Assistance in connection with neighbourhood planning

Part of Neighbourhood Planning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:00 pm ar 20 Hydref 2016.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing) 3:00, 20 Hydref 2016

I want to speak to amendments 1 and 2 and the other amendments in the group. I will start with amendment 9, which seeks to ensure that there is full recovery of costs for assisting with the development of the neighbourhood plan, with the costs recovered by the local authority. One thing came through clearly from the evidence the Committee received on Tuesday: many voices were all saying—indeed the Minister acknowledged this—that planning departments are massively under-resourced.

I was keen to table the amendment because we are anxious that neighbourhood planning is properly resourced. That is really important. However, we are mindful of the huge demands placed on our local authorities at the moment, especially at a time of cuts. I hope the Minister feels able to adopt the amendment, or at least that he will make it clear to the Committee how the additional cost of supporting neighbourhood planning forums and parish councils in drawing up their neighbourhood plans will be met.

The Minister will have heard the Royal Town Planning Institute, Local Government Association, Town and Country Planning Association and British Property Federation all point to the fact that, because of the success of neighbourhood plans, there are now greater expectations in our local communities that they will not only be able to draw up neighbourhood plans but have the resources to do so in a meaningful way that allows them to include much of the community and produce a quality document that really reflects what the community wants to achieve. They therefore want it to reflect the high aspirations of the community.

We do not want to see any area being held back because it does not get the resources it needs. The local authority is only able to give a small amount of money to support the exercise, so we want to hear from the Minister a reiteration of what he said in Committee on Tuesday—recognition that resourcing of planning departments is an issue. What can he do to assist local authorities in meeting their obligations under the clause to support neighbourhood plans?

The Minister will know that the situation for planning departments has got so much worse since 2010. More than half think that under-resourcing will present a significant challenge to their ability to undertake their functions in the next year. On Tuesday, Richard Blyth from RTPI told the Committee:

“We have completed a survey of local planning authorities in north-west England that shows that between 2010 and 2015 there was a fall of 37% in planning policy staff. These are the staff who tend to get asked not only to provide the support for neighbourhood plans, but are under a deadline of completing a local plan by the end of March 2017.”

He went on to say:

“I am a bit concerned that legislation is being used in a way that may not be possible to support in terms of the resources available to local planning authorities.”––[Official Report, Neighbourhood Planning Public Bill Committee, 18 October 2016; c. 66, Q118.]

We know the reason for that: it is because many of our councils are facing huge cuts. We heard from Locality, again on Tuesday, that,

“local planning authorities have been stripped of funding and they have reduced huge amounts”––[Official Report, Neighbourhood Planning Public Bill Committee, 18 October 2016; c. 51, Q92.]

of their very highly skilled staff—often losing them to the private sector, which is able to provide them with not only higher salaries but, in the current environment, more secure jobs.

Spending on planning by local authorities has almost halved from £2.2 billion in 2010 to £1.2 billion last year. Given the huge under-resourcing of local planning departments, where does the Minister think planning departments will find the resources to support neighbourhood planning groups and parish councils in drawing up neighbourhood plans? As we have heard, about 200 plans have been approved, but about 2,000 are in process, and I think there will be more. This issue is not just affecting a handful of authorities; it is affecting most local authorities and it is incredibly serious. I hope the Minister can say something this afternoon to give some reassurance, not only to local government that it will get resources from central Government to support neighbourhood planning, but critically, for the communities themselves, so that they will know that they will be properly resourced to draw up neighbourhood plans.

I am going to move on swiftly to amendment 2. We touched on this very important amendment in the Committee’s deliberations this morning. It is about how we ensure that neighbourhood areas, neighbourhood forums and parish councils that are in more disadvantaged areas of the country are able to have the necessary resources to draw up a neighbourhood plan. The amendment seeks to ensure that they are prioritised for financial assistance, so that,

“no less than 50 per cent of the total value of the financial assistance provided under this” clause

“is provided to deprived” neighbourhoods.

I did not hear anything in what the Minister said on Tuesday, or indeed this morning, that demonstrated that the Government recognise that, in a time of limited resources, some prioritisation might need to be given to certain areas, in particular where they would find it difficult to raise money themselves. We know from work that has been undertaken so far in evaluating neighbourhood planning—I quote a study carried out by the Centre for Urban Development and Environmental Management at Leeds Met University—that neighbourhood planning appears to be for

“those with most resources and to increase their privileged access to decision-making while excluding still further those groups already marginalised by the uneven development”.

It said that there is an

“uneven spread of plans, and the unequal distribution of the resources needed to help neighbourhoods draw them up”.

This is a really serious issue. If the Government want all areas of the country to have the ability to draw up a neighbourhood plan and have a say in what happens to their areas, we need to see some prioritisation in the system of allocating resources, so that it recognises disadvantaged areas. If the Minister does not wish to go down that route, I suggest that he does need to ensure that there are enough resources available for all areas.

Amendment 10 seeks to tease out whether the Minister thinks local councils will have a development plan in place by next year, and what he thinks he can do, perhaps using this legislation, to require a plan to be put in place. We thought that a reasonable date might be December 2017. I know that the Government have talked about March 2017, but does he have a proposal in mind? Especially given the conversation this morning about the importance of local councils having local plans in place, what is he intending to do? Some Government amendments on local plan-making have been tabled, and it will be interesting to hear whether the Minister thinks that a date is necessary, whether in the Bill or the supporting legislation, so that we can all be confident that those authorities that are being slow in producing a neighbourhood plan get on with the task.

New clause 2 is intended to make some suggestions, if the Minister will allow me, of how he might move some money to neighbourhood planning forums or parish councils: he could give them a share of the new homes bonus or a higher share of the community infrastructure levy. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.