rules and regulations on how you had to work out your housing targets locally, which were then subject to inspection. All that actually happened was that an extremely expensive process was set up under which each district’s planning authority has to work out its own targets and then impose them. I suspect that they are pretty well the same targets that would be set if they had simply been imposed centrally.
Under the evidential base—as it is called—for collecting information, you have something called a SHMA, a strategic housing market assessment. We also have a SHLAA, a strategic housing land availability assessment. Every District has to produce these. Because they are small planning authorities and do not have sufficient internal staff, they have to employ consultants. The whole process does not involve common sense or all that much democratic input. It is complex, opaque, impenetrable, costs a bomb and is a field day for consultants.
Neighbourhood planning is working on the ground and is coming up from the grass roots. However, it is having to be welded or melded—whatever the word is—into this top-down, bureaucratic, sclerotic system. It is not surprising that there are problems and difficulties in that. Neighbourhood planning has been successful. Volunteers, particularly parish councils, can get involved in it. That is a model for the future. The Government should “let a thousand flowers flourish”. If we were to allow that to happen, the Government would get more of what they wanted, with more success.
My final point is on Parish Councils. I do not think it is any surprise that the great majority of neighbourhood plans that have been produced, and are being produced, are in areas where they have Parish Councils. The Parish Council has been either the initial impetus for getting the neighbourhood plan going or the focus of it right the way through. Parish Councils have an existing structure and are an existing group of people who have been able to take it on and are used to negotiating with the district council.
One of the great challenges of neighbourhood planning now, which we might discuss in Committee, is how to get a lot more neighbourhood planning going in unparished areas. In many cases they are urban areas, but they are not always big ones. There are lots of quite small towns that do not have a town or parish council and where a neighbourhood plan is needed.
This Bill will not sort out the fairly shambolic state of the plan-making system in this country. However, it has some things in it that can make improvements, and perhaps we can try to stop it doing much harm.
The unedited speech can be found at: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/peer/13572/lord_greaves#profile