Mole Valley Local Plan

– in the House of Commons am 4:59 pm ar 22 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Fletcher.)

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Ceidwadwyr, Mole Valley 5:01, 22 Chwefror 2024

I thank the Minister and her officials for coming, and I thank her in advance, because I am hoping for an excellent, useful response. I realise that I am picking on a specific planning case that is under an inspector’s review, so the Minister can only respond in the round and not to the specific case.

I came to London from an area of open green hills, bush, trees—the lot—from horizon to horizon, and arriving in east London was more than a shock. I then moved to Mole Valley, so I am particularly delighted that the voters of Mole Valley have returned me as their MP several times.

Mole Valley is south of London, bordering on the M25 with Epsom and Ewell, with Guildford to the west and Gatwick to the east, and it is halfway to Worthing going south. What distinguishes it from London is the green open spaces. There is the famous Box Hill, and farms, commons and parks, and they are all amalgamated together—glued together—and retained by the green-belt land. It is a lovely place to live. The residents live there because it has two small towns and many villages spread among the green.

The local planning council is Mole Valley District Council. It is liberal—no, wait a minute: it is controlled by the Liberals; there is nothing liberal about it at all. The last ratified local plan for Mole Valley was dated 2009. I understand that more than 90% of English local authorities have adopted and are up to date with their local plans. Liberal Mole Valley is among the errant 10% of local authorities, which leaves it vulnerable, as it is finding now, to developers.

In May 2019, the Liberals took control of Mole Valley District Council and with that the responsibility for producing the draft local plan. It was produced between May 2019 and February 2020 and passed for consultation by the council executive and the council without a vote. It contains 30 or more green-belt sites— I am told that; I have not counted them—and the inclusion of many, if not most of them was vehemently opposed by local residents. That was not just those next to the green-belt sites, but those within what New Zealanders would call “cooee”.

I recognise that the proportion of land protected from development in Mole Valley is considerable, and, relatively speaking, the quality of brownfield sites free for development is small in comparison, but it is not impossible to increase the number of dwellings on those brownfield sites. I know from my own time in inner London that with imagination and the new rules and regulations on building, it is possible to increase density and height and adapt those sites.

It has been claimed that the percentage of green-belt sites that the Liberal plan will remove from protected status is small. However, that is a bit like my saying to a cancer patient that the prospect of a long-term cure is 97%—it sounds great, unless they are in the 3%. That is what is happening with green-belt sites. The figures are small in percentage terms, but if they affect someone who chose to live there in part because of those green-belt sites, it is bad news.

The plan went to inspection, but, as last May’s local elections arrived, the Liberals asked the inspector to stall her inquiry, and she did. The Liberals announced on their election leaflets that they would remove the green-belt sites from the draft plan. They did not. Last month, at a full council meeting, the council faced a decision on three choices provided by its planning officers. The first was that the plan be withdrawn for a complete rethink. The second was to continue with the inquiry but withdraw the green-belt sites. The third was to continue with the planned inquiry with the 30 or more green-belt sites included, which the Liberals said they had redrawn but had not.

Just before the council met, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Building Safety, being aware that a restart is probably the worst option, wrote to the council to tell it that it had to keep the plan in the system; it could not withdraw it. The Liberal council, in a classic Liberal, duplicitous way, chose to proceed with the inquiry with the green-belt sites—which it said it had removed but had not—still in the plan.

The need for a clear plan is obvious: it would protect sites that are not appropriate for development, but also set out development sites that are considered suitable. The current situation with the Mole Valley plan has come back to bite the Liberals. I will give one example, but there are others. A site near Dorking called Sondes farm is a green-belt site that was put in the draft local plan by the Liberals for its green-belt protection to be removed. In spite of that, the Liberal council did an about-turn and refused a developer’s application for housing on the grounds that it was a green-belt site, ignoring the fact that it was going to withdraw that protection. That refusal was in line with what a large number of local people wanted to happen. They wished to support Sondes farm as a green-belt site. Perhaps they were unaware that the Liberals had in effect already given it away.

Not surprisingly, the developer, having faced a refusal, took its application to appeal and won, with the inspector pointing out that the site was down in the plan to be taken out of the green belt. Others in the portfolio will be in the same situation; one of them is not very far away from that position now.

My ask of the Minister is that she re-emphasises the importance to her, to Ministers and to the Government—certainly to me and most of my residents—of the protection offered by the green belt, that the removal of that protection from a site can happen only in exceptional circumstances, and that those circumstances do not include housing. This is a long-standing situation. It applied when I was a planning Minister, and I think it still applies now. It is not specific to Mole Valley—it applies across the country—and I cannot but emphasise how important it is for so many in Mole Valley and many other areas throughout the country that the strength of protection for the green belt is retained.

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 5:09, 22 Chwefror 2024

I congratulate my hon. Friend Sir Paul Beresford on securing this debate and on his eloquent speech. I would like to respond by commenting on the latest position of the emerging Mole Valley local plan, and by explaining why the Department has intervened.

On 25 January, the Secretary of State exercised his powers under section 27 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 to direct the council not to take any step to withdraw the plan from examination. As my hon. Friend has alluded to, my ministerial role in the planning system dictates that I cannot go into the specifics of the local plan, which remains at the examination stage. However, I will try to deal with some of the general points and the reason why we have taken action.

My hon. Friend will know that Ministers have consistently set out the importance of having an up-to-date plan in place. As he correctly said, the Mole Valley local plan is from 2009—remarkably, it is over 14 years old. It should have been updated many years ago. As he rightly said, that puts the plan in the bottom 7% of plans in the country by age. That is clearly not acceptable.

The council submitted its emerging local plan for examination in February 2022, and the hearing sessions commenced in June that year. It is the role of the independently appointed inspectors to look at whether the plan is legally compliant before considering whether it is sound. For a plan to be found legally compliant, the local planning authority must demonstrate that all the procedural checks and balances had been followed. Effective co-operation early in the plan-making process is essential to ensure that the homes and infrastructure needed are planned for. Authorities are expected to collaborate with stakeholders to identify the relevant strategic matters to be addressed. For a plan to be considered sound, it should be positively prepared, justified, effective and consistent with national policy. Ultimately, the inspectors may report that the plan is unsound and cannot be adopted by the local council—as my hon. Friend will understand, that is not for me to decide.

As I have said, Mole Valley has an old local plan, so having an effective and up-to-date plan in place is long overdue. Such a plan is essential to identifying the very latest development needed in any given area, deciding where it should go and dealing with planning applications. The plan is also the main vehicle for setting out the vision for Mole Valley and how to address housing needs, along with economic, social and environmental priorities. It is for the independent inspectors to consider the council’s planned strategy, but I know that Mole Valley’s emerging strategy has been not to fully meet its own housing needs. It is clear that Mole Valley has not been delivering homes—its delivery is within the bottom 10% nationally, as shown in the latest housing delivery test results. The council has indicated, as part of its examination documentation, that it had a shortfall of 1,164 dwellings over a five-year period, with only 2.9 years of supply. My hon. Friend will also know that housing affordability is a significant issue in Mole Valley. The council is clearly way, way behind, first on having a plan, and secondly on delivery of housing.

The inspectors had agreed to pause the examination between February and May 2023 to take account of the local election result. That pause was later extended to allow for publication of the updated national planning policy framework. That was a perfectly reasonable position to take. However, the transitional arrangements in the updated NPPF make it clear that the Mole Valley local plan will be examined using the pre-December 2023 NPPF—that is, the NPPF under which the draft local plan was developed.

My hon. Friend will know that our Government’s policy is clear: councils and their communities are best placed to take decisions on local planning matters, without unnecessary interference from central Government. However, when it becomes clear that a council is not acting in the best interests of its communities, it is only right that the Government consider whether it is appropriate to act. With that in mind, the Department became aware of an extraordinary council meeting arranged for 25 January, which included a motion to withdraw the local plan from examination.

It is not unusual for a council under a new administration to want to change direction on its local plan, but that is normally before a plan is formally submitted for examination. However, there was no change of administration at Mole Valley; a Liberal Democrat administration voted to submit the plan to examination, and a Liberal Democrat administration subsequently wanted to consider a motion to withdraw the plan. That was after the plan had reached an advanced stage in the process; the hearings had been completed and the main modifications were to be finalised. This is highly unusual.

The council had one of the oldest adopted local plans in the country. Withdrawing the plan at that stage would have meant starting the whole plan preparation process again. The Secretary of State quite rightly concluded that such an action would not be in the best interests of the people of Mole Valley and decided to intervene. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that further delay in a plan coming forward would not serve his constituents’ interests.

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Ceidwadwyr, Mole Valley

I completely agree with the Minister, and with the reasons why the Minister for Housing, Planning and Building Safety wrote to the council. The difficulty is that there were two choices left: one was to withdraw from the green belt; the other was to remain. The council’s choice was to retain the green-belt sites. The Minister said that the council will have to justify its decisions. As I see it, the council will have to justify why it has 30 or so sites—perhaps individually—in that plan in the green belt, in spite of the fact that the local population are vehemently against that.

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, I cannot talk to the specifics of the plan—that is not my responsibility. However, I will talk generally about the Government’s philosophy on the green belt. Just to be clear, the process is that the local plan goes to examination by the Planning Inspectorate, and the Planning Inspectorate comments on the plan. It then goes to consultation.

It is definitely not in the interests of my hon. Friend’s constituents for there to be further delay in the plan coming forward, as that may well mean that homes are built on a speculative basis, with no co-ordination and with limited buy-in from local people. Even the council has acknowledged that in the absence of an updated plan, with no prospect of a new plan coming forward for years, the district would be at risk of developments on green-belt sites getting planning permission because of the district’s poor housing delivery record.

I am pleased to hear that following the Secretary of State’s most timely direction, Mole Valley District Council has indicated its willingness to progress, and to then conclude its work at the examination. Its intention is to inform the inspectors that the council wishes to continue with the draft local plan, subject to the modifications identified by the inspectors.

I want to step away from the details of Mole Valley and the local plan, update the House, and clarify the Government’s position on green belt. Let me touch on what we are doing to not only protect but enhance our green belt. I am proud to say that our national planning policy delivers on the promises we made in the 2019 manifesto. The Government remain committed to protecting and enhancing the green belt. National planning policy includes strong protections to safeguard this important land for future generations, and this policy remains firmly in place. I should emphasise that national policy will continue to expect that green belt boundaries are altered only where exceptional circumstances can be fully evidenced and justified at examination of the revised plan. In order to demonstrate exceptional circumstances, a local authority has to show that it has examined all other reasonable options for meeting its identified development needs. Green belt release is a last resort.

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Ceidwadwyr, Mole Valley

In broad terms, is it not unacceptable to assume that an exceptional circumstance is the need to increase housing? It certainly was when I was in the Minister’s shoes. Is that still the case?

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

The Government’s position is clear; let me restate it. To demonstrate exceptional circumstances, the local authority has to show that it has examined all other reasonable options for meeting its identified development needs. As I say, green belt release is definitely the last resort.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.